Penance

📅 Published on July 26, 2021

“Penance”

Written by Ryan Harville
Edited by N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by Drew Blood

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on CreepypastaStories.com are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 27 minutes

Rating: 2.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Evan pulled into a spot in front of the diner and parked. He sat motionless for a moment, his hands hanging loosely on the steering wheel as he stared through the windshield and into the harsh yellow light of the diner beyond. He exhaled a shaky breath and got out of the car. He hadn’t been back to his hometown in many years, and the dark of night made everything that should’ve been familiar seem absolutely unreal. It was nebulous nostalgia, like trying to wrap your fingers around the fragment of a dream.

A bell rang overhead as he entered the diner. He was immediately hit by the comforting sounds and smells of cooking. The hiss of sausage and eggs on the griddle, the sharp tang of onion and peppers. It all reminded him of home, of Sunday breakfast at his granny’s house, of family. Buoyed by those thoughts, he walked up to the counter.

“Hey, there,” the waitress said. She had that unidentifiable quality that only small-town waitresses have, the ability to look somewhere between thirty and fifty, with any number in between being equally plausible. “Have a seat wherever you like, and I’ll be with you in a sec. You want something to drink?”

“Coffee, please. Thanks,” Evan said. He walked over and laid claim to the booth farthest away from any other person. He sat but couldn’t keep still, his knee bobbing up and down as if acting according to its own volition. It was a nervous habit it seemed he’d never grow out of.

A few minutes passed and the bell above the door rang again.

Layla walked in and Evan’s heart rate went into overdrive. Even after all the time that had passed, he recognized her immediately. Her hair was darker, the skin of her face lined and more angular over her cheekbones. It was the face of maturity and beauty, but it still cast the shadow of the young woman he’d loved so long ago.

She spotted him and raised her hand in a small wave as she walked closer, the edges of her scarf swishing just beneath the hem of her coat. Evan stood to greet her.

They eyed each other silently for a heartbeat before Layla raised her arms, offering a hug. Evan complied, awkwardly wrapping his arms around her for an all to moment before stepping away.

“Would you like to seat?” he said, then shook his head. “I mean uh, to sit?”

“Sure,” she said and sat, smiling and placing her purse beside her on the seat.

Evan followed suit. “Did you have any trouble finding the place? I know it’s been a while.”

“No, no, it was fine. That’s why people love small towns, right? Nothing ever changes.”

“Tell that to all of these gray hairs that have magically appeared out of nowhere.”

“You’re kidding, right? You look great! The salt and pepper beard suits you.”

“Last time I saw you I couldn’t even grow a beard!”

They laughed together. A laugh that quickly dissolved into an uneasy silence. Evan nearly sighed in relief as the waitress approached with his coffee. She sat the mug down in front of him and turned to Layla.

“Hey there, you want something to drink?”

“No, thank you.”

“Alright,” she turned to Evan. “What about you? Ready to order?”

“Just the coffee for now, thanks.”

The waitress gave a shrug and walked away.

“So,” Layla said. “How are things with you? Before I tracked down your email, I tried to find you on social media, but obviously no luck there.”

“Yeah. I um, don’t really do any of that. I’ve pretty much kept to myself.”

“You never married, or…?”

He sipped his coffee. “Nope. Not that I’ve been alone this whole time or anything, I just never happened to find that someone I wanted to spend a lifetime with. I thought I did, once, but just couldn’t bring myself to pop the question. What about you? Did you marry?”

“Yeah. His name’s Lloyd. We were married for ten years, separated for two, then the divorce was finalized a couple of years back.”

“Oh. Shit. I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be. I’m not. He’s not a bad person or anything. We just took each other for granted, gradually drifted apart, and before I knew it was even happening, we were pretty much glorified roommates. We’re still good friends. Talk on the phone, see each other on holidays when Jeremy is in town.”

“Who?”

“Oh, sorry,” she said, a confused expression on her face, like she just realized she had been talking. “Jeremy is my son. He’s in college out of state, so we don’t get to see him as often as we’d like, you know?”

“I can imagine. Where does he go to school?”

“Texas Tech.”

“Yeah, that’s a pretty good drive.”

“Yeah.”

The silence returned, constructing itself between them like a barricade.

Evan cleared his throat. “Look, I… I’m just going to lay it out there, and I’m sorry if it sounds rude, but what are we doing here? Not that it’s not great to see you, because it is, really, but this is all sort of…”

“Strange and awkward?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“I’m sorry about that,” she said and looked down at her hands. “I’m going to be honest, I never expected to see you again. After what happened–”

“Don’t,” he said, as a tightening coil of anxiety circled his guts.

“I have to, Evan. I’m sorry but I have to. We have to talk about it.”

Evan’s jaw stiffened and he spoke through clenched teeth. “I don’t have to do a damn thing. This is why you hit me up out of the blue, to rehash the worst part of my life twenty years after the fact?”

“No! Just because I have to doesn’t mean that I want to! I’m not trying to hurt you, Evan.”

Before Evan’s retort could leave his mouth, the waitress approached again, a pot of coffee in one hand.

“You want a refill?” she drawled.

Evan’s expression softened as his jaw muscles loosened. “Uh, no, thank you. I’m good for now.”

The waitress leaned over the table and began to pour coffee into his cup.

“You should have some more,” she said. “What with the long drive ahead of you and all.”

“What are you– Hey!”

Coffee flowed over the edge of the mug and began to form a widening puddle on the table. It was black as tar, its surface swirling with muted colors like the blacktop of a parking lot after a heavy rain.

“Ma’am!” Layla said. “Could you please–”

“We need you wide awake,” the waitress continued, staring at Evan. “Sorry it’s only coffee, I know you used to like something a bit stronger.” She lifted her finger to one nostril and sniffed dramatically.

Evan’s perception of the world changed, shifted somehow. The comforting scents that lingered when he first entered were gone, replaced by the thick, sweet smell of garbage left out in the heat. Layla wrinkled her nose in disgust, then stifled a gag with the back of her hand. The kitchen was silent.

Evan sat up quickly before the sour coffee could drip into his lap.

“Layla, come on,” he said. “Let’s–”

“You smell it, don’t you?” the waitress said, placing a cold hand on Evan’s cheek. “The perfume of decay. It’s always there, hiding just beneath everything fresh, biding its time. But it’s grown impatient.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s time for you to rot, Evan,” the waitress said. “Time to let your body match your soul.”

The woman dug her fingernails into his skin and Evan recoiled with a cry, hot lines of pain reaching from his ear to his chin. He grabbed her wrists to keep her hands at a bay, but she was strong, much stronger than her slender build suggested.

There came the crash of broken glass and the waitress slumped to the ground as Evan was showered with tepid coffee.

Layla stood behind her, the handle of the coffee pot in her hand, shards of glass still clinging to the bent metal band that had circled the top of the pot.

“Holy shit,” she said, dropping the remains of the pot to the tiled floor.

The waitress began to convulse, her hands bending downward at the wrist, her feet pointing like arrows. From the wound in the back of her head came a powdery substance like plaster dust, light enough to float in the air.

Evan stood rooted to the floor; his eyes fixed on the woman. Layla grabbed his hand and pulled.

“Come on,” she said. “We’ve got to get away from here before it gets worse.”

“It gets worse?!”

“I’ll tell you in the car, okay?” she said, snatching her purse up from the seat. “Just come with me.”

He allowed himself to be led down the aisle. Every table was empty, but there had been people there before. Hadn’t there?

She pushed the door open and the brisk wind on his face made him wince. They huddled against each other, one of her hands on the small of his back as she gently guided him across the parking lot towards her car.

“Stop,” he said, then yelled louder when she didn’t. “Stop!”

Finally, she stopped.

“Do you know what’s happening?” he said. “You said we had to leave before shit got worse, so you’ve seen this, or something like it.”

Layla nodded. “It’s…it’s why I needed to talk to you, why I tracked you down. I can tell you the whole story when we’re in the car and driving away from here, okay?”

Evan shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere without a goddamn explanation. You get me to meet you here–”

“I didn’t know it was–”

“And then I get attacked! I mean, Jesus Christ, Layla! You just killed a woman!”

“That wasn’t a woman,” Layla said flatly. “I’m not sure what it was, but it wasn’t a woman. Wasn’t human at all.”

Evan laughed. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Turn around,” Layla said. “Turn around and look.”

He did, his mouth opening slowly in shock.

The diner was empty and looked like it had been that way for ten years. The glass in the windows had been broken, no doubt by some bored local kids with rocks. Graffiti was scrawled along any available space on the walls, and the sign was dented and marked with blooms of rust. The door had been torn away at some point, leaving just an open rectangle that led to the darkness within.

Evan tried to speak but couldn’t find any words. Nothing made sense, so what was there to say?

Layla placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Evan. Sorry I brought you back here, sorry I brought you into this.”

He licked his dry lips. “And what is it that you’ve brought me into?”

“We did a bad thing, Evan. A terrible thing. And even twenty years later it hasn’t been forgotten. Someone or something wants us to answer for it.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts or any of that shit, Layla. My memories haunt me enough as it is.”

She stepped in front of him and pointed at the diner. “Do you believe that?! Because that’s the kind of shit I dealt with for two months, Evan. It didn’t stop until I found you, and I’ve actually been able to sleep these past few nights since I did. But now that we’re together, it’s here to stay until all of this is over.”

“All of what is over?! Yeah, you’ve said a lot but none of it made any sense! Just tell me straight.”

She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Okay. Two months ago, I started seeing things, things like the shit we just dealt with in there. I thought it was me, that I was going crazy. But I’m not crazy, Evan. We have to go back to where it happened, and we have to go tonight.”

Evan felt the blood drain from his face as he slowly shook his head.

“Yes, we have to. Because if we don’t go back, this thing is going to kill my son,” she said, then stopped, lowering her gaze. “Our son, Evan. Our son.”

“I can’t just leave like that! I have work tomorrow, I have to…wait, what did you say?”

“Jeremy is your son, Evan. I was pregnant when we split up.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s true. Look,” she said, and pulled her phone from her purse. She swiped the screen a few times then held it up for him to see. “This was taken last Christmas when he was home from school.”

It was a picture of her and Jeremy, taken in someone’s living room, a Christmas tree behind them.

Evan looked at Jeremy’s eyes and saw his own staring back at him. The boy had his dark hair and his lips as well, stretched into a smile right beneath his mother’s nose.

“I like this one a lot,” Layla said. “It looks just like your last high school yearbook photo.”

She was right. He couldn’t deny it even if he wanted to.

“I have a son,” he said softly. “And you never told me?”

“You made it clear when you left that we were never going to see each other again, Evan. You said it was for the best, for my safety and I believed you. Maybe I should’ve tried to find you, I don’t know. I was young and scared. Afraid of being a parent, afraid of going to jail and losing my baby. You can be mad at me if you want, but Jeremy is going to be in danger unless we get going now, and I can’t let that happen.”

Evan’s thoughts sprinted around his brain, knocking against the smooth inside of his skull. He had a son, something he didn’t know how to process yet. But even if it wasn’t his son, he would still help. Because either way it was still her son, and he would go along just for that reason. And because this was his mess, it was shambling towards him, and had been for over twenty years. No, Jeremy wouldn’t have to pay for his mistakes.

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Whatever we need to do let’s do it.”

Layla exhaled slowly, her eyes filling with tears. She threw her arms around him and squeezed him tight.

“Thank you,” she said against his chest. “Thank you, thank you.”

He held her out at arm’s length. “No need for that. Whatever happened, I still care for you, Layla. I would’ve helped even if he wasn’t mine, I swear.”

She nodded. “I know. I know you would. Come on, let’s get in the car and turn the heat on. I’m freezing out here.”

They got into her vehicle, a late model Toyota SUV that suited her, Evan decided silently. Soon they were on the road, the heat flowing from the vents on the dashboard. Evan held his hands up to a vent and let them defrost for a moment.

“Okay, what’s the plan?” he said.

“We get on the road. The sooner we get there the better.”

“You’re going to have to tell me what’s been going on and how this started. I feel like I’m running lost through woods with no path in sight.”

“It started a couple of months ago,” she said, her eyes never leaving the road. “I got a letter in the mail. Blank envelope, no postage, no address. I opened it up and there was one sheet of paper.”

“What did it say?”

“‘Find Evan and bring him. I believe you know the place. Ignore me and things will get unpleasant.’”

“‘Unpleasant,’” Evan mused. “That’s not exactly the word I’d use to threaten someone.”

“Yeah,” Layla said. “Me either. But I did exactly what the letter told me not to, I ignored it. I was still creeped out, don’t get me wrong. But my mind kind of went into safety mode, you know? If I didn’t think about it, then it wouldn’t be real. Couldn’t be real.”

Evan nodded. “I understand the feeling,” he said. “After everything happened, I just buried it. Stuffed it as far down as I could, so deep that if I tried, really tried, I’d even forget it was there.”

“Did it work?”

“Not one damn bit.”

She took a deep breath. “Anyway, a week passes, and I’m in the grocery store, and I reach into my coat pocket for my phone and there’s another letter. Let me be as clear as I can, that envelope was not in my pocket when I got out of the car. But there it was, like it had just magically appeared in my pocket. I opened it and read it right there in front of the fresh produce. It said, ‘I gave you a chance and you didn’t listen. So, here’s a bit more persuasion.’”

“Jesus Christ,” Evan said, running a hand over his beard.

“I still held a cantaloupe in my other hand, which I dropped as soon as I finished the note. It hit the floor and split, spilling that white powdery stuff over the floor like I’d dropped a bag of flour or something. Everything began to change.”

Evan watched as Layla’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel, her bloodless knuckles becoming a stark white. He reached over and placed his hand on her arm.

“It’s okay,” he said softly. “You don’t have to give me every detail.”

Layla shook her head sharply. “No, I do. I do. I’ve got to just get it out, okay?”

Evan nodded, and she continued.

“Like I said, things began to change. All the fruit rotted in front of my eyes like a time-lapse video. Just became gray with mold then black and then just a puddle of rot dripping over the sides of the display. I turned away, not wanting to see, but there was someone beside me, another shopper. I guess they’d seen the look on my face and wanted to know if I was okay. I don’t know. They approached me and I screamed as the skin on their face split and fell, the muscles beneath pulling away now that nothing held them there. The blood congealed before it even hit the floor, Evan. Just clotted in midair. When their eyes softened and began to melt down their cheeks I ran and didn’t stop until I was in my car and peeling out of the parking lot.”

Evan believed every word. After what he’d just seen in the diner, how could he not believe her?

“From then on out, it just kept happening,” she said shakily. “Not continuously, no. I don’t think he wanted to completely break my mind all at once. So maybe a day would pass with no problems, and then I’d be woken up in the middle of the night to every door in the house opening and slamming shut over and over. Cabinets, closets, all of them. I don’t know how long it went on, but by the time it was over I was hoarse from screaming. Then nothing for a day, maybe even a few days, and then some new horror would spring from the shadows.”

“I can’t imagine how you dealt with that for so long,” Evan said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Because I deserved it,” she said, wiping tears from her cheek. “It was easy to be punished because I knew I deserved it for what happened.”

“Don’t talk like that–”

“It’s true, Evan. I deserve it, but Jeremy doesn’t. So, when the final letter came, I knew I had to find you and get to the bottom of this.”

“What did it say?”

“It said, ‘If you won’t even attempt to atone, then the burden will fall to your son.’ If I wasn’t sure then, I was by the time I got the signature.”

“What?!” Evan said, sitting straight up. “This one was signed?”

“Yes. It said, ‘The Intercessor’. All cursive, in black ink. That was it. I didn’t have to call Jeremy to warn him, somehow. If he’d even believe me. He called me the next morning, asking if I was okay, telling me about a vivid nightmare he’d had. In it, he’d been approached by a pale man in a grey coat. The man had a scar that started at his hairline, curved down and then circled around his right eye. Jeremy said it looked just like the number six.”

“And you think that’s the guy?” Evan asked. “The Intercessor?”

“I know it was. He told Jeremy, ‘Tell your mother that this is her final notice.’ I knew then that it wasn’t just a threat, that he could reach Jeremy somehow, make him experience the things that I’d been dealing with. I’m going to be honest, Evan. After six weeks of the visions and threats and sleepless nights, I… I decided to end it all. Death had to be better. But before I could put a plan into action, he brought Jeremy into it. Like the Intercessor knew I was at the end of my rope and switched tactics to keep me going. Whatever the hell else he is, he’s cunning, I’ll give him that.”

Evan was silent for a moment, letting the insanity wash over him, choosing not to speak until he knew what to say.

“I… I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. “Didn’t end it all.”

Layla looked over at him and gave him a small, grateful smile. “Me too,” she said, then sniffed. “Anyway, you pretty much know the rest. I started searching for you, and all the haunting stopped. I haven’t seen or heard anything until tonight in the diner. Well, except for this. A little present waiting under my windshield wiper I found as I got in my car to come meet you.”

She reached into the center console between them and retrieved a newspaper clipping, then held it out to him.

Evan took it with shaking fingers and read the headline. His vision blurred, he wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand. When he opened them, he was nineteen again.

* * * * * *

It was the spring of 1999, and everything was alright. The Matrix was in theaters, a new Star Wars movie was around the corner. Sure, the stuff at Columbine High School had been a downer but it hadn’t happened to him. Yeah, everything was going good. No school, no real responsibilities, and he was dating Layla. He was pretty sure he loved her, but he lusted after her to such an extent that he couldn’t tell if there was a difference between the two emotions. Maybe that was love? He was nineteen and didn’t have to have an answer to that question yet, or any other question really. He was young and felt immortal and nothing could stop that.

It was 1999, and Evan was behind the wheel of his old Ford Bronco, tearing ass down the highway towards Layla’s house. Spring in Texas meant it was nearly as hot as summer already. The smell of grass and earth and night flowed freely through the Bronco’s open windows. He tossed the last bit of his joint out and watched it flicker and spark in the rearview as it went tumbling behind him.

He was an hour late. He knew she wouldn’t give him too much shit about it but he still felt bad all the same. He’d gotten high that afternoon, nodded off, then freaked out when he woke up and saw how late it was. He still couldn’t find the energy to get off the couch but that wasn’t nothing a couple of bumps of coke wouldn’t fix. Once he felt balanced enough to make the trip he left, praying to whatever god who would listen that he still would have a chance of getting laid that night.

Evan pulled into the driveway of Layla’s parents’ house, debating if he should wait or go knock but what if her mother saw how geeked up he was Jesus Christ he should’ve planned this better but it was too late to back out now the front door was opening

Layla came running out, her father yelling after her.

“Get back here, you little slut!” he cried. “Don’t you get in that truck!”

But she did, flinging the door open and jumping inside.

“Go, go, go!” she said. “Please!”

Evan threw the truck into reverse and sped back down the driveway and out into the street. Within seconds they were gone, speeding down the road.

Layla was silently crying and wringing her hands in her lap.

“What the hell was that about?!” Evan said.

She shook her head. “Just drive, please.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t care where, just far away.”

He drove. The silent tension was oppressive, a thick cloud of pressure that the wind blowing through the windows couldn’t disperse. The highway stretched on and on and they were going nowhere that he knew. He was only paying enough attention to the road not to crash. He wanted to comfort her but every combination of words rolling through his mind made him feel self-conscious and useless.

Time passed with the miles and he finally mustered the courage to say something.

“Feeling any better?”

“Have you ever thought about just leaving?” she said, avoiding his question. “Making a new life somewhere else?”

“Yeah, I mean, I guess?”

“Then let’s do it,” she said, her wet eyes shiny in the light of the dashboard.

He laughed. “Yeah, okay.”

“I’m not joking.”

“Where would we go?”

“It doesn’t matter. Away from my parents, away from their expectations. Just away.”

“I don’t have any real money, you know. Maybe eighty bucks in my wallet. That’s not going to get us far.”

“Then we’ll get money. Find jobs wherever we end up.”

“That could take weeks–”

“I don’t know, okay?! I don’t know shit; I just know I’ve got to get out of here.”

Evan chewed his lip. “Why did your father call you that?”

“What?”

“Slut.”

Even by the sparse light in the truck’s cab he could see her blush. “Because…because he found out that we, me and you, have been…you know.”

“How?!”

Layla turned her face away. “I… I don’t know, okay? Just drop it.”

“Shit. That’s going to be an awkward conversation next time I see him.”

“Then let’s not see him ever again. Let’s just go.”

Evan pulled a joint from his shirt pocket and stuck it between his lips. He flicked his lighter to life and held the flame to the joint’s tapered end. Smoke filled his lungs and he held it there.

He held the joint out to her. “You want some?” he asked, his voice strained, puffs of smoke emerging from his mouth with each word. “Might help calm you down a little.”

Layla reached for it then stopped, dropping her hand back to her lap. “No, I’m good for now.”

Evan shrugged, hit the joint again, and the Bronco ate miles and miles of asphalt.

It was sometime later. The road and the weed had combined to hypnotize him, and he’d lost all track of time and distance. The gaslight on the dashboard glowed a baleful orange.

“I gotta stop for gas,” he said.

Layla was just staring out the window at the trees passing by. “Do whatever you got to do.”

It was a while before they came across a gas station. The highway was long, stretching between points of sparse civilization, with nothing but trees and a few farms along the way. Evan was just starting to really worry they’d hit empty and be stranded when he spotted the lit sign on the side of the road.

The gas station was an old brick building, squat and square, with three pumps out front. The lights had an orange tint to them, making the entire scene seem ominous. Evan parked next to one of the pumps and opened the door to get out, but Layla grabbed his hand.

“Do you love me?” she asked.

Evan nodded. “You know I do. I always will.”

“Then let’s keep going. We’ll figure it out along the way, together.”

He felt his resolve give way and he squeezed her hand. “Deal. As long as you pump the gas.”

For the first time since he’d picked her up, she smiled.

“Deal.”

She got out and walked to the other side of the truck to the pump. Evan patted his back pocket, mumbled a curse under his breath then stretched over the seat to open the glove box. The box’s door sprang open and he fished his wallet out and stuffed into the pocket of his jeans. As he went to close it back up his breath caught in his throat at the sight of his pistol lying there within the shadow of the glove box. He pulled it out slowly and stared at it.

“Hey,” Layla called playfully from outside. “You gonna go pay for this gas you’re making me pump?”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, and pushed the pistol into the waistband of his jeans. “I just had to grab my wallet.” He pulled the end of his shirt out to cover the bulge of the pistol’s grip and walked to the front door of the building.

The bell overhead rattled as he entered. The man at the counter looked up from his magazine.

“Hey,” the man said as Evan approached. “How’s it going?”

“Good,” Evan replied shakily. “Can I uh, get forty in gas?”

“Of course,” the man said. He pushed a button on his side of the counter. “You can tell your friend to start pumping now.”

Evan looked out the window to Layla, who was watching him expectantly. He gave her a thumbs up then got his wallet out, producing two twenties which he then handed over to the man.

“Here,” he said.

The man pushed some other buttons and the register popped open with a ding. Inside were bills, so many bills, nice and neatly stacked. And if the summer he’d spent as a cashier at the local grocery taught him anything it was that there was probably a hundred-dollar bill or two stashed beneath the till.

Evan tried not to stare as sweat began forming on his forehead.

“Can I use your bathroom?” he said.

“Sure, just walk to the back and down the hall. Second door on the left.”

“Thanks,” Evan mumbled.

He walked past an aisle of snack foods and made his way to the hall. He almost went into the door, but stopped himself as he saw the dark, furnished room within. An unmade bed piled with blankets, a TV, some bookshelves. He reckoned the guy must own the place and lived there as well.

He adjusted course and went into the bathroom, locking the door behind. The sweat had begun to run into his eyes. He grabbed a paper towel from the roll near the sink and wiped his face.

“You can do this,” he said. “Just scare him a little, grab the money and get out. Easy. Nobody gets hurt, and you’ve got enough money to get you both out of here.”

He looked at himself in the mirror, at his scared, bloodshot eyes.

“I can’t do this,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t.”

But he could. He just needed a little energy, a little burst to get going. He fished the small baggie out of his shirt pocket, opened it, and tapped two lines out on top of the toilet tank. With a quick, practiced motion he snorted one line then the other. The bitter taste dripped down the back of his throat as his mind went into overdrive. Colors brightened, the light bulbs over the sink were twin suns and he was goddamn alive.

“Yeah,” he said to no one. “Alright, yeah.”

Evan pulled the pistol from the front of his pants and nodded to his wide-eyed reflection in the mirror. He pulled the bathroom doorknob, and nothing happened and then he remembered yeah, he’d locked it quit being an idiot and concentrate. He turned the whatever you call it on the knob, and it clicked, and he was ready now.

The hallway was a dark blur as he strode through it and into the brighter store itself. He raised the pistol as soon as he stepped foot in front of the counter. The man there stared at him, eyes growing wider and wider until Evan thought they’d fall out of the man’s head.

“Let’s just stay calm, okay?” the man said. “I’ll hand you the money, and you can just go. Sound good?”

Evan quickly nodded. “Yeah, do it. Hurry it up.”

The man fumbled over the cash register until finally that telltale ding happened, and the drawer pushed out. He began stuffing bills into a paper bag.

“Don’t forget under the till, man,” Evan said with a drug-fueled bravado he never felt when sober.

The man nodded, working quicker.

There were footsteps coming, slapping against the aged linoleum floor.

Evan turned to his right, bringing the pistol around.

Everything was slow, time turning to molasses, to fresh pine sap glacially dripping down tree bark. Evan had seen The Matrix twice since it came out, and that’s what it felt like, like bullet-time. The coke made every nerve ending sing with speed and purpose. Everything crawled nearly to a halt as his finger muscles tensed and twitched, pulling the trigger. Flame bloomed from the end of the pistol’s barrel.

The little girl didn’t die dramatically, didn’t cling to an ever-blossoming bloody wound as she slowly slumped to the floor. No, she died badly, a goddamn bloody mess. The bullet took her in the cheek, right beside her nose, punching a small hole there and pushing her eye to one side and dear God why did he have to remember everything? Her hair rose behind her head like a horsetail flicking a fly away and blood splashed along the colorful bags of chips and rows of candy bars. And everything was still slow, and he could see every detail, every sliver of skull in the air, every tremble of her little hands as she convulsed for a moment before death.

The man behind the counter screamed and it wasn’t a sound Evan had ever heard before and he never would again. It was primal anguish, it was throat-tearing grief made into a brutal note that echoed in his ears, beating against the drums within.

Evan was a statue as the man ran from behind the counter and slid on his knees through his little girl’s blood to get to her. He lifted her up and investigated her ruined face and sobbed and squeezed her to him.

Evan wasn’t aware of time passing as the man rocked her back and forth, wasn’t aware of anything at all until the man spoke.

“Kill me,” he said.

Evan shook his head and could feel tears fall onto his shirt.

“Do it,” the man pleaded. “You owe me that much goddamn you now do it.”

Evan said nothing, did nothing.

“Do it!” the man cried. “She was all I had left, she–”

It was as if the man’s command overwhelmed Evan’s body, or scared him enough to make him twitch, either way the result was the same. He jerked the trigger.

The man cried out, putting his hand over the wound in his gut and Evan panicked. He pulled the trigger again and again and again until the man stopped moving and the world was muffled by the gunshots.

Layla’s voice cut through the fog of his mind.

“Evan! Oh God, Evan, what did you do? What did you do?!”

Evan’s mouth bobbed open and shut, the words not coming out, hiding from the scene in front of him.

“I… I didn’t want to,” he managed in a hoarse whisper. “I didn’t. It just happened and he begged me to kill him, Layla. He begged me and I did ‘cause he wanted it so bad–”

“Stop,” she said. “Okay, just stop for a second. W-we have to get out of here.”

“We can’t just–”

“We have to! I can’t go to prison!” she wrung her hands together in front of her stomach. “I… I just can’t.”

Evan closed his eyes and took a deep breath full of gun smoke and the coppery smell of blood.

* * * * * *

He opened his eyes, back in Layla’s SUV, the newspaper clipping still in his hand.

NO LEADS IN ROBBERY GONE WRONG, the headline read. The article continued under the byline. “Police have no new leads in the case of the double homicide of James ‘Jimmy’ Johnston, 41, and his daughter, Evelyn, age 10.”

Evan released his grip and let the clipping fall to the floorboard.

“You told your parents you were pregnant that night,” he said. “That’s why your father was yelling at you, why you wanted to run away with me.”

Layla nodded, still watching the road. “I still would’ve run away with you if you would’ve let me.”

“I couldn’t take the chance of you getting caught too,” he said.

“I used to daydream about what it would’ve been like if you hadn’t dropped me back off at home that night.”

“I’ll tell you what you missed. I ran home, packed a bag, kissed my long-suffering mother goodbye while she slept, and I ran. Didn’t stop driving until I was two states away. It was a few years until I felt like I wasn’t going to be arrested any minute. I did a lot of drugs, slept on a lot of couches. I eventually got clean, got a job, and tried to actually have a life. But there were always the nightmares. No matter where I went or how much time passed, I always saw that night every time I closed my eyes. And I’d feel guilty every time something good would happen in my life. Still do.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe this will help, you know? What if we meet this Intercessor and we’re allowed to…I don’t know, atone somehow?”

Evan looked at her. “You don’t believe a word of what you just said. After the threats, after the visions, after the haunting…no, this isn’t going to end well, Layla. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know it’s nothing good.”

She didn’t reply, and she didn’t need to. They both knew he was right.

The quiet within the vehicle was a blessing. Evan reveled in it, letting his mind wander as he watched the trees pass by on his side, their bark bleached by the headlights.

The miles rolled by. He couldn’t tell exactly where they were, but he still knew they were close. He could feel it, a force beyond himself that was pulling. Like he was iron being drawn to a magnet. No, iron was strong, and he felt anything but strong.

The sign appeared on the side of the road, the headlights illuminating the handmade lettering there: Jimmy’s Stop and Go, Last Gas for Fifty Miles. Fill up now!

As they drew closer, Evan said, “Christ. It hasn’t changed at all.”

Layla shook her head. “We don’t know that. Remember the diner.”

She pulled the SUV into the lot, parking beside one of the pumps and killing the engine.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Evan said.

“I don’t want you to either,” Layla said. “But it’s what has to happen.”

“I can’t! I can’t do this.”

“Please, Evan. Do it for Jeremy, and for me.”

He steeled himself as best he could, taking three deep breaths in quick succession.

“Okay,” he said, opened the door, and stepped out.

The cold wind was relentless against his exposed face as he walked towards the gas station’s door. He focused on it, on the sensation, pretending it could numb him from whatever was to come.

The door creaked open and out stepped a man dressed in a long gray coat, a scar shaped like the number six circling his eye.

“Evan,” the man said, his voice soft and polite. “Thank you for coming.”

“You’re…,” Evan started but his words died in his throat.

“The Intercessor, yes,” the man said. He looked over Evan’s shoulder and past him. “Thank you, Layla. You may go now. Your debt has been paid.”

Evan turned quickly on his heel and faced her. “What’s he talking about, Layla?”

She was crying and shaking her head. “I’m so sorry, Evan. I had to, it was the only way, the only way he’d leave Jeremy alone. You understand that, right? Please tell me you understand!”

Evan felt a small flame of anger spark in his chest but quickly quelled it, replacing it with logic, with resignation.

“I understand,” he said. “It’s…it should be this way.”

She nodded, then addressed the Intercessor. “Can we have a second? To say goodbye?”

The Intercessor frowned, sighed, then gave her a slight nod.

Layla ran to Evan and embraced him, squeezing him hard enough to stop his breath. He hugged her just as hard in return, needing her, needing to feel her warmth, to keep it, to use the memory as a shield against whatever was coming.

She kissed him. It was strong and sweet. No lust, no romance, just a kiss between old friends saying goodbye.

Layla drew back and looked at him, nodding, her tears falling between them.

“Would you do something for me?” he said.

“Anything.”

He struggled with the words. “Would you tell him, Jeremy, about me? I just want him to know I didn’t run from him, you know. Tell him everything, even if doesn’t believe any of it.”

She nodded once more. “I will. I promise.”

“Okay,” he breathed. “You can let me go now.”

Layla’s lip trembled and she turned away, shuffling back to the SUV, her back shaking with sobs.

Evan didn’t watch her leave but listened as she drove off, the sound of the engine getting smaller and smaller until it was gone.

“Come,” the Intercessor said. “We’re overdue.”

He held the door open, and Evan walked inside, squinting against the lights within.

Everything was exactly the way it had been that night, including Jimmy Johnston standing behind the counter, his clothes caked with blood.

Evan instinctively backed away putting his hands in front of him as if he could push reality away.

“This is the man, correct?” the Intercessor said.

Johnston nodded slowly.

“Evan Baker,” the Intercessor said. “You’ve been accused of killing this man and his child. Is this true?”

“I didn’t mean–” Evan cried.

“Is…it…true?”

“Y-yes.”

The Intercessor turned back to Johnston. “He is responsible by his own admission. What will the punishment be?”

“I want him,” Johnston said, his voice hoarse from disuse. “To know how it felt.”

“So, it shall be,” the Intercessor said and turned back to Evan. “As mediator between yourself and Mr. Johnston, I have come to a decision based on your admission of wrongdoing and Mr. Johnston’s need for justice to be served. You will be punished, and the punishment begins now.”

“Wait!” Evan screamed. “I didn’t mean to kill her! I was a stupid kid, okay? I–”

His vision went black, and when it returned, he found himself in a dark room, feeling groggy and frightened and trapped. He flailed his limbs, beating at his restraints only to discover they were blankets. He peeked from beneath them as the door to the dark room opened, letting a shaft of light spill from the hall.

The shadow of a man appeared there, looked around, his head moving quickly from side to side, then retreated as quick as it had come, soon followed by the sound of the nearby bathroom door opening and closing. Evan stayed completely still, confused and unsure of what to do next.

Some time passed, maybe just minutes, and the bathroom doorknob shook loudly for a moment, then the door flew open and the sound of footsteps retreated down the hall.

Evan let out a sigh of relief then gingerly swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood on the cold tile floor. He slowly made his way to the door then out into the hallway. Voices came from ahead of him as he stepped out of the hallway and into the front room.

Evan whimpered as he realized where he was.

He walked down the closest aisle because he had to, unable to stop himself for even a second. Everything loomed above him, the shelves were tall, the items stacked on their tops far out of his reach. Panic gripped him and he looked down at himself, at the light green nightgown he wore.

“No, no, no,” he whispered. “Please no.”

He looked back up and into his own eyes. His nineteen-year-old self stood no more than six feet from him, sweating, a pistol in his hand.

Before he even heard the shot, pain bloomed slowly in his face, like a punch that ignited a spreading fire. Evan felt the bullet puncture his skin, felt it crack and splinter the bone beneath, felt it shove his left eye unnaturally to the right. It tunneled into his brain, creating a shockwave of air ahead of it, pushing the tissue in every direction. The pressure and agony were unimaginable but thankfully brief. His consciousness faded as the bullet broke through the back of his skull. He was dead before he hit the floor.

Evan awoke back in the bed. Watched himself look through the bedroom door once more. Listened as he went into the bathroom and exited again.

Then his feet got him moving. He concentrated every bit of his willpower on the task of slowing his pace, but nothing happened. The hallway was the same, the aisle just as bright and colorful with packages of snacks and candy.

Dread filled his stomach as he approached himself again. In the milliseconds between the bullet and the eruption of flame and the explosion of sound, Evan cried out internally.

“How long!?” he managed before the bullet found his brain once more.

The Intercessor’s voice followed him into the black.

“As long as it takes,” he said.

* * * * * *

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Layla pulled her SUV into the parking lot of the derelict gas station. She parked and got out, pushing her hands over her head to stretch the cramped muscles in her lower back. It had only been a couple of months since she last made the drive, but damn did it seem longer this time.

Jeremy got out as well, the cool November breeze pushing his hair from his forehead as he slowly took in the surroundings.

“This is the place?” he asked.

“This is the place,” she said.

“It doesn’t look like much,” he said and closed the car door.

“But it was,” Layla said. “It was a man’s business and his home. A home he shared with his daughter. It was a lot to them.”

“Oh, now I finally get some actual info,” Jeremy said with a smile. “Enough with the mystery, Mom. Why did we spend almost a whole day driving out to a rundown gas station in the middle of nowhere?”

“Because…because it’s time, past time actually. It’s time you know the truth about your father.”

“Dad? What was he a secret agent or something?” Jeremy said, laughing.

“No, not your dad, not Lloyd,” she said. “I mean, he is your dad, and he always will be, but I met him a year after you were born, Jeremy. He adopted you when we married, but he isn’t your biological father.”

“W-what?” Jeremy stammered. “What are you talking about?”

“Your father’s name was Evan Baker, and he–”

“Why are you telling me this? Why now?”

“Because sometimes,” she said, trying to find the courage to continue. “Because sometimes no matter how dark a shadow is, it needs to be brought out into the light. It needs to be exposed. Sometimes you must pay what you owe. But mostly, because I made a promise.”

Layla went to her son and held him close as he cried. When he was done, when she was sure he was ready, she began her story.

Rating: 2.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Ryan Harville
Edited by N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by Drew Blood

🔔 More stories from author: Ryan Harville


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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