A/N: So, some friends and I have started a writing group where we write a short story once a month based on a writing prompt. Because I have to make everything more complicated for myself, I decided that all of my short stories would take place in the same universe and revolve around this fictional, traveling show in one way or another.
Then I thought, why not post these short stories each month? So, that's what I'm doing. This first chapter is from the month of September. Expect to see October's chapter either later this month or early next month. Hope you guys enjoy!
September prompt: "You said there wouldn't be any side effects."
"If there is something you fear, you can run away here.
But if you pack up and leave, then you'll surely bleed." -The Magician
Mitch had stared at the label when he picked the pills up from the pharmacy. Dream Machine it was called. He couldn't remember the name of the active ingredient. Something long and complicated, he was sure. Not the name of something that sounded like it was supposed to be consumed by the human body. However, Dr. Simmons assured him that this was a non-habit-forming sleep aid. No side effects.
Mitch popped the lid off the bottle. The small, round pills clicked and clacked together when he moved the container. Specks of white in the pervasive darkness of his family's massive house. He lived in a nice neighborhood—not a gated community, but it was generally a safe place to live. Up until two years ago, the neighborhood hadn't experienced anything more troubling than a lost pet.
"Mitch?" the voice of their housekeeper called out as he closed the front door. "Mitch, is that you?"
"Yeah, Lorena," he answered her as he picked at the label on the bottle. "It's me."
He walked into the sitting room where he and his friends used to hang out and watch television. At the age of nineteen, most of Mitch's friends had gone off to college, and the ones that didn't were being indoctrinated into their family businesses. Mitch had tried the college thing. It hadn't worked out.
Although the sitting room was vacant, the flat-screen TV on the wall was on. He assumed Lorena must have been watching it during her break. Not that he really kept track of what she did around the house these days—for all he knew, she sat on the couch and ate Doritos the whole time he was away. If his mother was still here, she would have something to say about keeping an eye on the help. She wasn't here, though, he thought spitefully. She had picked up with his sister and left him to languish in their dark house while his mom and Janel vacationed at a classy resort in California.
Mitch picked up the remote, about to turn off the TV, when he heard his name. He snapped to attention, eyes riveted to the anchor delivering the evening news.
"No new word on the Mitch Lorrins case," the man said to his co-anchor. "Prosecutors are keeping a tight lip about any potential evidence that may end up being used against the nineteen-year-old in court. Born to the real estate mogul and the former reality TV star, Travis and Heidi Lorrins, their oldest child is no stranger to trouble—"
The screen turned black as he firmly pushed the power button. "Lorena!" he shouted and tossed the TV remote onto the leather couch. "Lorena, did my dad get home today?"
The middle-aged Colombian woman shuffled into the room. Recently, Mitch had noticed the housekeeper's gait becoming stiffer. She dusted off her hands on the shapeless, gray pants of her uniform and then sat in what was typically Janel's chair. "No, Mitch. He didn't," she told him with a hint of sadness. "Mr. Lorrins called to say that his business in New York was taking longer than he expected. He's just going to spend the night at a hotel."
Mitch flared his nostrils. "That's what he said last week."
Helplessly, Lorena shrugged. "I can only tell you what he's told me. I can't give you a reason for it."
Oh, Mitch knew the reason. The reason his dad was prolonging his business in New York was the same reason Janel and his mom were taking an unplanned vacation in Los Angeles. He was supposed to lie low here at home, taking the heat from the media, while his parents and sister waited out this PR nightmare in peace. They had the gall to claim they supported him when none of them were even residing in the same state as Mitch.
Lorena bestowed a sympathetic look upon him, but a glimmer of something else shown behind her pity. Mitch had seen it in others who claimed they believed in his innocence. They said they believed him, that he only had to weather the storm and then he would get his life back. However, there was a question left unspoken—he could see it in their eyes.
Did you do it?
His story had remained the same throughout the interrogations by the cops, the reporters, and his friends and family. He and Steffie had been at her apartment that night with two of their mutual friends. They watched movies and played card games. Yes, there was alcohol involved, and that was why his memories were a little fuzzy. He hadn't been that drunk when he left her place around three in the morning. Mitch took a cab home, and that was the last he saw or heard from his girlfriend. No one bothered to sit him down and tell him gently that she was dead. Mitch had to hear about it on the news, and then the police brought him down to the station treating him like he was already guilty.
Everyone hated him. The media, the public, Steffie's family. His own family acted like he had contracted leprosy. And his friends gave him the same look he received from Lorena. Sympathetic and pitying, but that unspoken question always lingered.
Did you do it?
If word about his nightmares got out, the public would lynch him for sure. After all, innocent people who didn't witness the violent crime shouldn't be having recurring nightmares about it. The only person he had told was Dr. Simmons, and he almost didn't tell him either. Doctor-patient confidentiality only went so far. If the police decided to question Dr. Simmons, it would be up to his discretion whether to tell them about Mitch's nightmares and subsequent insomnia.
Speaking of sleep… Mitch looked at the clock mounted on the wall by the entrance to the sitting room. It was well past 8:00 PM, Lorena should have left for the day twenty minutes ago. Instead of going home to her husband and kids, she remained here. The woman draped a blanket over Mitch—he was uncertain when he had slumped into the couch cushions—and said something about brewing him tea. Something to help him sleep. Was it that obvious that he wasn't sleeping? He knew he looked tired, but he didn't think the housekeeper had noticed.
Several minutes later, Lorena brought him a steaming cup of tea, taken from his mother's expensive stash no doubt. "It's caffeine free," she assured him.
"Thanks." Mitch sighed and then inhaled the steam. "You don't have to stay late, you know. I'll be fine."
"I know, Mitch," Lorena replied as she fussed with the edges of his blanket, tucking him in tighter. "But I don't like those bags under your eyes. You have to take care of yourself in these trying times. You're no good to anyone, including yourself, if you are dead on your feet. Here." She took the remote and turned on the TV again. The channel quickly changed, going from the evening news to a rerun of Friends. "Watch something funny and mindless to help you relax."
She set the remote on the couch beside him. Mitch thanked her again, not knowing what else to say to properly express how grateful he was that she hadn't left him. Lorena ran her weathered fingers through his hair, working out some of the tangles.
"It's all right," she murmured. "You just call me if you need anything. Anything at all, Mitch." By the time Lorena had grabbed her coat and her purse, Mitch was still trying to swallow the knot that had formed in his throat. The housekeeper turned off lights and dimmed the one in the sitting room on her way out. Mitch knew she was gone once he could no longer hear her shuffling feet.
The scents of tea and leather did wonders to sooth his nerves. And the lighthearted antics in the sitcom were just what he needed to briefly forget the tumultuous events surrounding his own life like the chaotic walls of a hurricane. Once there was just a sip left in his cup, Mitch reached for the pill bottle from Dr. Simmons. Take two pills twenty minutes before you go to bed, the good doctor had said. No side effects.
Mitch smoothed his thumb over the brand label: Dream Machine. And under that was a ridiculously long name that he couldn't even begin to pronounce. He broke the seal and popped two pills into his mouth, swallowing them with the last of his tea. Now all he had to do was sit through one more episode of Ross and Rachel's drama. Then his eyes would droop, and he would float away to the dream machine. Piece of cake.
A bloodcurdling scream rent the air. Mitch shot up so fast that he fell off the couch. The hardwood flooring jarred his knees and neck, sending a stab of pain through his skull. He must have fallen asleep sitting up for him to wake slumped over the way he had been. If he wasn't more careful, he would wind up going back to Dr. Simmons, this time for the crick in his neck.
Gingerly massaging the tight muscles in his neck, Mitch picked himself up. The light was still on, at a dim setting thanks to Lorena, but the TV was turned off now. He didn't recall the housekeeper setting a timer.
With a groan, Mitch reached for the ceiling until he heard the vertebrae in his spine pop. Turning his head, he stifled a yawn in his shoulder. As he lowered his arms back to his sides, he remembered that something woke him. What was it? He scanned the room, but everything appeared to be in order.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. The hands had stopped at 11:13 PM. Mitch left the sitting room and entered the dark hallway. The walls of his family's house breathed quietly around him. Other than that, he heard nothing else. Usually, the heavy ticking of the grandfather clock in the foyer drowned out every other smaller sound. Had the grandfather clock stopped, too?
The refrigerator light was blinding in the blackness of the kitchen. The blue illumination washed him out until he was the color of a robin's egg. Neither of Mitch's parents cooked often, although his dad was a fair hand at it. Most of the time, they ate out at nice restaurants, but his mom did pay a professional chef to come cook dinner for them three times a week. However, his mom and sister had been gone for over a week now, and Mitch felt weird having the chef drive all the way here to cook for only him. He gave the man a bonus from his mom's stash of cash that she kept hidden in her rarely used sewing kit and told the chef to take some time off. He was beginning to regret that decision now that the fridge was looking barren. Mitch didn't know how to cook to save his life. During his short stint in college, he had lived on greasy fries and Chinese takeout.
He closed the refrigerator door and turned toward the oven. Mitch knew it was still way too early in the morning for most places to be open, but depending on just how early the hour was, he knew of a few restaurants that were open and delivered. Real greasy-spoon type establishments.
The digital clock on the oven was blinking—11:13 it said over and over. That was odd. First the clock in the living room had stopped and now the one on the oven, and they were both stuck on the same time. Curious, Mitch walked over to the microwave. It was blinking and displaying the time 11:13 PM.
There must have been a power outage, he rationalized. That would explain the clocks and also why the TV had turned itself off. Mitch breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at himself. Look at him! His first night of decent sleep, and he got himself all worked up over nothing. All he had to do was get the accurate time from his phone and reset the other clocks.
Mitch grabbed the last apple out of the fruit drawer, making a mental note to give Lorena money and a shopping list soon. Munching on his late-night snack, Mitch went in search of his phone. He didn't think he had taken it with him to the pharmacy. Just before that, he'd received a text from Janel that really pissed him off, so he threw his phone at his bed and stormed downstairs. He'd gone to a few other places after the pharmacy, and by the time he got home, Lorena had basically put him to bed for the night. His phone was probably still on his bed where he'd left it.
When he reached the second-floor landing, Mitch turned on the hall light. This big, empty house was eerie in the dark even on a good day. Paired with the near silence, though, Mitch was actually afraid. It would have been better, he thought, if the silence in the house was complete. However, he could still hear his home making soft noises like the ones he heard downstairs. They weren't the usual creaks and groans of a building that was getting up there in years. He wasn't exactly sure how to describe them other than gentle, sleepy inhalations and exhalations. Mitch turned on every light he passed until he got to his bedroom.
Lorena, bless her soul, hadn't touched a thing in his room while he was out for the day. Despite the fact that he'd left his room in shambles, the housekeeper had given him a measure of privacy lately. There was a mountain of both clean and dirty clothes piled on top of his bed. It was practically impossible to sleep in it, which was partially why Mitch had decided to pass out on the couch rather than in his own bedroom. He swept his hand over the pile of clothes and dumped most of them on the floor in the search for his phone.
Finally, he heard it thump on the hardwood floor. Crouching on his haunches, Mitch found his phone wrapped up in the hood of a sweatshirt. He clicked the hold button and was greeted by the date and time—11:13 PM Friday, September 7.
Was it actually 11:13 PM?
The logical part of Mitch that felt silly standing here staring at his phone waiting for the minute to change told him that he was being an idiot. The power outage likely only lasted for a few seconds, that was the reason that the clocks were stopped but their displayed times were still accurate. The more superstitious part of Mitch told Logical Mitch to hold his horses and just wait a minute.
So, Mitch stood in the middle of his bedroom and stared at his phone. And he stared and stared and stared. Mitch wasn't a great judge of time passing, but he knew that he had been watching the time on his phone for well over a minute—more like five minutes—when he eventually gave up.
The time on his phone wasn't changing.
Mitch set his phone on the dresser and rubbed his eyes. This had something to do with too much stress and not enough sleep, he decided.
Leaving the hall lights on, Mitch closed his bedroom door and turned on the television by his bed. It was the only way to drown out the sound of breathing, and he would need to drown it out if he was going to go back to sleep. Which was precisely what he intended to do. Mitch collapsed on top of the covers and the clothes still strewn across his bed. He would return to that sweet, dreamless sleep if it killed him.
Mitch discovered a new text from his friend, Stan Okorie, the next morning.
Stan: hows the sleep meds treatin ya?
Mitch: Like a dream.
… does that mean u slept thru the nite?
Mitch: Almost. Woke up after a power outage.
All the clocks are still busted even my phone.
Stan: lol, mayb thats one of the side effects ;)
Mitch would like nothing more than to laugh with Stan and blame this on a strange side effect of the sleep medication, except in the light of day, this thing with the clocks was seeming less and less like a hallucination.
The timestamp on each of the text messages, both incoming and outgoing, were labeled 11:13 PM. When he wasn't texting Stan, Mitch was Googling the issue in the hopes that it was some obscure glitch that one or two other people had also experienced. He didn't realize how long he had been sitting at his computer, until Lorena pulled into the driveway around noon. Most of the time, Lorena had the weekends off, but ever since the rest of his family had flown the coop indefinitely, the housekeeper had taken to stopping by the house early in the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays.
"Hello!" Lorena called as she came in through the front door. "Mitch, are you home?" Mitch walked into the foyer to greet her.
The petite housekeeper had the handles of a plastic bag looped around one wrist. In the other hand she held a stack of envelopes and newspapers. "Right here," he said with a smile.
"Oh, honey! You look so much better already. Did you sleep last night?" Lorena reached up as much as she could and went up on her toes so she could kiss his cheek. He leaned over and met her halfway.
"I did, Lorena, thanks. Did you bring in the mail?" Mitch took the envelopes and newspaper off her hands.
"Yes, sir. And I didn't feel like cooking, so I stopped at that Italian deli on my way here and bought us lunch."
Mitch had given up telling Lorena that she didn't have to feed him. Over the years, he had noticed that Lorena took on more of a mothering role whenever his own mom wasn't around and wouldn't dissuaded no matter what he said. He wondered if it started as pity for him, since Janel had always been closer to their mom, and Mitch never gravitated toward either parent.
Lorena shuffled into the kitchen with their food while Mitch flipped through the mail. Most of it was either junk or addressed to his father. Mitch was about to toss the stack of mail onto the table by the antique mirror when he caught a glimpse of his own name. He paused and then separated the letter addressed to him from the rest.
Mitch saw that his name was the only thing on the envelope. No address or return address, no stamp. He considered opening it but stopped. Anything sent to him these days was probably nothing he wanted to see.
Without another thought, Mitch threw it in with the other letters then joined Lorena in the kitchen for lunch.
A scream tore through the night, waking Mitch with a start. He sat up in bed sweating, trembling, and confused.
Blue light flooded the bedroom. He was positive that he hadn't gone to bed with the TV on, but there was the evening news anchor on the screen.
"The family of Steffanie Filipek is seeking justice for the death of—"
Mitch pressed the red button on the remote so hard that the tip of his finger turned white. The anchor was cut off mid-sentence as the screen went black. Out of curiosity, Mitch looked at the digital clock on his bedside table. The red numbers declared the time was 11:13 PM. Earlier in the day, Lorena had been just as befuddled by the broken clocks, but all she did was accuse modern technology of being a fickle lover and vowed to have a professional come fix them.
Now that he'd silenced the noise from the TV, Mitch could hear the walls breathing again.
Before this, he was sleeping blissfully. The kind of sleep that left him feeling like he was swaddled in a cloud. However, this was the second night in a row that he had awakened disoriented. Just like the previous night, Mitch couldn't put his finger on the reason for his abrupt departure from sleep.
Mitch tried to swallow but ended up wincing. His throat was dry and cracked. Intent on getting a glass of water, he threw off the blankets and turned on the light. Opening his bedroom door, Mitch hesitated.
On the floor of the hallway were child-sized footprints stamped in red. He saw more of them that emerged from around the corner. If the prints weren't perfectly formed, Mitch would have convinced himself that the marks were made by something other than the bare feet of a little kid. It was impossible to mistake the footprints for anything other than what they were, though. He could count each round toe, see the curve of the tiny arch and the blot of the heel.
The direction of the footprints were pointed toward his bedroom, Mitch noted. There were no prints leading away from it.
He turned away from the door and grabbed his phone off the dresser. Mitch wanted to get pictures of the footprints just in case of… Well, he wasn't certain of the exact reason, so he left it at just in case. When he turned on his phone, he saw that he had several unread text messages.
Stan: wat time is it?
wat time is it?
wat time is it?
These were all timestamped at 11:13 PM. Something about the repeated question caused Mitch to pause. Stan was an odd guy and frequently drunk texted Mitch bizarre or nonsensical things. However, this didn't seem like one of those instances. In fact, something about this string of texts didn't really sound like Stan at all. On an impulse, Mitch replied to him:
Mitch: Who is this?
Fifteen seconds passed before he received a response.
Mitch's already dry throat somehow became drier. He switched the view on his phone so that the dial pad was displayed. Forget taking pictures. He was prepared to call 9-1-1. With his phone at the ready, Mitch crept out of his bedroom. He followed the red footprints around the corner and toward the staircase, flipping light switches as he went.
The front stairwell was vacuous in the dark, sucking at light and sound until all he could hear was deep, soft breaths. The red footprints came up each step, appearing to have slipped momentarily in some places. Mitch hit the lights, and the chandelier overhead bathed the foyer in a golden glow. More perfect red footprints came into the foyer from the kitchen. Clutching the banister in one hand and his phone in the other, Mitch quietly trod down the steps.
He didn't have the chance to flick on the kitchen light before Mitch tripped over something and stepped on a sharp edge. With a hiss, he grabbed his bare foot, and something warm and wet met his fingers. Hopping on one foot, Mitch grappled with the switch on the wall. By the time light filled the kitchen, his foot and hand were coated in a layer of blood. Upon a first glance around the kitchen, it became immediately clear what tripped him.
Scattered across the floor were empty bottles. Craft beer bottles the color of molasses were dumped carelessly on multiple surfaces including the floor. A vodka bottle lay on its side, dripping liquid onto the tiles; it appeared only one-third full. Someone had pulled down the rack of wine glasses. Three were badly broken, one of which he'd stepped on. Mitch lifted his bleeding foot to verify there were no glass shards in his skin.
The house exhaled a sigh, reminding him what originally brought him into the kitchen. The red footprints walked across the kitchen and came from the dining room. He followed them leaving red footprints of his own, although his were larger and messier. Into the dining room he went, then into the breakfast nook and into another hallway from there. Eventually, the footprints led him in a circle around the house. A circle that took him to the sitting room.
The light in the room was on as was the TV.
"... If the case against Mitch Lorrins goes to trial, he could be facing life in prison," said the news anchor.
Mitch barely heard the man.
On the floor was Lorena. She was unconscious in a pool of blood. He hurried to her side and dropped to his knees. Her body was cold to the touch. Mitch couldn't tell where she was bleeding, but her hair was so matted that he suspected a head wound to be the culprit. She had something clutched in her hand, a white envelope that was half soaked in blood. It was the envelope with his name written on it. In a daze, Mitch peered inside the envelope only to discover that it was empty.
Mitch's phone pinged.
Stan: hows the sleep meds treatin ya?
An aggressive knock at the front door nearly made him drop his phone in the housekeeper's blood coagulating at his feet.
Stan: u gonna answer the door, Mitchy boy?
"In other news," said the anchor, "this is the final weekend to buy tickets to The Kichirou Show. If you're looking for an escape from mundanity, you will not want to miss this crazy spectacular, folks."
Another knock rang through the empty house, this time followed by an "Police! Open up!"
Stan: i hear the carnival is nice this time of year
Mitch stood and backed away from Lorena's body. Nothing he had seen since he woke up made any sense to him, but he was aware that it didn't look good. The beer and liquor, the envelope with his name on it, Lorena… And he was the only other person home. He retreated from the sitting room and eased the back door open. He could mourn Lorena later. At the moment, he needed to get away. Mitch broke into a sprint, heading for the woods at the back of the Lorrins property. The cut on his foot stung, but that was such an insignificant discomfort compared to what he'd just done.
He was abandoning the crumbling ruins of his old life in such a way that would make it impossible to ever return.
In the darkness of early morning, Mitch heard his phone ping again, and he chucked it into the expanse of trees that welcomed him into their embrace with prickly branches. The screen stayed illuminated for ten seconds.
Unknown Number: c u soon
Then the screen went black, and the Lorrins house exhaled for the last time.