The man burst from sleep with a barbarous shriek, terror clinging to his mind, refusing to release its grasp. His hands shot up, and he clutched the sides of his head. The pain. Like fire in his brain. Make it stop! With eyes bulging, he tried to understand. He’d never experienced a nightmare so intense. Or one that wouldn’t end.
Squeezing his eyes tight, he tried to quash it all into nothingness, but his mind no longer seemed to be his own. Visions. Bare. Raw. Unfiltered . . . truth revealed it all.
Still tangled in his sheets, he twisted to attempt escape and landed on the floor with a thud. Fool. How could he flee?
As the nightmare persisted, relentless, familiar . . . so disturbingly familiar, his loud moans strangled through uncontrollable sobbing. Kicking the sheets off his legs, he scrambled from all fours to his bare feet and stumbled across the room into the bathroom.
Pressing hands onto the cold sink, his body weight leaning onto trembling arms, he panted the foul breath of sleep and gawked at his reflection. Who was this ragged man staring back? Anguish had aged him from his thirties to an unrecognizable degree. His long pale face sagged under dark, greasy hair, straggly and hanging over his eyes. His mouth drooped at the corners and fear pierced his glare. What had just happened?
Leaving the bathroom, he grabbed dress pants from a side chair where he’d flung them the night before and dragged them on, the weight of his agony knocking him off balance. Still stumbling, he shoved his arms into the sleeves of his yellow dress shirt and fumbled with the buttons. He had to get out of there.
Terror and pain had him clutching his head again as he struggled to the door. With eyes squeezed shut, he slammed his palms to the cold wood then groped for the door handle.
He wasn’t blind. He could see all, so clearly, nothing lost in blackness, but rather flashing, frightening, unforgiving sight.
Resolved in his decision, he lunged out of his apartment. He had to end this. Every second brought excruciating pain. He could think of only one way to find relief . . . however undeserving, as it seemed more of a reward. But would it be? Which existence would be more painful to endure? Witnessing it from this end, it hardly seemed possible that the pain could be worse.
I remember it well, that first day of spring. The day began like any other, as I readied myself in the bathroom. My five-year-old son, Timothy, stood at my side and mimicked my every move.
My heart warmed. I wiped a smear of wax onto his soft little palm, and in unison we rubbed our hands together and finger-combed it into our hair. At least that’s what I did, attempting to control my dark, wavy, Italian quiff. My son, in contrast, smeared both palms over his brown curls—inherited from my wife—creating more of an unruly mop. I grinned down at his reflection.
“Ready?” I washed my hands under a warm gush of water and gave my reflection a final once-over before leaving the bathroom.
In the bedroom, I grabbed my phone from the bedside table. Hmph. Had it shut off?
“Timmy, you messin’ with Daddy’s phone again?”
He skipped awkwardly after me. “Not me, Daddy.”
“You sure?” I pressed the power button to bring it back to life, then slid it into my pants pocket. “What would Nonna say?”
Nonna. My dear mother, who had passed away nearly six months ago, had lived with us. She and I had always lived together, our roles switching as the years progressed. Oh, how I missed her, vowing never to relinquish my role as mama’s boy.
My son squinted his brown eyes to the ceiling, pulling each syllable from memory. “Con . . . troll . . .a . . . ry . . . la . . . vos . . . ta . . . con . . . ci . . . en . . . za.”
I tried not to laugh. “Controllare la vostra coscienza,” I corrected him.
My mother had insisted on teaching her nipote our native Italian, just as she’d taught my siblings and me. It kept her close to her heritage after leaving home at a young age. After her death, I continued the lessons to keep her close to me. “And do you remember what that means?”
“Check your conscience.” My boy shadowed me down the stairs to the kitchen, one giant step at a time.
In the kitchen, he clambered onto his stool at the bar.
“Check your conscience, that’s right. So, go on then. What about my phone?”
“Sorry, Daddy. I just tried to answer it for you.” He pulled his waiting bowl of dry cereal closer and grabbed his spoon. “Was ringing over and over while you were in the shower.”
“Okay, well, you’re still not supposed to touch my phone. And lying about it is wrong too. Just remember that God’s your witness. You know right from wrong. Your conscience is your guide.” I patted his ruffled head, feeling the stickiness of the gel.
My wife, Maria, smiled as she poured milk into Timothy’s bowl, our morning routines syncing. After seven years of marriage, our movements around each other in the kitchen had become a dance, each of us following our steps to perfection. Her brown curly hair pulled up in her usual relaxed updo that dropped random curls around her pretty face, she returned the milk jug to the fridge.
I kissed her cheek and she turned, allowing me to press two more kisses to her soft lips. Her blue eyes glistened with sadness.
“Why so sad, Mia?” I knew. At least I suspected. It had become a topic of whispered conversation for weeks now.
She tossed a quick look at Timothy. In a hushed tone she said, “I can’t stop thinking about Sadie.” Turning from me, she poured coffee into my waiting travel cup with an unsteady hand. “Natalie called again yesterday, and it’s been on my mind all night. I don’t think I slept a minute.”
I moved in closer to catch her soft words. “Nothing’s changed?”
Shaking her head, she handed me my coffee. “They took her to another therapist, hoping maybe this one will help. It’s just awful.” Her lips turned down at the corners in a way that tore at my heart, and she pressed fingers to her forehead as if pushing against a headache. “One second she’s a happy, playful little five-year-old, the next, she’s quiet, reserved, depressed . . . “ Her words faded into a heavy sigh.
“How long since they took her out of daycare?”
“Three weeks now.”
“And she still hasn’t spoken?”
Another shake of the head. “Nope.”
I squeezed her shoulder.
Although not completely sure what had happened to Sadie, we understood it to be an awful situation. Typical signs presented themselves. Horrifically obvious and in a way that made my chest tighten. Sadie, born a month before Timothy, had become a sad statistic.
Looking at my son, now absently shoveling a heaping spoonful of cereal into his mouth, anger gushed in me. Milk spilled from his full mouth as he tried to squeeze out a smile, oblivious to the tension that filled the space, or the truth that caused it. As it should be. No child should know such evil. If only.
I set my coffee mug on the bar so that I could push Timothy’s cereal bowl closer to him, poised to catch spills.
Until this incident, Sadie’s bright smile was a permanent fixture on her delicate features. She was always happy, always laughing. Her little blond curls bobbed and her eyes danced as evidence. She was a joy to be around. Now so deflated in her demeanor, she’d become a fearful child, extremely clingy. Panic replaced the light in her eyes. The therapists had verified it. She’d been the target of an evil deed. I could hardly imagine the words, let alone voice them.
Without prompting, my mind attempted to visualize. I closed my eyes tight, blocking out any scene the devil sought to conjure in my thoughts. No one knew who or where, but Sadie had been pulled from kindergarten. Her mother, Natalie, had quit her job so she could keep her baby home. Close. Safe. She started working from home to maintain the demands of a single parent lifestyle. But she could do nothing about what had already breached the child’s mind or violated her being.
Maria leaned past me, wiping a sponge over spilled milk around Timothy’s bowl. “I’m going to Adoration again today.”
I nodded. “Good idea.”
My wife’s devotion to the Lord had made it easy to bring her home to meet my parents all those years ago. We were still young, but they adored her, as did I. Her faith bound us together, strengthening our union.
“Did you make it to Confession yet?”
I cringed. It had been a while, and I’d been putting it off, distracted with work. A bad habit that would only lead to a lukewarm faith, if I didn’t watch myself.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. “I’ll try today.” I reached for it and glanced at the screen. Seventeen missed calls, along with an untold number of text messages, mostly from my boss.
-Get in asap
-Crisis. Do you live under a rock?
-Check the news
“Everything okay?” Maria asked from the sink, her back toward me.
“Hmmmm,” was all I offered, one ear working to register her words, while my eyes breezed through my messages. “I’m sorry, Mia. I have to go.”
END OF CHAPTER 2
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