"I'm not sure I understand what you're saying," said Deborah.
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"No, no, you do," Alex said. "You just can't work around the idea that. And that's not really surprising."
"What's not surprising?"
Alex leaned back in the booth. "Well, okay. It was explained to me like this: For some reason, the human mind comes equipped with certain safety mechanisms. When something happens, something that we can't classify as being normal- or at least, that qualifies as such in this part of our minds- the mechanism just...dulls it out. You can experience the strangest, most inexplicable paranormal phenomenon, and treat it as if it was a dream or something the next day. I've seen this happen. Hell, I used to do it myself. I don't know why, but humans do this all the time. It's the only way we can keep up the illusion of living in a normal and controllable world."
Deborah thought for a long minute, and then chose the least offensive of responses. "Are you asking me to believe," she said. "in ghosts and demons and things like that?"
Alex considered this. "No," he said carefully. "I'm telling you that these things DO exist. You can believe them, or not, or whatever you want. That doesn't really change anything." He spread his hands.
"Look, I know this sounds insane," said Alex. "But with everything you've told me, hasn't the thought ever occurred to you you?"
"You...think I'm being haunted?"
"In the traditional sense? Yes. I think that something- some force or entity- is haunting you. Dogging your footsteps. It doesn't have to be a ghost in the ghost sense. Hell, it might even be a real person. But if it is..."
"Then I'm doing the rest of it to myself."
"That's not very comforting."
"Yeah, I know. And this might not be either, but...for what it's worth, I don't think that's what's happening."
"Great." Deborah put a hand to her forehead. "So my options at this point are 'I am losing my mind' or 'I am being haunted'."
"Not necessarily losing your mind..."
"Don't try to put a pretty ribbon on it, please. I'd rather have the bad news up front."
Alex shrugged. "You already know what I think."
"Yes. Yes I do." Deborah sighed. "What kind of demon do you think it is, again?"
"I didn't say 'demon'. I said it was- might be- a spirit."
"And what kind of 'spirit' do you think it is?"
Alex shrugged. "What does it matter if you don't believe in that kind of thing?"
Deborah sighed. She leaned back, and when the light fell on her face, it seemed very tired to Alex. "Just humor me."
"Well...the word you used earlier...'w'-something..."
"Have you researched it?"
Deborah nodded. "I checked the local library. Almost nothing."
"Hmm..." Alex pulled absently on his lower lip. "I'll check the campus libraries when I get back. They have information on everything."
"I also have a few friends who are good with this sort of thing. If I can track a few of them down, they might know something..."
Deborah lifted her glass to her lips, then realized it was empty and set it down again. "You really believe in all of this, don't you?"
Alex's expression darkened. The word that came into Deborah's mind while she watched him was both ironic, and devilishly appropriate: Haunted.
"I have seen things," said Alex. "during my time in this world. I have seen a man become a wolf- I mean that literally- and I have seen a man become a kind of monster...a werewolf, if you like that term. I have seen a ghost rise from the earth. I have seen a demon called into a stone circle. I...I have seen a gathering of fae, deep in the forest. It isn't a question of belief for me anymore. I know these things exist."
They didn't speak again for a long time. The waitress eventually floated back to their table, and asked if they wanted anything else. They both declined, and she left the check.
Alex picked it up. "Um..."
"Don't worry about it," Deborah said. "I can pay for it."
"Thanks," said Alex. "I'm a poor college student...but I can pay you back if you want."
"You should try living on a teacher's salary," said Deborah. "And don't worry about it."
Deborah took the paper from his hand. "I think I am going to go home now," she said.
Alex was watching her closely. "Am I ever going to see you again?" he said. "Or have I scared you off?"
Haven't I heard something like that before?
"I don't know," said Deborah. "You haven't scared me off, at least. I don't scare easily."
"Well. You have my number, and I have yours. Do you mind if I call you, if I find anything out."
"No," she said. "That would be fine."
"One more thing," Alex said. "I'd like to bring someone else in on this, if you don't mind. He's a friend of mine, and he's an expert- way, way beyond anything I could do or tell you. Can I have him call you if-"
"No," said Deborah. "Nobody else. I don't want to make a case out of this."
"It wouldn't be a case. He would-"
"No. Please. I would appreciate it, in fact, if you didn't tell anyone else if you can help it."
Alex sighed. "Fine."
Deborah stood up. "I think I'm going to go home now.
"Goodnight, Mr. Parish."
Alex nodded. "Good luck."
She pulled into her driveway. The gravel ground under her wheels, low and throaty.
She turned off the car and got out.
The forest was utterly silent. It was evening, but she heard none of the insect-sounds that she remembered from so many summers of her life. There was no feeling to the woods around her. No life.
Her feet crunched over the gravel. Each step was loud in her ears. Even when she got away from the driveway and stepped across the grass, she found herself wincing. The grass seemed to scream as she bent it under her feet.
A breeze blew up from the trees, and swept through her hair. It was cold, after the warmth of the summertime. Deborah shivered, and stepped into the shadow of her own porch.
Silence, as she fished for her keys. She slid the housekey into the lock. She turned it. Put her hand on the knob. Turned the knob.
The door opened, and she heard a hiss of air that was like the breaking of a seal. Low and heavy and thick, like the breath of a large creature. It passed over Deborah, and she took a hesitant step back.
Something came racing out of the darkened hallways in her house. Her eyes saw nothing, but her nerves sizzled and flared into life. It was a non-shape that flew at her, screamed at her from her own house, and when it moved at her, she gave a strangled cry and stumbled backward.
It passed over her and still she saw nothing. A breath of cold air touched her flesh.
Deborah tripped on the step, and fell backward off of her porch. She hit on her back and her hands, scraping them on the sharp gravel but probably saving herself any more serious injury. It hurt, though. It still hurt.
The (spirit) feeling was gone, out somewhere into the wilderness beyond her house.
Deborah looked at the open maw of her own doorway.
Alex's intense, wild-eyed face swam into her mind. I have seen... it whispered.
I am afraid.
It was a long time before she was able to approach the door once again, but as the sun sank in the west, and she shadows lengthened, the threat of nightfall drove her inside. She turned on every one of the lights- again- the television, even the air conditioning, though she wasn't at all warm. She was, in fact, very cold...but the sound, the noise of the air conditioner, seemed to help.
Her heart was pounding in her chest. There was a sort of low buzzing somewhere in the back of her head, and it grew louder as the light was slowly leeched out of the world. She walked around and around the downstairs rooms of the house, never stopping long enough to really think on anything...but even so, Alex Parish's voice kept coming to her, again and again.
I have seen...I know...
How was it that everything could seem so sane and ordered in the restaurant, in the light of day...and here, so close to the forest...so close to the edge...
Deborah stood at the window and watched until the world grew dark.
And when it did, things began to move outside, beyond the line of trees.
Deborah found that she could not take her eyes off of them.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.