The most surprising thing about this day, was that nothing unexpected happened.
It was the second Friday of the month, a Friday that both Sergio and Kat had realized was the ominous day when Sergio was chased down by a tractor, and Kat was confronted by Norma in the park. Not to mention the ghosts that Sergio and Lance fought at night, though Kat didn’t know Sergio participated in that. At least, he hoped not.
So far, every month, those things had happened on the second Friday of the month, a strange time, but consistent. But so far, today, neither he nor Kat had run afoul of their local enemies. Tom hadn’t even asked him to go to the granary and help out. He enjoyed a normal day at work, a warm welcome from Kat at home, a quick dinner, and now he was off to train with Lance for the week, after which he would return to fight the ghosts of Greenfield.
Sergio loved fighting the ghosts, though he hadn’t said as much, even to Lance. For the first time since Alice was born, he felt in control of something. Like he was making a difference.
He had given the usual excuse to Kat, that he was going to help Lance tune-up his tech in preparation for fighting the ghosts tonight, promising that he wouldn’t do anything else. He didn’t enjoy the lie, he had never lied to his wife about anything before. But the thrill of igniting those flamethrowers attached to the iron exosuit…there was nothing like that feeling.
Of course, part of him now wondered if the ghosts would even be there tonight. After a peaceful day so far, perhaps they too were gone. Sergio wouldn’t count on it though.
“Ahoy there, Sergio!” Lance called as he entered the abandoned barn where they did their training.
“Hey there, Lance.”
“We’re pressed for time today, ghost hunting tonight and all. So ready to get started?”
“Oh I am so ready.” Sergio grinned. It was the truth.
They started with the standard workout routine Lance had given them for the past month. Sergio was pleased to find he was having less and less difficulty performing the workouts. He was also pleased to see the muscles in his arms and chest swell far larger than he had seen them since…well probably ever. He was practically a new man.
“Not bad, son.” Lance still called him son, even though they were the same age. “You’re almost there. Only a few more years of this, and you’ll be at my level.”
“A few years?” Sergio said while panting.
“Yeah, you don’t think I learned how to be this fantastic overnight did you?”
“Certainly not, but—”
“Shut up, son. You’re not paying attention. Form’s all wrong.”
And they continued like that for another hour or two, with Lance making corrections as they went. They were beginning to work on some more aggressive forms now, including some punches and kicks that Sergio found very satisfying.
“Not bad there Serg. You’re learning. Almost as good as your wife.”
Sergio grinned, “I’ve been practicing. Wait…what do you mean, almost—”
But Lance wasn’t listening anymore, he was already on his way out the door and headed towards his house. Sergio trotted to keep up.
“Your wife still thinks you’re helping me with the mechanisms?” Lance said as Sergio drew closer.
“Yes, which is technically true. I just haven’t told her the full story.”
“I’d tell her the truth sooner or later, nothing good comes from a lie.”
Sergio nodded his head. He knew Lance was right, but he also knew that the moment he told Kat would be the moment that he stopped going with Lance to fight ghosts. And he loved fighting the ghosts.
Lance didn’t say another word about it before they arrived at the foothills, in the same clearing as always. Sergio checked the nozzles on his suit to make sure they worked. Small jets of flames shot out each one in a satisfying spurt.
“Okay, I think we’re ready.” said Lance, checking his own nozzles.
No sooner had he said it when the screams began. Sergio raised his fists, preparing himself. It wasn’t until he saw the first ghost appear in front of him, that he found himself smiling. Time to make short work of these apparitions.
He and Lance were a fighting team. Each one began taking down ghosts left and right. Lance still held an edge on Sergio, but now, in Sergio’s third attempt, he was beginning to hold his own. The fire coming out of his hands drew the ghostly figures like moths to a flame, completely mesmerized with the energy, then it only took a few jabs and punches with his iron exosuit before the ghosts were sucked away, through the suit, and into the ground.
Sergio still didn’t understand how it all worked. Why, for example, did being redirected into the ground have any effect on the ghosts? Why couldn’t they just rise again, immediately? Neither he nor Lance had any explanation, but they knew it worked, at least temporarily, until the next month when the process needed to be repeated.
But that process, as scary as it had been the first time, wasn’t all that bad. With the both of them working on it, they managed to mop up the ghosts in record time, only minutes after the screaming started. It wasn’t long before he and Lance were looking around in all directions, trying to find any other ghosts. There were none.
“Crumbs, Serg. That wasn’t half bad.” Lance clapped him on the back. “We’ll make a superhero of you yet, even if neither of us actually has superpowers.”
“You’ve proven that one doesn’t need superpowers to fight the bad guys, even supernatural bad…” Sergio felt his heart sink as he stared at the trail that they had used to get here.
Kat stood there, with the stroller holding Alice. The look on her face was a mixture of shock and…betrayal. Oh no, this wasn’t good.
Sergio quickly extracted himself from the exosuit and went to her. “Kat, I can explain.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said as he approached. Her voice quivered.
“I’ve been perfectly safe, Lance has been here, I was just helping him out. Think about it as part of my training.”
Kat looked from Sergio to Lance. “You knew about this and you didn’t tell me?”
“Didn’t think it was my place ma’am, though I did warn Sergio there would be consequences for lying to you.”
Thanks for the help, Lance. “It wasn’t a lie.” Sergio said through gritted teeth. “It just wasn’t the whole truth, and I was going to tell you, I promise.”
Kat said nothing for a long while. She only held Sergio’s gaze, and he did not like what he saw there. For the first time in their marriage, she looked hurt, and because of something he did. It was then that Sergio realized he had been an idiot. What did the thrill of fighting ghosts matter if it hurt Kat? How much would he like playing the hero if she was not beside him?
“Kat, I’m…I’m so sorry. What can I do to…”
A shriek filled the night air. All three of them stopped what they were doing and turned in the direction of the noise. There couldn’t be another ghost now, they had finished clearing them out. Lance dove for his exosuit, which he had removed while Sergio and Kat talked. Sergio quickly followed to do the same. But by that time, they could see it.
It was a large one, far bigger than any of the ghosts that Sergio had seen before. It glowed a sickly gray-green, but its most striking feature was its eyes. They glowed a bright red and Sergio could swear he saw intelligence in those eyes. This one was not like the other ghosts.
That thought was confirmed when Lance activated his flames. The ghost glanced in his direction, but didn’t freeze or become hypnotized by the firelight. Instead, it rushed at Lance.
“Yaaarrrrggg!” Lance stumbled and fell back, the ghost on top of him. He was pointing the iron spikes of his exosuit into the air, penetrating the form of the red-eyed apparition atop him. But it did nothing. A rhythmic sound came from the ghost. Sergio swallowed. It sounded like…laughter.
Lance screamed again as the ghost touched him. Even in the dim light, Sergio could see Lance’s face drain of color. He needed help.
Diving in Lance’s direction, Sergio only barely heard his wife protest as he brought his flames to bear. Red eyes met his as he poured fire from the nozzles in his hands.
“Leave him alone!” Sergio yelled with a burst of flame. Lance was shaking now, shivering violently on the ground.
In a split second, the ghost left Lance and appeared instantly at Sergio’s side. He tried to pierce it with the iron spikes, but nothing happened. Cold froze his arms and legs, and he too collapsed to the ground. Red eyes stared at Sergio from mere inches away. That was when Sergio knew, he was powerless. He was going to die here tonight.
It wasn’t a scream of fear, or the kind she gave when she was hungry or stinky. It was a scream of anger, unlike anything Sergio had heard from the girl.
The apparition hesitated. It turned to regard the baby girl with newfound interest. Kat was bending over to take Alice out of the stroller and hold her tight.
Then Lance was at Sergio’s side. He brought his iron to bear and swung it through the ghost’s form. Sergio, after a moment’s hesitation, did the same. The ghost…rippled. That was the only word Sergio knew to describe it. The red eyes moved from Alice, to Lance, to Alice again. The iron wasn’t working like it did with the other ghosts, but this time it seemed to be doing something.
The ghost moved fast, leaving Sergio and Lance behind and arriving instantly next to Kat and Alice.
“No!” Sergio yelled. He tried to rise to his feet, but they were feeling weak from the cold left by the ghost. He could barely stand.
Alice screamed again, still in defiance, not in fear or pain.
The ghost took one long look at the girl, then vanished. Silence filled the clearing, broken only by the heavy breathing of Lance, Sergio, and Kat.
Lance crumbled to the ground, clearly in pain.
“Lance, are you okay.” Sergio crawled over to check his friend for injuries.
“I…” Lance was shivering. “I….c-can’t—” He broke off, saying no more. It looked like he had spent his last remaining strength attacking the red-eyed ghost.
“We need to get him to a hospital.” Sergio said.
Kat was closer now, holding Alice in her arms. The baby girl seemed not to realize that something frightening had just happened. Kat took a look at Lance. “There isn’t a decent hospital in Greenfield. Just a small clinic.”
“Well then we’ll take him there.”
“Can we really trust anyone there? After what we’ve both experienced with the people of this town?”
“Kat, we can’t just leave him here. We need to do something!”
Kat nodded, and walked back to the stroller to place Alice in it. “We can take him home. Whatever is wrong, we can help him there.”
Sergio wasn’t feeling very well himself, but already he had full use of his legs and arms. The ghost obviously had done far less damage to him than it had to Lance.
“Alright, we’ll take him there. But if he doesn’t improve in the next few hours, we take him to the clinic.”
Kat pursed her lips. Sergio could tell she didn’t like him insisting right now, especially when she was already mad at him. But finally, she conceded. “Fine, let’s get him up.”
Together they helped Lance to his feet, and began the slow trek down the foothills and into town. Their home was only about a mile away, but it took much longer for them to reach it, with Lance and a baby stroller in tow. It didn’t help that Kat kept shooting fiery glances in Sergio’s direction. Yeah, he hadn’t heard the end of this. She hadn’t said a word since they started walking, but she clearly had not forgotten Sergio’s dishonesty.
Finally, they approached and entered their small home. Lance was still shivering as they laid him on their couch.
“I think he has hypothermia,” Kat propped some pillows behind Lance’s head.
“G-good, deduction.” Lance said through chattering teeth. Was he trying to be funny?
“I’ll make some tea or something,” Sergio chimed in. “Maybe you could get a lukewarm bath running?”
Kat nodded and moved to the bathroom to start the water. They didn’t have a huge bath, but it would have to do. Sergio moved to the kitchen to prepare some herbal tea. He didn’t wait long for the water to heat. Lance only needed something lukewarm at this point, otherwise the heat would be too much for his body. It wasn’t more than slightly-flavored warm water, but it would have to do.
By the time he was done, Kat had reappeared. “The water is ready.”
Sergio nodded and gave Lance a sip of the warm water. Lance shivered and sighed with relief. “Oh, that h-hits the s-spot.”
“Can you move, we need to help you into the bath.”
“Yes, I think so.” With help, Lance got to his feet and Sergio guided him into the bathroom. Alice was beginning to cry now, given that her parents hadn’t paid her any attention since they entered the house. But neither could spare a moment just yet.
Closing the bathroom door, Sergio helped Lance with his clothes, before gently lowering him into the water. The water wasn’t very warm, but Lance still gasped as his feet entered.
“Lie in that for a few minutes then we can raise the temperature.” Sergio handed the rest of the tea to Lance who accepted it gratefully.
“W-won’t forget th-this.” he said, and looked like he meant it.
“I’ll be back in a jiffy.” he said, and exited the bathroom.
Kat was waiting for him, with arms folded beneath her breasts. “How is he?”
“He’s fine, near frozen, but he’s already looking better.”
Sergio rubbed his arms which still felt tingly. “It didn’t get me nearly as bad.”
“The point is, it got you. You were taken by surprise tonight.”
“Oh come on, Katariina. You know we couldn’t have anticipated that. Lance said they behave the same way every month. If he could take care of them alone, why couldn’t I help?”
“That’s not the issue. The issue is that you lied to me about it.”
“Because you would have said no!”
“You’re damn right I would have!” Her voice was raised. Alice cried harder now that she continued to be ignored.
“So how can you expect me to ask if you would have said no anyway?”
“You should respect my wishes here.”
“Well you should respect mine!” Sergio was all but shouting now, and it caught Kat off guard. He had never raised his voice at her like that. A few moments of silence, and he took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry that I didn’t ask you. But you have to understand, I needed this. I loved it.”
“I want to leave this place.” There were tears in her eyes. “Tonight.”
“What? I thought we agreed that we were here for a reason.”
“Then we can figure that reason out from outside. I don’t want to have to worry about you anymore. First it was the tractor, now this. I…I just.” Louder sobs were beginning to emerge, and she slumped against the couch.
Seeing his wife cry, Sergio lost all of his anger in the time it took him to close the distance between them. He cradled her in his arms. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. We can try to figure out a way to leave soon, I promise.”
Kat didn’t respond, but nuzzled her head in his chest, putting her arms around him. He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arms tight around her. He had been a fool. Nothing was more important than Kat, not a thing. Yes, he had his desires, but he needed to respect hers equally, and at the very least talk out their differences.
The embrace didn’t last too long, since Alice cranked the volume of her cries up a notch. Kat was about to leave to comfort her, but Sergio put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll take care of her.”
He walked to the stroller and picked up his daughter. “Hey there,” he said. Alice’s cries lessened somewhat, but her face was still red. “Hey, it’s okay, we’re all here. We’re all here.”
He ambled around the house, slowly bouncing the girl up and down, feeding, and changing her. He paused only to bring some warmer tea to Lance, who was looking a lot better and managing to add more hot water to the bath on his own.
A few hours later, Alice was falling asleep and Lance emerged from the bathroom, wearing his old clothes. The room was steaming behind him.
“Whew, I never want to go through that again. A moment longer and that red-eyed nightmare would have taken me to their side.”
“We’re glad you’re feeling better.” Kat emerged from the kitchen with some more hot tea. Lance accepted it gratefully. “Do you know what it was?”
“Crumbs if I know. Never seen that one before in my life.”
“I thought I caught a glimpse of it before, when we first arrived.” said Kat. Sergio glanced at her. She had never mentioned that before.
“Well, it must have scampered off because I didn’t see it.” Lance continued. “I’ll need to be more careful in the future.” He didn’t use the world ‘we’ implying that he knew, or at least guessed that Sergio was likely not coming with him anymore. There was a long, awkward silence as the seriousness of their predicament set in.
“Listen, uh…I couldn’t help but overhear earlier. The two of you are planning to leave?”
Sergio grimaced but nodded. “Yeah, looks that way.”
“Lance, I know you need our help and everything, but we need to do what we think is right for our family.”
“No, I mean you literally can’t. No one has ever left Greenfield. I tried myself a couple of times.”
“What do you mean?” Kat’s face was full of concern. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
“Cause it never came up. You never talked about leaving before. I figured you were sent here and you would figure out why eventually. But here we are, several months in, and still no idea why you’re here.”
Alice began to cry again, this time from her room. Kat sighed and went to check on her. Sergio turned back to Lance.
“So what exactly does it mean that we can’t leave. If we drove off right now…”
And that was when Kat screamed.
Without pausing to think, Sergio acted on instinct and shot towards Alice’s room. Inside the door, Kat stood frozen. Sergio pushed past her and saw, for the second time tonight, the red-eyed ghost. It hovered horizontally over Alice’s crib, not touching the girl, but observing it mere inches away. It turned to regard them, slowly.
Sergio grabbed the closest object at his disposal, a small lamp, and hurled it at the apparition. It passed right through the ghost, crashing on the wall behind it. The ghost was unaffected, but it seemed to recoil anyway. Before either of them could react further, it had disappeared.
Kat rushed to the crying baby and picked her up, doing her best to calm the child, but looking like she needed calming more than Alice did.
“Sergio, we need to get out of this place, now!” She was not asking, she was demanding. And frankly, no matter what Lance said, Sergio completely agreed.
“You can take my car.” They spun to see Lance behind them. “Who knows, maybe you’ll make it out. You made it in after all.”
He fished in his pockets and produced some keys. Finding the right one, he handed it to Sergio. “Good luck.” His face looked solemn, not the usual cheerful, quirky, small-town detective.
“Thank you,” Sergio said. He and Kat paused only to grab a few of Alice’s diapers and other necessities before they were out the door. They took nothing else. It honestly reminded Sergio of that first night, when they had fled the house with a monster on their tail, held off by a girl they would later learn was their own Alice from the future. This time they were fleeing the house again, but for an entirely different type of monster, one they couldn’t even understand.
Sergio tried to breathe easy as they walked hastily to Lance’s house to find the car. He almost wished they could be dealing with one of those monsters from Illadar, or wherever they were from. At least they were flesh and blood and could be dealt with as such. This…well this was something stranger.
How had he ever thought it was okay to fight these ghosts, especially when they knew so little about them? How do you fight something you can’t understand?
They found Lance’s car and got inside. Sergio spun the key in the ignition and the car roared to life. Sergio sighed with relief. When Lance said that they couldn’t leave this place, he had half expected the car to not work.
They pulled out of the driveway and Sergio got the car in gear, speeding off towards the nearest highway that cut right through the small town. He turned the car north and began speeding away towards what he believed was San Francisco.
“Thank you for agreeing to this.” Kat said from the passenger seat. She was still holding Alice in her arms, not daring to let go of her now. The little girl looked sleepy and wasn’t making much noise.
“You were right, I should have never gone with Lance. With this much strange, I should never have assumed I could handle what was thrown at me.”
“And I’m sorry that I…stood in the way of what you wanted. I don’t want you to think of me as a buzzkill.”
“No, but you were right. I should have seen that. It’s okay to be a buzzkill when you’re more intelligent than me, okay.”
She laughed softly, and so did Sergio. He glanced ahead to see the lights of another small town in the distance. Perhaps they would get away after all.
“Besides,” he continued, sobering a bit. “Nothing is more important than you and Alice. Nothing. Not even my own desire to be a superhero.” That last part sounded silly now that he said it out loud.
Kat chuckled, and Sergio felt her head lean onto his shoulder. “I’ll bet you’d look pretty attractive in a cape.”
Sergio grinned, “Oh, I’d look amazing.”
They laughed again, beginning to feel better as they put more distance between them and Greenfield. They were almost to the next town over when…
“Sergio,” Kat’s voice had lost its humor. “Isn’t that the granary?”
Sergio glanced to the right. It certainly looked like the same granary, but they had passed that going out. “It has to be another one.”
“No, look. There’s the grocery store up ahead. Did we get turned around?”
“Couldn’t have, I’ve been driving straight down this road the whole time.”
But Kat was right, as they entered the town, Sergio recognized each building. They were somehow back in Greenfield.
“Is this what Lance meant when he said we couldn’t leave?” Kat was holding Alice tighter than usual.
“Could be. I’m going to keep going and pass through the town on the other side. See if that makes a difference.”
But after driving another ten minutes, the same thing happened. They somehow found themselves turned around, and headed back into Greenfield. They tried two more times, always with the same result.
On their last try, the car sputtered and died. Sergio did his best to revive it, but they were stuck once again in Greenfield. Fearing that they would attract the ghost again, they exited the car as quickly as they could and sped towards their street.
“This isn’t good, Sergio. How can we be safe if we can’t even leave this place.”
“I don’t know, but I can only think of one solution.”
“We find out what the source of the problem is, and we fix it.”
Kat considered that, and didn’t say another word until they reached their home. Opening the door, they found Lance still inside, bundled under a few blankets on the couch.
“Crumbs,” he said as they entered the door. “I’m sorry, I had hoped it would work. You three have something special about you, and I thought…well it was worth a shot.”
Kat strode past Sergio, grabbed a chair from the dining table and set it down in front of Lance. Then sitting, she looked Lance square in the eye. Sergio had rarely seen such a determined look on her face.
“You’re going to tell us exactly what’s happening. Everything you know. Every observation, every theory, every cock-and-bull idea that has ever entered your brain. Do you get me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Lance, swallowing. He was wise not to mess with Kat when she was in one of these moods.
Sergio brought over another chair and sat in it. This long night was about to get longer.
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