Sleep was fading; the sound of the alarm clock was getting louder as he drifted away from the dark of sleep and towards consciousness. Too bad, the dream he was having was pretty damn good. A slender hand shot out from under the warm pillow and smacked down on the snooze button. The sun was starting to poke through the blinds of his New York City one bedroom apartment. The smell of freshly baked bread was floating in through the open bedroom window and the sounds of the city roused him as if the Timex on the bedside table was just an annoying fly, buzzing around your ear on a hot august day at Yankee stadium; a buffer for the real alarm clock.
He groaned and rolled onto his back; fingers drew up to his eyes and wiped the sleep from their corners. The sun forced him to keep his eyes shut tight so they could adjust once he opened them fully. He propped himself up on his elbows. A squinting glance at the right half of the queen sized bed. His late night bar tryst had left, He sighed with relief because frankly he didn’t even know if he could remember her name. The idea of swimming through the drunken thoughts and actions from the night before would be too much for his hangover.
Left hand stifled a yawn and the young man swung his legs over the bed and stood up. He swayed on his feet before heading into the bathroom. Once his cold shower was done he made his way out into the bedroom again and pulled on the same pair of jeans and tee shirt he had worn the night before.
“Loki, Up an’ at ‘em” He said to the Jack Russell Terrier that slept in the corner on his dog bed. “It’s my Birthday.”
The dog perked his ears and turned his head away still snoring lightly. He frowned and headed down the two stairs into the living room and then into the small kitchenette. He pulled open the fridge and reached inside for the coffee tin. A slight shake and he found that it was empty. He groaned and turned to the sink. Left foot stepped down into a warm sticky mess at his feet.
The small puddle of sick was bright orange and it was now all over the bottom of his sneaker; A gift from the dog-god of mischief. He shook his head; the dog was smart, pretending to be asleep to avoid the scolding. frowning as he bent down to wipe a few folded pieces of paper towel over the puddle and drop it in the trash bin under the sink. “At least it wasn’t as bad as last year’s birthday surprise.” The year before when the dog was only five months old, he had come home to the puppy chewing up his wallet and digesting all of its contents.
The red light on the answering machine was blinking and he sighed. The only people who still called his house and not his cell phone were his grandmother and work. He leaned over the counter and pressed the play button and his mom’s voice spoke up.
“Hey. Jackie! It’s grandma. Happy Birthday, 28 years old today! How old you’re getting. Hope you’re staying safe at work, how is Allie? Is she feeling any better? Call me later! I love you.” He pressed the delete button and turned off the answering machine.
Jack shook his head as he spoke to himself. “Thanks gram…” He frowned and turned towards the door. The heavy metal apartment door was unbolted already. “Loki! Come!” The Dog was at his feet in less than a few seconds and the door was open and shut behind them.
“Let’s go to work!” He smirked down at the dog who just cocked his head up at him. “C’mon bud.” He patted his leg as he headed down the hall to the stairs. Loki followed obediently behind. The stairs were taken in twos and once outside he yawned and turned east towards the firehouse. He reached the corner deli and stepped inside.
“Hey Suresh, Gonna grab some coffee and head out I’ll see ya’ on the way back from the firehouse.” He poured himself a cup of black coffee and rummaged behind the counter for a travel pack of Advil or something, as the little Indian man came out of the back room carrying a stack of newspapers for the racks at the front of the store.
“Hello Mr. Jack! Happy birthday to you my friend,” He said. “Long night I see.”
“Yeah Pal, the life of a firefighter.” Jack grinned. “We get to eat smoke, save a life, and get laid all in one day.”
“If I was your age I think I’d have to join your profession.”
Jack just laughed at the old man and turned to the door. “I’ll stop back in on the way home.” He started out. “Loki, come!”
Back outside they turned right around the corner following 10th avenue towards 38th street where Ladder 21 resided in Hell’s Kitchen. Most of the people who lived in this neighborhood knew Jack and Loki already; the dog had become a mascot for the firehouse. Jack had only been with the FDNY a year now and was just coming off of his probationary status today, and he’d be moving from the engine to the ladder. He’d finally lose his probationary helmet and the probationary hazing might end. He was all for the idea of no more coffee grinds at the bottom of his mug in the morning.
Once he reached the house he turned towards the open arches and crossed the threshold into the gray, dimly lit garage and he walked towards the rack that hung his bunker coat. He and the dog stopped by the rack and looked around. The night shift was just getting off. They exchanged their greetings but that was all. The night shift and day shift rarely saw each other these days unless someone was to actually pull a double shift. But the union was cutting back on that recently.
Jack sat and pulled on his bunker pants and boots. His older brother Michael had taught him to always be half prepared that it might actually save one extra life one day. Jack glanced up at the wall above the row of lockers and found the particular picture he was looking for. His brother was smirking back at him from the picture with an air of ‘yeah I’m a bad ass.’
“See Ya Soon Mick.”
Luke and Sarah Spiers
“Luke Get your ass out of Bed! You’re gonna be late for work!”
Her voice caused him to sit up with a jolt. “Shit! what Time Is it!?” He threw the covers back quickly and almost jumped out of the king size bed he shared with Sarah. “You shut the alarm again!?”
“No Luke. You shut the alarm again, twenty minutes ago after you hit snooze for the fourth time. You said you were up so I went and took a shower. But you fell asleep again.” Her voice was calm but stern. It had always been that way in all the 14 years they had known each other.
“And don’t forget to call Jack for his birthday.” She said.
“The guy works in my house I won’t have to call him. Besides we’ll see him at the reunion tonight. Someone’s gotta hold him back when he tries to strangle Allie and Joe DeAngelo.”
Sarah frowned. “Don’t promote violence in front of the baby.”
Luke yawned and stretched. He reached down and pulled his jeans on and then moved to the dresser beside the closet and pulled an old tee shirt over his head.
“Did work call yet?” He asked.
Sarah came into the room. She was still as beautiful as she’d been at senior prom 10 years ago. She was holding the baby in her right arm and a coffee mug in her left hand. She held it out for him. And she smiled. “We’re gonna kill it tonight!”
He glanced sideways into the mirror. In high school he was never the best looking guy; short and fat, not athletic or cool. He was captain of the debate team though. Safe to say there were better looking guys. Also safe to say that his looks or his athleticism wasn’t the reason he got a date with the prettiest girl in school. After ten years though he’d vowed to fix himself up and give Sarah a man she deserved. So he lost that weight and even grew a few more inches putting him at an average 5’10” through hard work and when you work for the FDNY you’re obligated to get in shape even before you join the academy.
He stretched his arms over his head and grinned as he walked the ten feet it took to cross the room. He reached out and took the mug before he planted his lips against the baby’s forehead.
“Happy Birthday, Mickey!” he said. The baby smiled up at him and shut his eyes sleepily.
“Got the babysitter informed? She’s good to come on short notice like this?”
“I called her last night. She’s got studying to do so she can stay as long as we need her.”
She kissed his cheek and cowered away, giggling, when he tried to plant one on her lips. “Not until you brush your teeth. If I wanted to be kissing a cat’s ass I’d have gotten a cat.”
She hiked her hip a bit and the baby laughed.
“God Mick you’re getting awful heavy. No more sneaking any chunky monkey with daddy during Ranger games.”
“You know. When he’s old enough he’ll be able to argue the importance of junk food during hockey games.”
Luke gave her a smirk that she’d fallen in love with on their first date, and he turned towards the bathroom. A strong callused hand gripped the knob and turned it. Swinging the door open, he slipped inside to brush his teeth.
Sarah turned around and headed out of the room and back into the hall. The living room was straight and an empty door frame was just off the end of the hall leading into the kitchen. “What say we get you some breakfast; huh little bear?”
She puckered her lips and gave the toddler a blow on his cheek which caused him to laugh wildly as they made their way down the hall and into the kitchen through the doorway. She placed the baby in his Spongebob highchair; the one that made it look like the child was sitting in the cartoon sponge’s lap. It made Sarah crack up at the store so she bought it. She went across the room to get his sippy cup of milk from the counter. “Three years is old enough for a cigarette with breakfast right?”
She laughed to herself and opened the top cabinet above the refrigerator and pulled out the box of honey nut cheerios. She also grabbed a small cereal bowl and poured a handful or two into it and headed back to Spongebob.
“Here ya’ go big man.” She placed both the sippy cup and the cereal bowl down on the tray and moved to the cabinet and put away the box of cereal, then sat down at the kitchen table to finish her own breakfast, this consisted of a glass of V8 and a grapefruit sliced in halves. She picked up her spoon and dug into the next full compartment.
Luke was bent over the sink in the bathroom, eyes closed, rinsing his mouth of toothpaste. It was all SSDD (same shit different day) He stood up straight and when he opened his eyes he almost screamed. He bit down on his lip hard and had to bring a hand up to his mouth to cover it; stifling the scream from escaping his lips.
In the mirror he was not only looking at his own averagely handsome almost thirty face looking back at him he was looking at two other shadows reflecting on the mirror. Their features weren’t visible blacked out as if they were covered with a black sheet. This wasn’t the first time that he’d seen shadow people. But, this was the first time that he’d seen them in his own house, standing right on the other side of the mirror. When he turned around he realized that it had gotten darker in the one window bathroom. The sun should be shining in and spilling over the surfaces but it was dark, very dark, as if someone had also thrown that same black sheet over the window. But there was nothing behind him and he sighed, his hand dropped from his mouth to rest on his chest feeling his rapid breathing. It felt as if his heart was going to beat right up his throat and out his mouth, then fall into his hand.
As he turned back to the mirror he felt a cold chill rise up from his knees and up his spine and settling around his heart. “Stop it.” He looked in the mirror. One of the shadow people had taken a step closer when he turned around. “This is my home…” And they seemed to evaporate like smoke from a cigarette. Thinning and whisking away in the warm April months.
Sarah sat quietly, reading an article in Cosmo while she ate her breakfast, something about how to look 23 when you’re pushing 30. She also felt that cold chill rush through her body at the same time that Luke was in the bathroom on the other side of the house. She looked around the kitchen. All sound and light seemed to disappear from the room. It felt as if she were lying in her own coffin; that quiet claustrophobic feeling that you got when you were scared of something. And as soon as it had come it was gone.
She snapped back into herself and she was standing by the sink with her eyes shut tight. The baby was crying. Shrill wails came from his high chair and she’d almost forgotten what had just happened. She flew across the kitchen and scooped him up out of the high chair and held him close making shooing noises in his ear. Trying not to be scared of what was happening she closed her eyes and began to sing.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad… Take a sad song…”
The clock was ticking away above the stove and the drip in the sink from the leaky faucet was plodding into a wine glass. But when she opened them again she lost her voice. All sound escaped her vocal cords in the middle of the first verse of Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude. Every cabinet door and drawer was flung open as if a huge tornado had just swept through the kitchen and blown everything with a hinge on it open.
She shut her eyes tight and began to cry. It was happening again.
Jack shut his eyes and bent over resting his elbows on his knees. He tried to shake the hangover from his head but it only made it worse. He felt nausea coming on strong so he sat up straight and opened his eyes. He breathed deeply and looked down at his dog.
“Go on, Go find some food.”
The dog listened obediently and trotted off towards the kitchen where Wilf would probably give him some breakfast scarps. Jack sighed and lurched forward fighting the urge to urk back down. A hand came quickly up to cover his mouth and he turned and ran towards the bathroom. Once there he burst in fumbling one handed with the door knob and almost falling into the interior wall once the door was swung inward. But he caught his balance and steadied himself as he reached the nearest stall and slid in on his knees in one gracefully sick motion.
The sick filled his throat and out of his mouth, once. He sat up and it came again so he waited, with his head in the porcelain and his hands gripping the edge of the bowl. “Ugh!” He sat up and wiped the back of his hand across his lips then reached to his right and unrolled some toilet paper. It had just dawned on him, that at that time there could have been someone in the bathroom as well, and he was surely going to be reprimanded for his display of past night discretions. He bent low past the rim of the bowl and looked left, then right and sighed with relief. No one was in there and he was in the clear.
Just to be safe he sat there on his knees as if meditating for a while longer. He steadied his breathing and shut his eyes. He could hear his heart beating in his chest, as if all time had slowed down and even the sound of the air conditioner was amplified. And he lost himself in the slow hum of the unit. Still eyes shut he leaned forward and flushed the toilet. Standing up as he did. But, he didn’t hear the water so he pressed the handle down a second time as he opened his eyes. The water was flushing and the swirl of dark brown vomit was disappearing down the drain but there was no sound.
“Huh…” He didn’t hear his own voice. He looked around as the light started to dim and he was left in darkness. A cold chill ran up his spine and enveloped his heart. “Who’s there?” His voice gone, turned off and he left the stall to stand in the open. Probably a mistake, because if he had remained in the stall, he wouldn’t be standing in the open, unprotected from what he thought was happening. Again.
The bathroom had darkened to the point where he couldn’t see anything. He blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes trying to shake the darkness from them. But all he managed doing was proving that this was real. He moved to the wall and flipped the switch. Nothing happened so he flipped it again and again. Still nothing, a frown crossed his face and he moved over to the sink and reached up to the light bulb in the low ceiling and turned it so that it was almost out of its socket. Then he turned it back so it was snug again. The light didn’t come on, there was barely enough light from the small basement style window behind him to illuminate his face against the mirror.
In the mirror he saw himself, the shadows from the light made him look older than only 27; He looked too old against the black, casting a creepy image across the mirror. He squinted as he leaned closer to the surface. His left hand reached out, before he even knew what he was doing or to stop himself his fingertips touched the glass and it rippled and moved around his fingers, like ice cold water. He felt like Ice was coursing through his veins from his hand up his arm and spreading through him. Encasing his lungs to the point where it was hard to breathe.
When he tried to pull his hand away it wouldn’t move; He was frozen to the glass and he fought against it trying to pull it away. Free hand gripped the wrist of the hand that was glued to the glass and yanked as hard as he could. He fell backwards and lost his balance. If his lungs had been holding any air he would have screamed when the pain ripped through his fingertips. Upon hitting the floor on his back the air escaped his lungs in a forced exit that caused him to make an oof sound. He gasped and sucked air into his mouth swallowing it down as if he had just surfaced from a deep pool that he had been stuck in.
“Shit…” He hissed as he brought his hand up to examine it. But it was too dark to see anything. But it was obvious that the skin had been removed violently from the tips of his first three fingers. And he shut his eyes tight as he stood up to look back in the mirror.
“You’re gone. This isn’t happening.” He said trying his best to not sound weak. His voice wavered though.
A thousand voices spoke at once, and yet it was only one voice. Resonating inside his head like the roar of waves upon jagged rocks in the winter. They crashed around inside his head, screaming and wailing.
“We can’t be beaten. We are ever watching. You all will sink.”
The force of the voices was so loud that it forced him to cover his ears with his palms and fall to his knees. He let out a low cry of realization at the sound and squeezed his hands to his ears. Shutting his eyes tight and rocking back and forth until the vibration from the mirror stopped and he heard the air conditioner again. He also felt his heart beating in his throat, going a mile a minute and his breathing was heavy. Once his eyes were opened he looked down at his hand.
Yep the tips of his fingers were skinned as if he had stuck his wet hand to a block of ice and then ripped them free. “Ah fuck.” He stood up and looked around, the lights were on again and everything seemed normal. He bent over the sink and turned on the water. Sticking his fingers under the stream and almost jumping backwards he shook his head, a nervous chuckle escaped him. “That’s what happens when you turn the water on cold Jackass.”
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