The week’s assignment had been the most grueling yet. He couldn’t recall an instance since he’d begun his job as a Paranormal Investigator where he’d been this tired. It was the kind of fatigue that reached inside and wouldn’t let go no matter how much he rested. It seeped into his bones.
His usually meticulously styled hair fell limp over his creased forehead. He couldn’t get the events of that week, as hazy as they were, out of his head. The house looked like any other house he and his team entered, hunting for the paranormal. Its history told of devil worshippers and human sacrifice that reached back a hundred years, but what was new? He’d seen worse as far as backgrounds of a possible haunting was concerned. He’d had his share of demonic possessions and scratches on different parts of his body. But the Miller House was different somehow.
Investigating usually had him pumped, ready for anything, but there was something about this week that didn’t sit right with him. He’d mentioned it to his fellow investigators, but they’d brushed it off as him needing a vacation. Adam and Nathan were always the more happy-go-lucky ones in the group. Zander had mischief in his blood too, but sometimes, like right now, the darkness around him couldn’t compete with the void that slowly grew within him, like something truly sinister had attached itself to him and wouldn’t let go.
With an effort that stole more of his waning strength, Zander lifted his hands until they hovered just above his face. Even in the darkness, he could see them shaking. He dropped his hands and slumped lower into his seat until the tips of his fingers touched the mopped linoleum floor. He closed his eyes and let his chin fall to his chest. He didn’t know if he could make it up the flight of steps that led to his bedroom on the second floor of his house. But if he didn’t pick himself up, he’d definitely end up sleeping in the kitchen. One thing he hated more than clowns was stiff muscles.
He’d made up his mind to muster up the strength to stand when goosebumps rose on his arms. He opened his eyes and watched his breath puff out on each exhale. The temperature had dropped dramatically. Keeping his calm, he crossed his arms and braced himself.
Behind Zander, a white mist formed. First a foggy silhouette that slowly materialized into a full spectral form. The figure floated toward Zander and wrapped her pale arms around his neck. She planted a blue-lipped kiss on his cheek and the cascade of her opaque hair tumbled over his shoulders. Her simple white summer dress rippled over her lithe body like she had an imaginary fan blowing air around her at all times.
“You look like crap, Z,” she whispered into his ear. “What’s gotten into you?”
Zander shivered and said, “Nothing more than the usual, I’d say.”
The specter leaned the side of her head on his and tsked. “No snarky comeback? You must be sick or something. I don’t like it.”
“You think so?” Zander considered what she’d said. He lifted a hand to his forehead and felt his temperature. His skin felt clammy, as it always was whenever his visitor was around. “You could say it’s been a rough week. I think something followed me home again. I hate it when that happens.”
“I don’t feel anything unusual right now.” The girl scanned the kitchen. “Are you sure?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” Zander shook his head. “These nasty bastards never wait long to make their presence known.”
“Demonic or something milder?”
“Kara,” Zander raised an eyebrow she couldn’t see from where she floated behind him, “does anything mild ever follow me home?”
“I followed you home.” She pouted.
“Case in point.”
Kara stepped back and smacked Zander upside his head. The impact of her spiritual energy manifested as a sudden headache. He doubled over and groaned, kneading his temples with his fingertips.
“Damn it, Kara!” He shut his eyes to keep his world from spinning any faster than it already was. “I don’t have time for your temper tantrums. I’m too tired to cleanse myself as it is. Don’t add to my misery, please.”
“You started it.” Kara stood her ground, which meant raising the temperature in the kitchen even higher. Her strength grew when she got stubborn, but never enough to send potentially harmful objects flying. She wasn’t poltergeist material, and Zander was thankful for that little mercy. He could imagine the state his house would be in every time he’d ticked her off. His OCD tendencies wouldn’t be able to cope.
“Don’t make me call the Exorcist on you,” Zander threatened through clenched teeth. The chill in the room dissipated, along with his headache. He sat up and sighed. “Thank you.”
“Just because I like you, Z, doesn’t mean you have the right to be a jerk to me,” Kara said. Her voice took on a tremulous quality that always stabbed at Zander’s heart. He was defenseless against her tears more than he was against her spiritual attacks. She was a vengeful spirit, but certainly not demonic. He had no right to lump her along with the malevolence he sometimes came up against during his investigations.
Like caffeine in his veins, her sadness woke him up enough to get up and face her. She looked utterly beautiful for a ghost. In his line of work, ghosts, spirits, specters, apparitions, or whatever you’d like to call entities that were not of this world, hardly manifested as clearly as Kara did. Usually, Zander would be lucky to encounter a shadow figure or a mist during his outings with Adam and Nathan. There was something different about Kara, and he had yet to figure out what it was. He came home one day from an investigation to find her in his room, waiting. He managed to ignore her for a week until she had realized that he could see her. When that happened, it was the end of his peace and quiet. He’d always wanted a pet, but he didn’t think he’d have to put up with a whiny one. At least he didn’t have to feed her.
Zander met her ghostly gaze, an eternal nothingness behind her colorless eyes, and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Kara. I truly am. You know I don’t mean half the things that come out of my mouth. I provoke, that’s who I am. You have every right to be mad at me. This is certainly not an environment I want to expose you to all the time. Feel free to leave if you want.”
She grinned. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily, Zander Billings.”
Zander returned her expression with a smirk of his own. “Was worth a try.”
He moved past her toward the stairs. At the bottom step, he stopped and regarded the ten or so steps he had to climb to reach the three-hundred-thread-count sheets waiting for him in his bedroom. Kara materialized beside him and followed his gaze with her own.
“What are we looking at?” she asked in a soft whisper.
Most people wouldn’t hear Kara’s words since she spoke at a higher frequency that most human ears had no idea how to tap into. But Zander’s countless years of listening to electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs as they called them, allowed him to tune into Kara’s speech within the white noise. Sometimes, like now, she drained his energy just by standing by his side. But, then again, he’d already come home nearly empty. What was an ounce more of energy lost?
Zander made a mental note to remove his gear from inside his car when he woke up the next morning. He’d completely forgotten to unload them. He might even need a jumpstart since he thought he’d left his headlights on. He crossed his fingers it wasn’t the case. It would supremely suck having to call Nathan just to help him restart his car. He’d never hear the end of it. The great Zander needing someone’s help; the very idea of it made him wince.
“I don’t think I can make it up there,” he said in response to Kara’s question.
“You’re really that tired?” Kara faced him. “You’re really scaring me, Z.”
He gave her a wink before taking a step up. He wobbled and grabbed the banister before completely losing his balance. Kara squeaked, reaching both hands out in an attempt to catch him even if he would literally slip through her fingers if he’d fallen. She may be a fully corporeal spirit, but she didn’t have enough power to actually be of much help if something did happen.
“See, that wasn’t so bad.” Zander tightened his grip on the wooden railing of his staircase. “Now if I can only repeat it ten more times, I’d be home free.”
Kara disappeared from behind Zander only to reappear a couple of steps above him. Her black-polished toenails never touched the ground. She wore worry on her face like a veil. “Come on, Z. You know I can’t help you if you fall down these stairs and break your neck. Please.” She pointed at the living room only meters away.
The couch was certainly a better alternative to the rickety chair. But it wasn’t his massive bed with special pillows that molded to the contours of your head. If Zander had one guilty pleasure, it was his bed. He’d used a large chunk of his first paycheck to buy the thing. Coming from a large family, he didn’t have the luxury of having his own place, let alone his own bed, until he had officially become an investigator. When he’d moved in, the first thing he did was take a nap in every room, no matter how devoid of furniture the house had been at the time. He relished the independence. It was one of the perks of the job, despite the many setbacks like having a demon follow you home and make your life a living hell. Zander never understood that phrase until he’d lived it. He’d never believed in ghosts until he came face to face with one. It was that experience that led him to become what he was now.
Taking one last look up at the stairs, which was currently blocked by Kara, Zander let out a long and weighty breath before he stepped down and hobbled into his living room. He fell face down on the couch and barely felt Kara positioning a throw pillow underneath his cheek. How she’d done so escaped him. Where was she getting the energy from? He had none left to spare. In seconds, he surrendered himself to unconsciousness.
The dream came as swiftly as sleep did.
A dark entity with red eyes hovered over Zander’s prone body. “You think you’ve seen the last of me,” it said in a gravelly voice. “You think just because you’ve left that place that you’re free of me?”
Zander, asleep, couldn’t respond. His consciousness merely observed what was happening from a corner of the room. He willed himself to wake up, but nothing happened. Panic engulfed him like a powerful wave from a turbulent sea.
The entity laughed, harsh and chilling. It was like it fed on Zander’s mounting fear. Awake he could handle whatever demonic presence invaded his home. But asleep, he was completely helpless. The demon might as well possess him. At least then, when managed to wake up, he could call for the Exorcist. But until that happened, he was defenseless. And he hated every second of it.
He knew signing up to be an investigator had its risks, but never did Zander ever feel his life was in any danger. Not until this particular entity arrived. If there was a time he needed to wake up, it was right now.
As if responding to his thoughts, the demon said, “Oh, you’d want me to enter you, wouldn’t you? Well, you’re not getting away from me. You’ve taunted me long enough. Now, it’s my turn.” It tapped a clawed finger at the center of Zander’s forehead. “It’s not going to be that easy for you, child. And it never will for as long as I exist. I will follow you everywhere you go. There will be no place you can hide from me.” It laughed again, and this time, it sounded like the end of the world.