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They Stood Against the Sky · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Hit and Run
The gunshot woke Edward from his dream.

He was in the deepest ebb of sleep, that glacial point where your heart is at its slowest and the impulses slipping from neuron to neuron in your brain travel like worms through sludge. The sharp, sudden sound jerked him violently back to life. His whole body spasmed, and for a disoriented, terrible moment he was stuck between worlds, half in the dark bedroom with only the ghostly form of the ceiling fan to anchor his vision, and half in a chaotic mess of fantasies and vivid false-color memories that receded further away with every beat of his heart.

He lay there, breathing hard. The shock of adrenaline chilled him. He scrambled for the .45 in the endtable’s drawer beside him, but as his fingers closed on the little brass knob, his remaining senses came online, and he paused.

The house was silent. Shadow wasn’t barking. Cidne shifted beside him and mumbled something in her sleep, but otherwise made no move. There was no crash of breaking glass or sirens or screams in the night outside. Because there hadn’t been a gunshot. Just a dream.

Fuck. He sat up, careful not to shake the mattress, and sat on the bed’s edge, elbows resting on his knees. It had all seemed so real – the gunshot, and the… the gunshot, and the gunshot. Everything else had already melted away, and all that remained was that deafening exclamation point.

He pulled the drawer open slowly, to keep the rails from squeaking. His fingers brushed the .45’s blued steel receiver. He considered taking it with him, but sometimes caution was just a veil for cowardice, and Edward was no coward, no sir, so he slid the drawer shut again before carefully and quietly walking out the bedroom.

A vodka would fix things. It usually did.

By the time he settled down on the couch, glass in hand, a faint storm had started to light the countryside. He saw the landscape in flashes through the glass door leading out to the patio; trees blown into a frenzy, capture with stop-motion precision by each bolt. A low, constant rumble shook his chest as the distant thunder slowly caught up, punctuated occasionally by brighter flashes and sharper, cracking peals.

That was probably it. Not a gunshot but thunder. Or the thunder had provoked his sleep-addled mind into dredging up fragments of his memory and kludging them together into a wild and violent pastiche. By now the real tangible sensations of being awake – the cold floor beneath his feet, the chilled glass held loosely in his fingers, the burn of the vodka – had obliterated even residual memories of the dream, and with every passing moment even the fact that he had dreamed slipped further and further away.

He took sips of the vodka while watching the storm, slowly letting the steady howl of the wind and rumble of thunder calm his nerves. The alcohol helped too. By the time his phone buzzed to life an hour later, it didn’t even startle him.

He let it rattle for a few seconds before picking it up. The number was blocked, but not many telemarketers called at 2 a.m., so it was probably work. He flicked the little green phone icon across the screen and held it to his cheek. “Detective Gonzales. Go ahead.”

“Hey Eddy, it’s Pamela. Sorry to wake you. Need you out at an accident site. Dakota’s already on his way, he’ll meet you there.”

“For an accident?” He leaned back against the cushion. “Just call the township cops, they ain’t got nothin’ better to do.”

“It was a bad accident, Eddy.” Pam paused, and when she resumed there was a slight catch in her throat, like she was coming down with a cold or something. “County Road 309, about a mile south of the 74 split. You can’t miss it.”

“I don’t care how bad it is, they don’t need a detective to mop things up. Call the volunteer fire depart—”

“There’s more, but I can’t share it on an open line. Dakota will fill you in. And be careful out there, looks like a storm might be moving through.”

He could still argue. He should still argue – waking a detective up for some stupid DUI fatality was a goddamn stupid waste of city resources. But then, he hadn’t really been asleep, and truth be told, even with the vodka taking the edge off his nerves, he probably wasn’t going to get to sleep anytime soon.

“Alright. I’m putting all this on my timecard, though. Anything else?”

“Nah, be safe. Dispatch out.” The radio patch-through to the cell system ended with a click, and the line went dead after a moment of static. He set the phone down and tilted his head back, eyes closed, imagining what a few more hours of sleep would feel like.

The floorboards down the hall creaked. He tilted his head to see Cidne walking toward him, one of his oversized t-shirts hanging from her shoulders like a tent, coming all the way down to her mid-thighs. Her hair was fuzzy and unkempt, and her eyes were only half-open as she as she settled on the cushion beside him.

“Hey.” He placed a dry kiss on her forehead. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“S’fine.” Her fingers found his, twining around them, and grasped the phone. “Work?”

“Yeah. Gotta go out real quick. Should only be a few hours.”

“Mm.” She took the glass from his other hand and sniffed at it, making a face. “You sure you can drive?”

“I’ll be fine.” There was barely enough alcohol in that little shot of vodka to get a toddler drunk. “Go back to bed.”

She shook her head. “Don’t think I can. Just had the craziest dream, woke me right up.”

“Yeah?” That seemed to be going around. He leaned forward and stood with a groan. All 42 of his years weighed heavily on him, and he wondered for a moment just when he’d started to turn into his father. “What about?”

“I… there was…” She stopped, frowning at something only she could see. “I don’t remember. Something about a train, I think. It seemed so real.”

“Always does,” he said. The floorboards squeaked again as he walked back to the bedroom to get dressed. Outside, flashes of lightning captured the swaying trees, like lovers locked in some violent, frenzied dance.

Jefferson County Road 309 was a long, two-lane stretch of asphalt that ran mostly straight for the length of the old B&O railway easement between Hamilton and Mechanicsburg. Corn and soybeans and potatoes and small stretches of woods surrounded it on both sides. The storm held off while he drove, the red-and-blue strobes concealed in his car’s grill competing with the lightning to fill in the dark spaces beyond his headlights.

He passed the 74 split and kept going. Ahead, a sea of flashing lights chased away the night. The fire department was on scene already, and they had portable light towers glaring out at the fields. A cruiser blocked the road, and Ed killed his killed his lights as he approached. The officer by the cruiser waved him past.

Dakota’s old beat-up Toyota S-10 was pulled off to the side ahead. He parked behind it. Further ahead, the man himself stood with a band of EMTs and township cops. He waved for Ed’s attention.

The EMTs were just standing around. Always a bad sign.

“Hey bud.” Dakota gave him a fist-bump once he was in range. He had to raise his voice over the wind. “Hope you brought your umbrella. Looks like it’s gonna start any minute now.”

Fuck. Umbrella. It was always something. He’d look like an idiot if he had to borrow a poncho from the volunteer fire boys. Whatever. He looked out at the field past a gentle bend in the road, where at least a dozen cops, volunteers and probies waded through thigh-high soybeans. The field was scarred in places, the plants torn apart to expose the dirt. Over an area nearly a hundred yards long, poles had been shoved into the dirt, topped with streamers cut from a POLICE LINE, DO NOT CROSS tape.

“Big ass accident site,” he mumbled. The county’s request for a detective was starting to make sense. He squinted out into the field, trying to find the wrecks. Aside from a few tangled bits of metal frame rising from the soybeans like islands above a storm-tossed ocean, there wasn’t much to see. “How many cars?”

“Just one.”

Ed blinked. “Come again?” The search teams were out canvassing an area larger than a goddamn football field. “Just one? What the hell happened?”

“Excessive speed. Driver lost control at the bend.” Dakota gestured at the edge of the road where the destruction seemed to originate. “Going at least a hundred. Five pax, all deceased.”

Christ. “Locals?”

“Some of them. Still looking for the plates, but the medics pulled two IDs off the bodies, both from Hamilton. County’s working notification.”

“Okay, so they seem to have everything in hand.” He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets – the night had turned unseasonable cool for summer, and the wind wasn’t helping. “What are we doing out here? Helping pick up? Any criminal indications, aside from being idiots?”

“Yeah.” Dakota looked out at the field, then turned to stare down the long stretch of 309 behind them. “They were being chased.”

The sun was a goddamn early riser in July, already starting to peek above the horizon just after five. But on this morning it was still dark, the sky baffled and obscured by the low storm clouds that raced across it. They were heavy, pregnant with rain, just waiting to burst.

Ed stared out at them from the little window in the station’s conference room. Some kind soul had made a coffee run, and he held a steaming cup of Dunkin’ Donuts’ best. Just the scent was enough to improve his morning by a few shades.

Dakota came in and locked the door. “Okay, got the audio and a transcript. Which do you want?”

“Let’s do both.” He set the coffee down on the conference table and pulled out a pen. Dakota slid a sheaf of papers across the table to him, then tapped something on his laptop. After a few seconds, the familiar hiss of an audio recording filled the room.

“Jefferson County Emergency Services, what is your emergency?” That was Pamela. She handled 911 calls after midnight most nights.

“Uh, hello? Hello?” The girl’s voice sounded young and out of breath. She had trouble getting her words out. The background noise, a car engine or the wind or something else loud and constant, nearly drowned her out. “Someone’s chasing us and we need help please.”

Young woman, maybe 16 or 17. Ed scribbled his notes on the margin of the page. No slur in her voice suggesting alcohol or drugs, but the obvious fear she was expressing might’ve chased that away. For a moment he remembered that the girl whose voice they were listening to was dead, and that this recording was nothing more than a ghost, and his pen froze on the page. He shook his head to banish the thought and resumed listening.

A keyboard went clickety-clack in the background. “Okay, I’m letting the police know now. Where are you?”

“Uh... “ There was a pause, followed by unintelligible cross-talk. It sounded like at least three or four voices, all young. “I, uh, we’re in a car.”

“Okay sweetie, where is your car?”

“It’s…” More cross-talk. A boy’s voice shouted something about a road. “The, uh, long road that goes past the K-Mart.”

“That sounds like 309. What direction are you going?”

“Direction? Uh, south, I think? It’s…” There was a muffled click, and for a moment it sounded like the line had gone dead, but then the girl’s voice returned. “Yeah, Dylan says south. We’re almost to, uh, 74.”

“And what kind of car is chasing you?”

“It’s not a car it’s a man.” A bit of panic had started to work it’s way back into the girl’s voice. “Please, there’s a man chasing and we need help we really really need help as fast as you can.”

“Take a deep breath, sweetie, I already have help on the way. Is the man chasing you on a motorcycle?”

“No he’s not on anything—” The girl’s voice finally broke on that word, and the rest came out as a sob. The sound of the engine in the background grew louder, and the cross-talk from the other voices turned into shouts. “Please he’s getting closer and I think he wants to hurt us.”

Ed frowned. He stopped taking notes and set the pen down. Dakota leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and staring at the laptop.

It took a few seconds for Pamela to speak again. He could faintly hear her typing something. “Okay, if you keep going south on 309 you’ll come up to the 410 junction. I have police on the way there. Can you tell me again what kind of car the man chasing you is—”

“He’s not in a car he’s just running after us!” the girl screamed. It was almost impossible to hear her over the car’s roaring, maximized engine or the other voices shouting at her, at the driver, at the phone, at whatever. “He’s chasing after us and—”

Someone else on the line screamed, a high, loud, panicked sound. Brakes squealed, drowning out everything else for a moment, then followed by the crashing jangle of a car being flipped and spun and torn apart. It lasted for just a moment before going dead.

“Sweetie?” Pam’s voice filled the silence. “Sweetie, are you… shit. Dispatch, all units, please be—” Her voice cut out as the recording came to an end.

Ed stared down at the transcript. Whoever had typed it had been in a rush, or they’d used voice-recognition software that couldn’t cope with the background noise. The last few lines were a mess of nonsense words, followed by TRANSCRIPT ENDS.

“Well,” he finally said. “Shit.”

The local news shows went on air starting at six. As expected, the top story was the accident. Ed watched the TV in the breakroom.

A reporter stood at the edge of the road, his windbreaker whipping wildly. The storm still hadn’t broken, but it hung low over the fields, allowing only a dim fragment of the morning’s light to break through. The sound was off, but Ed had seen enough of these reports to know what the reporter was saying. Five kids, lost control, police investigating. At least it was summer, so he didn’t have to watch the inevitable shots of kids crying at the high school.

Dakota joined him as the segment ended. They watched the weather lady for a few seconds, then turned to the business at hand.

“Got IDs on all of them,” Dakota said. He set the folder on the table and went to pour his own cup of coffee. “All high-schoolers except the driver. He graduated last year.”

“Dylan, right?” Sip. Ah. “Lab results?”

“Lab don’t open ‘til eight on Saturdays.”

“Not even for this? Five kids dead.”

Dakota shrugged. “You wanna open your own toxicology lab, you go for it. Until then we’re using the hospital’s. You think they were drunk?”

“At 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning, driving on a county road at a hundred miles per hours? Yeah, it crossed my mind.” Another sip. “Plus that delusion about some dude chasing them. Maybe, I dunno, meth? LSD?”

“Prank gone wrong?”

“Could be. Dunno how it would work though.” He yawned. “Families notified yet?”

Dakota checked his watch. “Should be done with the last one by now. You wanna talk with them already?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. Not until the labs come back.”

“Fine by me.” Dakota started to take a drink of his coffee, and had to stop when an enormous yawn split his face. “Ugh, sorry. What a damn night.”

“Pam wake you up, too?”

His sometime-partner shook his head. “Was already up, actually. Some damn dream woke me.”

“Yeah?” Ed watched the TV for a few seconds. The weather lady was gesturing to some lines on a map of the state. “Storms’ll do that, I guess. Crazy, huh?”

“If you say so. Wish I could remember what it was about, though.” Dakota’s pocket started to buzz, and he pulled his phone out. “This is Evans. Already? Okay, we’re on the way.”

Sip. Delicious. “Lab opening early?”

“Nah, better. They’re bringing the car in. C’mon, I’ll drive.”

“Peachy.” Ed poured the rest of his coffee into a stainless steel thermos before following out into the hall.

Calling it ‘the car’ was a bit of a generous misnomer. Ed would’ve described it as ‘the disintegrated remains of the car.’ It arrived at the lot on three different flatbed wreckers. Tarps covered the tangled metal in a gesture of decency and respect to the five victims, pieces of whom might still be stuck in there somewhere.

“Fuck me, look at that thing,” Dakota muttered.

It took over an hour to offload all the pieces. The wheels were still recognizable. Everything else was not. Ed stared at one mangled bit of metal that resembled nothing so much as a piece of origami carefully unfolded, then torn and smashed and crushed into a little ball. It was part of the muffler, he finally decided.

The engine block was the largest part still in one piece. It came in on a fourth truck. Apparently it had torn itself free from the rest of the car as it flipped, then continued down the field for another three hundred yards in the manner of a boulder rolling downhill before it finally hit a tree and stopped. Bits of wood were lodged in the empty cylinders.

The department had a specialist for this. An officer trained at a special class run by the auto insurance industry, of all groups, who knew how fast a car had to be moving for the various parts to fail, for the roof to crumple, or for wheels to depart the vehicle. He knew how much force it took for the steering column to crush the driver, or for the passenger compartment to compress into a space smaller than a human being occupied. The specialist arrived, took one look at the pile, shook his head, and left.

Ed sighed. It wasn’t even eight in the morning yet.

“What do you wanna do?” Dakota asked.

“I’m taking a nap in my office. Wake me when the lab results come in.”

He was chasing someone. A young black man. It was dark but not too dark – a few minutes after sunset, or just before the sunrise. Enough for the sky to retain some light but for everything else to have faded into grays and blacks. Ahead, the kid rounded a corner, roughly shoving a middle-aged lady out of his way. She fell with a cry. Ed didn’t stop for her.

He rounded the corner a few seconds later. There was a fence blocking the alley, and the young man was trying to climb it. He saw Ed behind him, and—

His office door rattled as someone rapped the glass with their knuckles, then opened, revealing Dakota. “Hey, wake up.”

“Fuck, man.” Ed sat up on the spare cot beside his desk and rubbed his head. “A little louder, next time?”

“Truly sorry.” Dakota let himself in and took a seat on the desk. He flipped through a manilla folder and pulled out a single sheet. “Got the first set of labs back.”

“Yeah?” Ed found his thermos and uncapped it. The scent of slightly stale coffee filled the room, and he took a swallow, not caring that it was still hot enough to burn. A look at the clock of the door showed it was almost 10. “Driver?”

“Not yet. Stacey Meyers. She was the girl who made the 911 call.”




“Clean, so far. The PCP test takes a few days because it has to go out of state, but do you really think she was doing that shit?”

No. No, probably not. PCP wasn’t exactly the drug of choice for high schoolers in rural Iowa. “So she was sober when she made that call?”

“I just read the piece of paper, man.”

Wiseass. Ed motioned for him to give it up, then spent a few second scanning the report. Most of it was gibberish, but he’d read enough over his career to find the high points. Blood alcohol, zero. Drug toxicity, zero. No unusual or unexpected compounds detected.

“Okay.” He set the sheet down and stared at it, as if he could intimidate it into giving better answers. “She wasn’t impaired. So she was either lying or the victim of some kind of deception.”

“Or some dude really was chasing her.”

Ed peered at him over the rim of his glasses. “Some dude. On foot. Chasing a car going a hundred miles per hour.”

Dakota shrugged. “It’s what she thought she saw.”

“Right. We’ll put a pin in that theory. As for a prank… we’ll talk to their friends. Check their social media pages. They might’ve posted about it.”

Dakota scribbled in his little notebook. “Social media. Did you think you’d be checking Facebook when you applied to be a detective?”

“Man, when I was a patrol cop I thought detectives still used magnifying glasses.” Ed took his glasses off and set them on the desk. They were straining his eyes already. “Funny how every job seems awesome ‘til you finally get it. Then it’s just more work.”

“Yeah, could be worse, though,” Dakota said. He tapped the toxicology report. “Could’ve ended up like these kids. I did a lot of stupid shit with my car when I was young.”

“There but for the grace of god, go we.” Ed shoved the tox report back across the desk and opened his laptop. “Okay, I’ll try Facebook. You try Twitter or whatever the kids are using these days. What is it, Vine?”

“I’ll ask the interns. They’ll know.”

The criminal justice interns from the local community college did know. The interns knew far, far too much about all the new social media platforms that seemed to sprout every day. By mid-afternoon Ed was ready to toss the laptop out the window.

Hours of searching, and nothing. By now the kids’ feeds were getting clogged with condolence messages, pictures of crying angels, heartfelt and angsty tributes, and at least a dozen pictures of a cartoon octopus superimposed with big block letter texts that was apparently all the rage at the moment. He wanted to punch it in the face. Instead he took another sip of coffee, and after making sure the hallway was clear, he poured a bit of vodka into it for flavor.

If it was a prank, it was the old-fashioned kind. Hopefully the families would know more. He spun around in his chair to look out the window. It was still cloudy and windy, with none of the rain that had been threatening all day. Almost like the storm was waiting for something to break. He fancied, for a moment, that God up in heaven was watching their little drama down on earth, his hand on the cord that would unleash the reservoir, and down would come the flood again. All waiting for one of those little ants to trip the switch that would fulfil his grand design.

“Christ, I gotta get more sleep.”

Cidne was already home when he pulled into the driveway. He walked around her Honda toward the front door. The rich scent of baking lasagna greeted him at the door. He paused for a moment to savor it.

He found her in the kitchen. She hadn’t heard him come in, so absorbed was she with the corn-on-the-cob, and she shrieked when he wrapped his arms around her waist.

“Hey.” He smooched her cheek. “Sorry.”

“Asshole.” She smacked his shoulder. “What if I’d been holding a knife?”

“I knew you weren’t.” Another smooch. “How was the daycare?”

“Rough.” She tried to wriggle out of his grasp, and when that failed resigned herself to shucking the corn while still being embraced. “All the teachers were exhausted. The storm woke us all up, I think.”

“They’ll do that.” He scanned the counter for anything edible, and stole an olive from the tossed salad. “Feeling better now?”

“A little.” She finally pushed him away to start a pot of water on the range. “I saw that accident on the news. Is that what they called you for this morning?”

“Yeah. Was a damn mess. Five kids dead because of some…” he trailed off and considered his words. “Some bad decisions.”

“Were they drinking?”

“Maybe. We’re still waiting for the driver’s labs to come in.”

The stove dinged, and Cidne rushed to get the lasagna out.

They ate as they always did, the TV on in the next room to the evening news. Outside, beyond the patio, the trees resumed their swaying dance as the wind began to pick back up.

The gunshot woke Edward from his dream.

He didn’t panic this time. Instead he lay still in bed, eyes on the ceiling fan turning gracefully above him. Shadow wasn’t barking. Cidne wasn’t moving. No other sounds intruded on the night except for the low thrum of the wind and the creaking of the house’s joists as the pressure on the walls shifted with each gust. Not a night for anyone to be out, cop or criminal or teenage joyrider.

He focused on his breathing until it began to slow. His palms stung, like he’d just fired his service pistol, but there was no acrid stink of gunsmoke in the air. It was just a dream, and those were just phantom pains troubling him. Memories burned deep into his brain by thousands of rounds at the firing range. And a few in other places besides.

The dream. There was the gunshot, and… nothing else. It had already fled from him. He sighed and closed his eyes to try and sleep again.

The bed shook as Cidne jerked beside him. She gasped for air, and her hands clutched at the sheets, nearly yanking them from his body. She sat up, panting, staring around at the dark room in a panic.

His first instinct was to hold her, but he stifled it. A person just waking up was disoriented, confused, liable to lash out at any unexpected contact. Instead he waited for several seconds before speaking. “Cidne. It’s okay. It’s just a dream.”

Her hand grasped for him. He caught it and held it tight. The pulse in her wrist raced beneath his fingertips.

“Sorry,” she finally choked out. She lowered herself back onto the mattress. “Just a nightmare. Christ, it felt so real.”

He pulled her against his chest, arms around her bare shoulders. They were slick with cold sweat. “It’s okay. Just breathe.”

She did that for a while, until eventually the panic ebbed away, and she began to shiver in the cold air. He pulled the blankets back over them and held her tight.

“It’s that storm,” she mumbled. Her voice was already muzzy with sleep. “I hope it goes away soon.”

Yeah. So did he. He closed his eyes, but no matter how much he willed it, even as his wife drifted off again into slumber, sleep did not return for him.

Ed stared at his laptop. There was a report on it. Statements from the deceased children’s parents. Sad stuff, he assumed – he could barely remember reading it. His eyes lost their focus every other line, and at some point he let them close, just to rest for a bit. He wasn’t sleeping; he just needed to relax for a few—

His door rattled. He snapped back to life in time to see Dakota push his way in.

“Hey man.” Dakota collapsed into the worn leather chair opposite the desk. It groaned beneath his considerable weight. “You look like shit.”

“Hey, thanks.” Ed rubbed his eyes. “You too.”

It wasn’t too much of a lie; the bags beneath Dakota’s eyes were darker and thicker than usual, his thinning hair limp around his temples. Dark sweatstains already colored his shirt at the armpits, though it wasn’t even noon and not all that hot besides. A cool day for the summer.

“Hard to sleep with all that wind, you know?” Dakota said. He stared out the window at the low clouds for a bit, then shook his head. “Was going through some jurisdictional records, found something interesting.”

“Yeah?” Maybe this would keep him awake.

“Dylan MacArthur, our driver. His family moved here two years ago when he was a senior. They used to live out in Des Moines. And right before they moved, he was arrested but never indicted. Prosecutor decided not to press charges.”

“Huh.” Ed tapped his laptop back to life and opened the file they’d built for the young man. There wasn’t much in it yet. “Drugs?”

“Nope.” Dakota slid a manila folder across the desk. “Hit-and-run.”

He froze. “You’re kidding.”

“I shit you not. Struck a pedestrian who was running by the side of the road. Local doctor, big figured in his community. Raised a lot of money for charities. Killed him instantly. Said he didn’t see the guy.”

Ed fingered the manila folder. Only a few pages were inside, including photos. “Why wasn’t he charged?”

Dakota shrugged. “No witnesses, no evidence of any crime. Was around twilight and visibility was poor. Said he was real tired. Just an accident. You wanna ruin a kid’s life for that?”

Yeah, kind of. His first instinct was anger, imagining how the victim’s family must’ve felt when they got the news. Of course the kid was at fault – he was a teenager behind the wheel of a car. Every man who’d been a boy once themselves knew whose fault it was. He ground his teeth, then set the folder down and rubbed his forehead. “Okay, so, maybe not a prank? Maybe something malicious that got out of hand?”

“Eh, maybe. But it doesn’t explain what Stacey thought she saw. How do you fake someone running after a car going almost a hundred miles per hour?”

“I dunno. Motorcycle still seems obvious. What about, like, a drone? Hang a mannequin from it or something, rig it to look like it’s running.”

“A drone.” Dakota stared at him. “Rigged up with a mannequin. At night. Somehow chasing a car down a dark county road for several miles. All part of a prank-slash-weird-revenge for a hit-and-run accident?”

“Well.” Ed cast about for something else, then shrugged. “I mean, it sound stupid when you say it like that.”

“Yeah, cuz it is stupid.”

“Okay.” Ed leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. “What’s your theory? What does the wise and omniscient Senior Detective Dakota Evans think it was?”

“Beats me, man. Ghost?”

“Ghost.” Ed looked around for something to throw, and settled on the coverpage of an old report. He wadded it up and flicked it across the desk at Dakota’s big fat belly. “Get out of here. And see if you can get a number for that doctor’s family.”

Cidne beat him home again. But there was no home-cooked meal waiting this time. Instead there was pizza, which Ed concluded was still pretty good.

They ate in silence, except for the drone of the newscaster on the TV. Apparently, local business were dealing with a surge in absenteeism and sick days. B-roll footage showed the public pool chained up with a “Closed” sign across the gate, dark stores in the mall and a long line at the CVS pharmacy counter.

“It’s this weather,” Cidne said. She looked as frazzled at he’d ever seen her, even worse than their nights cramming for finals at Iowa State. “No one can sleep. Messes up your immune system. You should take some vitamin C.”

“Sure.” Cidne loved that shit. There was an entire shelf in the pantry dedicated to homeopathy and natural remedies. They’d had a few arguments over its perceived benefits early in their relationship, until one day Ed’s father had taken him aside and politely reminded him that Cidne was the best thing that had ever happened to him and did he really want to risk that because maybe Zicam wasn’t as effective as the box claimed.

No, no he didn’t. So Cidne got her shelf in the pantry and Ed got to hear about the benefits of vitamin C from time to time, and all was well in the world.

“You taking enough?” he quipped, feeling brave. Or perhaps giddy from lack of sleep. “Look a little rough today yourself.”

She frowned down at her pizza. “Yeah. I’m not sick, just tired. I feel like I haven’t really slept in days. Even melatonin isn’t helping.”

“Need something stronger.” He snuck a sip from his vodka. She didn’t like when he drank at the dinner table, but dammit, if ever there was a night for it.

They moved from the dining room into the living room, taking the pizza with them. Shadow joined them, and Ed snuck him a few bits of pepperoni when Cidne wasn’t watching. And Cidne always wondered why Shadow seemed to like him more than her.

The sun had barely set by the time they made their way to bed. Outside, the low, heavy clouds continued their march across the heavens. Someday, he figured, the world would run out of clouds, but it seemed there were enough left in the sky for tonight, at least.

The gunshot woke Edward from his dream.

He was in the alley again. The young man – the young thug – was backed up against the fence. He held out his hand as if to ward off the cop chasing him.

Ed’s gun was out. Rare for an arrest. Most were peaceful and non-violent, or they involved a bit of wrestling with some drunk idiot. But now his blood was up; this fucking punk made him run, was shoving ladies out of his way, maybe hurting them bad, just so he could get away.

It was enough to make a man angry. Enough to make him furious.

They were shouting at each other. The kid’s hands were up, or out. He reached into his pocket, and there could’ve been anything in there. Anything at all. A wallet, a knife, a gun. Enough to make a reasonable man fear for his life. That’s what he would tell them.

The gunshot woke Edward from his dream.

Except he wasn’t really dreaming, or even asleep. Or maybe he was still asleep. It was hard to say. So he just lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling fan. The house creaked quietly as the wind pushed futilely against it.

“You okay?” Cidne whispered. She pressed her chin against his shoulder.

“Yeah.” He swallowed. His throat was dry and sore, like the onset of a cold, but he knew it was just this damned sleeplessness. A glance at the clock on his bedside table showed it was barely past one.

Forty-eight hours ago, almost to the minute, since the crash that killed Stacey Meyers and her four friends. He wondered if their parents were able to sleep yet, or if they lay awake now as well in their homes, listening to the wind batter their walls, wondering what they could’ve done different.

Stop being so morbid, some smarter part of his mind demanded. So he turned and stretched an arm across Cidne, pulling her closer. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I can’t sleep either.”

“I know. It’s this damn weather…”

She shook her head. “No, I keep having this stupid dream… There was a train, I think, and… I wish I could remember the rest.”

“It’s just a dream.” He kissed the side of her head, the frazzled red hair tickling his cheeks. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“I know. But it… this sounds stupid, but it reminds me of when I was a kid. My friends and I would play on the old abandoned tracks where the B&O used to run. We’d run along them and pretend there was a train coming, then we’d jump off just in time to avoid getting squished. I ruined… I don’t know, like, five dresses that way. Eventually mom made me wear pants.”

“Mm. Why’d you stop?”

“Grew up. Girls can’t play like that after a certain age.”

“Sure they can,” he protested.

She kissed him back. “Try being a girl and saying that.”

“Well, you should be able to.”

“Very generous of you to say.” She rolled in his grip to face him. “So, what keeps waking you? What are you dreaming of?”

“I…” He waited for a few breaths to answer. “You know, I don’t remember.”

It was mostly the truth.

“Maybe there is no answer,” Ed said. “Just… what was it you said, yesterday? Just an accident.”

Dakota sat across the conference room table. It was covered with various papers, but the only ones that mattered were stacked neatly in front of Ed, covered with notes and highlights. The transcript of Stacey’s 911 call.

“There’s nothing to prosecute. We don’t even know that a crime took place.” Dakota looked as bad as Ed felt. He hadn’t bothered to shave, or perhaps hadn’t been able to. His eyes looked like he was coming off a three-day bender.

They were both chugging coffee like it was heroin, and it barely kept them going. Ed was frankly amazed they’d both made it to work alive.

There was a long pause in the conversation. There’d been a lot of those so far this day. He wondered idly what dreams were keeping Dakota awake.

“It’s only been two days.” Wait, no. “Three days. It’s only been three days. Someone will come forward with something and we’ll be able to progress. Or we’ll find something in the car. You know how it goes, man. You just gotta…” He yawned. “Gotta wait.”

“Yeah.” Dakota stared out the conference room window. It was another gray day, still threatening to rain. Faint flashes lit the dark clouds. “You should head home, man. Get out a bit early today.”

“What, and just leave you to suffer without me?”

“You got that backwards, bro. Go home. Kiss Cidne for me.”

“Hey, fuck you.”

They jawed a bit more. He wanted to argue, to stay, but Dakota was probably right. So when they reached a lull he stood a bit shakily, clapped his partner on the back, and headed out for the day.

Hell, leaving a few hours early wouldn’t hurt for once.

There was time to kill, so he decided to walk the few blocks to the deli. Odds were Cidne wasn’t going to be cooking anything for dinner anyway. On the way, on the sidewalk, he felt the first drops of rain on his face. He looked up, eyes closed, and let their cool touch caress him.

“About damn time,” he mumbled.

The raindrops started to try almost as soon as they hit the sidewalk, leaving faint dark spots that slowly faded as he watched. It didn’t look like a shower was about to start, just a short sprinkle that would whet their appetite for—

He stopped. At his feet were a few dark drops that weren’t fading. They were dark and thick and faintly red, scattered in little flowers around a central point. He stared at them for a long moment.

More, ahead. He followed them, weaving around pedestrians and dogs and fire hydrants discarded wind-blown trash. He walked faster and faster, following the path they painted for him.

Then they stopped. He skidded to a halt and looked around, and saw that they hadn’t stopped but rather turned abruptly, leading into an alley. They were almost invisible against the dark asphalt, but thicker now too, and larger. He walked after them numbly.

He came to a chain-linked fence, stretched across the alley. Beyond it were dumpsters and someone’s moped and the beat-up remains of a bedframe, a no-trespassing sign and empty bottles set out for the garbage man. But no souls, and no blood. That ended at the stains below him, and as he watched they slowly seeped into the cracks in the asphalt, sending out thin wet strands.

He’d seen this before. The alley, the fence, the blood. All that was missing was the body. He turned in time to see a young black man round the corner. His hands were up, except for one that was reaching into his pocket.

“I’m dreaming,” Ed said. “This is just a dream.”

The gunshot woke him up.
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#1 · 1
· · >>Cassius
Alright, I'm gonna give this story one more read later on to try and figure out how the two plotlines intersect here, because the writing was top drawer and the characters were vibrant and I don't want to be disappointed just because I didn't understand the ending. If I do get it then this might shoot up to the top of my slate. But for now it's stuck at... the top of my slate.

What I'm saying is I enjoyed it.
#2 · 2
· · >>Cassius
Hmm. I love everything except for the last single very itty-bitty tiny little line.

I realized halfway through what was going on and I would have been perfectly fine if it ended the way it should have, but the ending has me all in a twist and now I’m so confused.

I’m going to think about this for a while. Edits might be prevalent in the future.
#3 · 4
· · >>Cassius
I think what I'm feeling now is called Losing My Religion syndrome. As in, most people don't get R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion, but they like it. So yeah, I don't get the ending, but I like this story.
#4 · 4
· · >>Oblomov >>Cassius
Excellent mystery set up, good creeping dread behind the scenes. Lovely ambiguous ending. Did he really wake up again, or did the man pull a gun? So it's a town of people being haunted by their past mistakes. The driver is haunted by the apparition of a man running on the road because he'd previously killed a jogger. Ed is haunted by an apparition of a runaway he'd shot and killed in cold blood.

It's rare for a mystery to be executed so well, to reveal just enough to let readers figure it out for themselves without revealing so much to be disappointing. Great work.

When you come back to this story for revisions, I'd focus on what characters are actually doing. Because they're not doing much. A lot of sitting around. I don't have specific suggestions for what they should be doing, but I'm certain this could be a stronger story if the detective were more actively involved in the case.
#5 ·

Oh, okay, I get it now.

In that case, I feel like the story should have ended one line earlier. Still, maybe it takes a little too much work to figure out what's going on here? Anyhow, it's super well written. It's definitely up there on my slate.
#6 · 5
· · >>Rao
>>Miller Minus
>>Anon Y Mous

Observe the glorious confusion, author. This entry is proof that one errant line can completely upend everyone's comprehension of your entire story and toss them out of an airlock into the vacuum of space. Specifically, I'm talking about your ending line, which made me question my entire read of the story where I was thinking the mystery was basically what >>CantStopWontStop describes. We have an A story (mystery of what happened to the kids) and a B story (cop's guilt about becoming a BLM talking point), linked by a common theme (a killing), right? Presumably, these are connected by some town-wide thing brought about by the storm (supernatural stuff only happens when it rains, it seems), as numerous character complain about being unable to sleep and have dreams about things in their past. Wraith? Ghost? Guilt monster? Who knows.

A powerful wizard by the name of Cold in Gardez once said:"I hate the Jews" "Subtlety is for fuckin' chumps; I'ma go out and get my fiftieth gold medal in this competition, suck my dick." He doesn't follow his own advice. Why did he say that?

I don't know, but subtlety isn't precisely the issue here. I think most attentive readers (sorry >>Miller Minus) will be able to easily pick up the parallelism between what's happening to the cop and kids, and that there is clearly something supernatural going on. As early as the introduction of the car crash, it is apparent that this mystery is going to have a supernatural element to it. To me, this wasn't really even a question. A group of five otherwise normal kids don't experience a collective hallucination, and there's no even half-way believable way to explain what they saw.

The "thing" that caused the car crash is some sort of wraith or vengeful spirit. The author was kind enough to even hold the reader's hand with this paragraph towards the end in case the reader was particularly dense:

“Okay.” Ed leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. “What’s your theory? What does the wise and omniscient Senior Detective Dakota Evans think it was?”

“Beats me, man. Ghost?”

The mode of presentation is the issue here, I'm going to diverge from >>CantStopWontStop's opinion here, and say that playing coy with the end reveal is actually hurting you more than it's helping. You're introducing confounding factors at the end of the story when things should be becoming more clear, you pull the rug out from under the reader and make them doubt everything they had read up until that point. Especially with this "This must all be a dream" line.

Aside from the fact that it is a cliche that takes me out of the piece, I want to ask you, and the entire WriteOff as a whole: have you ever had a dream where you spent the day at work, and then went somewhere else? Now, maybe I'm just a crazy person, but when I see some strange things after work, and trust me, I've seen some strange things after work, I've never in my life said aloud, "You know what this must be a dream." Now, I'm not retarded, and I'm aware the author put forth the extra effort in the opening to note that the "dream seemed so real" and such, but really, that only makes sense because Ed is recalling a very specific memory when he's dreaming, and he isn't having a dream about him spending the entire day at work and debating whether or not he should stop at the deli on the way home.

But the introduction of the possibility of the dream concept introduces all sorts of vectors for confusion and also tosses everything we've read up to that point out the window. Now, essentially, at any point, the narrative could be in "dream mode" and not be literally occurring. Hell, the entire story might not have happened. Because of that line, you could read it that way. If the main character's perception is being questioned, it calls into question every single piece of information that's been viewed from that character's perspective, and the characterization of the main character as an insomniac who falls asleep frequently would basically make it impossible to delineate when he's awake or asleep if you're going to accept that his perspective is unreliable.

Basically you're making shit needlessly confusing. I think it's highly likely that the events that happen at the end are meant to occur and are not a dream. Presumably, the line "The gunshot woke him up" is a bookend for the opener line "The gunshot woke Edward from his dream" and the removal of "his dream" and the vagueness of "woke him up" (i.e. alerted him, as opposed to physically awaken) is an intentional device to communicate that this is indeed occurring in the real world, and that the protagonist has been shot and killed by his vengeance ghost. Everything in the story happened as it was described, and we're not dealing with any "dream world" bullshitting about, and for whatever reason, the author has decided to throw a wrench in the works in a last ditch effort to obfuscate what is actually going on.

Wait let's back up a second. Shot by a vengeance ghost?

This detail doesn't make sense. One, because a ghost shooting a gun is just silly. But more importantly, it doesn't fit the events or fall in line with the precedent established by the first encounter. The wraith / ghost / apparition caused by the storm, whatever the hell you want to call it, that first showed up to terrorize the kids was highly implied to be born from a killed jogger.

He chased those kids. Fitting.

The problem with the ghost shooting the gun, is that the young man Ed shot didn't have a gun. Ed had the gun. Ed shot the guy. The jogger ghost didn't hit the kids with a fucking car, so why would the young man shoot Ed?

Just seems wrong.

Anyways, good fundamentals and descriptions, but some scenes are more barebone than others, especially with Ed's partner. There seems to be a want for this story to expand further considering there are a great deal of words dedicated to establishing the relationship dynamics between Ed and his wife that don't really have any bearing on the overall plot, only giving a small amount of detail to the relevance of the storm, and Cidne herself is more a vehicle to make writing the scenes with Ed easier by giving him someone to interact with rather than a necessary component. I call this literary technique "Stephen Kinging"; spending a large amount of your word count on tertiary details that probably should have been edited out or truncated because they're not exactly relevant to the progression of the plot, but are kept in to give a nice splash to the characterization. Stephen King can do this for dozens of pages, though.

Not knowing more about the "monster" so to speak is a bit of a misstep. There's just a few fundamental things missing about how the "rules" work for this thing(s) to really get any significant picture what it can actually do. It seems to haunt the dreams of everyone in the town and show them nightmares of things they feel guilt over, but what causes it to manifest? Obviously, it can be seen by anyone in town, because the girl saw it and she wasn't even aware of the driver's hit and run history. Presumably, there'd be a lot more people having encounters if the storm is affecting the entire town's ability to sleep. So does it only happen to manifest in a homicidal entity in extreme cases where someone was actually killed? What are the conditions for it showing up? Is it conscious entity, or is it made by the emotions of the person feeling guilt? You don't need to directly answer these questions, but give some hints as to what the answer might be, because as it stands, it's a hard for me to understand why the "monster" only showed up in these two specific instances, or why it wouldn't have showed itself to Ed the first night or anywhere else in town.

There really should a be a scene interviewing eyewitnesses or something similar. That could give enough of an answer to satisfy me.

Anyways, I'm gonna take a nap because I'm tired.
#7 · 2
This read very much like an early Dean Koontz novel: normal detective-type mystery that suddenly jumps into the supernatural pool. I dig that as a genre, and the work done here was pretty great.

I'll agree with >>Cassius here that we don't have enough "rule building" for the phenomena to really get a feel for its what or why. Between the kid and the cop, there's obviously a theme of guilt being punished going on, but when we learn about Cinde's dream, her only guilty feeling seems to be not playing more as a child/ruining too many dresses. There's not even a hint of "oh my best friend got killed by a train when we were girls" or something inline with the other two primary examples. Clearly, the phenomena is widespread, and I'd really like to know if, not necessarily what, the underlying logic is to warrant the town being half shutdown due to sleep deprivation.

Now that said:
so why would the young man shoot Ed?

I'm not convinced the kid did shoot Ed. The "dream" plays out similar to the previous iterations, where the kid goes into his pocket and then there's a gunshot. While there's a theme of "vengeful ghost" going on, it's never clearly established that the running ghost actually did anything to the car or driver, so I'm not 100% convinced Ed's ghost would/could actually do anything to him.

It's not 100% clear.