THE DARKLY STRANGER

Donna Arelli feels like the fun in life is slowly seeping away from her. Then she starts to have vivid dreams—almost nightmares really—except she’s awake, and they only happen when she’s in the shower. The eerie imaginings shouldn’t bother her, except she’s afraid they’re coming true.

T’an crosses over from another world and Donna secretly fascinates him. He would never have revealed himself to her, but when a nasty slip puts her life in danger, he risks getting closer. Now that she’s seen him their connection is too strong to ignore…but what are they going to do about it?

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Chapter 1

Over the years the outgoing, daring parts of me were smothered, crushed and stamped down so slowly and consistently I hardly noticed they were dying. What was left was an introverted mouse forced more and more to the fore. But during the last two months something changed, something radical. I started to have weird, vivid dreams—nightmares—in the shower.

They were eerily realistic imaginings that shouldn’t bother me in the least. Except I was afraid they might be coming true.

Drafts that had never bothered me before whistled through my old turn-of-the-century farmhouse. I planned to do renovations, room by room, but most of that never happened. Only one room got the complete overhaul.

The bathroom.

Oh, I had been so gung ho when I finally got enough together to buy this place. It didn’t matter that it had been a mess. There had been a small bedroom next to the old bathroom. I busted out the wall between the two rooms, merged together all that decadent space, reveling as I converted it. The end result was a spa bathroom fit for a king, queen, or an entire royal guard. Perhaps if I had been precognitive I would have seen the need for bathing quarters large enough for a small army.

I did most of the work myself. I sank a lot of money—hell, all of my available money—on converting that bathroom into something where all my troubles could be washed away. I knew the heated floors, the special wide rainforest shower nozzles, the six separate shower heads, the fancy beige tile, and the imported Italian marble were ridiculous luxuries. It didn’t matter. As I got quieter and quieter and spent more and more time at home, I needed one place where I could unwind.

So the rest of the house looked its years, but I had a beautiful rejuvenation chamber I so badly needed.

My name is Donna Arelli. I look like a librarian, or a kindergarten teacher, which makes sense because I used to be both. In my twenties I occasionally went out and played up the naughty librarian stereotype; things changed a lot since I started working at home. First I bought this house out in the middle of nowhere. Then I stopped having to go into town for work. Eventually as I began ordering more and more things online, and the few friends I had got married, or promoted, or moved away, and I got tired of the bar scene…well…staying in leads to more staying in. Because it sort of happens subtly, you don’t realize how big a shift has happened.

I’m not going out anywhere anymore. Now I teach eighth and ninth grade to needy, socially maladapted teenagers online.

So I really need that spa bathroom.

The day before yesterday had been a particularly tough one. Finally, I was standing under the shower, letting all that wonderful water cascade over me. I leaned my head back against the tile of the side wall and closed my eyes. Then I found myself with my arms bent in front of me, forcing my breasts up, and my wrists pushed together as if they were tied and bound.

I blinked and looked down at my flushed chest, aroused nipples, and invisibly trussed-up arms. I’d pictured a lush forest, and people staring at me, and fingers brushing my midsection. I shook my head to clear it. It was like I lost a few seconds there.

I squeezed a dollop of strawberry-scented shampoo into my hand and had it halfway up to my hair when I saw something dart by in the hall.

Something large.

!!!!!!!!!

I was not alone.

I frantically wiped water and steam off the inside of the shower’s glass doors.

There was nothing there.

I must have imagined it. I MUST have imagined it.

I kept my eyes on the door as I blindly groped to turn the water off. My ragged breathing sounded loud against a new, hard silence. I snagged a towel and wrapped it around me. I clutched the towel shut right over my racing heart. The nap of the towel felt rougher, the steam more sinister, the thunder of my blood pumping so fast and hot, a deep contrast to the rapidly cooling skin not covered by the towel.

The bathroom door was only open a few inches, just how I like it to let some steam out but keep most of it in. Of course I didn’t see anything. There was no way I could have seen anything.

I pushed the door open slowly. I flinched, jumping slightly as it groaned a drawn-out creak.

No one there.

I remembered a literature professor in college asking us what the scariest sound was. A scream? A scratch at the door? Breaking glass?

‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s a toilet flushing in your house, when you absolutely know you are supposed to be alone.’

I suppressed a shudder.

The dreaminess of the shower had totally left me, and my skin was icy where goosebumps sprang up. The adrenaline had shot through my system, leaving me shaky. I took a deep breath and tried to think. There had been no noise, no rustle. What had I seen? I hadn’t seen anything. In fact, it was more like I’d seen nothing; it was a break in the light. But what could move with no sound?

I avoided my shower for three days. After all, if I didn’t leave the house, who’d care if I got grimy? When I finally decided I needed to get clean, I skirted the shower at first, opting for the separate Jacuzzi bath. I brought a book in with me but couldn’t get into the story. I added a jasmine bubble bath and stayed in until I felt terrific. But when I stood up a film of jasmine yuck was stuck to me from the chest down.

I stared at the shower.

I loved that shower.

“This is silly,” I said to myself firmly. So I got in. When I closed my eyes I remembered all the dreams I’d been having for the last two months. Me, begging strange, dark-scaled men to touch me. Me, as a man, with a pretty, petite blonde, licking her until she screamed. Me, in a wild, Amazon-like forest, tied up and naked, while people rubbed me all over with leaves. That one was the most vivid.

There was a fire at my feet, like I was being burned at the stake. I heard the fire crackling. My body looked perfect in the dream, like a Playboy bunny centerfold but better, lit by the firelight below, emphasizing my curves.

There were men and women, touching me everywhere, torturing me with their teasing. Firelight revealed and concealed them. They had very different motives, expressions. Every detail was so…. tantalizing.

I soaped up quickly. I should write this all down.

I hopped out and toweled off to the weird feeling of being… watched. There was something about the dream that was… real.

I had to write this down. But I didn’t want anyone to read these sordid, overwhelming, twisted fantasy trips of mine. EVER. I didn’t want anyone to read it by accident. I didn’t want to put this on my computer and have one of my students reverse hack into my stuff and find out what might amount to—almost—porn.

I should go old school. Write it down by hand.

But I didn’t want some handyman to see a stray piece of paper, or a friend who might come over, or a lover if I ever got one ever again, to open up a notebook and be surprised that Donna was so… whacko.

But boy, did I want to write this stuff down because these shower visions just kept getting hotter, more twisted, and much weirder.

As my students would say, my mind was getting too full without a brain dump. I needed somewhere safe to write it down.

So I started looking for journals. Locked journals. But strangely enough most locked journals are made for ten year old girls and lock with these little square jokes you could unlock with a pen, bobby pin, or even a fingernail.

That would never do.

Finally I found a journal online that would work. It was a hand-made old parchment tome really, with a huge bronze metal band around it and a combination and key lock. The leather was deep red. It cost a hundred and thirty-five bucks. I did a double take when I saw the price. I winced. But yeah, this was the one. I needed it. This was no ordinary journal. This was an epic place to write down magic, sexy, feels potential real adventures.

I called it The Grimoire.

I couldn’t wait for it to arrive.

Days passed, still no delivery. One week, nothing. Two weeks, still nothing. Every day after I finished teaching all my delinquents and e-filing my notes I paced back and forth in my living room waiting for the delivery truck to bring The Grimoire—and hopefully my sanity—to me. As I paced I started thinking about how the intensity of the dreams had been escalating over the past two months. I stopped pacing suddenly. That wasn’t the only thing that increased. So had the occasional feeling that some benevolent presence was looking out for me. The sense that all my desires and also my discontentment were slowly, ever so subtly, ramping up.

I tried to think of when I first felt it. I wore a hole in the rug pacing while I thought back. Not a month or two or three months ago. Longer. I cast my mind back. I kept looking back, searching. Finally it hit me. It was seven months ago—the night of the huge storm. Crackling lightning and booming thunder sounded like it would rent the world apart. The storm had been building all day like a giant fireball thrown into a volcano, and then at sunset it broke, dropping torrential buckets of rain drenching everything in prisms of the rainbow.

Then, with a loud sizzle and pop, the power went out.

That was Halloween night.

The next day the dreams started. It was just that they were so mild, I never thought to distinguish them from the creative wanting of my lonely mind until I looked at it all now in context with the perspective of hindsight.

Something changed the night.

Where, oh where was my journal?

It was into the third week, almost the fourth, before it arrived. It was bigger than my computer. Literally.

I couldn’t wait to get it to my desk. I plunked it down, and it made a satisfying ‘thunk’. I opened the stiff, thick cover. The first page was covered gold leaf and had one word in huge, bold old English letters.

‘Beware.’

I began writing, and it was like I couldn’t stop. I was a fountain of words, copying down dictation from memories that had come to me when I was naked, wet, and soap-slicked. The ink scratched across the pages, and I got wet in my core thinking of men dominating men, strange shadows battling for sexual spoils, virgins hoping to be captured, glimpses of skin, whispers of moans, a princess running away with a loved one, and strange dreams of blood and need.

“There!” I slammed the book closed and I let out a huge exhale and a long, satisfied sigh. It was three a.m., and I’d spent hours releasing a dark side I didn’t know I had. I spun the lock on the combination part of The Grimoire and turned the key in the lock. I rummaged through my gift-wrap drawer and found a red velvet ribbon to put the key on and tied it into a necklace to wear around my neck.

I felt more tired and complete than I had in a long time. I slid in between the cool, fresh sheets on my bed and curled up on my side. I tucked the tiny key between my breasts.

“You’ll have pleasant dreams from now on. No more of this nonsense,” I whispered to myself.

I slept well, woke up refreshed, and felt like life was good. I talked to myself as I watered the plants in my big backyard facing the forest. I cursed as the refrigerator handle came loose. I hummed sappy tunes from Fats Waller to Over the Rainbow, grateful for sunlight filtering in through the windows and the feeling that all was right with the world.

Although I still wondered, somewhere in the back of my mind, about that flash of shadow.

I had my students do multiple exercises of creative writing. Despite their grumbling, I gave them more homework than I usually do. I was looking forward to correcting their work. I wanted to keep busy.

While there were no more strange, inexplicable motions glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help the occasional feeling I was being watched.

The house seemed more magical, more mysterious, as I wrote more and more in The Grimoire. The shower fantasies stopped, so my entries in The Grim turned more into a journal. Entry upon entry described a good life of a solitary woman with doubts. ‘Maybe I should have gotten a PhD and taught in a city instead of living by myself so far out from civilization.’ And ‘What made me think lots of land in the middle of nowhere in a farmhouse that seemed so quaint with its copper pipes, distressed wood, and peeling paint was a good idea?’

It was almost the end of the school year. Soon this bunch of cyber miscreants would be gone, and I would be free for the summer before being lassoed back in to guide and advise another batch.

My students chomped at the bit to be free, anticipating sweet days of lounging on beaches. So too I felt a restlessness, the constant edge of feeling that something new, fast and bright sped toward me; it might be right around the corner. It was like a silent, large clock counting down… but counting down to what?

Just like anything else, it’s when you don’t think about something that it creeps up on you.

Sunday was a scorcher, but I decided that was the day I absolutely had to weed, mow, and re-plant.

So when I got in the shower it was with a sweaty face, dirt under my fingernails, and an aching back. I turned on all six shower heads, let the water cascade over me, and closed my eyes as I swept the hair back off my face and neck.

Oh God, the water felt so good.

I kept my eyes closed when I leaned the back of my head against the tile. I still had my eyes closed when I bent forward letting the warm water do its magic on my shoulders and lower back. I was making soft ‘aaahhh,’ sounds to myself when the hair on the back of my neck raised and the skin there prickled to gooseflesh.

I snapped open my eyes and jerked upright.

Something stared at me from the other side of the glass.

Something big, black, and completely foreign. And not black as in African or African American. Black, as in the absence of color, black.

I wiped water frantically from the inside of the glass. Its whole body seemed thin, elongated. The forehead was distorted somehow.

Desperately I batted water out of the way away as new beads formed and clung. The droplets obscured my view, as if reacting to my trapped, panicked response. The thing was still during these long seconds as I was all thundering heartbeats and frantic hands. Then I realized I could slide the door out of the way and with a violent push I shoved the glass door open.

The creature ran away in flash of speed but left me with one thought.

Was that a tail?

I closed the shower door, as if that thin layer of glass offered some flimsy protection from what I’d seen, or my shattered emotions. I bent over, my hands on my knees, while the room spun, and I decided, very firmly, that I would not hyperventilate.

Certainly not a tail.

What was that Sherlock said about impossible and improbable?

That creature was carrying something, right? Must have been something… maybe, a rope? It was just a shadow. Not a tail, surely not.

Flashes of high school came back to me. On the blackboard in clear letters I saw the words ‘Occam’s Razor’.

Then flashes of college and grad school lectures wheeled by, as if my mind was flipping through its inner catalog on super speed and pulling up all possibly relevant facts, theories, bits of knowledge, and throwing them up at me in a super stew of words and pictures. Parallel universes, unknown newly-discovered species, homo sapiens divergent DNA theories, and then literature, specifically, Dante’s inferno.

The water abruptly turned cold. It was like the icy spray reflected my inner chill. I turned the water off. I stood for a second longer as I pictured my lips turning blue, which is what would happen if I stayed in there forever.

Even though I was clean, I felt clammy. Suddenly, it was very important to be quiet. I held my breath, pursed my lips. Bit back my fear. Absolutely silently, I very, very slowly stepped out.

I flashed back to Comparative Religions 101. And psychology. Abnormal psych. Schizophrenia, mental hallucinations, breaks in reality.

My teeth chattered as I scrubbed the rough towel over my body. I didn’t want to run it over my hair or face for fear of covering my eyes and missing something.

“Get a grip,” I whispered to myself as I quickly finished drying off.

I thought of many past classes, including Drawing 101. Except what would I draw, a blur?

I didn’t even put on a robe. I went right to The Grim. I had to write this down.

It didn’t sound probable, or logical, or realistic when I wrote it.

It sounded insane.

I closed The Grim and spun the lock. Turned the key. Hung my head.

Denial is not a river in Egypt.

I know what I saw.

That night I was raw, restless, wanting. I tossed and turned, getting tangled up in the sheets. My hands ran south and north, trying to soothe imaginary aches.

On Monday I gave the children the day off from cyber school. I wanted, needed, to ponder my mystery person, creature, whatever-it-was. I spent the day pacing, thinking, wondering.

If I were going to be honest with myself, I had felt a sort of weird difference, an almost presence, a change of energy in and around the house for two months, so it probably lived here, at least part-time.

That thing was living in my house. My mind rebelled, as if it crashed against a brick wall at super speed and both crumpled and had some kickback. What? That thing was living in my house?

I didn’t know whether to be horrified or elated.

It was very late at night when I came to the conclusion the most likely place for an unofficial visitor to invite himself to, sight unseen, was the attic. I put on a robe and went in the hall to stare at the pull-down attic access. It was trap-door-like slab in the ceiling with a small brass hook hanging down from it.

It wasn’t even an attic really; it was more of a crawl space. It was very hard to get to because it was above the highest area in the farmhouse; it was a major inconvenience to get up to the hook. I went up into the attic once when I was inspecting every nook and cranny of the house before buying the place, and once when I shoved a few old things I’d never need up there the week after I moved in. I hadn’t been up there since.

I stood in my bare feet on the concrete floor I had never gotten around to finishing and looked up at the ceiling. I’d have to drag out my little ladder and then I still probably couldn’t reach it. I chewed the inside of my cheek. Was this a good idea?

It took a few minutes to find where I had stored my ladder. It was shorter and flimsier than I remembered, more of a step-stool really. I dragged it under the faint line in the ceiling that outlined the door. Who thought it would be a good idea to put a small, ornate brass-colored pull-down hook on those trap doors? The entire construction was a stupid idea. Even from below I could see the door was stuck. I jumped up a couple of frustrating times just barely touching the bottom of the hook. Precarious but determined, I jumped higher. It took another two tries before I got a good enough grip on the old hook to give it a good, hard yank. Then door hung on, stubbornly motionless for a second, creaking.

Boom.

The top half of the rickety wooden stairs unfolded. I had to duck or they would have landed on me. Dust rained down. I sneezed and coughed.

There was also another reason I didn’t go up there. It was hard to open the second half of the ladder and even harder, almost impossible, to put it back up.

But with some wrestling, swearing, and bargaining, I unfolded that old ladder and gingerly climbed up. The climb was higher than I remembered. I flicked the light switch at the top. No light. Fine, at least for the first few feet there would be some ambient light from the hall. I peeked my head up. No floors. Oh, right. The crawl space was evenly spaced wood beams with chewed up fluffy pink insulation in between. The attic was about four feet tall so I had to crawl.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I started out slowly. It took effort, and like a kid in elementary school, for a second I was sticking my tongue up and out with the intense concentration. It was hard going, carefully placing each hand, knee, and curled-under toes on the beams.

I was about halfway to the water heater when I stopped, a vision of what I must look like springing to my mind. I was bent forward like a wary cat, just wearing my old, gray cotton robe. It was belted tightly at my waist but gaping open revealing a wide swath of my breasts with the key swinging in between them. The bottom edges of the robe had parted and were riding up, giving a clear glimpse all the way up to my thigh. My expression must have been tentative and unsure. I sure felt unsure. I was headed toward an even darker area.

If this were a movie the increasingly eerie music would be cresting to a crescendo in the background, and I’d be sitting at the edge of my seat, torn between biting my nails and wanting to throw popcorn at the movie screen.

Then I thought I saw something in the very corner of the attic. Two bright green slits! Yikes.

I turned around and ran, in a half crouch, as fast as I could, jumping from beam to beam. Then a few things happened, so quickly it was almost as if they were happening at once. First, I realized what I saw was part of the pattern in a Tiffany-like lamp I’d stashed long ago behind an old heater, reflecting off the key.

I turned around to look at it and my foot and robe caught. I fell through the empty hole where the fold-up stairs had been. Time slowed down in that ‘oh shit’ sort of way. My body plummeted down at a terrible neck and head first angle. I realized there was no way to twist around; I was heading for the concrete at literally break-neck speed, and there was nothing I could do.

It was the kind of fall that could kill me.

I closed my eyes and prepared for impact.

Thwhosh.

What?

I was about a foot off the ground, held securely in the creature’s embrace.

I stared into bright yellow, red, and orange-striped eyes. The creature was crouched low, and I was cradled against its chest, wrapped safely in its arms. It had saved my life.

I put my hand on my heart to keep it from beating out of my chest.

I saw a dreamlike sparkling blue line connecting me to the creature. Its eyes dilated, and I heard a voice in my head that wasn’t my own; it was strange and deep.

‘I need more. There has got to be more.’

I opened my mouth to scream, and it quickly covered my mouth with one hand. My intake of breath was captured in its palm.

Before I could even make sense of the weird, snake-like texture, it stood me up, and turned me. The move was so fast, I spun, almost catching a whisper of fingers tracing the edge of cotton. There was a whoosh, and the ladder was folded up and closed. Another whoosh, and it was gone.

I’d never been so scared in all my life.

Or so turned on.

*