Actions

Work Header

The Doorway

Chapter Text

3AM

He never knew how hard a human body could shake from exhaustion and fear. Solitude was once a source of comfort, but now? If a grave in the woods could not safely hide him for a few painful hours, what could?

A heart raced behind hitching lungs as adrenaline surged anew through a frame that still all but sprinted down the foreign street, and it muffled the creeping fatigue for now. A shaking hand ran subconsciously over the wallet in a back pocket, comforted to find it was still there. A phone, a car-

     a photo

and a bottle may as well have been on the other side of the world. He knew where they were, but where, where was he!?

     STOP. BREATHE.

A shaky exhale pushed through parted lips, and blue eyes lifted for what felt like the first time. For hours, his vision felt so narrow, so constricted, but he forced it to focus. Find something, and focus. His gaze settled on a digital sign outside a bank.

     MAGNIFICENT SAVINGS AND LOANS – 3:02AM

Relief washed through his veins, and a shoulder sagged against cold brick as he finally stopped. It never even occurred to him to check his watch, one of the only things left to his name after hours of fleeing. Magnificent didn’t have a branch in his town, but on the edge of the next one over. It would still be an hour’s walk, but at least he knew where he was. That comforting thought was enough to drain some of the adrenaline that kept him standing.

     Pull yourself together.

He needed to keep going, god he needed to keep going, but a hand fumbled for his wallet anyway, desperate for something grounding and real. The leather fell open to reveal his own face on a plastic ID, stoic and saner than he felt now. Beside it was a name, solid as the day it was stamped. Chase Brody.

At least that hadn’t changed. Everything was in its place, just where he’d left it. The state ID, the maxed credit cards, the crumpled fast food receipts. The card for the health insurance company that dropped him, holding its spot for no other reason than he hadn’t taken the time to scratch off his information and throw the damn thing away. Therapy sounded great until they told you how much it cost, and that was after your insurance threw in a couple bucks. He couldn’t even make rent, how was he supposed to afford a therapist?

Chase pushed that thought aside as Stacy’s arguments drifted through, as they always did, but that wouldn’t help him now. He just had to get home, try to get some sleep, and email her in the morning. Hopefully his car and his phone were still parked outside the forest. Their differences aside, this god damn nightmare aside, she’d help him. Whether she believed his story or not.

     Did he believe it?

Blue eyes slid shut, and he pushed himself away from the warming brick. The moment played in his mind over and over and over, but it still defied explanation. One moment he had been drinking beside a grave in the woods, desperate for the company of the one person on earth who’d loved him just for existing, and the next he was on the roof of a car garage. Chase had felt his stomach drop like he’d plunged over a hill on a roller coaster, but that was his only warning. Ripped from safety and dropped beside a ledge in the blink of an eye. He’d braced both hands to gaze over that edge, and the sheer drop had filled his veins with ice.

    J̷u̷̴m̡p̵͢͢

It was half a whisper in his mind, but he swore he heard it. There and gone in an instant, just as he had been. Not only had something brought him there, it was still watching.

The first hour was a blur. He’d taken the garage stairs down two at a time, blindly chosen a direction, and ran.

-----

Each step ached more than the last, but exhaustion had finally defeated fear over ownership of his body. His heart wasn’t fluttering like a trapped bird behind his ribs, and it wasn’t terror that narrowed his vision. Chase’s ball cap raised just a bit, and he winced at the sudden flash of red and blue lights in front of his house. A silent police cruiser illuminated the whole street, and it cast an almost glitching shadow behind him. It took a long moment to realize his car was there, safe and sound, and an even longer moment to hear his own name in his ears.

Familiar arms locked around his tired frame before frantic hands found his cheeks. Stacy’s terrified and relieved face swam into focus, and Chase finally, finally relaxed.

    “Stace-”

    “Are you okay!? Chase, it’s been hours! A hiker saw you go into the woods with nothing but a bottle, he called the cops when he went to leave and your car was still there! He was worried you hurt yourself!”

The afternoon itself was a little more than a smear of emotion, 

      S C R E A M S

and color, but Chase didn’t remember seeing anyone when he’d parked his car a lifetime ago. That whole piece of the world had seemed just… empty. Are you okay? He was a great many things, okay was not one of them. But that didn’t mean Chase had strength left to lie.

     “I’m… I’m not hurt.”

God, he hated watching the fear and anger twist her face. It remained all throughout the police questioning, his panicked refusal for medical treatment. Tired and broken as he was, he’d still sprint if it meant avoiding a several thousand-dollar ride in an ambulance and another couple hundred dollars just for an emergency room doctor to tell him to get some rest. Even if he still had insurance, that trip would destroy him financially.

The cop took his report, and left them in deafening silence. It choked the living room and left the air thick in their throats, muffling even their unspoken words. Even in their worst of fights, it was this cloying silence he dreaded most. When neither knew what to do, what to say, and the only taste in their mouths was defeat.

     “… Chase…” Stacy’s words shook, “did you try to-”

     “NO.”

There was finally weight, conviction in his voice, and his eyes cleared for what felt like the first time since he found himself on that roof.

    “I didn’t. I promise I didn’t.”

She didn’t move, but her face softened. Just a bit. She was still hurt, but she at least believed him. Perhaps not the lame story that he’d walked home from the forest to clear his head, but at least about this. Wordlessly, she guided him to a chair, filled a glass of water and waited until he drank it.

     “…I can’t stay, my sister has the kids and she has work in the morning. But I’m not going to be able to sleep until you do, come on.”

     “Can I still see them tomorrow?”

Stacy sighed as she tugged her estranged husband to his feet, and Chase swayed dangerously without support. An arm slipped around his waist and kept a firm hold for their slow trek to the bedroom.

     “Yeah, you can. I’m going to take a personal day since I’d have to get ready in an hour anyway. Get some sleep, then come get them so I can sleep. Deal?”

     “Deal.”

Chase’s eyes were barely open by the time she steered him to the bed, and Stacy left him long enough to send a text to both her sister and his sister that he’d been found. His phone was recovered from the car, and she brought it with her to charge in his bedroom. That had been the most maddening piece of evidence they’d found, the fact he had abandoned his phone. Who does that except people who don’t want to be found? Leaving him had been painful enough, the idea of burying him-

      STOP IT. He’s HERE, he’s ALIVE.

The thought was firmly stamped out before she reached the doorway.

Chase was already deeply asleep, crumpled on his side as if he’d been thrown from a building. He’d only managed to kick off his shoes and jeans, the baseball cap was pressed against the pillow, the brim already digging an indent in his temple. Lightly as she could, gentle hands worked it free and set it on the nightstand. His phone was plugged in, and an alarm was set. The screen glitched as if broken, a brief flash of emerald and then crimson illuminated the dark room before all was normal once more. Christ, that was all they needed, his iPhone to start dying. Stacy sighed and flipped it upside down on the nightstand, took one last relieved look at Chase’s sleeping form, and left. It would be hours before he moved, and she had a very long day ahead.

 

1PM

Electronic beeps filled the bedroom, calling louder and louder the longer they went unheeded. A hand twitched and blindly lurched, skidding the phone further from reach. The hand fell still in defeat for a long moment while the alarm continued to blare its indignation, but a stretch finally snared it.

Chase’s body was slow to reel the phone in, and fogged eyes opened by the barest sliver to silence it. 1:05pm. Stacy must have set his alarm, she was a firm believer in the power of five more minutes. A headache made itself known, but he wasn’t sure if it was dehydration or lack of caffeine. Or both. What he did know was Stacy was still awake from yesterday’s nightmare, and he had to get his kids.

-----

Getting ready at one in the afternoon was just as difficult a task as it was at the crack of dawn. Stumbles and groans and willing the coffeemaker to hurry. Washing down some water and eating a snack he barely tasted. Tugging on clothes barely looked at. Filling a thermos with coffee and dragging himself to the car so he could caffeinate on the way. What he felt right now, she felt worse. Insomnia and sleep deprivation were a curse he wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Traffic streamed past him, but Chase had driven on autopilot more times than he could count. No matter how far the mind wandered, blue eyes always remained locked on the road and steady hands kept absolute control of the wheel. So when his thoughts drifted inevitably to the night before, Chase didn’t resist them.

      Twisting around the unfamiliar roof, heart hammering in his chest as his brain filled with static. This couldn’t be happening, this couldn’t be happening, he was just at his mother’s grave, where was he, where was she, MA-

Hands whitened against the steering wheel as he shook the thought away. Chase needed to get past this, one step at a time, and forget it ever happened. He’d made it home and through the night, maybe whatever dragged him there had its fun and moved on. It was a tantalizing hope, and it followed him up the familiar steps of what had once been his home.

      “DADDY!”

That tiny voice left his face melting into a smile, and he knelt as long arms spread wide.

      “There’s my little MVP, c’mere!” A laugh bubbled from his throat when his daughter all but dove into him, but he didn’t lift and swing her as he always did. Chase found himself frozen, curled around Ellie as the five-year-old giggled and squirmed in his hold. His son, barely two years older, peeked around the corner and a hand almost desperately waved for him to join.

      “You too, Connor, bring it in.”

Connor, as reckless as his dad, sprinted full force down the hall with a charging roar and Chase barely managed to move Ellie out of the way to catch him. To them it was fun and games with dad, but Stacy, horribly exhausted as she was, saw the pain and terror wash over her husband’s face when theirs were safely hidden.

He was folded around his children as if he’d never hold them again.

      “Dad, why are you shaking so much?” Connor asked, still effectively trapped against his trembling father, who forced a laugh in return.

      “Bad dream, kiddo, I’ll be okay. Humor your old man for a sec.”

      “Did the shaky monster get you?”

The sudden seriousness in Ellie’s tone left his heart frozen in his chest. Chase peeled back just enough to look down at her with new eyes.

      “What shaky monster, sweetie? Have you had bad dreams, too?”

Stacy cleared her throat then, and Chase’s neck snapped up so fast she nearly flinched. He wasn’t just numbly afraid, he was alarmed. For just that split second, he’d reacted as if she were a threat. The unnerving gesture settled like ice in her stomach, but she pressed on.

      “… The shaky monster is something her new imaginary friend told her about. Apparently, her friend has a very vivid imagination.” Chase visibly relaxed, and Stacy let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding when he finally let the kids go, murmuring for them to collect their favorite toys. Connor and Ellie both ran to their rooms, and that familiar deafening silence slammed in their wake.

They’d shared a life together. Children. A home. Why could they never find something to say? Before she could even try to find her voice, Stacy busied herself with packing the kids some snacks, but her sleep-deprived fumbling in the fridge only earned a gentle hand on her arm.

      “…Please get some sleep. I’ll pack them up. We’ll be okay.”

When they’d first separated, they both would have blamed exhaustion when she turned and buried herself against him. They’d blame stress, shot nerves, anything. Any excuse was easier than swallowing the fact they still loved each other. Love alone wasn’t enough to make a relationship work, but it had at least kept that bridge from burning. It was creaky, missing many of its planks, and singed in more than one place, but it still stood.

      “Don’t scare me like that again. Please.”

Blue eyes slid shut, and those arms resumed that protective hold.

      “I won’t. I’m sorry.”

3PM

The kids rushed to his room, the only bedroom in his run-down speck of a rental house. The bed was plenty big for both of them, Chase wouldn’t let them take the couch when they stayed with him. Hopefully, one day, he could afford a bigger place.

      “Watch that rug, or you’ll faceplant!” He warned over the swell of giggles down the hall. They were already unpacking their things, namely toys, from overnight bags and piling them onto the bed. Ellie was in the process of setting up a tea party with her plushies, and Connor helped as if he knew who sat where. It warmed Chase’s heart to know they hadn’t drifted apart, as everyone warned they would. Sure, they bickered like any siblings, but Connor was fiercely protective of his baby sister, and Ellie looked up to him like a superhero.

Chase wondered if she still thought of her absent dad as a superhero.

      “Dad-Dad, can we play Minecraft!?” Conner all but materialized in front of him with hopeful brown eyes, and he couldn’t help but reach out and ruffle his hair.

      “Sure, bud. But, you need the gamer hat of POWER!” the Adidas hat was swiped from his own head and planted over Connor’s, and the boy laughed as he had to push the comically large accessory up from his eyes. “GAMER POWERS ACTIVATE! AWAAAAAAAY!”

Connor sprinted down the hall with that triumphant bellow, and Chase leaned back in to check on Ellie’s tea party.

      “Do you wanna play Minecraft with us, babygirl, or are you gonna tea party?” Ellie was putting the finishing touches on everything, plushies assembled as she straightened them just so. “We missed tea time already, this is IMPORTANT to Kevin. He gets CRANKY.”

Kevin, the plush Pikachu, would not have been heard one way or another over the sudden gasp of horror as she lifted the plastic tea pot lid.

      “Daddy! We’re out of magic tea!”

Chase bit back a laugh at her convincing distress and raised a placating hand. “We’ll get you magic tea, just tell Kevin to hold on. Let me get your brother situated first.” The all-important plastic tea pot was handled with utmost care and set on the kitchen counter before blue eyes spied tiny hands guessing at his computer password.

      “AY-” Chase barked and Connor giggled, trying one more ridiculous idea while his dad stormed over and pushed the hat over his eyes, “stop using your gamer powers for evil, I raised you better than that.”

A few parental controls later, and Conner was free to fire up Minecraft, and only Minecraft. There were things online no seven-year-old needed to see. Then there was the matter of magic tea. A special brew only Mommy and Daddy could make, summoned with arcane magic through any kitchen faucet. She was too young for caffeine and only liked drinking the decaf tea with heaping amounts of milk and sugar, which left her entire tea set sticky and in need of a wash. Stacy was the first to propose magic tea, which was just water with a backstory. The set didn’t need washed as often, and tea time was saved.

Chase set the lukewarm kettle in the middle of the blanket Ellie had spread, a compromise over dragging the entire plastic table and chairs to his house. There was a cup in front of each plushie, although Floppy the platypus had been demoted from her usual spot beside his daughter, and a cup rested before an empty seat.

      “Who’s sitting there? Was Floppy bad again?”

Ellie shook her head, and Chase winced as she poured the magic tea with all the grace you’d expect of a five-year-old, “No, Daddy, that’s for my new friend! I HOPE they make it. I don’t want a RUDE friend because that would be RUDE.”

The father smiled faintly and shook his head. “Yell if you need me, sweetie, I’m gonna go fight monsters with your brother.”

-----

Connor wailed as a skeleton’s arrow shot him straight into lava, and kept shooting as he propelled frantically to shore. But such was the cruelty of Minecraft; just when you find diamond, disaster strikes. Chase wrapped an arm around his shoulders as the death screen popped up, trying not to laugh out loud at his comic misery.

      “We’ll find more, buddy, don’t worry!”

The boy dragged the hat over his face with a dramatic groan, his voice muffled by the fabric.

      “Gamer hat of power, you have BETRAYED ME!”

That pulled a laugh from Chase’s throat, loud and warm and shaking against his son when long arms pulled him close. It was infectious, always had been, and Connor found himself giggling through the hat in return.

      “It’s not- FUNNY!” Yet he was laughing almost as hard as Chase as he squirmed defiantly free of the man who was indifferent to his suffering.

      “It’s not, but the betrayal was. Spawn back in your bed, I’m gonna go check on your sister.”

Ellie’s voice filtered down the hall, chattering away until the sound of his footsteps reached her ears. Chase frowned at her sudden yelp and the clatter of plastic.

      “Ellie!?”

Chase all but ran down the hall, and heard her call out “Wait! Come back!” before he crashed through the doorway. She looked dismayed, but perfectly fine, and turned her gaze to her father.

      “You scared my friend away.”

Blood thundered in his ears, fear surging through every fiber of his being without knowing why. Chase collapsed on the floor beside her and tugged his daughter close.

      “Sorry, princess. Glad your friend wasn’t rude.”

The child snuggled happily against her dad, she loved any and all hugs always. His blue eyes trailed to the plastic tea cup lying on its side across the room, as if it had been thrown rather than simply dropped on the fake wooden slats beyond the blanket.  

      “They still don’t talk very much, but magic tea doesn’t need talking, only drinking.”

Chase let her go and retrieved the cup himself. Both their kids watched him perform on his under-viewed YouTube channel, they liked pretending for others as well. Maybe one of them would be a successful actor, that would be incredible.

      “Did you find out anything about your friend? Do they have a name?”

The girl poured Kevin more magic tea while Chase settled into the vacant spot, and she brightened at the question.

      “Yes! I told them I was from Mommy’s house, and they said they were from the void.”

An easy smile slipped like melting wax from Chase’s face as Ellie lifted the toy teacup to Kevin’s lips. She’d always had a vivid imagination, but that single syllable made his blood run cold. The TV, maybe, she soaked up everything like a sponge, maybe she’d heard it from a show they left on too loud after bedtime. He couldn’t fathom why it would be ingrained in any five-year-old girl’s vocabulary.

      “… I’ve never heard of that place, did you hear it from the TV?”

She shook her head with her whole body, like she always did, and drank Kevin’s magic tea for him.

      “No, Daddy, my friend told me.”

      “DAD!?

Chase launched to his feet at Connor’s terrified voice, alarmed already by the green light that drenched the barren hallway. His son was transfixed to the chair as the computer screen glitched with sickly green and red static. Chase had never seen such a violent computer error in his life, but walking toward the machine was like wading through mud. The air was thick and resistant while the speakers began to shriek with unexpected feedback. The desk light that had been off since the night before suddenly illuminated and surged with power. Connor covered his ears as the shrieking swelled in volume and morphed into what sounded like twisted, electronic laughter.

      “Make it STOOOOOOP!

The boy’s scream was punctuated by the crack of the desk lamp's bulb, fizzling into nothing. A shape began to form in the static just as Chase wheeled his son back, dove for the power strip, and ripped the plug out of the wall.

Like cutting the strings off a puppet, it was gone.

Chapter Text

2AM

Sleep was nowhere near.

Both children protested his taking the couch when bedtime came, and it was hard to argue when that disturbing power surge left the living room smelling like burnt light bulb even hours later. It was the only explanation he could think of, that or a virus capable of overloading everything in the power strip a computer was connected to. Chase had never heard of such a thing, but that didn’t make it impossible.

It had taken a long while to talk Connor down in the safety of the bedroom, murmuring comforts the boy couldn’t hear through the tears. It was just a virus. Some jerk trying to be funny by making things to scare people. You’re okay, bud, I’ve got you. He’d softened eventually, the tears had slowed and the words filtered through. It had been a genuine relief when those brown eyes finally surfaced, bloodshot but no longer brimming with fear.

Through it all, Ellie remained silent. There had been worry in her face, which had flickered between the hallway, her brother, and the abandoned tea party. The same expression surfaced when she’d done something bad and might get caught. When Chase beckoned her in, she’d burrowed against his side and said nothing.

By his side was where she remained, and Connor was curled against the other. Chase never slept on his back, but it was the only way he could hold both kids at once. Connor and Ellie were both sound asleep, safe in their dad’s arms.

      Enjoy it now, they’re never coming back.

The intrusive thought impaled him like a knife to the throat, and his arms instinctively tightened. No, kids were resilient. A few days of normalcy in their own house, and they’d forget this ever happened. If not, he’d move if he had to. It wasn’t like he was making rent, even at this tiny house. It was a huge reason Stacy had thrown in the towel; she’d been working two jobs to support him, the kids, the house, and his dream for online fame.

He’d had such hopes for his channel. It seemed like it followed all the right formulas, copied all the right elements, but it never really took off. He didn’t make enough money off it to even provide for himself, let alone his family. Every ounce of logic in the world backed Stacy’s pleas to give it up, or at least downscale the efforts so he’d have time to take a higher-income job and still make videos. Slowing down felt like giving up, he knew it could work out. He knew he could pull off enough stunts and trick shots to make the channel all they ever needed.

On the days when it became far more evident this dream was already sunk… he drank. When that sense of worthlessness crept in, he drank. When the bills piled up because he’d failed to make it all work, he drank. Yet somehow, even worse were the days when he didn’t even have the strength to lift the bottle. When the idea of leaving the house felt like being asked to pick up a mountain. When he was drowning in the screaming realization that his world was burning around him, but paralyzed to do anything about it. Like being trapped in a dead plane, watching the ground loom closer and closer, one hand on the emergency eject button he only ever pulled when it was too late to matter.

Like when she’d called him, sobbing -- in the middle of a show he was supposed to cancel to watch the kids so she could sleep after three back-to-back shifts – and said she couldn’t do it anymore. At the time it had felt so important, they’d managed to rent a conference room super cheap and wouldn’t get that rate again if they didn’t show. Ice had numbed every cell in his body when he realized that shitty conference room had cost his marriage. He’d finally hit that eject button, but the plane was already a smoldering wreck on the ground. Chase died on impact, but it happened so fast that his ghost continued on as if he hadn’t.

He’d wondered if that could happen, if a death could be so quick and so clean that his brain wouldn’t process it immediately. In one of Stephen King’s novels, “It” if he had to take a guess, a man had his head sliced off so finely that his body walked another fifteen steps before it collapsed. Chase was reminded of that the day he narrowly avoided an accident during rush hour. Just a split second between safety and death, but he’d made it without a scratch and simply kept driving. Green lights. Red lights. Turns. Start. Stop. And in the back of his mind, the headless man walked on.

     What if you’re still in that intersection, mangled inside this car, and this is just what your brain expected to happen next. It’s just your dying neurons filling in the gaps. Say goodbye.

Stacy’s phone call felt no different. Chase Brody was already dead, and he was just a ghost trying to tell his wife and family he still loved them.

That week had been the hardest stretch of time in his entire life. The only kind thing depression ever did for him was dim the memory almost beyond recognition. He’d read that once, how it impaired memory, and it was true. There were so many lights turned off in his brain, he could barely remember it. Bits and pieces, blurred scenes and dread. Chase couldn’t recall any particular moment with conviction, and his sister wasn’t one to talk about it.

Chase owed her so much. Charlie brought him back to her apartment and took care of him throughout. He had been vaguely aware she was livid things had gotten so bad, but she loved her baby brother. Loved him and was terrified of him. Chase hadn’t watched it happen, but the windows were all firmly locked and her place had been silently emptied of pills and knives, anything that could easily cause harm. He hadn’t had the strength for anything elaborate when he could hardly bring himself to get out of bed, so the easiest means of hurting himself were removed. He couldn’t remember wanting or looking for one, but that wasn’t saying much.

There had been meals and water practically ordered down his throat. No system in his body wanted to exist, let alone work properly, but she was patiently determined to keep him functional. Chase didn’t know what would have happened without Charlie. Yet Stacy had been the one to call her. To warn her…

In the stillness of the bedroom, wedged between the two tiny souls he loved most in the world, sleep was finally creeping up on him. Turning the same fucking circles in his mind would tire him out eventually, and it had. Chase wouldn’t remember in the morning, but just before he sank into sleep, he thought he heard the scrape of a plastic teacup against the cheap wooden floor.

------

Pancakes. Happiness in breakfast form. Chase filled the batter with sprinkles and gave the kids whatever horrifying topping they wanted. Ellie chose butter, peanut butter, and frosting, and Connor wanted syrup, peanut butter and more sprinkles. Stacy would be less than thrilled about the sheer amount of sugar he’d fed their children, but it was worth it to see the kids giggling and laughing again. The computer stayed off, and the kitchen felt like an optimistic little bubble.

      “WAIT- I need chocolate sauce,” Connor announced, and Chase pressed a hand against his face with dismayed laughter. “Child, why, you have enough shit on your pancakes already!”

Ellie exploded with laughter, as she always did when he swore. He and Stacy kept it mild, neither of them had been able to give up cursing completely, and they did so with the express rule that bad words were not to be repeated. Connor’s face was bright with determination as he used the knock-off chocolate sauce to awkwardly write across his pancakes. A right challenge, given the dips and valleys of the toppings already on them.

      “THERE,” he declared, spinning the plate around for his dad and sister to see, and very sloppy letters spelled his latest catch phrase, “positive mental attitude!”

Chase laughed and Ellie clapped, it was hard not to be lifted by his pride. It carried them through dishes, getting dressed, and packing up. The tea set was returned to the bag; a pink kettle, a green sugar bowl and cream cup, six blue plates, but only five yellow campfire mugs. Chase counted again, but a little plastic cup was missing.

      “Sorry baby, I’ll keep looking. Your new imaginary friend might have to sit one out.”

Ellie heaved a theatrical sigh and lifted her realistic Tyrannosaurus Rex to peer in its open jaws, squinting down its throat. “Gerald, we TALKED about this. Cups are for DRINKING.”

      Why the fuck are my kids funnier than me, Chase thought to himself as he pushed the rest of the toys off the bed and into the overnight bag. At least they weren’t silent and desperate to leave his place, as he’d feared they would be. Between staying with them all night, and the lighthearted breakfast, one would think nothing had happened at all.

-----

Connor’s positive mental attitude rubbed off even when they returned home. It was Saturday, no one had to work, and Stacy couldn’t help but brighten at how cheerful her family seemed. Chase had helped the kids unpack, and they’d actually shared a cup of coffee and a casual conversation. How something could feel so natural, and yet so odd.

      “I almost forgot-”

Her purse was tugged from its peg by the door, and she pulled out a folded flyer for him to inspect. Blue eyes narrowed when the creases were smoothed to reveal a job listing.

      “I found that by the campus today, they need someone who can video edit and record. The pay is decent, and you’re great with cameras, this could be easy money for you. Please look it over and think about it. Hell, you might learn something you can use on the channel.”

Chase’s throat was dry as he scanned the summary, but he forced himself to nod. It made sense, a lot of sense, and fuck if he didn’t need the money.

      “Yeah- yeah. Thanks, Stace. I’ve got to get going, thanks for the coffee.”

The flyer folded and disappeared in his back pocket, and he stood to find his kids to say goodbye. Connor was in own room, building a city out of legos, and he didn’t hesitate to give his dad a hug and a smile. Ellie was in the room next door, setting up the proper tea party with its own miniature table and chairs. Her hug was tight as ever, but that worried expression surfaced again when he let her go.

      “… Are you gonna be safe from the shaky monster?”

Again with that inexplicable ice in his stomach. She was a kid, they were all scared of things that weren’t real. Chase knelt to her level, and his voice was nothing but calm.

      “There’s no such thing as a shaky monster.”

      “There IS! Daddy, you SAW IT, you saw it on the COMPUTER!”

Uncertainty flit across his face, but she still saw it. Ellie buried herself against him, and he all but swallowed her in his arms.

      “… Ellie, why was your cup across the room when I came in last night? Who did you tell to come back?”

      “My friend dropped it. They ran away.”

      “Why?”

      “They said ‘it’s here.’”

Chase’s heart was hammering in his chest. She was good at pretend, sometimes scary good at pretend, but this still felt genuine. Even for a great performance, she hated seeing anyone sad, least of all her family. Pieces were stacking together neatly, one by one, and he was terrified of seeing the whole picture.

      “… Is your friend the shaky monster?”

      “NO!”

She looked up then, and shook her head with her entire body. “They’re NOT! They drank magic tea with me!”

The room was spinning sickeningly fast, and broad hands fumbled for the endless sheets of paper and crayons that were always in the corner of the room, and he brought a stack and all 32 colors with him.

      “Do me a favor, draw your friend and draw the monster. It will help me be on the lookout, I don’t want to yell at your friend on accident, okay?”

Ellie accepted this, and quickly began to scribble. Chase helped himself to magic tea just for something to do with his hands while he waited for a verdict, unreasonably tense for something as simple as a crayon drawing. Ellie colored the black crayon more than anything, and finally handed him the paper.

      “That’s my friend,” she pointed to the figure on the left of the sheet, “and that’s what my friend said the shaky monster is. My friend was cold. I gave them your coat.”

      “My good leather one?”

Sure enough, the figure on the left sported a five-year-old’s crayon interpretation of his black leather jacket on a stick figure that looked like Leon Kennedy with silver hair. The other side of the head was colored brown but short, maybe like an undercut, though he didn’t think she’d ever seen someone with one. All around the friend were squiggles of red, like waves. The figure on the right… was just dark. The face was colored in with the black crayon, save for two round dots of green that might have been eyes under the streaks of green she’d colored over the entire body and beyond it.

Well, if there was a shadow monster stalking him, he supposed Leon Kennedy was someone he’d want involved.

      “Can you tell me more about your friend? I like his hair.”

      “They kinda sound like Mommy. And they don’t stay still good.”

So the friend may be a she? Chase thought, glancing over the stick figure again. Ellie used ‘they’ for anyone and anything, it came easiest for her and it didn’t really matter to them one way or another. Even Mommy and Daddy were ‘they’ in that context.

      “Your friend was nice to you?”

Ellie nodded and tugged Kevin close for a hug.

      “They had magic tea. Until the monster came. They said they were from the void so I will name them void. If they had a different name, they should have told me.

 

2PM

Two folds of paper were stuck in his back pocket, the drawing and the job listing. Chase tried not to think of either as he rushed through the convenience store for a spare lightbulb and some ramen. Those cheap ass noodles were about the only things he could buy in bulk to feed himself these days. That and Taco Bell.

Yet the past two days haunted him, even through the electrical aisle. The parking garage, the computer glitch, the imaginary friend. It felt like they were all linked to both himself and something larger.

      Or you drank until you blacked out and found yourself on that garage, the computer glitch was just a fucked up new virus, and your kid with the wild imagination made up a new friend because she’s fucking lonely. Get your shit together.

He tried. He paid for his stuff with a wince and drove home. Changed the lightbulb and found it worked perfectly fine again. The computer fired up no problem, and the Minecraft game had saved before Connor was shot into lava. Chase wasn’t sure when he’d be ready to play it again, but he got Steve home safe with the diamonds anyway. No glitches, no freezes, no weird audio. Just a computer, doing what computers do.

Eventually he brought himself to compose an email to the address on the job listing, indicating interest and availability to meet. Stacy was right, he needed the money, and there was no way he could pass up something that both paid decently and was in the realm of what he wanted to do with his life.

      I don’t want to crush your dreams, Chase, but it’s breaking me trying to hold us up alone, you’ve got to meet me halfway!

Chase heaved a sigh and hit send. Something had to be done, and fast, or he was going to get evicted before he could come up with rent money. The listing was returned to his pocket, but his thumb brushed over the corner of Ellie’s drawing, and he found himself unfolding it again. Between the two figures, the shaky monster looked more like a void than the Leon Kennedy wannabe. His head shook as he hauled himself out of the chair and stuck the drawing to the fridge with a magnet. There wasn’t a whole lot of real estate left on his fridge, but he made room.

      My Friend was cold. I gave them your coat.

Brows furrowed at the crudely drawn jacket before his gaze drifted down the empty hall. Chase’s throat felt dry as he forced himself to walk, one step at a time, until he stood before the closet. He’d packed damn near every item the kids had brought himself before they left, he would have seen it or felt it, even if she’d stashed it toward the bottom of the bag. The closet door creaked open, and between his hoodies and flannels was a single empty hanger.

His leather coat was gone.

CRASH

Blood pounded in Chase’s ears when a loud noise thundered from the kitchen. He was alone, the kids were at home, he didn’t even have a pet to blame it on.

      Maybe a dish fell in the sink we had a shit ton of pancakes this morning and I didn’t do any of those fucking dishes why would I that would be the sane adult thing to do-

A handgun was pulled from a box on the highest shelf in the closet and loaded. The hallway had never felt longer.

      I’m about to put a bullet in a fucking frying pan it’ll probably ricochet and fucking kill me I’m going to die over the fucking dishes they’re going to put that on my grave Chase Brody died to kitchenware may he rest in fucking pieces-

The air almost seemed to hum with an energy he’d never felt in his life. A red haze had settled lightly over the kitchen and living room, though the sink was still around the corner. There was a sound he could only describe as tearing. He’d heard things being ripped apart before, but the sound resonated like a punch to the gut. It was like reality had been torn.

He watched as that red haze magnetized from every corner of the room and condensed in a billow of crimson smoke, and the gun shook in his hands as it parted to reveal the shaking outline of a person.

      “GET OUT,” Chase screamed, finding his voice at last, “GET OUT OR I’LL SHOOT!”

The figure lurched at the sound, trying with difficulty to turn. It shimmered and glitched, as if staying still alone was an incredible effort. A calf flickered out of existence and brought it down to its still-forming hands and knees. Its head lifted, devoid of a face but somehow locked on his, and he fired.

The gun was jammed.

      “FUCK,” it was almost a sob, he tried to take the weapon apart with shaking hands as the figure continued to condense and solidify. It still glitched and lurched like it had never used muscles in its life, and its head dipped as more details began to emerge. His leather jacket gathered into being around foreign shoulders. Skin gray as a corpse’s spread across the neck and downturned face. Silver hair materialized on one side of its head, the other shaved down. Still on all fours, one twisted hand was clutched around a yellow plastic mug.

The gun was almost forgotten, along with how to breathe. Chase didn’t move a muscle as energized humming around the hunched and flickering figure suddenly eased. Not a figure anymore, but a person. Or something pretending to be.

      “… Void.”

It didn’t answer, save for a tightened grip around the toy teacup. It seemed unsure what to do next.

      “What are you!?” he finally burst, “Why are you here!?”

      “You let- me in.”

The voice was rough, broken up, and strangely layered, as if it was neither used to speaking or limiting itself to a single wavelength. Actual tears threatened in the corners of his eyes while the fear in his veins ramped up to eleven. No, it wasn’t Stacy’s voice, but it was similar. Low, but still feminine. Was that meant to fuck with him? Was this thing trying to mimic her?

      “I don’t even know who you are, how could you say I let you in!?”

That face snapped up to meet his so fast, he lurched backward and fell on his ass. There was no white in its eyes, they were completely black inside its skull. Spiderweb veins snaked through its face, which was otherwise… unremarkable. Androgynous and almost bland, like a face you would forget the moment it left your sight. Take away the eldritch horror, and this thing would look like anyone and no one at all. Chase could only watch as it lurched to its feet, still unsteady and in danger of coming undone. The red mist around it only intensified, and it seemed to manifest from its own body.

      “You- opened. The doorway. You LET. Me IN.”

That tearing noise enveloped his entire world, reality shredding itself to make way for this creature’s agenda. Chase yelped as it vanished in a billow of crimson smoke, only to reappear an inch from his face. There was no emotion, no anger, no fear, no empathy in their expression. Yet something like recognition flickered across that glitching face, and the nightmare tore itself from existence, yellow teacup and all.

Chase’s chest heaved, his heart pounded, but a strange sense of calm washed over him. Alarm bells sounded in his mind, but even they were soothed. The room was growing darker and darker, like the fading of a dream, and he welcomed it, even as what felt like an icy hand folded over his eyes.

      To̷o mu͝c̵h͝ ex͟ci͜te̛mȩn̡t͡ ̧fǫr̶ ͢onȩ d͞a̷y.͏ ͏

       See ̸ you  s ͏ o ̷ o ͏ n ͠ .

Chapter Text

9AM

Beep…… Beep…… Beep…… Beep…… Beep…… Beep……

It was like dredging a wreck from the bottom of the ocean, buried by sand, sediment, and time. Inch by painful inch, it rose from the depths, but not without a fight.

Beep... Beep... Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep…

It almost sounded like a heart monitor, and he was waiting for it to flatline.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

      You’re already dead. Your neurons are just filling in the gaps, Brody. Say goodbye.

BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-

Blue eyes cracked open and fell on the shrieking iPhone trying desperately to pull him from sleep. They pressed shut again while a hand swiped at the cell and blindly managed to shut it off. Chase fully intended to go back to sleep, but first unburied his wrist so he could check his watch.

      9:23am?

His alarm didn’t have an automatic snooze, it kept beeping until he did something about it. Which meant this thing had been screaming for a full twenty-three minutes before it actually woke him up. Chase only slept that hard after a night of drinking -- even after the night he’d been thrown on that parking garage he’d woken up the minute his alarm went off.

But fuck was he tired.

It took an astronomical will to tug the covers off and reach for his phone, hoping the sudden chill would be enough to get him moving. Turned out it wasn’t the cold, but the notification of an email that managed to pull him from the comfort of the bed. Chase swung his legs over the edge and squinted at the screen with both hope and paranoia, waiting for the rug to be pulled from under him.

The guy from the job listing liked his qualifications and wanted to meet. If he pulled this off, he’d at least have part-time work, which was better than nothing. Hopefully he could sweet-talk his way into a full-time position. Chase typed a response with numb fingers, still unbelievably groggy, but autocorrect saved his ass. Fucking hell, all he wanted to do was sleep…

A broad hand scrubbed over his face and lingered against his eyes. He didn’t remember turning in last night, but he remembered bits and pieces of a nightmare. Black eyes and so much red… he’d tried to shoot at a monster and couldn’t.

      You- opened. The doorway. You LET. Me IN.

Chase let his hand drop and hauled his aching frame to the closet door. Sure, the leather jacket was still missing, but Ellie probably managed to either stuff it at the very bottom of the bag or ball it up inside their pajamas. The gun box was exactly where he’d left it, and the unloaded gun was still safely inside. The pancake dishes were still in the sink, the wrapper from the brick of ramen he must have eaten for dinner was on the top of the pile in the garbage can. Ellie’s crayon drawing was still on the fridge. He’d just passed out at some point and dreamed about her imaginary monsters. Weirder shit had happened.

      Like getting teleported to the top of a building?

Blue eyes cinched shut and pale hands gripped the counter. He wanted to believe he’d gotten drunk and ended up there, god he wanted to believe that. He couldn’t. But this, Chase thought as he scanned the unblemished apartment again, this he could believe. Just a nightmare. Because not even his dying neurons would dream he’d wake up safe and sound with a potential job offer.

 

6PM

Chase could hardly see straight, and the computer screen wavered and warped the longer he stared. Sleep had eluded him the past few days, but he’d thrown himself into the job regardless. Editing video after video, collecting that paycheck, and feeling an enormous weight lift off his shoulders when he dropped his rent check in the landlord’s mailbox. Even the nightmares were pushed aside, although Ellie reminded him every time he visited.

                  Daddy, I don’t HAVE your coat, I gave it to my FRIEND.

            I’m scared the shaky monster will come back.

      Void said you invited them, are you friends now too?

      “What?”

Chase blinked hard at the tiny hand tugging his arm, tearing his gaze from the laptop to his daughter. It wasn’t much of a visit with him working, but Stacy hadn’t argued and the kids just gravitated around his spot on the couch. Ellie wore his own frustrated expression, the one Stace insisted was scarily similar to his. He swore the same of Connor and the face his mother wore when they were angry.

      “Are you friends?”

      “I’m-” he gave a distracted little shrug, “sure. Let me finish this video, sweetie, and then I’ll come tea party with you.”

That was enough for the little girl. Ellie’s face brightened like the sun and she thundered back to her room to get everything ready. Chase felt a bit guilty that he would have to move Connor, who had curled against his side and passed out some time ago. Kid was a chronic snuggler. Chase hoped he wouldn’t lose that part of him as he got older and society crushed the idea that boys were allowed to hug.

He always thought back to the group of friends he ran with in college, Jonny was fearless when it came to affection. He was happily married and he hugged all of the guys, used them as pillows, was never afraid to say “I love you” or that they looked good. He remembered Brad telling Nathan how weird it was for him to do that, but Bernadette had summed it up in her usual blunt manner. I think it’s healthy, look at him. Jonny’s the happiest motherfucker alive. If guys hadn’t decided it was weird to do shit like hug each other or say ‘I love you,’ maybe y’all wouldn’t be so fuckin’ miserable. Chase remembered walking away laughing, but still managed to hear Nathan and then Brad mumble, “I love you, though.” I love you, too.

Connor could be the next Jonny, confusing his friends, beating the system, and making everyone happier for it. As long as he forgave his dear old dad for sliding an arm under his legs and back and lifting him away from the warmest nap spot. Connor’s peaceful face melted into a scowl as the movement jostled him awake, and it remained when he slumped against Chase’s chest in defeat.

      “My pillow woke me up.

      “Sorry, bud, but your sister is gonna kick my ass if I miss tea party.”

      “But m’tired…”

The boy’s bedroom door was shouldered open, and he was set on the bed long enough for Chase to tug off his hoodie and hand it to him.

      “Have a peace offering, it’s still warm.” Conner happily accepted, tugging the fabric years beyond his size over that tiny frame and flopping over dramatically. “Wake me in 3,000 years,” he half giggled as Chase pulled a blanket up to his shoulders. He couldn’t help but snort and ruffle his son’s already mussed hair. “Sure. I’ll go carve that on my Mayan calendar.”

Ellie’s humming reached him before he reached her, but the red light spilling from her room and into the hallway gripped his stomach and squeezed. It was fine, it was completely fine, he hadn’t forgotten her color-changing light. It had been a Christmas present, and she loved to cycle through the colors for her little toy plays. Tea party was always, always bubblegum pink. Today, she’d picked red. It wasn’t a big deal.

      Green wouldn’t have been much better.

Chase forced the thought away and plastered a smile for his youngest. He wasn’t going to comment on the color of the light, or how loudly it hummed.

      Had it always been that loud?

Ellie didn’t give him a chance to dwell on it before tugging out a tiny plastic chair for him to sit.

      “Here, Daddy, this one!” She directed, and he dutifully crammed himself onto its tiny surface, knees in his ears until he could push himself back from the table a bit. He hadn’t managed to dethrone Kevin the pikachu, who still held his spot next to Ellie while Chase was nestled between Kevin and Gerald, the realistic T-Rex. Next to Gerald was Queen Sting Ray, a crudely-stitched felt Christmas ornament. Its body was red and its wings were yellow, and the green spots and dopey eyes had sold her on the spot. Ellie found it in one of the post-holiday reject bins at Target. Fifty cents later, she was a prized staple of tea party. On the other side of Ellie should have been Floppy the platypus, but the seat was empty.

      “What did Floppy do this time? She’s not even here.” Ellie carefully poured them all some magic tea, and he was proud that she hadn’t spilled a drop. “Floppy is on a tropical vacation in Canada before the plat-puss meeting. It’s VERY stressful.”

He inwardly giggled at ‘tropical Canada,’ but was always curious about her world-building. The platypus hierarchy was displeased with current affairs, and Floppy was an authority figure expected to do something about it. Whether or not Floppy had resolved the issues prevalent in the platypus community before she took her tropical Canadian vacation was unknown at this time. The kid was just trying to mimic adults, why was it so damn funny.

There was an audible crack through his spine when Chase stretched in the cramped seat with a groan. The red light made the magic tea look almost like fruit punch, and his eyes lifted from the yellow plastic campfire mug to the empty spot across from him. Floppy may have been on vacation, but there was still a filled tea cup in front of the vacant chair.

      “Floppy’s not here, why did she still get a cup? She’s drinking margaritas on the beach without us.” Ellie giggled, and -- always the doting host -- made sure the solitary cup was still safely filled with magic tea. “That’s my friend’s cup. Say hi, Void!”

A tiny hand waved enthusiastically at the empty space, though she seemed not at all perturbed when nothing happened. Chase let out a quiet sigh of relief, though he felt stupid doing it. No, there was no logical explanation for the parking garage, but at least the imaginary friend was imaginary. Ellie was sold on this performance, and it was harmless to just let her go.

      “If I leave and come back, will your friend give back my jacket?”

The question was idle, but blue eyes were already scanning the room for where it could have been stashed. Under the bed, maybe, that was about as creative as her hiding places got. If the coat just ‘appeared,’ then she could keep the magic alive. Flawless as the plan seemed, Ellie only full-body shook her head in response.

      “No, Daddy, they get COLD. They NEED it. They don’t like the AIR.”

      “What do you mean, they don’t like the air,” Chase couldn’t help but laugh, “how do they breathe if they don’t like air? Do they like the water?” He threw the magic tea from his half-empty cup toward the vacant chair, fully expecting it to splatter against the plastic and fake wood floor.

It did not.

For the briefest moment, water splashed against something solid between the table and the chair, and then every particle of red in the room violently condensed as Ellie began to scream. Stripped of its veil, the overhead light blazed not red but the bubblegum pink of tea party, and it only contrasted the terror that exploded in his gut.

The plastic table was thrown aside as the writhing red mass rocketed around the room faster than either of them could see. Paintings were thrown off the walls, toys were launched in the air, sheets were ripped off the bed. Chase instinctively threw a still-screaming Ellie to the ground and shielded her with his own body. That horrible tearing sound roared over the destruction, vibrating both of them down to the core, and he couldn’t stop it when his own jaw unhinged and he screamed.

The shattering of the window brought silence until car alarm after car alarm began to shriek down the street, further and further away. Chase didn’t move, and Ellie hardly breathed even after the last vehicle had been silenced. He felt Connor’s arms trying to hug his shoulder, still buried in his dad’s hoodie, but he couldn’t bring himself to unravel from their spot on the floor. Somehow, the light had survived, and the silent three were bathed in bubblegum as Stacy’s feet shuffled in the doorway.

      “Look at you all… just sitting there.”

That familiar voice was hoarse and twisted, higher pitched than Chase had ever heard it in his life. Connor’s arms tightened in fear, and Blue eyes finally lifted to meet those brown irises he’d die for, but Stacy’s eyes were a bright and sickly green.

A chilling smile split her face in two, and her head almost seemed to glitch on her shoulders as she took one disjointed step at a time.

      “Scare ̷d ͜ it ͟ a ̨w ̴a ̶y ̵- a ͘g ̛ain ͠ .. ͡. ̴ I ̷ ̧ a ̧m- ͟i ͢n co ̶nt ͟rol ̸ .. ̵. ̛ u ̢nl ̵i ̴k ̴e ̵ ̷YO ̶U ͘. ͞

            “ You- ̢ let the ͠m ̵o ͜nste rs in ̡, ͠ Ch ̵as͏ey ̛bo ͡y . T ̷his ̴ is ̵ ͜all - yo ͜ur ͟F ̵A ͢U ͞LT ͞ .

      “T ͘h ̕is ̵ ̵is ̛ JU ̸ST - t ͏he ͞B ̷EGI ͝N ̡N ̶IN ̧G ͠ . ͏”

Chase slowly rose to his feet, heart pounding in his chest. The glitch from the computer was somehow wearing his wife like a suit, and her grin only widened with another deliberate step forward. Those foreign green eyes shifted and cut to each of them in turn, finally settling on Chase as her head tilted almost to her shoulder.

      “A ͢nd ̡t ̛h ̶en.. ͏. ͝t ̵here ̷ w ͠e ̧re ̛.. ̢. t ̧hr ̷e ̢e .”

Both of the children screamed as a knife slid into their mother’s hand and flashed toward her own throat.

Chapter Text

11PM

The stillness of the hospital was almost unnerving after the endless stream of doctors, nurses and cops. Chase was lucky he had been lucid enough to refuse treatment for his bleeding hand, he wasn’t on any health insurance and it would cost him a fortune. He’d superglue the cut when he got home. In the meantime, it was wrapped with stolen bandages from a supply room.

Chase was also immensely lucky no one had taken his kids.

They sat beside him on the bench, curled into his ribs and finally, finally silent. Nothing could have prepared them for what happened in that room. Not for the destruction, and not for their mother trying to slit her own throat. Chase moved faster than he ever had or ever would again, and he’d grabbed her wrist and braced her sternum before the blade went too deep. It felt like pushing and pulling a mountain, every ounce of strength in his body was poured into that singular moment, and the glitch demon almost seemed surprised. The knife was wrestled out of Stacy’s hand just as a fist collided with his eye socket. Chase didn’t wake up until the police were at their door. His black eye would remind him of that moment for weeks.

What could he have possibly told them. That Ellie’s room was torn apart by a teleporting demon he’d mistakenly thrown a drink on? That Stacy had been possessed by a monster that came from his computer? Thank god the cops and doctors agreed the angle of the laceration on her neck looked self-inflicted. She’d been unconscious when the ambulance came, and that hadn’t changed hours later. The nurses and labs were running every toxicology test they had, trying to figure out what she might have taken to result in that kind of behavior.

They wouldn’t find anything. The monster was gone and all they could do was hope he hadn’t taken Stacy with him. She was stable, her heart was beating, her lungs were breathing, but she wouldn’t wake up. Chase hoped beyond hope this was all his own nightmare, and he’d hear his alarm any minute. The red mass sucking away from the light played over and over again in his mind just as vividly as the fight with the glitch. It had coated Ellie’s room like a blanket, and they’d had tea party inside. He’d thought it was just the color of the light, not the essence of a monster. Yet…

Blue eyes descended slowly to Ellie’s sleeping form, and she had never looked so small curled against him. Void could have torn her apart as easily as the room, but she hadn’t been touched. The

      creature? Ghost? Entity?

had been there long enough that Ellie was already used to the presence. It was there before he walked in, and remained until he’d thrown water on it. Whatever it was, whatever it wanted, it had never hurt Ellie. For fuck’s sake, she’d conversed with it. Given it his damn jacket and a higher place of honor at the tea party table than her old man. He wished he could be comforted by these truths, but he wasn’t. For all they knew, Void could have been biding time before killing them all. Maybe it was just more patient than the glitch.

Against all odds, sleep was tugging at him softly. There was nothing to keep him awake but the steady drone of Stacy’s monitors and the quiet breathing of his kids. Chase didn’t fight it. His heavy eyes drifted shut, and his breaths grew as even as his children’s.

12AM

It had been a quiet shift, all things considered. A gruff man was illuminated by the glow of security cameras on several large monitors, but he was far more interested in the box of Chinese takeout on the desk in front of it. Activity in the hospital died at this hour unless there was an emergency, he didn’t have to be as vigilant. Especially now that one of the monitors had worked through whatever bug that made it glitch and waver with green static. Without the need to squint at those particular feeds, he could finally eat.

The furthest monitor to his left showed the various cameras in the morgue, which was empty. Patricia only worked this late if she was called in or backed up on bodies, and it wasn’t exactly a prime target for breaking in. There was nothing in it but chemicals, cadavers, and some gruesome tools. Not a prime location for illicit activity -- like the pharmacy -- and for that it largely escaped his attention. Even when the feed flickered red and a figure stumbled into view, clutching its eyes against the glare of florescent lights. It was the sudden dimness that caught the guard’s gaze when the lights flicked off and the camera automatically switched to the green glow of night vision.

      “What the hell...” he groused, dropping the plastic fork in his orange chicken before wheeling his chair over to the offending screen. Someone was in there, either a teenager or a short woman if he had to guess. They had a leather jacket with the hood up, and he managed to catch a glimpse of silver hair, but the eyes barely glowed in the night vision. It almost looked like this person had no eyes at all.

The guard squinted as a hand reached for the radio to call it in, but he paused in his curiosity. He was more confident now that this was an adult, and watched him or her wrap a hand around the combination lock on Patricia’s locker. The screen glitched with a flicker of red, and the lock was thrown over a shoulder like it had been ripped clean off.

      “What the hell?”

Hands every bit as pale as the nearby corpses in storage rummaged through Patricia’s belongings, yet he still couldn’t bring himself to trigger the radio. He watched what he was starting to suspect was a woman tug Patricia’s goggles and glasses out for inspection in the darkness. The goggles were aviator style with mirrored red lenses that Pat absolutely loved when work in the morgue called for a pair, and the other were mirrored red aviator sunglasses someone had bought her to match the goggles. The intruder stuffed the glasses in a coat pocket and tugged the goggles over their eyes.

The radio sat idle in his hand until the person moved to the table of instruments and lifted a pair of long and wicked syringes, testing their weight and balance. The guard stared open-mouthed and almost jumped out of his skin when the radio suddenly barked in his ear.

      “Jeff, I was going to say this is closer to you, but I think we need to coordinate on this one. Over.”

Jeff swallowed hard as Patricia’s goggles seemed to stare directly at the camera before the person turned to leave with their newfound weapons.

      “Taser and your gun ready, Dave, this ain’t a fucking patient-”

The hallway camera outside the morgue jarred and rippled, the picture damn near unwatchable as the figure strode in the direction of Jeff’s office. The now-armed intruder seemed to glitch on the screen, and every glitch was accompanied by an overhead light going out. Something that could have been passed off as a computer error if he couldn’t hear the distant echo of electricity, and something else.

-----

It was the screams that ripped Chase from sleep. He woke to a desperate mix of hollering and the occasional “CODE WHITE” shrieking from everywhere and nowhere.

      “Dad, what’s happening!?” Connor held him like a vice, his eyes wide and terrified as silent tears ran down Ellie’s ashen face. Chase could get them out, but not Stacy, she was fucking helpless on that bed think, bastard, THINK-

      “Get in the bathroom and lock the door, don’t open it for anyone but me!” He all but threw his children in the direction of the only immediately available safe place before slamming the door to Stacy’s unit shut. He had the same revelation his daughter did a millisecond later.

      “Daddy, the door doesn’t lock!” her tiny face appeared in the crack, but Chase was already trying to barricade the unit entrance with anything that wasn’t bolted down or keeping Stacy alive. “Just stay in there, baby, I’m come-”

The words died in his throat. Through the tiny glass window in the door, he saw black wrapped in red, eyes hidden behind massive googles and an enormous syringe in each palm. Fully formed, Void was shorter than he remembered, and striding deliberately toward Stacy’s room. Its outline still glitched and writhed, and every pulse seemed to send out a haze of red to shatter a passing light, leaving darkness and chaos in its wake. A guard with a gun attempted to block the demon’s path, shouting an order to lower the weapons. The familiar tearing noise filled their world when Void vanished in a plume of red, and that red was the last he saw of the guard before blood splattered against the window.

Chase’s eyes were wide as saucers, his mouth permanently wrenched open as Void strode directly to the door and attempted to turn the handle. He gripped the metal in both of his hands and held it for all he had, but red smoke filled the room behind him to the tune of that unearthly tearing. It sounded like Void ripped the world in two every time they teleported, and he dimly wondered if that wasn’t exactly what they were doing. Tearing out of one reality to fill a space nearby. He wasn’t given time to reflect on that before the goggles turned toward Stacy’s inert form.

      “Get up.”

Their voice was quiet, but still somehow resonated. It still reminded Chase forcibly of Stacy’s own voice, but she remained unconscious on the gurney. Void’s body shimmered red in agitation at the lack of response, but a syringe raised regardless.

      “FINE.”

There was no thought process as Chase threw himself at the demon, grabbing at their shoulders to drag them back and away, and the effort earned a blow to the sternum so hard he saw stars. His vision and hearing tunneled as the ceiling filled his gaze, yet even that pain couldn’t keep him down. He struggled drunkenly upright as Void turned back to his wife, but there was still hesitation in their body language as a syringe was drawn back again. Before the needle could move, Ellie threw herself over her mother.

Void was more still than they had ever seen, but the syringe didn’t lower.

      MOVE.”

      “NO! The shaky monster is GONE, that’s just MOMMY!”

Ellie was quaking with fear, but defiant. Void’s mouth tightened along with their grip on the weapon.

      “Move or I will move you.”

      “HE’S GONE! HE LEFT AFTER HE HIT DADDY, HE’S ALL GONE!”

Her scream was punctuated by the sharp WHACK of a metal tray against the back of the demon’s head, and Chase felt some sense of satisfaction at the recoil and yelp of pain that followed. It wasn’t invulnerable, just damn hard to catch. Stars still danced in his vision as the tray was raised like a shield, and he held his ground.

      “Stay the hell away from my family. I didn’t let you in.”

      “You did,” Void spat as they straightened, but the syringes were pointed to the ground as its outline flickered red in anger, “sitting in your car full of trash and shattered dreams. You pounded the steering wheel and you screamed. You were alone, but you wanted to be heard. And it we both know it wasn’t the first time.”

Color steadily drained from the man’s face, and it was replaced with ice. Every inch of him was drowning with dread.

      “I don’t understand-”

      “That much emotion, that much desire to be heard, it can leave a mark. It can weaken the veil. The first time, it let the glitch in. The second time, in your car, it was me.”

      “What does that MEAN!?” Chase hollered, his knuckles white against the medical tray, “I DIDN’T ASK TO BE HUNTED!”

Void’s head tilted, ever so slightly, and the syringes were shifted to one hand so the other could push back the goggles. Whatever they intended to do didn't last long, because those soulless black eyes slammed shut at the sudden glare of the overhead light, and the lenses were tugged back on. He couldn’t help but recoil as a plume of red smoke brought those red lenses mere inches from his own, though he had to angle his head slightly down to meet them.

      “Humans… you scream into the void because you want to be heard. And then you balk when it actually listens.

Chase and the kids jumped when security suddenly rammed the barricaded door, demanding they open up. Void hitched their grip on the syringes and turned their back to the family.

      “… Though I suppose it is just your luck that you opened the doorway to the worst thing in it.”

      “You?”

Chase’s blurted question brought an unnerving chuckle of disbelief, and half a smile crept across the demon’s face as security pushed the door further.

      “N-hh-NO-o-o-” it almost bubbled into a laugh, a mirthless, pitying, incredulous laugh that cut somehow deeper than everything that had come before it.NO. He’s SO much WORSE than ME.”

The brutal honesty wrapped a hand around his heart and squeezed, but the guards were nearly through, and he asked the only question that surfaced.

      "What- what's his name?"

      "... Anti."

The door finally busted open, but with a billow of red smoke, it was gone. In the deafening silence that followed, unseen by any survivor in that room, the corner of Stacy’s mouth crept up in the tiniest smile.

Chapter Text

The days that followed were an absolute blur. Somehow his body was going through all the right motions; his kids made it to and from school, the fridge wasn’t empty, the bills were paid on time. Then blue eyes would slowly blink and take in the hospital room, or Stacy’s kitchen, or the couch in front of the TV, and he couldn’t for the life of him remember how he got there. It was like there were two Chases; one actually living his life and one just along for the ride.

His job had been understanding, and he was free to work from home as long as Stacy and the kids needed help. It had been easier to move back to their old house for the time being, and it would be better for the kids to maintain some sense of normalcy. Connor followed him everywhere he went like a sad, frightened shadow. He tried so hard to perk them up with his “positive mental attitude!” but his face wavered with fear every time Chase had to leave the room. Ellie was just silent. She’d speak if spoken to, she’d hug back if she was held. Otherwise it was like his daughter died, and he was caring for her ghost.

Chase wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he couldn’t live with it anymore. He’d picked her up, hugged her close, and he’d begged.

      Come back to us, sweetie. Daddy needs you, please.

It started slowly, and then she wailed. Wrenching sobs too big for her tiny lungs to process. He’d murmured to get it all out, that Mommy was going to be okay, but her anguish ripped him apart until his own tears started falling. All three of them ended up on the floor, clinging to each other, trying to promise everything would be okay.

They cried themselves to sleep, and the moment he’d left them safely on Stacy’s bed, he started to work on Ellie’s room. She’d moved in with Chase in Stacy’s room for the time being, as Connor’s bed was too small for both of them and that was bickering no one needed. Thankfully the drywall hadn’t been damaged, but the window was still broken and there was shit everywhere. He patched the sill with duct tape and a tarp -- the best he could do until they called someone to put a new window in – and got to putting away toys, reassembling the broken tea party table, hanging the pictures back up. The sheets were stretched and intact, but the same could not be said for her pillow. That had split open, case and all, and they’d have to give her one of the spares from the linen closet.

The bulb on the color-changing light was unscrewed and shoved in that closet. That whole endeavor had been the longest he’d stayed in the present since the nightmare began.

      I’d like the nightmare to end.

 

11AM

The doctor stayed long enough to assure Chase the laceration on Stacy’s neck was healing nicely, but they still didn’t know why she wouldn’t wake up. There was nothing unusual in her system, brain scans had come back normal, they didn’t have a clue. Chase wasn’t sure when he started screaming, but there was no stopping once it began.

      “YOU CAN’T CHARGE US A HOSPITAL BILL THAT COST MORE THAN OUR FUCKING HOUSE FOR AN ‘I! DON’T! KNOW!’”

It went on for god knew how long, the doctor just grimaced and took it. Someone sympathetic and reassuring walked him down to the finance office, sat him down, and he spent a good hour talking with an employee about Stacy’s income, his income, what they could realistically pay, and what they could strong-arm her insurance company into covering. The outcome still hurt, but it was no longer over a hundred thousand dollars.

If she didn’t wake up soon, it wouldn’t matter. That thought had haunted him on the long, roundabout trek back to his wife.

The room where Stacy was kept had been changed. The blood on the door made it part of the crime scene for the security guard who had been murdered. The news reported some normal person off the street had come in and stabbed the guy, but they didn’t know any better. All of the CCTVs on the affected floors were fried, and the footage was left indecipherable. The eyewitnesses were all in shock, denial, or refusing to come forward. A local and somewhat eccentric investigative reporter named Jim had been prowling the hospital with a cameraman since just after the incident happened, but he’d managed to avoid them so far.

Chase was drained in every sense of the word. Sleep was hit or miss, especially when one or both kids woke up crying, or Connor climbed into bed with them and startled him awake. He’d spent every day since the attack propped up on coffee and autopilot, and it was wearing him down. Inch by painful inch. So when a monitor ticked faster as he edited video on his laptop, he didn’t notice. Not until a hand weakly brushed his arm.

The touch may as well have been lighting for how hard Chase jolted in his seat. Blue eyes were wide as he captured Stacy’s palm and held it in one hand, the other pushing hair back from her forehead.

      “Stacy!? Stacy, can you hear me!?”

It was slow, painfully slow, but her eyes cracked open, and Chase’s face split into the widest grin of relief when those familiar brown irises stared back at him.

      He’s gone. He’s really gone.

Stacy’s face pinched with pain, and it looked like she was going to speak before he quickly shook his head.

      “You’re still healing, don’t talk yet. You’re in the hospital, the kids are in school, they’re okay.”

Her eyes squeezed shut with a grimace, and she managed a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. The free hand rubbed at the bandages on her throat, and his breath caught when she flinched with pain. Stacy pulled free of his grip and mimed texting with both hands in a silent request for a phone. Chase scrambled at the ledge where her cell was charging, and she took the phone with uncoordinated hands before immediately starting to type. It was a slow process, he knew even autocorrect was struggling to decipher her words in this state, but he waited patiently until she handed him the device.

      [ I couldn’t stop him ]

Chase’s expression broke with hers, and he swiped off his hat so he could bury his face in her shoulder. He’d secretly hoped Stacy wouldn’t remember a damn thing, but she was shaking with tears of her own.

      “I know you tried, baby, I know. I’m so sorry.”

It took a long moment to realize she was trying to type one-handed while holding him with the other, and he withdrew in time for her to press the phone against him again.

      [ He didn’t think you could stop him either. Doesn’t know how you did it ]

      “Physics? Muscle mass, I don’t know, it’s not like I made a plan! I just-” his breath hitched, and blue eyes vanished, “I couldn’t stand back and let that happen. I had to try.”

Stacy was crying, and it only made the pain in her neck worse. A hand brushed at the black eye it had left on her husband’s face, but he didn’t let it linger, wrapping his own fingers around hers.

      “Stace, I… when I disappeared in the woods that day… I didn’t walk home from there. I found an eviction notice on my door, and I lost my fucking mind. I thought… I thought visiting Mom might help. Of course I fucking drank when I got there, but I just… wanted to clear my head. One moment I was there in the woods, and the next I was dumped on the roof of a parking garage. I still don’t know where that even was, I just knew whatever put me there wanted me to jump, and I didn’t. I ran. I just fucking ran and somehow made it back home. I think that was all him. I couldn’t tell you the truth because it’s fucking insane, but it makes sense now. I just wish it didn’t.”

She squeezed his hand like a vice, but he still couldn’t meet her gaze. The truth should have been liberating; instead it weighed down his shoulders like lead. Chase didn’t fight it when her hand tugged free of his, but he stirred when that phone was pushed against him again. The sheer urgency in her eyes was enough to make his blood run cold, and his own drifted to the screen with mounting dread.

      [ He looks like YOU ]

Time ground to a halt beside the hospital bed. The IV drip seemed to slow, the TV dimmed, and the outside world disappeared entirely. Every tether to reality was severed in an instant, and he felt tied to nothing more than the grip on his arm and the words on the screen.

      “…Did-” Chase’s voice was horribly thin, and it only caught in his throat, “did you think he was me…?”

Her tiny, tearful nod took the air from his lungs like a punch to the gut. Whatever this Anti was, it wore his face to get close enough to Stacy to possess her. It had to be a gimmick, an illusion, why the fuck would the worst thing in the void look like the biggest nobody on the other side? What did it want from him? More of his friends to escape the veil? Was he trying to torture Chase into involuntarily opening the doorway again?

      “… He’s gone, now.”

There wasn’t much conviction to be found in that voice, but for Stacy, he tried.

      “He’s gone. And if he’s not, I’ll call a fucking exorcist if I have to. He’s never going to hurt me, you, or the kids-”

Chase faltered, and he barely felt Stacy’s concerned shake of his arm. He wouldn’t have heard her if she shouted.

      That bastard can wear your face.

      It’s your job to pick them up from school.

Chapter Text

2PM

Chase didn’t care if he looked like a lunatic, he didn’t care if an administrator or even the fucking cops asked what the hell he was doing. School didn’t let out for another hour, but he was ready. Hell, if it didn’t consume gas, the car would still be on. That shape-shifting son of a bitch was not going to take his kids, not while he still breathed.

      You’re sure he shape-shifts?

A broad hand scrubbed down his face as blue eyes cinched shut. Why the fuck else would it look like him? The demon was the monster the monsters were scared of, Chase was just a depressed, worthless nobody. It could crawl out of computers, it could possess people, it was a sadistic, twisted, horrifying-

      Antithesis of me.

Air caught in his throat as if trapped by an unseen wall, but he forced his eyes to focus again on the school’s front entrance. No, Anti couldn’t be some bizarre nightmare reflection of himself, Chase had done absolutely nothing in this world to warrant any kind of infamy in another. And yet… and yet…

      the opposite of nobody is somebody.

There was a controlled inhale and exhale in the silent car. Screaming in anguish had started this mess, he couldn’t afford to lose it again. Yet another concept that tore at his own fucking sanity, how could he have let them in? He wasn’t the most miserable son of a bitch in this damn city, let alone the damn planet; why weren’t there monsters running around left and right? Why was he the one who opened the doorway to the void, it could have been anyone! Why couldn’t he shake the fucking guilt that rose when he looked at Stacy’s bandages. When he bypassed the caution-taped hallway where the security guard died. Did he slit her throat? Did he impale that man?

If he’d just kept his shit together, would Stacy be at work and that guard still alive?

The clock in the car read 2:13 as Chase shook his head. By that logic, the landlord who had given him the eviction notice started this. The owner of the conference room who’d given his team a good rate had blood on his hands. Void said Anti was already here before the day Chase had landed on that parking garage, and the only other time he could remember being that unhinged was the day Stacy told him she couldn’t do it anymore. The day he’d given up his marriage for a good place to film trick shots. The rest of it had been a fog of dread and a helpless, paralyzing horror that he was the headless man, already dead and still walking to his destination.

He then realized where his destination was.

Chase had never told Stacy. Never told Charlie. Never told Grayson, his cameraman and friend who’d driven him home that day. Never told any of them he’d drifted from their front door to the bedroom the moment he was certain his family was already gone. Gone for a stupid room and equally stupid trick shots for a channel that would never be popular enough to sustain them.

      This one’s called: I’m staying at my sister’s this weekend. This one’s called: Fuck you, Chase, I’m leaving you and I’m taking the kids with me. This one’s called: Fuck you, I want a divorce.

His boots had echoed across the fake wood floor, one deliberate step at a time. There was no sweeping the house for memories, no final looks; there was no time. Chase was already dead, already gone, and he needed his body to catch up. Looking back, he wished there had been some kind of hesitation when he’d raised the handgun to his temple, but there wasn’t.

      This one’s called: Stacy, I love you, please don’t go.

Chase knew he’d be dead before the sound of the gunshot reached his ears, but the heavy click against his skull was louder than any bullet could have been. The gun was empty, and that was when he shattered. His entire life in ruins, and he couldn’t even kill himself without fucking it up. He'd thrown the gun back in the closet and screamed.

If it was high emotion that weakened the veil, Chase could think of no other point in his life that could have done it. Never had he wanted so badly to both be heard and never heard from again.

The problem with that theory… was a glaring one. it had been two years ago. If that had done it; where had Anti been for the past two years? Why would he wait until now to start tormenting him? Especially if this fucker was so bad, Void tried to kill him first?

      This is a puzzle from fucking hell, and I don’t even have the pieces.

Thoughts churned in his head like a storm for a long while, and continued even as the front doors of the school were propped open and kids began to stream through. Chase had planted himself on the steps with ten minutes to spare and waited, ignoring the looks from the staff and holding his breath tight in his chest.

It didn’t release until both of his kids emerged, the subdued pair a sharp contrast to the excited kids bolting around them. A strange ache twisted his heart as both of them brightened somewhat at the sight of their dad, and he leaned down to pick up Ellie and grab Connor’s hand.

      “Anything exciting happen today?" he asked them, forcing his tone to lighten, "Did Weylon eat bugs again? Does Susie still command the gel pen economy?”

      “Mr. Brody, can I have a word with you in private? Connor and, ah, Ellie- they won’t mind, right?”

Chase’s grip on his kids instinctively tightened, especially when Connor edged closer to his leg at the approach of his teacher. The man was tall, far taller than Chase, and his smile did nothing to reach his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was separate from his kids, least of all for this fuckwaffle.

      “Sorry, sir, but we have to get going. Have a good one.”

      “I have to insist, I have some concerns I want to discuss with-”

      “I said no!”

The man’s eyes widened at the sudden outburst, and the calculations behind them were infuriating. Chase could tell he was doing the math and deciding whatever he thought was wrong with Connor had come from him.

      “Look, the school has my number, call me. We’re leaving, let’s go, bud.”

A reassuring grip tightened around his son’s shoulders, and he resisted the urge to seethe while they were steered toward the car. Parents and children alike parted for the look on his face, and distantly he knew that would not help his case. There were already rumors about him being a deadbeat dad, but he didn't give a fuck if the people viciously hiding their own flaws talked shit about his. No, he cared if they tried to project his bullshit onto his son. Chase waited in silence until the car doors were shut and they were safely buckled before shifting in his seat to meet Connor’s gaze.

      “I know he’s just going to tell me you’re not your usual self, and that’s okay. You don’t have to smile and pretend, not for anyone, and definitely not for your stinky teacher, okay?” That earned half a smile, and he returned it. “It’s alright if you’re not talking in class, or raising your hand, or playing with the other kids right now. He can call me if he wants, but no matter what he says, you’re not going to be in trouble.”

Connor’s breath hitched and he nodded, the relief splashed across his face. When Chase raised his fist for a bump, it was returned with a shaky smile.

      “That’s my boy. Now buckle up, because your mom’s awake, and we’re going to see her right now.”

The collective gasp was everything. It felt like a bubble of hope had enveloped the car, shielding it from the outside world, from the reason it’d been sitting in that spot for an hour. Even the warnings that mommy couldn’t talk yet hadn’t dampened that elation, and the weight lifted from tiny shoulders was contagious.

      You’ve got them, they’re safe. It’s going to be okay.

 

4PM

The emergency room wasn’t far from where Stacy was now kept, -- a necessary detour around the crime scene -- but they’d fortunately missed seeing anything too traumatizing during their many trips. Chase supposed it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out, especially with the kids in tow. Blue eyes caught the blood on the person being wheeled in by paramedics before the children did, and he turned them both away as the gurneys prepared to wheel past. Ellie was buried against his chest, and Chase’s hand shielded Connor’s eyes.

      “Don’t look, you guys, you don’t need to see this.”

Eyes could be hidden, ears not so much, and Chase’s prickled as nurses swarmed the scene.

      “What do we got?”

      “Multiple punctures to the chest and exit wounds in the back, victim was impaled by something at least fourteen inches long. Weapon diameter is small-”

Their voices were lost as the gurney was wheeled past and a pair of cops followed in its wake.

      “-found him in an abandoned warehouse. He's got a history of debt and drug abuse, but if this was just a matter of him not paying up and someone sending a message, we’ve got a real sadistic asshole on our hands…”

Chase’s eyes slid shut and he fought to keep his breathing even. The cop said it, just a drug deal gone wrong. Or maybe a loan shark, that shit happened…

      “Daddy your heart is going really fast.”

Ellie’s tiny voice against his chest pulled him back to the present, and he hitched her higher in his arms.

      “I’m okay, sweetie. Let’s go see your mom.”

Chapter Text

Both kids ended up in bed with Stacy, which the nurse allowed with a grudging smile and a warning not to strain her throat. Chase’s laptop sat between them so she could communicate a little easier, but Connor and Ellie were happy enough just seeing her look at them and smile. Stacy was still weak, and she winced as if it were sandpaper wrapped against her stitches instead of bandages. But she was alert, responding as best she could, holding hands and stroking hair, just trying to convince them both that Mommy was still there.

Crumpled sound asleep in the seat beside the bed was Chase, neck bent at an awkward angle he would regret. His whole family was safe and within arm’s reach, it was the first time he’d fully relaxed since Stacy had been possessed. Chase slept through medications, through checkups, and through dinner. Through the hospital becoming quieter. Darker.

      Emptier.

Blue eyes snapped open.

The hospital bed was empty. Worse, the hospital bed was pristine. Stacy hadn’t just gotten up and walked away, she’d been gone. The bed was made and waiting for the next victim. The kids were nowhere to be found, and there was nothing to break the deafening silence beyond those four walls. Nothing to protect them but a blood-splattered door that slowly creaked open, beckoning him outside.

Limbs were slow to respond but he forced himself upright as the screens on the medical equipment began to glitch and flicker that sickly green. Even the sound of it was becoming horribly familiar, but Chase was not as frightened as he could have been.

      This is a dream. This is definitely a fucking dream.

That did not mean indulging this fucker was a good idea. No one needed a front row seat to his subconscious, least of all the glitch monster himself. Chase’s hands automatically raised, and his fingers dug harshly into his closed eyes until those familiar and blinding kaleidoscope patterns of green began to swirl across his vision. He didn’t know exactly when he’d discovered the trick, but pressing against his eyes like that would eventually wake him up if he decided a dream was too much, or too frightening. He wasn’t sure whether science supported that, or if he’d just trained his brain into waking up once the patterns of green behind his eyelids dispersed. Sometimes, if he couldn’t physically wake from the nightmare he wanted out of, the dream would actually change. There had been more than a few times when he’d “woken up” from a bed or couch into a new, gentler scenario.

      Don’t know what that fucking says about me.

A faint and twisted giggle answered his thoughts, echoing somewhere beyond the open door, and Chase dug his fingers harder against his eyelids. He didn’t want to wake in a softer dream, he wanted to wake up.

      W͢e̛ c͞o̵ưl͢d͢ talk, ̶y͝ou̴ ͏an̴d I.̶ J̢us͏t ͞for a̡ ͜l̷it͜tl͜e͟ w̢h͟ile͟. It̕'͝s̨ just̨ ̵a̛ dream ̢after͞ ͠all.̛..͏

      “Shut the fuck up.”

The man was shaking where he stood, trying to focus on the patterns behind his eyes and block out the glitch’s voice as it grew closer.

      L̨oơk̡ at̸ ͡you.̶ Tra̵p̡ped͢ ͝i̡n̛ y̢our̷ s͝ubc͢o͢n̛sc̢i̕ou͢s͘. ͏Wat̵ching̢ t̵h̨e pre͠tty͟ li̵ght͡s͟. ̨N̵oth̴i̕n̶g̕ t͞o ̵ho̕ld o̕ņ ͝to b̡ųt̡ ̷t̕h̛e ͏s̴o̢und o̢f̡ ̶my ̛voice. It's l̨ike͝ yo̵u̶ WAN͞T ̡t͜o ͜b̶e c̛on͝troll̴e̢d.̛ ͞

Fear exploded in Chase’s gut and it rippled to his knees, making them buckle while footsteps echoed in his ears. The longer he pressed against his eyes, the more likely he was to wake up, but he was terrified now that this was just making shit easier for Anti. He couldn’t see anything but the near-blinding swirls of green that almost seemed to sear into his brain, and he couldn’t hear anything but that broken voice. A voice that sounded like a higher-pitched and twisted version of his own.

The footsteps echoed to a halt directly in front of him, and Chase tried to free his eyes to wake up, but an icy hand slammed against the back of his head while the other locked his fingers against his eyes. The man’s heart hammered against his rib cage as he tried to knee and kick the monster away, but it was like trying to hit static. Whatever might have been there disintegrated before he made contact.

      You̢ t͡h͢oug̨ht I w̶as g͏one͢. B͜ut̸ I̶'̴v͢e been he̵r͞e ͢t̡his ͘e̛n͏t̨i̧ŗe ti̢m͝e̛!

Chase tried to drop his whole weight in an effort to sink out of Anti’s hold, but the demon managed to catch him with a snarl. They were a tangled and glitching mass of limbs, and the hands against his head almost seemed to thrum with frenetic energy.

      No̡t yet, pupp͝et.͜ You can̡'t͢ ͞fi̧ght̡ ̵m͡e. T͞he͡ ̡t͠e̕lepo͏r̨tȩr͝ ca̢n'̧t ̶fįg̸ht ̷me.̡ Yo̕u're bot̷h͘ ̸wea͜k̕. Jus̡t͢ l͞ike ̧th͏e re͜st̕ o͏f ̷t͟hem. But may͏be͘ I'm ͡not t͜h͢e͡ o͏ne͠ y̛o͜u͏ ̢s̴hou̸ld ̢wor̛ry ̕ab͟out͘.

His wrists were bloodless in the effort to pry his own hands away from his eyes, but Anti’s grip was relentless. There was nothing he could do but tense as that sing-song voice leaned right into his ear.

      B̢e̵twee͡n͞ me̕ and͜ the̛ ̵te͜l̕e̵por̢te͠r.͝.. ̛wh͜ich ̷of̷ u̢s̨ h͡as̨ ̧ac̛tu̷ally͢ ki̛llȩd ̸s̕o͞m̕eon͏e͏?͢ ̷

      W̷ake̛ ̢ųp̵.͞

 

Blue eyes snapped open.

Ashen skin was covered in a sheen of sweat, but the drone of medical equipment quickly reached his ears. Stacy and the kids were settled on the gurney, watching a movie on his laptop. The door was perfectly clean, not a drop of blood on it. The overhead lights shone as fiercely as they always did.

A shaking hand scrubbed down his face and muffled a groan as his neck finally straightened. It took a lot of wincing and contorting to get himself out of that chair, but Stacy’s hand caught his arm as he tried to walk past.

      “I’m just gonna get some coffee, baby, you want some?”

They both unconsciously stilled; he hadn’t called her baby since before the breakup. Brown eyes were difficult to read, but she eventually nodded before pointing toward the door and then swinging her finger firmly back toward the bed.

      Get it and come back.

He offered a weary thumbs up before nudging the door open and shut behind him. The nightmare was slipping through his fingers like water, he could barely remember what was said. All he knew for sure was his neck hurt and his eyes were sore, and he was in the process of rubbing them when a chaotic force bumped gracelessly into him.

      “Oh, Jim! Jim, this is him! Sir, can we have just a- just a moment of your ti-iiime-”

Chase reeled back from the microphone shoved in his face by the man he’d collided with, and was not amused to find it was that eccentric reporter.

      “I really don’t have anything to say,” he ventured cautiously, pulling his cap back into place while the reporter straightened only to swerve closer. It was like his spine was made of rubber and could only hold one shape for so long. More striking still was the fact he was identical to the man behind the camera. Same black hair, same long fringe, same brown eyes, same stubbled jaw, same blue shirt and khakis. The reporter wasn’t at all put off by his apprehension.

      “Any information is worthwhile! I’m Jim, this is Jim, and we’re trying to uncover this INSIDIOUS plot to murder- whoever the hell- DIED- In this god damn hospital. Look!”

Jim tugged Chase by the arm as the other Jim trailed after, and he didn’t stop until they reached the hallway that led to the intensive care unit. The boneless man gestured to the closed doors as if they held all the answers.

      “A man- stabbed- the wounds IDENTICAL to the guard’s. Brought in- just hours ago, from an abandoned warehouse, and WE- have the address! BUT- any- and I mean ANY- information you have- on this insane killer- will be MOST beneficial- for we plan to investigate- the scene of this crime- head on.”

Just the way Jim talked was making Chase’s groggy head spin, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned.

      “… Turn the camera off, and I’ll talk.”

Reporter Jim frantically waved his hand down and cameraman Jim followed suit, hitting the power button and waiting with as much anticipation as his brother.

      “… This person is extremely dangerous. They’re fast, and they’re armed, do yourselves a favor and stay away. I think anyone who gets too close is going to end up right back here.”

The Jims only seemed encouraged by this insight, and Chase all but smacked the wandering microphone out of his face.

      “Listen to me, you might be killed. Find a different story.”

      “One- FINAL question, if you don’t mind very much,” reporter Jim wasn’t sure what to do with the microphone now that it wasn’t allowed near Chase, so it swung haphazardly with the rest of his hand gestures, “would you say this was the work of… demons?”

Chase’s mouth fell open in shock, but reporter Jim didn’t give him another chance to speak.

      “Stop-stop- that’s ALL we needed to know. Come on, Jim. We’ve got work to do…”

Blue eyes couldn’t help but stare as the Jims left him by the ICU, his pounding headache and desire for coffee all but forgotten.

Chapter Text

9PM

For once, there was no protest when bedtime came. Stacy was still in the hospital, but the kids knew she was going to be okay, and that was a huge weight off their tiny backs. The only resistance he met was the fact they both still wanted to share Stacy’s bed with him. Chase felt a pang of regret knowing he’d end up back in his rental house once she came home, either the next day or the day after.

      “I think we should all try sleeping in our own beds tonight, okay? I’ll still be upstairs if you guys need me.”

Both of their faces fell a little, and both had gotten big hugs and sent off to change into their pajamas. Maybe it’d be easier when he left again if they had a normal night first. Or maybe he was just making it easier on him.

Chase tucked them both into their separate beds and told them both goodnight, but Connor’s soft voice stopped him as he reached the doorway.

      “Dad? I think… I have an idea how to stop the monster. Or maybe slow him down to fight him.”

Connor’s face was so urgent, and Chase had all he could do to stop the color from draining from his own. For fuck’s sake, why was he afraid of talking about Anti, it wasn’t like the son of a bitch was in the fucking walls. Logic didn’t stop him from moving back to Connor’s bed, and dropping his voice to a near whisper.

      “Alright. Let’s hear it.”

      “Well…” Connor’s hands fisted nervously in the comforter as he spoke, “the monster came out of the computer. And the lights. What if he needs electricity? What if we shut off the power? What if we had an EMP!”

Chase couldn’t help a slight smile at that.

      “There aren’t enough videos in the world for me to edit to get my hands on an EMP bomb. But… maybe you’re right. He does really like electricity.”

      “Do you think he’s coming back?”

A comforting hand pushed the fringe back from Connor’s forehead, and Chase forced a smile.

      “It’s a big world out there, bud. We’re just four little people. He probably got bored of us, and went to pick on someone his own size.”

      “Like Ellie’s friend?”

      “He’d have more fun fighting Ellie’s friend than fighting me. Your old man’s built for trick shots and Minecraft.”

That earned a genuine giggle, and Connor sat up straighter in bed as eagerness stole over his features.

      “Can you do the handstand backflip!? Please!?”

Chase pulled his hat over his face to muffle his groan as Connor tugged excitedly on his sleeve.

      “Child, WHY, you know how long it’s been? Are you trying to kill me?”

      “Dad, PLEASE, it’s so COOL!”

He heaved a theatrical sigh and threw the adidas hat down on the bed to the tune of Connor’s cheers. There was really only one spot in the room he couldn’t destroy if something went wrong, and his cramped muscles protested before he even began.

      “You’re killing me, Smalls,” he grumbled before bending his knees experimentally, springing back and landing solidly on his hands.

      “YES! You DID IT! Now STAY that way!”

      “Stay-WHAT-”

The laugh of indignation made him wobble, but he managed to stand on his feet again before falling. His son wasn’t the least bit sorry as Chase swiped his hat off the bed and tugged the comforter back where it should be.

      “Lay down, kid, I’ve had enough of your sabotage.”

Connor giggled and flopped on his side, accepting his fate. A rough hand made a mess of his hair as revenge and left him there.

      “G’night, Dad,” Connor called after Chase’s retreating form.

      “Night, bud.”

Ellie’s nightstand lamp was still on across the hall, and she sat up in bed when Chase walked in. “What happened, Daddy?”

      “Your brother’s mean, that’s what.”

A fit of giggles was his only answer as he pulled the comforter over her tiny body, and it made it difficult to tuck her in.

      “Hold still, dammit,” he barked, but not without a smile across his face, “quit laughing at me.”

      “I can’t help it, it’s funny.”

It turned into a competition then, and it ended with her literally wrapped in a ball of blankets, her shrieking laughs muffled by the fabric as Chase buried her alive. He waited until Ellie was good and trapped before skittering out of the room with a “Goodnight, sweetie! Daddy loves you!”

He wasn’t sure how long it took her to disentangle herself, but he knew she would be good and tired when she finally did. Not another sound came from either room again, and Chase returned to the couch to watch some mindless TV.

      Things will go back to normal for them. They’re going to be okay.

 

1AM

Chase never made it to Stacy’s bed.

Of all things, a let’s play of a horror game had knocked him out against the couch cushions. Something about a teenager lost in the woods with camera angles that reminded him of Silent Hill. It hadn’t been enough to keep him awake. The living room light was still blazing, the tv screen was dimmed but still set on the video suggestions that came after it ended hours ago. The hat sat vigil beside him on the couch, pointed toward the TV as if it were still watching. The only sound in the room was Chase’s steady breathing.

Until the light flickered.

It was faint at first, just a hum of interrupted electricity that caused the glow to waver, never truly extinguishing. A line of static slid from the bottom of the TV screen to the top. Then another. And another. And another. The colors began to separate, bleeding red, green, and blue as the picture began to glitch. Those same colors cascaded over Chase’s sleeping form, blissfully unaware of the warning. It wasn’t until the light flared bright and the static swelled in volume that those blue eyes finally opened.

Sluggish limbs lurched as if they’d been shocked, and he damn near crashed to the floor under the crushing instinct to run. Grab the kids and RUN. There was no taunting voice, no laughter in his ears, but there didn’t need to be. The screeching television was more than enough to fill him with fear.

      What if he needs electricity? What if we shut off the power?

Somehow, Connor’s voice cut through the terror like a knife, and Chase threw himself instead toward the laundry room, where the circuit box lived. A pile of dirty clothes caught his foot and pitched him forward, and he practically crawled in his urgency to reach the breakers. Frantic hands damn near tore the panel clean off before tripping every last one, one heavy click at a time, until the living room light faded, the TV powered down with a whine, and Chase was left panting in the darkness. The only sound in his ears was the pounding of his own heart.

Slowly, cautiously, he straightened. A hand fumbled against the shelf of candles Stacy kept in there, searching for the lighter she kept near them. It took several tries with a shaking hand to illuminate the room, and that hand shook so bad he had to light it twice. For a moment, there was silence.

Connor and Ellie screamed.

Chase felt his own blood congeal in his veins as their terror filled his ears, but it was like wading through water. He wanted to sprint, to holler that he was here, he was coming, but no sound left his throat. Long legs would only move one tentative step at a time while his free hand brushed the walls for guidance. The air was thick and resistant, every movement felt like pushing against something twice his size. Shadows flickered and crawled from the wavering flame of his lighter. All while his children shrieked and sobbed in terror.

His body trembled as it finally reached Connor’s room, but the sheets were empty. Tugged back and hanging limply over the side of the mattress. A lifetime later, Ellie’s was shown to be just the same. Yet their cries still echoed in his ears, from above him now, and he made the impossible trek up the carpeted stairs. Unintelligible whispers pressed in from every direction, both disorienting and invasive, muffling Connor and Ellie’s panicked voices. Climbing Everest would have felt easier than willing his leaden legs to drag him up each creaking step, yet even through the exertion, his breath was strangely still. Years passed before he finally turned the corner at the top, and as that familiar red light spilled down the hallway, all sound suddenly ceased.

There was a man silhouetted in the doorway. If Chase hadn’t known any better, he would have assumed there was a mirror reflecting his own body, but the direction was wrong. The glitching was wrong. His own back faced him in the darkness, and his own head began to turn.

      “Who’s there?”

Chase’s voice was thin, because he already knew. Anti’s face, his face, turned to meet him in the bloody glow of the color-changing light he must have fixed in Stacy’s room himself. He hadn’t wanted to believe Anti was his double, his nightmare mirror, but the proof was standing right in front of him. The man didn’t breathe until the demon’s right eye blazed a blinding green, and it smiled.

      “WHERE ARE THEY!?” Chase screamed, finding his voice at last, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?”

The demon glitched and lurched down the hall, his head tossing as if against a resistance only he could feel. Eyes black as pitch bored into his, and it was the last conscious thought in his mind before it all faded into dark silence.

 

 

The world was light again when Chase finally stirred from the hallway floor. The carpet beneath his temple was warm and sticky, and the scent of copper filled his nose. Peeling himself away from it was a chore, and unsteady hands lifted to inspect the small circle cut into his skin.

      Like a bullet hole.

Air caught like a vice in his lungs, and his gaze wrenched toward the empty doorway. The red light was gone, Anti was gone, but it brought him no comfort. Chase lurched to his feet and threw himself down the stairs two at a time.

      “CONNOR!? ELLIE!?”

Crimson smeared against the white door frame of Ellie’s room, and then Connor’s. Both were empty, as if they’d never been occupied at all. Chase turned circles in the hallway like he was stuck in a loop, bloodied hands twisted into his hair tight enough to pull it out as more blood slid down his pallid cheek.

      Anti has my kids.

Chapter Text

Chase thought he understood pain. Nothing could have prepared him for what felt like breathing through a funnel while his chest was slowly crushed, one unforgiving centimeter at a time. Grief could physically hurt, something about the brain assuming there’s an internal injury where pain receptors aren’t sophisticated. Or maybe that was just bullshit he read online.

There was no answer in the empty house. There was no answer in Stacy’s horrified face. There was no answer in the fake bullet wound carved into his temple that never seemed to stop bleeding. There was no answer in the interrogation room at the police station. The cops couldn’t help him, no one could. Yet it felt like the only thing he could do, even if he was their only suspect. The only thought that kept him sane was the fact his kids were alive. They had to be alive. Anti liked to play with his food, he would want Chase to know when he was done with them.

It was a race against the clock, but he couldn’t know how much time was left or where it ended. Time was a blur of color and sound, both too fast and painfully dragged on. Hours felt like seconds, minutes felt like lifetimes. There was no sense in it.

      10:15. 10:16. 2:59. 7:17. 11:11.

      “Make a wish.”

His mumbled voice was lost in the bar as Chase turned his watch away. Aching shoulders were hunched over the counter, his hand loose around his drink. He would have given anything to just buy a case of something cheap and get drunk at home, but he couldn’t stand to be in that empty house another minute. Somehow the idea of going back to his own rental home felt even worse. So there he sat, alone, while the bartender kept an eye on him but said nothing. He wasn’t causing any problems, or even that visibly drunk, and there were other customers to focus on.

The skin on the back of Chase’s neck tingled, and it only worsened when blue eyes lifted toward the window. Across the street was a man standing on the sidewalk at the bus stop, silhouetted against the street lights. He made out a long coat and crossed arms, but it looked like there was some kind of fabric wrapped around his head. Like bandages.

Sound in the bar dimmed the longer Chase looked, trying to shake the feeling that despite the busy bar and people in the way, the bandaged man was staring right at him. Right though him. Even the alcohol was slowly losing its edge as he squinted.

Like the switch of a light, sound returned to his ears at full volume, and Chase jumped in his seat at the thud of a glass against the counter beside him. A tall man settled into the stool next to his, smile easy and warm, though his brows were pinched with concern.

      “Don’t take this the wrong way, pal, but you don’t look so good.”

Chase turned a searching gaze back toward the window, but the bus stop was empty. The figure was gone.

      “… Isn’t this the place to go when you feel like shit?” Chase asked, and it was a genuine effort to turn his face back toward the stranger, “here I thought I had the right fucking idea.”

The man chuckled with a raise of his glass and then finished it. His eyes were a striking bottle green beneath short golden-brown hair. Between his looks and the flannel shirt, he could have walked out of a casual lumberjack photoshoot and into the bar.

      “Do you want to talk about it, or do you want me to call you a cab?”

The offer gave him pause, because fuck if he didn’t want another human being to talk to. Stacy physically couldn’t, and until last night, he had to be strong for his kids. Chase’s own emotions were trapped in a vacuum with a story no one would believe. Before he could think better of it, his lips were moving.

      “… My kids are missing. Someone’s been… stalking us. Last night he broke in, attacked me and took them right out of their fucking beds.”

The stranger was deathly still, and Chase could feel his eyes tracing over the bandages against his temple.

      “I… don’t know what to say to that, but holy shit. I’m really sorry.”

Chase gave his own glass a bitter flourish and drained it, but the words caught in his throat before he could ask for another, stifled by the warm hand against his arm.

      “Switch to water, and I’ll keep listening. Otherwise I’m going to have to call you that cab. We can start easy, my name’s Hunter. What’s yours?”

      “… Chase.”

12AM

It had taken some genuine effort, but Chase had relented as much as he could without sounding insane. Or at least enough that Hunter might have blamed any outliers on the alcohol. He had been sympathetic, he hadn’t judged, and Chase felt better than he had since before the attack.

The car was at the hospital, Chase had left it there and walked to the bar. He had sobered enough to drive, he told himself as Hunter walked him to his car. His new friend waved him off when he said he didn’t have the money to call another cab in the morning to get back to it, and now he was deftly slipping the keys out of Chase’s hand.

      “I NEED those, dammit-“

      “Give me your address, I’ll call a cab from your place. At this rate you’re gonna end up in the hospital with your ex and a DUI.”

Alarm bells should have rung, but he couldn’t bring himself to care, and he rattled off his rental home’s address without question. Hunter pushed the driver seat back, called ahead for a cab, and barely spoke a word until they reached his street. The cab was already waiting, but Hunter took the time to get him to the door before handing him his keys and a slip of paper.

      “Take care of yourself, man. I mean it.”

      “Thanks… thanks.”

Hunter was gone by the time Chase managed to get the door locked behind him, and blue eyes squinted at the piece of paper in his hands. It was a phone number, and a scrawled note.

      Call me if you want someone to talk to. Or if you wanna forget your own name in a way that won’t destroy your fucking liver.

      Hunter

A faint smile tugged at Chase’s lips, and he tucked the note in his wallet. Maybe if he killed the sadistic monster twin holding his children hostage, and Stacy recovered from slitting her own throat, he could do normal shit like call a good-looking guy from the bar.

If he actually lived through this fucking nightmare. Chase honestly doubted he would at this point, not alone.

      We’re just four little people. He probably got bored of us, and went to pick on someone his own size.

      Like Ellie’s friend?

Chase’s back hit the wall as the weight of realization struck.

      He’d have more fun fighting Ellie’s friend than fighting me.

It was the longest of shots to believe there was a chance Void could be recruited to fight, but fuck, even if they just had an idea where the bastard might be. Chase was desperate enough to walk into anything if it meant a chance to see his kids again. Even if Void killed him for his efforts, at least he could say he tried.

Those thoughts circled one another as he collapsed into bed with a ghost of a plan in mind.

 

8AM

Despite the alcohol, Chase had slept fitfully and given up long before his alarm went off. He was back in Stacy’s house, running on nothing but nerves and coffee, and hunched over Ellie’s tea party table. Was it the correct way to summon his choice of demon, probably not, but it was the only way he’d seen it done so far. The table was set, the chairs were arranged, the arcane magic tea was poured, and Kevin the pikachu, Chase the human, Gerald the T-Rex, and Queen Sting Ray were all seated in their proper places. A poured cup and an empty seat waited for Ellie’s once-imaginary friend.

      “Do I have to say a few words, I don’t know how this works.”

Chase’s voice was nothing short of haggard from stress and lack of sleep, but it found no answer in the crushing silence around him. He sucked in a shuddery breath and tried again.

      “Look, I am fucking desperate. Even if you just have an idea where the fuck they are, I’ll take it! I let you in here, whether I wanted to or not, the least you can do is send me a fucking text or something!”

The air felt thick in his lungs, but it kept him from screaming. The hands that gripped the table were paper-white and the plastic groaned from the effort. The room was as silent as it had been when he arrived. It was all just a waste of time.

Chase turned his back without another word and left for the hospital.

 

 

      I’m sorry. Daddy’s trying. I promise he’s trying to find you…

Even his inner voice sounded weak. The words were brittle and they crumpled between the car and the emergency room entrance. An unnecessary habit now, the hallway where the guard had died was no longer roped off by caution tape. Chase hadn’t been present enough to think about using the closer entrance. The nurses recognized him and offered vague smiles and waves, which he halfheartedly returned while they went back to their gossip.

      “I can’t believe what happened to those reporters. Stabbed clean through the chest like a damn sword. I can’t imagine who the hell they pissed off so bad.”

      “The younger one is still in ICU, but they just managed to move the older one to a different ward. He may end up back there, honestly…”

Chase managed to keep walking, but his vision and hearing tunneled with a surge of dread. Before his brain could catch up, he was walking back to the nurses’ desk with a plastered face of calm.

      “Hi, sorry to interrupt, what’s Jim’s room number? I think I’ll get him a card or something.”

      “801, and you might want to go now. He’s got the biggest family I’ve ever seen, and I think they’re between visits. Good luck.”

Chase almost sprinted to the elevator and past the crowd of visitors and staff that milled through the halls. It wasn’t until he reached room 801 that he skidded to a halt and gently opened the door.

Jim’s room was dark from the drawn curtains, but it did not hide how beaten he was. Brown eyes were heavily shut and there was a tube down his throat that flickered with the reflection of the heart monitor beside him. Blood was dripping slowly into his vein from an IV and his chest was damn near buried in bandages. The ghostly pale, inert body was a harsh contrast to the energetic man who had run into him not so long ago. Guilt stirred in Chase’s chest as he shut the door behind him, but he’d warned the man not to go. He’d warned him not to investigate. He and his brother were damn lucky to be alive.

      “Jim…?” Chase tentatively rubbed his arm to wake him, “Jim, I need to talk to y-”

Brown eyes snapped open and Jim lurched, but Chase’s hands instinctively caught his shoulders to hold him down. It took frighteningly little effort.

      “You’re okay, you’re okay! You’re in the hospital. My name is Chase, you interviewed me.”

He couldn’t speak with the tube, and Chase could tell he was trying not to cough as a spastic hand reached out and awkwardly latched onto a small dry erase board and marker on the table beside him. Chase winced at the noise of genuine distress when the marker clattered to the floor, but it was rescued and pressed into waiting fingers. Despite how long Jim spent writing, there was a single word on the board when he turned it around.

      BROTHER

      “Still in ICU. He’s alive as of five minutes ago, that’s all I know.”

Jim sank back into the pillow with relief, but Chase shifted closer and his voice lowered.

      “Do you remember what attacked you?”

There was a long pause while Jim blinked the glaze out of his eyes and scribbled again.

      DEMON
      RED
      SHIFTY
      STABBY

As bad as he felt for the man’s situation, he couldn’t help the hope that bubbled in his chest.

      “Do you remember the address?”

Jim looked alarmed, and Chase had to help him erase what was already there so he had room to write.

      KILL YOU

Chase shook his head, already erasing the broken phrase with urgency.

      “I don’t care, I need it. There’s more than one demon, the other has my kids. This one has to know something, they’re the only lead I have. I’m begging you.”

Silence fell heavy, and the marker shook in Jim’s hand. For a long moment, it wavered on the edge of being put down, but the squeak of felt was heard once more.

      1607 BERLIN HEIGHTS

      PLEASE LIVE

A shudder of relief rolled through Chase’s entire body, and he nodded.

      “… I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

10AM

      1607 Berlin Heights. 1607 Berlin Heights. 1607 Berlin Heights.

It was a mantra that ricocheted against his skull over and over. It was etched behind his eyelids when he blinked. It was written on every sign and scrap of paper until his vision cleared.

     1607 Berlin Heights.  

Chase’s hands had been paper white against the steering wheel when he left the hospital, desperate to turn left and go to the warehouse now. It had been a genuine fight to turn right and drive himself back to the sad rental house he called home.

What a strange time to rediscover his ramshackle sense of self-preservation. When he was about to stare down an Eldritch horror and ask it to help him find his kids.

A strange arsenal was compiled on the kitchen table as Chase tore through the house, haphazardly tossing item after item on the stash with each pass. His gun. A pair of metal cookie sheets. A taser. A pathetic stack of money. Ramen noodles. Water bottles. The heirloom pocket watch that was worth a decent amount, even if it was broken. Kitchen knives. His longest hoodie. A belt. Steel-toed shoes. Work gloves. A screwdriver. A flashlight. Zip ties. A container of salt.

Anything that might give his human body a chance against fucking interdimensional demons.

It was awkward, but the cookie sheets were shoved inside the hoodie, fixed over his chest and back before the fabric was tucked into his pants and belted tight. Chase hadn’t gotten a good look at the hospital guard who died, but it seemed Void had just aimed for center mass with Jim. There was no guarantee it would even slow the needles down, let alone save his life, but it would do more than his flimsy cotton t-shirt.

      Worst case, Void attacks me. Best case, maybe a bribe to help.

Problem was, Chase had no idea what Void might want from him. Just as he didn’t truly know what Anti wanted from him. The demon was new to this world and alone at its mercy, maybe food and water was an issue. Maybe money would do the trick… or maybe Void didn’t give a shit about him or his kids, one way or another. Maybe he’d die no matter what.

      Maybe Void and Anti came to an agreement. Maybe I’ll wind up delivered to the glitch like a god damn present.

No, this was his only lead, his only shot. The police weren’t going to find Connor and Ellie until Anti was done with them, and Chase would not, could not bury his children. It wasn’t their fault this happened, it was his. All of it, his.

The dufflebag was torn from his closet and thrown over the table with everything else. Weapons were concealed as best they could be in jeans, a hoodie and a jacket. How ironic it was that the leather one would have helped nicely right about then. The offerings were shoved unceremoniously inside, and Chase almost made it to the front door before he felt something warm slide down his cheek.

The bandage covering the fake bullet wound carved into his temple was soaked in blood.

      I moved too much getting this shit, that’s all.

The voice of logic in the back of his mind was strong, but it didn’t shake the unease in his gut as he peeled back the sodden fabric and watched blots of red drip over the porcelain sink. It didn’t feel like overexertion, it felt like a warning. A threat that the nightmare was real, and it would get so much worse.

Instinctively, his fingers raised to his eyes to press against them. To wake him up.

      T͞h̶a̴t's rįght̴, ̢puppe͏t. W̧a͢tch̸ th͟e ͟p̵r͢e̶t͜t̕y lįght̷s̵.͡ ̡I͜t̶'ş ̶all̨ ju͢st͡ ̧a̷ dream͟.

Chase’s hands hesitated and dropped. He couldn’t imagine why his mind would distort his own voice so badly, but it was jarring enough to give him pause.

      You’re awake, but you’re losing it.

The thought was pushed aside while he cleaned the bleeding wound with antiseptic and bandaged it once more. Chase hardly recognized the hollowed-out bastard in the mirror, sheet pale aside from the bags under his eyes. Tufts of hair stuck out from the bandages he’d wrapped around his head, and his frame was bulkier from the cookie sheets stuffed beneath his clothes. Despite all the precautions, he looked like a man who hadn’t slept in a decade and could be killed with one punch. It could very well be the last time he would ever look at his own reflection.

Should he do a last tour around the house? Was there anything in it worth a final glance? He could only think of one, and it was in the wallet already being dug from his back pocket. One small photo, right in front. Ellie was still a baby, passed out in Stacy’s arms. She was sitting cross-legged on a picnic blanket while Connor, still a toddler then, played with his basket of toys beside them. Stacy was laughing, and the sun lit them all up like gold.

Chase wasn’t in the picture. He’d been the one to take it. Even if this went south for him, but it saved the kids? They would be fine. The three of them would be fine without him.

      They would be okay.

 

12PM

Time never seemed as relentless as it did in the minutes and hours that his children spent missing. Chase never felt as naked as he did driving onto a blighted industrial street with no phone. While hacking a phone still had privacy issues, there was nothing to protect data like GPS. A friend of his had gone on a rant once about metadata, and how it was far less of a red flag to leave your phone in a familiar place than to turn it off while you did something stupid. Nobody turns off their phones anymore.

So his iPhone was powered on and in his room, on the nightstand beside his bed, as if he’d gone home and crashed. As tired as he was, sleep sounded like heaven.

      1607 Berlin Heights.

The address he’d searched on his computer, not his phone, and the directions were written out and resting over the dufflebag in the passenger seat. Every traffic law and speed limit was obeyed down to the letter, because if he was pulled over like this? He’d be charged faster than his head could spin. The whole charade felt like something he should have done in the middle of the night, but the district was damn near empty, and if he had to wait until nightfall he’d scream.

      Screaming got you into this mess, Brody.

By fuck, he’d let more things into this world if any of them might help him. Whether or not the one he’d tracked would be willing to help him remained to be seen.

Chase felt dread coil tight in his gut as the car rolled to a stop in an alley beside the rusted warehouse. The bag was slung over a shoulder, but he waited until the screeching corrugated metal door was shut behind him before drawing his handgun. It stayed lowered but ready as he slowly inched into the broken shafts of light that shone from the shattered windows. Further down the hall was nothing but darkness, and his steel toes crunched over shards of glass and dirt.

      “I’m armed, but I didn’t come here to fight,” Chase’s voice echoed in the empty expanse, blue eyes darting to every corner, “this is about my kids. You like my daughter, Ellie. She invited you to tea party. She likes you, too. She… he took her. And my son.”

There was a whisper of movement in the darkness, and the gun snapped up instinctively, but his finger stayed off the trigger.

      “If you don’t want to fight him, I understand. I don’t want to fight him, either. I’ve got stuff I can trade if you have any idea where he might be hiding my kids. I just want to find them, that’s all.”

Slowly, his left hand pushed open a door to the left, and he blinked at the sight inside. There were tracks in the dirt, as if it were frequently used, but it was the shelves that caught his eye. Small objects were lined, one by one, but they all seemed to be broken. Chase’s gaze trailed across a red Christmas ornament with a shard missing, hanging from the shelf above it. A glazed coffee mug that the handle had broken off, leaving sharp nubs behind. A cheap phone that was still powered on, but the cracked screen glitched and flashed at random. A spatula with half a handle. A flash drive with a missing casing that looked otherwise fine.

      “What the hell…?”

Every object he saw was undeniably broken, but seemed like they could still serve their intended purpose. Nothing on the shelf was whole, but none of it was completely useless. Not a damn thing had gathered dust either, not enough to blend in with the decay around them.

His grip on the gun tightened and he retreated. There was another large room further down the hall, which had gradually began to lighten with the broken windows that lined it. Step by careful step he drifted forward, and the cookie sheets beneath his clothes shifted uncomfortably. Even with the t-shirt between the metal and his skin, he was being roasted alive, and the only thing that kept sweat from trickling down his face were the bandages around his forehead.

     “Please, I just wanna talk. I really don’t wanna fight, and I really don’t wanna die.”

The walls fell away beside him, and Chase’s eyes widened at the dried blood caked to the middle of the cement floor. It was old, brown and flaking, but he would have bet money it belonged to one of the Jims.

      “I don’t want to do this, Void, just get out here-”

The words were lost by that vibrating tear in reality, and it opened in a billow of crimson above Chase’s head. He barely had time to raise his hands defensively before the demon’s boots connected to his shoulder and chest, and the cookie sheet over his back hit the ground with a horrible clang that echoed in the darkness.

The red mirrored aviator goggles reflected his own terrified face, white with the pain of the impact. Void’s head tilted with assessment, and his own eyes trailed down to the morgue syringes that had been warped into something else entirely. The pair of needles were no longer held in each hand, but fastened to leather around their forearms, leaving their hands free. The metal looked darker, stronger, and the vials were filled with a glowing red substance he didn’t even want to guess at.

It was like Void had taken the instruments from his world, and swapped them with their nightmare versions across the veil.

His breath hitched and his head turned as a massive needle traced the bandage over his temple and a boot crushed experimentally against the cookie sheet that protected his chest. The boot moved to his wrist, and a pale hand reached down to take the handgun from his grasp.

      “Please-” Chase wheezed, his free hand grasping the handle of a concealed knife instead. “you don’t want to kill me. You didn’t even kill the reporters.”

Void stilled in the midst of inspecting the handgun, and he was left to imagine those black eyes narrowing behind the goggles.

      “They lived.”

The bewildered statement hung in the air, and Chase shifted from where he was pinned.

      “The ambulance got them to the hospital in time. The doctors saved them.”

      “The what.”

Mirrored confusion stilled his efforts, and his own eyes narrowed in return.

      “Doctors. Healers. People who fix broken people.”

The air thrummed with energy, and Chase knew what he’d said was wrong. A yelp of pain was torn from his throat when Void hunkered down and sprang backwards in a flip that vanished in mid-air. The gun had clattered to the ground and he scrambled for it, waiting for that tearing noise to manifest over him again.

      “THEY DON’T NEED TO BE FIXED.”

The demon’s voice was layered and seemed to emanate from the very walls. Chase dragged himself to his feet only to be slammed against a row of rusted lockers on the far side of the room. The cookie sheet stopped him from being impaled on twisted metal, but the impact still stole the air from his lungs.

      “I’m not- I’m not a doctor,” Chase gasped, curled into himself on all fours as those boots thudded closer, “I just want information on my kids. I just want to see my kids again. Please, anything in that bag is yours if you tell me what you know.”

Void’s outline still shimmered an agitated red, as if they were on the verge of teleporting. Apparently they favored their reflexes over Chase’s aim, for the gun was ignored while pale hands unzipped the duffle, careful not to impale the fabric with the fastened syringes. The ramen was only met with confusion and a curious smell, but it was set aside. The water was taken. The few bills of money he could scrounge up earned a searching glance he couldn’t read behind those goggles before it was dropped back into the bag. The salt was picked up and dropped again. True interest wasn’t shown until gray hands lifted the chain of the pocket watch and reeled it in.

That head tilted as they turned the metal over in their hands and watched it tick. The clock itself still worked, but there was a harsh crack in the glass that left it almost impossible to read the time. Void swiped a thumb over its marred surface before stuffing it into the pocket of his leather coat. The entity straightened and grabbed the bundled package of ramen.

      “Up-” they ordered, pointing toward the bottles of water, “bring that. Be silent.”

Chase scrambled to shove the bottles back into the bag and sling it over a shoulder before limping after Void into the darkness.

      “Does this mean you know where they-” Chase flinched as the entity abruptly turned on the spot, blocking him from moving further.

      “When he is here, you will be respectful of the man who has no eyes. He will hear and see if you are not.

All that was managed was a tight nod.

      “I’m not here to disrespect anyone but the bastard who took my kids.”

There was a mirthless smile as a hand reached out and teleported the lock from the nearest door with a flash of red. Perhaps it had no key at all because Void didn’t need it to.

      “Or, you could try a little gratitude.”

Chase’s mouth dropped in protest, but the words died in his throat as the door opened. It was another expansive room, lit by high windows, and the light fell over two small, sleeping bodies, curled against each other in a ragged pile of blankets.

Chapter Text

1PM

Steel toed boots thundered against the weathered concrete and Chase all but fell to his knees so desperate arms could reach out to tug Connor and Ellie close. They were alarmingly pale, but their faces warped through the tears brimming in his eyes, and he folded almost double over his son and daughter, as if to shield them with his own body.

      “Oh my god, I’m here, kids, Daddy’s here, wake up-” Both of his children were limp in his hold, and the air choked in his lungs as he felt both their necks for a pulse. “PLEASE wake up, don’t do this, don’t do this to me…”

It was slow, and it was weak… but a pulse was found in both tiny necks. They barely seemed to breathe, even without Chase crushing them close. Stricken blue eyes lifted as Void picked up the bag and walked silently past.

      “What’s WRONG with them!?” His voice echoed off the walls, but the entity hardly seemed to notice.

      “They’re not hurt.”

      “They’re not FINE, either! LOOK AT THEM!”

A water bottle was withdrawn from the bag before Void finally turned that goggled gaze back to Chase. The red mirrored lenses only reflected his own ashen face and bloodshot eyes.

      “I didn’t know what to do with them. It was better this way.”

      “HOW IS THIS BETTER!? THEY’RE IN A FUCKING COMA!”

Void simply uncapped the water and drank while the man’s chest stuttered and heaved. He was fighting not only frustration but fatigue, the draining adrenaline had propped him up against the night of sleep he didn’t get. Chase’s grip was still tight around Connor and Ellie, but the demon wavered in his vision.

      “I said they’re not hurt. They’re also not crying. Or starving. I don’t know what they need, and now they don’t need anything.”

Blue eyes slid shut against the sting of fear and anger. Even his children’s skin felt cold to the touch, but he didn’t dare let them go. Void’s gaze was burning a hole through the top of his head, drilling to find just how hollow he was inside.

      “Please tell me what this is. What was done to them?” Chase’s voice was low and grating in the stagnant air, and silence closed in around it.

      “… They’re… paused. Like the page between chapters.”

      “Can you un-pause them?”

      “No.”

His head lifted then, face tight and twisted as he fought for the right words to spit.

      “Why not!?”

      “I’m not the one who did this.”

Chase paled, and his grip tightened even further if that were possible. In that combined terror and relief, it was easy to forget who the real suspect had been in the first place.

      “… Was it Anti?”

      “No.”

Void’s voice was a shade softer, and Chase let out a shaky exhale. The only sound was the faint crackle of plastic and slosh of water.

      “Can it be reversed?”

      “Yes. But not by me.”

A trembling hand pushed Ellie’s hair back from her pallid forehead, and he slowly straightened until he was at least sitting with both kids in his arms. They were slumped against him like sacks of meat, lifeless and heavy, and it was a fight to keep tears from streaming down his face. Focus, he thought, bringing his gaze back up to his kid’s mysterious savior, this might be the only chance to get some answers.

      “… Why did you take them? You- you ran from the Glitch twice, why did you get in his way?”

The silence was deafening, but short-lived.

      “Anti wanted them. To hurt you. Ellie was… nice. They were never scared.”

      “She,” Chase interjected, “Ellie is a she. Connor is a he. Ellie uses “they” for everyone, but it’s not always the case.

       “… ‘They’ seems fine enough.”

He only sighed. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t worth arguing about further. There were important questions, shit that mattered, but only the mundane could be pulled from his reeling mind.

      “She said she gave you my jacket because you don’t like the air. What the fuck does that mean?”

      “The air in the void doesn’t move. It’s like this,” their gaze lifted to the room around them, “still. Empty. I've never felt it move before.”

      Yeah, I can imagine wind would be scary for the monsters who live in caves.

It was a thought he didn’t dare voice aloud. He wondered if Anti had the same aversion, of if he’d gotten used to it during his time in the human world. It wasn’t a hunch anymore that the glitch demon had been there for years, not when he’d taken the time to carve the would-be bullet hole in Chase’s temple.

      “I’m… pretty fucking sure I opened the doorway to Anti two years ago. Why would he come out of hiding now, and why is he after you?”

      “Do you think he’s the type that welcomes competition.”

Chase’s breath caught at the acid that dripped from the demon’s words. It didn’t answer the question as to why he didn’t show himself sooner, but the rest made a disturbing amount of sense.

      “Is that why he wants me dead? So I can’t let anything else in? Because I would really fucking love it if I didn’t have this power.” Void’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “We don’t exactly talk. But I’d say it’s a motive.”

      “Why doesn’t he just kill me, then!?” Chase sputtered, his voice cracking against the walls. “I’m fucking useless! I can’t stop him, I don’t even know where to look, why is he going after my wife and kids!? Why is he dragging this out!?”

      “... I don’t know how his mind works. He plays with his food, I make sure not to be food. How many times have you faced him?”

That question gave him pause, and his mouth opened and shut as he struggled for an answer.

      “I… I don’t know. I think I’ve dreamed about him. The night you were in my living room, and the night I thought he took my kids, I blacked out, and I lost bits and pieces. Every time he’s in arm’s reach, the next thing I know, I’m waking up. Is that him messing with my brain?”

      “He controls technology. Electricity. The human body is just a network of pulses and signals. He knows which ones to turn off.”

Chase’s eyes narrowed, but his veins filled with ice. If that was true, and Anti could have his own brain just tell itself to fall unconscious… what sort of chance did he have? Did any of them have?

      “How is that possible to do without making someone brain dead? Wouldn’t that take a really fucking delicate touch?”

      “You feel like he’s been delicate with you?”

That earned an acknowledging tilt of the man’s head in a silent fair enough. Chase was missing chunks of time, and now he had to worry about the bastard in his sleep as well. Blue eyes drifted down to Connor and Ellie, hoping they weren’t suffering nightmares of their own.

      “Void isn’t your real name, is it?”

      “You don’t need my name.”

      “Can we leave?”

      “If you don’t want them to wake up.”

Chase winced and carefully climbed to his feet with both of his children. The demon watched impassively as he moved to the far wall and slid down, so his back would have some support while he held them.

      Guess I live here, now.

 

9PM

Garbled voices drifted through Chase’s ears, tugging him softly from the abyss. His head shifted slightly as the words grew louder and more distinct, and pale arms tightened around Connor and Ellie. Even hours later, they hadn’t moved.

      “… to steal these from somewhere closer than the hospital. Those people are not my biggest fans.”

      “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Void impales a guard and earns the support of his hospital employees.”

      “Don’t get moral on me. Or you can narrate your own damn bandages.”

      “The Host faintly smiles as he fails to miss the note of gruff affection in Void’s words.”

      “Can you not.”

The whisper of fabric drifted past him, and the room slowly swam into focus. In the darkness, he could barely make out a man sitting with his back to the family. Void was wrapping bandages carefully around his head, covering his eyes in the process. A process that abruptly ended when that bandaged gaze snapped around and stared directly at the witness.

      “Chase Brody wakes with slight alarm at the presence of a stranger, only to be startled by the fact that the stranger is clearly blind, yet can see him. He pulls his children tighter to his chest and looks to Void for guidance.”

It was impossible to keep his gaze from wrenching to a face still barely familiar, but even that was startling. The red goggles were gone, leaving only the pitch black that consumed the whole of their eyes. Instead of offering that guidance, a hand lightly touched the cheek that was turned away.

      “I’m not done, look at me.”

Their voice was softer than Chase had ever heard it, and the man complied. He could discern a trench coat and caught a glimpse of a gold streak in his black hair as pale hands brushed it aside. Tangled on the floor was a mess of blood-soaked bandages. Many blood-soaked bandages. The rest were dried and cracked, but the latest were sodden.

      “As Void finishes dressing the fresh bandages, Chase grows concerned over the pile of discarded bandages beside them. The Host informs him his injury was not caused by anyone in this room, or the entity he fears.”

Chase couldn’t help but wince as the man stood, afraid to so much as think loudly in his general direction. He didn’t feel… threatened by the narrator, but he felt… exposed. Almost naked. Chase wasn’t convinced there were actual eyes beneath those bandages, but it was becoming apparent the man saw more than he ever could.

      “The Host senses Chase has questions. He will do his best to answer.”

      “… Are you from the void, too?”

That bandaged head tilted, but it slowly shook.

      “The Host is from a place much further than the void. His being here is not a result of Chase Brody’s actions.”

      “Did you put my kids in stasis?”

Chase’s voice was little more than a whisper, and blue eyes watched as the Host slowly knelt beside the broken family.

      “He did as a matter of safety. The Host and Void are not equipped to care for children as they assess how best to address the situation with Anti. Unless Chase knows of a safer place to hide them where they can receive required care, the Host suggests they remain in this state.”

His face broke, and his chin dipped as if that would hide it. Chase wanted his kids to wake up, their terrified screams back at the house still echoed in his ears. More than anything, he wanted them to look up and realize their dad was here, and that he would protect them. But that would mean bringing them back to the house, inexplicably found, when he was the only suspect in their kidnapping. Or it would mean leaving them here, in this abandoned warehouse, while he left to get food and bring it back indefinitely.

      “… The Host leaves Chase Brody to make his decision,” the Host narrated as he straightened, but Chase’s voice found traction at last.

      “Can he get them like this? If you did it?”

      “Anti is unable access or manipulate the minds and bodies of Connor and Ellie in this state, and any dreams they may have will not be unkind. The choice is with Chase, but he should know the Host and Void’s protection over his family will end if he chooses to return to that vulnerable house.”

The cold hands of dread stole over his entire body and wrapped around his heart. It was a fight to make his lips move again.

      “Why?”

      “Because I don’t have time for stupidity,” Void cut in from across the room, needlessly brushing blood off the dirty, crusted table, “and neither does he. If you want to serve your kids to Anti, fine. But this time, I won’t be there to stop him.”

Chapter Text

Sleep fled long before dawn, but Chase found he was not the only one it had forsaken. Connor and Ellie were still as ever against his sides, and the Host was asleep on a cot, his back against the wall and hands curled near his face. Void was seated at the dirty table, trying in vain to turn the page of a paperback book. Their hands shimmered that agitated haze of red and the rest of their outline glitched every time they attempted to lift that piece of paper. Their fingers phased through, then their entire hand, and the book folded itself closed with a faint rustle of pages and a thud. The only light in the room came from distant street lamps, but he could almost see the resigned irritation in their face.

It felt wrong, so very wrong to leave his children on that pile of old blankets where he’d found them, but they wouldn’t know any better. For the first time since he’d laid eyes on them again, Chase finally let go, and Void said nothing as he quietly lifted a vacant chair and took his seat at the table.

      “… This is how you see best, right? In the dark?” Chase’s voice was soft, but black eyes didn’t lift from the novel. “I can see everything in here. It’s out there, under the lights and the sun, I can’t see a damn thing.”

Silence fell, and Chase curled tighter into his hoodie against the chill of the empty warehouse. He almost wished the cookie sheets were still shoved inside it, but there was no dealing with those while holding his kids. It was miracle he even could hold his kids.

      “Thank you. For saving them. It… fucking terrifies me to see them this way, but… part of me thought I was only going to find them when he was done. How did you get them first?”

Void pushed silver fringe away from their face, and Chase was struck again at the sheer anonymity of their features. Almost equal parts masculine and feminine, and bland to the point where he was sure he’d forget what they looked like if the striking hair and black eyes were not a factor. The face of anyone and no one.

      “I was already there,” they finally relented, letting the strands of silver fall back into place. “I wanted to tell Ellie I was sorry. It wasn’t the broken woman I was trying to kill, it was the glitch.”

      “So you-” Chase leaned closer, “you were what, in ghost form again? Why did you go ballistic and trash her room when I threw water on you?” Void turned that gaze on him, and the glitching of their frame only intensified. “Imagine having to account for every cell in your body, trying to coax them back together, and then some asshole scatters them all with water.”

His head ducked with half an awkward cough at that, using the brim of his cap to briefly shield his face.

      “… Do you have to concentrate on being solid all the time? Does Anti?”

      “How many times are you going to make me remind you that I don’t. Know him. Personally.” The demon’s voice was soft, but still carried an impatient edge in the darkness. “The void is at least the same size as your world, and, like yours, certain beings have reputations. The reputation is all I have, and it’s all I want. Yes, he can teleport, but I’ve seen it, and it’s different. I can’t explain how.”

He accepted that, not that there was a great deal of choice in the matter. Blue eyes trailed over that androgynous face again, squinting as they did.

      “If he’s my double there… does that mean you have a human double here? Do you hate them as much as he hates me?” Void let out a mirthless huff in the dark, and for a moment, Chase thought that was the only answer he’d get. “They aren’t substantial enough to hate. They just exist. Buying groceries and driving cars like anyone else. They have nothing I want or need.”

      “That’s exactly what I thought a nightmare double would think about me. And here we are, stuck in an old warehouse because he gets a kick out of seeing me miserable.”

      “If you think you’re protecting them, don’t bother. They’re not worth my time. They failed even harder at internet fame than you.” He stirred at that, mouth dropping open. “… Did you seriously watch my channel? Dude, why? And what is theirs, I want to see it.”

Black eyes rolled in the dark.

      “The Host found it. Both of them. He was looking for hints of Anti in the coding. Didn’t find a damn thing.”

A faint murmur from the cot turned both heads, but the man in the trench coat didn’t move or speak again.

      “… If you stay, don’t ever wake him up if you can help it. He gets barely any sleep already.”

      “Who is he, really? What happened to him, and why does he talk in third person?”

Void hesitated, weighing the words before they reached Chase’s ears.

      “Not much of that is mine to say. He’s not from the void like I am, but he has his own double there, too. In fact, we all might have infinite doubles. He’s the only one who’s seen how deep the mirror goes, and you can see what it cost him.”

Chase turned toward the Host’s sleeping form as he murmured again, some broken narration too quiet to hear.

      “Was he always like this?” he asked, and Void slowly shook their head. “He… used to be an author. What he wrote about people came true. But two of his characters rebelled, they left him for dead, and they ran.”

      “If someone was puppeting my life, I’d run, too.”

      “Yeah, that’s what I’ve always figured.”

      “So,” Chase glanced back at the man, “how did he go from an author to the Host?”

      “… He doesn’t talk about it, but… I think he wrote himself the power to find his characters, and it worked too well. He found every character there ever was, had been, or will be. He can see all the stories in this universe, and he’s not their author, he’s their host… I can’t imagine human eyes could handle seeing what he did, and it would explain why the sockets never stop bleeding. Cut him anywhere else and it heals, but his eye sockets always bleed.

      “Are you telling me he’s from an alternate universe? Jesus Christ, if he’s the human version, what’s his nightmare double like?” The entity could only shrug, a glitching and erratic gesture. “Only the Host knows his version from the void. He claims they’re friends.”

      “And you believe him?”

      “He can’t lie. Whether it’s true or not, he believes it.”

Another shift and murmur from the cot left Void’s brows knit and eyes narrowed, as if on the fence about intervening. Chase didn’t give them a chance to dwell on it.

      “Why are you helping me? Or my family? You said you don’t even know Anti, why are you trying to stop his plans?”

The silence could have been cut with a knife, and dread stole over his body as the teleporter’s shimmering frame stilled for just a moment. He saw Void’s outline clearly, but the definition was gone in a heartbeat.

      “… The Host has visions of the past, present and future. The future ones aren’t always true, shit can always change. But he saw one where Anti got access to every universe. Not just here and the void, but every last one. Some of those worlds would devour the rest, whether he wanted them to or not.”

Fear probably should have been the emotion he felt, but the only thing that twisted his face was confusion.

      “What the fuck would he even do with access to other universes? Buy a disposable camera and Hawaiian shirt and play tourist?” 

That almost earned a ghost of a smile before it evaporated. “It didn’t scare me, either. I liked the idea of him being some other universe’s problem. But the Host thinks he’d use the opportunity for destruction. The void isn’t a planet, it’s a dimension. When you push on its boundaries, it gives. When you kill someone, they might come back. It’s not like here, where people are gone forever, or bombs could destroy the world. This place has consequences. And if he pushes it too far, there would always be another universe to test and test again.”

Chase sat back in his seat, and a hand scrubbed roughly down his stubbled face.

      “Do you really think he’d succeed?”

      “Personally, no. He might be a pyromaniac who’s been handed a jug of gasoline and a lighter, but he’s still one entity. And from what I’ve heard and seen in the void, his plans and exploits change by the hour. The Host is more worried his actions might shed light on this doorway, and reveal it to someone with more ambition.”

      “… You said Anti was the worst thing in the void.”

      “He’s the worst thing I know of. The void’s an abyss, there’s reaches no one’s ever seen. Just because he likes fame doesn’t guarantee he’s the top of the food chain.” Chase shook his head and reached for a bottle of water from the dufflebag, if only for something for his hands to do. “So you’re telling me you went all in with the Host on a vision that might not even be true?”

Another shrug in the dark.

      “Truth be told, I didn’t have anything better to do. He found me the first night I crossed the doorway. Thought I was the glitch himself.” The bottom of the plastic bottle thudded to the table before it reached his lips. “Did you seriously just say you’re doing this for kicks? Do you actually care what might happen here?”

      “Why should I?” They returned, more confused than anything. “This isn’t my world. The only thing a nuclear winter would do to me is make it easier to see. I’ve never cared who might win the latest power struggle, as long as I’m still there when it’s over.”

The Host murmured again with a restless shift, and Chase could all but feel the dangerous thrum of energy as his gaze drifted knowingly from the man’s outline back to its demon guardian.

      “But you care what happens to him. So you’re playing along.”

Void wasn’t given a chance to answer as the Host’s murmuring grew louder and more urgent. The hands near his face were curled into white-knuckled fists, and Void didn’t bother to go around the table to reach him. A billow of red smoke swallowed their body and manifested beside the cot, and pale hands shook the Host’s exposed arm and shoulder.

      “Wake up, Host, you’re safe here.” There was no acknowledgement, and he only seemed to curl tighter against himself at the contact. “Streams, rivers, oceans, boiling, BOILING, THE HOST CAN’T STOP IT-!”

      “He doesn’t have to!” careful hands caught the defensive swing of his arm as he lashed out, and the words brought a fraction of stillness to his frame. “He doesn’t have to, because he realizes it’s a dream. The Host is safe.”

The effect of hearing someone else narrate the world was immediate, and the Host sagged back against the cot with a shaky groan.

      “The H-Host apologizes-”

      “Don’t. No one was sleeping but you.”

The only answer was his ragged breathing until his arm fell through the grasp of pale hands that flickered out of existence.

      “He feels his arm phase through Void's grip and questions why they did not wake him to take watch as discussed.”

The entity drew back and away, but the hand that caught their forearm was both gentle and firm.

      “I would have survived. You needed it more.”

Even as they spoke, the arm glitched involuntarily out of the Host’s grasp. Chase watched as the man pushed himself up on the cot and pulled Void down beside him before wrapping his arms around their glitching frame. A wave of quiet narrations flowed from his lips, too low for Chase to hear, and Void’s erratic outline slowly fell still. The red haze dissipated or withdrew back into their body, he couldn’t be sure which, and they were left in far more control than they had been.

      “Void stays. The Host will take watch now.”

      “I still say you need this more than me. I’m good for a few hours now.”

      “He doesn’t care. His friend will stay and get the rest they need. The Host will likely not find rest again until he writes… the… visions… down……”

Chase blinked as his head suddenly swam, and the narrator’s voice stretched and muffled in his ears. A trickling warmth ran down his temple, but his arm was too heavy to inspect it. Somewhere in the darkness, he felt uncertain hands on his shoulders.

      “-ase… bro…is… blee……?”

The soaked bandage over Chase's temple slid from his face onto the cracked concrete with a bloody splatter. He didn’t feel his body follow.

 

10AM

The Brody household stood silent until the heavy click of a key in the lock echoed from the front door. Stacy pushed it open, her neck still wrapped and brown eyes pained as they scanned for missing children. She knew it would be hard, but she couldn’t stay in that hospital bed another minute, it was costing them a fortune.

It didn’t make seeing the empty house any easier.

There was still blood on the doorframes of Connor and Ellie’s rooms, blackened handprints collected as evidence. The upstairs hallway carpet was stained with Chase’s blood, and the voices of the police drifted through her ears again.

      Ma’am, there was no impact splatter in the hallway, no blood other than the stain on the carpet. He suffered a wound, but not by blunt force. It looks like it could have been self-inflicted.

She’d pushed those ideas away. They wanted to paint him as the grieving estranged husband who might try a desperate ploy to get his kids back, but she didn’t hoard them from him. She ran with them once, right at the very beginning, and promised she’d never do it again. He was still part of their lives, part of her life, he had no reason to steal them.

      “Stace?”

Footsteps creaked up the stairs behind her, and a rough hand squeezed her shoulder.

      “Sorry, I meant to clean this up. Let’s get you unpacked, I’ll deal with it.”

Stacy let herself be led to the bedroom, and two bags of belongings brought home from the hospital were left on the comforter, but her husband’s hands were stilled before he could open one. Brown eyes lifted to meet Chase’s gaze, and his own were knit in return. She slowly traced the bandages over his temple and then melted into his arms. They were warm and strong around her, same as ever, and she buried her face in his shoulder.

      “We have to get them back,” Stacy’s voice was a hoarse whisper, but still heard. “we have to.”

      “We will.” Chase wrapped a hand around the back of her head and kept her close as his gaze lifted to the mirror across the room. With half a smile, the irises in his reflection glitched from blue to blazing green.

      “I promise.”

Chapter Text

The only sound in Chase’s ears was his own shaking breath. He was lost, adrift in the cold silence. It felt almost as if he were submerged in stagnant water, but couldn’t will his limbs to move. Time had no meaning, it could have been seconds or days before heather blue eyes finally opened.

Nothing greeted him.

Air hitched in Chase’s lungs as he turned on the spot, pupils blown wide against the blackness that surrounded him. It was not crushingly close, he could sense depth far beyond arm’s reach, but the emptiness of it all made his heart stutter.

A trembling hand lifted to scrub at his face, but anchored in mid-air at the realization he could clearly see it. Chase looked down and found himself illuminated, but that light could not penetrate the dark beyond his skin. It was like he was surrounded by a green screen someone had changed to black while editing, unaware that it was all happening to him live. He still existed, but nothing existed around him.

      The page between chapters.

It wasn’t the lack of sight, but the sheer silence that was starting to become unnerving. The only sound in the darkness came from him. Hitching breaths, pounding veins, shifting fabric. The only noise in his ears was the symphony of the human body.

      He said it wasn’t like this, he said they would sleep or dream something nice-

A shoe inched forward in the dark, testing the black floor beneath. There could be a chasm ready to swallow him whole and he’d never know it. What would happen if he died in here, and then the Host narrated him awake? Would his body just stay in a coma?

      Would something else wake up?

It was half a sob that sounded like a gunshot in his straining ears, and his shoes moved no further. If this was the Host’s stasis, Chase shouldn’t have been awake. He didn’t want to be, the nothingness would drive him insane.

      “CAN YOU HEAR ME!?” The shout almost startled him, and Chase wrenched his gaze upwards. “HOST, I’M HERE! KNOCK ME OUT OR WAKE ME UP, PLEASE! I CAN’T TAKE THIS!”

      “Dad?”

Chase’s head snapped toward the tentative voice, and his heart leapt into his throat at the sight of a man his age. A man with brown eyes, his mom’s cheeks, and Chase’s hair. “Dad,” he tried again, pushing forward, “Dad, is that really you? How long have I been here?”

Blue eyes blurred out of focus and scalding rivulets tracked down stubbled cheeks as Chase lurched forward and seized Connor with every ounce of strength in his body. He was taller than his old man now, and Chase could only cling as mourning seized him by the throat and dragged him under. His entire childhood, gone, because I trusted a stranger to keep him safe.

      “Dad, breathe. I’m okay. The blind man and the teleporter locked us in here, but we’re gonna find the way out. Ellie’s scouting up ahead.” Careful hands peeled Chase’s arms back, and his breath hitched when Connor stepped out of reach. “They’re bad people, you can’t trust them. Follow me!”

      the teleporter

Where had Chase heard that name for Void? He faltered a step, but those familiar brown eyes shifted back to meet his own, and he trusted them completely. His son smiled, but it froze at the unmistakable sound of tearing.

      “DAD, RUN!”

Chase turned on his heels and found himself face-to-face with the demon. Soulless black eyes met his, and with four staccato cracks through the air, they were surrounded. The same set of eyes stared them down on all sides, and Chase reached back to wrap a protective arm around his son.

      “Void, please,” he stared down the first iteration that had appeared, eyes wide and bloodshot, “he’s been here too long, let us out. Ellie, too.” His plea hung in the air for a long moment before those sharp cracks sounded again, and every clone of Void vanished in a plume of red. Connor’s hands barely found Chase’s sides before an unseen force hurtled them apart. A startled yelp of pain escaped on impact with the frigid ground, and dazed eyes searched desperately for his son in the dark. Connor was just as illuminated as he, and his lanky body climbed shakily to its feet.

      “I’m okay,” he wheezed, and his long frame doubled over to catch his breath. I’m o-” The rest was lost to a gurgle in his throat as a twin pair of sixteen-inch needles burst through his ribs from behind.

      "CONNOR!"

Chase's sneakers scrabbled against the cold ground for purchase before they finally propelled him forward. The demon disappeared in billow of scarlet smoke, and the needles evaporated from Connor’s chest. Their absence would only kill him faster.

      “No no no no no, stay with me, please, I’m right here,” Chase ripped off his hoodie and wrapped it around the entry and exit wounds, bracing Connor’s back over his leg and pushing down on his stuttering chest with his hands. “I’m here, Connor, please, you have to hang on, I’ll get you out of here, I promise, just keep your eyes open, look at me!”

His words were little more than babbling, and the face of his grown son swirled out of focus behind his drenched eyes. Blood was soaking his pant leg and crawling up to his wrists. He could taste it in the air, and he could hear it splatter on the ground.

      “Dad…” Connor wheezed, a twitching hand grasping his arm. “… find… Ellie… please……”

The hand slipped from his arm, and Connor’s eyes glazed over. Chase went rigid in the darkness, an artist’s sculpted monument to misery. He didn’t move, didn’t breathe, widened eyes locked on a pallid face that saw nothing. It was like pulling himself from stone when he finally leaned down, pressed his forehead against his son’s ruined chest, and opened his mouth to scream.

      “Chase Brody’s vocal chords no longer work! Try as he might to scream, no sound leaves his throat!”

His lungs emptied, but nothing came from them but air. Chase swore to no avail when heather blue eyes found the Host, but he bet the man still knew what he was thinking.

      You said my kids were SAFE! You LIED to me!

      “It was necessary to keep Chase here. Now we no longer need them.”

Chase’s brows drew in, but a feminine scream in the darkness whipped his head back.

      ELLIE!

He still couldn’t speak, couldn’t even hazard a guess at what direction it came from, but the Host was still a solid presence in front of him.

      “Like I said, we no longer need-”

The Host’s words were lost as Chase’s hands crushed his windpipe and slapped against his mouth, stifling his narrations. He barely noticed as the details of the warehouse stole up the walls around them, he only had eyes for the man who had tortured his children. Strong hands tugged at the wrist that held his throat, but surprise was on his side, and adrenaline filled him with power and rage he’d never felt in his life.

Black and silver caught his gaze across the room. In one fluid movement, Chase released the Host’s mouth, snatched the gun tucked into his waistband, and fired. The handgun deafened them at the same moment Void disappeared in a haze of red, and Chase was startled by a hand gripping the back of his neck and a knee slamming into his sternum. He managed to keep his hold on the Host’s throat, but not the gun, and he looked up in time to watch a leather-clad arm wrap around the narrator’s stomach from behind. The Host and Void both vanished into smoke, but his coughing and gasping betrayed them down the hall. Chase only had so much time before he could speak again.

The vlogger snatched the gun from the floor, but his eyes fell on the still outlines of Connor and Ellie. A shaking hand automatically checked Connor’s neck for a pulse, and it was there. His heart was beating, but was he really in there? Or would he stay like this, even out of stasis, because everything that made up his son had bled out on the other side.

      “WAKE THEM UP!” Chase was almost startled when his voice echoed off the walls, as if it had never been stolen. The gun raised toward the doorway as he knelt over his children. “WAKE THEM UP, OR I WILL SHOOT YOU BOTH!”

The Host was still coughing, but in the pauses between fits, Chase felt the tension leach from his shoulders. Bit by bit, the arm that held the gun became too heavy to lift.

      “STOP IT!” he screamed, shoving himself to his feet and barreling through the door, “STOP-” Chase was all but thrown against rusting steel, and the gun was pried from his hands before an arm twisted behind his back almost far enough to break it. A heavy kick behind his knee folded it and brought him down hard, panting and seething in the dim light.

      “Whatever you saw wasn’t real,” Void hissed above him, their grip threatening to snap his arm. “It’s the only reason you’re still breathing.”

      “Th-the Host… rubs his bruised… aching throat,” another coughing fit wracked the narrator’s body before he shuffled into view, only to lean heavily against the wall. “And asks… asks Chase to explain his motives…”

Chase struggled against the demon’s hold to no avail, cursing until he felt the cold metal of a syringe against his neck. The chill was enough to send a shiver ripping down his spine.

      “I saw Connor in stasis. He was fucking my age because time in there isn’t real. I watched you-” he threw his weight back against Void in defiance, despite the pain that exploded in his arm, “fucking stab him and leave!”

The demon’s grip didn’t relent, but the Host’s head tilted in contemplation.

      “He weighs Chase’s words and asks if there was anything he witnessed or heard that seemed in any way off. He presses that no detail is too small.”

      “I…” Chase stilled a bit, eyes shut against the trickle of sweat that threatened to sting them. There had been a few moments that caught his attention. “you… spoke in first person. I didn’t think you could.”

      “… The Host cannot speak in first person, not without great concentration. He knows the words, he could form the sentences, but it is unnatural for him, and it would never happen in casual conversation. He is relieved to learn Anti knows even less about the Host than he first suspected.”

The Host nodded to Void, who didn’t immediately release him. He could have narrated their fingers to open, but he didn’t say a word, though his head did tilt with a silent really when they still refused. Relief flooded his system as his arm was freed, and he held the abused limb against his chest like a broken wing.

      “… Please wake them up,” Chase stammered, “I’ll figure something out, but I need to know they’re okay. I just watched my son bleed out in my arms, please.”

There was a heavy moment of silence, and for once, the Host’s lips were pressed in a thin line.

      “… Chase must understand this is ill-advised. Before Chase woke, the wound on his head began to bleed profusely. He collapsed for several hours and despite the Host’s attempts to seal his mind from Anti, he was obviously unsuccessful. If Anti was able to compromise Chase from so far a distance, and he chose visions of his children in peril to torment him, perhaps what he truly desires is access to Connor and Ellie. They cannot be influenced or found in this state. They are not-”

The Host shuddered and sagged against the wall, and Void’s presence behind him vanished with that tearing of reality. Their arms materialized beneath the Host’s to brace him as the rush of narrations from the vision flowed from his lips like a river.

      “Darkness, darkness made to mimic the page between chapters, the Host speculates the architect has never read a book, it would never be a place so hollow and cold, he sees Chase Brody, and… Connor Brody, their words are… obscured by static… the walls... the walls shift to...... to s̢tat̶ic̛…”

The Host’s entire body shook violently. Void’s eyes were wide, and they drew back a fist to knock him out as his frame all but glitched, but Chase threw himself forward and caught it.

      “No, you’ll trap him in there! Cover his mouth, I have an idea!”

There was a flicker of actual fear in the demon’s face as a pale hand stifled the Host’s narrations. Those black eyes watched as Chase threw himself back into the safe room and grabbed the dufflebag. He’d packed anything and everything in his house that might have given him a chance against demons, and one of those things was a jug of ammonia. The harsh-smelling liquid sloshed over his hands in his haste to twist remove the safety cap, and he raised the entire bottle to the Host’s nose.

His whole body stuttered, and Void pulled their hand away just in time for him to gasp and cough again, hard enough that fresh blood was darkening the bandages around his empty eye sockets. Chase moved a hand to help brace him, but it wavered and dropped at the sight of the bruising around his neck. That wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, not unless he narrated it away.

      “The Host…” he gasped, his head dipping until his forehead came to rest against Void’s shoulder, “The Host is not there… he is not there…”

With a flicker of red, both arms glitched out of the leather the syringes were bound to, and the metal clattered to the floor. Void’s arms were unsure as they settled around the Host, but neither of them moved for a while.

      “… We can’t stay here,” Void finally murmured against his ear. “He was in Chase’s mind too long, and he nearly took yours. We need somewhere farther away. Somewhere safer.”

      “I don’t know if it matters.” Chase’s voice was hoarse, but still heard in the dimness of dawn. “Anti found me in the middle of the woods. I don’t know if there’s anywhere we can actually hide.”

      “The Host straightens with a wince… and suggests in that case, the group finds more comfortable accommodations. He would rather not die in this decrepit warehouse if their location has no bearing on Anti’s power.”

Void shook their head, and kept a supportive hold on the narrator.

      “There is some bearing. When the power was cut in the house, he stumbled. He had to summon his own energy to power the light upstairs, because he had nothing to manipulate. The less electricity, the better our chances. He’s playing with us here because he has nothing to bring to a fight but himself.”

      “He possessed my wife and made her slit her own throat. Motherfucker doesn’t need anything but himself.”

Chase’s interjection plunged them all in silence, but the thought of Stacy made him ache for his phone. He’d left it a home in case things went south, and she was still in the hospital. Maybe they could find a place up north, something off the grid. Less electricity was admittedly something, at least, and then maybe his kids could finally wake up.

      “… Both of you should get some sleep. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to again.”

Chapter Text

8AM

A hammer pounded in Chase’s head with every beat of his heart. It was a painful combination of fatigue, dehydration, and caffeine withdrawal. Probably hunger too, not that he felt anything in the pit of his stomach but nausea. It all took a disorienting toll on his state of mind, and the change that had been narrated into his pocket barely earned a mumble of thanks let alone awe. The rest of his body was grimy and numb from hours of sitting on concrete in that abandoned warehouse, and his mind had numbed with it.

The payphone across the street looked like it had always been there, but Chase wondered now if the Host hadn’t manifested it himself.

      Wish he’d manifest Anti back into the fucking void.

There was an unusual chill in the morning air, and Chase hunkered into his hoodie with a shiver. The earpiece of the payphone was even colder against his skin, and it grated against the bandages that circled his head as the hospital’s number was dialed.

      “Thank you for calling Huron General Hospital. If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial-” Chase didn’t wait for the prompt to press the numbers he needed to connect to Stacy’s room, but the phone simply rang… and rang… and rang.

      “Come on…” he muttered tiredly, and a hand scrubbed down the good half of his face. She could sleep like the dead, but she had to hear the phone ringing. He knew that was charged, but her cell may have still been on silent at this hour. A few agonizing moments later, there was an unfamiliar voice in his ear.

      “Huron General, can I help you?”

Chase suddenly felt cold, and his grip on the phone tightened.

      “Hi, I was trying to reach the patient in this room, Stacy Brody.” There was a pause as the phone was wedged into a shoulder on the other end and the sound of keystrokes clacked in the background. “… Sir, Stacy was released yesterday evening.”

      “She checked out alone?” Chase’s eyes narrowed as he leaned closer to the terminal, like it would help him understand. She could have left alone, but she didn’t have her car, and he didn’t know how safe she’d feel getting a cab when they were being hunted by a shapeshifter.

      “… No, our records indicate she checked out with her husband.”

It felt like he’d been seized by the throat and plunged into icewater. Numbed lips opened and closed, but not even air passed through. The phone was hung up with no conscious thought to do so, and his legs turned to water as he stumbled back toward the warehouse. Chase’s vision and hearing tunneled, and when steadying hands caught his shoulders, he screamed.

 

12 HOURS EARLIER

Stacy barely tasted the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Chase had set in front of her. Barely given it a thought beyond how the bread with the peanut butter was all but mangled and the jelly was more in globs than actually spread. It was like he’d forgotten how to make one, but maybe they were both just too tired to care.

Chase was skittish, even around her. His head snapped around at the smallest sounds, and sometimes he gripped the counters and furniture so tightly they groaned. It was like he was afraid he’d disappear without an anchor. It wasn’t fair to ask him to be strong while a psychopath had their kids, but he was ramping her own anxiety to eleven. His caged pacing echoed down the hall, and her gaze drifted to the dying light that scattered across their front lawn. No, her front lawn. It hadn’t been theirs for two years now. Brown eyes narrowed as she suddenly straightened, but craning her neck only earned a grimace of pain.

      “Chase,” her voice was still raspy, “where’s your car?” she flinched as he all but materialized at her elbow.

      “I got a cab here. I can’t even fucking see straight, figured I’d let someone else drive.”

She made a noncommittal noise at that and went back to chewing her crude sandwich while her husband melted back into the darkness. The PB&J was nearly gone before it hit her.

      He drove my car to the hospital.

Stacy swallowed hard against the first stirrings of panic. This was Chase, he was a good liar. He probably rear-ended someone and his car was in the shop, it was just the kind of thing he’d hide if he didn’t want her to worry. Hi hon, Connor and Ellie have been kidnapped by my evil twin, and by the way, I racked up $900 worth of damage on my car. No, he’d sweep that kind of thing under the rug until she ripped it up herself, it was just the kind of thing that destroyed their marriage.

      That’s not Chase.

Brown eyes drifted toward the hall, and his shadow disappeared up the stairs to her bedroom. It had to be her husband, it had to.

      That’s not Chase.

The small voice was becoming a mantra in her head. Enough so that it guided her hands to her car keys, and closed her fingers around the tiny cannister of pepper spray.

      That’s not Chase.

His footsteps pounded in circles above and hers were silent, inching up the carpeted stairs. The spray was hidden in a pocket, and her hand was white around the warming metal. Again and again he paced, like a caged animal with nothing better to do with its energy. When Stacy reached the doorway an eternity later, his head snapped up, but the shock reflected in heather blue eyes was all Chase.

Her expression crumpled with relief, and both her hands found his stubbled cheeks, just as they had the day he’d been missing. Confusion colored his features, and broad hands tentatively covered her own, warm but uncertain. It was him, it had to be him, it had to be him.

      THAT’S NOT CHASE.

In one deft move, her thumb slipped beneath the bandage on his temple and pulled the entire dressing over their heads. All she found beneath was smooth, unbroken skin.

The air in the room seemed to condense as the hand over Stacy’s shifted instead to her wrist and squeezed while that achingly familiar face stretched into a wicked smile. Blue eyes suddenly burned a sickly green that seemed to carry a light of its own.

      “Clever girl. And here I thought you really were starting to like me!”

      “What do you want?”

Her voice was little more than a whisper above the crackling bones in her wrist, but the pressure stopped without warning. Anti tilted his head unnaturally far, but those unearthly green eyes never left her face.

      “You know, I haven’t thought about it that hard. I wondered what would happen if I took over the life of your favorite boy. Deadbeat shoes can’t be hard to fill, right? But see, now I’ll never know! Because that byp̴r̛o̧d̢uc̸t͞-“

Anti’s voice crackled with static and his outline glitched, but his grip on her wrist was solid as ever.

      “-th͠at̸ ̕f͢a͜il͠ed ͞ęx̵periment, ̵t̕ook ͟th͟e ͏c̶hi̧ldr͟en.͏ ͘W̨ho k͝n̸ows, Stac͟y͠?̵ I ͞cou̢l͏d h͞a̸v̨e been a ̵gr͟eat ̵dąd.̛"̷

      “YOU TRIED TO KILL ME!” The bandages fell from her hand and she shoved against his chest with surprising strength. “YOU TRIED TO KILL CHASE! AND YOU, WHAT, YOU THOUGHT YOU’D TAKE HIS PLACE!? WHY!?”

Her wrist was still trapped in Anti’s grip, and her fingers were turning red and purple from the lack of circulation. His smile only numbed the rest of her body.

      “I wanted to see what he had. I wanted to see what he lost. I would have killed myself too, if my life was so fucking pa̕th̸eti͝c. Oh, you didn’t know?” Stacy’s voice drained of color as Anti formed a gun with his fingers and pressed it to his temple, right where the wound should have been. “Remember the day when you told him it was over? He came home, he pulled that gun from the top shelf of the closet, and he put it to his head. Right-” she lurched as he dragged her within an inch of his face. “h͝ere͜.̸ Right against his head, and he pulled the trigger. But the gun was empty. Chase is so useless, he couldn’t even kill himself without fucking it all up. So he scr̶eame͝d̶,̡ and he S̕C͘R̢E̷A̷MĘD,͜ and he let. Me. I̷n͞.͠"

Stacy’s free hand dug into her pocket and ripped the pepper spray free. Anti bellowed as the burning spray glued to his eyes, and the walls almost seemed to buckle when his body glitched apart with a staticky roar. His voice was woven into the very molecules of the air, and she felt it vibrating in her own lungs as she threw herself down the hall toward the stairs. Stacy’s freed hand was stinging with a thousand needles, and it joined the other above her head as picture frames launched off the walls and shattered. Her neck seared with agony and she couldn’t scream when the kitchen table careened into her like a car in the street. Stacy hit the ground hard but adrenaline threw her upright in an instant, and the front door was barreled open so hard that the handle punched a hole in the siding.

Every window in the house blazed with green static, shafts of light cutting through the darkness and blotting out everything inside. Stacy tore open the driver’s side door of her car and dove inside as the light seared her retinas, and tires screamed against the pavement when the engine finally turned. The car was blindly thrown in reverse and the pedal was flattened against the floor once it felt like it had reached the road.

Miraculously, she’d managed to straighten it out, and four blocks down, she could finally see.