The only saving grace was that I didn’t have adequate time to process my grief. If I had, it may have completely gotten the better of me. But in a matter of seconds, we were on the move. We put out the fires, covered the bodies, and went into the lobby to find Wolfgang standing there, waiting.
He looked us up and down and asked, “What happened?”
He tried to keep it covered with his jacket, but I noticed the gun in his waistband immediately.
“Where were you?!” Loren asked.
“I don’t know,” he lied.
A coughing fit got the better of Claire, she fell into the corner, trying to catch her breath. Instead of rushing to her sister’s side, Loren turned to me. I knew what was coming, and didn’t particularly care for it. “Save it,” I said. “I’m okay.”
Of course, I wasn’t okay, but time was of the essence, and the last thing I needed was to hear her reciting the same platitudes Tobias had given Wolfgang only minutes earlier, after his mother had died, when that sneaky little shit took advantage of our distraction and stole the gun. The words would have rang just as hollow now as they had then.
Wolfgang came to the bottom of the stairs, took a look at the damage in the room behind us, and asked, “Is there anyone else left?”
What he meant was, “Is there anyone else left alive
? Anyone else to worry about stopping me?” He was too inexperienced to be subtle. Even without Claire’s ability amplifying my senses, I would have known. Nathaniel may have been dead, but as long as Wolfgang was armed, we weren’t out of the woods yet.
I went for the safe answer. “We don’t know. There’s probably more people here.”
He pointed at the destruction. “Who all was in there?”
I stepped closer. His hand gravitated uncomfortably close to the hidden weapon. “We don’t know,” I said.
Wolfgang cocked his head at me, no doubt wondering if I suspected him. But how could he ever have guessed that I knew exactly what he was thinking? I still didn’t understand it myself--these thoughts appearing randomly in my mind. It has been a while since I took my medicine…
“What are we going to do now?” he asked.
“I have a plan,” I answered. Then, on the fly, I made up a plan. “We need to split up. The girls will stay here and search for survivors. You and I will go get my car and bring it around.”
“I thought you said your car broke down.”
“It did. I have everything I need to fix it now.” That’s it. Tell him whatever you need to. Just get him away from the others.
Loren put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Jack.”
I turned to her. “This is the best idea.” Then, I looked past her, to Claire. “Isn’t that right?”
Claire nodded in agreement. That was enough for Loren. Be careful,
Claire said without moving her lips or using her voice.
I turned back to Wolfgang. “Let’s go. We don’t have much time.”
He flashed a grin. “After you.” The rain was chilling to the bone. We were both drenched in no time. Stinging wind and water lit up every fresh burn on my face and hands. The storm quickly washed the blood and bits from my hair. The solid pieces, I realized with disgust, were splinters of bone fragments. I wanted to puke, but I held myself together. I needed to keep my wits about me and watch for the right opportunity to turn the tables. But Wolfgang was patient and calculating. He followed closely, never coming within arm’s reach.
We used our phone’s flashlights to cut through the dark. If I got lucky, my baseball bat might save the day. But as we continued, I became aware of certain curious matters. There seemed to be far more trees than I remembered seeing on our walk up here. And the road felt much thinner. Where we walked might barely be considered enough space for a one-way. And our walk didn’t include any sort of decline… Weren’t we supposed to be going downhill?
Krikrikrikrikrikrik. I shined my light at the nearest tree. For a moment, it looked like something had skittered into the branches, but whatever it might have been was the least of our concerns.
We were nearly a mile into the trip before Wolfgang finally spoke up.
“You know... you look like a shit took a shit.”
Considering I’d just been blown up and lost my best friend and was probably about to die, his assessment could have been a lot worse. All I could say was, “Alright.”
I didn’t recognize anything around us. It was impossible that we’d gotten lost on the only road. And yet, being impossible hardly seemed to stop anything else from happening today. The only thing I could do was chock it up to my memory playing tricks on me again. How long has it been since I took my medicine?
It must have been another mile down the road before Wolfgang spoke again. “How far away do you think we’d have to be to not hear a gunshot from the house?”
In this weather, you could shoot someone dead at the end of the driveway and nobody would be the wiser, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to tell him that.
“Don’t worry. Gunshots are loud as hell. If someone were to fire a gun, everyone would know.” You little fucking captain obvious asshole klepto-sociopath.
I kept pushing forward. The trees were so thick on either side of us they looked like a solid wall in the dark. That’s not right, I thought to myself. I remember. This was all farmland before.
“How much further?” Wolfgang whined.
“I’m not sure. The cars should be around here somewhere.”
I scanned the edges of the road for a stick or rock or anything. I could feel it. He’d lost his patience, he was getting ready to take a shot, and I didn’t have anything to defend myself.
“I don’t think we walked this far,” he said. “I think someone must have moved all the cars.”
“Who would do something like that?”
“I don’t know. But it makes sense.”
I stopped, turned to face him, and asked, “How does that make sense?”
“Think about it. Whoever is doing this has it down to a pattern. They must have had lots of practice. They probably have friends or workers who wait until we leave, and then they come and drive our cars to a scrap yard. They’re good at this because they’ve done it so many times before.”
“You’re right. It makes sense,” I said, even though it really didn’t. “I’ve got to say, you don’t seem all that worried.”
“I’ve got a plan.”
“Yeah. When they come for me, I’ll just kill them all.”
I turned around and started walking again. “Hey, let’s keep looking. Maybe our cars are a little further this way.”
I put some pep in my step, trying to create some distance between us. But Wolfgang was faster than me, and he kept up without any problem.
“You know what?” he said. “I think that’s the secret ingredient. Practice. You just need a little bit of practice and you can do anything you want.” There was something up ahead. An interruption in the pattern. A driveway. For a moment, I thought I was safe. Wolfgang hadn’t noticed it yet. He just kept talking. “That’s what Mom always told me. She said I needed ‘real world experience,’ and I could do whatever I wanted.” As I got closer, I realized what was wrong with this driveway. I’d seen it before. “You know why Mom left her room after that man told us to stay still? She wanted us to sneak away before the cops arrived. You want to know why? Because she thought I was the one who killed that old bitch. Mom thought she was protecting me. But really, she was just controlling me. And then I saw my opportunity, and you know what I did? I took my knife and--”
“Wolfgang!” I shouted.
He was grinning, holding the gun in his hand, eager to get more practice.
“Take a look.” I pointed up the driveway. He was so hyper-focused that he failed to realize where we were. We’d been walking for miles in a straight line, yet somehow we were standing back where we started--at the entrance to Bedside Manor.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m still gonna kill you. Then I’m gonna kill the sisters. And I’ll kill anyone else who tries to fuck with me. And when the cops arrive, I’ll tell them--”
My cell phone collided with his face as hard as I could throw it. In an alternate universe, I might have made an incredible baseball player, but in this one, I was taking advantage of a young psychopath’s inexperience and running blindly towards the forest for cover.
A second later, he let out a primal howl. The light from his phone cast my shrinking shadow against the trees, giving me just enough visual reference to slide between two giant trunks as the first shot rang out.
He screamed again and rushed after me, firing wildly, with no regard for ammo conservation. His light was the only source out here. The further I got, the harder it was to see. I tripped a few times, hit a few branches, then finally stopped, pushed myself against the closest tree, and held my breath.
He was still broadcasting his position like a total amateur. Screaming. Firing. But he obviously had no idea where I had gone. I started to climb. The kid would never find me up here.
Another shot rang out. Much closer. And then I saw the light, steadily growing brighter. Wolfgang was headed straight for me. But he couldn’t have known where I was, right? He didn’t see me climb. Did he? I had the upper hand as long as I stayed still and didn’t move. I mean, it’s not like he was a psychic, too. Right?
Oh shit crap dang fuck! IS HE A PSYCHIC TOO?!
He stepped into the clearing beneath my hiding tree and stopped. “Hey, Jack!” he called. “If you come out now, I promise I’ll put a bullet right in your brain. I know how to make it fast.”
I was gauging the possibility of a surprise drop attack when I heard the noise--a low, rumbling growl emanating from somewhere deeper in the forest. Wolfgang snapped his light in the direction of the sound.
“Jack?” he said. “Is that you?”
The growl became louder. And then, it split into multiples. A chorus of thunderous growls from every direction. He swung the gun and light in a full circle, then called out, “Hey, who’s there?” The circle of sound began to shrink in on us, becoming louder, closer. When the first creature appeared, it took all of my self-control not to scream.
The thing was nearly as tall as Wolfgang. Bright red eyes, coal-black fur, four legs, hackles raised, teeth bared. A nightmare hellhound, steadily closing in on its prey. Wolfgang fired. The bullet landed in the animal’s snout, but just like Nathaniel, the animal had no reaction to the injury.
“Stay back!” Wolfgang screamed. I noticed the other hellhounds a second before he did. There were four of them now, boxing him in from every side. He spun and fired at another, catching it across the torso. But the monster didn’t so much as yip.
He didn’t get a third shot. The animals attacked at once, tearing into him, ripping flesh from bone as he screamed in terror and agony. I closed my eyes. If I could have, I would have closed my ears, too. But I had to listen to him wail as they devoured him alive and dragged him off into the woods.
Some time later… (it’s hard to say how much, but I was reasonably certain I was already in the early-to-mid stages of hypothermia), I reopened my eyes. Much to my amazement, I could see my surroundings. The sun was already rising. Even though the storm clouds continued to blot out the sky, enough light broke free to allow me to navigate back.
I needed to get to Claire and Loren before they made the mistake of coming and looking for me. The rules of the game had--quite unexpectedly--changed again, and now there was pertinent information that needed to be factored into our survival plan. Wolfgang had been killed by a… I literally rolled my eyes as the thought hit me. Really funny, whoever’s in charge. Wolfgang was killed by a gang of wolves. What the actual fuck.
After carefully falling out of the tree onto my ass, I righted myself and started back towards the house. I took two steps then stopped and wondered, is this the right direction? I turned around and tried to remember which way I was running before I climbed the tree. In the panic of it all, I’d forgotten to take visual references. Not that it really mattered, considering how every tree looked exactly the same.
I heard the growl just in time to turn around and see the black wolf standing a couple of yards away. Somehow, it looked even more terrifying in the daytime. Eyes glowing red as hot embers. Fur blacker than night. Teeth on full display.
“Hey, buddy,” I said in my calmest voice. “Look at you. Who’s a good boy? You are! Thanks for the assist back there. You, uh, should be full by now, right?”
I hit the ground before I even realized he’d pounced. I felt the full weight of the enormous creature pinning me down. I felt my ribs cracking like pretzels beneath his paws, stabbing my organs from the inside. The very last thing I felt was the searing, brutal pain of its teeth--dull but strong--as they pinched around my throat and ripped out my windpipe. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t fight. All I could do was die.
“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” Jerry screamed.
There was a lot of screaming, actually. But Jerry’s was the only voice I could make out. The lights had snapped back on. The warmth had returned to my skin. The ringing in my ears from the blast had gone away…
We were all seated around the dining room table. We were all perfectly dry. Everyone was back in their period costumes. No cuts, scrapes, or bruises. Everything was, dare I say, normal.
Tobias and Bridget jumped to their feet and embraced. Hope vomited onto her dinner plate. Wolfgang stared across the table at me, fury in his eyes. The voices continued over one another. Fighting. Screaming. Crying. Eventually, Jerry whistled loud enough to make everyone shut up. He had the floor now.
“Everybody calm your collective tits and let me ask one question. Did I just… die?”
“You died over an hour ago,” Loren said.
Jerry put his hands on his hips, gave Tobias a sassy look, and laughed, “I fucking told you so!”
“You didn’t die an hour ago,” I corrected her. “You died last night. You’ve been dead for… so long.”
He looked at me, made a bemused face, and asked, “Are you crying, dude?”
I can’t tell you why he would ask something like that. I mean, I wasn’t crying. And anybody who tries to tell you otherwise wasn’t there and can’t know what really happened and is probably just a big fat liar.
“Now everyone,” (there was an audible gasp from several of us present as soon as Nathaniel began speaking). “It would appear that our night has gotten off to a strange start. Fortunately, we have been given a second opportunity to solve the mystery of Bedside Manor. I recommend we do not squander it.”
Jerry picked up a dinner plate and frisbeed it across the table. It smashed into pieces across Nathaniel’s face, but the old man didn’t react.
“Damn,” Jerry said. “I thought for sure that would prove he wasn’t really blind.”
“I think it proves he isn’t really human,” corrected Loren.
Hope slapped the table with both hands and screamed, “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?!”
Tobias asked, “What’s the last thing everyone remembers?”
Jerry answered first, “You didn’t listen to me and it got us killed.”
Loren was next. “We survived the explosion, but then Jack and Wolfgang left to find help… And then…”
She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence, so Claire did it for her. “We were killed by a haunted suit of armor.”
Jerry nodded and said, “Nice.”
“What about you?” Tobias asked, looking at Hope. The color drained from her face as she turned and looked at her son. She answered, “I didn’t see who did it.”
Wolfgang pointed across the table at me and shouted, “He did it! He’s the one who killed me!”
Jerry couldn’t contain himself, “Oh shut your butt, Wolfie. We’re not idiots. We know you killed your mom.”
“Don’t speak to my son that way!” Hope shrieked. “Your friend there is the one taking crazy pills!”
I snapped right back, “And you’re the lady who recognizes antipsychotics by their drug names! Care to tell us why that is?”
Tobias was kind enough to change the subject, “Everybody hold on a second. Am I to understand that we all just experienced… our own deaths? And then, we regained consciousness right here, at the same time? With no signs of injury whatsoever?”
“Huh,” Jerry responded. He looked around the table and asked, “Hey how come Maggie isn’t here? Was there not enough fairy dust to bring everyone back?”
“Maybe it was just a collective vision?” Loren offered. “Maybe none of that really happened? I mean, how could it have?”
The sound of a loud chime echoed through the house.
“The hell was that?” Jerry asked.
Nathaniel answered with a smile, “Ah, goodie! It seems that the detective has finally arrived. Perhaps he can help us sort out this ghastly affair.”