Evie gritted her teeth as she descended from her second-story window. Adrenaline raced through her as she inched lower. Her strappy heel slipped off the lattice, and she lost her grip. Several braces snapped as she grasped for something solid.
The top of the lattice creaked, peeling off from the edge of the roof, and the twenty-five-foot relic crashed around her, drowning out the painful thud when her back slammed into the ground.
She stared up at the stars and breathed a cloud of crystals into the air. She’d made it. Finally, she was free.
The cold, wet autumn ground seeped into her clothes. She got up, dusting off oak leaves and the muddy dirt caked on her elbow. Her heart pounded as she grabbed her shoe and stood squaring her shoulders.
Did her parents hear her? Their movie continued, and a moment later, they laughed.
She took a deep breath. Thank God. But her stomach felt like a rock. Why would my parents notice a stray noise? They didn’t even notice me when I’m right in front of them.
The ruined trellis didn’t look so bad in the dark, but there’d be no hiding it during the day. One way or another, she would get in trouble. Her stomach soured. Maybe they’d think the wind blew it down, or a branch knocked it off. Maybe she could talk her way out of it. Either way, she wasn’t turning back. Even if she was grounded for life, she needed a break–some time for her.
Evie was a ghost in her own house. Despite good grades and perfect behavior, nothing mattered more than Tristen’s cancer. It made sense. She couldn’t blame him. But he wasn’t the only one giving up a huge chunk of his life to this disease.
She was glad Tristen was in remission. No kid should have to go through what he did, but she’d been waiting for three years by his bedside. It was time for her to get a life.
She ran to the nearest bush and an icy breeze feathered down her spine. Something rustled in the bush next to her. Its branches caught at her shirt. She twisted away, and a hundred, tiny, golden lightning bugs blinked at her. Strange, it was too late in the year for fireflies. Too cold really. They all moved simultaneously, as if connected, then disappeared.
Evie blinked, frozen in place. They were lightning bugs, right? Several of the golden lights reappeared, as if in answer to her question. They grew stronger, and seemed to be glaring at her.
She rubbed the back of her head, trying to make sense of them. When they disappeared, she sprinted to the safety of her rough, brick house, pressing her back against its cold strength.
The wind kicked up, sending leaves swirling. She closed her eyes against the assault. Giant trees creaked and groaned. Still, a nearby guttural growl rumbled to life. Evie stared at the darkness.
Within the mayhem of blowing debris, the blackest shadow slithered from under the bush.
Heart thundering, she slid along the edge of the house. Something sniffed at her ear and the fine hairs at the back of her neck stood on end.
She didn’t dare move, didn’t dare breathe, willing her imagination to stop tormenting her. She glanced up at her window, but there was no way back.
She fumbled with her cell phone. “Turn on. Come on. Turn on.” She swung the light, sweeping it over the yard. The beam washed the darkness with jerky bursts of light, her hands violently shaking, but found nothing.
Then, around the lilac bush, an inky figure slinked into the shadows. Its human-ish form blinked golden eyes.
What on earth?
Her flashlight turned off and the darkness closed around her, heavy, menacing, and ominous. Burning ice licked her ankle, knee, then vanished. She reached down, but nothing was there.
She caught the edge of her house with her fingertips, closed her eyes, and willed the world to behave normally again.
Opening her eyes, she found everything where it should be.
Great. Now my mind is creating night terrors while I’m awake.
Mr. Jack, her counselor, said they were a normal reaction to her brother’s illness. Whatever. He’s the one who suggested she find some me-time, do something she wanted to do.
Tonight, she wanted to go on a date with James. It was practically therapy.
She pushed away from her home and sprinted three blocks. She’d wanted this forever. Just one, well-deserved, hour of freedom.
What if Tristen had a seizure while she was gone? It had happened before. She slowed with a curse. She should be home, ready in case something else comes up.
No! Nothing would keep her from meeting up with James.
But her family had already been through so much. She should tow the line and not give them any more stress.
She shook her head.
Frankly, after four years, going out for herself seemed wrong. Her brother may be better, but he was still weak, still trapped at home. She paused, the wind whipping her hair into a mess.
She simply had to shut down her thoughts.
Live in the moment. That’s what her counselor said. Sort of.
A shriek shattered the silence. Her toe caught, and she fell face-first onto the sidewalk. Her cell phone smacked the pavement.
“No!”Her stomach hollowed as she picked it up. It was shattered, stained in black, odd blues, greens, and purples. She swiped the screen and sliced her finger, drawing a drop of blood. Everything was going wrong. But her life had been stuck in the hospital or a book for too long. Not anymore. She got up.
Streetlight shined down the next block. She could make it. Sprinting down the sidewalk, her parent’s warnings about the dangers in the world played on repeat. Clenching her teeth, she continued on. This was her time. She’d be fine as long as she made it to the lights. It sucked to run in heels.
Sweating in the cold air, she raced under the brilliant sign for McCaffree’s Burgers and Fries. Sunday School rattled in her mind, ‘the spirit within always guides you.’ What they didn’t say was: the spirit might set your nervous system haywire if you don’t listen, but her whole life was finally ahead of her.
She pushed through the door, stepping into the well-lit diner. Familiar faces from school crowded the red-benched booths and every stool at the countertop. Her breath caught in her throat; she had been missing out. Excitement tickled her stomach and radiated through her until her whole body was pulsing. She grinned.
Lizzy leaned back, laughing her head off with Melisa in a booth full of girls. She clearly took notes from Maleficent. Her calculating eyes locked with Evie’s, and she offered a snide smile.
Evie searched the room for James. Several people twisted in their seats, staring. A flush of heat climbed her neck. Sure. Go ahead and stare. No one has seen her outside of school in years. It was shock. They never imagined they’d see HER out at night.
James wasn’t there. . . What if he stood me up? More heat flushed her cheeks. But they were friends. She’d helped him when no one else would. He wouldn’t invite her out just to stand her up. Right? “Maybe he’s behind someone tall. Makes total sense.”
Her neck and ears burned. Guys like James weren’t attracted to girls with extra curves, gray-blue eyes and frizzy curls. Not that it mattered, he wasn’t the same guy she’d loved all her life. He didn’t even ask for help with his homework anymore. They weren’t a match and dreams only came true on Disney.
A glance from Lizzy forced Evie to clamp her lips shut. Stupid nerves, she couldn’t just talk out loud like a lunatic.
Nervous butterflies transformed from beautiful, delicate creatures into confidence-sucking vampires. Had he texted her? She glanced at her shattered phone. There was no telling.
Lizzy narrowed her eyes, her crew of snobs following her lead, sneered in various shades of hot-pink lipstick.
Great. She didn’t need the mean-girls club after her. Walking farther into the café, she stole a glance behind the tallest person. James wasn’t there either. Instead, she found Kam and Dre arguing in a booth along the glass wall. Dre gave Evie a wicked grin when Kam turned away. She almost smiled, but Kam, whose glare could cut ice, looked back. She’d have to get the story later.
She spun on her heel and strode to the door. Two pinpricks of golden light materialized in the inky night just as her hand touched the handle. They stared at her through the clear pane of glass. They grew into two, wide, sparkling, yellow eyes streaked with black pupils.
“Um, what is that?” She whispered to her reflection.
She pressed the door closed as a face formed around the eyes. Its lips peeled back to reveal a sharp, jagged-toothed grin.
“No.” Evie blinked, and it was gone.
Mr. Jack was wrong. She’d already lost her mind. Her hands trembling, she walked back toward her classmates.
Besides, James had asked her out. And her heart still hoped one day he’d see she was more than just a geek.
“You okay?” Lizzy beamed curiosity and fake friendliness. With her entourage, she sashayed from the corner booth to Evie’s side.
Wonderful, the high school gossip wants to know why I’m talking to myself. The whole town will think I’m insane by morning. Evie took a shaky breath and held it, forcing her heart to stop pounding. “Yup.”
Stupid brain. Stupid. Stupid nerves.
“Wow. Nice shirt.” Lizzy twisted away and whispered in her friend’s ear.
Evie glanced at her beloved brains before beauty shirt. “I can see why you wouldn’t understand it.”
They both frowned. “So . . . What’s got you out at night?”
“I’m. . .” not going to tell you the real reason, so “Have you seen Callie? I’m meeting her.”
“Callie’s at the grill.” Lizzie’s gaze landed on the boys in the far left before pushing past Evie.
At least, one thing could be put to rest. No one else had been staring at her. It was just Lizzy and her nasty crew of gossips.
Comfort food: a good burger and salty fries would settle her rumbling stomach.
Caleb, her lab partner, twisted on his stool and waved, happily oblivious. Above his broad grin, curly hair bounced in a four-inch cloud of tight, brown curls. His arm continued pumping back and forth, despite her nod.
Callie’s porcelain face peeked around Caleb’s shoulder. Her sleek, black bob swished over pink cheeks. Those two hanging out together was strange, like oil and water, or popularity and the quintessential geek. Yet, here they were, both munching fries together at the grill.
Callie’s eyes sparkled as she grinned. “Hey. Took you long enough. You texted like an hour ago.”
“It’s been a. . . trip.” She hugged Callie. “Speaking of which, I broke my phone.”
“That sucks.” Callie scrunched her nose. “It’s great you came, though. It’s better than staying home curled up with a book.”
“Hm. A good book is sometimes the best escape. My only escape.” She stole Callie’s milkshake and took a sip of chocolate heaven. How many books had she read waiting for Tristen to finish chemo?
“I know.” Callie’s smile slipped. “But it’s behind you guys, and now you’ve got a date with James. I’m so excited for you.”
“Shh.” She didn’t text Callie to have her make a scene. “He’s not here.”
Callie frowned. “Did he message you?”
Evie held out the shattered phone.
“Oh, right. Horrible.” Callie took her milkshake. “I haven’t seen him, but maybe he’s in the restroom.”
Evie forced a smile. “Maybe. Can I borrow your phone?”
“Sure.” Callie handed it to her.
Closing out the world around her, Evie texted, ‘Hey this is Evie texting you from Callie’s phone. I smashed mine. I’m here. You coming?’ She set the phone between them and snatched the milkshake.
Caleb cleared his throat and bumped her shoulder. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Weird. They weren’t that close.
The chill from outside lingered in her body. Even with her hands in her pockets, her fingers ached. “Is it cold in here?”
“Nah,” Caleb spoke around a fry.
She stirred the straw, spinning the frozen center as one big chunk. Callie hugged her shoulders, grabbing her milkshake back. Evie sighed and shook her head. Callie just smirked.
“So, you have a date with James?” Caleb’s tone sounded more like a challenge than a question. He ran a hand through his wild hair.
“Oh. You okay?” Caleb spun the backless stool to face her, placing a hand on top of hers.
“Not really.” She didn’t want to be rude but gently slid her hand free and moved closer to Callie, fighting the urge to run home and cry over James.
“You should forget him.” Caleb leaned into her personal space and smirked. “Hungry?” He grabbed a few fries and shoved them in his mouth.
“I’ve already forgotten him.” But she still hoped he would show up. Stupid hoping.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“No.” He held up his hands. “I was just wondering if you wanted some fries? Hey, did you know Americans consume around thirty pounds of fries a year?”
His beautiful, ocean-blue eyes twinkled as if he had a few secrets. He got his perpetual tan from his Bahamian dad. It always made his eyes stand out.
Evie studied him a second–he was kind of cute, if it were possible to get past his constant habit of asking,‘Did you know?’
“Um. I guess.” They’d been lab partners for two years, which basically made them friends, but he was impossible, always saying the weirdest things.
Caleb pushed his fries between them. She plucked one from the basket.
He coughed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Can we meet up this weekend to work on our chemistry project? I’ve already worked through most of the math, and we’re ready to. . .” A red flush crept across his freckled cheeks and nose. His blue eyes darted to the back door.
Why was he blushing? So weird. “I have family stuff.”
Caleb’s face fell.
She was really just going to play the piano, another of her counselor’s ideas—return to the things she loved. “But, I guess, I can meet in the afternoon.”
Callie winked over Caleb’s shoulder. “I have to work on that project too, can I join?”
“Sure, that’d be great.” Evie grinned.
Caleb touched her arm. “How about Saturday night? It would be fun to hang out.”
Her stomach warmed. Wait a minute, was he asking her on a date? She narrowed her eyes–she was supposed to be on a date, now. It was good Callie would be there.
She nodded. “I do need to work on the project. I’ll be glad to get it done.”
“Good. Then it’s a date.” Caleb focused on unwrapping his straw.
“Yeah.” Was all she could say. Besides, it wasn’t like she was committed to anyone. Right? She glanced at Caleb. She wasn’t used to people showing interest, or maybe she’d just been too busy to notice with everything going on with Tristen. Either way, this whole Grill thing was really becoming too confusing to stand. She spun from his fattening fries to people watch.
Callie moved closer and leaned her back against the counter. Evie slid her arm through Callie’s. Together they’d weathered hours of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe if we.’
James was such a jerk for leaving her high and dry.
Back when Evie was a freshman, she’d slipped in the hallway. Time stood still. Hundreds of eyes ate up the scene as she teetered, but James erased everything by catching her in his strong arms, sweeping her legs right out from under her before she hit the ground.
It was heroic.
“Is it hot in here or is it just you?” Some rando dude walked by giving Callie a wink.
Evie glanced at her friend; she was so beautiful. Her shiny, black hair slid away from her chin as she leaned back and placed her elbow on the counter. Evie smiled, but on the inside, she was all scrunched up. She wasn’t anything like Callie. In some ways, it was good, but sometimes, she wished things were different. Maybe, Callie could have worn off on her a bit. She sighed. At least she got out of the house and away from all the cancer talk.
“I guess you’re done with these.” Caleb stole the tray of fries back. “Seriously, if he didn’t show, it’s his loss. Focus on having fun. You should order something.” He stuffed his mouth again.
Evie nodded, her heart pinching. Motion at the door caught her eye. James strutted in, sending a warm thrill racing through her. “He’s here.”
“Okay. You got this.” Callie squeezed her arm.
The wind blew James’s hair into his blue eyes as the door closed behind him. He shoved his bangs aside. Man, she would love to run her fingers through his hair. He licked his lips, and her gaze darted to his mouth, where she lost herself.
They locked eyes as he strode over. “Hey, Caleb, Callie.”
James slipped into her personal space, the spicy scent of his cologne stealing her words. His intense gaze drifted to her lips, setting her cheeks on fire. “I got your text. Sorry ‘bout your phone, but I’m glad you’re here.”
“Um. Yeah. Me too.” Now, let’s kiss. Evie grinned.
Caleb coughed in a fit. James smacked him hard on the back, sending fry debris everywhere, including her hair. She tried to find the particles, but her fingers came up empty.
James winked and picked the fry out of Evie’s hair, tossing it in front of Caleb. “What would you guys do without me?” His dimple popped as he smiled, and everyone in the room faded away.
Tucking her chin, she stared through her lashes. “Thanks.”
They might be different, but if she didn’t care, maybe he didn’t either. He was there. He’d come out to be with her. The idea turned her bones to jelly.
“You want something to eat?” He ran his fingers through his black hair again. His gorgeous blue eyes searched hers from beneath his bangs.
She couldn’t hold his gaze. Fireworks tickled her stomach. She needed to keep it together. “Sure.”
“Can I grab this stool?” He asked Caleb.
Frowning and bright red, Caleb moved down one, dragging his fries with him. “Fine, but there are plenty of other seats.”
“Wha’d’ya want to order?” James pulled over the menu.
“Burgers might be good.”
“Sounds perfect.” He rapped his knuckles on the counter to get the burger master’s attention.
“Can I help you?” McCaffree’s owner flipped to the next page in the pad he held.
“Two orders of burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes.”
“It’ll be right up.” He marked the notepad and stuck the paper above the grill.
A cloud of smoke wafted out of the kitchen when McCaffree’s owner opened the grill to grab another order. The smoke grew darker, thicker. It curled and multiplied, climbing the back wall and blacking out the light, like an eerie eclipse.
“Shouldn’t they be worried?” Evie gestured at the smoke.
“Nah. It’s normal at McCaffree’s.” James leaned on an elbow and locked his gaze on her. Her heart fluttered at the intensity in his eyes. She didn’t get out often. Maybe, he was right.
But the smoke flowed thickly behind him, swirling in an undulating mass. Then the face she’d seen outside, shadowy with bright yellow eyes, formed above the grill, and the smoke coalesced into a body.
Evie choked on her drawn breath, shaking her head—this couldn’t be. . . real.
She stared into the malevolent eyes and shuddered. Maybe it was a demon! She jumped from her seat.
“You all right?” James brushed her hand with his fingertips.
She gestured with trembling fingers at the smoke, backing away from the counter.
A loud beeping alarm pierced the din.
Illuminating the Darkness
Copyright © 2021 by J. L. Burrows
Published by Faith Filled Fiction
Cover and Layout copyright © 2021 by Faith Filled Fiction Publishing
Cover design by German Creative