Midway through May, the spring semester was winding down. Despite less than stellar grades throughout sixth through tenth grade and wanting to quit many times, Eric would be graduating at the end of the first week of June and starting college in the fall. In a month, he'd be in Atlanta renting an apartment and out of this place he hated. No parents nearby, his own space. He took in a deep breath, tasting the spring air as he rode down that same old road he'd known most his life on his bike. In a month, he'd be free. Eric sped on past his parents' house and stopped at a different driveway. He'd moved in with his best friend, Alex, late in April. They were going to be renting together in June. He saw no point in going back to his parents. No official word was sent to them. He rarely answered their calls, texts, or emails. Lately, they hadn't sent any at all. He hoped there would be no more calls. Eric input the code to open up the garage. As he put his bike away, he looked out at the road. An old, blue Sedan was parked along the curb on the other side of the road. Eric stared at the back of the car. The back door had a long scratch along it midways up. 'Again?' Eric quickly closed the garage door. Since the latter part of April, he noticed that same Sedan everywhere. He thought at first it was a coincidence and it wasn't the same car. Once he noticed the scratch, then he knew for certain it always was. It unnerved him, and more so that he never saw the driver. Eric shook off his paranoia. He met with Alex in the room they shared together. "Hey." Eric dropped his backpack on the ground and took off his name tag. "Hey, how was work?" Alex sat on the futon watching TV and working on school notes. "Bullshit. Same as always. Some guy got pissed at me that I wouldn't give him more for his 3DS. Like, what am I supposed to do about it? I don't make up the numbers. I just work the register. Take it up with Gamestop." Eric changed out of his work uniform. "Then some mom yelled at me for having to come in and pay for her kid's game." "What?" Alex asked. "She sent her ten year old in with her credit card while she sat on her ass in the car and he wanted to buy an M-rated game. I told him his mom had to pay with the card and I couldn't sell him an M-rated game. Cause, you know, he's ten. I got an earful about how I'm an asshole for not 'respecting' her parenting choices and trusting her child. How she's such a busy woman and doesn't have time for all this crap, blah blah blah. And then she told me the game was overpriced. It's new. All new games for that system cost that price. What the fuck? It'd be that price anywhere you went." Eric ranted on. "Ugh. Anyway, how was your afternoon?" "Haha, much better than yours. Sorry you had a rough day. I got all the miscellaneous stuff for the apartment ordered. Some other stuff came in today. I checked that everything was right. Furniture's in the basement for now if you wanna go look." Alex got up and opened a box by the bed. "Kay. I'll do that later." "Also, school supplies came in, including...your new laptop!" Alex held up a smaller box from within the big box. Eric's mood improved when he saw it. He took the box and opened it. It wasn't a high end laptop by any means, but it was what he wanted and he paid for it himself. He could finally get rid of the one his parents bought. Eric was grateful to have that one, but now that he was away from his parents, everything related to them bothered him. He wanted a computer that was gotten by his own means. Well, mostly his own. Alex gave him a third of the money to pay for it, so he could get it sooner, but he fully intended on paying Alex back. Eric turned on the computer to start setting up. "If you want, I can set it up for you. You already went to school and work today." Alex offered. "Nah, I got it. But thanks." Eric had a silly grin on his face. "You have fun with that then. Oh, you missed dinner. I'll go warm up your food." Alex said. "Thanks, but you don't have to do that. I can get it myself." "Don't worry about it. You work on the computer. I'll fix the food." Alex walked to the door. His ring tone went off. He looked at the screen and answered. "Hello? Yeah, hello, Dr. Summerfield. No, not this weekend. I have a lot of stuff going on right now. Ah, tonight? I'm sorry. I'm already...yeah. Uh, okay. Could we talk about this another time? Sorry, I'm in the middle of something right now. Hmm...I'm not sure. How about I call you back? When's good for you? Okay. Right. Okay, bye." Alex hung up the phone. "Summerfield...wasn't that the guy who you worked under at that internship you did last summer?" Eric asked. "Yeah, but this is a different Dr. Summerfield." Alex said. "What?" "It's a relative of his who also works there. I worked with her too." Alex sounded upset. "Anyway, I'll be back in a sec." Eric worked on the computer until eleven. At eleven, they both turned in for the night. When the room was quiet, Eric's earlier paranoid thoughts returned. He sat up and looked out the window. It was still there, the blue Sedan. "Something wrong?" Alex asked. "I swear I've seen this Sedan parked out here every day for the last few weeks." Eric said. "So? Someone probably moved in recently." Alex turned over. "Huh. Yeah, probably." That was enough to settle Eric's thoughts for the time being. It still didn't give him answers to why he kept seeing it other places too, but he reasoned there must be a logical, normal explanation. He put the thoughts away and fell asleep. That night, he dreamt of white walls. He walked down a long hallway, holding someone's hand he couldn't see. At the end of the hall, he stopped at a door with a number on it. He could only make out the first digit, "4". He reached for the doorknob. Through the door, he walked out into a big field. A girl with scars waved to him. She was barely there, as if made of blue mist and dust. He tried to touch her, but his hands went through her. He pulled his hand away. It now glowed a bright blue too. He started fading. Eric looked at his other hand. It matched his left. The mist and dust overtook him bit by bit until everything was a deep azure. He turned to the girl again only to see his reflection in a full length mirror. His body returned to its normal state, but something was off about his face. Eric's reflection moved separately from him. His reflection pressed his hand against the mirror. He asked, "Is that really you?" "Who else would I be?" Eric asked in response. "Tell me, what year is it?" "It's 2016." Eric said. His reflection smiled and cried. "You're eighteen." "Yeah. Of course I am. So are you." The reflection shook his head. Eric looked more closely at the mirror. It wasn't a mirror at all. In front of him was glass. He touched the glass with both hands and stared in. On the other side was some sort of liquid substance. Stranger still, behind the man who looked like him was an empty landscape. A barren desert of sand and rusted metal. Eric knew what he saw was impossible. A strange illusion. "I'm dreaming." Eric said. He pushed his hands hard against the glass. His fingers slid through, then his palms and wrists. Eric pushed on through the glass to the other side. The water disappeared. A cold breeze chilled him. The man on the other side only stared at him. "Who are you?" Eric asked. "It doesn't matter." The man said. "Could you tell me about your life? I know none of what you'll say is likely true, but could you please...?" "Why would I lie?" "Come walk with me. Tell me everything about your life." The man motioned for him to follow. Eric wandered around the empty place with the man. As he was dreaming, he was more honest than he would've been normally. "I used to live in Rome, then my parents moved out here to Hiram. My parents don't really like me. I've been a big inconvenience on them for a long time." "How so?" The man asked. "I've been in and out of mental hospitals. No one knows what's wrong with me. I lie a lot. I made up stuff. Completely believed it. Even now, I know I'm crazy, but sometimes I think everyone's tricking me and I'm the only one who knows the truth. But that's impossible. I'm just that crazy." Eric summarized everything in a few sentences. The man stopped in front of a half collapsing building. A dog ran out. It jumped at the man. The man knelt down and petted the dog. He said with a smile, "And you're not here either. No one ever is." The dog came over to Eric. He petted the dog on the head. "Eric, tell me, what do you remember?" The man asked. "My memories are...confusing..." Eric said, turning away. As he did, the landscape changed to a field at night. The scent in the air overwhelmed him. It was so intense he felt like he was really there. He touched the tall grass around him. Though he was dreaming, it felt real. The sensation of blades of grass and flower petals, the night air, it was all so real that it terrified him. He turned back to the man. No one was there. The field was empty. Eric woke up crying and shaking. "Are you okay?!" Alex sat down on the bed and put his hands on Eric's shoulders. Eric looked around. He slowly realized he was finally awake. He started to calm back down. "Sorry...Another nightmare..." "You alright? You've been having a lot of nightmares lately." Alex said. Eric sat up. "Yeah. Probably just stress from finals coming up." Alex picked up a cup of tea from the nightstand. "Hmm...maybe you should cut back on your hours at work for now." "I'm barely working any hours as is. I'm fine." Eric looked at the clock. Five in the morning. "You're up early." "Couldn't sleep." Alex said. "Something bothering you?" Eric asked. Alex took a sip of tea and looked away. "Don't really wanna talk about it right now." "Okay." Eric knew that look. Whatever it was, Alex wasn't going to tell him. Eric was still shaken from the dream. He wanted comfort, but he didn't want to say it. He didn't want to look childish, even though he knew Alex wouldn't take it that way. Instead, he hugged Alex from behind. He rested his head against Alex's back. As he expected, Alex didn't reject the contact nor say anything about it. Since the time Eric broke down in front of him, Alex allowed him this closeness when they were alone like this. He knew his actions crossed over into an unspoken ambiguity between them. He wanted more, but dare not say it, and wondered if Alex shared that feeling. They played a quiet game, both too afraid to make the first move. The scent of Alex surrounded him, and Alex's body's warmth calmed him. He watched Alex's profile, wanting to say something simple and straightforward. The usual emptiness came in place of his heart's desire. "What kind is that?" Alex glanced back at him and then down at the tea. "It's a cinnamon flavored black tea." "Can I try it?" Alex handed him the cup. Eric pulled away to take a drink. "You like cinnamon?" Alex asked. He lay down on the bed. "Yeah." Eric took another sip. He handed the cup back to Alex. "It's really good." "I'll fix you a cup in a sec." Alex sat back up. "Whaddya want for breakfast?" "Mm...whatever you want is fine." Eric leaned against Alex. Alex put his arm around Eric. "You okay?" "Huh? Yeah." Alex looked at him. "You can tell me anything." "There's nothing to tell." Eric put his hand over Alex's, his grasp desperate and full of fear. His reaction didn't go unnoticed. Alex said nothing about it. "Gotta get up. Is bacon, eggs, and toast okay?" "Yeah." Eric let go. Alex put on a hoodie over his white tank top. "If you're up to it, meet me down in the kitchen. We can talk more there." "Kay." Alex left the room. Without Alex there, the room seemed too quiet. Empty. It unnerved him, as did the dark skies outside the window. He peeked out to look for signs of life. Nothing in the streets aside from street lights and that parked blue Sedan. Usually, the sound of crickets, frogs, and birds in the morning made him nostalgic and at ease. Today, the pre-sunrise noise was unbearable, creeping up on him like a ghost running its fingers up his spine. Eric got off the bed and quickly put on some pants and socks. He headed to the bathroom to brush his hair and teeth. After He washed off his face, he looked at his reflection. Last night's dream lingered in his mind. He reached out to touch the mirror. His hand met with the cold, hard surface and went no further. There was no stranger on the other side, only himself. He dried off his face and went down to the kitchen. Alex was already cooking. Eric sat down at the table and watched him. On the table, he noticed Alex had his phone open to play some music. It wasn't anything he knew. Though they were closer now than they'd been in years, there were parts of themselves they rarely showed each other still. Music was one of them, but there was never a particular reason why. He was a little taken aback at this, as trivial as it was. Alex came over and poured him a cup of tea. He looked down at the phone. "Ah, you can turn it off if you want." Eric shook his head. "Nah, it's peaceful." "If you're okay with it." Alex went back to cooking. Eric picked up the phone and looked at the tags for the artist. He didn't recognize most of the words, and wasn't sure if that was odd. His parents rarely let him listen to anything. He named off one of the tags. "What is 'dream pop'?" "Uh, it's what you're listening to right now." "Is that a genre?" Eric didn't understand what half the tags meant. "Yeah." "I don't know why, but it's not quite what I expected you'd like." Eric commented. Alex served him breakfast and sat down across from him. "And what did you expect I'd listen to?" "Ah...you know, I don't really know." Eric laughed and shrugged. "You never play anything around me either. What do you like?" Alex smirked. "Something embarrassing?" "Haha, this is going to sound dumb, but I don't really know what I like. I've never really listened to music much, except some stuff Zack and Juan sent me. My parents never liked anything they sent me. They always made me delete everything." Eric tasted the warm tea. The flavor and the music playing kept him calm as he thought back on the way his parents reacted. "You can listen to my music, if you want." Alex added, "You can do whatever you want now. They can't stop you anymore." "I know." Eric looked down at his reflection in the cup of tea. "Everything was like that for so long, it's hard to get myself to think of those things, much less do them." "It won't last." Alex said. Sitting there having breakfast with Alex so early in the morning reminded him of something he couldn't quite place. He shook off the feeling and listened to the music. Alex took a deep breath and looked around the room. "Gonna be strange not being here." "Yeah." "You sure you can put up with living alone with me?" Alex joked. "I've been practically living here for a year, at least." Eric said. "You won't be going back to your parents' house." "That's the best part." Eric got lost in his thoughts. He imagined what their daily life might be like when they moved out. It'd only be the two of them. Would most mornings be like this, he wondered. He wouldn't have a reason to share a bed anymore, but in his imagination, he pictured they did anyway. He thought back on other times they spent together alone. "Hey, remember when we went camping?" Alex gave him a big grin. "And the bears..." "Let's not talk about that...but you know, when we were out on the road for all those long hours getting there and we were so far away from everything around here, for once, I thought I could actually forget this place and be happy." Eric looked down at the phone on the table. He thought back on the trip. Alex didn't play any music on the trip. The air was filled with their voices instead as they passed places he'd never seen before. The places were a blur and the words hazy in his mind, but the feelings in him then stayed sharp in him. Something in him now twisted. The thought of staying where he was sickened him. Alex reached across the table and held Eric's hand. "Things are going to get better from here on out. I'll be right there with you." "I wish I could repay you. I've given you nothing." Eric said. "You've given me everything." Alex tightened his grip. "Right now, you've given me this moment, here, this morning in the dark." "Sometimes, I'm afraid I'll forget you." Eric confessed. "How could you forget me? You've known me since first grade." Alex said. "I know." Eric pulled away from him. "I'm always thinking things like that. What's going to disappear? If it disappears, will I ever know? What's slipped away from me? Can I hold onto anything?" Alex wasn't sure how to react. "Eric..." Alex's mom, Amanda, walked into the kitchen. "You boys are up early." "Morning, Mom." Alex said and shut off his music. "Good morning, Amanda." Eric said. The two of them finished eating and hurried back upstairs for some privacy. They didn't pick up their previous conversation. Eric watched Alex get dressed. He said, "You always look so put together. I look stupid in my clothes." "What? We wear mostly the same brands." Alex looked over his clothes. "Yeah, but it looks good on you. I look stupid." "That's in your head." Alex shook his head. "You look fine." "Mmm...Nothing looks good on me." Eric said. "If you hate your clothes, why do you wear them?" He asked. "My mom bought these for me. And I look stupid in these. Just another way I'm a failure." Eric sighed and sat on the futon. "Why don't you buy yourself some new clothes? You have money." Alex suggested. "That's for the apartment and school. Clothes aren't important." Alex went quiet for a moment, coming up with some plan in his head. "Let me buy you some clothes." Eric's eyes widened. "I can't let you do that!" "Why not? You let me cook breakfast for you and buy you lunch, and you live in my house. What's the big deal?" Alex sat down beside him on the futon. "Our situation's already weird. What will people think?" Eric's face turned bright red. "Don't tell them I bought them if it bothers you so much." He nudged Eric. "Let's get you some new clothes and donate these." "My mom would be furious." "Eric, you're eighteen. What's she going to do?" Alex gave him a smug look. "Yeah, but she bought all these..." Eric countered. "For you. They belong to you, not her. You don't want them. So, let's get rid of them." "Isn't this a little extreme?" Eric liked the idea. He hated everything she bought him, but some part of him kept telling him he was wrong for thinking that. "Do you like any of your clothes?" Alex asked. Eric thought it over. He couldn't conjure in his mind a single article of clothing he liked. "Not really." "Then it's not." "But isn't it insulting to you? You wear those brands." Eric said. "I wear them because I picked them. You're over-thinking this. Let's do it." Alex said. Eric leaned back against the futon. "Sounds like something from a pre-teen girl movie." "Haha, don't worry. We'll get your nails done afterwards." Alex held up his hands and laughed. Eric rolled his eyes. Alex said, "You don't work today, right?" "Nope." Eric said. "We'll go after school." Alex said. "But the nearest malls are in Douglasville and Kennesaw..." Eric knew it was about at least a thirty minute drive or more in either direction. "So? Neither mall is all that far." Alex checked his phone. "You ready? Let's go before traffic gets bad." They left the house. As Eric was getting in Alex's SUV, he noticed the blue Sedan again. This time, something was different. It was parked on their side of the street, one house over. When he looked out the window earlier in the morning, it was where he usually saw it. The Sedan was empty. "Something wrong?" Alex asked. "That Sedan..." Eric pointed to it. "Not that again. Come on, let's go." Alex said as he opened his door. Eric got in the car and tried to distract himself from thinking about it. The school day went by quickly. With less than twenty days left, there wasn't much to do in any of his classes. After school, Alex took him out to Douglasville to get new clothes. Eric groaned when they entered the mall. "What's wrong?" Alex asked. "I hate being here." Eric said. "Would you have rather gone to Town Center instead of Arbor Place?" "No, I hate Town Center more. My mom always liked that mall better because snootier people shop there." Eric sighed. "Let's just get this over with." They walked into the mall. The mall was busier than Eric expected, given it was a weekday. He stared around at all the stores, overwhelmed. He turned to Alex. "I don't know what stores to look in." "Then we'll look in all of them." Alex replied. "No, we really don't need to do that. I don't know. I don't even know what I like. Let's just go somewhere you want to go." Eric said. "Pretend we're on a date and I'm treating you. It's okay if we're here and you take a while. I don't mind." Alex said. "Okay." Eric resigned to Alex's wants. Then something dawned on him. He raised an eyebrow at Alex and grinned. "...A date?" Alex cleared his throat and looked away, a hint of red in his face. "As a mental exercise, obviously." "Okay, boyfriend, let's start here." Eric laughed and grabbed Alex's wrist, leading him to a nearby clothing store. He wanted to hold Alex's hand instead, but given their location, that might not be the wisest of decisions. The guy walking behind them was already staring at him strangely. They went through every store in the mall that sold mens clothing. Eric surprised himself in that he actually did pick out several clothes. None of it was what he expected he'd walk out with. His parents would ridicule him for wearing anything he chose, but when he looked in the mirror in the dressing room, he liked what he saw. He almost felt like a different person. Alex never said a single word of disapproval at any of his choices. After they finished shopping, they ate at the food court. They sat in an isolated spot. Eric took his chances and covertly held Alex's hand under the table. Alex looked at him and reciprocated the gesture. "Everything okay?" "Yeah." Eric said. "It's just, your hand..." "I'm getting into the scenario like you told me to. Role playing." Eric didn't care how fake what he said sounded. "Right. Well, you didn't have any issues picking clothes out. We've spent over two hundred dollars." Alex put away the most recent receipt. "Oh god. Is it really that much?" Eric's good mood immediately disappeared. "Don't worry about it." Alex pulled out a piece of paper containing a list of basic clothing items. "If it makes you feel any better, we've gotten everything on the list I made. You should have everything you need for most occasions now." "Really? I'll pay you back..." Eric hadn't thought about how much money anything he got was. Alex never said anything about that when they were looking through stores, nor did he give him a budget. His heart sunk. "No, I wanted to do this for you. I don't want you to pay me back." Alex held his hand tightly. "Are you sure?" Eric asked. "Yeah. Don't sweat it." "Thank you." Eric nearly leaned against Alex out of habit, then remembered where they were. He looked back to see if anyone was watching. He lost his breath. "Something wrong?" Alex asked. It was the same man who was staring at them when they entered the mall. He saw him everywhere the entire time they were shopping. "I swear that guy over there has been in every single store we've gone in." Alex discretely looked back at him. "You sure?" "Pretty damn sure." "You're probably confusing a couple of people together." He brushed it off. "I swear to god that's the same person." Eric said under his breath. "And I swear to you that's not. Humans are terrible at remembering details." Alex wasn't having it. "You're not going to tell me about gorillas playing basketball again, are you? I'm serious. I know that guy was there." Eric insisted. "Who cares if he was?" Alex tried to be rational about the situation. "Maybe he's shopping for a bunch of people and took the same route as us. Quit worrying about it." "Yeah, I guess you're right. I sound really paranoid, don't I?" Eric said. "Yep." "Ugh, I'm so tired. When we get home, I'm gonna just go to sleep. How the hell do those fashion obsessed girls do this as a hobby?" Eric calmed down. He rested his head on the table. "Hey, some dudes do it too." Alex said. "The idea of that is giving me a headache." Eric remembered the time. "We have homework tonight, don't we?" "And we need to study for a test." Alex reminded him. "Fucking bullshit." He wanted nothing more than to sleep. They got up to leave as soon as they finished eating. As they left, Eric noticed the man he saw following them also got up, but he lost track of him in the crowd on the bottom floor. Once they got home, Eric put all of his old clothes in a big trash bag to be donated and they went to studying. Around ten, Eric crashed on the bed, completely exhausted. "Hey, are you okay?" Alex lounged on the bed beside him. "Um...not really." Eric buried his face in the sheets. "Think I'm having one of those days again." "Do you want me to call your doctor?" Alex asked. "No. It's not that bad." Eric said. "Is there any meds you're supposed to take?" Eric let slip something he hadn't told Alex before. "I stopped taking them a long time ago. They made me worse." "Did you tell your doctor?" Alex sat up. "Yeah, she gave me a higher dosage and said I needed to wait it out. I was practically non-functional when I took the pills she gave me. So I stopped." Eric rolled over, facing away from Alex. "Does she...know you stopped?" Alex raised an eyebrow at that admission. Eric got angry thinking about his therapist. "She has to by now since I never go in anymore." "Why aren't you going in?" Alex asked. "Don't want to." "I think I should call her." Alex picked up his cell. He had the number to Eric's therapist in his contacts for emergency situations. "No. You're not. I'm not against seeing a doctor again at some point, but I don't want to see her specifically." Eric sat up and pushed Alex's hand down. "Okay. Um, is there anything you can do to help ease how bad it is?" Alex was a little surprised by Eric's reaction. "She was never really all that useful in giving me practical skills. She told me a few basic things, but it was mostly just take meds, telling me to stop complaining about the side-effects, and do whatever my parents told me to do." Eric's agitation grew. Alex put the phone down. "Your shitty parents? Did you tell her what they were like?" "She told me I was exaggerating and misinterpreting everything, because, you know, I'm a teenager and I'm unstable and hormonal or whatever. So, clearly, I'm a liar." Eric wanted to throw something, but he didn't know why. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize how shitty your doctor was. Did your parents pick this doctor out specifically by any chance or was this just the only one their insurance covered near here?" Alex asked. "Not her specifically, but where I went. They really wanted me to go to Moone & Wolfe, because they used to work there. They got a discount because of that. You know my dad's a cheap ass." "Jesus. I'm sorry. I wish I could do something to help you." Alex said. Eric tried to think of anything that might make him feel different than he was then. He remembered how he felt at breakfast earlier. "Mm...could you play whatever album you were listening to this morning?" "Yeah." Alex put some music on. Eric didn't know what else to ask for. He avoided eye contact. "Could you hold me?" Alex did as he asked. "I'm sorry. I'm a mess." Eric didn't notice he was crying. "I don't know if I can do this. Starting college in fall, working, I'm just..." "Shh. You can do this. It's going to be okay." Alex held him close and rubbed his back. "Do you have any more of that tea?" Eric asked. "Yeah. Do you want me to make you some?" Alex spoke in a soft voice that was unusual for him. "Yeah." "You wanna come downstairs with me?" Alex pressed his forehead against Eric's. "I'll be okay here." "Okay." Alex reluctantly left the room. Eric curled up on the bed and listened to the music. The scent of the pillows and blankets, everything smelled like Alex. He realized he was crying now, but didn't know why. "Eric, come here." A loud voice called out to him. He recognized the voice belonged to a man and sounded familiar, but he couldn't place who it belonged to it. It was so loud it sounded like someone was talking in his head or in his ear. He sat up and looked around. There was no one there. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. He pulled his knees up against his chest and rested his head against them. "I'm sorry, Alex. I don't think anyone can fix me." After his heartbeat settled back down, he looked out the window to see if it was dark yet. In front of the Sedan, he saw the man from the mall staring up at him. Eric jumped back and stumbled off the bed. He told himself he was seeing things. Slowly, he crawled back onto the bed and looked out the window again. The man was still there, staring. Eric got back off the bed again and ran down the stairs to the kitchen. He caught his breath when he reached Alex. Alex's face was filled with worry. "Something wrong?" He wanted to tell Alex what happened, but he couldn't. Alex likely would tell him he was being paranoid. He made up a lie. "No...I got lonely." "It'll be done soon." Alex rubbed his shoulders for him. "Hey, do you wanna go on a walk after this?" "Not tonight." Eric said without hesitation. "Kay. How are you feeling now?" Alex asked. "Better." "That's good." Alex handed him a cup of tea. They headed back upstairs and talked for a while. Eric started to calm down again. At ten-thirty, Alex checked the time and said, "Hey, I'm going to take a shower real quick." "Okay. I think I'll take one later." "Kay." Alex left the room to shower. Eric sat listening to Alex's music collection. He put on a different album. Shortly after the first song started, his cell phone rang. He paused the song and answered the phone without looking to see who was calling. He figured it was either Zack or Juan calling. "Hello." Eric said. "What are you doing?" Eric froze, then he got angry. He said, "Drinking tea." "Where are you?" His father demanded. "Same place I was before. I'm at Alex's." "You haven't been home in weeks or called. No texts. Your mother's drinking in the kitchen, crying about you and where she went wrong with you." His dad's tone was the same usual angry one he always used at Eric when no one else was around. When he lived with them, that voice always made him do whatever his father asked of him. He wanted nothing more than to please him back then. Right now, he couldn't give a damn and hearing his dad talk to him like that only enraged him. "I don't know why she's crying. Nothing's changed." "Is that all you have to say for yourself?" "I don't know what you want me to say." He was half ready to hang up on him. "Come home, tonight. We need to have a family talk about you. I've called the hospital and we can have you put in for a month in June to get you right again." "No." "Excuse me?" Eric was done with this. "I'm eighteen. You can't make any medical decisions for me anymore." "I can call the police and tell them you're suicidal." His father threatened him. Eric wasn't going to let it get to him. "Then they can come here and see that I'm fine. Are you going to bribe the police when they find out I'm not? I can do the same back to you too, you know. I can call and say you're the suicidal one." "Why are you like this? Come home. How much are you going to put your mother through?" "Since when do you care about Mom? You rarely sleep in the same room." Eric raised his voice. "It's that boy, isn't it? Him and his fucked up parents have got you acting like this. You were crazy, but at least somewhat trying to get better before." "I am better than before." Eric said. He felt a little bit of pride at being able to say that. He was still falling apart, but it wasn't like living with them. "While you mooch off someone else's family and do god knows what with that boy? Are you still having him do your homework for you?" 'Do you think I'm really that stupid?' For several years, Eric himself believed he was too dumb to do well in school. His parents reinforced the idea at every poor score. Only when he was with Alex could he see that he had the ability to do well, if in the right environment. He snapped back at his father. "Alex doesn't do my homework. I do. My grades are from my efforts." "You haven't been making good grades since elementary school. Suddenly you're around him and you're getting A's again. I'm not stupid. I won't say it again, Eric. Get your shit and come home right now. We are having this talk tonight and you are going back there in June. I've already made the budget. You are not fucking anything else up. You need to..." His father yelled. Before he could continue, Eric hung up the phone. The phone immediately rang again. Eric rejected the call. Shortly after that, he received a text. It read, "I'll be there in five minutes." Eric ran downstairs and knocked on Alex's parents' bedroom door. Alex's mom opened the door. "You need something, Eric?" "Hey Amanda, if you see my dad pull up, could you not answer the door?" Eric asked. "Uh oh. What's up?" "He's demanding I come home and said he's coming over. I told him not tonight, but he wouldn't listen." Eric left out as many details as possible. "Did something happen?" She asked. "No. He's just in one of his moods." "Okay. I'll double-check that the door's locked. Everyone's already home anyway. I'll turn off the living room light. You don't worry about him." She said. "Thank you." Eric said. She smiled to reassure him. "You go on and go upstairs. I'll take care of everything." Eric went back upstairs and watched the road from the window. The strange man wasn't there anymore, but the Sedan was still parked there. Not long after that, Alex got out of the bathroom. He already changed into his usual sleepwear, a tank top and a pair of sweatpants. "What's up?" He dried off his hair. "My dad called and said he's was coming over." Eric sighed. "What?!" Eric spoke with a completely blank face. "Because I wouldn't come home immediately and let him put me in a mental hospital over the summer." Alex nearly dropped the towel. "What?! Where the fuck did that come from?!" "I don't know. I already told your mom not to let him in." Eric heard a car pull up. He looked back out the window. It was his father. "Seriously?!" "Your dad is nuts." "Ugh, why?" Eric put his face in his palm. "What set him off this time?" Alex asked. "I don't know. I haven't talked to them at all in weeks. Then suddenly he's calling me, telling me Mom's drinking herself into a depressive stupor, and I'm fucking you in exchange for homework." Eric wanted to disappear. 'Why today of all days? I can't take anymore.' "Not that again. I love how in his head you don't pay me in money. It's specifically sex, because reasons." Alex rolled his eyes. "It's because I clearly must be doing whatever paranoid idea in his head he's most disgusted by. If I paid you to do my assignments, he wouldn't care. I know he used to do that when he was in high school and college." Eric watched his father get out of the car. He wanted to look away, but he couldn't. "Really? Wow." Alex joined him by the window to watch. "Oh my god. I can hear him banging on the door from up here. Heh. I should call the cops on him." "He'll give up before they'd get here." Eric said. "True." "He's texting me now." Eric opened his messages. "Open the door. Yeah, no." "What's your dad's number?" Alex looked at the messages. Eric showed him in his contacts. "Here. Why?" "Come here." Alex got behind him and hugged him. He took a picture of the two of them and texted it to Eric's dad with a message of his own. "What did you do?" Eric grabbed the phone. The message read, "Eric's mine tonight, sorry not sorry". "Now he's really going to think I'm sleeping with you." He could only imagine how his dad was going to take that message. Alex gave him a goofy grin. "But you are. You sleep in my bed every night." Eric rolled his eyes. "You're a dork." "Oh, now he's really going at it now." Alex laughed. "The light came back on." They heard the front door open. "Excuse me." "It's your stepdad." Eric said. "Shit, this should be good." Alex pulled up the blinds to get a better look. Eric's father was so loud that they could hear him very clearly. "My son needs to come home right now." Eric's dad said. "Your son is old enough to decide that for himself. It's nearly eleven, and my wife and I are going to bed. You keep up that noise and I will call the cops." Alex's stepdad said in response. Eric's dad dropped all pretenses of acting normal. He yelled, "I'll call them on you for kidnapping." "You can't kidnap a willing adult, Mr. Thomas. Now, leave." Alex's stepdad slammed the door in his face and turned off the light. Eric's father stomped back to the car and drove away. "Haha. That was gold." Alex laughed at him. "Maybe to you. That was embarrassing as hell for me." Eric closed the blinds and hid his face. "The only person he embarrassed was himself." Alex stretched. "Ready to turn in?" "Yeah. I'd like to go ahead and forget today." Eric got up and got ready for bed. After Alex turned off the lights, they talked for a while. Alex was being unusually cuddly with him. Eric didn't mind, but was a little confused by it. Typically, he was the initiating that kind of contact. Alex whispered to him, "You wanna know a secret?" "What?" "Sometimes, I think about asking you out just to piss him off." Alex pulled Eric in closer. "Haha. Really?" Eric's face burned. "I should have kissed you for the photo. Do you think he would've tried breaking down the door?" Alex grinned. Eric laughed at the idea, though he would have been even more humiliated if that really did happen. "He might." "Do you want me to delete the picture?" Alex asked. "No. Can I see it?" Eric asked. Alex opened up his gallery and showed him the picture. He was a little embarrassed by it. Not that he didn't like the photo itself, but it wasn't one he'd want his parents seeing. He did want his own copy. He pictured what face his father must have been making when he saw it. "God, he has to be furious right now." "Let him be." Alex leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. "Night." Flustered, Eric managed to say, "Night." He cuddled up closer against Alex and watched him sleep. He wasn't sure how to take what Alex did. Was it a hint of mutual feelings? Or merely Alex's way at getting back at Eric's parents? Eric enjoyed the ambiguous place their relationship was in for a long time. It allowed him to get in close without risking anything, but he was getting tired of that. He wanted more, and his desire was growing. He wanted to ask Alex out, but he was still too afraid to do it. In his mind, he'd already set a date for that. Eric planned on asking him out after the graduation party Zack was holding, but as the days were counting down, he was getting more anxious over it. 'What if I'm wrong?' Eric asked himself. 'What if I'm not?' With Alex so close against his body, his mind wandered somewhere more base than his original thoughts. He allowed his mind to fantasize until he couldn't take it anymore. He got up and spent some time alone in the bathroom. When he returned to bed, he watched Alex sleep for a while. Alex always looked at ease in his sleep. Something about that put Eric at peace himself. Under his breath, he whispered a few words then looked back out the window. The neighborhood outside was as it always was at night. Something about the way it looked seemed unreal, like a painting placed up against the window. He felt nothing as he stared at it, not even the unease looking at the Sedan usually brought. He noticed it was parked in a different location again, but he couldn't get himself to care. His mind was empty. Eric got back under the covers and finally went to sleep. In his dreams, he stood before the mirror again. His not-quite reflection greeted him. "Hello again, Eric." "Who are you?" Eric asked. "You've been coming here a lot lately. I must be running out of time." The man said. "Running out of time? For what?" The man on the other side of the mirror reached through the glass. Eric noticed scars down the man's arm. Those marks of pure white burned in his mind. He saw himself in his old house alone, early in the morning, before the sun rose and when the crickets and birds were already chirping. He woke in a sweat the next morning. This time, he woke up before Alex. He pushed down the memory of the dream as far back as he could and tried to have a normal day. On the way to school, he noticed the Sedan again. It was parked where he saw it the last time he looked at it. School went by quickly. His friend, Juan, started the morning off with creepy stories in homeroom, and there was little else going on the rest of the day. His final month of high school was passing by in a daze, and he didn't really care. He was ready for it to be over with. After school, he did a three hour shift at work, then rode his bike toward home. With his dad angry at him and that stranger from yesterday, he didn't like being out alone. Halfway, he turned back around and stopped in front of a Walmart. He called Alex to have him pick him up instead. Alex teased him about getting spooked easily on the ride back. "Did Juan's story about the rougarou freak you out that much? It's not real." "Haha, yeah, I know." Eric didn't let Alex get any hint of his real fears. "Sorry about this." "It's cool. I don't mind picking you up from work." When they got home, Eric ate dinner and played video games with Alex for a while. Alex asked him about taking a walk, but Eric refused. He didn't want to be anywhere outside. Alex changed into his tank top and sweatpants to get more comfortable. Eric watched him change. He was so distracted he didn't think about how obvious his staring was. He sensed Alex noticed and accidentally made eye contact. Alex gave him a questioning look, as if asking him what he was doing. He said nothing to Eric directly. After he changed, Alex sat on the bed beside Eric, looking as flustered as Eric was. Eric got up the courage to break the ice. His words came out awkward. "Hey, remember that time you said that thing about wanting to try experimenting with me?" "Jeez, why are you bringing that up again? Can't we just forget that happened?" Alex groaned while his face turned red. "Let's make out." Eric said. "What? Quit messing around." Alex turned further away. "I'm not." "Are you just trying to see if I'll agree to it?" Alex faced him finally, his face as red as Eric's. "What do you think?" "Eric, are you...feeling alright? The last time you tried something like this, you ended up having a mental breakdown in my car." Eric didn't want to remember that night. On the one hand, they'd gotten much closer since that day, but the day itself was one of the worst in his life. That night, his mind cycled between emptiness and suicidal planning, confusion and impulses he couldn't control. The whole event was hazy even then. He remembered bits and pieces, and he wished he recalled none of it. That was when Alex put his doctor's phone number in his cell phone, and when Eric started to understand how much he couldn't continue having his parents in his life. His impulses that night were attempts at filling that emptiness with something other than pain. His desire for sex that night wasn't about love or desire--he wanted a distraction. He didn't get that distraction, but Alex helped calmed him back out of that strange state of desperation and recklessness. For that, his romantic inclinations towards Alex only deepened, and his fear of losing him as well. Today, his intentions were very different. He wanted to touch Alex, not out of desperation, but desire; and his fears were starting to slip away. "That was different. I'm fine." Eric did his best to maintain a calm outward appearance. "If you don't want to, just say no." "I'm...not against it if you're being serious." Alex looked away from him again. Eric's heart raced as he put his hand on Alex's. He took in the texture of Alex's skin, warm and roughed up from all his time outdoors. It was familiar and unreal at once. He wanted to laugh at himself out of cruelty that he might forget what he was feeling now. His memories were always fleeting and unstable. He looked at the profile of Alex's face, a silly grin on his face as he took in how deep the shade of red was. Eric leaned against Alex and whispered, "This is enough, if you don't want to." Alex took the lead from him, and gently pushed him down on the bed. The view sent a shiver through him and his world shifted between the yellow hue of Alex's bedroom and some distant, impossible blue. In that distortion, he saw an after-image of himself as a child walking through a field at night under a full moon with someone about his current age. Everything around them was consumed by that bright blue. He closed his eyes as Alex kissed him, but the pictures didn't leave him. He wrapped his arms around Alex and clung tightly to him, his entire body shaking. Alex pulled away. "Are you okay?" Eric snapped back to reality. He quickly regained his composure. "I'm cold." Alex reached over and handed Eric his hoodie from the floor. Eric put it on. Briefly, he glanced over at Alex again. Wearing Alex's clothes wasn't odd for him. He'd done it before when he first started staying over longer. That didn't stop him from being a little turned on by Alex's scent on him. He pushed away the lights in his mind and pulled Alex back on top of him. His mind could not be at ease. With every touch, every slightest movement, something tugged at the edge of his mind. A memory just out of reach, embedded into his skin. It was different from the azure vision of before--not frightening and longing, but full of excitement and desire. The knots tangled around his thoughts were coming undone, thread by thread. He couldn't shake the feeling he'd done this before. 'Why does this feel so familiar? We've kissed before when we were kids and under the mistletoe on Christmas, but never like this...Why don't I believe myself?' The confusion ate at him, but his desire was greater than his curiosity over that lost memory or the disturbance from earlier. He could think on that later. Right now, he wanted more. Eric undid the front of Alex's pants and slipped his hand inside Alex's boxers. Alex copied his movements. Eric's earlier thoughts scattered and his mind emptied while his nervousness turned his stomach. He didn't expect he'd get this far, much less that his initial request would be taken seriously. A knock at the door. They both froze. "Alex, can I come in?" Alex's mother asked from the other side of the door. Alex quickly zipped his pants. "Just a sec." Eric fixed his pants and stayed on the bed. His face was beet red. "Yeah, Mom?" Alex opened the door, just as red as Eric. Eric laughed under his breath. "Zack brought some things over for the party." She held up a few bags. Alex took the bags from her. "Thanks." "Alright. Oh, dinner's ready," Amanda said. "Okay." After she left, Alex closed the door. He sighed and put his face in his hand. "That was embarrassing." "Sorry. I didn't ask if that was okay." Eric apologized. "I didn't say no, and I did it too." Alex walked back to the bed and sat down. "That's enough for now. I think...I went further than I was ready for today." "Oh, okay." Eric didn't want to stop. His body was in agony. "So, um, does that mean you don't want to try that again?" "Maybe a different day." "Does that mean you liked it?" Eric asked. Alex paused before answering. "...Yeah, I did." "I did too." Eric fidgeted with his hands. "I know you said you...uh, didn't want to do more than kissing for now, but...how likely would you want to..." "It's pretty likely. But not today." He smirked at Eric. "I take it you want to." "Yeah." Eric couldn't stop himself from grinning. After dinner, they went through the things Zack dropped off. They were in charge of everything related to food for the party. Alex was more focused on it than Eric. His mind was all over the place. Neither of them talked about what happened earlier, but Eric got the impression from Alex it likely would happen again. He wanted to fantasize but his mind was distracted by yesterday's events--about his father and that stranger watching him. He peeked out the window to see where the Sedan was parked. The stranger was standing by the car again, staring straight at him. Eric shut the blinds. "What are you doing?" Alex asked. "There was...this guy outside staring at me." Eric sunk down on the bed. "What? Are you getting paranoid again?" Alex went over to the bed and looked out the window. "No one's watching you. There's just some guy getting in his car." Eric looked down. The stranger was in the driver seat now. "He probably just happened to be looking over in this direction when you looked out. Nothing spooky there." Alex gave him a perfectly reasonable explanation, but Eric still had the suspicion something was off about it. "Yeah, I guess so." Eric tried to relax, but he couldn't for the rest of the night. When they turned in, he couldn't sleep. He finally dozed off around three in the morning. In his dreams, he wandered that cold, empty place with that man who looked like him and his dog. They wandered through the wasteland in silence. The man led him to that same crumbling building. This time, they went inside. The building appeared to be some kind of abandoned lab. Dusty paperwork littered the floor. He picked up one of the pages, a blue sheet, off the floor. For some reason, he couldn't read the words in the dream even though they were clear. His mind focused on a company logo at the top of the page of a howling wolf on a ledge beside a mountain and a crescent moon. It was familiar, but he couldn't remember what company had that logo. A name almost came to him, but he woke before he could remember. Morning came, and the Sedan was parked nearly in front of Alex's house. Eric ignored it. Alex would probably tell him he was being paranoid again if he mentioned it. He wanted to convince himself Alex was right. Instead of wondering about the man and the Sedan, he asked Alex if he could listen to his music on the way to school. Nothing interested happened at school. He zoned out during most of his classes and answered a few texts from his boss about if he could switch days with someone else next week. He agreed to and played around on the internet during class most of the time. At some point, he searched for therapists in the area, then gave up and deleted his browser history out of hopes of forgetting he did that. Something dawned on his in his last period as he messed around on the phone. He'd left himself open. The phone he was using was the one his parents bought him. In all this time, he never thought about getting a new one and his parents never cut his service. He saw his reflection in the glass and thought about everything he'd ever done with that phone, and how easy it would be for his parents to see what he was up to. It also left a way open for them to contact him and for him to remain dependent on them. He didn't understand why he didn't get rid of it before. He opened up his email and wrote up a message to specific contacts that he was going to change his number soon and he'd contact them when he did. Eric debated with himself about how to get rid of the phone. His parents bought it and it was on a contract they paid for. Returning it to them would be proper. He had no intentions of getting anywhere near them. There was the option of mailing them, but he didn't want to put the idea of sending him mail into their heads. As the school day drew closer to an end, he simply didn't care anymore about inconveniencing them and he threw the phone in the trash on his way out of class. His work sold plenty of phones. He'd buy one when he went in later in the evening, and that would be the end of that. He changed into his uniform before leaving school. In the car, he told Alex what he did. "So...you just threw it in the trash?" Alex asked, cracking up laughing. "Yeah...is that bad?" "I don't care." Alex said. "How long do you think they'll keep paying for it?" "I have no idea. Probably a while. I'm sure they'll figure it out at some point." Guilt hit Eric again. "I don't know...maybe I should've returned it to them..." "Forget about it." Alex said. "Do you want me to pay for your phone?" "No, I'm going to buy it." Eric said. Like the laptop, he wanted to acquire it himself. "No clue what I'm going to buy, but I want to do it. I'll pick something out at work." "Good." Alex smiled. "You should spend some money on yourself once in and while. We've got enough saved up for a while. Pick out whatever you like, and think about how they can't call you anymore." Eric was happy about that at first, but that soon turned to worry. When his father called before, he could anticipate what was coming. Now, he had no idea what to expect, and he still lived so close to him. Summer couldn't come soon enough. Alex dropped him off at work. Before he went into the store, he noticed something. A blue Sedan parked at the far end of the parking lot. 'It's a coincidence. That's what Alex would tell me. Ignore it. I'm going to have a normal day.' Eric took a deep breath and went in. Everything was fine for the first hour. Eric was feeling a lot better. He bought a new phone. The typical whining from customers didn't bother him. He went about everything in a cheery mood, focusing on what he needed to get done. At six, he nearly ran into the back of the building. He was answering a phone call when the stranger came into the store. The man stared right at him when he walked in. Eric almost dropped the phone. He did his best to get through the phone call and gradually moved behind the manager while he talked. When the call was over, he asked if he could be excused to go to the back. They were really busy. since they were having a big sale. His boss told him to wait a while and work the register until things calmed down a little. He didn't want to, but he did what his boss told him to do. The whole time, the stranger made his way around the store, going section by section as if to give himself a reason to be in the store longer. After he went around the entire store twice, he finally took something off the shelf and got in line. Eric started to sweat. There was only one line for all three registers, customers going up to any given register as soon as one was available. There was no way to know if he'd end up having to check the guy out. He watched the man get closer and closer to the front of the line. The man was now next in line and he was done ringing up his current customer. In a last ditch effort to buy time, he brought up every pre-order and upcoming sale he could think of to stall. The customer wasn't interested and looked annoyed. He tried convincing the customer to open up a rewards account with them, then made small talk when the customer refused that. The customer grew more agitated. 'I'm sorry, lady. I'm not trying to annoy you. Please, stay here a little longer.' Eric's heart pounded in his ears. Just as she was about to leave, the register beside him opened up first. The stranger went to that register instead and Eric took the customer after him. Eric tried to avoid looking at the man, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted to see clearly what the man looked like. The stranger was also looking at him as well. Right before he left the register beside Eric's, he stared right at Eric and smiled. Eric's body went cold. Out of habit, he politely smiled back. When the man was gone, he asked his manager if he could leave early. He claimed he felt sick and didn't think he could keep working. The manager gave him the okay to go after taking one more customer. He called Alex and asked him to pick him up again. Eric said little on the ride home. At home, Eric immediately went to take a shower. Afterwards, he went back to the room and checked outside the window. The Sedan was back across the street. "Are you worried about your dad coming by again?" Alex asked. "Huh? Uh, yeah...a little..." He lied. "Is that why you've been asking me to come pick you up? You could've told me." Alex said. "Yeah, sorry. I was kinda embarrassed about it." Eric said. "You don't need to be embarrassed about that." Eric moved away from the blinds. 'I need a distraction.' "Hey, Alex, uh...could we, uh, try kissing again?" Eric asked. Asking again was a lot easier than the first time. "Mm...I guess, sure." Alex put his laptop down and got on the bed with Eric. They made out for a while. Eric wasn't as nervous as the first time, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something he was forgetting. He put that thought away and moved on to another. Eric pulled away from Alex and moved down further on the bed. Alex looked down at him. "What are you doing?" "Can I?" Eric got in between Alex's legs and put his hands on the top of Alex's pants, his head just above Alex's crotch. Alex thought it over. "Um, well...ye--" "Alex! Zack's here to see you!" Amanda called from downstairs. Alex fixed his clothes and yelled back, "Okay!" Eric couldn't help but laugh at the situation. The two of them relocated to the futon. Zack came in and sat in the chair at Alex's desk. Zack picked up on the weird mood between them. "Why do you two look so disappointed to see me?" "Ah, we're not. You're imagining things." Alex said. "Did I...interrupt something?" He shot Alex a suspicious look. "What would you be interrupting?" Eric asked. "Who knows." Zack grinned at Alex. Alex turned away and blushed. "What did you wanna talk about?" "Nathan says that he's probably going to be going, but he's still not completely sure. Got some other people who may or may not be coming. So, we're probably going to need more food." Zack remembered something. "Oh yeah, Nathan said if he's coming, he's bringing beer." "Joy." Alex groaned. "I can tell him not to if you're not okay with it." Zack said. "Nah, it's fine, so long as it's only the three of us after the party's over." Alex said. "Yeah, that's still the plan. Only you two are staying the night." Zack's tone shifted. "Kinda sad to think...we probably won't be able to do something like this again." "Yeah, I guess that's true." Eric said. "Everyone's going to be moving on to different places. You guys are going to Atlanta, Noelle and Tamara are off to Savannah, and I won't even be in this state. I'll be up in Tennessee. Juan's going to be in Florida. Only Nathan's going to be staying here." Zack rested his head against his hand. "We could do something next summer. Plan something out that works for everyone." Alex tried to be hopeful, but he knew that likely wouldn't be possible. There was no telling what anyone's schedule would be like then, or if any of them would still be close anymore. "Maybe. I don't know." Zack sighed. "We'll still hang out again. Even if it's only the three of us. We've always been together." Eric said. "Yeah, I know, but...lately, sometimes, it feels like even you two are drifting away from me." Zack lowered his head. Eric and Alex exchanged looks. Eric said, "You're just worrying about the future. We'll always be connected. We'll find a way." "Yeah, we'll make sure we stay in touch no matter what." Alex continued Eric's sentiment. "Thanks, guys. I guess it's really getting to me...you know, that I'm about to move miles and miles away, and all my friends and family--it's the first time I won't be able to see any of you like I can now." Zack looked at his two best friends. "It's only four years, right?" "Who knows. Maybe you'll change your mind about that school and move back here." Eric said. "Haha, we'll help you pack and drive you home." Alex said. "Thanks. I'll hold you to it." Zack gave a half-hearted smile. The three of them talked for about an hour before Zack headed back home. After he left, the room had a strange emptiness to it. Eric hadn't really thought about it before. He was so focused on getting to stay near Alex that he didn't think about how all the other people he was so used to having in his life were about to be hundreds of miles out of his reach. The party suddenly turned from something he was looking forward to into something new to dread. Alex picked up on Eric's emotional shift. He said, "Don't worry. We'll Skype him weekly. We'll get everyone's contact information, okay?" "Okay." Eric knew it was inevitable. He hoped they could make it work somehow with Zack at least. Alex's phone buzzed. Eric picked it up to hand it to Alex. He noticed the text was from Zack. It read, "did I just accidentally cockblock you?". 'How did he...? What does he know?!' Eric tried not to laugh as he handed Alex his phone. "Zack texted you." Alex glanced down at the text and quickly responded. Amanda called them down for dinner. After dinner, Alex wanted to go on a walk again. Eric tried avoiding it, but Alex pushed for them to go out. "If you don't wanna walk, let's take our bikes then. Come on. We haven't gone out at night in like a week." Alex begged. "Come on. Just thirty minutes." "Ah, okay, but let's not go too far. I'm kinda tired." They got on their bikes. Eric looked at the blue Sedan as they passed it on the road. Alex noticed what he was doing. "You're not going to say something about that car again, are you?" "No..." Eric denied it at first. "Okay, maybe." "Eric..." Alex said. "Haha, come on. It's not like a believe in government conspiracies or something." Eric looked up at the sky. "Hey, tonight, could we sit out on the back porch for a while? The sky's really clear tonight." "Yeah, sure. We should enjoy it while we can. There's already less stars we can see from here than back when we were kids." Alex looked up too. "Yeah. There were a lot more back then. Wish I'd paid more attention. Still wasn't as many as at the beach." Eric said. "We should go on vacation again sometime, just you and me." Alex said. "Maybe we can do that next summer. We could start planning and setting money aside after we move out." As Eric spoke, Alex suddenly felt far away. Everything did. The cars, his bike, the houses. He wasn't on that street anymore. He was near his old house. Someone was behind him, talking to him, and putting something big and metallic on his head. Then he was in a place with pure white walls. Someone else was doing the same thing but from the front. A man in a white lab coat knelt before him and said, "Be a good boy now." "Hey," Alex said. "Hey, you okay?" Eric snapped back to reality. "Yeah...Think I'm ready to turn back. My head's..." "Okay. Do you still wanna sit out back?" Alex asked. "Yeah, for a little while." Eric tried to enjoy the stars from Alex's back porch, but his thoughts were too scattered and confused. The silhouettes of pine trees in the backyard and the rushing water of the creek out of sight went from familiar comforts to strangers looming close. He leaned against Alex. He whispered, irrationally afraid someone else could hear him. "Hey, can we go in?" "Sure. Are you okay?" Alex asked. "Yeah, I think. I don't know." Eric whispered lower. "Could we make out again?" Alex nodded. "Let's go in. Sitting out here's making me fall asleep anyway." They went back to Alex's room. Eric tried to enjoy himself while they kissed. He couldn't shake off that unsettling feeling. That unease hung on him like a grimy slime. He wanted to wash himself off, but he knew that wouldn't alleviate it. From that memory, his mind drifted to other negative places. The way things were going, he would likely end up sleeping with Alex. He wanted to be excited, but his old insecurity hung over him. What if Alex didn't end up liking it? What if that messed up their friendship and he was left alone? He was kissing Alex and at the same time, completely terrified of asking him out. He thought about Zack's conversation with them earlier. If he didn't have Alex, he'd be drifting away alone too. Would Alex not want to rent with him? Where would he go? 'I can't do this alone. I can't be alone. I can't go back to them.' Eric's movements became more aggressive and needy. 'Please, don't disappear.' Alex pulled away to catch his breath. "Eric..." "Yeah?" "I've been thinking..." Eric waited, unable to breathe. He was frozen between the two extremes of hope and despair, each pulling at him with equal strength. "At some point, we should uh, get some condoms and stuff. You know, to be prepared for...later." Alex's face was beet red. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea." Eric's fear were temporarily alleviated, but he still worried what the aftermath of that may bring. Alex kept his eyes fixed on the floor. "Um, about that...What are you okay with doing?" "Um...hmm...I didn't really think about it. I'd be willing to try anything. What about you?" "I, uh...was thinking I wanted to try anal first." Alex's face went a deeper red. "Okay." "So, uh...do you uh, have any preferences on how you want to go about that?" Alex couldn't hide how embarrassed he was. Watching Alex in that state put him more at ease, but he didn't know why. He asked, "Preferences?" Alex cleared his throat. "Uh, what I meant was...Do you want to, uh..." Eric realized what Alex was actually asking him. "I don't really have a preference either way. " "Could you be on..." Alex's voice dropped to below a whisper. Eric didn't hear the last part. "Could I what?" "Ah, nevermind. Let's talk about this later. We should get ready for bed. We have school tomorrow." Alex sat up and turned away. "Right. Ah, whenever you wanna talk about this again, let me know." Eric said. "Yeah." Alex got up from the bed. Eric let Alex go by himself to get ready in the bathroom. Alex clearly wanted some time alone to calm down from whatever embarrassed him. Eric ran the end of their exchange in his head again. There was only one thing Alex could have been embarrassed by. He presumed what it was Alex must have said under his breath. Eric laughed to himself. "Alex, really? What's the big deal?" Eric's previous fears subsided some after that. He was able to get to sleep more easily than usual. His dream this time was different than the ones from recent nights. He was a little kid, sitting in his second grade class talking to some boys nearby. The teacher wasn't in the room and the boys were arguing with him. "That's not true. My mommy told me you're a liar." One of the boys said. "Yeah, everyone knows you always lie about everything." Another boy said. The third boy laughed at him. "Why don't you make up cool stories? Big brothers are stupid." "Mine's stupid. My sister too. Haha, are you so sad and lonely you have to make up family members to love you?" The first boy pointed at him. "It's cause his mommy and daddy hate him, and he has no real friends. Zack only plays with him cause he's nice, and Alex only does cause he's Zack's friend." The second boy laughed at him. "That's not true!" Eric yelled at them. A girl joined in on it. "Everyone knows you always lie. I know why no one really likes you. It's cause you're a fag." "Oooh!" A few of the kids said in unison. Another girl joined in. "Yeah, I saw him kiss Alex one time." "Gross!" "I did not!" Eric shouted back. "Eric is gay! He kisses boys after school!" Another kid teased him. "Shut up!" Eric threw a punch as the teacher walked in the room. The room shifted to his living room. He handed his mother a note about getting in-school suspension for a day. She yelled at him, but he couldn't hear the words she was saying. Suddenly, he was looking down at his younger self. The little version of him below wasn't crying or holding back tears. His expression was blank and distant--empty. Then he was watching himself play outside with Alex down by the creek. "Did you beat him up?" Alex asked. "Yeah. Got ISS and a bruise on arm. Wanna see?" Little Eric showed little Alex the back of his arm. "He hit you really hard." Alex said. Little Eric looked up at Alex strangely, like something didn't process correctly in his brain. He paused for a long while before saying, "Yeah, I guess. I guess he did." Eric felt a strange pain surge down his spine. Something was coming to him, but he didn't want to see it. He shut it out completely. Little Alex dusted himself. "I gotta go home now. It's almost dinner time. Let's play this again tomorrow." "Okay." Little Eric hugged little Alex and gave him a quick peck on the lips. Little Alex laughed. "Don't do that in front of my mom, okay? She keeps trynna take a picture 'cause she says it's 'cute'. Gross. I'm not cute." "Your mom thinks everything you do is cute." "I know. One time, she took a picture of me tying my shoes." Little Alex pointed to his shoes. "See ya tomorrow, Eric." Little Eric waved goodbye. Then he was back in the house. His mom was waiting for him in the kitchen. He couldn't hear her again. Everything shifted. He was watching himself on the bus talking with Zack and Alex. Some kids were picking on him again. "Y'all shut up. Everyone knows all three of you are gonna flunk this year. Why don't you go back to picking your noses like you always do in class?" Little Zack came to his defense. "Shut up! I am not!" One boy yelled. "Yeah, huh. I heard your momma talkin' about it with my momma. They're gonna hold you back cause you're so dumb." Zack kept on. Eric was a little taken aback at that. Zack was usually a really nice guy these days. He forgot how mean they all were to each other sometimes when they were little. Alex wasn't listening at all. He held up little Eric's arm. "When did you get that one? You only showed me the one up here. He hit you here too?" Little Eric looked at him in confusion. He examined his own arm and noticed a second bruise lower down. "Huh. I guess he did." Eric wanted to leave. He didn't want to see any of this. He closed his eyes to shut out the images before him, but he couldn't escape. The sounds around him changed. "Sit in the chair and be good," his father said. Eric opened his eyes to see his younger self sitting in a black chair. All around him, he was surrounded by white--the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Everything was that blinding color. A man in a white coat entered the room with a metal object. He couldn't see it clearly. That part of the scene before him was blurred. The man in white lowered the object onto his younger self's head and said, "Be a good boy now." Eric woke up soaked in sweat, crying, and with his heartbeat ringing in his ears. He turned over to see Alex wasn't there. At first, that frightened him more, but he reassured himself Alex was likely downstairs making breakfast. He wiped his face off. "What the hell was that?" Alex came into the room with two cups of tea and a tray of toast. "You're up. You okay? You were sweating a lot. Coming down with something?" "Probably." Eric changed out of his clothes. "Hey, I talked to my mom about the situation with your doctor. I hope that's okay." Alex said. "It's fine." "Sorry, I should've asked you first. Anyway, I asked my mom about the therapist our family used to go to back when we were dealing with all that legal and medical stuff with my mom. He's still practicing. I know he's legit and a decent guy. If you want, I can call him and see if we can get in you in some time." Alex handed Eric one of the cups after Eric finished getting dressed. "Alright. I'll think it over. What's the guy's name?" Eric sipped on the tea. "Dr. Wei...I mean, Dr. Lin. Uh, he had me call him that when I was a kid seeing him. Thought it would make me open up more if he ditched the surname. He's pretty old. I'm surprised he hasn't retired yet." "He's gotta be better than Dr. Dogwood at least." Eric took out his phone and did something he wanted to do a long time ago. He deleted Dr. Dogwood from his contacts. He didn't know why he didn't do it after he got a new phone. He already deleted his parents' contact information the day he got it. "To tell you the truth, I didn't really like how things were run at Moone & Wolfe when I interned with them last summer." Alex's phone buzzed. "Speaking of which, they never stop calling me." Alex rejected the call. "Again?" "They really want me to work for them and I have no idea why." Alex turned his phone off. "We should head out soon. Got a traffic update saying there's an accident on Bill Carruth." "Seriously? Can't we skip today?" Eric was half-joking, half-serious. "No. We're going." "Damn. I hate sitting in traffic." On the way out to the car, Eric checked to see where the Sedan was parked today. This time, the car was occupied. The stranger stared at him from the driver's seat. Eric quickly got in the car and locked his door. "We need to go." Eric said. "Yeah, I know. I'm the one who told you about the accident." Alex put on his seatbelt. "I know." Eric kept his eyes focused on the stranger. Alex started the car. He looked over at Eric, but stayed quiet. At school, Eric tried to focus in class, but nothing stayed in his mind for long. Everything shifted back to the Sedan and that stranger. At lunch, Juan caught them on their way out to pick up some fast food. "You guys ready for that party? I heard you two are in charge of food and drinks. I would like to formally request some beer." Juan said. Alex rolled his eyes and walked past him. He didn't want to tell Juan there would be. "Talk to Nathan if you want alcohol." "Damn. He's gonna make me pay for it." Juan followed them. "He is coming, right?" "Pretty sure he's going to make it." Eric said. Alex's phone rang. "Goddamn it. Hey Eric, I'm gonna take this. Can you wait here for a sec?" "Sure." Eric said. Alex took the call outside. "What's that about?" Juan asked. "Probably that place he interned at. They're always calling him, offering him a job." Eric said. "Damn, I wish someone would throw jobs at me. Why won't he take it?" Juan asked. "I think he just really hated working there." "Eh, job's a job." Juan said. "You know how Alex is. He won't do anything he doesn't agree with. He's really stubborn." Eric shrugged his shoulders. "Ain't that the truth." Juan waved. "Well, I gotta get back to the cafeteria if I wanna eat. My shitty government teacher never lets anyone eat in class while she sits on her ass eating her microwaved food in front of us. See ya later." "See ya!" Eric waved back. Alex came back from outside. "Let's go." "What was that about?" He asked. "Tell ya in the car." Alex parked the car in the McDonald's parking lot after they got their food. "Dr. Summerfield called again. I left a folder when I went up there last week. Is it okay with you if I go get it right after school? If you don't wanna come, I can drop you off at home first." "I don't mind." Eric added. "Under one condition." Alex anticipated what Eric was going to say. "We're not skipping the rest of the day." "We don't have to do anything important today and I've barely missed any days this year. Come on. We're seniors. You know we don't have anything important going on this late in the year." "Ugh, fine. Just this once." He let a grin slip through behind his pretend annoyance. "I said I'd be there after school. Whaddya wanna do for a couple of hours?" Eric leaned over towards Alex to kiss him. Alex playfully pushed him back. "Not here. Let's go back to the house." When they got home, Alex had something else in mind. He left his backpack in the car and grabbed his bike. "We've got a lot of time to kill. Let's go on the trail for a while." Alex said. Eric was less than enthused. "Mm...okay." Alex got his camera out of the back of the car. "Come on. It's been a while since I got some new pictures." Eric grabbed his bike, disappointed. On the nature trail, there wasn't anyone else around at that time aside from an occasional cyclist training and a lone jogger. Normally, Eric enjoyed that kind of privacy, but today, it made him anxious. He regretted skipping class already. After fifteen minutes, he couldn't take it anymore. "Maybe we should head back." Eric said. "Why? We haven't even been out here half an hour." Alex narrowed his eyes and grinned. "Are you scared?" "What? No." "Hey, you know, I heard there's a haunted tunnel in the next county over on the trail." Alex smirked at him. "Heard it's supposedly haunted by the ghosts of all the railroad workers who died building it for the old railroad." "You don't believe in ghosts." Eric rolled his eyes. "I don't. Do you?" Alex was grinning from ear to ear. Eric was not amused by Alex's attempts at creeping him out further. "Quit trying to freak me out. I'm just tired." "Okay, okay. We'll go back." They turned back. At home, they watched TV in the living room for a while. The time slipped away without Eric noticing. He sat there in a daze, not paying attention to anything around him. He nodded and said short responses when Alex talked to him. When it was time to go, they got ready. Eric noticed something very strange. The blue Sedan was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, he knew that wasn't the end of that, but he hoped he'd never see that vehicle or that strange man ever again. The ride out to Rome was long. He talked with Alex for a while about how they wanted to organize their apartment once they moved in. At some point, the conversation trailed off and they mostly listened to music instead of talking. Eric stared out the window most of that time, watching the scenery go by. Familiar places bothered him, but he couldn't place why. He heard someone talking to him. He couldn't focus on that. He was lost in those familiar places outside the window. Something clawed at him inside, demanding to be seen. Eric's mind shifted to another place in another time. He wasn't in the car with Alex anymore. He was with his parents on a long car ride to Rome. Eric wasn't sure why they were going there. His parents rarely told him where they were going in advance. He was around seven or so, bored, and staring out the window. Neither of his parents said anything the whole ride. He took that as a sign that he shouldn't either. Nothing happened on that ride. Nothing painful, nothing frightening. He knew he was bored, yet underneath that boredom was a heavy dread. He was expected something, but he couldn't pull it from his mind what that was. One of the song's from the album Alex had on his phone played. Eric blinked several times. Disoriented, reality slowly came back into view. Alex was right beside him, as he was supposed to be and he wasn't in his parents' old car anymore. "Um, Eric...are you mad at me?" Alex asked. "Huh? No? Why would I be mad?" Eric asked in confusion. "You haven't been responding to anything I've said to you for...a while now." Alex said. Eric froze in embarrassment. How long had he zoned out, he thought to himself. His heart raced. He quickly apologized. "I'm sorry...I kinda...blanked out a little..." Alex stopped at a red light. He looked over at Eric to see what sort of expression he was making. "What do you mean you blanked out?" "I don't know. Like I was somewhere else." Eric was deeply ashamed of himself. 'I can't tell Alex about this. He's going to think I'm insane.' "Somewhere else?" Alex asked. "I don't know. Maybe I was daydreaming or something. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to ignore you." Eric apologized again. Alex put his hand on Eric's for a moment to reassure him. "It's okay. Um...does this happen often?" "Uh...sometimes? It's been happening a lot recently. It's happened before, but then it'd go away for a while." As Alex turned onto the next road, Eric's uneasy feeling skyrocketed. He wanted out of the car. "What are you daydreaming about?" Alex asked. "Ah...I don't know. Some things...I think are memories. Some aren't, because they don't make sense. Maybe memories of dreams? I don't know. I'm sorry...I had no idea I completely zone out when that happens." His face went pale from fear of what Alex may think of him. "Do you want me to take you home? I can call and say I'll come another day." Alex said. "What? Why? We're already on the way." "I know you have a history with this place too." "I'm okay." Eric forced himself to say that as calmly as he could manage. 'What have I done? Oh god. He has to think I'm crazy...He has to at least suspect it. What do I do?' "If you're sure. Actually, I know this is selfish of me, but I'm glad you said that. I really don't want to be in this place alone. Could you come in with me?" Alex confessed. "You too?" Eric wanted to slap himself. 'Shit. That wasn't how that was supposed to come out.' "They've been harassing me nonstop recently about that job offer thing. It's creeping me out, and I already didn't like working in that place. Something always felt...wrong." "Why didn't you block them and stop coming up here? I know you've come up here since the internship you did to help with stuff." Eric recalled Alex doing a lot of favors for them from time to time, long after his summer there was over. "It's not that easy. You know I want to do research related to mental health. Moone & Wolfe is really big, especially in this area. I worked under some of the key people in the company. If I piss them off, they could effectively fuck me over in the future by getting their connections to not hire me." "Do you think they'd do something like that? Seems a bit paranoid for you." "I know I'm being paranoid, but I don't want to risk anything." Alex said. "They may not be that important by the time you'll be conducting research." Eric said. "Doubt it. They're actually looking to expand further, and they have a lot of government ties and government funding." Alex pulled up into the parking lot. He parked the car and took a deep breath. "We're here." Eric looked up at the building. He wanted to leave already. Both of them got out of the car in a state of anxiousness. Alex explained to the lady at the front desk why he was there. She told him where to go to meet with Dr. Summerfield. Eric was terrified of being in that place. White walls and black, metal furniture. He remembered that was how the mental hospital he went to in Hiram, that was run by the same company, looked. The lack of color, all the white, something about that put him on edge more than anything else in the building. It was unnerving and unnatural. The building had few windows, and the hallways were small. He felt like he was suffocating. They went into a small room at the end of a hallway. The interior of the room was similar to the areas outside. White with black here and there, cold and metallic. A young-looking woman sat behind a glass desk with a metal frame. She looked up from her black laptop. She had shoulder length brown hair and wore a pure white lab coat over a knee-length black dress. She closed her laptop and smiled. "Hello, Alex. Do you remember me?" "You're Edith Summerfield. You're Dr. Summerfield's...sister?" Alex said. "You know, I am also Dr. Summerfield. Why is Tom the default? Heh. And as of today, I'm in charge here. My brother's retired to spend more time with his family. Have you met them?" She made small talk while she got up from the desk. She straightened out the lower half off her dress. Eric couldn't believe this woman was old enough to have obtained the title of "doctor" in any field. "No, ma'am. He's mentioned them to me before. He has a daughter around my age and a little boy, right?" Alex's usual tone when speaking casually to people wasn't there. He was cold and distant. "Yes. Crystal is around your age, isn't she? Sky's still too young to start kindergarten. He's a very smart boy already. He's been doing daily programming lessons. Pixie's no use with that sort of teaching, so my brother's going to be spending a lot of time at home acting as a teacher for that." Edith said. Eric presumed Pixie must be Tom Summerfield's wife. "I see." Alex said. Edith circled around Eric, still smiling. "And who is this?" "Oh, this is my friend, Eric." Alex introduced him. "Hello, Eric." She said. "Hello." Eric said back. He was unsettled by her. He didn't want to be near her. "You look familiar. Would your last name happen to be Thomas?" She asked. "Yes." Eric said. 'Does she know my parents?' "I remember your parents used to bring you and Idris around when you were about this big. I bet you don't even remember." Eric froze. Idris. That name held a special significance to him. He wanted to ask her some questions, but he couldn't in front of Alex. "Afraid I don't." The door opened. Another young-looking woman came in. Her appearance was even more ambiguous than Edith's. She had short black hair, about the same length as Edith's, and also wore a black dress under her white lab coat. Her clothes seemed designed to conceal parts of her figure, as they were loose in all the places that would have made her age more obvious. She wore black dress shoes with lacy white socks. The black-haired woman handed a stack of papers to Edith. "Dr. Summerfield, I have the documents you asked for." "Thank you, Heather." Edith took them. She then turned to Alex. "Have you met Heather, Alex?" "No, I don't think so." He said. "Let me introduce you. This is my assistant, Heather Smith. She used to be a patient here a long time ago, and now she's fully recovered and working here herself. Isn't that wonderful?" Edith kept on smiling. Eric couldn't help but think it was fake. "That's nice." Alex cleared his throat. "About that folder I left..." "Oh, yes. It's not in my office. I left it in one of the labs. Let's go get that right now. Heather, I have something for you to do later. Please, come with us." Edith said. "Yes, Dr. Summerfield." Heather nodded politely in an almost robotic way. Edith led them out back into the hall and down several different hallways. The building was built like a maze. Eric was getting disoriented. Every hall looked identical to every other one. There were no decorations on the walls, no windows on any of them, and the same number of rooms on each hall. The time he spent a winter break at the Hiram location to please his father, he lost track of time. The area he stayed in didn't have any windows. He only knew when it was nighttime when he was told to go to sleep. He barely remembered his time there. Everything moved slowly in a hazy blur. He wanted to get out of this place as fast as possible. At the same time, he wanted to speak with Edith alone. There was something he didn't tell Alex about himself. For the last four years, he kept a diary, initially out of boredom. Over the course of those years, several disturbing things occurred. Like now, he started having those strange dreams again. He used to have them early on in middle school, but they suddenly stopped for several years. It started back up again in high school. Sometimes, he remembered things that came to him in sudden flashes. Some made sense, and some didn't. Eventually, he told his father about it sometime after the stay at the mental hospital. He was brought back again for some kind of treatment that he couldn't remember afterwards. He saw a therapist from Moone & Wolfe for a while as well, and was eventually prescribed an experimental drug created by the company to deal with his "symptoms". The treatment made him forget those dreams and memories. He had no proof he ever remembered them outside of that journal. The drug made him forget everything. Every day, his life reset to the day before he started taking the pills. Eventually, he quit taking them so he could actually remember things. One of the other oddities in that mess was what his memories were about. He recalled having an older brother. According to his journal entries, his brother's name was Idris. At some point, he saw medical documents mentioning an "Idris Thomas" and his mother also mentioned someone named Idris at times when she was out of it. He couldn't really remember all of that happening. He never found proof of those documents existing outside of mentioning them in his journal. More than once over the course of those four years, he suddenly "forgot" many of the things he wrote down. He was certain he was losing his mind. Yet, this woman mentioned Idris too, and in relation to his family. What could she tell him? What was the truth? Eric doubted he could get a moment alone with her. He considered asking Alex for her phone number after they left. Edith started up the routine Alex endured from them for months now. "About the offer my brother made you, have you reconsidered?" Alex immediately declined. "I really appreciate you offering such an opportunity to me, but I just can't fit it into my schedule. If you'd asked me this about three or four years from now, I'd accept, but...I'm about to start college in the fall and I'll be looking for a job in summer. It's too big of a commitment for me right now. The commute alone would take out a lot of my time." "Are you sure about attending college?" Edith asked. "We could pay you more than you'd be getting on average with a bachelor's." "I'm really set on going, but thank you." Alex refused her again. "You could always work for us over the summer. Perhaps, you might even change your mind. Fall is a long time from now. A lot can change in a few months." Edith continued to pressure him. This was the first time Eric was hearing for himself how persistent the staff at the company were with Alex. He wanted to say something, but remembered what Alex told him earlier. He wasn't going to risk Alex's future job options to tell off someone they would be putting up with for only a short while. "Thank you for the offer, but I must decline. I'm moving over the summer and..." Edith cut him off. "We could pay for your moving expenses if you worked for us and came out to Rome." "I've already got everything set to move into an apartment in Atlanta midway through June. But thank you. I am really flattered by your offer." Alex did not once look at her while he spoke. He only looked ahead. "Such a shame. We really wanted you on the project. Well, if you ever change your mind, let us know." Edith suddenly stopped in front of a room. "Oh, that reminds me...Alex, do you mind if I borrow your friend for a moment? I just remembered there was something his family left here recently. Heather can take you the rest of the way." "Uh..." Alex looked at Eric. Eric couldn't believe he was getting such an opportunity. It seemed too good to be true, and his gut was telling him something was wrong. He didn't care. He had to know. "It's fine. You go on ahead. It's probably some business about that thing my dad tried to set up." Alex nodded and went off with Heather. Edith took Eric in the opposite direction. He was already starting to regret his decision. She walked uncomfortably close to him. Once Alex was out of sight, she leaned close and whispered, "You're remembering, aren't you, Eric?" "Excuse me?" Eric moved away from her. "You know, we might be able to use you too. If you convince him, you can be with Idris again, every day." Edith said with a smile. "Who is Idris?" Eric asked. "You know, don't you?" She walked slightly ahead of him. He had another question he needed to know. Idris wasn't the only person he "remembered" and "forgot" frequently. There was a girl, who he assumed was either a friend or girlfriend of Idris's. A girl covered in scars the same as the brother he shouldn't remember having. "Who is Sarah?" "You could be with her again soon enough too." Edith twirled around and stopped. She put her arm around him. "Everything would be like it was. I'm sure there's plenty of use inside you. My brother was foolish for letting you go." He slipped out of her grasp. "Show me Idris. I won't help you unless I know you can really do what you're saying. Where is he?" "Room 413B, same number as always. That's where we keep our special children in all our buildings." She gave him a wicked grin. "Let me take you there. We won't be long." Everything in him was telling him he should run away and find Alex. Leave that place immediately. Something was not right. He went with her. His need to know outweighed all reason. 'Am I insane or...?' Edith led him to a room at the end of a dimly lit hallway. The lights flickered. The area looked like it was rarely used, or like someone wanted it to appear that way. The last room at the end of the hall was labeled "413B". He reached for the door. To his side, he heard footsteps coming at him fast. He looked over. Alex was running at him. He stopped to catch his breath. "There you are. We need to go." "Leaving already, Alex? Such a shame." Edith said. "Just a second. I need to do something first." Eric turned the doorknob. "What? No, we..." Alex tried to explain something to him. Edith didn't care to listen. "It's in regards to his treatment. We'll only be a minute." "I'll be right out." Eric opened the door without waiting for Alex's reply. Alex stared at him strangely. Edith grinned and shut the door behind them to keep him out. The room was pitch black. The darkness unnerved Eric. He was regretting his decision to walk through that door. Eric asked, "Are you going to turn on the light?" "We need the light off to see." Edith said. He heard a clicking noise go off near her. "Idris, Eric is here." A faint blue surrounded them in dust floating in the air. Eric's heart pounded and his mind took him elsewhere. He saw himself in a field at night surrounded by blue, floating shapes. Then he was in his bedroom at the old house in Rome. The man from his dreams sat across from him in the darkness. All around him, everything was blue. The warm, distant images faded. Where that familiar stranger once sat before him was replaced by something tangible. Directly in front of him, he saw the outline of a tank from the blue that floating around the room. Something in the center of it was glowing brighter. Then the blue orb flashed and contracted inward in a consistent rhythm. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness and more lights appeared in the room, he could see more clearly what was inside the tank. At the center of the blue beat an exposed heart within a partially visible ribcage. The remainder of the body lacked complete limbs, only the upper portion of each left as a mix of parts of flesh and exposed bone. One leg was gone entirely. Some organs floated freely in the fluids outside the body. There was only one lung. A large portion of the spine was visible through the midsection of the body as the organs and flesh that should have blocked that view were gone or floating nearby. Eric's eyes made their way up the body to the face. He opened his mouth to scream. From behind him, Edith covered his mouth. Tears poured out of him. "You understand, don't you?" Edith whispered. "Don't you remember?" He saw the man from his dreams in his mind. He put away a needle. "They made this from hers and my blood, you know. Now, a part of me will always be with you." "Always?" His younger self asked. "Always." Eric saw the field again. He was standing out there with that man and all the blue shapes. Not far from there, a girl made of blue light stood. He saw straight through her. Eric blinked and it was gone again. Edith removed her hand. "The time is drawing near, Eric. Don't you want Alex to be safe? If Alex is here, no harm will come to him. All you have to do is convince him and get in. We'll make sure he's taken care of." Eric's entire body shook. He was too afraid to move away from her toward the tank. "What's going to happen?" "Do what I say and I'll tell you when you bring him to me." Edith said. "You're lying to me. This isn't real..." Eric couldn't take it. He fell to his knees and closed his eyes. He covered his head with his hands and cried again. Edith sighed. "Is that how you want it to be, Eric? Then, you're dreaming." Eric watched the landscape fly by from the car window. He suddenly realized where he was. He sat up straight and looked around the car. Alex was in the driver's seat. Alex's phone was hooked up to the car speakers. The first song on that album he listened to that morning started playing. "You okay? You've been spacing out a lot today." Alex said. "Huh? Yeah..." Eric expected something. How did he get out of that place? His memory of leaving the building was gone. In the back of the car, he noticed a folder, suggesting they did indeed go to the building. He pushed the memory aside and told himself he hallucinated the entire ordeal with Edith. He knew he was crazy, so that was plausible enough. "How long were we there?" "Hmm? I don't know...We got there around five-thirty and it's...what the fuck? How the hell is it nearly ten already?!" Alex looked at the clock in confusion. Eric clutched his head. Everything hurt. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. "Are you alright?" Alex asked. "Migraine. Sorry, this is gonna sound weird, but I can't really remember what happened earlier. Can't think straight at all. Could you remind me of what happened while we were there?" Eric thought up a convincing lie. He wasn't prone to getting migraines. This was something else, but he didn't know what. "Sure. Hey, do you want me to stop by a store and get you something?" Alex turned the music off. "I'll be okay until we get back." Eric said. "If you're sure. I don't mind." Alex said. "It's fine, but thanks." "Okay, uh, we talked to Dr. Summerfield, and she hounded me about that damn job thing again. Jesus Christ, those people are persistent. Anyway, uh...shit, what happened after that? Uh, we talked about the facility, I think? Something. I wasn't really paying attention. I just wanted to get out of there. I fucking hate that lady." Eric sensed something was off about Alex too. He didn't care. He wanted a distraction. "Hey, when we get home, let's make out." "What? I thought you had a migraine." "Actually, could you just park somewhere? I wanna do it." Alex didn't react how Eric thought he would. "I'm going to take that as a sign I need to get you some meds and have you lay down for a while." "What? Why? Please..." Eric begged. "You always say you want to do reckless stuff when you're in a weird place mentally." Alex kept his attention on the road. "We'll be home soon. You can rest up there." "Plenty of people do it in public." Eric argued back. 'Please, I need a distraction. Please distract me.' "Eric, you sleep at my house, in my room, in my bed, and my parents rarely bother us. We're on our way home. Exactly why would I do that out here when we can do that there?" At a red light, Alex reached over and rubbed Eric's back with one hand. "What's wrong?" Agitated and feeling confined, Eric pulled his legs inward and buried his face in them. "Nothing." "Should I call..." Alex started to ask. "No!" Eric yelled. This response startled both of them. He quickly apologized. "I'm sorry." "It's okay." Alex pulled over into a nearby gas station. Eric's escalating behavior was both distracting and worrying. He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to face Eric, who was hiding his face again. "Eric, um...did being in that place bother you?" "No." "It's okay if it did..." "It didn't!" Eric yelled again. His face flushed and tears welled in his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you." "It's okay." Alex hugged him. "Try to relax. How about tomorrow I call Dr. Lin and see if he's accepting new patients?" Eric's body shook. "Okay." "Maybe he can help you more than that lady you saw." Alex rubbed his back. "Eric, I don't know what's bothering you, but I'm here if you want to talk." "I know. I...I...it's hard for me...I don't think I can yet." Eric couldn't hold back his tears. He was too overwhelmed by confusion and fear. "Alright." Alex pressed his forehead against Eric's. "It's going to be okay. I won't let anything happen to you." "Okay." Eric said. More than ever, he was afraid of losing Alex. Eric cried quietly during most of the ride home. His mind settled into a strange numbness. As they were almost home, it started to rain. They rushed inside the house. Eric lay on the bed, exhausted. Alex brought him some medicine and a glass of water. "Here, for your migraine." "Thanks." Eric took the pills. Afterwards, he pulled Alex close and kissed him. He pushed Alex down on the bed. They made out for a while before Eric's impulsiveness crept back up on him. He unzipped Alex's pants. Alex pushed Eric's hands away. "No." "Why not? We're home." "What's bothering you?" Alex asked. "Eric, it's okay. You can trust me." "There's nothing to tell." Eric moved away from him. Alex went quiet for a moment. He moved over to where Eric was on the bed. He asked, "Are you serious about wanting to do it?" "Yeah." Alex put his hand on Eric's. "Then tomorrow, we'll get stuff for that." Eric's face flushed. "Can't we do that tonight?" "I don't want to right now." Alex said. "Okay." Eric took a deep breath. He tried to calm himself down. He knew he was being too pushy. Eric didn't know why he was acting like this. The more he calmed down, the more embarrassed he was by his behavior. "I'm sorry...about how I've been acting. I don't know what I'm doing right now..." "It's okay. It's gonna be okay." Alex held Eric's hand tightly. "Let's take a shower together." "It's raining." Eric said. "There's no lightning tonight." Eric agreed to it. They got up to shower. Alex turned on the water and stepped in first. Eric followed behind him, then moved quickly out of the water. "You didn't say it would be a cold shower." "You need one." Alex said. "I know I was being too pushy, and I'm sorry about that, but...is this really necessary? The water is freezing!" Alex gently pulled him into the water. "I'm doing this to help clear your mind." Eric shivered under the cold water at first. The longer he stayed under the water, the more relaxed he got. It was working. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the shower blending in with the rain outside. That building, his parents, that Edith woman and the dark room--everything slipped away from his mind. With his eyes still closed, he felt Alex hold his hands. "It's going to okay." Alex whispered to him. He knew it wouldn't last, but for once, he was at peace. After the shower, Eric was sleepy. He crawled into bed and fell asleep quickly, completely forgetting about what he wanted earlier. Alex leaned over and kissed Eric goodnight before turning himself. In his dream, he saw that man again. They wandered through a dark building at night, walking towards a specific door. The number on the door read "413B". As the man went to open the door, he woke up. He tried to forget about the dream in the morning and focus on work. On his way out of the house, he noticed the Sedan again, sans the driver. That too he did his best to ignore. His thoughts inevitably wandered back to yesterday. There was one more oddity he wanted answers for. Edith Summerfield claimed to have known him when he was a child, yet she didn't look any older than him. He couldn't contain his curiosity. On the drive to work, Eric asked, "Hey, that Edith lady and...Heather? Am I losing it or did they look way too young to be in the positions they're in?" "No, it's not you. Her assistant might just have a baby face, but Dr. Summerfield looks way too young. They both look our age." Alex said. "Haha, maybe they sell some anti-aging treatment under the table?" Eric tried to make light of it, mostly to calm himself. "Wouldn't shock me. The company's got a lot of ties to all kinds of random industries. They had that local channel, and they're connected to a record label too." "Why?" Eric asked. "No idea." Alex parked the car. "I'll call the doctor while you're at work. It's been a while since I've seen him, but he always said I could call him whenever I needed. Should be fine." "Thanks." Eric hugged him. "I'll text you when I'm done." There was no blue Sedan in the parking lot today, and that stranger didn't show up. His shift went by uneventfully. Alex picked him up in the afternoon. He informed Eric he scheduled him for an appointment with the doctor on Tuesday. "So, um...how much is this going to cost, exactly?" Eric asked. "I'll pay for it. Don't worry about that. He's going to give you a discounted rate anyway. I told him about your living situation." Alex knew what Eric was going to say. "I know, you want to pay for it and you think I'm paying for too much of your stuff. Don't even start." "But..." "Forget about it. You remember what we're doing today, right?" Alex grinned, his cheeks slightly red. "No?" "You have your ID on you, right?" Alex asked. Eric nodded. "Why?" "After you wanted it so badly last night...We're getting prepared for tonight." Eric immediately forgot about the issue with the doctor. "Really? Ah, but do we really need to go to a shop specializing in that? Couldn't we get condoms and lube at Walmart?" "I am not getting that stuff from any Walmart around here. They can't even keep rotting fruit with flies buzzing around it off the shelf there half the time or breaking shit before they've gotten it on shelves. I don't trust them with anything important. Besides, we could get other stuff there too. Might be fun to just look around in general. Get some ideas." Every worry in Eric's mind left him. He could only think about one thing. The shop was out in Marietta, in a spot out of the way. Eric laughed to himself at how shady the location looked from the outside. They showed their ID's and looked around. Eric was amazed by how many movies and magazines the store stocked. He wondered who actually bought things like that anymore. They walked down another section. Eric looked up a ridiculously large dildo. It was over two feet long. He narrowed his eyes. "How...how would you even...?" Alex laughed. "Uh, maybe it's just meant as a gag gift? I hope..." "Haha, most of the sizes of these in general are...Am I that small?" "Pretty sure most of these are larger than the average dude." Alex pointed to another one. "I mean, jeez, this one's like ten and a half inches." "Oh look, one actually slightly smaller than me. Wow...huh, this one has a lot of...features..." Eric noted it was a normal size compared to some of the others in the store and more detailed than many of the dildos. The price tag on the toy he picked up suggested more than its features it wasn't meant to be bought for a cheap laugh at a party. "Huh?" Alex read over the back of the packaging. "Ejaculation? What do you use as a substitute for semen? And it vibrates too..with five different settings...?!" The lady working at the front came over to them. "Can I help y'all?" They both went red and looked at each other. Eric shrugged and smiled out of nervousness. The lady pushed several products on them that were on sale. Alex got them out of the store as quickly as possible, though not without ending up with a few items they weren't originally planning on buying. Eric didn't care. He had more important things on his mind. As they were leaving the parking lot, Eric's body went cold. At the end of the parking lot, he saw a blue Sedan. It was too far away for him to check for the mark on the car. He couldn't stop staring. "Something wrong?" Alex asked. "I thought I saw..." Eric started to say. "Saw who? Your parents?" "No. Ah, nevermind. I'm probably imagining things. It's nothing." Eric laughed it off. "Are you getting paranoid someone's gonna see you coming out of an adult store? Heh." Alex nudged him. "Yeah, probably." Eric wished that was what it was. When they got home, the Sedan wasn't parked on the street. He hurried inside. Alex tossed the black bag on the bed. Eric plopped down on the futon. Eric calmed back down. "I can't believe we did that." "I can't believe how much stuff that lady managed to get us to buy." Alex sorted through the bag. "She was really pushy." "And practically drooling over you." Alex said. "I'm pretty sure she was staring at you." Eric looked over at the bag. He got up and moved to the bed. "That, or she's into guy on guy stuff." "Probably." Alex said. "She weirded me out. So, uh...when did you want to do this?" "Before bed, I guess?" Eric collapsed back on the bed. He looked through the bag with Alex and wondered what they were going to do with lube from five different brands and three boxes of condoms. More embarrassing than that was the lady managed to convince them to buy that expensive dildo. "You've been out of it the last few days. Are you okay?" Alex asked. "I don't know. Think I'm just being really paranoid. My parents haven't tried coming over here since that day, and they can't call me now." Eric stared up at the ceiling. "Isn't that a good thing?" "At first, I was glad they weren't texting or calling me, but now it's...eerie. And I know you said I'm seeing things the other day, but I swear to god, I have been seeing this same fucking blue Sedan several times a day. Everywhere, every day." Eric looked over at Alex. "You don't think someone's watching you, do you?" Alex asked. "I know it's totally paranoid, but I've been wondering if they hired someone to spy on me." Eric said. He wouldn't be shocked if they did. They monitored his computer activity heavily and controlled what he was allowed to have in the house beyond what any reasonable parent would do. When he was younger, he was so terrified they might have put cameras in his room, he didn't touch himself for years out of fear of being punished for it. "Would they really do something like that?" "They've always gone through my stuff, read all my texts, and all that. That's why I used to always wanna talk to you through that chat service. They couldn't look through that." Eric said. "Yeah, I know, but...to actually hire someone to stalk you? That's a whole other level of insane." Alex put aside the bag and rested beside Eric. "I know. But...I...I don't know...I'm losing it." Eric curled up on the bed. He let himself say the forbidden subject between the two of them. "My head hasn't been right since those set of days...when we both forgot everything." Eric watched Alex's body tense. Alex unconsciously gripped the sheets with one of his hands. "Yeah." "What the hell was that about?" Eric asked. In April, something very strange happened between the two of them. Unlike Eric's usual memory issues, Alex lost the same amount of time. They lost several days worth of time that neither of them could remember. Neither of them said much about it after the fact. It was too disturbing to talk about. Their phones and computers, along with several accounts were completely wiped during that time frame. Eric had no answers for what happened then, as he had none for everything else in his past. "I don't know." Alex shifted uncomfortably on the bed. Alex changed the subject quickly to something trivial. Time went by quickly once the conversation shifted. They talked for a while, then played video games and studied. Around eleven, they got ready for bed. Eric didn't forget their plans. As soon as they were both on the bed, he made his move on Alex. Eric got on top of him and kissed him. They kissed for a while. Alex pulled away. "Did you want to...?" Eric smiled. "Yeah." Alex smiled back at him. He got up and locked the door. He opened up a box of condoms and picked out the lube he actually intended to buy. Eric looked over at the window absentmindedly. His mind showed him a flash of something. Blue lights and that man--he saw him leaving through the window at night, but he didn't know where he was going. His vision shifted between Alex's room and that old bedroom. The sound of the frogs and crickets outside was unbearably loud. He wanted to hide. Alex tapped him on the shoulder. "Are you okay?" The images disappeared. "Huh? Yeah." "Getting second thoughts?" Alex sat on the bed beside him. "No, I spaced out for a sec." Eric said. "Jeez, really?" "Sorry. I've had a lot on my mind lately." Eric apologized. He could never tell Alex what he really saw. "You sure you're okay? You can tell me if something's wrong." Eric took a deep breath. His intense fear was traded for nervousness. He put his hand on Alex's. "I'm fine." "If you're sure..." Alex cleared his throat. "Yeah" Eric squeezed Alex's hand. "So...are you ready?" Alex nodded. Eric's mind was unusually clear in that dark room. His movements were far from graceful, and the anxiousness hanging over him never quite left him, but he didn't care. Laying beside Alex afterwards, he grinned and held Alex's hand. They fell asleep together still holding onto one another. Within his dream, he didn't see the man who looked like him. The man's dog greeted him in that deserted place on the other side of the reflection. He followed the dog across the wasteland. They chased the sun until Eric stumbled forward and found himself in a wooded area at night. The dog waited for him to get up. He struggled to rise. His legs were too heavy for him to lift. "I can't." He said to the dog. The dog walked around him. Something grabbed him and pulled him up. A young woman with white hair and a blue flower in her hair stood behind him. "You...you're...Sarah?" Eric asked. "Don't forget it." Sarah held up one of his arms. "My blood is in you. I'll make sure you remember." He didn't understand what she meant by that. Eric was certain they weren't related. "What do I need to remember?" Sarah smirked. "Years pass, decades, centuries, but a ghost will never forget. Through me, you will never forget for long." "A ghost?" Eric noticed he could see right through Sarah. "Are you dead?" "I'm waiting for him." Sarah said. Her body shifted back to that of a dog and ran ahead of him in the forest. Eric hurried to catch up with her. He ran through the dark woods until they reached the top of a mountain. Before him, a large building with a familiar logo greeted him. The dog stood in front of the door and howled at the moon. Eric woke in the morning to a light drizzle outside. A mug of tea and a plate of food waiting for Eric on the nightstand. Alex was sitting on the futon, playing a video game with the sound off. "Morning." Eric said. Alex nearly jumped. He paused the game. His cheeks were slightly pink. "Ah...morning..." Eric joined him on the futon. "It's raining out." "Yeah." Alex said. There was a long silence between them. Alex fidgeted with his hands. "So...uh...last night...did you like it?" "Yeah." Eric put his hand on Alex's thigh. "Me too." Alex slipped his hand over Eric's. "There are other things I want to try." Eric got down on his knees on the floor in front of Alex. Alex was more direct this time around. "Go ahead." Alex reciprocated the gesture afterwards. Around noon, Eric went into work. Alex dropped him off again. Work went by slowly. Very few customers came in. He mostly played on his phone while waiting for the hours to pass as there wasn't much to do around the store either. The rain let up, the rest of the day being windy and overcast. Alex texted him around four. The text read, "hey Noelle's staying over tonight. her parents are fighting again and Tamara's out of town until tomorrow. you okay with her staying in my room?" Noelle was a close friend of Alex's. The two of them became friends in middle school, right around the time Alex and Eric stopped being friends for several years. Eric himself wasn't too close to her. They shared no interests in common, and he rarely had any classes with her. She seemed nice enough from times he spent at study groups with her. Eric texted back he was fine with that. At ten, Alex picked him up. "So, what happened with Noelle?" Eric asked. "Her parents are getting divorced and it's...getting really ugly. She's been staying over at Tamara's a lot lately, but her and her mom are visiting her grandma right now." Alex turned onto their neighborhood. "Her dad's not so bad. He's a little overprotective, but he's a nice guy. Let's just say... her dad finally had enough of her mom's shit." "Should I ask?" "Her mom's kinda...Let me think of a nice way to say this...getting involved in a lot of weird stuff lately. She was pretty normal. Lately, she's been going on about really strange stuff. Her dad and her mom really got into it when he borrowed her tablet and found some disturbing sites." Alex said. Eric wondered what 'disturbing sites' consisted of. "What?" "Lately, she's been going on about how Noelle needs to change how she dresses and stop being gay and shit. She was okay about it before. Her church was never against that either. But now that's another weird thing..." Alex took a breath. "So, her mom's always been really religious, but she stopped going to church a year ago and she cut ties with all her friends from church. Her mom stopped watching TV and listening to her Christian music too. Now, her mom's looking for an office job even though she used to say she was really happy as a housewife, and she threw out nearly all of her clothes because they're 'bad' or something. It's like her entire personality changed. Her dad's worried she might be getting into some kind of cult or something." Eric narrowed his eyes. "What the fuck is that about?" "I don't know. Her dad wouldn't tell me what kind of sites her mom was on, but..." Alex pulled into the driveway and parked. "I don't know if I should say this, but her dad's been thinking about having Noelle move out over the summer until she moves to Savannah in the fall. He's been talking to Tamara's mom about it. He didn't tell Noelle this, because he didn't want to scare her, but he told me about it since he also asked me if she could stay over at my house if necessary. Recently...he found a forum open on her tablet on a thread titled 'I hate my family' and the original poster was talking about how they hate their husband and daughter so much they fantasize about murdering them. He doesn't know if she wrote that or why she was looking at it, but he reported the site. There was a lot of stuff like that there. He's been freaking out since then." Eric felt a shiver down his spine. "Oh my god...you don't think she'd really do that, do you?" "I don't know... She was completely normal before." Alex sighed. "I really feel bad for Noelle. But uh, unless she brings it up, don't say anything about that stuff, okay?" "Okay. Jesus. I had no idea any of that was going on." "Tamara's terrified. She already went through Allison dying. I'm pretty freaked out myself, but I can't imagine how it must be for Tamara that she might lose a second friend so soon." Alex sat in the care, trying to keep himself calm. "Her dad's probably going to move her out very soon. Noelle's been packing recently." "Ugh, what is Paulding county? The home of fucked up parents?" Eric was overwhelmed with a slimy feeling all over him. "Pretty sure shitty parents and shitty places go hand in hand, not just in Georgia. But your parents and Noelle's mom are way outside the average shitty parent." Alex said. He took a deep breath. "I know you're going through a lot right now too, but let's try to keep things calm while Noelle's here." Eric nodded. He got out of the car and followed Alex upstairs. Noelle was sitting on the futon, playing a video game. She had on some fluffy pajama pants and a T-shirt with a cutesy vulture on it. She wasn't crying then, but Eric noticed dry marks down her cheeks. She looked over at them. "Hey, Eric." "Hey." He said back. Eric dropped his stuff off and picked out some clothes to change into in the bathroom. Alex sat beside Noelle as he left the room. Hearing everything about what was going on with Noelle terrified him and struck up his paranoia about his own parents. He told himself not to think about them and went back to the room. Alex said he was going downstairs to get them all something to eat and asked Eric what he wanted. After Alex left, he was left alone with Noelle. Noelle and him weren't close the way they both were with Alex. The awkward atmosphere between them was making him anxious. He didn't know what to say to her. Noelle focused on the RPG she was playing. He didn't mean to stare, but he looked over her. She wasn't quite the type of person he imagined Alex being friends with. Noelle could take leadership positions if it was something she cared about, but she seemed to avoid socializing much outside of that, while Alex was generally a very social person. He was biased in his opinions of Alex, but he saw Alex as a very attractive person with a very put-together appearance. Noelle wasn't an ugly girl, but put-together did not describe her. Eric told himself he was focusing too much on outward things. He never saw in himself much similarity between him and Alex either. If anything, he fit with Alex even less, being barely functional compared to how self-disciplined Alex was. 'I'm sure there's plenty I can't see that he can.' Eric told himself. Eric looked over her longer. Noelle glanced over at him at that moment. He quickly broke eye contact. Noelle didn't look at him either. "You wanted to say something?" "Hmm, no?" Eric said. "Why are you staring at me?" She asked. "I wasn't trying to. So, uh, how's your club going?" Eric asked. "Nowhere, as usual. I asked the other people in the Environmental Club to try reducing waste in their personal lives, but their level of commitment is plastering stupid PETA stickers all over campus that the janitors have to scrape off." She sighed. The more she talked about her club, the worse she got at the game. "The best I could get out of them was to plant some trees with me on Earth Day, and they all got bored after half an hour. Couldn't even get them to stop buying bottled water for a day..." "Sorry, I don't know much about environmental stuff." Eric noticed Noelle's face was slightly red. Her eyes watered. He tried to change the subject. "Are you going to work in that field?" "I want to study birds. Especially vultures...I love them so much. I want to help the planet, but running the Environmental club the last few years...I don't really want to be around people like that. It's all political bullshit and people patting themselves on the back for being 'saviors' without doing anything that actually matters." Noelle spoke in a sad voice. He could tell the last few years had disillusioned her to a lot of things she cared about. "I'm sorry about all that. You're going to the same college as Tamara, right? What's she going for?" Eric asked. "She wants to be a child psychologist." She lowered her voice. "I think...what happened with Allison really had a big impact on her." 'Shit...I hit another land mine.' Allison was a friend of Tamara's, who was a friend of Noelle's. He didn't really know the girl personally. He always thought she was a bit odd. He heard that some bad things were going on in her family and Tamara was trying to get her out of there. Before she could, Allison was killed in a hit and run accident. The person who hit Allison was never found. Even though he was never friends with the girl, that incident shook him too. Eric asked, "How's she been doing since then?" "She's a lot better now, but when that first happened...it really messed her up." Noelle paused the game. Her eyes went wide for a moment. "Actually, recently...she told me something really disturbing about that." "Disturbing?" Eric asked. "Food's here." Alex opened the door and walked in with a tray of plates and drinks. He shut the door and looked at the two of them. He raised an eyebrow. "What's with the mood in here?" "We were talking about Allison." Noelle said. "Oh...did they find out anything new about what happened?" Alex handed her a plate and a drink. "No, it's not that. I was just about to tell Eric about something I heard from Tamara recently." Noelle paused the game and put the controller to her side. She looked down at the ground. "I don't know if I believe this or not, but...Tamara told me she thinks it wasn't a hit and run accident. She thinks someone hit Allison on purpose." Alex sat down on the bed beside Eric after he handed him his food. He asked, "Why would she think that?" "Ugh...I'm going to sound crazy for saying this..." She took a deep breath. "Okay, so Tamara told me that a couple weeks before the accident, Allison and her went exploring some old places in the woods at night. They ended up stumbling upon some kind of building underground." "What? Underground?" Alex asked. "Yeah, I don't know. That'd what she said. They weren't alone down there either. Someone else was walking around with a flashlight. The power didn't work, so they couldn't see much. She could only make out that there was a lot of metal. When they saw the guy with the flashlight, they ran, but the guy saw Allison before they got out of there. And well...the next week, Allison went down there by herself. I don't know...the next part, Allison probably made up. She was always kinda...she needed some help." Noelle curled her legs up against her. "What did she claim happened?" Alex asked. "She investigated the place deeper. There were several floors down. On the fourth floor, she found a room labeled...um...what was it? Four...four-something. It ended in a letter." Noelle scratched her head. Eric didn't know why he said it. He blurted out, "413B." "Yes...that was it. How did you know? Is that from a movie?" Noelle asked. "No. Ah, it's something tied to Moone & Wolfe Corp. That room number is always used for...special research." Eric repeated what Edith told him. He couldn't comprehend why he was saying this. Something in him wanted to, and he had the strangest feeling that he was right. "I didn't know that. Where did you hear that?" Alex asked. "My parents worked in that room in the Rome building, I think." Eric had no idea if his parents ever worked in that room. Yet, he couldn't shake that he was right about that, just as he felt certain about the room number for the building Noelle was telling him about. "You're...being serious, right?" Alex asked, looking somewhat alarmed. "Yes." Eric said. "Well...in that room, Allison saw something...so disturbing she couldn't describe it to Tamara. I don't know exactly what it was, but she said it was human...She ran out of the room and the flashlight man was patrolling again. He saw her and nearly caught her. She swore she heard someone following her through the woods on the way back." Noelle unconsciously put her arms around her legs. "After that, she thought someone was following her for weeks. A man in a red car. Then, suddenly she was found dead on the side of the road, at the edge of the woods, hit by a car." "I don't know if I believe the stuff Allison saw, but...if Tamara's telling the truth, there's something off here. Why would there be a building underground in the middle of the woods? And why would the room number be something associated with Moone & Wolfe?" Alex asked. He was deep in thought. "There was one more weird thing...this may be a coincidence, but the day after Allison was found, Tamara woke up one morning to her phone, computer, and several of her accounts being wiped clean. Her house was broken into a few days after that when her and her mom were out. A few big items were stolen, but the really weird thing is...her scrapbook and her entire printed photo collection were gone. Her diary also disappeared." Noelle rested her head on her knees. "After that happened, she thought someone might be sending her a warning. She didn't tell her mom or the cops about that. She was too afraid to." "What the fuck..." Alex couldn't believe it. "Does she think anyone's following her?" Eric asked. The detail about the red car and the accounts being emptied out unnerved him and made him more curious. "At first she did, but she thinks that may have been paranoia. She's been feeling a lot better since she switched medications." Noelle said. She bit her lip and scrunched inward more. "Enough creepy talk...Think I'm going to take a shower." "Okay." Alex said. Noelle quickly got up and went to the bathroom to shower. After she left, Alex talked to Eric about the story. Alex asked, "What do you think that was about?" "I believe her." Eric said. He didn't know why, but he did. He was completely certain everything Noelle told them really happened. "What would a place like that be for?" "I think..." Eric saw a flash of something in his mind. He saw himself as a small child, walking and holding his father's hand down a long metal hallway. Everything was metal. He looked at his reflection in the metal walls. His parents were meeting with a doctor, but the doctor's face was blurred in his mind. He blinked and the vision disappeared. Eric said, "I think I went in that place before." "Wait, what?" Alex turned to face him. "It's a research building, I'm pretty sure...but not for what the company normally does." Eric's head hurt. He clutched his forehead. There was something there at the edge of his mind, something he could almost remember, but he couldn't reach it. A low humming noise echoed in his ears. "Why would it be underground?" Alex asked. Eric tried to ignore the humming. It wouldn't stop. "There was a reason...I can't remember why...Sorry...I was a little kid then. Think I only went there once." "Do you have a headache?" Alex asked. "Yeah, but it's not that bad." The humming suddenly stopped. Eric listened to the sound of the shower running at the end of the hall. He laughed. "Guess we're not doing anything tonight." Alex shrugged. "Disappointed?" "I got what I wanted this morning." Eric grinned. Alex lightly pushed him and smiled. "Jeez. Well, at least you're feeling better." "Yeah...I think." Eric leaned against Alex. "We can still cuddle, right?" "Yeah." Alex put an arm around Eric. His smile quickly faded. He stared forward toward the door. Eric wondered what was on Alex's mind. He had a pretty good idea of what it might be, but he didn't want to talk about it himself. After Noelle finished her shower, the three of them turned in for the night. They had school the next morning. Noelle was the first one to fall asleep. She passed out nearly as soon as Alex folded out the futon and she got on it. Alex and Eric cuddled for a while before Alex fell asleep. Eric was having trouble sleeping. When Alex fell asleep, his anxiousness spiked. He stared around the room. Everything was dark and shadows. The time of night guaranteed few cars passed by. He hoped for a distant train or some frogs and crickets. Nothing. It was too quiet. He rolled over. The street lights and trees moved shadows on the window in silence. Eric turned back away from the window. He typically slept directly underneath it while Alex slept on the other side of the bed. He wished he'd traded places earlier. Sleeping there right then was unnerving him so much he considered waking up Alex and asking to switch spots, but Alex was deep into sleep. He didn't want to wake him up on a night when they needed to get up early for some unfounded fear. He cuddled back up against Alex. His heart pounded in his ears. Outside, he heard something moving across grass. He told himself it was a raccoon or a stray looking for trash to raid. The sound drew closer. A loud thud hit against the side of the house. It sounded like something hit right underneath the window. Eric kept his breathing low as he listened. Metallic sounds came from the ground and moved upwards, each set of clanks causing another thud against the area right below the window. The sounds stopped and the room suddenly got darker, as if something was blocking the lights outside. Eric waited for the light to return. He told himself, 'One of the lights outside must have gone out. It's only the street lights.' A tapping noise came from the window. 'It's a bug. A bug must have flew at the window.' Eric thought. His body shook. He heard the tapping again. This time it was louder and longer. Eric looked around at Noelle and Alex. Both were deep into sleep and didn't wake at the noise. The tapping noise grew louder. Eric's heart beat faster. He could barely breathe. He summoned up every bit of courage to turn and face the window. In the window, he saw the silhouette of the upper half of a man. He saw the figure raise an arm and knock on the window. Eric sat up. He wanted to scream, but nothing came out. A bright light flashed in his eyes. It was so bright he unconsciously shut his eyes. He opened his eyes to find himself laying in bed. He looked back at the window. Nothing was there. His phone showed it was six-thirty. Eric didn't recall falling asleep. He convinced himself he must have and what he saw was merely a dream. Noelle rode with them to school. Tamara texted her early in the morning that she was back in town and Noelle would be staying with her the rest of the week. She called her father in the car to check in with him. Eric thought about what Noelle told them. He never got a clear answer out of his parents what they actually did at the company they used to work for beyond that they did some sort of research involving teenagers. What Edith showed him in that dark room was burned into his mind. If what remained in that tank was once the Idris person he sometimes remembered, how did he end up like that? How could anyone legally do something like that to a human? With all the government ties to that company, he couldn't fathom how Moone & Wolfe could get away with such blatantly illegal work. Something more disgusting hit him. His parents may have been involved in how Idris ended up like that. If Idris really was his brother, that would mean his parents were not only alright with doing that to a child, but their own child. That possibility disturbed him so deeply he nearly threw up in the car. He held it back, nearly gagging. Alex noticed out of the corner of his eye as he parked the car. "You okay?" "Yeah...I think I'm coming down with something." Eric was overcome with a sickening sensation all over his body. It was heavy and slimy. He couldn't shake it off. "If you need to go home, let me know. I'll take you." Alex said as he got out of the SUV. "Kay. I'll let you know." Eric said. During class, he couldn't concentrate. His mind was all over the place. He had no concrete proof his parents did anything to Idris nor any that suggested the research they did on teenagers was of that kind of nature. It could have been something completely benign and they simply didn't like working there. That would be reason enough to not talk about that place. Something deep inside him was telling him that wasn't the truth. It was easy to believe his parents were dysfunctional and hated him specifically, but were otherwise nothing noteworthy. If the other scenario in his head was correct, they were far more than simply 'dysfunctional'. They were outright monsters. 'There must be a reason. There must be something I don't understand.' Eric told himself. The longer he thought on what he knew and didn't know, the more afraid he became. Right then, he wanted nothing more than to believe he was losing his mind because any other alternative was too terrifying to accept. Eric left school during lunch with Alex. He told Alex to go back to school, but Alex stayed with him out of concern. He listened to Alex's music and drank some tea while Alex worked on a paper beside him. He curled up on the bed. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get the image of what he saw in that dark room out of his head. Alex put his laptop aside and cuddled up against Eric. "Are you okay?" "No." Eric whispered. Alex nuzzled his face against Eric's back. "Do you wanna have sex? It might make you feel better, at least a little." "Yeah. Maybe...that might distract me at least." Eric turned over to face him. "Distract?" Eric kissed him. "Think I might call out of work today. I don't know." Alex undressed himself. "Don't forget. You have an appointment with Dr. Lin tomorrow." "Yeah, I know." Eric tossed his shirt onto the floor. "Do you think he can really help me?" "I can't promise anything, but it's better than trying nothing, right?" Eric was in a slightly better mood afterwards. He decided to go into work later in the afternoon. He chose to ride his bike to work. On the way out of the house, the Sedan was missing. After he noticed, he pedaled faster and kept his eyes directly ahead. At work, he didn't see the stranger or the car. The sickening sensation crept back as the day went on. He tried to keep himself as busy as possible so he had little time to think about anything. Shortly before he clocked out, he texted Alex he was going to be on his way soon. Alex texted back he'd pick him up. Eric considered declining the offer, but he knew his mind was somewhere strange. He told himself it would be better if he wasn't alone. Eric put his bike on the back of the SUV and got in the car. "Thanks. You didn't have to pick me up. It's not far." "I know, but I don't mind." Alex said. "You get lonely or something?" "Heh. Maybe a little." Eric tried to act normal. "Thanks. I was actually not looking forward to riding back. God, my legs are killing me." "Surprise they didn't want you to stay later." Alex said. "The manager knows I refuse to." Eric said. "Then I am surprised you haven't been fired." "I'm already more competent than he is, so he'd be fucking himself. Not that it matters since I'm quitting next month. This job is bullshit, like customers and employees. I hate all of them." Eric took Alex's phone and turned on some music. Alex laughed under his breath at how comfortable Eric was with his things. "Your next job will likely also be bullshit." Eric searched for a particular song to play. "I know, but at least I'll get to come home and see you every night." Alex's face turned bright red. He calmed himself and asked, "Hey um...Do you wanna go out with me?" Eric nearly dropped the phone. His face lit up. He tried to play off his excitement. "Ah, sure?" "Really?" "Yeah. I, um...I mean, I've been liking what we've been trying out and I like you. So, why not?" Eric's heart was racing for a very different reason than it typically had as of late. He couldn't stop grinning. "You sure about that?" Alex asked. "Are you? You're the one asking me out." Eric laughed. "I think...this could work. I mean, I've been thinking the same thing as you." Alex's face went a deeper red as he smiled. "So, uh, it's official then?" Eric asked. "Yeah." Alex burst out laughing. "This scenario was a lot more dramatic in my head." "Heh. Disappointed?" Eric laughed with him. "No." Alex shook his head. "After we study tonight, do you wanna go on a walk?" "Sure." The two of them could hardly focus on studying. The terrible, disgusting feeling that followed Eric was kept back for a while. Around ten, Alex got a phone call from Dr. Lin. An emergency came up and he wouldn't be able to see any patients the next day. Eric's appointment was rescheduled for the following Tuesday instead. After that was taken care of, they went on a walk down the road. The blue Sedan was parked close to the house again, but Eric ignored it. Since no one was usually out at that time, Eric took the opportunity to hold Alex's hand in public. He quickly let go when he heard a door slam and a car starting from somewhere behind them. Eric glanced back to see if he needed to move farther away from the street. The car behind them was the Sedan. The driver looked directly at Eric. Eric expected the driver to pass them quickly. The stranger kept the car barely in motion to stay right behind them as they walked. Eric wanted to run. He slowly walked more into the grass, causing Alex, who was already walked farther away from the road than Eric, to move more into the grass as well. "What's wrong?" Alex asked. "That car...is behind us right now." Eric stared ahead. Alex glanced back. Eric said, "Don't make it obvious you're looking." Alex grabbed Eric's wrist and moved them both even farther into the grass as they kept moving forward. The car sped up slightly and parked in the grass. Eric heard the driver get out of the car. "Excuse me. Could I ask you boys a question?" The stranger ran up ahead of them and stood in their way. "Uh, sure?" Alex positioned himself slightly in front of Eric. The man laughed and scratched the back of his head. "I'm lost. Do you know where Hiram Sudie is?" "Ah, yeah. Your a ways off from there." Alex said. "Really? Do you think you could show me on a map? Hold on..." The man pulled a road map out of his back pocket. "Uh, do you not have a phone on you?" Alex narrowed his eyes. "Can't get any signal out here. I'm real sorry about this." The man apologized to them. He pushed the map at Alex and got uncomfortably close to them. "It's no big deal. We weren't really going anywhere." Eric said. "Oh, good." The man smiled as he pushed Alex and grabbed hold of Eric. He pointed a gun at Eric's head. "Now, get in the car. Both of you." Eric froze. He looked to Alex for help. The gun was cold against his skin. Alex got in the car. Eric was led to the car by the stranger. Once they were both in, the man locked them in and started the car. "Now that everyone's settled, let's go for a little drive." The man smiled. "This won't take long. Don't do anything stupid. One of you is expendable." Eric put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. 'Why is this happening?' When he put his hands down and opened his eyes, he was in Alex's bedroom. His thoughts were in a haze. Alex stood beside him, looking as confused as he was. Alex blinked and looked around the room. The longer he stood there, the more confused he was. "Were we...outside before?" "I...I thought we were on a walk." Eric tried to remember what they did before. The entire last few days were blurry. His head hurt. Alex clutched his head. "How...how did we get back here?" Eric remembered something. He shouted, "It's just like before!" "Before?" Alex tilted his head at him in confusion. "When we lost those days." Eric said. "What are you talking about?" Alex looked at him strangely. "What do you mean what am I talking about? After the sleepover at Juan's house!" Eric gave him the same look back. "Eric, stop it. Don't fuck with me right now." Alex backed away from him. His shoulders were shaking. "You stop! We both know what happened." Eric's legs were weak. His head pounded. "Eric, I don't know what you're talking about!" Then it dawned on Eric what was happening. "You can't remember. Tell me, what of this week can you remember?" "We...um...studied like usual?" Alex sat down on the futon and held his head. "What do you remember?" "Didn't we go somewhere together? In...Marietta?" Eric recalled the outside of a building somewhere unfamiliar. "Marietta? What would we be doing over in Cobb?" "I don't remember..." Eric saw a black bag in his mind. "Something black...a black bag..." "Black bag?" Alex asked. "I don't know." Eric sat down on the bed. Frustrated, he smacked the sides of his head. "What the hell is going on?!" "Jesus Christ. We went to an adult store!" Alex sat up straight. His face went slightly red a few seconds later. "I slept with you." Eric's cheeks flushed. The memory of the first time they had sex flashed in his mind. He was disturbed at how easily he nearly forgot that. In his haziness, he didn't recall at first that the two of them were even dating and Alex had asked him out earlier that day. "Yeah." "And...I asked you out...then..." Alex was getting more frustrated and terrified than Eric was. His eyes were wet. "God dammit it, why can't I remember much of anything?!" 'I'm forgetting again...but why is he forgetting too? This is like the last time...but what did I actually forget this time?' Eric rested his head against the palm of his hand. There was no way to sort out what was missing unless he had recording that somewhere. When he thought back, he didn't think he'd made any entries in his journal since late April, but he would need to check later to see if that was true or not. Alex's phone rang. Both of them jumped. Alex was breathing heavily. He picked up the phone. "Who is it?" Eric asked. "Edith Summerfield." Alex answered the phone. He put it on speaker. "Hello?" "Hello, Alex. I apologize for calling you at such a late hour, but I realized you left something behind the last time you visited," she said. "Oh. What did I leave?" Alex asked. "It's a folder. Looks like it has some class notes in it." "Oh, thank you. I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon and pick it up." Alex said. "Alright. See you tomorrow," Edith said. Alex hung up the phone. "Folder?" Eric remembered something again. The dark room came into his mind. He pushed those thoughts away. "Apparently, I left one." Alex tossed the phone next to him on the futon. "No, you didn't. That's why we went up there the other day to begin with." That day was coming back to him in pieces as he spoke. "What? When did I go up there with you? Eric, this isn't funny." Eric went over to Alex's desk and looked for something. He found it. A folder with a note from Edith Summerfield on it saying 'return to Alexis Linwood'. Eric showed Alex the folder. "Yes, we did." Alex took the folder. He stared at it for a long time. "This isn't...right..." Alex peeled off the sticky note on the folder. He shook his head. "How do I not remember?" 'I have to tell him. It's not just me. This isn't in my head. This is real.' Eric took a deep breath. "I don't know, but Alex...there's something I should tell you. You're probably going to think I'm crazy for this. Please, hear me out." Alex looked up at him, his face full of fear. "I've been...wanting to tell you about this for a while, but...I was afraid you would think I really was too insane to be around if I told you." Eric pulled up the chair from Alex's desk and sat down in it, facing Alex. "I've been getting a...special treatment from that place. I've been getting it every few years since kindergarten." "What kind of treatment is this?" Alex asked. "Have you heard anyone at Moone & Wolfe mention a drug called Aequa?" "In passing. It's an experimental antidepressant, isn't it?" Alex said. "Is that what they're claiming it's for? They must really intend to sell a lot of it then." Eric got a good laugh out of that. His mother's issues and his own hardly had anything to do with depression, though he was technically diagnosed as clinically depressed by a doctor at that company's hospital before. "The Aequa drug works similar to the treatment I received, but has to be taken daily. Do you remember that time when I couldn't remember anything clearly for a while? And I said I was sick? Or that other time when I completely lost several days a while back?" "Yeah...are you saying this treatment and meds caused that?" Alex asked. "Yes. I don't have the best of memories, but I've been keeping a journal for the last four years. I've never been able to remember a lot of my life clearly. Every time I've reread my journal, I noticed patches of time I've completely forgotten, and details about things that don't make any sense. When I was put on Aequa, I was completely out of it. Every day, my brain reset to the day before I started taking it. My mom was put on it too, and she was stable for a while, then went completely off the deep end until they did something new to her. But I know she forgot things again that she knew when she was on the drugs." "Wait...what? So, it made you forget, but she remembered?" Alex sat in confusion at what Eric was telling him.https://neocities.org/site_files/text_editor/Short/cycling.html# "Her memories were jumbled like mine. She thought she was in a different time period for a while. She wasn't in reality, in the present. When they changed her treatment slightly, she went back to her old self, but lost some of the memories from that time she thought she was in. I've lost and regained memories repeatedly. I have entries in my journal that I would remember as completely different from what I wrote a month later. That's not normal." His mother was a strange person when she was taking the drug. Sometimes, she thought things happened that clearly didn't. He once caught her "writing" on a piece of paper idly without having actually clicked the pen down for it to be written with. He often wondered what strange things he may have been doing while on the drug. Alex was calming down as they spoke. He shifted from afraid to being very focused, as if he was attempting to place every bit of information Eric was telling him into some sort of sound logic. "What was this treatment for?" "I have two answers to that, the one I remember and the one I wrote down. What I remember is that this treatment was used to suppress some of my emotions and knock out certain physical sensations." "What do you mean?" Alex asked. "You remember those medical documents you got for me a while back when they were throwing out old records?" When Alex was helping digitize old files for the company as a favor once, he came across Eric's old records and snuck them out to give to him since. "Yeah." Alex nodded. "That day, you gave me seven documents, five on white paper and two on blue." "I don't remember any blue paperwork." Alex leaned back against the futon. "I don't either, but that's what I wrote down. I can show you the entries later." Eric's mind was becoming clearer the more he spoke. He knew he was still forgetting something, but he accepted he may never know what it was that was missing. He continued on. "Anyway, on the white ones, it listed that I had sexually inappropriate behavior. The blue one listed something more specific--homosexual tendencies. I remember overhearing my dad mention to my mom that he wanted me on Aequa because it nullifies your sex drive. I can't remember those blue papers existing, but I wrote about them and it matches with what my dad said. And even though I can't remember those pages, I am convinced in my memories that is the reason why I was getting treatments. But that's not the reason I originally wrote down. That was a side reason." Alex went completely quiet. "I remember someone who shouldn't be there. I've been getting those memories back again, just like my mom would get bits and pieces back. It's the same person. Someone named Idris, Idris Thomas. I made note in an entry that on one of the blue files, his name was on it. My mom's mentioned his name when she was taking those pills before they changed her treatment and when she's been drunk before. But I don't have those memories as much. It's like what I wrote is completely different than what I can recall. But I know Idris is real. That Edith lady offered to let me see him if I convinced you to work for them and I saw..." Eric stopped himself. He saw the dark room in his mind again. He couldn't say it. "Eric?" Alex looked worried. He put his hand on Eric's. "What did you see?" "Something...something evil..." Eric faced the floor. "I don't know what's going on. I thought I was losing my mind and the stuff with my mom was just me imaging shit or she was going crazy too...but you, it's happening to you too. I know you're sane. That, or I'm so damn crazy I'm starting to completely make up everything around me. Are you even here?" "Eric, I'm here. You're really here." Alex held his hand tighter. "I don't know anymore. I don't know if I'm in reality. I don't know who I am. It all keeps cycling. I forget and remember something different, and then it comes back and then I forget again, and again and again...always new memories, but then it comes back...I wrote down that the blue papers said they wanted me to forget something. The treatment was to make sure I didn't remember...If I'm not insane, then those people are really dangerous...Maybe I'm insane..." Eric was crumbling under the weight of his confession. He held back tears. 'Will you believe me? Will you leave me?' "Can you show me your journal? I want to read what you wrote for myself." Alex spoke calmly to Eric. "Okay." Eric nodded. He got up to get his laptop. He sat down beside Alex and turned on his laptop. Eric went online to where he was keeping his private journal, then handed the laptop to Alex. "Here. Sorry, there's a lot of entries..." "That's okay. I'm a quick reader." Alex put on his reading glasses. "Ah, wait. Maybe I should skim through it to find the entries...Some of my entries are..." Eric grabbed the laptop to take it back. "I won't tell anyone your cringey secrets." Alex reassured him. "It's not just that...I wrote some...things I regret thinking about you." Eric's face went slightly red. Some of his early entries were from a time period in which the two of them were still on bad terms. "It's fine. I expected that. If you want, I'll let you look through my old journals." Alex took the laptop back from Eric. He read through the entries. Nervous, Eric's hands shook as he waited for Alex to finish. Alex noticed. He pulled Eric close and said, "Shh...it's okay..." Half an hour later, Alex finished reading the journal. He looked over at Eric. "Why didn't you tell me about all this?" "Would you really believe me?" Eric asked. "I don't know..." Alex closed the laptop. "Do you still have the medical documents? The white ones?" "Yeah." Eric went to the closet. He opened up a box of important documents he took with him when he started spending less time at his parents' house. He found the medical documents from his stays at the mental hospitals run by Moone & Wolfe Corp. He handed them to Alex. "Here." Alex read over the documents. He took his glasses off and rubbed his face. "I believe you. I don't know what to make of any of this, but...I did hear while I was working with Dr. Summerfield, the uh, brother, that they were very interested in researching memory. His wife, Pixie, studied it, but I never crossed paths with her. She worked in a different area of the building." "What do you think is going on?" Eric sat back down beside Alex. "I don't know. Something unethical to say the least. Do you remember what the device they used on you looked like?" "Not really. I can't remember getting the treatments themselves. It's completely blank. But I don't think I had to lay down for it. I can't remember, but I get the feeling it was something on the smaller side. Something that wouldn't be difficult to carry, like a small machine. On the head...where it went...I'm sorry...I can't really..." Eric almost remembered something. He saw someone in a white coat kneeling down and saying something to him. He couldn't remember what the man said. "It's alright." Alex was deep in thought. "I don't even know how to process all this...This is some actual conspiracy shit right here. But...you have some evidence. What disturbs me is that if what I'm understanding from all this is correct, these people have done this on me at least twice and I have no recollection of the lead up to it." "What should we do?" Eric asked. "We're not going near those people again. Keep up your journal. I'll make sure to write in mine daily too. I'm blocking all people related to that place for now." Alex said. "Is that really a good idea? What if that makes them do something more extreme?" "Hmm...that could happen. Maybe I should do it gradually. Either way, we need to be careful. Stay with me at all times." "Okay. I don't know why this is happening...I'm sorry..." Eric buried his face in his hands. "It's not your fault. I don't understand this, but...honestly, it's probably best if we don't dig deeper, if there really is something disturbing going on here." Alex said. "Also, this is kinda off-topic, but your parents are both pieces of shit and I hope they die miserably." Eric was so caught off-guard by what Alex said he couldn't help but laugh. "...Haha, wow. Where did that come from?" "Your entries. I figured they were probably abusive, but I had no idea it was that bad. Why didn't you tell me?" "They never beat me." Eric said immediately, but he wasn't sure why. "They were psychologically and verbally abusing you, and neglecting you in more than one way. I don't care if they never beat you. They were abusing you." Alex's seriousness showed hints of anger. "I know...It's just...They're my parents. I know I hate them, but I...I don't know what I'm doing..." Eric couldn't take anymore stress. There was no more room left inside him. "They didn't care if they hurt you. You don't need them." Alex hugged him. He pressed his forehead against Eric's. "Eric, I love you. I won't let anyone else hurt you like that." "I love you too." Eric hugged him back and rested his head on Alex's shoulder. The moment between them was cut short when another phone call went through. This time it was Eric's phone ringing. Eric picked up the phone. He noticed the number wasn't listed in his contacts. A few seconds later, it registered to him who the number belonged to. His eyes widened. "Who is it?" Alex asked. "My parents." Eric stared at the phone in disbelief. "Seriously?! How did they get your new number?! Give me the phone." Alex motioned for Eric to hand it over. Eric did. Alex answered the phone call. Eric's father was on the other end. "Eric, what the hell are you playing at with the phone? You need to go home. We're not--" "Sorry, Eric's not coming back to your sorry asses. Don't call this number again." Alex said in a snappy voice. "Who is this?" Eric's father asked. "Can't bother to remember my voice? I live down the street from you." Alex's tone was full of anger. "Give the phone to Eric." Eric's father demanded. "No. I'm blocking your number and if you come over to my house, I'm calling the police." Alex wouldn't be swayed into following his demands. "Alex..." Eric said. "So, Eric is in the room. Give him the phone. You're too much of a coward to answer your phone now? You gotta hide behind some..." Eric's father raised his voice. "You better not finish that sentence. Leave my boyfriend alone." Alex raised his voice higher. "Boyfriend?! You're really..." Eric's father got angrier. "He doesn't need you anymore. You had eighteen years to not fuck that up. Times up. Goodbye, you piece of shit." Alex hung up the phone. He immediately blocked the number. Another number called a minute later. Eric recognized it as his father's cell phone number. Alex blocked that number as well. He put the phone down. "Well, that's done." "You...I can't believe you just did that. You really told him off." Eric was so overwhelmed he started laughing. "Yep." Outside, in the hallway, they heard the house phone ringing. "He better not be calling the house." Alex got up to check. Eric followed him. Sure enough, Eric's father was calling again. Alex picked up the phone and hung up immediately. He then promptly set up for calls from Eric's parents' house and both of Eric's parent's cell phone numbers to be rejected. "Heh. Gonna call my mom next?" Alex put the phone down. He had a smug look on his face. "He might." Eric said. "Then he should have stopped at me. My mom's worse than me." Alex walked back to the bedroom. When he shut the door, he smirked. "So...you lied about wanting to experiment." "What?" "You knew." Alex grinned widely. "You've had a crush on me since sixth grade." Eric went blank for a second. He then recalled some of the other content that was in his journal. He cringed. "It's not like I knew that during all of that time." Alex sat back down on the futon. "To be fair, I lied too." "What?" "I've had a crush on you since sixth grade too." Alex laughed at himself. "God, we're stupid. I was so paranoid I was misreading everything." "Yeah, well, so was I." Eric sat beside him. He laughed too. "You know what's really bad? I totally forgot that stuff was in my entries because I was so focused on the medical stuff and the early entries. I didn't even think that you'd come across that stuff..." "We're so dumb." Alex shook his head. Eric's laughter stopped, and his thoughts returned to earlier. "About...the stuff I told you about...so, how are we going to do this?" Alex's mood completely shifted. He went quiet for a while. "I'm...not sure yet...I'm still thinking it over. For now, we need to be careful and cautious." "Do you think it was okay for you to tell my dad off? What if he's involved with this stuff still?" Eric hadn't thought about it when Alex was on the phone. If his parents had any ties left to the company, Alex may have unintentionally made their situation worse. He was still disturbed that his father somehow got his new cell phone number. "Let's think about this...Would your parents really have that kind of influence? My gut is telling me whatever this is...is much bigger than anything they would have say in. There may be an ordinary reason for how they got your number. Send a text to everyone in your contacts asking if your parents asked any of them for your new number." Alex handed Eric his phone. Eric did what Alex asked him. He got several no's, but one person did text back a yes. Zack texted back saying that Eric's mother spoke to him in person claiming she thought she accidentally put in the number wrong and asked Zack to send her the number so she could check if it was right. Alex was right. There was nothing illegal or unusual going on with how his father acquired the new number. He should have been more clear in his message to not let anyone else have the number. "Zack told my mom. She pretended I gave her my new number and she put it in wrong. Zack believed her. Well, that solves that mystery." Eric sent out a text to everyone in his contacts that he planned on changing his phone number again, and to absolutely not give it out to anyone without asking him first, no matter who it was. Zack apologized, and Eric texted him not to worry about it. "But if they got it through something so simple...I don't know...maybe what's happening right now...isn't directly related to me getting those treatments. Maybe...it's not just me...maybe they want you too." Alex picked up the sticky note off the folder again. "I think you're right." "What about the other stuff? About the memories?" "I don't know what to think of that yet. I'm still...processing things. But let's relax for now. If we get too overwhelmed by it we won't be able to think clearly about what to do next. We'll figure out something to do tomorrow." That night, he didn't have any strange dreams. He didn't dream about anything at all. In the morning, a heavy sadness hung over him, but he couldn't place why. Sitting beside him in bed, Alex was reading through some research papers online on his laptop. Alex was still in his sleepwear. He wore his reading glasses and he jotted something down on a notepad. Eric rolled over and tapped him on the leg. "Whatcha doin'?" Eric asked. "Looking into what Moone & Wolfe researchers have published on memory. I couldn't find anything on Aequa at all, but I expected to find more than this on memory. I know Dr. Summerfield, the brother, mentioned it a lot and that his wife has been researching that for years. I can't find a single paper by her. Hmm...is Pixie a nickname? Does she go by her maiden name?" Alex hit back on the page he was on. "There are a few papers, but there's nothing particularly interesting in them. I don't get it." "I doubt they'd publish their research if they're doing something unethical." Eric said. He rested his head against Alex's leg. "Oh, I know that. I was hoping something benign they published might give me a hint about what they're up to. For a company so big in this field...their researchers haven't published that much over the years and they don't have a high number of patients at most of their hospitals either. Why do they have so much funding and influence?" "I don't know. What is there on the company's founding?" Eric asked. Alex flipped back through his notes. "Not much. No one even knows who the original founder of the company is." "What? Shouldn't there be a record of that somewhere?" "You would think, but there's nothing. As if someone didn't want that information public. But why?" Alex reread through his notes. Eric sat up. "Do you think we're in danger?" Alex paused before answering. His face shifted from sad to a blank expression. "I don't know yet. Let's keep calm. We'll figure something out." Eric didn't believe Alex. A knock came at the door. Alex's mother came in. "Sorry to bother you two so early in the morning. Someone left this by the door. Looks like some of our mail ended up in the wrong mail box. This letter's for Eric." Eric got up to get the envelope from her. He looked over the letter. The letter was sent from Moone & Wolfe, from the Rome address. Eric's eyes went wide. "Oh...Thanks, Amanda." "No problem." She said. After she left, Eric walked back to the bed slowly. Alex noticed. He put his laptop aside, watching Eric. Eric sat on the bed and stared down at the letter. Alex looked at the envelope. Anger built up in him. "I know that damn logo anywhere. What did they send you?" Eric opened the envelope. He unfolded the pieces of paper inside. He read over them. "It's a receipt for treatment...administered yesterday?! Did they send someone over here to give this to me?" Alex's anger slipped into fear. "What for? What's the point of making you forget shit then make it obvious they did?" "To terrify me." Eric stuffed the papers back in the envelope and tossed them on the bed. He lowered his head and put his hands on his face. "That Edith lady said something was going to happen soon. That's why they want you...to be safe." "Safe? From what?" "I don't know. She wouldn't say. And me...I think the only reason she didn't keep me that day and erase me entirely from your memories is because they want to use me to get to you. They want you to come willingly. I don't understand why..." Eric wanted to run away from everything. In his mind, he saw the tank in the dark room and the blue light. Alex rubbed his chin. "There might be some sort of reason related to this 'treatment' that would make that not optimal. We don't know enough about it to really judge. But still, they did it on me again...Maybe it has a different effect when what's altered covers a larger amount of time?" Eric wasn't really listening at that point. He kept his eyes closed and wished he was dreaming. Alex picked up the envelope. He looked over the contents of it. On the back of the receipt's second page, he noticed something. There was a smaller envelope taped to the page. Alex tapped Eric on the shoulder. "There's something attached to the back." Eric looked up. Alex removed the small envelope and handed it to Eric. Eric opened it. Inside was a photograph of the boy and girl from his dreams. He could barely breathe. Eric's entire body started to shake. Alex stared at the photo. He asked, "Who is that? That almost looks like you..." Eric turned the photograph over. On the back, it read, 'Idris Thomas & Sarah Winter, '01'. Eric pulled himself inward and buried his face in his knees. "Why are they doing this to me?!" Alex was more terrified than Eric. His tried to mask his fear, but his shoulders shook in spite of his wants. Alex took the photo from Eric and examined it more closely. "So...it's all true then. This guy is your brother...? What happened to him?" "She showed me." Eric didn't want to see it, but his mind played that moment in his head again and again. "What happened? Eric?" "In a tank...pieces..." Eric could barely speak from the pain inside him. "Pieces?" Alex's face went pale. Eric remembered something else. He managed to slowly get up. He went to get the box of all his important documents and old photos. There was one photograph he wanted to check. He found it. The photograph was of an open field with an oak tree in the center of the shot. A storm was passing over in the picture. He flipped the photograph over and read the message on the back to see if anything changed. The last time he looked at the photo, according to what he recorded in his journal, he couldn't read the name on the back. As he suspected, this time, the note was slightly different. It read: "Eric, I love you. I'll always love you. Look for me among the lights in the dark. One day, I'll be there with you again, if only for a night. -Idris July '03" There it was. Idris's name. He long suspected that was who's name was there before, but didn't think he was outright unable to see it. He presumed someone smudged the name on purpose. Eric turned on his laptop and looked up the journal entry where he mentioned that photo. He showed it to Alex. "Look at this! I wrote down in my journal I couldn't read the name. I can now." Eric handed the photograph to Alex. "What do you see?" Alex looked at the screen and at the picture. He stared in confusion. "I...I don't see a name. It's too smudged for me to read." Eric's heart sped up. "Please, swear to me you're not lying." "I'm not." "How can we both look at the same thing and see something different?" Eric asked. "They altered our memories differently. For some reason, they want you to know Idris exists. Not allowing me to see the name may be to mess with both of us. Or show off what they can do." Alex spoke normally, but his face showed his true feelings. Eric slammed the box shut and sat on the floor, as if wanting to sink away from everything. He covered his face again. "I want to die. I want to die right now. I'm tired of this." Eric's words snapped Alex out of his fear somewhat. He sat down beside Eric and patted him on the back. Softly, he said, "Eric, no. Shh...we'll figure out something..." "Figure out what? What the hell could we possibly do? They can alter our minds and we wouldn't even know it. They can make us forget people. They can make me forget you. I can't take anymore. I want..." Eric looked around the room for something sharp. He got up and grabbed Alex's bag he usually brought with them when they went out anywhere in the woods for long. Eric reached in the front pocket for what he wanted. He pulled Alex's pocket knife out and caught his reflection in the blade. Alex grabbed his wrist tightly. "Drop it." "Please...please, let me...I can't do this..." Eric begged him. Alex got the knife out of Eric's hand and dropped it on the floor. He kicked it away, then he held Eric close. "Shh. Breathe. You need to calm down." "How can I possibly calm down?" Eric's breathing became more erratic. "I'm here." "For how long?" Eric asked in pure desperation. "Eric, listen to me. I don't know what we're going to do. I'm scared too, but we can't just give up. Whatever happens, I'll be right here with you, I promise. Even if they make me forget you, I'll fight it." Alex held Eric tighter. "How?" "It worked for you. They kept changing around your memories, but the memories pushed their way back out again. That was your mind fighting back. Even if they do it to me again, the deepest part of my mind will fight it until I can see you." Alex looked directly into Eric's eyes. "I wish I never knew you. If we never met..." Eric held back tears. "Stop. Don't say things like that." Alex caressed Eric's face. He pulled away and picked up the papers and the photographs. He put them in the box. "Let's put it with everything else." "Does it matter? They can make us see things differently than what's in front of us." Eric said. He stood where Alex left him, not sure what to do with himself. "It may come back to us again though, like it did with you. Let's keep this with your medical records." Alex returned to him and pulled him toward the bed to sit back down. Once he got Eric to sit, he held him again. "Eric, I'm going to protect you, but I need you to help me. Please, don't give up, okay?" "I'll try..." Eric hugged him back. "I don't...want to go to school today." "I don't think I can either." "Could we do something to forget about this for a little while?" Eric asked. "I can't think straight right now." "Okay. Whatever you want, we'll do that." Alex said. Eric looked at the box. He didn't want to see anything from in there. Nothing in that box of documents and photos brought him any happiness. He wanted to see things that reminded him of happy times, and see that he remembered them right. "Could we...look through your photos?" "My photos? Like the nature photos?" Alex asked. "No, your family photos. Stuff from when we were little kids." "Okay. There's some old photos in the bookshelf in the hall. Let's go get them." Alex picked up the knife and put it in his pocket. He held Eric's hand and walked out into the hall to get the photo albums. They returned to the room to look through them. They sat back on the bed. Alex opened up one of the albums. "I'm not sure what's in what. It's been a while since I've looked through them." "That's okay." Eric looked at the photos. The first page were several baby photos. "Is this you?" "Yeah." Alex said. He flipped through a few more pages of baby photos until he paused on a photo of his mother standing next to a man. The man looked very similar to Alex in the face. He wore glasses and kept his hair very short. Eric wasn't sure if he should ask. "Is that...?" "My biological father." Alex took the photo out of the album and handed it to Eric. Eric looked more closely at the picture. "He looks different than I imagined." "What did you think he'd look like?" Alex asked. "I don't know. Like you, but older. This guy, he looks so serious, way too serious for your mom." Alex laughed. "Hah. Yeah, he does, doesn't he? Mom told me his seriousness was a front. He was actually a dork. Really awkward, really bad with puns." Eric read aloud the name underneath the man in the photo. "Yoo Ha-seon...did I say that right?" "I think so? I don't speak Korean." Alex shrugged. "Ah, right. Sorry." Eric handed him the photo back. "So...is the surname Yoo or Ha-seon?" "Yoo." Alex put the photo back into the album. He flipped to the next page. There were several more photos of his mother and his father. "She kept these for me, in case I was curious about him. I've never met him. Mom lost contact with him sometime before she married Eddie." "You ever wanted to meet him?" Eric asked. "Hmm...I've thought about it occasionally, but I doubt I'd be able to track him down. He lives on the other side of the world, and he hasn't sent my mom anything in years. I'm sure he has his own family now." Alex lingered on the pages. "Sorry, is this bothering you?" Alex blinked. "Huh? Oh, no. Let's skip this one. I'm sure you'd rather look at photos of when you actually knew me." Alex picked out a different album. They went through the photos from elementary school. To Eric's surprise, most of what he saw was exactly what he remembered. At first, he felt relief. That relief was quickly replaced with paranoia. His memories would match up perfectly with what he saw if they could determine what he saw in the first place. The paranoia overwhelmed him. He became more distant as Alex looked through the middle school photos. "Eric? Are you okay?" Alex asked. Eric looked way. "I'm sorry...Could we look at something else?" Alex closed the album. "Here, let me get some other stuff out. Something to distract us. Come with me. There's a lot of old stuff out in the hall." "Okay." Eric followed Alex back out into the hallway. Alex pulled down some more boxes. By then, Alex's mom and stepdad were already gone. They were now alone in the house. That knowledge sat at the back of both their minds, but neither said anything about it. They brought several boxes back into the room to look through them. Alex opened up one and found a stack of jewel cases. "Look, my mom's old CD collection." Alex spread them out on the bed. He didn't recognize most of the artists. His mother had a penchant for one hit wonders and less popular artists. "Why do we still have these? You can listen to all this stuff online now." Eric was even more clueless about them. He glanced over the different CDs. Many of the designs were bad, and the album titles embarrassing. He wanted to laugh, but he was also somewhat curious to know what the music before him actually sounded like. One album with a space theme caught his attention. The case was scratched up, but the booklet inside was really flashy. He picked it up to look at it more closely. He couldn't stop staring at the singer on the cover. Eric lightly hit Alex's arm. "Hey, look at this. Am I crazy or does this singer look like that Heather lady?" Alex looked over. When he saw the cover, he took a second look, then grabbed the case out of Eric's hand. "The hair is different but the face...they could be twins. I knew that woman looked familiar to me for some reason." "Do you think she's the same person?" Eric asked. "That can't be. This album is from 1992. Someone couldn't look the exact same over two decades later." Alex opened the case to pull out the booklet. He flipped through it to see if there were more pictures of the artist. "She does look younger than she should be to hold her position. That Edith lady does too. What if they really do have some kind of anti-aging treatment?" Eric said that more as a joke, but he did on some level genuinely wonder that. "That's some powerful shit if it can accomplish that. Wait a sec..." Alex looked up something on his phone. "What?" Alex's mouth hung open. "No way..." "What?! Spit it out." "Diamond Wolf Records. This artist, Tina Tiffany, was under them." Alex said. "So? What's special about them?" Alex stared at his phone. "Diamond Wolf Records was founded by Alexander Summerfield, the head of Moone & Wolfe before he handed it over to his son, Tom." "Why the hell do they have a record label?" Eric asked. "They have connections to a lot of random things. We should look into Tina. I know my mom was a big fan of hers. She probably still has all her movies." Alex put the case down. He stood up. "Maybe in the attic. Hold on. I'll go up there and check. Think there's a CD player up there anyway. I know we have a VCR somewhere." Alex went out to the attic. Eric stayed behind in the room and looked up the artist himself on his phone. The singer on the cover, Tina Tiffany, was predominantly known as an actress who played roles in movies aimed at teenagers. She released only a single album, titled "Papercuts on the Moon", which had five singles; "Red Fur", "Starshine and Heartbeats", "Eclipse Me", "Mirror, Mirror", and its lead single, "Samson and Delilah". The album had a standard and deluxe edition, with the deluxe edition having three extra tracks and both versions having two secret bonus tracks for a total of sixteen songs. Eric looked over a list of the track titles: "1. Samson and Delilah 2. Starshine and Heartbeats 3. White Halls, White Rooms 4. Moon Child 5. Wolf in the Woods 6. Mirror, Mirror 7. Eclipse Me 8. Gravity 9. Levitate 10. Dreaming of Me 11. Papercuts on the Moon 12. Silver Crown 13. Red Fur 14. White Rabbit's Too Late (Hidden Track) 15. Snow White, Rose Red (Hidden Track) 16. Star Without a Name" Her movies were mostly teen romance films or fairy tale retellings in modern settings. He laughed at the titles. "Sweet Dreams", "High School Holiday Heartbreak", "Overnight Starlet", "Pretend Princess", "Cindy and the Prince", "Snowe". The only film that stood out as different was a horror film titled "Red Fur", which shared a name with one of her singles. This one, from the summary, appeared to also be a fairy tale retelling, but not as family friendly as the other ones. Alex returned to the room. "Found them, and the VCR and CD player. God, look at this cover." Alex held up the tape for "High School Holiday Heartbreak". Tina was standing on the cover in a pink school uniform next to a stereotypically nerdy looking guy. Her long, blonde hair was pulled back in a high ponytail and heavily curled. Cutesy barrettes decorated her ridiculously long hair. The letters in the title had tiny broken hearts in them. "Your mom kept that all this time." Eric laughed at how over the top it looked. Alex hooked up the VCR. Eric told Alex about the information he read up on her. There was very little information in Tina's background. It was presumed 'Tina Tiffany' was a stage name, but no one knew her real name. She started acting in her late teens and immediately rose to popularity in a short time period. Her films were released by a company called Lunar Vista that seemed to have gone under around 2010. He found little information about that company. Tina abruptly retired in 1993 and became a recluse. As Eric read off information, Alex played one of the films. When Tina came on screen, Alex laughed at how cheery and completely different she was from the nearly robotic Heather Smith they met. As soon as she spoke, they both paid more attention to the movie. "She...sounds exactly like her. Doesn't she?" Alex looked back at Eric. "Yeah...exactly like her..." Eric said. "I mean...I only met her once, so I might be misremembering , but..." "What else does it say about her?" Alex asked. "Her most popular movie was the only film she wrote, directed, and starred in--'Red Fur'. It was a modern, horror retelling of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. She won several awards for the film, and was praised for it being more 'mature' than her usual work." Eric continued to read off the information on the page. "This started her trend of making songs for her movies. 'Red Fur' is her second most successful single, and was later joined by 'Mirror, Mirror' and 'Snow White, Rose Red' as singles Tiffany contributed to her films. All three were later on her sole studio album, 'Papercuts on the Moon'. Tiffany was known for her sweet, bubbly attitude and her fashion style inspired a brief trend of what was dubbed 'galactic princess'. What is that even?" "Probably whatever this is." Alex held up the CD case. On the cover, Tina wore a frilly mini skirt with a glittering star pattern and a bejeweled midriff bustier top with Saturn and the moon on it. She had a half jacket on with puffy sleeves and more space related objects on it. Her long blonde hair was kept up in a ponytail on top of her head with more space-related objects on barrettes and beads covering her. A tiara sat on her head with a diamond star in the center. A star was also painted on her left cheek, just below her eye. She wore thigh highs on her legs kept up by a garter belt with a moon-shaped diamond on each side. Black boots with a painted galaxy went halfway up her calves. Around the boots were what looked like anklets with space-themed charms on them. A frilly choker with another star-shaped diamond looked ridiculously big on her neck. "You know...I can almost see that coming back into fashion...if it required a less effort for all that." Eric said. He got distracted from his phone and looked through the box. Eric found something more interesting than the terrible teenage romance movie on the TV. He tossed the VHS to Alex. "Look, a collection of her music videos." "Oh...we have to watch these." Alex put the tape in and rewound it. The VHS started off with some advertising for Tina's only major concert tour, followed by a short interview with Tina herself. Then, the first music video played, "Samson and Delilah". From what Eric could gather from the lyrics and the video, the genders of Samson and Delilah were switched, with Tina playing the role of Samson and the man in the video taking the role of Delilah. The music was generically poppy and the video itself nothing interesting until the final portion where the man cuts Tina's long blonde hair in her sleep. The video shifted from a silly, colorful set to black and white. As Tina slept, the man changed her into a dress that looked like it belonged on a Victorian doll. Her blonde hair was dyed dark and her wavy hair straightened out into a bob. Her bangs were cut straight, laying just above her eyes. The video ended with Tina opened her eyes and the man, with a big grin, putting a bow on Tina's head while he dropped most of her cut hair into the trash. Eric looked over at Alex. "Um, weird." "Music videos are always weird." Alex said. The rest of the videos didn't stand out in Eric's mind like that one, aside from "Red Fur", which was even stranger. Throughout the video, Tina dressed in a red cloak and ran through the woods under two different skies, a nightscape with a full moon over head and a clear, sunny day. During the day, she walked with a man in red and at night, she ran from a wolf covered in blood. Eric presumed it was meant to be a werewolf story. The music video ended with Tina staring up at the moon as she was being devoured by the wolf. The other music videos on the tape were largely colorful, sugary songs with dorky dance routines. The lyrics for "Red Fur" were also not like the other songs. The song was clearly meant to terrifying, from start to finish. It was on the opposite spectrum of "Starshine and Heartbeats" and "Mirror, Mirror" that were as sugary sweet as possible. When the tape was finished, Alex popped in a tape labeled "Tina Live" that Alex's mom clearly recorded herself. Eric looked through the booklet the album came with. Some of the other songs on the album had strange or dark lyrics, but they weren't singles. He presumed there was some kind of disconnect between what Tina wanted to produce and what her label wanted to sell her as. Eric looked up at the screen. As Tina danced on the stage, he could only see Heather. "Do you think it's her?" "She really does look and sound just like her. A relative? There is a connection between her label and Moone & Wolfe. But how are these two connected?" Alex opened his phone to do a search on Tina. "Hmm...there's not really any information on Tina after she retired. It's like she vanished. Her songs are nothing special either. I don't get it. Wait...what's this?" Eric moved over closer to Alex. "What?" "Tina's final song was never officially released. It was a duet between her and Kathy Beaumont from Hounding Rain. While never officially released, Beaumont has been known to provide fans with copies of the full recording when asked. Kathy Beaumont...I didn't know she was making music in the early 90s. I thought she was popular at the tale end of the 90s and onward. How did she end up doing a duet with her years before she was famous?" "Maybe they knew each other some other way." Eric said. "I don't really know much about Hounding Rain. My parents really hated them, but they're still really popular, right? Aren't the members all from this area?" "Yeah. They started as a local band around here, I think. Let me see. Yeah, formed in Rome, GA in...oh, wow, 1990. I had no idea they were around that long. Oh, here, says they didn't get really popular until 1998. My mom loves them. Let's see....Kathy Beaumont, born in Atlanta, GA, lived in Rome, GA during childhood. Her mother was a famous Jazz singer, Hannah Nightingale. Her father was a researcher for...Why did I expect anything else?" "Seriously?" "Moone & Wolfe. Her father, John Beaumont, went missing the same day his wife, Hannah, died in a car accident. Okay...that's weird. Kathy has spoken out that she believes both her parents were murdered...but there is no evidence to support this claim." Alex stared down at the phone, then looked over at Eric. "I bet she's right." "Why let her say it?" Alex asked. "Because she can't prove anything." Eric said. "Like I can't prove any of the stuff I remembered. I sound crazy. No need for anyone to look any deeper." "So...what's the connection to Tina?" Alex scrolled down. "Okay, it says they met at a music event and became friends. The song was titled 'The Star'. Let's look that up." Alex searched for the audio. He found it uploaded as a video. Eric quickly pulled up the lyrics from a fan site for them to read over as they listened. Before the song actually started, there was a conversation between Kathy and Tina. "Alright, alright. I got the tape ready." Eric didn't recognize the voice. He assumed it was Kathy speaking. "You sure you wanna do this while Annie Mae and Rita are out?" Tina asked. "We'll get them in next time. Right now, let's work on our parts." As Kathy said that, he heard a piano playing. Shortly after that, someone started playing a guitar. The piano playing stopped. Kathy said, "You're pretty good with that. How come you don't play it for your album?" "Tom thinks it's stupid." Tina said in a sad voice. "Tom thinks your singing career is stupid." Kathy started playing again. Alex paused the player. Him and Eric exchanged looks. "Tom? Couldn't be..." Eric said. "Tom's a pretty common name. Might be unrelated." Alex reassured himself. He unpaused the video. "Edith's the only reason I got to keep it." Tina said. Alex paused again. "Or..." "That's gotta be the same two. So, we know Tina, who looks like Heather, who worked for a company that is connected to Moone & Wolfe, knew two people named Tom and Edith. They're one and the same." Eric said. He was completely convinced at this point. "Could still be unrelated. She might be a relative of Heather's and still know them, but...that's definitely...hmm. How are those two connected to her though?" Alex wondered. He hit play. "You need to get away from both of them." Kathy said. "I used to feel sorry for Tom, because of his past, but I...Lately, Edith and I have been spending a lot of time together and I...I wish I could get her to leave with me. Alexander won't ever let her go." Tina's playing stopped. "So, are you and Tom officially through yet?" Kathy asked. "Not yet. I've been...putting it off. I know he won't take it well." "Why? He doesn't even sleep with you." Kathy said. "I know the only reason he's dating me is because his father put him up to it to spy on me. He's going to try to pull me back in. Maybe I should just run away." Tina strummed her guitar. The piano music stopped again. Footsteps could be heard. When they stopped, Kathy said, "So long as I'm standing, I'll be here for you." Alex paused again. Both Eric and Alex were unsettled by the conversation. "Tina was Tom Summerfield's girlfriend?" Alex scratched his head. "Sounds like it, but he clearly didn't marry her. What was his wife's name?" Eric asked. "Pixie. I've seen a picture of her before. She doesn't look like Heather and she looks around Tom's age." "What do you think happened with the siblings and their father? Sounds like there was something messed up going on." Eric presumed some sort of abuse was being hinted at by Tina, but he couldn't guess what. From his own experiences, his imagination was running wild about the possibilities. "Yeah, sounds like it." Alex said. He hit play again. "Mmm...I don't know. I wouldn't want you getting mixed up in anything." Tina said. "I don't think I could get any more mixed up in that mess than I already am. Come on, let's do this." "Right..." Footsteps could be heard again. Then the piano playing started up again, and the guitar. Kathy hummed a melody. Tina hummed along with her a few seconds later. Eric held his phone between him and Alex so Alex could easily read the lyrics along with him. The lyrics from the website read: "Reaching for the distant star I cast my name into the sky I'll travel the heavens into the unknown Can you see me down below? I'm calling out to all of you Don't forget my voice When the depths of space Silence me (BOTH) I came from nothing (TINA) I was born to a nightingale (KATHY) My world was white and black (TINA) And it rained when my tower fell (KATHY) They tried to silence me with their Lingering ghosts clawing up from the depths (BOTH) Said they knew what I needed to do (KATHY) Said they're looking after stupid me (TINA) I never howled at the moon And I never dreamed of freedom (BOTH) They've got me wrapped up in chains (TINA) Astronomers mapped out every trajectory (KATHY) I know they know my paths (BOTH) And I'm gonna burn on the way down (KATHY) And my star won't have a name (TINA) When they're done with me But until they rip me from the night sky I'm gonna sing into the darkness (BOTH) Reaching for the distant star I cast my name into the sky I've traveled the depths of hell Can you pull me up again? I'm calling out to all of you Don't forget my voice When the deepest earth Swallows me whole (BOTH) I carved myself anew from the mask they made me (TINA) I promised my heart I would never let them break me (KATHY) Calling to you, please don't forget me Calling to you, please don't ever forget me (BOTH) Reaching for the distant star I cast my name into the sky I cast my dreams into the night Can you hold onto me? I'm calling out to all of you Don't forget my voice When the sky is filled with fairy lights (BOTH) I'm calling out to you Don't forget my voice When the sky is filled With fairy lights (BOTH) I'm calling out to you Please don't forget me (BOTH)" When the song ended, Tina and Kathy went quiet for a moment. Kathy was the first to break the silence. "Hey, that sounded really good." "Yeah. I wasn't sure how us doing a song together would work since we're in different genres, but this...I'm really feeling it." Tina's tone was much cheerier than earlier. "Me too. I have a really good feeling about it. We need to get Annie Mae and Rita in on it next time. I bet it'll be even better." Eric guessed Annie Mae and Rita were the other members of the band. "I think we could work on the lyrics a bit more, maybe a little more tweaking here and there." Tina said. "Yeah, we can work on it some more now before the girls get back." A phone rang in the background. "Sure. Oh, the phone." Tina said. "Hang on. I'll get it." Kathy said. The audio ended abruptly after that. An uneasy feeling was building up in Eric again. Their distraction attempt only served to make him even more paranoid. He said, "This doesn't sound at all like Tina from her singles. But the themes were there in some of the songs on her album." "Something else strange...Remember, Tina directed and wrote the screenplay for one of the films she starred in. The horror fantasy film, Red Fur." "Then, this is the real Tina. The teen movies and sugary pop songs are a persona." Eric said. "Seems that way. The question is was that the image she wanted to give the public or was that what the label wanted?" Alex sifted through the boxes. He pulled out several teen magazines from the late 80s and early 90s. He looked for articles related to Tina. "Tina wasn't all that different from a lot of the pop singers at the time. But looks like she was getting a lot of criticism from people tied directly to Diamond Wolf Records. See, look here." Eric took the magazine. It was a teen magazine focused on music and entertainment directly tied to Diamond Wolf Records called Diamond Cub Club Magazine. He read over the title of the article Alex pointed out to him. "Wow. 'Slutty Starlet Poor Role Model For Young Girls'. Slutty? Her songs barely reference sex...Wait, this is about her outfits? These clothes are ridiculously tame by today's standards." "Haha, yeah I remember my mom talking about my grandma freaking out when she wanted to wear crop tops and mini skirts." Alex found a fan magazine from 1993. He opened up a page that focused on Tina's fashion throughout her career as an actress and singer. "Anyway, look at Tina's clothes from the beginning to just before she retired." "She is wearing less later on, but she started as a teenager too, right? Doesn't seem weird to me." "Me either, but what if the only reason she could get away with that was because she was really popular and could push for more things she wanted?" Alex said. "Diamond Wolf always had this 'wholesome' thing going on with their image, more kid friendly and all that." "Where does Heather fit into all this? She's dressed about as conservative and bland as possible." "I don't know. Something doesn't add up right." Alex crossed his arms. He ran through everything they knew about Tina in his head. Something hit Eric. "Delilah." "What?" "Her lead single on her album was called 'Samson and Delilah'. Maybe that sugary pop song was meant as a cry for help." Eric showed Alex the lyrics again. "She sounds like she's aware in that song with Kathy Beaumont that something might happen to her. We don't know what that might be. Maybe she's being controlled to be how she is now and she can't get out." "The song she worked on with Kathy was supposed to be released at the end of 1993, but Tina suddenly 'retired' and dropped off the face of the earth. This recording suggests she was about to break up with Tom Summerfield. What the hell happened here?" "Sounds like Delilah wore Samson down after all." Eric said. "Hmm...I wonder if there's any interviews she did about that single or that album. There must be something." Alex said. They both searched online for any interviews mentioning the song, "Samson and Delilah". Alex found one on a half broken website. "Here's something. Tina told staff the idea for the song and music video was inspired by her very conservative boyfriend. She wanted to make a biblical themed song for him, and switched the genders of the characters and time period to make the song have a more modern, mainstream appeal." "Tina's boyfriend...I don't recall any names mentioned on her wiki info about relationships. Do you think it was still Tom at the time?" "I don't know. Kathy's recording makes it pretty obvious she dated Tom Summerfield, but she may have had multiple boyfriends throughout her career. You'd think if she made a song for him, he'd get some mention. Let's keep looking through the magazines. Maybe his name is mentioned somewhere. If we have to, I bet she has some fans who are active on those cringey celebrity focused communities online." Alex kept searching. "Those exist?" Eric asked. His internet access was heavily monitored for most of his life. Even now, without his parents controlling everything he did, he hadn't explored very much of what was denied to him before beyond some porn sites and privacy related informational sites Alex told him about. "A lot of shit exists online. It's finding it that's the problem." Alex said. They both searched for another ten minutes. Alex tossed his phone on the floor and leaned against the bed. "Nothing. Her having a boyfriend is mentioned repeatedly, but no name or if she's dated multiple guys." "She probably wanted to keep that private." Eric suggested. "That's a given. Celebrities don't get privacy just because they want it." Alex sighed and picked up his phone again. He kept searching. He found a few threads with people asking, but every time, no one knew. Not a single name came up. "God damn it. Why does no one know?! Taylor Swift could fart in a Starbucks and half the planet would know about it in an hour, but I can't find the name of this woman's boyfriend even though she repeatedly talks about him in several interviews and still has a loyal fanbase." "Wait...I think I have something." Eric pulled up a thread on a very old forum. "What'd you find?" Alex asked. "Damn. That's some shit quality right there. But look. This is a scan from an old gossip magazine of a man Tina was seen with a few times. Can't see his face clearly. No name listed either. Who is this guy?" Eric showed Alex a blurry picture of Tina standing next to a somewhat tall man in a dark coat and a hat. The picture was taken from the side, but the man's facial features were too blurry to make out. "Guess we'll never know. And that's all she ever said about the song." Alex sighed again. "There's got to be something else. What the fuck is this? Wow, this website." Eric looked at Alex's screen. Alex was on an old looking website. The page Alex clicked on appeared to be dedicated to old children's shows. He read over the section Alex stopped at. "Delilah's Daily Dose...never heard of it." "Me either. Looks like some kind of local kids show. The character Delilah Dot is said to look like Tina Tiffany. Jeez, another Delilah? Okay, let's look up a comparison." Alex did an image search for Tina Tiffany and Delilah Dot. His search only brought up pictures of Tina. "What the fuck? Nothing?" s "Try just Delilah Dot. We know what Tina looks like anyway." Eric said. Alex tried that instead. This time, he got a screenshot of the same website he was on and an image of a strange looking teddy bear. "And nothing." "Hmm...it was local...maybe there aren't any screenshots. Who knows? Maybe her looking like Tina is something this guy's classmates thought." Eric shrugged. "Maybe." Alex shook his head. "Well, that was a dead end." "There's an email address. We could ask him about it." "If that address is still in use. Look at this site. I doubt this guy keeps up with it." "Wouldn't hurt to try." "Fine. I'll send him a quick message." Alex sent a message to the email address on the website to appease Eric. Within a minute, Alex received a notification about a reply. He opened up his email. "What? Already?" Alex and Eric read over the message. It said: 'This is an automated message. If you are receiving this, you have previously been informed that I will no longer contact you. Please forward all future questions to Kathy at email@example.com. Do not contact me again.' "What the hell? Did this John guy set all his emails to respond with this? I've never emailed this guy before." "I guess we have to send an email to whoever Kathy is." Eric said. "Christ." Alex composed another email quickly. He threw his phone onto the bed. He raised his voice. "That's it. I'm done with everything for today. Ugh, that didn't help anything. Let's just play a video game and order pizza. And get this mess back in the hallway. I don't want to look at any of this again. I don't want to think about Moone & Wolfe. And I don't want to think about getting killed." Alex's anger boiled up and fizzled out into fear. His body shook. "Alex?" Eric put his hand on Alex's shoulder. "None of this can be real. It can't be." He moved away from Eric. Alex forced himself to pick up everything from the boxes and put them away. Without the sound of the music playing on the TV, the house was eerily quiet. Both of them were regretting choosing to stay home from school. Eric knew Alex's parents wouldn't be able to do anything if someone really wanted to hurt either of them, but somehow, them simply being there gave the illusion the house was safer. Eric wanted to be around people, as many as possible, so that everyone could see anyone out to hurt them. At the same time, he was equally afraid of going out. Any stranger could be out to get him. If someone tried to get in the house, they would know it was an intruder. How would he recognize someone dangerous in a crowd of strangers? They settled on playing video games with the volume on high. About an hour from when Alex sent the email to Kathy, he received a reply asking if they wanted to chat via Skype later in the afternoon. After discussing it with Eric, Alex agreed to chat with her sometime after eight. Neither of them knew what to expect. Eric hoped speaking with Kathy would help them in some way, but Alex was less optimistic about the situation. He feared it was another trap. Both of them were more at ease once Alex's parents came home from work. At eight, Alex turned on his laptop and got everything ready. Around eight twenty, they received a video call from the number Kathy said she'd call from. Eric and Alex were both shocked by who they saw. An older woman wearing a necklace with a silver basset hound dangling from it smiled at them. Eric and Alex recognized her immediately. She said, "Hello." "He-hello...." Eric stuttered. Alex blurted out, "You're....you're Kathy Beaumont!" She laughed. "That's right." Alex's shock quickly passed. He narrowed his eyes. "I honestly should have expected that. Of course Kathy would be that Kathy. I should have expected today to get weirder." "I've read through the emails Sammy sent me." Kathy said. "Who's Sammy?" Alex asked. Eric didn't know anyone who went by Sammy either. "She's the one currently answering emails about John Robinson's personal site, but I take it from you asking, you don't remember your past exchange." Kathy sipped from a mug of tea. Alex did most of the talking. Eric was too freaked out to say much of anything. Alex said, "No, I don't. What was this about?" "I'll forward the emails I have that you exchanged with her. You asked about Delilah Dot." Kathy spoke in a calm demeanor, as if she was used to this sort of exchange. Alex checked his phone. He saw a notification for his email. "We did email John about that." "You emailed her this in April." Kathy looked over some papers she had with her. Eric looked at Alex, confused. Alex shook his head. "I...I don't recall ever visiting that site in April." "Oh, but you did. I'm sure by now you already know they can alter your memories. I take it you must have encountered Delilah again in some way recently." Kathy continued reading over the papers. "Yes, sort of. This is actually about Tina Tiffany, and a woman named Heather..." Alex was cut off by Kathy. "Heather Smith." Kathy put the papers down and grinned. "Yes...do you know her?" Alex asked. "They are one in the same." Kathy's expression never changed. "Which are?" Alex asked for clarification. Kathy laughed. "Yes." Alex paused for a moment. "So...Tina is Heather and Delilah?" "To be more precise, Heather is Tina and Delilah. Tina's a stage name, and Delilah is a character. Though to say Heather is Delilah is only partly true." Kathy explained. "What do you mean?" Alex asked. "Delilah Dot, the character, is a creation of Dr. Tom Summerfield. He created her for a series of books, and then later for a children's TV series. Tom is as much Delilah, if not more, than Heather is, but he is not alone." Kathy said. Alex asked exactly what Eric was thinking. "Is the other person Edith Summerfield?" "You must be familiar with these two, I take it?" Kathy looked directly at Alex. "I've worked under them before. I'm still in contact with them, unfortunately." Alex sighed. "Oh, you'll never not be in contact with them. It's best to engage with them as little as possible." Kathy said. "That's kind of a problem right now. They want me." Alex said. "They want me too." Eric chimed in. He wasn't sure why. He wanted someone else to know. Kathy rested her chin against her hand. "I can offer you some advice, but I've had little luck with keeping anyone safe for long. Sammy's managed to keep herself safe so far, but they never wanted to use her for anything." Alex shrugged. "Any advice is better than none." Kathy took a deep breath. "If I were you, I'd start posting personal, vague content everywhere. Regularly participate on social media sites, any place you can comment at, wherever you can. Upload videos of yourselves. Be everywhere, but don't mention anything about them. When you're alone, if you sense something strange is going on, call someone or video chat with them. It'll make it all the more difficult for them to erase your existence, and they know it. If they see you're doing that, they may move on. But, if they really want you, they'll go through whatever it takes. Your value determines everything." That answer was less than satisfying. Alex asked, "Is there anything else we can do?" "Record everything about yourselves, constantly. Use personal symbols no one but you would understand to hide anything important. If they alter your mind, when you encounter something so deeply embedded, your mind will stumble and the broken links will begin to connect again." Kathy opened up a drawer at the desk she was sitting at. She pulled out a folder and flipped through it. "From what I've learned about their memory reworking, the more information and people they have to do this over, the more mistakes happen, and the more that gets left untouched. Don't dig deeper and never stop recording." "We'll do that. But...right now..." Alex stared at the webcam on his laptop. "They're monitoring this. From today forward, presume everything you say and do is being recorded. Act as I've told you and ignore it. If you're lucky, they'll get bored of you and simply tweak your memories again to forget about this." Kathy said. "Why don't they do anything to you?" Eric said. "Because they can't touch me. The fool is outside the order." Kathy said. She put the papers aside. "Tom told me once they keep me around on purpose. The more I talk, the more insane I sound, the less people believe. I exist because they see me as a jester entertaining the public and keeping suspicion off of them by pointing my fingers at them in the first place. They know it agonizes me more to be able to say the truth and not be believed than to forget it and lose my pain; and they know, despite how foolish it is, I will never stray from this path so long as I know the truth." "Is it really pointless to hide?" Alex asked. "The more you try to hide who you are, the easier you are to find, and the easier it is to make others forget you." Kathy said. "What are these people trying to do?" Eric asked. Kathy put her hands together and looked down, a worn out expression on her face. She took another deep breath. "That...is a complicated question I can't completely answer. They cover up their tracks well. From what I can gather, they've been conducting experiments on the general population since at least the 1950's, but the company was founded under strange circumstances to begin with back in 1890. There's no record of who the original founder of the company was, nor where it was specifically founded. The only information is that it was founded July seventh, 1890 and they received a large amount of government funding. Every part of the company serves some different purpose. They used their now defunct publishing house and old local TV station to build up a little cult. From what I can gather, solely to see how easily they can control people. The hospitals are used for experiments on the mind, primarily in regards to minors. Memory is their biggest weapon. Tom stalked my ex-girlfriend, Pamela Archer, because of the research she was doing into memory. When she refused to work for him, she disappeared. At this point, I've accepted she is either dead or she is no longer Pamela. That's just a few things they've done. I could go on and on. If they own it, or have ties to it, they're using it for some experiment." "So...Diamond Wolf Records and Lunar Vista..." Alex started to say. "Yes, both are for different experiments about how the general public can be controlled with mass media." Kathy sighed and dropped her head. "My mother was under Diamond Wolf Records back in the day. She had no idea what they were up to. That's how my parents met. My father was involved in that project, among several others. She's why he cracked and wanted to leave, but they don't let you leave. I'm sure you want to know about Delilah and..." The video cut out before Kathy could finish what she was saying. "Did you lose connection?" Eric asked. Alex checked his wi-fi connection. There was no issue there. Another call came through. Before Alex could really look at the information, the call was accepted. Alex unconsciously moved back, as did Eric. Neither of them were touching the computer when the call was accepted. Edith Summerfield smiled at them. She was sitting somewhere outside. Eric didn't recognize the location at first, then it came to him. She was on the trail at the spot where Alex and Eric typically got onto it through the woods behind Alex's house. She waved to them. "Hello, boys. I see you met with that little bitch who never shuts up. What were you two up to?" "How did you...?" Alex pointed at the laptop. "Really? You ask that after all you know we can do? Why don't you two come outside and talk with us? We have so much to discuss." Edith motioned with her hand for them to come. "Why would we do that?" Alex snapped at her. "Oh, Alex. Do you really want us to come inside and get you? I'm sure you don't want anything bad to happen to your family." Alex's heart stopped for a moment when Edith said that. Edith smiled brightly before her face shifted to a look of rage. "And I mean both of you, Eric. Come out or we'll drag you out." Alex looked over at Eric. Eric held Alex's hand out of view of Edith. He nodded to Alex. "We'll go." "Good. We'll see you in a few minutes." Edith waved to them. The computer immediately shut down on its own. There was no point in discussing anything. Edith could hear anything they said. Alex checked that his knife was still in his pocket, desperate for any protection. They walked downstairs and out the back door. Once they were outside, they held hands. The sun was low in the sky, but it was still light out enough to see well. They walked through the woods together and crossed over to the place where Edith had been. Edith still managed to surprise them. She walked out from behind them, the two of them somehow having not seen her when they crossed over onto the trail. Following behind her, Heather walked out. The two of them were both dressed in black, knee-length dresses and white lab coats. Heather wore a childish, big black bow on her head. She curtsied for Eric and Alex. "Hello, boys." Edith said. "What do you want?" Alex asked. He was completely terrified, but he stood between the two women and Eric. "We're running out of time, and we want you to come willingly. Come with me, Alex. If you come with me, everything will be taken care of for you." Edith glanced over at Eric. She grinned. "You can bring Eric too. We'll let you work on him." Alex stepped back closer to Eric, slightly raising his arms as if to act as a shield. "Work on him? What do you want to do to him?" "Only use him a little. His body would be very valuable to our research. He is, after all, Idris's brother. We've never had a better test subject. It stands to reason the younger one would also be useful." Edith said. "I refuse. I won't do anything to hurt Eric." Alex raised his arms higher. "The world you know is ending, little boy." Heather walked up to Alex. She got up in his face and glared at him. "Edith dear, are you sure we can't erase his mind a little? This boy is such a distraction to him that he's completely useless to us as he is." "Now, now. You know extreme rewriting like that causes too many problems. We need his mind to be in the best condition possible. Anything more than a few minor tweaks here and there will be an issue. Of course, there are other ways to make someone comply." Edith walked closer to them. She pulled a gun out of her lab coat and pointed it directly at Eric. "If you pull that trigger, I'll kill myself." Alex retaliated with his own threat. He took his pocket knife out and put the blade against his wrist. "You can't use my mind if I'm dead." "Go on. That's a low risk. We'll ensure you live through it. Then, you can come with us." Edith mocked him and kept her gun aimed at her target. "I'll keep trying until I succeed. If you hurt him, you can never have me." Alex pressed down harder. A bit of blood slid down his skin. "You two don't have a future together. If you stay out here, you will die or we'll collect you up. Then, we'll have no choice but to reset your mind. We'll keep you safe. We can keep your parents safe too, if you wish. Perhaps one of your friends even. This one, this one we need as a tool. Any one of his organs would be useful." Edith's hand stayed steady. Alex cut deeper. "I'd rather lose everything than give anything to you." The blood pooling from Alex's wound frightened Eric more than Edith's gun. Desperate, Eric turned to Edith and asked, "What's going to happen? Answer me, and I'll come with you, if you protect him." "There's a good boy. Just like your brother, always the more compliant side of a set." Edith did not lower her gun. She kept it firmly pointed at Eric. "The second week of June, everything begins. The world you know will cease to be by July." "What are you going to do?" Eric asked. "Reset society. We have to start over to make it functional." Edith's expression changed to one of pure joy. "We'll collect up what contains value and let the rest wither away. Come with us and we'll keep Alex safe. He can be our lead researcher in this area. We've been wanting him for a long time." Alex raised an eyebrow. He asked, "How could you possibly know who I was? The first time I spoke to anyone from your company was last summer!" "Oh, Alex, we've known who you were since your mother announced her pregnancy." Edith smiled widely. "What?" Alex asked. Edith feigned sadness. "Such a shame we had to get rid of that one. Dr. Yoo was our most brilliant researcher, and sadly, our most insubordinate and emotional." Alex didn't believe her. "Researcher? He was a high school teacher." "He lied to your mother. His work needed to be secret." Edith smirked at him. "Moone & Wolfe doesn't operate in South Korea." Alex snapped back. "We go by many names, Alex, and none reveal ourselves." Edith's smirk widened. She took a step closer toward Eric. "Who do you really work for?" Alex moved more in front of Eric and kept the blade against his skin. "You'll understand in time." Edith nodded to Heather. Heather yanked Alex's arm and pulled him farther away from Eric. Alex easily pushed her back off, but Edith was closer than ever to Eric. "I'm not going with you. You murdered my father!" Alex shouted at her. "Spare me. You've never even met the man." Heather rolled her eyes at him. She lunged at him again. Alex dodged her this time. "Whether I met him or not is irrelevant. You murdered someone." "It was necessary. He was planning on exposing us once your mother left." Edith was too close to Eric for Alex to get in between them now. "Much like you, he was too slow to react and too powerless to do anything when we had him alone." "What did you do?" Alex asked. "Spare parts. We always need more flesh to use for testing. Once he had nothing more to give, he went to where all trash goes--the incinerator." As she spoke, Alex's blood went cold. Eric saw a flash of the tank in his mind. Neither could move, too shocked by Edith's disgusting confession. "It was nice and clean. He had so few relatives and friends. We erased him from all of their minds, except for your mother. She was too far away and disconnected from him to matter." Alex's voice cracked as he spoke. "She...told me they left on good terms and he called her a few times over the years. She showed me...a letter from two years after I was born written by him." "My brother's a master at fiction." Edith laughed. "Those calls? We had those planted in her mind so she wouldn't call him. My brother wrote the letter personally. The reply she sent went straight back to us." "How did you get to her?" The fear in Alex's eyes was obvious to all around him. Seeing Alex like that only terrified Eric more. He didn't know what to do. He wanted to run, but he was too afraid that woman would shoot him, and if she did, that Alex may in turn try to actually kill himself. He remained frozen, completely lost in his fear. Everything around him unfolded outside of him. "That's easy. We can get to anyone. There's no one living in a modern society who can't be tracked down with ease, no matter how careful they think they're being." Edith pressed the gun against Eric's head. "Come on, Alex. Come with us." Heather pulled at Alex's wrist. "Never." Alex yanked his arm away from her, but in the process, she got him to drop his knife. "Go ahead and kill me if that's what you want to do." Heather pulled a gun out of her lab coat pocket and aimed it at Alex's head. "If you insist." Alex called her bluff and didn't move away. "Wait!" Eric snapped out of his mental haze. He did the only thing he could think to do. He pleaded with Edith. "Take me. Let him forget me. I'll go with you." Edith hit him in the head with the gun. "We can take you willingly or unwillingly. For you, it doesn't matter." Just then, Alex got an idea. "Hey Heather!" Alex yelled to her. Heather looked directly at him. Alex took out his phone and quickly pulled up a playlist of Tina's songs. "Samson and Delilah" blared out into the woods at max volume. Heather froze initially. As the song went on, she screamed. Edith ran over to Heather. Heather collapsed onto the forest floor and clutched her head. She mumbled incomprehensible things. With both women distracted, Alex threw his phone down and grabbed Eric's hand. They ran deeper into the woods, neither having any idea of where they were going or if there was anywhere safe to escape to at all. "Clever boy." Edith shook her head. "We'll collect you in time then. I know neither of you will die. Now, to deal with this one." "Edith...Edith...where am I? What happened to my hair?" Heather cried. She touched the strands of her hair. She looked down at her clothes after that. "What is this? Why am I dressed like one of the doctors?" "Shh...Everything's going to be alright, Heather. You did it yourself, didn't you? It was an accident." Edith patted her on the back. "Shh..." Heather shook her head. Tears fell to the ground. "No, no, I didn't. I didn't...Kathy, we were supposed to..." "Aw, it's going to be alright, Heather. I think it looks better this way." Edith patted her on the back again. She shot the phone. Then, she placed the gun down and took a small tablet out of her lab coat pocket. She opened a program up and was given the choice of three options, "Delilah", "Heather", and "AA93". Edith selected the "Heather" option. "It's a good thing the tablet worked out. No need to carry that heavy helmet around anymore. There." "Edith...where is...?" Heather blinked several times. She sat up and wiped off her face. "What were we doing? I'm sorry. I forgot again. Did we get the boys?" "They've run off. We'll catch them in June. Kyle's going over there now to fix up their memories." Edith put away her tablet and gun. "If we're fixing them anyway, can't we just take them now?" Heather stood up. She dusted off her coat. "No, I've decided to go with plan B. I want to test them a little. If Yoo's son survives this, and I know he will, I'll make sure he replaces me in time. As for the other one, it should be interesting to see what might happen to him if he gets infected with either of our 'presents'. I'd like to see how he reacts without us controlling the course of things. He'll be even more valuable to us then. We'll let them go for now. I only wanted to see if we could get Yoo's son without too much tampering. He's too strong willed." Edith rose up. She dusted off and straighted out her clothes. "Seems wiping his mind is the only option. Such a shame, but at least that willfulness can finally be stamped out. Perhaps we should have done that to his father. Oh well." "Are they really worth it?" Heather asked. "They are each worth more than all of our members. Well, except Sky. He will take the reigns from Yoo's son later, when he's old enough." Edith walked Heather back out of the woods. Eric and Alex both stopped for a moment when they heard the gun shot and the music stopped. They gave each other knowing looks and ran faster. The deeper they went into the woods, the harder it was for them to see anything. It was already dark. After a while, Eric saw some streetlights and headlights through the trees. He pointed them out to Alex. They ran as fast as they could toward that street. When they ran out of the woods, they immediately regretted it. Waiting for them on the other side was the stranger standing by his blue Sedan. "Hello again." He said. "Who are you?" Alex asked. He trembled in the man's presence. The man held up a small tablet. He tapped on the screen, and with a smile, he said, "Goodnight." Eric woke up at six in the morning to the sound of frogs and birds singing. Outside, the sky was still dark, the only light being the streetlights. He didn't know why, but he was overwhelmingly calm. Calmer than he'd been in years, as if a thousand worries were plucked from his mind. He didn't question it, quite happy to have a moment of peace in his thoughts. Eric glanced over at Alex in the dark. Alex stirred beside him, then rubbed his eyes. "Morning." Eric said. "Morning." Alex yawned. He picked up his phone to check his notifications. Alex sat up. "What the hell?" "Something wrong?" Eric asked. "My phone's been reset." "What?" Eric picked up his own phone. He typically didn't turn his phone off at night, but this morning, he found it was off. He turned it on. His eyes widened. All of his apps and photos were deleted. His contacts were empty, and his phone didn't ask him for a password. "The fuck? Mine too..." "Some weird update glitch happen or something?" Alex turned on the lamp on his night stand. "Hmm. Maybe. We do have the same phone. Setting everything back up again's gonna be a pain." Eric sighed. He got up off the bed and picked up his laptop. He wanted to check what he'd last moved over from his phone to see what he may have lost, and he wanted to look up any issues with updates. When he turned on the computer, his account name was the same but the background for the lock screen was the default background. For the last several months, his lock screen background had been one of the photos Alex took on the camping trip they went on together. He clicked on his account, expecting to be prompted to put in his password, but once again, he didn't have one anymore. His background, previously another one of Alex's photo's from that trip, was now some generic canyon background somewhere he'd never been before. All his programs were gone, his files, everything. Eric opened up the default browser, slightly annoyed that the one he downloaded and had everything nicely set-up on wasn't there despite knowing it wouldn't be. He planned on getting his contacts from his email then searching about what happened to his phone and computer. "What the...?" Alex looked up from his phone. "Something else screwed up?" "My computer. Everything's gone and...What?!" When he went to log into his email account, his inbox was oddly empty except for one new email. "Why is my account suspended?!" Alex asked, "Account?" "It's the account I was keeping my journal at. For some reason, my account's suspended. Ugh. Guess I'll be emailing some people later." Eric wanted to bang his head against the computer. "That sucks. I wonder if you got flagged as spam or something by accident." Alex was quickly working on setting everything back up on his phone. "Looks like it's gonna be one of those days." Eric put the computer aside. He watched Alex, a little lost in thought. His anger over the situation with the phone and computer subsided as his attention turned completely to Alex. His palms sweat. 'At the party. I'll ask him out at the part.' "Fuck this. I'm gonna make some breakfast and deal with this later." Alex tossed the phone on the bed. He changed clothes. "You gonna stay up here?" "Nah. I'll keep you company." Eric said. He followed Alex downstairs to the kitchen. He sat at the kitchen table while Alex cooked breakfast. Eric hummed a melody to himself, but he didn't recognize the song. Alex looked back at him. "I didn't know you liked that song." "Huh? Actually, I don't remember what song that is. The melody just popped in my head. Can you play it for me?" Eric asked. "Sure." Alex downloaded an app and logged into his account on the service. He played the song for Eric, leaving the phone on the table while he went back to cooking. Eric could have swore Alex had the same model and color phone as him, but this one was a newer model than his in gray, rather than black. He tossed that thought aside as nothing more than him being groggy. "Wonder where I heard it before. Maybe you played it for me once." Eric rested his head against the table as he listened. The music tugged at something in him. His mind conjured up another morning, sitting downstairs in the dark, hearing this song. His heart warmed in spite of the memory itself being surrounded by fog. Eric's thoughts reached for a missing element. "Hey, could you make some cinnamon tea?" "Uh, sure. Didn't know you liked that. We have plenty." Alex fixed some tea and finished cooking. He served Eric breakfast. As Alex handed Eric his plate, Eric noticed a large cut on Alex's wrist. He asked, "What happened to your arm? When did that happen?" Alex glanced over at the injury. "Huh? Oh, that. I tripped and fell the other day when I was trying to get in the car and scrapped it up really bad." They ate breakfast together at the kitchen table while Alex's music played. Outside, distant thunder rolled. A soft downpour followed within seconds. Eric took in all the sounds and scents around him. He looked over at Alex and smiled. 'I'll definitely ask him.'
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