The screeching cry of a vulture from my dream transforms into a ring, vibrating on the night table beside me. I reach across it as it rings again, knocking over an empty wine glass before my fingers find the phone with an urge to make the noise stop. The glowing blue 2: 01 on my alarm clock comes into focus, and a flutter rises from my chest to my throat.
Something’s wrong. Who would call this late?
I work to clear the lump in my throat as I grip the receiver.
Something’s happened. Something bad.
I sit up in bed, and my back presses against the cold wall behind me, shocking me awake as I tug at the curled cord and pull the receiver toward me. “Hello?” I press it to my ear, gripping it tightly. I wait for the words to hit me, but wet breath catches in my mom’s throat. I could never mistake it. Is she crying?
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I’m scared, Sam,” she huffs, her robust tone returning as she says my name. “I can’t do it anymore.”
Is it finally time? Could she have actually come to her senses? What day is it? October ninth. Just a few more days until Founders Day. I want to hear her tell me she wants out before then.
“… and he’s been stalking us. Driving up and down our street—”
Her wet breath crackles in her throat on the other end. “The man who killed your dad.”
I swallow hard and push my hair away from my face, behind my ear. “You don’t know who did it. Not for sure.”
The last time I spoke with her, she told me she knew who it was, but wouldn’t tell me the name. To her credit, I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. I still don’t. No one’s been held accountable. No one will be. There’s no proof, as far as I know, and there’s no point in talking to her about it because it was their choices that led to this. Mom and Dad chose to stay, and with that comes the well-known risks associated with living there. I got out.
“Oh— I know,” the gritty, rasp of her cigarette-soaked vitriol spews out. “We all know it. He killed your father in cold blood, and he’s just driving around while we wonder who’s next, and I— I just can’t do it anymore.”
I inch the phone away from my ear and take a deep breath. She’s not blaming me. That’s a start. Maybe she’s ready to take responsibility for her safety…
“It’s gonna be okay,” I say. “You can get out of there before something bad happens again. You can live a different life away from that town. You’ll be safe. It can be better.”
You can be a better person. I am— in a way.
“Yes, yes.” She clears her throat, bringing on a coughing fit. I pull the phone further from my ear. “… and I’m ready.”
The words soothe me and loosen my grip on the receiver.
“Good, Mom.” The word feels foreign coming from my mouth. It’s been years since I called her that. She needs comfort, and she’ll need a push to actually go..“Today will be the ninth—”
“You think I don’t know that?”
I roll my eyes, ignoring her. “And if you start packing your essentials, just for the next five or six days, you can get outta there before the shitstorm hits.”
“Oh, it’s already begun, Sam. You know that better than anyone… Or have you forgotten where you come from by now?”
Here she goes.
“How could I?” I ask through a clenched jaw before opening my mouth wide and stretching my muscles, rubbing at my cheeks to rid myself of the old, familiar soreness of contempt. “Listen, you get yourself out of there. Go to Aunt Linda’s in Arbordale. I’m sure she’ll understand, or hell, even come here. If you do that, after the thirteenth, I’ll help you make arrangements to sell the house, okay?”
I tilt my head, staring at the ceiling as the silence grows stale. Why am I trying? She’ll never leave that place. She’ll die there, just like Dad.
“Sammy,” she whines, “I need your help. I need you to come home.”
I rub the goosebumps away from my arm before they even begin, and shake the shivers away as they come, wave by wave.
“No, Mom. I’m not coming back.”
That place is not a home. It’s a feeding ground for the vultures that prey on their own town.
“Sammy, please. I can’t do this on my own. I’m not strong enough.”
I let out a huff of laughter. The old battle axe is stronger than any woman I’ve ever known.
“If you make me, I’ll beg.”
“You are already.” I run my fingers through my hair, scraping my nails against my scalp as I reach the top, digging them in deeper as they glide down toward my neck, until I feel the sharp pain that almost brings me back to the present, although never enough to rely on. Some memories always find a way to seep through.
“I’m not coming.” I shake away the itchy feeling and pull my knees as close to my chest as they’ll go, wrapping my arm around them, holding them tightly.
“Then you’ll have two dead parents.”
Ha. Maybe that’s better.
I shake the thought away as quickly as it formed. It’s not her fault. It’s the town. She’s trying to do the right thing. The thing no one in my family has ever done before, until me. Maybe there’s a chance for her. If there isn’t for her, there’s not for me. If she can get out and let down her guard, get a new perspective, maybe she’ll realize the hurt she has caused. Maybe we could heal from it all…
“Fine,” I shout— an eager attempt to silence the voices, hers and mine, before I can’t take it anymore.
“Yes? Oh, thank you, Sammy. I knew you wouldn’t leave me here to die— even after everything— I knew you’d understand.”
And I do. You hurt for the ones you love, and no matter what she has done, I do understand. “I’ll be there by noon. I want you to have your things packed and figure out where you’re staying.”
Please not my place. I’m doing enough by coming to get you. I’ll have suffered enough.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be ready.”
“I’ll see you soon.” I rest the receiver back onto the phone cradle before rubbing the tips of my fingers against my aching temples. A headache worse than I’ve had since Dad died is coming on, and I push the covers off, letting the cold, autumn air from the open window hit me as punishment for letting her talk me into going back.
I dig through the small bathroom cupboard for Percocets and pop two into my mouth, pushing the pills down my dry throat on their own before slamming the cabinet shut and staring at myself in the mirror. My left eye twitches as I lean over the sink and inspect it. It’s barely noticeable, but a reminder that the town’s power over me will grow stronger while I’m there.
It’s not the cursed town itself, but all the people in it who make it a living hell. The people who use Founders Day to settle debts, exact revenge, and entrench themselves in the devious culture of Crimson Falls because there aren’t enough law enforcers to catch them or hold them accountable. A great chance of getting away with their crime is all the incentive they need.
They are the town. I am the town, or I will be once I return.
All the Dark Corners, a Crimson Falls novella, releases April 11th, 2019, and is one of eight novellas in the series. Can be read as a stand-alone or part of the group.