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AT HELL'S GATES 4: BOUND BY BLOOD
In celebration of the upcoming 5/31 release of my new supernatural thriller MARIONETTES:
This story is dedicated to all my friends, readers, and colleagues...
so that the Nothingness may never take you.
The photo of the smiling boy on the flyer said it all: another missing child, another pair of distraught and aggrieved parents, another desperate last-gasp attempt to recover a lost little boy who would likely never be seen again.
More flyers with other children’s faces just like it were plastered all over the city, stapled to post office bulletin boards and telephone poles, nailed to tenement walls, hanging from street signs, and taped to store windows; as prevalent as the endless flyers advertising bands that no one ever heard of performing in dingy clubs that served overpriced drinks to legions of apathetic nihilists.
Devon dropped his smoking butt on the sidewalk, stomped it out, and gave Champ’s leash a gentle tug. “Come on, buddy. Big day today. Ready to go see Shane?”
Champ pranced, tail wagging, and let out a soft “Wuff!”
Devon had no idea how smart—or dumb—dogs really were, but his four-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever clearly recognized his little master’s name and the home in which they’d spent most of the dog’s life. Together they hurried up the driveway to the old Decatur, Georgia brick house; a place Devon still thought of as home, no matter that he and Champ had been exiled from it for four months now.
He still felt uncomfortable knocking on what he considered his own front door. Hopefully Jade wouldn’t be pissed that they were late yet again.
She answered the door seconds after he knocked and squinted at him, not saying a word as she threw open the storm door. Her creamy mocha complexion still made his heart ache every time he saw her, even though it was marred by a scowl intended exclu-sively for him. She turned away and headed inside, leaving him and Champ to determine whether they were welcome to enter this time or not. Her intoxicating jasmine and honey body scent wafted beneath his nostrils in her fiery wake, yet another reminder of all that he had lost.
“You’re late again,” she said. “And I’m late for work.” Her tone added the unnecessary because of you.
Champ tugged on his leash, eager to go see his little buddy. Sighing, Devon stepped inside with Champ leading. The storm door’s pneumatic arm hissed at him as the door shut behind him, another wordless accusation.
“I’m sorry, Jade. I couldn’t get anyone to cover the morning shift for me.” Not to mention he needed every extra bit of cash he could scrape together. His rent was late again, but no way in hell he would miss a child support payment.
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” she said, thankfully not turning around to pierce him with daggers from her gorgeous brown eyes as she stomped down the hallway. “And I don’t need to hear any more of your excuses either, Devon.”
He winced, crouching beside Champ and petting his flank. Champ whined. Unlike Devon and most people in general, dogs were never afraid to show their eagerness to be reunited with family, whether their last parting had been minutes, hours, days, or weeks ago.
Champ chuffed and jerked on his leash when they heard a rustle and clomp of hurried footsteps coming from down the hall. Shane popped into the living room with a big grin lighting up his eight-year-old face and dashed toward Devon and Champ. Yet another reminder of a daily joy Devon had surrendered when he let his rocky marriage crumble into ruins.
Punishing him for blowing everything and losing the two best things that had ever happened to him. Devon made it through each grueling day by telling himself that it wasn’t too late to repair the damages he’d wrought, to make that ship sail across the gleaming waves again, as it once had done so magnificently.
“Hey, little big man,” Devon said, almost choking on the words as he watched his boy romp with Champ.
Thankfully Shane had more of his mother’s good looks than his father’s. Same flawless chocolate-brown skin, same dimples, same arched cheekbones and delicate but prominent jaw line.
Same beautiful brown eyes, same captivating smile.
Taking on extra shifts in the auto assembly line lately had turned Devon’s skin a chalky, lusterless white, but every moment spent ratcheting endless nuts and bolts was worth seeing his son’s innocent, cheerful smile.
Now if Devon could only get his boy’s mother to smile like that again—for both of them.
Jade popped back in the living room, fumbling in her purse and looking as fine as ever in a scarlet hip-hugging dress that was way too short and revealed way too much cleavage for Devon’s comfort. She had the perfect body and long, curvy legs for an exotic dancer, and Devon silently cursed himself again for forcing her to take that demeaning job, despite her popularity with the clientele at the upper-scale dance club where she worked six nights a week.
Another bitter reminder that Devon was a thrice-damned fool.
Jade pulled a crisp green twenty out of her purse along with her jangling keys. The stiletto heels of her shiny black Jimmy Choo’s clacked against the hardwood floor as she approached Shane and offered him the twenty. Devon winced at all the bare skin she revealed to lust-filled men. Men other than him.
“I got it, Jade,” Devon said, waving a hand.
“It’s for emergencies,” Jade said, smirking at him.
Devon bit his tongue, withholding a scathing reply like What kind of emergency? You mean like if I lose our son?
Shane pocketed the twenty. “Thanks, Mom.” He stood and hugged her.
“No junk food.”
“Okay, Mom.” Shane grinned at Devon, and Devon slipped him a sly wink.
Jade kissed Shane’s forehead and glared at Devon. “Don’t keep him up too late. And no horror movies; you know that gives him nightmares.”
Devon nodded as Shane snickered, keeping their secret.
“And you better have him back by tomorrow night at eight this time. You know Sunday night’s a school night.”
“I promise,” Devon said, almost calling her babe again.
She raised one eyebrow, lips pursed, giving him that icy look that dared him to defy her wishes. Then she stooped over and hugged Shane again, revealing tempting cleavage. “Bye, sweetie. Have fun, my little monster lover,”—Shane giggled—“and mind your father, and go easy on the pizza this time. I love you so much.”
“Love you too, Mom.” Shane spun, clapped at Champ, and looked at Devon with that delighted grin that Devon would wrestle lions, tigers, and bears to preserve. “Are we taking Champ to the park before we get pizza and go to the drive-in?”
“You bet we are, my man.”
Jade gave Devon those big brown pleading eyes that once belonged to only him. “Please be careful.”
Each knew what the other meant: Watch out for predators. Devon was referring to nightclub sharks with groping hands and lusty eyes. Jade was talking about prowling human monsters who stole children. Just last night, another little girl had disappeared, right down the street in the seedier warrens of their troubled city.
With a heavy sigh full of doubt—which Devon knew was intended for him—Jade let them out and locked up behind them. Devon gave her a wistful wave as she climbed in her rusted Corolla. Then he loaded Shane and Champ in his Pathfinder and took them to Piedmont Park.
Dogs weren’t allowed at the drive-in, and Devon and Shane —and Champ too—loved making a game of sneaking Champ in. Devon had the back seats of his SUV turned down, with blankets and pillows piled up in the rear. As they pulled up to the ticket gate, Champ was nestled under the blankets, only his snout poking out beneath them. He knew how to play this game: stay, boy; play dead. Good dog.
Worked like a charm every time. Shane giggled as they pulled through the gates. Decent crowd, but Devon found a spot near the end of the front row and parked backward in it, rear bumper facing the big screen. While Devon dialed in the right station for their movie on the radio, Shane uncovered Champ and set up their pillows against the back of the front seats. Devon raised the rear hatch and joined Shane and Champ in their comfortable makeshift seats, and they started chowing down on the best pizza money could buy as they waited for the movie to start.
Cheap and cheesy, yeah, but money couldn’t buy moments like these. The only thing that could make this special night priceless is if Jade were there with them, snuggling close and laughing and chattering about everything and nothing.
Devon spent a large chunk of his time every day and night trying to figure out how to make that happen again.
The plan was for Shane to tell his mother they saw the latest new Pixar movie—he’d seen enough trailers to make up a storyline for it—but they were here to see Jagannath, a horror movie about a shape-shifting monster that had nearly destroyed civilization. The monster from your nightmares is here, the creepy trailer advertised. With his irresistible brown eyes as his primary weapon, Shane assured Devon his nightmares would be worth the trip, so Devon indulged his son’s creature feature fascination, prepared to pay the price later if Jade discovered the truth.
Seeing his son’s eyes light up at the prospect of watching an action-packed monster movie filled with all the latest and greatest CG special effects with him, Devon couldn’t refuse. He rarely could say no to the other light of his life.
“You’re not gonna rat me out to your mother, are you, big guy?” Devon asked around a mouthful of delicious warm pizza.
“No way, Dad! This is too cool.”
Devon laughed, a genuine pleasure he experienced too seldom lately, and wiped tomato sauce off Shane’s cheek with a napkin. Shane took a big two-handed gulp out of his monster-sized Coke, and an on-screen explosion rattled the speakers. Champ jumped at the noise, his tail smacked into Shane’s cup, and the cup went flying. Half-melted ice and sticky soda splattered all over the blankets laid out on the carpeted deck.
“Champ, way to go!” Shane spluttered, rolling his eyes at Devon. “Sorry, Dad.”
Devon laughed. “No worries, matey. Watch the movie. I’ll get it.” He set his own Coke beside him and started sopping up the spilled Coke with a towel he kept in the back for just such an occasion.
On-screen shouts of alarm warned of the next thunderous explosion, but Champ wasn’t ready for it. He barked and jumped backward, turning over Devon’s Coke.
“Champ!” Devon and Shane exclaimed together.
Champ whined and leaped into Shane’s lap, nearly smothering him with wriggling fur. Shane and Devon looked at each other and started laughing.
“Okay, that was my bad,” Devon said, shaking his head as he tossed spilled ice out the back. “Goofy dog.”
“Chicken dog,” Shane said, and he and Devon laughed harder.
Champ settled into Shane’s lap, safe refuge from the scary noises. He grumbled and growled at the screen as fire and more explosions played flickering flashes off the interior walls of the SUV.
Devon finished sopping up the spilled Cokes, only half paying attention to the movie, although it seemed pretty intense and interesting. Shane munched on pizza with Champ snuggled in his lap; his eyes goggled as he watched the monster devour victims on the screen. The pizza was less than half gone, and Devon was still hungry. And they’d be thirsty again in minutes.
“Okay, bud,” he said to Shane, wishing he had packed a cooler with iced-down sodas. “Guess we have to go to the concession stand and get a couple more Cokes.”
“No, Dad! I wanna watch the movie. This is way cool.”
“We can watch while we’re walking. We’ll walk backwards. Won’t take five minutes.” More like ten, but we won’t miss that much.
“Dad, please,” Shane drawled. He tore his big eyes from the screen and gave Devon that damnably irresistible pleading look again, then grinned and hugged Champ. “Champ will protect me while you’re gone.”
You mean Chicken-dog? “Shane, your mother would kick my ass if she found out I left you alone, even for five minutes.”
“She won’t find out, I swear. It’ll be our secret.”
“Come on, Dad. This monster is so awesome.”
Devon sighed and scanned the crowd, then the parking lot. The whole theater was fenced in, with barbed wire topping the fences. Nobody but paying customers in cars could get in. No way would predators come here looking for stray children—too many prying eyes, too many parents who would sound the alarm, and only one way out if some prowler had to bolt. The premises were fre- quently scouted by security guards as well, off-duty police officers looking for a few extra bucks to keep food on the table and their families together.
“Okay, big guy. I’m trusting you to sit tight, no matter what.”
“Okay, Dad. Hurry.”
“I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“With popcorn too?” Shane grinned at him.
“Your mother said no junk food. Besides, pizza’s enough. We’ll be full before we finish it.”
Shane sighed and hugged Champ, his eyes riveted on the movie. “Okay.”
Devon nodded and clambered out the back. The quicker he got to the concession stand and back, the sooner he could breathe again. Jade would rip his head off with her bare hands if she knew he was doing this. He hustled to the driveway alongside the parking area, not taking his eyes off his SUV, and walked backward the whole way. Anyone watching him would think he couldn’t take his eyes off the movie—which was pretty good, and only half as cheesy as their pizza—but he only had eyes for his boy.
“Watch where you’re going, dude,” some teenage kid he bumped into said, carrying popcorn and a drink beside his equally overloaded buds. They laughed at Devon as they passed him.
“Sorry,” Devon muttered. He spun and high-tailed it to the concession stand. With a ten out and crumpled in his hand, he stood in line. He turned around and tried to spot his ride while he waited, his breath coming ragged and harsh.
Some ditzy teenage girl served at the concession counter and was chatting it up with some other teenage girls at the front of the line.
“Do you mind?” he blurted, out of patience and regretting this move.
The girls turned and smirked at him.
“Take a number, Grandpa,” one said with a scowl, and turned back and resumed her blather with the girl at the window.
Devon bristled. “I’m only thirty-three.”
The girl turned and grimaced at him. “Whatever, dude.”
“Sorry. I just... don’t wanna miss the movie.”
Sweat beaded on his brow, and she mumbled something that sounded a lot like “freaking horror geek.”
He shrugged. “My son’s waiting in the car. I don’t wanna leave him by himself too long.”
Her eyes widened, her mouth hanging open. “You left your kid alone in your car?”
He shrugged again. “He’ll be okay.” It was more to reassure himself than anyone else.
“Asshole,” another one of the girls muttered.
The first girl gave that long-bereaved sigh that only sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girls can accurately pull off, rolled her eyes, and shook her head. Devon was about to hang it up and haul ass back to his ride when the girls finally finished their oh-so-important jabbering and left the window. He felt their gazes burning holes in the back of his head as he ordered.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, Devon. He heard Jade cursing him up and down in his mind, and tried to shut out the imaginary reprimands. Just get him back to Shane, and he’d never do anything this foolish again.
The dingbat behind the counter finally gave him his two large Cokes—while texting on her cell, no less—and he threw the ten on the counter. “Keep the change.”
“It’s twelve-nineteen, sir.”
“Jesus.” He fumbled out his wallet and threw down a five, grabbed the Cokes, and spun around.
Not caring if he spilled the sticky drinks on his arms, he hurried back toward his SUV, keeping his eyes peeled for monsters in human guise creeping up on his ride and his only precious child.
“Never again, I swear,” he mumbled, a silent prayer begging to be forgiven for his temporary insanity.
Front row, finally, and his SUV was still there. He almost tripped over a man and his two boys reclining in lounge chairs outside their car as he hurried over. The man cursed at him as he passed them, but it barely registered. His chest ached; too many cigarettes, not enough exercise. Plus worry so heavy that it made Atlas’s burden seem like a bag of feathers.
He rounded his back bumper, the rear hatch still open, ready to grab Shane and never let him go.
The back of his SUV was empty except for the pizza, blankets, and pillows.
“Keep it down, buddy!” somebody called out. “We’re trying to watch the damn movie.”
A woman in the driver's seat of the car beside his called out to him. “You looking for a little black boy, about nine, with a big brown dog?”
“Yes!” He dashed toward the car, making the woman flinch backward. “Where did he go?”
“You’re not supposed to have dogs at the drive-in,” she said.
“I know. Please, lady. Which way did they go? Were they with anybody?”
“We would have brought ours if you could. We have two little Schnauzers, Peppy and Dingo.”
I don’t give a damn if their names are Poopie and DingDong, woman. Devon slammed his hands against her car door. “Dammit, where did they go?”
Her wide eyes showed her sudden fear. “Over that way.” She pointed toward the empty side lot, a grassy area past the potholed blacktop that led to the fence twenty feet farther away. “I figured he just went over there to... you know, let the dog—”
“Thank you.” Devon didn’t hear the rest. He was already sprinting toward the grassy area expecting a human predator to be spiriting his boy away into the darkness, and was about to call out to Shane again when he spotted him.
Shane faced the fence, about twenty feet from it, his back to Devon. Champ stood beside Shane, snarling with a low, menacing growl rumbling in his belly. Even from thirty feet away in the dark, Devon saw Champ’s hackles were raised.
The hairs on Devon’s arms and the back of his neck rose too when he saw what Shane was watching; the part of the fence —and anything beyond it—that had Shane mesmerized appeared to just... not be there. The warped, fuzzy edges of the broken fence seemed to undulate, as if part of it wavered in and out of existence.
“Shane?” Devon staggered forward, unable to take his eyes off his son, or the spectacle beyond him.
Shane didn’t answer, and Champ didn’t respond; he just kept snarling, his tail down.
Devon slowly drew closer, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he gaped at the spectacle before him. Blood pounded in his ears; he couldn’t even hear the movie soundtrack coming from the cars behind him. He had forgotten all about it, and everyone there.
The darkness moved, a deeper blackness than the night surrounding it, yet emptier than the void between the stars. It was like a hole had been torn in the fabric of reality, a rip that bled warped darkness around its fluctuating edges, and Devon, Shane, and Champ were gazing into another dimension that Devon could only describe as...
“Yeah, but only for a few minutes,” Shane said out of the blue, as if he were speaking with someone Devon couldn’t hear.
“He said he’d be right back,” Shane said.
Devon stumbled forward. “Shane?”
“No,” Shane said, as if he didn’t hear his father calling his name behind him. “I don’t wanna go with you.”
Devon couldn’t breathe. Someone or something had stolen all the air everywhere. He couldn’t even choke out his son’s name.
“He does too love me!” Shane said, his little fists clenching at his sides.
Champ barked at the nothingness, half-snarl, half-growl. Then he whimpered and turned his furry head to look at Devon.
“No, I don’t wanna,” Shane said, slowly moving toward the darkness as if it drew him forward. His plaintive voice ripped a new hole in Devon’s heart.
Devon sucked in a deep breath as if he was underwater and drowning. “Shane! This is your father! Come back here now!”
The empty void wrapped around Shane, and every parent’s nightmare came true for Devon.
With a ferocious growl, Champ leaped into the nothingness... and vanished.
“Shane! No!” Devon staggered forward as the darkness dim- inished, becoming smaller, like the hole was closing. He felt like he was swimming through coagulating blood, gradually going blind. But his desperation lent him the strength of a thousand mighty horses.
And he leaped into the nothingness before it closed.
Nothing moved. No sound, not even his heart pounding blood in his ears, even though he felt it pumping through his body like he was bleeding the last drop of his life onto the monochrome sand. No odors, not even a taste to the air he breathed—if he was indeed even breathing.
He looked down at his feet and saw he was slowly sinking into the sand. He staggered forward, blinking and squinting to see through the fog that felt like a mist shrouding his mind.
His shout sounded muted, as if the air was compressed and he was in a vacuum.
He discerned a figure at the bottom of the dune atop which he stood. It moved toward him, looking his way, half-mired in the sand. Four legs and a tail. Champ.
As Devon stumbled down the side of the dune, Champ’s frantic barking finally pierced the emptiness surrounding him.
“Champ!” He lumbered toward their dog, his heart racing, his feet getting mired in the sand the same as Champ’s paws. It seemed to take forever for them to reach each other, far longer than the deceptive distance between them required. When they met, Devon fell to his knees and grabbed the fur around Champ’s neck in his hands.
“Where’s Shane, boy?”
Champ whined, muffled and distant although they were face to face. Devon stood and turned in circles, squinting to see through the murky fog.
There, atop a distant dune; another figure, dark-skinned, standing on two legs.
“Come on, boy!” Devon lurched across the endless gray sand toward the figure, Champ struggling at his side.
In what may have been only minutes but could have been years or millennia, they finally reached the bottom of the dune atop which the lone figure stood. Undaunted and determined, Devon started scrabbling up the dune’s side. Champ followed.
With each yard they climbed, they lost a foot or two and got bogged down in the soft shifting sand. But they finally made it to the top, Devon wheezing and swearing to kick his damned nicotine habit, Champ panting and slobbering.
“Shane!” The figure was Devon and Jade’s son, but he didn’t respond to his name, didn’t even acknowledge Devon or Champ’s presence. Shane stared off into the misty distance, mouth hanging open, eyes glazed.
Devon faced him, dared to reach out and grab his shoulders, frightened to the core of his soul that Shane might not really be there, that his boy was somehow forever lost to him. Champ barked three times, as if calling his little master’s name in an incantation that would wake him from his enchantment.
“Shane, what’s wrong? What happened to you? Why did you... go into the nothingness?”
Stupid question. Insane, insanity. Champ licked Shane’s limp dangling fingers, and Shane blinked and shook his head.
“Oh, God; please tell me you’re okay.” Devon hugged his son, and Shane slowly reached his arms around Devon’s waist and hugged him back.
“I... think I am. But Dad, look.” Shane pointed to the top of another dune in the distance, and then another farther off to the right, and another beyond that one.
Devon pulled back and looked, but didn’t release Shane; he would never again let him go.
Through the swirling haze, Devon made out a small figure standing atop each dune. They didn’t move, their arms hanging limp at their sides—just as he’d found Shane, staring off into eternity. They were children, and Devon shuddered as the truth struck him. He suddenly knew from where they had come, and how they had arrived here. Champ licked Shane’s fingers again, whining, his tail tentatively wagging.
Shane smiled and ruffled Champ’s fur around his neck. “Champ, good boy. You came for me.”
Champ chuffed, his tail slapping Shane’s thighs.
“What the hell?” Devon said, squinting to see the figures better.
“I think they’re lost, Dad. Like I almost was.”
Squeezing Shane’s hand, Devon shook his head as if trying to dispel an ominous hex. “Whatever. All I know is we gotta get you out of this place—whatever the hell it is—and get you back home to your mother.”
Shane clenched Devon’s hand tighter and nodded vigorously. “Yeah. I don’t like it here, Dad. Come on, Champ, let’s go, boy.”
“I don’t either, big guy.” Devon spun and started to head back down the dune’s sloping side—he had no idea where he would go from here—but the sight that greeted him froze him in his tracks, and he gasped for a breath that wouldn’t come.
The empty nothingness hovered in the air by the top of the dune, wavering and shimmering, darker than a black hole in a dying universe. Devon’s skin crawled at the eerie vision, and he could swear hairy spiders skittered up and down his spine.
Shane flinched, squeezing Devon’s hand so hard it made Devon wince. “Do you hear it, Dad? It’s like it’s calling my name again, like it did at the movie.”
Devon sneered and pointed at the hole in the world. “Whatever the hell you are, get out of my damn way, and let us go back home.” As he said it, he realized this thing might be their only way back home, a gateway of sorts between this barren world and his own.
The voice was like an eerie whisper that originated from the cold lonely vacuum of space, a gusty wind that formed words in Devon’s mind and made him feel as if parasitic aliens with dagger-sharp teeth were eating him up from the inside out. He gathered what little courage he had left and choked out a response.
“What the hell are you, and what did you do to these children?”
“THESE CHILDREN ARE WANTED HERE, NEEDED HERE. LOVED HERE, UNLIKE THE PLACE FROM WHENCE THEY CAME. AS ARE ALL THE FORLORN SOULS WE BRING INTO THE LIGHT.”
Devon scowled, feeling creepy critters crawl under his skin. “That doesn’t answer my damn question, so stop speaking in riddles. Just exactly what are you?”
“WE ARE THE LIGHT AND THE LOVE. WE PIERCE THE DARKNESS.”
Devon shook his head, trying to fight off the fugue and trance that the nothingness assailed him with. Somehow it compelled him to sleep, and rejoice. He couldn’t do that, must not do that. He kept his body between the void and Shane. Champ stood at his side, a low growl rumbling in his belly, sounding like it came from miles away. Devon sucked in a precious breath and managed to force out a reply.
“Forget it. Doesn’t matter. No more riddles. Where are we, and how do we get the hell out of here?”
“FROM DARKNESS YOU COME, INTO DARKNESS YOU GO. WE ARE THE LIGHT IN BETWEEN. WE BRING THE LOVE YOUR NEGLECTED SPAWN DOES NOT HAVE OR RECEIVE IN YOUR WORLD.”
“Love?” Devon barked out a harsh laugh and waved at the distant dunes and children. “That isn’t love, you unholy... thing. They’re all hypnotized! This is nowhere.”
“WE ARE ALL-WHERES, EVERYWHERE, EVERYTHING BETWEEN THE DARKNESS AND THE ABANDONED.”
“Abandoned?” Devon snorted. He suddenly knew what he had to do to get himself, Shane, and Champ back home. And he knew what he had to do to win his wife’s heart back, too. If he didn’t do it, he would lose her—and his family—forever. But he may lose himself in the process.
Didn’t matter. If he didn’t try, he would spend the rest of his life in his own personal darkness, a Hell deeper than a billion gods could devise, knowing he took the selfish coward’s way out.
Even if his deed didn’t win Jade’s heart back, he must do this.
He took a quick look around at all the lost children staring blankly into nothing, and sneered at the empty void hovering in the stale lifeless air only a few feet away, the gateway from his world into this so-called “light” that was another form of soul-darkness. He may have spent much of his life as a self- destructive fool, but he knew now what true darkness was.
It was life without love, existence without family or friends. It may be the nothingness from which we sprang, may be the emptiness into which we go, but in between we make the light.
He faced the void, a new understanding stoking the fire smoldering in his heart.
“To hell with you, to hell with your riddles, and to hell with this place.” He looked down at Shane. “We’re going home, Shane. You, me, and Champ—together. You ready?”
His son gazed up at him with those big, gentle brown eyes, so full of love and trust, so very much an integral part and piece of him, and of Jade too. Shane nodded, his lips trembling.
“STAY HERE IN THE LIGHT. SHINE HERE IN THE LOVE.”
Devon glared at the void, squeezing Shane’s hand tighter. “Go fuck yourself, whatever you are.” He nodded back at Shane. “On three, little big man. One... two... three!”
Together they leaped into the nothingness, and somehow Champ knew to follow them.
Two cops stood by the cruiser, watching the spot where Devon, Shane, and Champ appeared as if out of nowhere. One’s mouth hung open, her hand resting on her holstered pistol. The other was speaking into his radio, and froze and stopped talking when he saw the trio that had emerged from nothingness.
A small crowd of onlookers surrounded the cops, adults and children—some dazed, some frantic—all in different stages of shock. Among them stood the woman who had told Devon about Shane and Champ walking off toward the fence. Three children huddled around her, two with their hands clutching hers, one clinging to her blouse.
Devon had a bright, shiny new comprehension of that incomparable all-encompassing love.
Champ barked, a canine grin splitting his jowls as his tail wagged fast enough to power a turbine. Devon crouched beside Shane, praying to a God he hoped existed that he would see his beloved son—and his beautiful wife and their goofy dog—again soon. He pointed toward the officers.
“Shane, I want you and Champ to go over there and stay with those two cops. They’ll help you get home to your mother.”
“Dad, wait. What are you—”
“Shane, do as I say.” Devon swallowed a hot lump of coal and glanced over his shoulder. The gateway hovered behind him, just a few yards away, slowly becoming smaller, losing coherence and closing now as the crowd and the cops gaped at it. He looked back at Shane and gave him his best smile. “You know I love you, big guy, more than all the stars in the whole universe.”
More than the vast emptiness between the darkness and the light.
Tears pooled in Shane’s eyes, glimmering with each passing flash of blue lights. “I love you too, Dad. But—”
“Do you remember the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin?”
“That’s right, smart guy. So... think of me as sort of the Anti- Pied Piper; the opposite of him.”
“Dad, no! What are you gonna do?”
“I’m going to go get the other children. And bring them back home.”
Shane leaped into Devon’s arms and squeezed him. “No! Don’t leave me, Dad. Please.”
Devon gave his son one last tight embrace, enough to last him until he either returned or vanished into the gloomy light in between the darkness from which we came and the darkness into which we go, and pushed him away. “If I don’t come back, promise me you’ll tell your mother how much I love her, under-stand? And you and Champ take care of each other.”
Shane was sobbing now, breaking Devon’s heart, but the determination and fire in his eyes—an inferno of love, hope, faith, and trust he inherited from his mother and father—showed he understood. He nodded, much braver than Devon could ever be.
“You’ll come back. You have to.”
Devon nodded, jumped to his feet, and spun around before he could change his mind.
And leaped back into the nothingness.
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Winner will be announced on this blog and on Facebook
Sunday May 22
available for pre-order on Amazon (only $3.99!):
Best wishes and happy reading to you all!