There was a knock at Theo and Rose's door at exactly 1:30 in the afternoon.
They were sitting together, watching TV. Theodore had finally managed to get his mind off of the dreams. When the knock came, they looked at each other, asking with their eyes: did you hear that too?
It was a polite knock, just three soft raps, not too disturbing but loud enough for them to hear it. Rose was the one to get up to answer the door.
She looked through the peephole in the door and gave Theodore a questioning look.
"It's your history teacher," she said with a raised eyebrow.
Theodore returned her look and shrugged. Mr. Durand? From school? He tried to make sense of it then, to gain some sort of hypothesis as to why his teacher was showing up at his doorstep in the summertime, but nothing came. He felt the urge to turn to his room, to stay out of the way as he usually did when guests arrived. But now he was curious. Too many odd things had been happening lately, and this was just adding to the list. He supposed this was about him - why else would his high school teacher be here? - and so he stood up from the couch and waited for Rose to answer the door.
She opened the door to a comically cheerful man, a little plump but not fat, wearing perfectly casual summer attire. A bright orange polo shirt with khaki shorts, his thin-rimmed glasses resting under his (remarkably empty) eyes. His hair was thin and balding, more so than when Theodore saw him last in late-May. He looked like a tourist now. Theodore had never seen him out of his dress shirt and tie, and this was a stark difference.
"Good afternoon," Mr. Durand said, his grin still holding strong.
"Hello," Rose said.
Theodore suddenly felt the eyes focus on him, both of them glancing past Rose and meeting each other's gazes. It was a slightly awkward moment, but Theodore also felt just a tiny wave of disturbance pass over him. His eyes, was his first thought, but it passed quickly before it was even fully articulated in his brain. He's pleasant, Theodore thought on the heels of that, and it suddenly came to him that this sudden shift in his thoughts was strange, but like many other things that week it easily diffused out of his mind.
"I'm sorry for not calling first; I just didn't have your phone number. It's summer and the school is closed now, and I just thought it would be more efficient to give my sympathies in person. I hope I'm not bothering."
"No, not at all," Rose said with a hospitable smile. "Come in, if you like. Say what you would like to say. Is this about Theo?"
"Actually, yes. I'd heard what happened and I'd like to talk to him, if I could. I won't stay long."
Rose turned and looked at him for affirmation. "Is that okay, Theo?" Her voice was wary. She had seen his eyes as well, before they disappeared again behind an agreeable veil.
He nodded and then Sylvester Durand entered their home in broad summer daylight.
They sat down together at the small and crowded kitchen table. Theodore sat across from Mr. Durand, and Rose sat at the side of the table between them. The two of them stared at Mr. Durand in pure curiosity. Without saying a word, he had all of their attention. He grinned madly in his bright summer clothing.
"Theodore," Sylvester said, looking the boy directly in the eyes. "I hope you're feeling better. I heard what happened. Syncope is a very serious thing. What was it, twenty minutes you were out for?"
Theodore nodded. He absently wondered how his history teacher knew about this.
"Yes, a very serious thing," Mr. Durand continued. "I've had quite the experience with it myself, but I wouldn't want to bore you with my own stories. It does break my heart, though, when I see a person go through such a thing. Especially someone so young, and even more so for a former student of mine. So I'd like to give you this."
He pulled out a rectangular card from his pocket, only about four inches wide, and handed it to Theodore across the table. Rose just watched in polite, hidden bewilderment. But Sylvester Durand saw what she was thinking.
It was a bright yellow card all around. The face of a cartoon cat stared up at Theodore, smiling warmly at him with its whiskers and thin curved lips. It was gray with a white stripe on the center of its forehead splitting its eyes. Three words blared above the cat's head: Get well soon!
"Thank you," Theodore said, "but I'm already well. The doctor said that as long as I stay away from too much stress, it shouldn't happen again."
"I understand that, but if I were you, I would be very concerned. Syncope is not to be taken lightly. It's a chronic thing, for people like us, and it makes us vulnerable. So vulnerable. If it were to happen again at the wrong time, well… you don't know what people will do while you're under."
Theodore and Rose exchanged shocked glances. They both looked back at Mr. Durand, who was still smiling as if talking cheerfully about the weather.
"What are you implying?" Rose asked defensively. Her feelings were now present on her face, the angry perplexion obvious.
"Nothing that is beyond reality."
Those words scared Theodore, and he didn't know why. The two of them just stared at the once friendly and benign high school history teacher with something like frozen exasperation. What were they to say to that? Mr. Durand only looked pleased with himself. Not so much an outward gesture of friendliness, now the grin was an inward and conceited thing.
Rose broke the silence. "Mr. Durand, you are in our home. I suggest you watch what you say or I will contact the school."
She thinks she's scaring me. Oh, this is rich. She threatened me. Call the school and see how far that gets you, woman. High School History Teacher Fired in the Summer doesn't make as big of headlines as Entire World Aflame, Human Race Extinct, All Before the School Year Even Begins.
Sylvester held back a chuckle, but couldn't hold back his wildly amused grin.
"I want you gone, Mr. Durand," Theodore said boldly.
Mr. Durand stood calmly and left the kitchen without another word, still dressed in his bright clothing but somehow giving off an invisible aurora that is so much darker. He never stopped smiling that day.
He told Caitlyn about the incident the same day at the park. She smiled as he told her about it, imagining stuck-up old Mr. Durand showing up at the doorstep dressed in bright clothes and making a fool of himself.
"Rose should call the school," she said. "I wouldn't mind losing him as a teacher. She'd be saving us from sleeping through a lot of monotonous droning next year. She'd be the school-wide hero."
Theodore had always liked Mr. Durand before this. His father had been a historian, and Mr. Durand always scratched a particular itch in Theo, but he didn't let that be known to Caitlyn. Now was not the time to be defending his history teacher. He just nodded in agreement.
He suddenly remembered something and pulled it out of his pocket. "And he gave me this, too." He handed the Get Well Soon card to Caitlyn and she stared at it, amused. Her grin was huge.
"Oh my God," she said. "This is not like him at all."
"He showed up at your door just to give you a stupid card with a cat on it? What is the point of that? Hasn't he ever heard of the UPS?"
"It didn't seem like he was trying to be friendly. He seemed… disconnected. He wouldn't stop smiling, and his eyes were just off. It was creepy. He's a completely different person outside of school."
Caitlyn nodded, and they thought together for a moment.
"What about your dad?" she asked suddenly.
"Your dad. Didn't he work at the museum? Mr. Durand is a giant history nerd, so maybe he knew your dad when they were younger."
"If he did he never mentioned it. And that was years ago. I doubt it."
"Yeah," she said. The sky was beginning to turn that summer dawn color: a mix of bright oranges, reds, and yellows. It was getting late. Isolated fireflies were already beginning to flash their bright tails. Crickets chirped, hidden in the untended park grass. They needed to go home soon, and they both knew it. Neither of them mentioned it.
"Theo," Caitlyn said. He turned his head to look at her, and they locked eyes. "Can I meet your sister sometime?"
"Rose? Maybe." He paused. "But she's working all the time, so I don't know."
Caitlyn nodded slowly. Her eyes dropped from his. She didn't seem hurt, just disappointed.
"I should get home," she said. "I told Mom I'd be home before nine."
Theodore nodded. "Okay. Call me tomorrow."
When Theodore got home, Rose was in the kitchen. He heard a faint click.
He walked into a mess of a kitchen, Rose standing in the middle with a digital camera in hand. The table was covered in a large white cloth, and a dozen old antiques were spread across it. A compass, a pocket watch, an old newspaper, even a gun.
"What is this?" Theodore said as he walked in.
She didn't look up at him. She pointed her camera at a small compass on the white cloth and the click came again, this time accompanied by a flash.
"I'm trying to pull in some extra money. We could use it. I'm… putting some things up for sale online."
"Where did you get all of this?"
Now she looked at him and their eyes met. She pressed her lips together and her gaze fell back to the table. "It's some of Dad's things. They were collecting dust in the basement and they would be put to better use in someone else's hands."
Theodore shook his head. No, this wasn't right. He'd never known his dad, so these artifacts were the only things connecting father and son. He'd only seen pictures, felt what had been his dad's, but really Theo had never seen his full, real-life face. He had died before his son was born. In the end it had been a car accident. Rose had only been seven years old. Theo always wondered how his sister dealt with that at such a young age, but they never talked about it. He had apparently been a collector, mostly of mildly interesting historic items, and had left behind a lot for them.
"What about us?" Theo said. "We can't just give it all away. It's not even ours, it's dad's-"
"We're not giving it away, I'm selling it. Theo, I know you don't want to give these things up, and I don't either." I'm the one who knew him, who grew up with him, she wanted to say, but held it back. You never even knew him. This is harder for me. "I don't like talking about this with you, but now I think I need to. If we want to stay in this house and keep eating, we need the extra money. I can only support us both by myself for so long, and that time is pretty well over. I don't want to get rid of our memories of dad," she said, and gestured towards the things on the table, "but I need to do this. I'm sorry, Theo." She felt she didn't need to apologize, but said it anyway. She was frustrated and overwhelmed, but kept it in. She didn't want him to see her like that.
Theo took a deep breath, thought about a rebuttal, but decided against saying anything. He just turned, went into his room, and closed the door.
He laid down on his bed and thought. He felt the card in his pocket and pulled it out. Get Well Soon!
Theo went to sleep early that night, frustrated. He turned out his lights and closed his eyes, and within ten minutes he was asleep.
He woke up at midnight. His window was a sheet of black on the outside. He hadn't dreamed, and he felt oddly wide awake.
He reached over and turned on his bedside lamp on the night table. The card caught his attention once again. He grabbed it, still laying in bed, and looked at it in the dim light of his lamp.
Get Well Soon! it told him again. It suddenly all seemed so comical: the cartoon cat smiling at him on a yellow background. Suddenly, on midnight that night, the weight of the week came crashing down on Theodore. His head began to hurt, and he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
When he opened his eyes again, the card was still in front of him.
But somehow it was changing.
The yellow background turned to black before his eyes. It was a painfully and terrifyingly slow process, and he could only watch in dumbfounded wonder. The words above the cat had been distorted and were shifting. What once had been letters were now just white, curved lines. The cartoon cat also began to morph into something else. Theo felt dread rising up in him as it happened, but somehow he was frozen. He wanted to look away, just to close his eyes and maybe it would go away, but he couldn't. The card continued to change.
In ten seconds the transformation was complete. The cat was not a cat anymore, no, it was a dog, a dog that Theodore knew and loved dearly. It was Alex, snarling, growling up at his owner, white saliva dripping from in between his teeth on a deathly black background. No, Theo thought in a terrifying panic, this wasn't Alex, this was something else, this was something evil, this was a demon, and he needed to get away, to look away, get the card out of his hands, but he couldn't, and he was stuck in his bed, staring at his nightmare. The words morphed into something new, and now it read in a terrible, curved font: You Will Succumb!
All at once, Theodore threw the card out of his hands, regaining control. It landed softly on his bedroom floor. He almost screamed but held it back in his throat. He was heavily panting, and slowly the realization came that maybe that had been a dream. He glanced at the card on his floor and it was yellow once again. A bright, cheery yellow with a bright, cheery cat.
Theo laid down again, unsure of what was real and what was in his head.