Anna Reynolds didn’t know it yet, but she was caught up in the middle of an interdimensional conspiracy. Her life seemed ordinary enough: a house, a job, a best friend, an SUV, and hardships in her past. She would soon discover a much deeper meaning to her existence that neither she nor her lively friend could have even begun to imagine.
“Hey, you,” Anna said, flashing a bright, happy smile at her best friend. Though she smiled, her head was clouded with anxiety.
“Hey yourself!” Casey beamed. They embraced and took a seat at their favorite table, immediately ordering a bottle of wine.
“You wouldn’t believe the crazy week I’ve had,” Casey confided, decisively setting down her menu after just a couple of minutes. Casey Carlisle always knew what she wanted; sometimes she went a little overboard to get it, but she always knew.
Anna smiled, ready to hear all about her friend’s crazy life to distract her from the strange events that had been plaguing her own. She couldn’t deny it – Casey had a much more chaotic life than Anna did, but Anna was a loner at heart. She liked to be home alone, quiet and surrounded by peace. The rush and chaos of Casey’s life fascinated Anna, but she appreciated that she only witnessed it from afar and didn’t live it on a daily basis. She got exhausted just listening sometimes, wondering how in the world Casey did it all. Then again, she was younger than Anna by about seven years. Maybe that was why she had so much energy.
“So after this stupid cop pulled me over, she seriously accused me of not wearing my seatbelt. Twice! With all three of the kids in the car. And she was so rude about it that it made me hate that cops have any kind of power at all. I seriously wanted to punch her in the throat,” she concluded, giggling. Anna had to laugh because she knew that Casey would never act on her violent rantings.
“Did she end up giving you a ticket?” she asked, wondering if Casey was really over it or just doing her laugh-off-the-anger thing.
“Of course!” Casey exclaimed, stoking the fire in her eyes. “I’m contesting it on principle. There was absolutely no reason for her to be that rude to me or make unfounded accusations in front of my kids. She changed her story the second time she accused me, too, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was a lie and she was digging for something else to give me a ticket for. Anyone who knows me can vouch that I wear my seatbelt to cross the damn parking lot.” She paused, thinking about her kids. “I mean, what kind of idiot cop undermines a mother like that in front of her very impressionable kids? The kids no longer respect the police. Jason asked me if cops are really the good guys after we left. She just did damage to years of trying to teach them that police officers are there to help!”
Anna knew her friend was upset about the incident, and for good reason. She agreed completely and knew that Casey would handle it graciously in the real world, as she usually did.
“I’m sure the court will either toss it or lower the amount you have to pay. They don’t usually keep people’s tickets at full price if you go in and contest it.”
“I know, and that’s what I plan to do. I haven’t decided yet, but I might write to the chief of police about his officer’s disrespectful and unprofessional demeanor. That was just unacceptable.” Casey sighed deeply and let her breath out slowly before changing the subject. “Okay. Rant over. How was your week? Anything exciting happen?”
Anna laughed. “When does anything exciting ever happen to me?” she asked, feeling a flash of guilt for keeping secrets from her best friend. “I lead a nice, quiet life and you’re the excitement and drama in it,” she added with a wink just as the waiter arrived. Smiling, he did his scripted spiel about the specials and waited for them to order. Casey went first while Anna still hadn’t decided what she wanted.
“I’ll have the T-bone steak, medium rare, and can you add some pepperoncini? I feel like a little bit of a kick.” She smiled mischievously and handed the waiter her menu.
“I’ll have the French dip with provolone,” Anna said simply, also handing back her menu.
The two friends couldn’t be more different from one another on the surface, but they had some pretty important things in common. Casey was a single mom of three young children, surrounded by chaos constantly. She was a writer and entrepreneur, always looking for ways to make passive income. With little kids around all the time, it was anything but easy for her. Jason was six, Lisa was five, and Sally was three. Their dad was abusive toward Casey, so she had made her escape when she was pregnant with Sally. Anna had offered to help, but Casey insisted on doing things herself… so Anna settled for treating Casey to a nice meal from time to time.
Anna had lost her son, Ezra, in a car accident six years earlier, so seeing Casey’s kids was always bittersweet. He’d been on his way home from a soccer game in a carpool one evening when a drunk driver hit the van. Anna hadn’t been driving; it was one of the other moms from the team. Anna still hated herself for not being the one to pick him up that night, even though she was supposed to. She knew that thinking in what ifs would make her crazy, but some days she couldn’t help but wonder... if she’d been the one driving, if she’d been there to pick him up, would he still be alive?
She tried not to be bitter about it, though, and to appreciate other children for who they were. Casey’s kids in particular were adorable… always bickering and getting into things, but adorable and extremely smart. Anna sighed at the memory of her baby boy, but knew that he was in a better place... no matter how much she wished he was still with her. It was like God made her heart sing with joy for a few years before deciding to repeatedly choke the life out of it with His bare hands.
Casey was 27, loud and boisterous, but always fun and mostly reasonable. The loud part was what really struck Anna because she was such a quiet person herself. The boisterous part was obvious as Casey had black and bright purple hair framing her slightly freckled face and complementing her vibrant green eyes.
Anna was in her mid-thirties and sometimes felt like they had nothing in common. Most times, though, their opinions matched up well and they felt comfortable talking about anything and everything. They also both worked from home and dealt with clients on a regular basis, which made for some interesting conversations. Every freelancer has clients from hell sometimes!
Anna loved the fact that Casey would randomly stop by and kidnap her for a night out, usually to drink pitchers of beer and sing karaoke at the tiny bar in town. Casey was a single mom, emphasis on single—she loved to go out and have a good time once in a while. Anna was usually home working, reading, or watching TV, and sometimes they even planned their excursions (gasp!), usually no more than twice a month. Babysitters could get expensive for three kids, and Anna was kind of a hermit.
“So, any men in your life these days?” Casey asked with a glimmer in her green eyes. “You’d better not be holding out on me,” she added with a wide and contagious grin.
“I have no prospects,” Anna admitted with a sigh, her mind wandering to her online dating profile. She hadn’t even bothered checking it for months… that was how interested she was in men at that point. She figured if it was meant to happen, it would happen. Casey knew her philosophy, of course, and immediately interjected.
“You’re never going to meet anyone if you don’t put yourself out there!” she exclaimed.
The waiter brought their food and Anna was grateful for the brief distraction.
“My heart’s just not in it,” she told Casey, looking at the beautiful sandwich and bowl of au jus in front of her. “My life is comfortable and happy just the way it is, so I don’t really know that I want to put a conscious effort into attracting drama and craziness. Besides, most of the so-called men on these dating sites only message you for sex.” Really, Anna just felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. Her ex-husband had abandoned her when she needed him most, which made the entire prospect of dating seem self-damaging. She knew she would have to work that out for herself before she actively pursued a new relationship.
Casey cut a chunk off of her steak. She made sure she had some pepperoncini slices on the piece about to traverse to her stomach, then dipped it generously in steak sauce before shoving it in her mouth.
This was a woman who did not care what other people thought. She was never concerned with appearances unless in a professional setting, and she didn’t pretend to be anyone she wasn’t. Anna had been envious when they first met because she was so shy and did care what others thought of her. Anna’s confidence just didn’t soar quite like her friend’s, especially since her skin started developing the weird sores she hid under layers of clothing.
“Maybe you need some motivation,” she mused with a little smirk. “I could always text you the calendar boy pictures I get on my phone every day, ha! Would that help you get your heart in it?”
They both laughed freely. Anna, however, wasn’t interested in toned bodies or six-pack abs. She was more connection-oriented. Personalities and chemistry had to intertwine well for her, and faces were the most important part. She kind of had a thing about straight teeth, too, but that was secondary to at least having teeth! What really mattered was a good face, a compatible personality, and being able to have meaningful conversations, act goofy together, and be comfortable. Everything else was just superficial fluff for romance novels that had a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being true. Casey knew this, too, and left it at that.
“Alright, well tell me what you’re working on right now. Movie poster? Holiday card? Or are you doing what I should be and actually working on your own projects?” This question brought a huge smile to Anna’s face.
“I just sold a piece,” she stated with pride as she moved her brown hair back behind her shoulder. “You know Sophia, the little girl I give art lessons to? Her father bought an original from me recently. He paid me $5,000 for it, so now I can say it’s a limited edition and raise the price on the numbered prints.”
“Congratulations!” Casey’s emerald eyes lit up. “That’s amazing! I’m so proud of you,” she added. “You’re still open to doing my book covers, right?”
Anna chuckled. “Nah, I’ll just take this five grand and retire,” she stated and both women giggled. “I can’t wait to do your book covers,” she said in earnest. “You just need to let me know what I’m painting so that I can start! I can officially not worry about money for about two months, so you can tell me now… or wait for next time,” she added with a wink.
“I don’t know yet, ugh!” Casey groaned. “I’m still writing and kind of looking for that scene that will inspire the cover. I think if you see it in your head and it feels right then that’s the one, you know?” Anna nodded.
“How are the kiddos? I feel like I haven’t seen them in a really long time. I bet they’re huge!”
Casey let out a short laugh. “You wouldn’t believe the things that come out of their tiny mouths! They crack me up so much that I can’t remember it all,” she said. “Like the other day, Lisa told me very matter-of-factly that she didn’t want to go to college. I asked her why and she told me there were too many crazy parties and she wouldn’t be able to sleep.” They giggled a little at first.
Anna’s eyes widened after a moment. “And that begs the question… what is that girl watching to teach her about wild college parties?” Casey’s expression softened into a little frown.
“That’s the thing… I have no idea where she’s learning this stuff. It kind of makes me wonder, you know? Then Jason decided to try to shave and cut himself… with my razor. He was in the bathroom for maybe two minutes. The kicker? One of those cuts was on his tongue. Tell me how in the world trying to shave his tongue made any sense in his head? Six-year-old logic, right? I can’t make this stuff up!”
Anna chuckled. “Well, they do say the most creative kids are also the most destructive,” she offered. Casey just shrugged and smiled.
“They’re definitely my kids,” she stated, perfectly comfortable with her family’s chaotic weirdness.
The friends enjoyed the rest of their meal together, knowing that they might not have a chance to do this again for a while. Anna loved the distraction. She hadn’t been feeling quite right lately and Casey’s company brought her back to a happier reality.
Waking up in a cold sweat, Anna rolled over only to fall onto the living room floor with a thud. The couch again, she thought. Wonderful. Elbow throbbing from the impact, she made her way to the kitchen and turned on the light, groggy as she mechanically filled a glass with crushed ice and water from the fridge. She absently twirled her finger through her wavy brown hair and closed her hazel eyes as she took slow, deliberate sips.
It was always the same dream. She was just waking up, feeling woozy and disoriented. Above her was a bright white light, like in a hospital, and there were always two or more silhouettes standing over her, speaking in muffled and distorted tones. Then there was a feeling, like she was being tugged at... a pulling sensation, but she could never tell what part of her body was being tugged or why. She was just being yanked at and felt like the shadows wanted to take something from her.
Anna had been having these dreams ever since the ulcerous sores began showing up on her skin. When she looked up her symptoms online, she found a condition called Morgellons disease, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it because it was apparently incurable and a little controversial. The sores produced tiny colored strings from time to time that she would pick at and pull until they came out from under her skin. She just figured they were fuzz left over from whatever she was wearing, stuck in the never-healing scabs that appeared out of nowhere on random parts of her body. She often felt itchy, like something was crawling around between the layers of her skin. She found herself feeling paranoid and having weird dreams, and she concluded that her dreams probably contributed to her feelings of paranoia.
Running through these facts in her head always made her feel vulnerable and somehow guilty, like she knew or had something she wasn’t supposed to. It was the strangest combination of emotions she’d ever experienced. She’d always been reasonable, too. Nothing weird or crazy usually happened to her and she liked it that way. A drama-free existence. Apparently not anymore, she thought as she set her empty glass on the counter.
She wondered if maybe she was spending too much time alone, or maybe she was watching or listening to something that affected her subconscious and translated into the weird dreams. Maybe there was something she was too close to so she couldn’t see it for what it was.
She dragged her feet as she made her way upstairs to her bedroom, the soft down comforter a welcoming sensation after her fall from the couch. I need to stop falling asleep down there, she thought as she drifted off to sleep, cocooned in her blanket so only her face showed.
As Anna walked home through the glistening autumn streets of Deeplake, Washington, she adjusted her scarf and wrapped her coat around herself tightly, her breath fogging up the air in front of her. After a brief glance over her shoulder, she quickened her pace, her bag of groceries teetering in her arms momentarily as she adjusted her grip.
She’d been feeling like someone was watching or following her for weeks. At first she just shrugged it off as her own overactive imagination, but the other day, she could’ve sworn she saw a shadow out of the corner of her eye. When she looked, there was nothing there.
That wasn’t the first time she had seen shadows. They were always there, just out of sight, their existence never confirmed by a direct glance. But every time it happened, she got goosebumps and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end like it does when you know someone is watching you. It definitely didn’t help that they reminded her of the silhouettes in her dreams. And—dared she even think it?—humanoid, but not quite… human.
Her left eye began to feel itchy and grainy as she walked, and she cursed herself for not driving. She blinked several times, but after a few moments her eye felt like it had sand in it again. This was accompanied by an unpleasant tingling sensation, which became annoying very quickly.
Her thoughts wandered as her eye got worse. She felt guilty but justified for not mentioning her problems to Casey, who had more than enough on her plate already. She also didn’t want to come across as insane; Anna was certain she wasn’t. Some of the recent events in her life were crazy, but she was definitely sane.
Do crazy people think they’re sane?
As she got to the front door of her split-level house, she fumbled for the keys with icy hands and unlocked the deadbolt. She closed the door as soon as she was inside, locking the deadbolt, the door knob, and the chain after a brief glance down her street in each direction.
She sighed as she took off her coat, her skin tingling obnoxiously. She shivered as the usual crawling sensation took over. I wish that would just stop, she thought. She rubbed her arm as she wandered into the kitchen, avoiding the sores that had begun developing on her skin several months before.
At first she had shrugged it off as accidental. Maybe she bumped herself while sleeping or caught the corner of some furniture. But these wounds were different. They took an incredibly long time to heal, if they healed at all, and they seemed to be spreading. She just hoped that she wasn’t contagious. So far, she didn’t know anyone else who was infected, so she assumed that she wasn’t, which also made her uneasy. What if she was wrong?
As she bent to look in the fridge, her eyes got foggy, feeling grainy like she had an eyelash caught in there. She blinked again, clearing the blurriness for only a moment before it came back.
Annoyed and hoping the knot forming in her chest wouldn’t get worse, she closed the fridge and went to the bathroom to investigate what was in her eye.
Flipping the light on, she looked at her gaunt reflection and wondered briefly how she had gotten to look so... old. She’d lost weight and was happy about that, but as she saw herself in the mirror, she thought she just looked sickly.
She inched toward the mirror, hoping and praying that her eye wasn’t infected. It was irritated and red because she had rubbed it, but other than that it seemed fine. So why was it so irritated? She felt the tickling sensation again. It almost felt like something was moving within her tear duct.
Leaning forward against the counter, she put her face right in front of the mirror and looked intently at her hazel eyes, trying hard not to blink away the sensations as their intensity grew. As she watched, she thought she saw her lower eyelid twitch. Am I going crazy after all? She looked closer.
She noticed that her lower eyelid was tinted purple. No wonder I look so sick, she thought, concentrating on her eyes. There it was again! Movement. Like a twitch but subtler and fluid. Her tear duct felt like it was getting warm. She blinked it away, trying to stay focused.
The heat became more intense. She squinted, refusing to look away. But as her eye burned, it started watering and the pain increased. She tried to keep watching, but the pain got too intense.
Still trying not to look away, she blinked and rubbed her eye again, the pain subsiding just enough for her to catch a glimpse of something blue—was it really blue?—protruding from her tear duct. The more irritated her eyes became, the less she was able to see. They were on fire! She turned on the cold water and ran her fingers underneath, then patted her eyes gently.
That helped, so she continued to watch, squinting intently.
It was blue. A tiny blue string.
She swore there was a second thing—she couldn’t tell what it was—coming out of her eye. Red?
“What the hell is going on?” she muttered out loud, her chest tightening with anxiety.
Whatever it was, it was definitely moving. It was small, so she had to lean in close and squint to make it out, but it was definitely something. She waited for a few moments and splashed more cold water on her eyes. Had she gotten string in her eyes from her scarf or sweater? And if that was the case, why did it feel like it was inside her tear duct trying to come out? And why would it be moving?
She washed her hands with soap hurriedly and put her index finger to her eye, hoping she could pull out whatever was stuck in there. She was so focused that the pain took a back seat. Pressing firmly against the inner corner of her eye, she quickly tried to scoop out whatever it was with her fingernail and looked at her index finger immediately, expecting to see blue and red strings under her nail.
All she got was moisture.
She looked back in the mirror and saw that the strings were still there.
She climbed onto the bathroom counter so she could get the closest look possible and snatched her tweezers from a small cup of makeup utensils sitting in the corner. Her hands trembled as she rinsed off the tweezers, adrenaline rushing through her veins as the pain in her eyes vied for her attention. Kneeling on the counter with her face inches from the glass, she pulled down on her lower lid and moved the tweezers toward her eye, trying to be quick without injuring herself.
Wincing slightly, she grabbed the blue string with the tip of her tweezers and started pulling only to feel blinding white pain. She cried out and lost her balance, but recovered quickly and went right back to her task. She clenched her teeth and let out a whimper, not letting go of the minuscule blue string.
She pulled harder, letting out a groan as the burning sensation increased and pressure built up in her lower eyelid. It felt like she was giving birth out of her tear duct. Bracing herself with her other hand, she sucked in a deep breath, clenched her teeth, and pulled... hard.
Anna woke up with a splitting headache. Blinking and trying to move, she looked around to find herself sprawled across the top of the toilet seat, her head against the wall at an awkward angle. Her neck ached and her brain felt like it had been used as a basketball for a moment. Cold water still rushed into the sink.
She pushed herself up and looked behind her, mildly surprised to see that the wall was intact. She remembered intense, white-hot pain flooding her head through her eye and checked the counter for the tweezers, which had fortunately landed beside the edge of the sink, tip outward.
Standing slowly with her palm pressed to her eye, she spotted a tiny clump on the counter not far from the tweezers. It looked like balled up blue and red string wrapped in eye goo. But when she touched it gingerly with her fingertip, it felt hard, similar to rock or crystal. She turned off the water.
Not wanting to leave this cluster of strange unattended, she picked up the tweezers again and grabbed the whole mess again carefully. Cupping her left hand underneath, she took it to a kitchen counter and turned on the overhead light.
Squinting her hazel eyes, she poked at the tiny mass with the tip of the tweezers, suddenly wishing she had another pair.
“What the hell are you?” she muttered under her breath, trying to keep her breathing shallow so she wouldn’t accidentally exhale it away and lose it. She noted that her eye felt perfectly fine. A little sore, but not bad. She decided to get a toothpick and pinched the balled up fibers in the tips of the tweezers again. Just in case.
As she loosened her grip on the tweezers and brought the toothpick closer to the tear duct excretion, she watched the blue string stretch itself slowly toward the wood.
“No way,” she muttered, moving the wooden toothpick closer. She moved it left, then right... each time she moved it, the tiny string followed. She saw the red one poking out from the tangled mass, too, and she dropped the tweezers and the toothpick, stepping back and taking a deep breath as she cupped her hand over her mouth.
What is that?
Mystified, afraid, and eager to find out what was wrong with her eyes, she grabbed a small sealable plastic baggie and put the anomaly inside. She rolled the bag up and stuffed it in her purse, grabbed her car keys, and sped to the nearest hospital in hopes of finding some answers.
“What can I help you with?” a blonde nurse asked from behind the front desk in the center of the main lobby.
Anna spoke softly, choosing her words carefully. “Does this hospital have some kind of research department or testing lab?” she asked.
The nurse furrowed her perfectly shaped eyebrows and nodded slowly. “Yea, it does... we usually don’t let people back there, though. Can I help you with something?”
I doubt it, Anna thought wryly. Pressing her full lips together briefly, she took the sandwich bag out of her oversized purse.
“Maybe. I really need to know what this is.”
The nurse snatched the bag from Anna, who almost snapped at her for it. She took a deep, calming breath and said nothing as the rude nurse examined the bag’s contents.
“Well, it looks like a little ball of string,” she stated. Her eyes spoke volumes of judgment and criticism as she handed the bag back to Anna, who promptly shoved it deep into her denim pocket.
“I pulled that out of my tear duct tonight,” Anna whispered, hoping the urgency was communicated.
The nurse’s reaction was minimal, though her eyebrows were raised in condescending skepticism. “What?”
“I’m sure you heard me,” Anna replied, beginning to feel irritation building up. “I need to know what this is, exactly, and the only people who can tell me that are in the lab.”
The nurse shook her head slightly, as if in pity. She looked behind Anna, left then right, and smiled as she focused back on Anna.
“I’m sorry, but I still can’t just let you go in there,” she said evenly.
Dread formed in the pit of Anna’s stomach before she felt hands land on both of her shoulders as two men on either side of her began to steer her toward an elevator. Anna stepped out of their grasp and took a few paces backwards. The uniformed men turned slightly to look at her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, crossing her arms and taking a solid stance.
“Ma’am, if you want to go to the lab, we’ll have to escort you.” The one on the right towered over her 5’7” frame at about 6’2”, while the one on the left was only a couple of inches taller than she was and stocky.
Anna relaxed a little. “Don’t touch me,” she said finally and walked back toward the men, who both raised their hands in a gesture of surrender and stepped away from her.
Reluctant and wary with the sinking feeling in her stomach getting more intense, Anna stepped onto the elevator in hopes that they would keep their hands to themselves.
The trio stood, uncomfortably waiting for the doors to close. Once they did, Anna felt tension fill the air. Before she could react, the men grabbed her and jabbed a needle into her neck. Her body went limp.
Thank you for reading the first chapter of my novel! To purchase this book on Amazon, please go to http://amzn.to/2k8SHcu and grab your copy in paperback or Kindle formats. Audiobook and hardcover coming soon! <3 <3 <3
Twisted yet positive coffee enthusiast with an appreciation for blood, mystery, and Root Beer floats.
All content © Jennifer-Crystal Johnson.
For inquiries about speaking engagements, freelance work, or consulting, please email jen (at) brokenpublications (dot) com.