The photos along the wall rattled with each strike at the door. Echo glanced nervously at his phone. It was nearly two in the morning. He assumed it was the cops though he had been careful to enter the house without drawing attention from the neighbors.
He crouched down. Flattened himself against the cupboards just beneath the sink. The weight of the Louisville Slugger did little to comfort him, yet he was glad to have it all the same. His eyes darted around the room searching for the quickest way out of the house.
The doorknob jostled followed by the sound of a key being jammed into the lock.
What the fuck?
The door swung open. A sharp beam of light cut through the darkness.
Echo remained silent. The local police department did not issue out keys to private residences, yet somehow this intruder had a key to his house.
“Come out! Hands where I can see them.”
The voice rang with a familiarity. Echo knew this voice, had heard it many times in his past.
“Don’t make me find you!”
“John? John, is that you? What are you doing here?”
The beam of light cut over the sink sweeping across the cabinets and dining table across from Echo.
“You need to come with me.”
“You’re Lemoore PD. And out of your jurisdiction.”
“No, dude. You are. You need to leave.”
“The hell I do. Son, drop anything you have and come with me.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You’re making this difficult.”
“So, I’m told.”
“If you leave now, I won’t press charges.”
“Do you remember when I was like fourteen or fifteen and I was wearing that studded bracelet? You told me it was illegal, and if you had seen me in Lemoore wearing it, you would’ve arrested me for weapon possession. I spent a week trying to find out if that were true or not. When I found out it was bogus, I realized you were full of shit. You didn’t think a good Christian boy should be wearing things like that. Which made sense because you always had something to say about my clothes.”
“What’s your point?”
“I still think you’re full of shit, and I still think you should leave.”
“Where’d you get the key? He send you with it?”
“Seriously dude. I’m just curious. I mean, Mark? What could he possibly have that has you assholes so desperate to keep me out of my house?”
“You’re going to wish you never came back, little shit!”
The sound of metal locking against metal echoed through the room as Officer John drew his baton from its holster and extended it in one fluid motion. Echo crept along the edge of the counter into the hallway as silent as possible.
“Fuck you!” John howled and leapt over the counter separating the living room from the kitchen. With incredible practiced speed he brought down the baton shattering the cabinet where Echo had been only moments before.
Before he could recover Echo rounded the corner back into the kitchen bringing the Louisville Slugger crashing against the officer’s ribcage. He could feel ribs shatter under the force of the impact. He pirouetted and brought the bat down on the back of the doubled over officer’s skull with practiced precision.
John crumpled to the floor. Motionless he laid in a pool of blood flowing from the ruins of his skull. A sickness washed over echo, the color draining from his face. A chill crept over him. He trembled uncontrollably. His legs threaten to buckle. His lungs refused to draw in breath. The edges of his vision blurred.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! What did I do? Shit! John? C’mon man. Wake up! Shit!”
The air in the house grew thick. The room spun around him. Images of flashing police lights, prison bars, and orange jump suits flooded his mind. He knew he had just ruined his life. He was a murderer. He should have waited for his priest to call; waited for help.
Schemes and plans of escape consumed his thoughts, racing to keep pace with the butterflies swarming his stomach. He had not noticed he was holding his breath. Everything went black.
A dim light buzzed and flickered to life overhead. Dust swirled along the wooden floorboards in the current of Echo’s out breath. The floor was cool against his flesh and saturated with the scent of blood. The buzzing of the light screamed in his ears. With great effort he opened his eyes.
The light was as soft like moonlight pooling around Echo’s naked form. He could see nothing beyond the edge of light. The world was void and without form. Every inch of his body cried out in agony as he crawled up on all fours. Nausea swept through him like a tidal wave. The muscles in his stomach tightened, his body convulsed, as he lurched forward uncontrollably retching a thick black bile on the the ground.
Sharp lancing pain cut deep inside his head growing with overwhelming intensity. He held his head in his hands trying to massage the pain away. An acidic burn built in the back of his throat. He retched again voiding another pool of tar from his body.
The pain in his head was unbearable. His muscles twitched and spasmed throwing him back to the floor. He convulsed wildly. His skin tightened around his frame. An audible popping and snapping sounded through the darkness as his bones dislocated, shattered, and reset themselves. Tortured screams tore from his throat. Beads of blood and sweat formed along his brow in the throes of excruciating agony.
His twisting, writhing, form lifted into the air. His flesh shimmered ghostly. Sharp pain burned at his finger tips. His nails lifted and separated from his skin. Thick black claws erupted from the wounds. Blood flowed from his fingers trailing down his wrist, gathering and falling in thick drops at his forearms.
Gravity ripped his floating body out of the air smashing him into the hard ground where he had vomited. The pain eased, slowly at first, before ceasing altogether. He was weak and struggling for breath. He rolled to his stomach and pushed up on unsteady legs. He was drenched in his own blood, sweat, and vomit.
“God. Where the hell am I?” His throat was raw.
“God’s not here.” The slender frame of a young woman stepped into the light. She wore an antiquated black dress with a broad white lace collar. Flowing lavender color locks fell just below her shoulders. Her face was concealed by leather mask resembling an owl; only her chin and crimson bottom lip could be seen.
The scent of lush forests and cool autumn nights emanated from her. Stepping forward brilliant blades of grass, evening primroses, and night orchids sprung to life at her feet consuming the place where she stood. Echo stumbled back in her presence. Something terrible and beyond his comprehending concealed itself beneath the mask. He was certain even a glance at what was hidden beneath would send him spiraling into madness.
“W-who are you?” He asked.
“It doesn’t matter.” She said.
“Your mind wouldn’t comprehend.”
“Why am I here?”
“Because the blood which flows through you. The lineage of my scattered children.”
“What do you want from me?”
“It doesn’t matter. You are awake now.”
“Awake? What do you mean? What’s going on?”
The woman’s form dispersed into a thick white cloud and surged upwards reforming into a massive white owl. With a powerful sweep of her wings she vanished into the darkness.
Echo awoke on the kitchen floor. A blistering heat roared through the house as flames licked every surface. A blanket of black smoke smothered his breath and muted his vision. John was gone along with satchel Echo had found. He grabbed the baseball bat beside him and crawled towards the sliding glass door leading to the backyard.
Choking, coughing, sputtering, Echo wrestled the wooden dowel wedged in the door’s railing. His eyes stung with smoke and sweat. His consciousness threatened to leave him. He struggled to find his grip. Twisting and tugging he tore the dowel free and forced the door open. He crawled quickly outside over the filthy stone slab into the wild grass.
The blaze spread quickly engulfing the house. Echo scrambled to his feet and raced through the yard. He leapt the back fence and jumped in his car. There was no telling how long the fire had been raging. Emergency response teams would be there soon, and he had no intention of sticking around.
Sirens played in cacophonous chorus behind him as he sped out of his old neighborhood. The dusty back roads were awash in the silvery light of the moon. A blur of dairy farms, cornfields, and orchards sped outside the car’s windows as he looked for a safe place to pull over and collect himself.
After a few minutes he found himself at the edge of the city’s limits. A wasteland of desert stretched as far as the eye could see. Untamed land developers had yet to transform into housing developments or shopping complexes. Flat, barren, and cast in the haunting hue of moonlight. His car jostled about as he steered off the road onto the hard packed earth.
He cut the engine and spilled out of his car. No one had seen him leave the house, at least no one followed him. When he rose to his feet his clothes felt unusually loose. He tightened his belt noticing his once thick frame was now lean and malnourished.
He stared long and hard at his dim reflection in the driver’s window. The angles of his face seemed more pronounced, his skin was unnaturally pale, and the dark brown of his goatee and eyebrows had become pitch black.
Images of the void, the woman in the owl mask, and the tortured transformation rushed into his mind’s eye. He wondered how much of the vision had been real. He had become something entirely not himself, but what? A monster?
No desire to consume human flesh came over him. The idea of stealing away children in the middle of the night appalled him. Unwarranted acts of cruelty and violence found no place in his heart. He looked the part of a child’s nightmare, but in his mind he still felt very much himself.
He looked down to see thick black sharpened nails capping his trembling fingertips. He tapped them against the car door. They were strong and chipped away a small bit of paint from the door.
Echo’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps. Instinctively he spun towards the sound preparing himself for whatever else the night had in store for him. He saw no one. He surveyed the barren landscape and saw nothing save for an old weathered tree off in the distance.
Holding his breath he listened carefully. Again the sound of footsteps shuffled towards him.
“Hello?” His voice was forceful and in control. The shock of the night’s events seemed to be wearing off; the instinct of fight or flight no longer dominated his thoughts.
There was no reply, only footsteps. A familiar electricity danced in the air. A charge in the atmosphere he had come to know intimately well. He reached into the car and popped the trunk.
Rummaging through his things he found an external speaker with an auxiliary cable connected to his portable spirit box on the other end. An icon on the small back lit screen indicated the batteries were fully charged. He powered on the device.
It hissed to life. White noise chopped at 150 millisecond intervals. We watched the stations cycle through.
“Is there anyone here?”
The box continued to hiss and jump signals. Nothing.
“Is anyone here? You can talk to me.” He said.
“Death…touched.” The response was clear. A woman’s voice spanning three channels broke through the white noise.
“Death touched? Did you say ‘death touched?’”
“Echo. You.” The reply was crisp. Clearer than any response he had ever received in his few short years investigating the paranormal.
“Me? Can you hear me? Did you say ‘death touched?’”
“I hear. You are death touched.”
“What does that mean?”
“Help us. You can see us. Hear us.”
The exchange was instant, clear, and relevant. Echo trembled with excitement. It was the kind of validation paranormal investigators salivated over. “I can hear you. I-I can’t see you.”
“What is your name?”
“Can’t tell you. Forbidden.”
“Forbidden? By who?”
“No? No what?”
“Help? Do you need help? How can I help you?”
“No. I help you.”
“How? How can you help me?”
“You are awake, Echo.”
“Who are you?”
“You’re eyes are opened. You will see.”
“See? See what?” The white noise grew louder and longer between responses. Echo knew he was losing whatever it was he was speaking with.
“Us. Must go. Losing strength.”
“No. You may use my energy. Will that help?”
“Wait! Don’t go! Please! What am I supposed to do?”
“Sleepers can’t see you. Safe for now.” Footsteps could be heard again becoming distant and faint.
“Sleepers? Safe? No, please! Don’t go!”
The white noise of dead radio signals filled the air. No more replies came through. He lost her.
“Goodbye, spirit. Thank you for coming through.” Echo shut off the spirit box.
He was left with more questions than answers. The spirit had told him he was “awake” and “death touched,” but he had no idea what that meant. What were sleepers? Why couldn’t they see him? He had no idea what any of it meant.
Echo sat back in his car. A strange calm washed over him. He had lost both his father’s journal and the home of his youth, yet it seemed a small thing at the moment. It would be dawn soon, and he needed to find a place to stay.