Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Nine

NOT EDITED

Miguel hadn’t been able to sleep. He had needed to know Eliseo was safe throughout the night, and he couldn’t exactly do that while sleeping. Instead, he had sat beside his son’s bed, his back to the wall, his eyes on the door. He had checked the locks on Eliseo’s bedroom windows an unreasonable amount of time in the few hours between Landon dropping him off and Landon pulling into the driveway.

But it was better to be safe than sorry, especially when it came to his son’s life.

Miguel checked in on Eliseo one more time before walking out to the foyer. He unlocked the door and, after letting out a heavy breath, opened it. “Landon.”

“We have a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

Landon stepped into the house, closing the door behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I know this has all been a lot for you to take in, and i-it’s about to get even harder, okay? Are you ready for that?”

“Do I have a choice?” Miguel asked.

“Technically. I can just not tell you, and I can do this on my own. It’s not the first time I’ve hunted for a monster.”

“It’s… not?”

Landon shook his head. “I don’t do it very often, and it’s normally only after Nora drags me into it. But no, not my first rodeo.”

“How many have you taken out?”

“Nora does most of the heavy lifting, but I’ve taken down… maybe ten?” Landon offered.

“Jesus,” Miguel whispered.

“It’s not as many as it sounds like. I mean… it is ten of them, and it sounds like ten of them, but you know what I mean. In comparison to the people who do this on a stronger basis, ten is nothing.”

Miguel blew out a harsh breath. Landon spoke about it all like it was nothing, like it was normal. Monsters being real, supernatural beings hunting down and killing people, people hunting down and killing those very same beings. But it wasn’t. None of it was nothing. None of it was normal. Monsters were supposed to be nothing but fairy tales, nothing but stories meant to show children that the good guys always won.

Jesus Christ, it was so far from normal.

Miguel cleared his throat. “What, umm… what did you need to tell me, then? That’s going to make it worse?”

“You’re sure you wanna know? Because there’s a lot to this world, and once you know about it, you can’t go back. I-if you don’t wanna be in all this, I don’t want you to be forced into it just because the monster ran through our town.”

“This is about my boy. Even… even if it wasn’t for the psychic thing, this fucker told my boy that he was going to die. I need to know, even if I don’t want to.”

After a moment, Landon nodded. “Before you called me to babysit when you needed to go out to that crime scene, I spoke with the kid’s ghost. I talked to him again when I got home, and it, umm, it turns out he never saw a Reaper after he died.”

Miguel was certain these little supernatural chats with Landon would eventually stop his heart so hard it wouldn’t start again. “Reaper? Like… the grim reaper?”

“Sort of. But there isn’t just one of them. There are a lot of them, and they’re assigned to specific areas of the world. The one for this section of the world didn’t come to claim that boy’s soul, which means one of about three things.”

Miguel forced himself to nod. “Walk me through ‘em.”

“One, the Reaper is dead. Two, this is a no-signal zone for Hell, or three—”

“Hell? He’s a child.”

Landon shook his head so fast, Miguel was surprised he didn’t break his damn neck. “The Reapers live in Hell. I-it doesn’t mean the souls go to Hell. God won’t let them in Heaven because they deal with souls that… that go to Hell.”

“So God is…?”

“Real. Yeah. Not quite the guy in the Bible, though. Anyway, umm, option three? It means this monster can hold souls. Trap them.”

“Why would it want to do that?”

“Couple reasons. Umm…” Landon cleared his throat before swallowing. “Trap them as an energy source. Trap them for sport. Or… for snacks.”

“Jesus Christ,” Miguel whispered. He scrubbed a hand down his face. “How do we find out which it is?”

“Identifying the monster is a surefire way to figure out what he could be doing with the souls. Talking to Lucifer to see—”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“No, Lucy and my sister are sort of… close-knitted friends at this point.”

Miguel couldn’t help the laugh that burst past his lips. He raked a hand through his hair. “What the hell is your family, Landon?”

Landon offered a smile and a little shrug. “I wish I knew. I bet I don’t even know half of what Nora’s done with the supernatural. She’s always been a bit on the wild side.”

Miguel snorted. “So it’s your turn to catch up, huh?”

Landon’s smile grew. “Maybe a little.”

“Okay, so…” Miguel shook his head. “I don’t even know how to begin to ask anything without sounding crazy.”

“You’re talking to a psychic who accidentally dated a Vampire in college, who was only using me to make his allegedly Gorgon ex-girlfriend jealous. So no judgement.”

One corner of Miguel’s mouth lifted. He wished like hell there was time for that story now. As long as they all ended up with their souls intact by the end of this bullshit, maybe he’d ask about it then. Once Eliseo was safe.

“How do we go about talking to Lucifer, and what are we supposed to ask him?”

“We need to make sure the Reaper in this area is alive. Lucy won’t know much, but Fate or the Reaper–if they’re alive–will. We can find out more about the boy’s soul that way. We need all the info we can get our hands on. It’ll help us identify what the hell this monster is, which will help us figure out how to kill it.”

“How do we… get in touch with him?”

“I’ll text Nora. Like I said, they’re basically close-knit friends.” Landon pulled out his cell phone. “Pretty sure she has his number.”

“I’m not even going to tell you how crazy that sounds.”

Landon only flashed a smile.

“Daddy?”

Miguel pushed away from the wall and turned to face Eliseo. “Hey, mijo. What’re you doin’ up? Did you have another bad dream?”

Eliseo shook his head. “You weren’t there when I checked for you. Needed… to know the monsters didn’t get you.”

Miguel squatted down to the boy’s height and lifted his hands to his cheeks. “Daddy is never going to let any monsters get him or you. I’m not going to let anyone or anything take me away from you.”

Eliseo’s hazel eyes scanned his father’s face. “Promise?”

“I promise. I’m not going anywhere, buddy. You’re stuck with me for another forty years. Maybe sixty.”

A little smile spread across Eliseo’s face. “Eighty.”

“That means you have to take care of me when I’m a hundred and twenty-three.”

“Deal.”

Miguel snorted. “I’ll see what I can do.” He pressed a kiss to Eliseo’s forehead and pushed himself to his feet. “Daddy’s gonna work from home today, so you’re stuck with me all day. But first, I have to run to the station to get a report from the forensics guy. So you’re gonna hang out with Landon for, like… an hour. And then I’ll be back with coffee for the grown ups, chocolate milk for you, and breakfast donuts for us all. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Miguel whispered. “How about you and Lamby go find some cartoons, huh? Landon will be there in a few.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Miguel watched the boy run off to the living room. He turned and wrapped a hand around Landon’s bicep. “Lock the door when I leave.”

“And don’t open it. You have a key. I know, Miguel.” Landon laid a hand over his. “You go get your report, our coffee, Eliseo’s chocolate milk, and our donuts. Then you’ll come home, and Eliseo will be here, safe and sound.”

“Thank you,” Miguel whispered. His eyes fell to Landon’s hand, which quickly dropped away. Miguel cleared his throat, pulling his hand away. “I’ll, uh… Yeah, I’ll head out. I won’t be long.”

“Okay.”

Miguel bent down and grabbed his shoes. “What, uh… What donuts do you like? Casey’s? HyVee?”

“Casey’s. I like the ones with the light brown frosting, preferably with sprinkles.”

Miguel smiled. “Eliseo likes those the most, too. Two sprinkled light brown frosting donuts coming right up.” He tapped Landon’s chest with the toes of his shoes. “Back in a bit.”


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Love Tends the Garden – An M/F Romance Short

NOT EDITED

Spring had finally sprung in Iowa, enough so that the biggest worry for the blooming flowers would be if they got enough rain or too much rain rather than if the overnight and morning frost were going to kill them.

Kate Webb buried her fingers in her hair and gave her scalp a good scratch as she walked into the kitchen. She was never sure if the scalp scratching triggered a yawn or if she was just an incredibly yawny person in the morning, but either way, it was routine, no matter what time she rolled out of bed and got around for the day.

Kate turned on the coffee maker—pre-filled with water and coffee grounds the night before—and crossed her arms over the counter. She dropped her forehead to her arms and closed her eyes. Kate was far from a morning person. Hell, she wasn’t even really a daylight person. Even her eleven AM wakeup call that morning was a little too close to sunrise for her, but if she had any hope of scoring eggplants early in the season, she needed to get to the greenhouse well before the ‘just got off work’ evening gardeners walked through the place.

She had missed out on eggplants from the greenhouse three years in a row. She didn’t much care for them herself, but they were her dad’s favorite vegetable out of everything one could grow in their garden, and he wouldn’t eat any dish made with eggplants that came from anywhere but their local greenhouse. In previous years, her neighbor had been kind enough to ‘loan’ her the eggplants needed to make a birthday dish of some sort for her dad, but before winter’s cruel fingers had sunk into the town at the end of last year, her neighbor had moved for warmer weather and sunnier days.

With a groan, Kate lifted her head as the final bit of coffee dripped into the glass pot. She couldn’t wait to get back home and get back to her much-needed rest.

***

Though Kate wanted like hell to keep her hopes up and her thoughts positive, the greenhouse shelves looked even emptier than they had by the time she had arrived the previous three years.

She managed to get a plant or two for just about everything she usually put in the ground, save for onions and peppers. That was fine. As long as she could find even one eggplant on the shelves she hadn’t checked yet, she could make something for her dad’s birthday later in the season that didn’t require onions or peppers. There were plenty of recipes to choose from, so long as she could get her hands on the ever-elusive eggplant.

Kate’s heart sank as she rounded the corner to check the last shelf. Her dad’s good days got fewer and farther between with every passing month, and she wanted to make every good day the best it could be. Was it so much to ask for the universe to help her out just this once?

She checked every shelf in the greenhouse once more just in case someone had hidden an eggplant away behind the lonely squash plant in the back.

No one had.

Admitting defeat, Kate made her way up to the counter.

“Early riser today, eyy?”

Kate set her basket on the counter and offered a smile. “Not early enough, apparently.”

Eli Peterson nodded. “Jenny bought us out of a lot of our stock right around opening. I even asked Mom and Dad if I was allowed to place a limit on plants per customer.”

Kate snorted. “I’m sure they were appalled.”

“Oh, absolutely. Can’t rob a paying customer of their well-earned plants or… something like that. I don’t understand the rules. I just follow ‘em.”

Kate chuckled softly, shaking her head. She had known Eli and his parents her whole life. Before her mom’s passing, she and her dad had gone to the greenhouse every year for their vegetables, and Kate had always come with them. On occasion, the Petersons had even let Eli show her how to water a plant or two with his tiny watering can.

But Kate had stopped attending the annual greenhouse shopping trip when she’d hit her hormonal years as a teenager, and her mom’s passing hadn’t sparked the urge to go back. Her dad’s inability to go for the last five years had been the only thing that had changed her mind about her greenhouse attendance, and Eli had been just about her only in-person human interaction since.

God, that was sad.

“We should get a restock in two weeks,” Eli said, his voice quiet.

“That’s okay. Dad prefers the ones bought in the first week. He says they’re just not the same if you wait any longer than that.”

“Will… he know?”

One corner of Kate’s mouth scrunched up. She had gotten her fair share of questions phrased that way about her dad, but she always struggled to answer them in a way that didn’t piss someone off or make her seem ridiculous. Eventually, she had given up on trying and had settled on the only answer that had ever made any sense to her.

“No, but I will. I like to keep my lies limited when and where I can.”

Eli’s expression was far more understanding than any greenhouse clerk’s face should be allowed to be. Maybe it had something to do with those soft brown eyes or the way his brow always furrowed just a little when Kate talked about her dad every year. Maybe it was because he was the only person she’d let into her home more than once since her dad’s diagnosis. Maybe it was because he was the only person in town who had seen her dad’s dementia in person for more than a few seconds.

Or maybe it was just pity. She got that one a lot too.

“I understand. Lying sucks. I’d want to keep it limited too.” Eli looked down at the basket of plants. His little notepad resting on the counter, he went about adding up the total cost. His parents had never invested in a cash register, instead settling for a notepad, a pencil, and a lockbox. Eli had once quietly muttered something about getting a ‘damn register’ when he took over someday, but Kate didn’t know how true that was.

Old habits were hard to break, even the time-consuming and less efficient ones.

“All righty, Kate. Fifty-two dollars and sixty cents.”

“Am I still allowed to write you a check?”

“Yeah, but Mom and Dad will hunt you down if it bounces.”

Kate snorted. “Deal.” She rifled through her purse for her checkbook. Her heart skipped a beat. “No, no, no,” she whispered. She set her purse on the counter for a better vantage point, like being able to pull it apart a little more would make her checkbook jump out of the house and run down to the shop.

“It’s okay,” Eli said. “Mom and Dad left for lunch, and they won’t check the lockbox until tomorrow.”

“It’s not okay. I have it. I just…”

Eli laid a warm hand on her forearm. Kate stopped digging, lifting her eyes to meet his. “Kate, it’s fine. I’m not offering to just let you just take ‘em, okay? I know you don’t want that. But I can swing by your place tonight after work and pick up the check then. Or cash. Whatever works for you. In the meantime, take the plants and get some gardening done.”

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Eli gave her arm a gentle squeeze. He grabbed the small strawberry plant from the edge of her basket and smiled. “I’ll hold this one hostage until you pay its ransom tonight.”

Kate couldn’t help the smile that crept across her face. “Just don’t hurt her. I won’t pay a single dime if you hurt any leaves on her stem.”

Eli stuck out his free hand. “Deal.”

Kate snorted and grabbed his hand, giving it a firm shake. “Thank you, Eli. I’ll have the check ready tonight. Thank you.”

Eli smiled that warm, polite smile of his. “You’re welcome. Enjoy your day, Kate. I’ll keep Miss Strawberry safe until tonight.”

Kate lifted her purse over her shoulder. “Oh, you better. Or I’ll spill the beans on your little under the counter deals.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

She pointed at him, grabbing the basket of plants with her free hand. “Don’t test me, Peterson.”

Eli held up both hands—strawberry plant and all—in surrender. “I won’t hurt her. You pay your ransom, and she goes home safe and sound.”

“Deal.” Kate mouthed one more ‘thank you’, not quite having the strength left to say it aloud one more time.

Eli’s smile spoke far more understanding than pity.

***

Kate had searched for her checkbook in every nook and cranny she could find when she got home. The cupboards, the drawers, the dryer, the dressers. Hell, she had even checked the refrigerator.

Letting out a breath, she walked into the living room. Her dad sat in his rocking chair, eyes on the television. She leaned around the corner for a look at what was playing. It was a relatively new show in comparison to what he watched on his more distant days. His lack of complaint or confusion was usually a good sign. “Hey, Daddy?”

He glanced up at her, smiling before his gaze shifted back to the television. “Hey, sweetheart. Back so soon?”

“Yeah. Traffic wasn’t too bad.” Kate cleared her throat. “Any chance you’ve seen my checkbook?”

“Checkbook?” he echoed. He chuckled. “Baby, aren’t you a little young for a checkbook? Lord knows I’ve got you covered until well after you graduate.”

Kate closed her eyes for a moment. Well… not as good of a sign as she had hoped. She smiled. “You’re right, Daddy. Sorry. Umm… do you know where your checkbook is?”

“It’s in my nightstand. Do you need something?”

“No, I was just cleaning. You know I like knowing where the important stuff is so I know I’m not gonna lose it.”

“Ah, that’s my girl. Well, you can go check if it puts you at ease. Just don’t overwork yourself.”

“I won’t. Thanks, Daddy.” Kate hurried past the television and walked into her father’s bedroom. True to his word, the checkbook was in his nightstand. Kate grabbed it, tore off a check, and tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Just in case he still believed the book was his the next time he found it, she put it back in his nightstand and closed the drawer.

She headed back into the kitchen. She wrote out the check for fifty-two dollars and sixty cents and tucked it beneath the basket of fruits and veggies waiting to be planted in the garden. She’d wait to plant them until after her still much-needed nap.

Kate pulled her phone from her pocket and checked to make sure the camera feed from the little camera hidden in the living room was connected to her notifications. Her dad didn’t move much during the day, but the camera helped her feel safe about her daytime naps. If her dad switched over to his wheelchair or left the room, she’d get a notification about the movement, and she’d be able to check the feed to make sure everything was okay. It helped keep accidents to a minimum, and it helped prolong his time in the house with her instead of in a nursing home.

She raked a hand through the part of her dark brown hair to push it away from the sides of her face. “Nap first,” she whispered.

***

Eli felt stupid for going home and changing his shirt four times before driving out to Kate’s house. Even as he had done up the buttons of the fourth shirt, he had told himself it was just because he didn’t want to go over there in what he’d worn to work. That was, of course, bullshit, but everyone was allowed to tell themselves a white lie now and then.

Eli pulled up to the curb outside Kate’s house and cut the engine. She had waved at him from the garden when he’d driven past, so he wasn’t too surprised to see her coming out of the house, check in hand.

Her hair was a mess, pushed back from her face with a blue and white bandana rolled up like a headband. Her tank top was a little wet around the hem and a little dirty on the sides, like she’d wiped her hands on them more than once. The older women in town tended to judge her for the little things like that. It wasn’t rare for Kate to make a run to the grocery store in her pajamas or her gardening clothes.

According to one of the regulars at the greenhouse, Kate ‘thinks about her dad too much to even pretend to care about her own appearance’.

Eli didn’t much care if her clothes were a little dirty or if her hair was a little messy. She was still a beautiful woman. Eli didn’t think any amount of dirt could change that.

Kate stopped on the sidewalk as Eli climbed out of his car. Her hands went to her hips. “I don’t see my strawberry plant, Peterson. I was promised she’d be returned undamaged.”

“Ah, as promised.” Eli leaned back into the car and, after allowing his hand to hover over the two plants in his passenger seat, grabbed the strawberry plant. He closed the door and walked around the front of his car. “See? Didn’t touch a single leaf.”

“Thank God. I don’t have the energy left to kick your ass today.”

Eli snorted. “Reasonable.” He handed over the plant and accepted the check she held out to her. “Thank you.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah. Thanks again for letting me hold off on that until tonight. I completely forgot to make sure everything was in my purse before I left.”

“I think you have the right to forget something every now and then.”

“Maybe,” Kate said quietly. She held up the strawberry plant. “Thanks again, Eli.”

“No problem.” He took a step back toward his car and pulled open the passenger side door as Kate headed back up to the house. “Hey, umm, Kate?”

She stopped and turned back around. “Yeah?”

Eli grabbed the second plant from the seat and walked up the drive. “I didn’t want anyone in the shop to think there was some sort of favoritism going on, but I-I saved you one this year.”

Kate searched his face for what felt like an eternity before her gaze fell to the nursery pot in his hand. “You… you saved an eggplant for me?”

He shrugged, like saving it wasn’t something he’d been thinking about for the last two years. “Yeah. It’s no big deal. I just know you’re not really a morning person, and since Mom and Dad refuse to allow pre-orders, I made sure to buy one first thing this morning.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

Kate bent down to set the strawberry plant on the ground. Before Eli could promise there were no strings attached, Kate straightened out and threw her arms around him. Eli grunted, holding the plant out to the side before wrapping his free arm around her.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“My pleasure, Kate.” Eli expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She twisted the material of his shirt in one of her hands, the fingers of her free hand biting into his shoulder. Eli closed his eyes, hugging her just a little tighter.

Kate was more or less alone in the world. It hadn’t been too long after her mother had died that she had switched from daughter to caretaker. She had stopped attending parties in high school, she had skipped out on just about every event but prom and graduation, and she had taken a ‘gap year’ between graduation and college.

Of course, her ‘gap year’ had gone on a bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days, and now the only people really in her life were her dad and his doctors.

Kate patted him on the back and stepped away. Her cheeks were a little red, her eyes a little wet. She smiled. “Sorry. Haven’t had a good hug in a while.”

“That’s okay. I’m not opposed to hugs.”

“Thank God.” She took the eggplant from him, holding the pot in her cupped hands like an injured baby bird. “Eli?” she asked, eyes still on the plant.

“Yeah?”

“Do you… do you have plans tonight?”

Eli shook his head, though she wasn’t looking at him. “No. Just me and probably some gaming.”

Kate lifted her eyes just enough to meet his gaze. “How would you feel about giving up gaming to attend a little supper here?”

Eli did his best to conceal at least some of his joy at the idea. The last time he’d been invited to supper with Kate had been their pre-prom dinner, and that had been with a group of five girls and one other guy.

Tonight’s supper would just be him, Kate, and her dad.

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

Kate smiled. “I’m just going to plant this little guy and Miss Strawberry, and then I’ll get into making food. Is spaghetti okay? I know it’s not a very… sexy food, but y’know.”

Eli snorted. “I don’t normally get my hopes up that the food will be sexy.”

Kate laughed. “That’s probably a good thing.” A pause. “I’ll, uh… see you around six?”

“Six works for me. See you then, Kate.”

***

After planting the remaining two plants and watering everything in the garden, Kate headed inside to start supper. She wasn’t sure what to classify the night as. ‘Date’ felt like the wrong word, but not because of Eli. Kate liked Eli. Never making themselves official in high school hadn’t changed that, and since then, he had grown into a handsome man with a good sense of humor and a sense of fashion she’d be willing to ‘borrow’ on occasion.

But ‘date’ felt wrong since her dad would be there with them. Thankfully, if anyone in town understood that, it was Eli. He was the least judgmental person there was when it came to her position as full-time caretaker and breadwinner.

Kate hadn’t had time for dating since before she graduated high school. She had spent most of her junior and senior years trying to hide that her dad had gotten sick. She hadn’t wanted a judge or a police officer poking into their business, into their lives. She hadn’t wanted some stranger to decide if her dad was ‘dangerous’ or ‘unfit’ to be a parent anymore. It was a narrative she hadn’t planned to let the town put on her family, and she had managed to succeed. It hadn’t been until after graduation that it had finally gotten out that her father was sick. Though she had hated the way some of their neighbors had acted when that sickness was discovered, it hadn’t mattered.

By then, she had legally been a grown ass woman, and no one could take her or her dad away anymore.

Eli had been one of the few who stuck around as time went on, as she pulled away from her social life more and more to take care of her dad. They didn’t see each other or talk to each other every week by any means, but the time they did occasionally spend together was time Kate always appreciated.

If Eli Peterson wanted to use an eggplant to make his move instead of any of her previous trips to the greenhouse or any of his grocery runs for her, so be it. Kate sure as hell wasn’t going to reject any kind of garden variety veggies from a man like Eli.

***

Eli had changed his shirt twice more before heading back to Kate’s house. He owned primarily button-ups, some more solid in color than others. He had settled on a simple plaid button-up and left the house before he could change his mind again. He knew Kate liked flannel and plaid patterns, so he hoped she found it more charming than creepy.

It was a shirt after all. He hadn’t bought it specifically because Kate liked it. There was nothing creepy about wearing a shirt he hoped a woman he was interested in liked.

He hoped.

Eli let out a breath and shut off the car. He really needed to shut off his brain before it exploded. He had a habit of thinking himself out of dates, his mind conjuring up things to worry about that no one else would even really notice or care to acknowledge.

He opened the door and climbed out of the car. He leaned back in to pull his keys from the ignition, pocketing them as he heard the front door open.

Kate’s dad stood in the doorway, a hand wrapped tightly around his cane. He lifted his free hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Now, do my eyes deceive me, or is that Eli Peterson I see?”

“Seems like they’re still running twenty-twenty.”

Joshua snorted. “Somethin’ oughta still be working at top speed, huh?”

“Pfft, you aren’t too worse for wear.” Eli closed the door and made his way up to the house. “I didn’t know you were up and walking around with a cane now.”

“Only for about the last week,” Kate said as she came into the small foyer. She finished drying her hands and slung the towel over her shoulder. She laid a hand between her dad’s shoulders and offered a smile. “We’ve made a lot of progress with the new physical therapist. Things are going well.”

Joshua nodded. “The new therapist is a great gal. Doesn’t let me give up too easy, which I needed.” He cocked his head to the side as he adjusted his grip on his cane. “Is there something you came over for, Eli?”

“I invited him over for supper, Daddy. Eli was kind enough to save an eggplant for me at the greenhouse this year.”

“ ‘Bout time. I was starting to think both of you lacked any romantic awareness.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Get your butt back inside.”

Joshua smiled. “Of course. Leave you two alone.” He patted her on the shoulder and gave Eli a thumbs-up before heading back into the house.

“He’s doing okay today, it seems,” Eli said.

Kate looked back over her shoulder, offering a nod. “Not too bad. He thought I was in high school this afternoon, and we had an incident with the stove at lunch, but…” She lifted her shoulders. “But today’s been good. We happily accept as many of those as we can get.”

“I wish you guys had even more of them.”

She smiled an almost sad little smile. “Me too, Eli.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Come on in. Supper’s on the table.”

Eli stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. He followed Kate to the dining room, where she pulled out a chair for him. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She looked him up and down with tired eyes. “You look nice in plaid.”

He couldn’t help but smile. Proof he’d been overthinking it: check. “Thanks. And you look nice in a gardening tee.”

Kate snorted, amusement dancing amongst the exhaustion in those light brown eyes of hers. “Thanks.” She slid an empty plate over to him. “Spaghetti here, meat sauce here, veggie sauce here. Have at it.”

***

Supper had gone well, at least as far as Eli knew. Conversation had been pleasant the whole evening, even after their food was eaten. Eli had never felt like a third-wheel to Kate and her dad, and he’d never felt like he and Kate were excluding her dad either.

It was the most successful date Eli had had in a long time.

Now, with Joshua back in his chair in the living room, his cane on one side and his wheelchair on the other, Eli followed Kate back to her room.

She set her phone on the nightstand and dropped to the foot of the bed. “Thanks for coming over tonight, Eli. It was nice having someone else around. I love Dad to death, but…” She laughed softly, shaking her head. “But I don’t get out much.”

“Me neither. Thanks for having me over.” Almost gingerly, he sat down beside her on the bed. “How, uh… how are things with your dad? I mean, really?”

“I don’t know.” Kate clasped her hands between her thighs. “I’m going to have to put him in a home eventually, but I’m trying to put it off as long as I can. As long as I can work from home, as long as I can keep the cameras around the house connected to my phone… As long as everything keeps doing what it’s supposed to do, I can keep him here. I can keep taking care of him.”

She swallowed roughly, shaking her head. “The good days are few and far between. Today was… was good, and I’m happy for that. But recently, the good ‘days’ are turning into good afternoons or good mornings instead. He loses who I am and where we are a lot of the time. He thought I was in high school just today, and he thought my checkbook was his. He even had it in his nightstand drawer to keep it safe, like it always was. Stuff like that is the usual now, and once he progresses further into… into it, the things he starts moving or forgetting are going to be more dangerous.”

“Like the stove incident today?” Eli asked.

Kate nodded. “It was stupid. I didn’t take my damn phone into the garden with me. I left it on the table at the front of the house, and I didn’t hear it go off when he rolled his chair out to the kitchen. He just wanted a snack. Turned on the stove, filled a pot up with water, and set it on the burner. And then a pot holder on the lid of it, which… fell off and landed right next to the flame. I-I went inside to put my hair up because I broke my damn hair tie, a-and thank God I did. I could’ve lost Dad if I hadn’t.”

Eli laid a hand on her back. “You can’t be expected to be there one hundred percent of the time, Kate. It’s too much to ask of one person. A pot holder caught fire, and it could’ve been worse, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t worse because you were there, and that’s all there is to it. You were there, even if it wasn’t before it happened. You still stopped it.”

“I guess so,” Kate said quietly. With a heavy sigh, she dropped her head to Eli’s shoulder. “You don’t have any people or animals you need to get home to, do you?”

“No, not unless you think my PlayStation is lonely.”

Kate snorted. “It might be. I don’t know.” She stayed silent for a moment. As Eli slid his hand up to her shoulder, she laid a hand on his thigh. “You can say no if you want to, but, umm… do you wanna stay with me tonight?”

“Like a sleepover? Or like sex?”

Kate chuckled. “Like a sleepover. I’m an exhausted mess.”

Eli rolled his eyes and turned to press a kiss to the top of her head. “You aren’t nearly as much of a mess as you think you are.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” She cleared her throat, lifting her head from his shoulder. “I need to take a shower. If you’d like to join me for a sex-free water-saving mission, you can.”

Eli watched her stand up. “Are you sure?”

She smiled. “It won’t be too much different from freshman year. I’m just a little less skinny, and you’re a little more muscular.”

“You make a damn good argument.”

“I try.”

Eli grabbed her outstretched hand and rose to his feet. Kate grabbed her phone from the nightstand and gently tugged him to the bathroom connected to her bedroom. Once she shut the bathroom door, Eli barely managed to undo the buttons on his shirt before she pulled her own over her head and dropped it to the floor.

His eyes skimmed up her bare torso, past her belly button ring and the short hairs that led up to her bra. Part of him felt guilty for looking—for ogling—just like he had as an inexperienced freshman. The other part of him simply said, “You’re beautiful, Kate.”

Though her head was bowed as she pulled off her jeans, he could still see the smile on her face. “Thank you.” She nodded toward him as her hands came up to unclasp her bra. “How about you shed that shirt and show some skin so I can say the same about you?”

Eli snorted. “Deal.”

***

Their shower the night before had been far less awkward than it had been for Eli when they were younger. Kate’s back pressed up against his front as he had scrubbed her chest and stomach with her soap-covered loofa. The little smile on her face as she had stolen it from his hand to wash his chest instead. Her soapy hands on his cheeks as she had leaned up to kiss him.

Eli wouldn’t mind having more nights end that way, but whether or not Kate felt the same way was a mystery.

He had woken up alone, afterall.

Eli ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his head. He couldn’t smell anything coming up from the kitchen, not even coffee, so it was unlikely she had left the house. Her phone wasn’t on the nightstand, so she had left for more than a quick trip to the bathroom.

He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. He grabbed his jeans from the floor and pulled them up his legs before heading downstairs.

He found Joshua asleep in his rocking chair in the living room, and after a little bit of searching, he found Kate outside. She sat on the table at the front of her house, feet resting on the seat of the chair beneath her.

Eli walked outside and cleared his throat before leaning back against the table. “Everything okay?”

Kate nodded, her eyes focused on the garden. “I had a dream last night that someone came and tore up everything I planted because they didn’t want Dad to have any eggplant.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head. “It sounds so stupid, but I had to come out and check. I needed to know everything was okay. And when it was, I totally lost it and had a good cry.” She turned to look at him, cheeks still red. “I’m gonna have to put him in a home, Eli,” she whispered.

Eli lifted himself onto the table and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his bare side, her skin a little cold to the touch. “I won’t let you do it alone if you don’t want to. And if you’re not ready yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to do it right this second, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan made up. Maybe you’ll feel more… more at ease that way. Knowing what’s going to happen can help calm the mind a little, you know?”

After a moment, Kate nodded. “Maybe you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead.”

“Exactly. We all like being prepared for something.”

Kate shifted just enough to kiss his shoulder. “You probably have to head in for work soon, don’t you?”

“Yeah, in about an hour.”

“Maybe… you can come over again tonight?” Kate asked.

“For planning and preparing?”

“Maybe a little bit. Maybe for another date.”

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

“Perfect,” Kate whispered. She lifted her head and jumped down from the table. “In the meantime, let’s scrounge up something for breakfast so you don’t go to work totally starved.”

Eli chuckled and got off the table. He grabbed Kate’s hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “Sounds perfect.”


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Twelve

**I just finished this one, so belated Wednesday update! Thank you for your patience with this book. Things have been slow-going across the board, so I appreciate it.**

NOT EDITED

After dropping Theodore off at work, Russell headed to the police station. Inside, after topping off his coffee mug with the less-than-good coffee in the breakroom, he sat down at his desk. Before he could even turn on his computer, his lieutenant stopped in front of his desk.

“Morning, sir,” Russell greeted.

“Morning, Steele. How’re you doing this morning?”

“Been better, been worse. What’s up?”

“Got a case downtown. Could be a suicide, could be a homicide, could be an accident. Responding officers have requested a homicide detective to be safe. If you’re ready for it, I’d like to send you down there.”

“I’ll definitely take a case.”

“Thought you might. Follow me?”

“Of course, sir.” Russell pushed himself to his feet, grabbing his coffee mug. On the walk to his lieutenant’s office, he asked, “So what do we know?”

“Woman fell to her death from a window at BuzzCorp. Don’t know her name or age yet, but it’s assumed she worked there. She had a lanyard around her neck for a nametag, but the nametag itself wasn’t found attached to it.” He grabbed a folder from his desk and held it out to Russell. “Initial dispatch call transcription and audio recording. There are about seven of them that came in within seconds of each other. One of the calls was from someone inside the building, and the other six were from people on the ground.”

“Thank you, sir.” Russell held up the folder as he backed up toward the door. “I’ll do you proud.”

“After your work with Vince’s case, I’m already more than aware of that. Keep me posted, Steele.”

“Will do, Loo.” Russell walked out of the lieutenant’s office, closing the door behind him. He hadn’t hoped his next case would be a possible suicide, but he’d take it. He needed work. He needed something to make his mind focus on, something that wasn’t his father, abuse or his time undercover in narcotics.

Yeah, he’d definitely take it, possible suicide or not.

***

By the time Russell got to BuzzCorp, the place was packed. Civilians swarmed the barricades, phones out and filming. The reporters hung further away from the scene, but it meant very little for their integrity. One of the cameramen for Channel 7 stood atop their van for a better angle on the scene.

Russell shook his head, his jaw tense. He had a general distaste for most journalists, but flocking to a possible suicide just because it was probably trending on Twitter felt like a new low for them. Using someone’s death–whether it be a homicide or a suicide–for clicks and views had always been despicable to Russell. Reporting the news was one thing. Climbing atop a van to try and film the victim’s corpse was another.

He managed to find the only remaining place to park on the side of the street about two blocks away from the scene. Hands shoved into his pockets, he walked back toward the BuzzCorp building. He did his best to keep his head up rather than bowed away from the cameras. He wouldn’t dignify their questions with any answers, but he hated the way they framed articles when detectives and officers from RPD shied away from the cameras.

Untucking his hands, he ducked until the yellow police tape framing the scene. “How bad is she?” he asked.

“Pretty bad, but… not as bad as you’d expect from the fall, I guess,” Officer Miller said, his voice quiet. “Blood all over the pavement. Head caved in. Broken banister pieces all around her. Which, uh…” He cleared his throat. “All I’m saying is, if she jumped, I don’t know why she chose the only window on that floor where she would’ve needed to climb over a wood banister.”

Russell nodded. Looking up at the BuzzCorp building, he couldn’t help but wonder the same thing. “Thanks, Miller.”

“Yeah. Good luck, Steele.”

Russell clapped a hand down on the officer’s shoulder and made his way back to the small white tent that had been set up over the victim’s body. “Morning, Ellie.”

The forensic analyst lifted her head before pushing herself to her feet. “Morning.” She looked over at the crowd of people beyond the police tape, shaking her head. “God, can you believe this?”

“I… unfortunately can. Anything for a damn click,” Russell said. He cleared his throat. “Do we know anything? Other than, uh… where she fell from.”

“She’s an intern. I didn’t quite catch his name, but the coworker that was, umm…” Ellie wiped her forearm down her cheek, keeping her gloved hand free of contamination. “The coworker that was coming back with coffee when she, uh, fell, is inside. I got in before any of the officers, so I sent him back inside and asked him to sit on one of the benches in there.”

Russell nodded. “That’s helpful. Thanks, Ellie.”

“Of course.” A pause. “You don’t think she jumped, do you?”

“Not on her own, no.”

“Good. Me neither.” Ellie bumped his shoulder with her own. “Go interview the other intern. I’ll let you know what I find when I know more.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, Ellie.” He patted her on the back and made his way up to the BuzzCorp building. Inside the lobby, he found the other intern sitting on one of the benches against the wall. He sat hunched over, face buried in the heels of his palms, fingers pulling at his hair. The cardboard cup holder sat beside him on the bench, all six spots still filled with a coffee cup.

“Excuse me, sir?” Russell asked. The man lifted his head, but not enough to look at him. Russell squatted down in front of him. “Hey. How’re you doing?”

“Not great,” the intern whispered. “So… so not great.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry you had to see what happened out there. I wouldn’t even wish it on a cop, let alone a civilian.” Russell cleared his throat. “I hate to ask this, but I… I do have to know. Have you spoken to anyone about what happened?”

The intern shook his head. “No. I-I’ve just been sitting here like that lady out there told me to. Is that okay?”

“That’s more than okay. Preferred, really. Thank you for listening to her.” Russell pushed himself to his feet, unable to handle the burn in his knees any longer. He sat down beside the man instead. “I’m Detective Steele. Can I get your name?”

“Jack. Umm… Jack Lawrence.”

“Do you prefer Jack or Mister Lawrence?”

“Definitely Jack.”

Russell nodded. Clearing his throat, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and grabbed his notepad. “Jack, do you know who fell?”

Jack nodded, fingers twisting in his hair. “Mya.”

“Do you know her last name?”

“Mmhmm.” Jack hunched forward just a little further. “Bradley.”

Russell wrote the name down and made a note to find her next of kind. “How well did you know Ms. Bradley, Jack?”

“We both were accepted into an internship position after college last year. So, umm…” Jack swallowed, scrubbing both hands over his head. “I knew her for about six months, I think. We’ve been… seeing each other for the last three weeks.”

“You were dating?”

“Seeing each other.”

“I’m sorry, Jack. I’m not sure I know the difference.”

“Dating is, like, dating. Seeing each other is, umm… is when you can still see other people without it being cheating. I-if I took her out for lunch, she could still get coffee with someone else the next day. If she liked coffee guy better than me, we don’t have to keep seeing each other, and we go our separate ways, no hard feelings.”

“Do you think everyone she was seeing understood it that way?” Russell asked.

“What?” Jack asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “Y-you think someone…?”

“I’m exploring our options.”

Jack sniffled. “I, umm… I know there was a guy who didn’t wanna see her once she explained they weren’t actually dating. I-I don’t know how big of a problem he was. I think she only told me about him the one time.”

“Do you know his name?”

“She might’ve told me his first name. I can… I can check our texts.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Russell said, his voice soft.

Jack leaned up to pull his phone from his pocket, and he used the back of his free hand to wipe his nose. Russell had no problem with who chose to ‘see’ someone or ‘date’ someone, but he had an unfortunate feeling that the person who had actually pushed Mya to her death had been someone who hadn’t taken the ‘seeing’ label so well.


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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Eight

NOT EDITED

Monday: December 6, 2021

Landon pulled into his driveway, letting out a harsh breath as he shut off the car. After dropping off Miguel and Eliseo, he had driven around for a while longer in hopes of… what, exactly? Landon wasn’t even sure. Eliseo had always liked driving around in cars. It had always served as a good way to make sure the boy would sleep like a rock that night. Maybe Landon had hoped for the same for himself.

But he knew better. He wasn’t any more tired than he had been before the extra drive. He wasn’t any more relaxed. His mind wasn’t any more clear.

He simply felt like he’d taken a longer route home than necessary.

Landon sighed and pushed open the driver’s side door. He climbed out of the car, grabbed his coat, and closed the door. He jogged up to the house, and before he could even pull his keys from his pocket, the door opened. He offered a smile. “Hey, Eddie.”

“You were gone for a long time.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Babysitting took a bit of a ‘long night’ turn.” Landon stepped into the house, clearing his throat as he closed the door behind him. “You haven’t been opening the door while I’ve been gone, right?”

“No. I know only you can see me. I don’t wanna scare anyone.”

“Sounds like you learned quite a bit about the afterlife while I was gone.”

“A nice man is helping me learn stuff.”

Landon did his best to pretend that wasn’t cause for concern. “A dead man, or a live man?”

“Dead. Very dead. He said he’s very, very old.”

Landon nodded, looking down as he kicked off his shoes. “Do you remember what color he was? Gray, gold, white, silver… Anything like that?”

One corner of Eddie’s mouth scrunched up. “Umm… Hmm. I think he was a grayish color.”

“Kind of a, like… cloudy gray? Or the gray they use for necklaces?”

“Like necklaces, I think.”

Landon let out a breath. “Good. You met an Elder. It’s, uh, sort of their job to help… new arrivals navigate the afterlife. But on that note, it feels important to tell you to avoid the ones that are cloudy or stormy looking. They’re… lost.”

Eddie cocked his head to the side. “Shouldn’t we help them get unlost?”

“They unfortunately aren’t looking for help.” Landon shook his head and started toward the kitchen. “Not that kind of help, anyway.”

The ghost boy followed. “What kind of help are they looking for?”

Pulling open the refrigerator door, Landon cleared his throat. That question was one he had hoped he wouldn’t need to answer. “I don’t think you’re ready for that.”

Eddie crossed his arms over his chest. “Why not? I bet I know more about death and stuff than you do.”

Landon clicked his tongue, pointing at Eddie with the little chocolate milk bottle in his hand. “Bet you don’t.” Eddie harrumphed, dramatically turning his head away. Generally, Landon was okay with ghosts being a little upset with him, even the kids. It was better than telling the kid that the Lost would tear apart any ghost they could get their hands on and devour their energy. “Did your parents teach you not to talk to strangers?”

“Yeah,” Eddie grumbled.

“Okay, good. So, uh… the Lost? These ghosts that are a stormy gray color? Those are strangers. It doesn’t matter how much they try to talk to you or how hard they work to try and convince you that they’re your friends. They’re strangers, and you shouldn’t talk to them. If you have to, you should run away screaming.”

That seemed to win Eddie over. Arms still crossed over his chest, he turned back to Landon. “But… no one else can hear me.”

“Some people can. My sister and I aren’t the only people in the world that can…”

“Talk to the dead?” Eddie asked, one eyebrow raised.

“I always forget how quickly kids pick up on this,” Landon mumbled. “Yeah, talk to the dead. We aren’t the only ones that can do it. But even if we aren’t around when you run from a Lost, even if no other people who can hear you are around, the Elders always are. They’ll guide you, protect you. That’s what they do.” He squatted down to Eddie’s height. “Promise me you won’t talk to the Lost if one approaches you.”

Eddie searched his face before nodding. “I promise.”

“Thattaboy.” Landon stuck up a hand, which Eddie high-fived without issue. Landon smiled. “Which Elder taught you how to control your energy enough to manifest?”

“I dunno. He looked kinda like you. But old.”

Landon snorted. “You probably met my great-great-grandpa.” He pushed himself back to his feet. “He was one of the first ghosts I ever met. He helped me figure out how the whole psychic thing worked. He’s a good guy. If you ever have questions about any of this when I’m not home, he’ll help you.”

“Awesome.” Eddie followed Landon out of the kitchen. “Are you leaving again today?”

“Afraid so. I have a kid to babysit and, umm… and a bad guy to catch.”

“What kind of bad guy?”

“The one who did this to you.”

“Cool. Can I come with?”

Landon scoffed. “Absolutely not.” In the living room, he sat down on the couch. A moment later, Eddie did the same.

“Why not? I’m the one who’s dead.”

“I don’t think that’s the excellent argument you think it is.”

“Whatever.”

“Mature.”

“I’m three.”

Landon pointed at him. “See, that’s a good argument. But still, you can’t come with. There’s a possibility that the person that did this to you wasn’t a person at all, and that makes this even more dangerous for a ghost than for the living.”

“How?”

“Because a monster can only kill a ghost once. If he kills me, I have a second chance.”

“Wow.” Landon flinched, turning to look at the woman in his living room. She wore a tight red dress and a pair of heels. Her fists rested on the curves of her hips. “That’s a horrible reason for you to go instead of him. The fact that he’s a child is a much better reason.”

“Sure, but the child thing has little bearing once you’re dead. He’ll look three forever, but his mind and knowledge will grow until he decides he doesn’t want to be on Earth anymore.” Landon pushed himself to his feet. “Can I help you?”

“I sensed another ghost in here, and I heard you talking to one. I was a little intrigued, is all.” She smoothed her hands over her dress. “My… soul or whatever was already led out by a Reaper. So how does this ghost—”

“Reaper?” Eddie asked.

Landon heart skipped a beat as he turned back toward Eddie. “Yeah, a Reaper. When you die, someone comes out to meet you, and they help your soul to its appropriate afterlife.”

Eddie’s mouth scrunched up before he shook his head. “I don’t remember that. What if there was no Reaper?”

“Then, uh… then our monster’s going to be more of a problem  to take down than I thought.”


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A Bensen Short – A Do-Over 34th

A/N: Happy birthday to Bo! If you haven’t read through book six of the Bo Austen series (The Acid Bath Killer), it’s suggested you skip this for now to avoid spoilers.

Otherwise, I hope you enjoy!

NOT EDITED

Tuesday: April 18, 2023

The day had been relatively quiet, save for the homicide earlier in the morning. It hadn’t been anything special–though even Bo knew that sounded horrible. Nothing but an apparent mugging gone wrong. He’d seen hundreds of them in his years with the LAPD. Catching the killer was always a hit or miss situation, but as he usually did, he’d do his best to aim more for the ‘hit’ side of the spectrum.

‘Special’ or not, the case served as a great relief for Bo. After the triple homicide in Clinstone–a case wrapped in the mob, duty to flee laws, acid baths, and a horribly disgusting car accident of human sludge–Bo needed something not ‘special’. In many ways, it was a good palate cleanser. Getting back to the basics, so to speak, was a good way to make sure his mind was ready for the next serial killer or ‘artist’ that threw themselves into the limelight in Clinstone or Los Angeles.

Not for the first time that day, Bo heard Jensen’s footsteps in the hall. There was something he found incredibly distinctive about the man’s gait, though he didn’t know if that was because there was something distinctive, or if the perception of distinction was simply because Bo was absolutely head over heels in love with the man.

“I feel as though you’re stalking me this morning,” Bo said without lifting his head from his notes. He had finished his autopsy report since the last time Jensen had come down to check on him, but he still had information to transfer into his notebooks before preparing a shorter, more concise version of his notes for the detectives.

“This afternoon,” Jensen said.

Bo lifted his eyes just long enough to scan over Jensen’s figure in the doorway. Dressed in his dark blue officer’s uniform, Jensen stood tall in the doorway. Arms crossed over his chest, a shoulder and his head leaned against the door frame, his legs crossed at the ankles. Bo still hadn’t quite gotten used to seeing him in officer blues rather than a suit.

He cleared his throat. “Afternoon?”

Jensen smiled that heart-stopping smile of his. “Yeah, afternoon. About three minutes after. But I was promised lunch with my boyfriend, so…”

Bo couldn’t help the soft smile that came to his face. Jensen had a way of always working one out of him, even when he was tired or worn out. “Yes, I suppose you were.” Bo clicked his pen thrice and closed his notebook, tucking the pen between the pages to keep his place.

“Don’t bring any work along. Just you,” Jensen said.

Bo raised a brow. “Why?”

Jensen shrugged. “Humor me.”

Bo hated the mild tug at his anxiety, the increase in his heart rate. Jensen was his boyfriend, his bodyguard, his protector. Out of everyone in the world, Jensen was presumably one of the last who would ever intentionally set out to harm Bo.

And yet, there it was. Anxiety. Illogical fear and worry, driven by an overactive production of the stress hormone–potentially. Anxiety, like many things, had quite the list of suspected causes. Regardless of its cause, Bo hated it, especially when it reacted to people he loved, people that loved him.

“Jensen, I can’t handle anymore surprises right now,” Bo said, his voice quiet.

“That’s actually what this is about.” Jensen pushed away from the doorframe, shoving his hands into his pockets as he cleared his throat. “Even though yesterday turned out okay, I shouldn’t have sprung a surprise birthday party on you. Surprise parties work for some people, but I know you better than that. I had this urge to make your first birthday with me special, but an actual ‘special’ birthday with the two of us would’ve been, well… the two of us. So I thought we’d go to lunch, you can look over the several plans I have for tonight, and you can choose the one you like best. And then that’ll be my do-over for making your birthday special.”

“You already made it special, Jensen. I’ve never had that many people who cared about me in one room before.”

“And I’m glad I could give that to you. But I want to give you a birthday event where you aren’t on edge or anxious, where you don’t have to worry about there being more guests or people for you to work up the energy to greet and chat with. I want to give you an event where you can just be you. That’s what today is about.”

“Well, how can I say no to that face?” Bo asked. Jensen’s smile came back as he pulled his hands from his pockets and held one of them out to Bo. Bo tucked his phone into his pocket and rounded the table to grab Jensen’s hand. “What kind of grand plans have you laid ahead of us, then?”

“Technically, I have grand plan ideas. You get to choose the official grand plan.”

“Ah, of course. My mistake.”

Jensen smiled, giving Bo’s hand a gentle tug. “Come on. I’ll walk you through the ideas on the way to the diner.”

“Sounds like a plan. Lead the way, Jens.”

***

Out of all of Jensen’s ideas and suggestions, Bo’s favorite had been the simplest among them. Nothing appealed to him more than the idea of cooking supper with Jensen and sitting on the couch to kill some virtual zombies while they ate. Home-cooked shrimp pasta primavera for themselves and a few cooked angel hair pasta noodles for Hati and Acamas.

Now, with some lemon cupcakes in the oven, Bo sat between Jensen’s legs on the couch, a plate balanced on his thigh and a gaming controller in his hand. Jensen’s food situation was much of the same, though his plate was precariously balanced on the arm of the couch Bo really didn’t want him to stain.

But… it would be hard to be mad at Jensen for something so simple anyway.

“Oh, shit. Fuck. Babe, I’m down.” Jensen pointed at the screen with his free hand. “Help me up!”

“We’re looking at the same screen, and I don’t see you.”

“Over there! Over there!”

“You pointing gives me no direction,” Bo said, rapidly tapping his thumb against the X button to free himself from a rabid corpse. “Give me words, love. Right, left, up, down?”

“To the right! Babe, I’m almost dead.”

Bo snorted. Rolling his character out of the reach of a zombie, he ran over to Jensen’s character. “Here you go, you big baby.”

“Fuck yeah. Thank you.” Jensen pressed a kiss to Bo’s cheek before darting away from Bo’s character. “The left gate’s open. Gonna make a run for it before more zombies get in. You should try to silence the alarm.”

“The further separated we are, the more likely it is one of us dies.”

“Pfft, you have no proof of that.”

“Well…”

Jensen nudged Bo’s knee with his own. “Live it up, nerd. If we die a couple times, we die. Sometimes going in like Rambo is the best method.”

“Even if you die?”

“Oh, especially if you die.”

Bo chuckled. “All right, you’ve won. I’ll go try to silence the alarm, even if we both die.”

“Hell, yeah. That’s the spirit, babe. You go kick that alarm’s ass, and I’ll see what I can do about the gate.”

***

They had both died thrice before Jensen determined their Rambo technique wasn’t working and allowed Bo to strategize before simply charging into a hoard of zombies. A few incapacitations and revives later, and they had completed the level.

Now, with supper eaten and the cupcakes frosted, Bo washed dishes while Jensen stood outside with Hati to make sure the boxer actually went to the bathroom. As of late, she enjoyed playing a ‘game’ where she went outside for no reason other than getting a treat when she came back inside. They were doing their best to nip it in the bud before it became too much of a problem.

“Should you really be doing dishes on your birthday?” Jensen asked.

“This is technically not my birthday. That was yesterday.”

Jensen snorted. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Bo, his chin coming to a rest on the blonde’s shoulder. “Hati actually peed, so I gave her a snack.”

“Such a good girl, doing things dogs are supposed to do.”

The younger man laughed. “God, right? Such a shithead.”

“But she’s our shithead,” Bo said.

“Damn straight.” Jensen pressed a kiss to Bo’s shoulder and fell silent for a moment. “Did I do okay, Eli?”

“Jensen, you did great. This is exactly what I want from a birthday, even if it doesn’t take place on the day. Belated or early or right on time… I don’t mind when it happens. I just always want a day that just you, me, and our fur babies.”

Jensen smiled against his shoulder. “I can definitely make that happen.” His arms tightened around Bo before he lifted his head and kissed Bo’s temple. “Happy belated birthday, Eli. Thanks for giving me a shot at a better one.”

“You didn’t need another shot, but you’re welcome. I’m glad we could do this today. I needed the decompressing from yesterday–and that isn’t a bad thing–and nothing is better for that than a day with you.” A pause. “Well… maybe a good book or two.”

Jensen chuckled. “Sounds about right.” He slid a hand just a little lower, fingers toying with the button of Bo’s jeans. “How about… we finish dishes later, like… after we shower and eat a cupcake or three.”

“I’ll probably stick to one, but otherwise, I can certainly get behind that.” Bo rinsed off the plate in his hand and set it in the dish drainer. He shut off the water and grabbed the towel from the counter. After drying off his hands, he turned around in Jensen’s loosened grip and draped his arms over the younger man’s shoulders. “I love you, Jensen. No amount of surprise parties will change that. Your desire to make sure I’m surrounded by love isn’t a bad thing. It’s something I’m honored to have.”

One corner of Jensen’s mouth lifted. “Thank you,” he whispered. A hand on Bo’s cheek, he leaned down and kissed him. “I love you too. Can I prove it in the shower?”

Bo snorted. “I suppose I can allow that.” He pulled away and gestured toward the opening in the kitchen. “Lead the way, love.”


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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Seven

NOT EDITED

“I don’t want to tell him,” Landon whispered. “You’re the professional! You tell him.”

“You know him better than I do. Would you rather be told by a stranger or someone you knew?” Nora asked.

“I’m his babysitter.”

“Yes, the babysitter he thinks is attractive. The babysitter he takes comfort in. The babysitter he trusts.”

Landon snorted. “Does not.”

“Oh, don’t be daft. He’s immediately comforted by you touching his arm or you telling him it’s okay. Hearing it from you will be far better than hearing it from me.”

Landon crossed his arms over his chest. Defiance was far easier than begging Nora to tell him if Miguel actually felt that way about him or if it was just a way to convince him to talk to the man. “I’m not gonna do it.”

“What is taking you so long?” Nathan asked as he walked into the kitchen. “I’ve already told Miguel all of my cool abilities, and I’m frankly out of topics of discussion that aren’t about his son’s nightmares.”

Nora jerked a thumb in Landon’s direction. “He refuses to tell Miguel his son is a created psychic because he’s worried it’ll ruin his chances of sleeping with the guy.”

Landon’s scoff came out closer to a choke. “That’s not it at all! I mean… Well…”

Nora raised a brow. “I think that sort of proves my point.”

“You know all the details better than I do,” Landon said after a moment.

“You don’t have to explain every single piece of the universe to him, Lan. I just need you to break it to him. If he has questions you can’t answer, that’s what I’m here for. Okay?”

He let out a harsh breath. “Fine.” Landon walked back into the living room, where he was immediately greeted with Miguel’s worried face. “We should talk. Umm… in private.”

Miguel looked over at Eliseo before nodding. “I’m gonna go talk to Landon for a few, mijo. You just keep on coloring, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Miguel ruffled the boy’s curly hair and pushed himself to his feet. He followed Landon into the foyer and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed tightly over his chest. “What’s wrong with my boy, Landon?”

“There’s nothing wrong with him. Umm… Nora was just surprised.”

“Me too. But what is she surprised about?”

Landon scratched the back of his neck, eyes on the floor. “So, uh, I told you that psychics are born. Me and Nora, we were born with abilities, and we got those abilities from our dad’s side of the family.”

“Right.”

“But Eliseo wasn’t born this way. He was… umm… created.”

“Created,” Miguel echoed. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means that someone or something turned Eliseo into a psychic. He wasn’t born one.”

“But then someone… turned him into one?”

“Yeah.”

Miguel swallowed. “Is that bad? I-I mean, all of it is bad. My three-year-old is watching people die in his nightmares. But will it hurt him?”

“I don’t think so. Nora will have more answers than I do, but since you know me… she wanted me to be the one to tell you the basics of it,” Landon said.

“I appreciate it. Sorta like getting bad news from a doctor you just met versus the one you’ve been going to for the last three years.” Miguel tilted his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. Landon watched the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. “Does she know who or… or what did this to him?”

“She doesn’t know for certain. She’d need more time to pick through his memories and try to see if he knows. But, umm, she has a guess.”

“A guess,” Miguel echoed. He lifted his head from the wall, meeting Landon’s gaze again. “It’s not me, right? Because I-I wouldn’t have wished this on my son. I don’t know what—”

“It’s not you,” Landon promised. “She… thinks there’s a possibility it was your ex.”

“She…?” Miguel uncrossed his arms, burying his fingers in his dark hair instead. After a moment, he shook his head. “Maria was a lot of things, but she wasn’t a bad mother. She loved Eliseo. She wanted full custody of him. She wouldn’t have done something like this to him. And she sure as hell wouldn’t know how to do something like this to him.”

Landon cleared his throat, unable to stop himself from looking down at the floor.

“What do you know?” Miguel asked, hands dropping back to his sides.

“I… I don’t know anything,” Landon said quietly.

Miguel wrapped a hand around Landon’s chin and tilted his head back. Landon’s heart skipped a beat. He had wanted this for so damn long, but not because Miguel was angry or upset or scared. He had wanted it to happen before the kiss he longed for. This was just unfair.

“What… do you know?”

Landon swallowed. “Maria was a lot of things. I-I can agree to that. But she didn’t want full custody of him because she loved him, regardless of if she did or not. She wanted full custody of Eliseo to hurt you.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bullshit?” Landon asked. He pushed Miguel’s hand away. “She tried to ruin your whole damn life after you came out, Miguel. After the rumors she spread about sexual assault and beatings and…” He shook his head. “How can you give her the benefit of the doubt?”

“Because accusing someone of turning their son into a psychic who has to witness horrible, horrible fucking things at the age of three doesn’t come naturally to me.” Miguel threw a hand back toward the living room. “Maria is Eliseo’s mother. It doesn’t matter what I think of her. It doesn’t matter what you think of her. It matters what Eliseo thinks of her, and that boy loves his mother. You and your sister find me some proof first, and then we’ll talk. Yeah?”

After what must’ve been an eternity, Landon nodded. “Okay. We’ll search for proof.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I’m sorry, Miguel. I wasn’t aiming to upset you or anything like that. I-I was just relaying what Nora knew so far and what she theorizes so far.”

“I’m not upset with you. I wanna… I need to make that clear. I’m upset because someone cooked up some magical bullshit to curse my son with violent nightmares for the rest of his life. I’m upset because there’s even a small possibility that someone could be Maria. I’m upset because if Maria did this, she did it to hurt me, and that makes me even more responsible than I would’ve imagined. But I’m not upset with you. Ain’t got a reason to be.”

Landon glanced down. How long had Miguel’s hand been on his bicep? He cleared his throat. “No matter who did it or why they did it, you aren’t responsible for it. You’re a homicide cop, Miguel. You know how this goes. The victim didn’t ask for the killer to kill them. The living victim didn’t ask the killer to hunt down their boyfriend or girlfriend or friends so they could be together. You aren’t to blame. The person who… created a psychic in an innocent little boy–they’re to blame.”

Miguel closed his eyes and gave Landon’s arm a tight squeeze. “Come on. Let’s go see what your sister’s next piece of advice is.”

***

Nora’s advice unfortunately hadn’t been as helpful as Miguel had hoped. Of course, there was a damn slim chance that anything would seem helpful to the man who had discovered his son was a psychic and that monsters were real in the same damn day.

Her advice had been little more than to just… sit with it until further notice. Nora didn’t have much experience in created psychics, and apparently, she needed to do a bit of digging before she could come back with any real ideas. For the time being, she had given Eliseo a necklace to help ward off the spirits that sent him the nightmares. She had called the charm a witch’s something, but Miguel couldn’t quite remember. His brain was a bit too full for any more information to stick.

The drive back home was quiet. Landon didn’t say much, and Miguel simply didn’t know how the hell to carry on a conversation anymore.

Now, back home, Miguel pulled a sleeping Eliseo out of the carseat in the back. The boy’s arms hung over Miguel’s shoulders, his little lamb clutched in one hand.

“I’m sorry Nora didn’t have more to say,” Landon said quietly, hands shoved into his pockets. “We weren’t expecting him to be a created psychic. That… that muddles things a bit.”

“It’s all right. The charm she gave him is still appreciated.” Miguel cleared his throat, hiking Eliseo up on his chest. “I know Nora told you more than she told me. What’s our next step?”

“She… thought you might be too biased to help with it.”

“What?”

“Helping to prove if Maria did this or if it was someone or something else,” Landon said.

“Giving her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the child she gave birth to doesn’t make me biased. It means I do my best to keep Maria in as much of a positive light as I can without gaslighting myself.” Miguel closed his eyes for a moment. “If a monster killed this boy, going into work eight to twelve hours a day isn’t going to help me. It isn’t going to help bring justice to the kid or his family. So if you want help finding proof, let’s do it. I’ll work outside of the station and be on call in case this bastard grabs another kid. Okay?”

Landon watched him for what felt like an eternity. Miguel wished that length of eye contact was for something other than a discussion about supernatural monsters, child murderers, his ex-wife cursing their son, and death.

But that didn’t seem to be an option in his life.

“Okay. Tomorrow works?”

“Yeah, tomorrow works. You wanna come over at six like usual? I don’t really know how you want to go about this, but we can start before Eliseo wakes up, maybe make some progress before we have to pretend we aren’t researching monsters.”

Landon nodded. “I’ll come over at six.” Landon cleared his throat. “I’ll see you in a few hours, Miguel. Try to get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day of balancing lies and fatherhood.”

“Yeah,” Miguel whispered. He reached out and squeezed Landon’s shoulder with his free hand. “Goodnight, Landon. I imagine it was hard, but thank you for telling me about you and your sister. I appreciate the help here.”

The younger man offered a nearly nervous smile. “No problem, Miguel. Night.”

Miguel made his way up to the house, pulling his keys from his pocket at the door. He unlocked it and stepped into the house. He hadn’t picked up any extra locks that day, but he’d make a note of it for tomorrow, just to be safe.

With Eliseo in his arms, Miguel walked around the house and checked every door and window. They were all closed, all locked. He closed his eyes for a moment, wishing like hell he didn’t feel so utterly… helpless. He had spent the majority of his career chasing after murderers, and before that, he’d spent it chasing down criminals of any degree. Despite being involved in his fair share of shootouts, an accidental drug bust or two, and more than one hostage situation, he had never felt fear quite like how it felt now.

Losing his life to another human being was one thing. Eliseo losing his to some supernatural being was another.


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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Six

A/N: If you read this book before today (April 9th, 2021), I’d suggest going back and re-reading for the full character stories! I’ve added scenes and descriptions in the first five chapters to solidify this as a romance, which is far more fun for me to write and has a much better chance of me being able to finish it! You can go back to chapter one by clicking here.

NOT EDITED

Landon pulled into the drive of a relatively nice-looking house. Of course, in comparison to Miguel’s place, about the only thing that wasn’t nice-looking was a crack den, but Landon’s sister appeared to have money, and a lot of it.

“Your sister’s a real psychic… right? Not one of those scam artists?” Miguel asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

Miguel gestured to the house beyond the windshield. “How does a psychic who doesn’t leave the house afford this place?”

Landon chuckled softly, shaking his head as he undid his seatbelt. “For the good of everyone involved, I’m not going to answer that, Detective.”

After a moment, Miguel nodded. She was involved in something illegal, one way or another. Or had been at some point. Either way, it appeared to have set her up rather well. Miguel couldn’t help but feel just a little burned by that.

Still, he had his son to worry about, and that meant keeping his law-abiding instincts at bay long enough to get the help they needed. “So… what do we do here, Landon? Just walk in? You gotta introduce us ahead of time to security so we don’t get shot?”

Landon snorted before his expression turned sympathetic. “I know it seems like a lot, but it’ll be okay. Nora’s a good person, and she’s great with kids. Christ, there are three psychic little gremlins in there with her now. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s just going to help you and Eliseo… work together. There’s no security. We aren’t gonna get shot.” He smiled. “She’s psychic. She already knows we’re here anyway.”

Miguel offered a smile of his own. “So I guess it’s too late to back out then, huh?”

The younger man laughed. “Yeah, just a little, unfortunately.”

“Damn,” Miguel whispered. Letting out a breath, he undid his seatbelt. “Let’s do this, then.” He slid out of the car and pulled open the back door. He unbuckled Eliseo and lifted him out of his seat. The boy stirred, wrapping an arm loosely around Miguel’s neck.

Landon closed both doors on the car. “She’s not going to do anything to hurt him. She’s just going to help us understand how strong he is, what his abilities are. It’ll help you better understand how to help him through certain things.”

“I know. At least, I sort of know. I’m just…”

“Struggling?”

Miguel nodded. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this psychic thing, like… genetic? I’ve watched a ghost show here and there, and a lot of those psychics are the second or third generation of psychics in their family.”

“Usually. In my experience, anyway,” Landon said with a little nod. “That’s actually part of the reason I want you and Eliseo to meet Nora. If anyone can explain why he’s one but you don’t know of any in your family or his mom’s family, it’s Nora.”

“What if she can’t?”

“I prefer to focus on what if she can,” Landon said. He squeezed Miguel’s arm, but the warmth of his hand disappeared just as quickly as it had come. Admittedly, Miguel wished it had stayed there a hell of a lot longer. To say he was touch-starved was probably a massive understatement. It was something he tried not to think about too much, something he tried not to really focus on. His career was more important than friendships or sexual relationships. His career put a roof over Eliseo’s head, clothes on his back, food in his stomach. Those things would always come before any desire or urge for Miguel. Always.

“Are you ready to go find out if she can?” Landon asked.

Miguel forced himself to nod. “Lead the way.” With Eliseo wrapped securely in his arms, Miguel followed Landon up to the house. Just before they reached the door, a thin redhead opened it. She was a natural ginger like Landon, though her hair leaned more toward reddish-orange and less toward the reddish-brown that Landon’s did. They shared the same shade of pale skin, the same freckles on their face and exposed arms.

She smiled softly. “I was beginning to worry you’d changed your mind.”

“We were just talking out some nerves,” Landon said. “Nora, this is Miguel and his son Eliseo. Miguel, this is Nora and her husband Nathan.”

The man stuck out a hand. “Nate works fine.”

Miguel adjusted his grip on Eliseo and gave Nathan’s hand a firm shake. “Thank you both for having us over. I’m sure you have much better ways to spend a Monday night.”

“I usually just skim my help forums until I fall asleep for a few hours.” Nora wrapped a hand around Nathan’s arm and took a small step back. “Come on in. Let’s see what we can do for your boy.”

Miguel stepped into the house, Landon behind him. Once the younger man kicked off his shoes, Miguel did the same. “I think this will sound rude no matter how I ask it, but I don’t mean it that way. How can you… do anything for him?”

“I guess it’s about your perspective on the situation. To me, helping you understand him and helping you know how to help him is doing something for him. Being able to help explain a little bit why he’s like this and you aren’t is doing something for him. Finding a way to help chase away some of those nasty nightmares is doing something for him.”

“Y-you can do that? Help get rid of the nightmares?”

Nora shook her head. “ ‘Get rid of’ is… unfortunately too strong of a term. But given enough time, I can possibly help find a way to deter them.”

“Deter them how?”

“Make them occur less often, less intensely. Is that agreeable?”

Miguel nodded so fast it made him a little dizzy. “Yes. Yes, it’s agreeable. Anything that helps him.”

Nora smiled. “That’s a good start. I’ve met a lot of parents that will do just about anything to get rid of it completely, no matter what their kid wants.”

“I get it,” Miguel said. “I don’t want him to suffer through this. I don’t want him seeing the things he sees.”

“You’re a good dad. In my experience so far, most of the parents who come to see me because they want it gone desire it because they’re tired of dealing with calls from the school or other parents about the weird stories their kid tells the other kids. It’s unfortunate, is all.” Nora nodded off to the left. “Come on. We’ll talk in the living room.”

“It’s going to be okay,” Landon said as they followed Nora and Nathan through the house. “Nora’s the best there is for this sort of thing.”

“I have a feeling Nora is the only there is for this sort of thing.”

Landon chuckled. “Probably. But even if there are a million people like her doing this exact same thing, I’m willing to bet she’s the best. She’s the strongest psychic the Devil’s ever seen.”

Miguel glanced down at him. “Should… I be worried that you chose ‘Devil’ instead of ‘God’?”

A nearly mischievous little smile came to Landon’s face as he offered a shrug. “Up to you.”

“Cool,” Miguel whispered.

In the living room, Landon dropped down on the couch and Nora and her husband sat on the loveseat across the room. Letting out a breath, Miguel sat down beside Landon and shifted Eliseo to his lap. The boy stirred, head dropping to Miguel’s chest rather than his shoulder.

“Landon told me he has nightmares,” Nora said.

Miguel nodded. “They used to mostly be bad things happening to animals, and that started about a year or so ago.”

“What kind of bad things?”

“I don’t know. He never gave me a lot of details. A lot of cows, though. I know that much.”

One corner of Nora’s mouth scrunched up for a moment. “And the current nightmares, the ones with human death. How long has that been going on?”

“Since his mom died. About six months.”

Nora nodded. “How did his mother die?”

“I-I’m sorry. If you’re as good as Landon says you are, shouldn’t you know all this already?”

Nora’s smile was nothing but understanding. “I get the apprehension. There are a lot of scammers out there working under the guise of supernatural sensitivity, but I’m not one of them. I know bits and pieces about you, but I do my best not to pry into a person’s mind or feelings without permission or necessity. So long as you answer my questions, that necessity doesn’t arrive.”

Miguel closed his eyes before bringing himself to nod. “I don’t know how she died. We were already divorced by then, and the cause of her death was only released to her family.”

“Mm.” She pointed at Eliseo. “Do you think her family told him what happened?”

“I doubt it. But, umm… but he was found in her car parked outside of where her body was found.”

“Jesus,” Nora whispered. “Do you know if he saw it happen?”

Miguel shook his head. “No idea. I’ve assumed it’s… likely that he saw or heard it, but I don’t know. We don’t really talk much about the day Mommy died, you know?”

“Of course.” Nora reached up to tuck her hair behind her ears. “Can I touch his arm? His arm or his hand gives me a better reading than sitting across the room does, and from over here, things are a bit hazier than usual.”

“What does that mean? That it’s hazier?”

“That he’s a little stronger than I’m used to.”

Miguel nodded, though he felt like he couldn’t breathe. “Go ahead.”

Nora pushed herself to her feet and walked over to the couch. A hand on Landon’s knee, she squatted down in front of Miguel. “Eliseo, honey?”

Eliseo’s eyes fluttered open. “Where are we, Daddy?”

“This is Landon’s sister, Nora. We’re at her house,” Miguel said, struggling to force every word past the lump in his throat.

Eliseo looked up at Landon. “Are you in trouble?”

Landon snorted. “Not today. We just wanna see if Nora can help calm your nightmares down a little.”

“Calm… them down?” Eliseo asked. He tilted his head back against Miguel’s chest. “Get rid of?”

“No, mijo. I wish we could get rid of them, but we can’t. But, uh, but Nora, here… Well, she thinks she can help make them happen less often.”

“Less is good.” Eliseo looked at Nora again. “How?”

“I’d like to touch your hand or your arm. It helps me figure out where the nightmares are coming from, and once I know that, I can figure out how to slow them down.”

Eliseo rolled up the sleeve of his pajama shirt and stuck out his arm. “Okay.”

Nora smiled. “Thank you.” She grabbed Eliseo’s forearm, her brow furrowing almost instantly. She grabbed his hand instead, clasping it between both of her own. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against her hands.

When she finally released Eliseo’s hand, she looked almost angry. “Landon, see me in the kitchen, please.”

“What?”

Now,” Nora said as she pushed herself to her feet.

“Now I’m in trouble,” Landon whispered to Eliseo before standing up. He squeezed Miguel’s shoulder. “Everything’s okay. I’ll be right back. Okay?”

Miguel forced himself to nod.

Nathan cleared his throat. “I have some coloring books over here if you’re interested, Eliseo.”

“Any lambs?” Eliseo asked.

Nathan leaned forward and sorted through the small stack of books on the coffee table. “Here we go. This one’s all farm animals.”

“Thank you!” Eliseo jumped off Miguel’s lap and grabbed the coloring book. He sat down beside the basket of crayons on the floor and rifled through the pages in search of a lamb to color.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Miguel asked.

Nathan shook his head. “Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of psychic. I’m more of a… creation and destruction sensor.”

“What does that mean?”

He lifted his shoulders, eyes shifting to Eliseo for a moment. “When something is born–human or otherwise–I can sense it. If something dies, I can sense it. It’s a fleeting feeling, and it thankfully only comes through to me if I’m in close enough proximity to the things birth or death. I, uh… can also look at a picture and sense if that person is dead or alive. I learned not too long ago that I can even feel out those that have been buried.”

“Like a cadaver dog?” Miguel asked.

Nathan chuckled. “Yeah, a little bit.”

“No… nightmares?”

Nathan shook his head. “Not often. I don’t believe the nightmares I do have are anything more than my own. Every person that’s like us is… different. Different abilities, different strengths. There’s one in L.A. that can figure out just about everything there is to know about you just by touching your hand. There’s one locked up in prison there too, doesn’t even know he’s one. Nora knows he’s pretty good at picking up on a person’s habits or routine by touching them, but the spirit that’s attached itself to him blocks her pretty good from finding out anything else.”

Miguel scrubbed a hand over his mouth, looking over at the kitchen doorway. “How, uh, how does Nora know he’s a psychic if he doesn’t know?”

“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know they’re sensitive to some degree. Nora can more or less sense psychics. Where they are, who they are, what they can do. But this one, the ghost that’s attached to him has convinced him they were connected at birth. He was young when he heard that story, and it has unfortunately stuck.” Nathan cleared his throat, leaning forward to look at the kitchen. “I’m gonna see what’s going on, okay?”

“Thank you.”

“No problem, Miguel. Back in a few.”


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No updates this week

Hey, guys.

I’m currently trying to get through to my vet to take Willie and Selene in today, one for a check-up for his heart and fluid retention, and the other for an urgent medical issue. Unless I get some super great news today, I’m not planning on updating this week. Depending on how today goes, it might be a little while, but I’ll do my best to keep you posted, either here or on my other social media.

Thank you for your patience, and I hope like hell things go so well today that I post a chapter. But I don’t see that happening. So I’ll see you guys… soon.

Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Eleven

A/N: Belated Wednesday update. Sorry this one took so long to get out to you guys! This chapter just took forever to write for little reason outside of personal issues, lol. Enjoy!

NOT EDITED

Theodore hated that finding Russell’s scars had made him so quick to judge, so quick to assume Russell was an active addict. He hated how finding them had made him feel, how betrayed they had made him feel. Russell’s addiction, regardless of its time frame, wasn’t about him, no matter what Russell said.

He pulled his feet up onto the couch and leaned into Russell’s side, head falling to his shoulder. He had invited the detective over for supper as an apology for jumping to conclusions, for not asking him as soon as he saw them, for calling him a drug addict. Of course, he hadn’t told Russell it was an apology. Russell would have only smiled and told him an apology wasn’t necessary, and Theodore couldn’t help but believe that was bullshit.

Russell wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “I love you,” he whispered.

Theodore couldn’t help but smile. He really did love hearing those three words falling from Russell’s lips. They had never sounded anywhere near as sweet as they did coming from Russell. “Someday, I’ll be able to say that back to you.”

Russell chuckled softly. “Take your time. I’ve got all the time and patience in the world, Teddy.”

Theodore glanced over at the television, where Vera was watching her favorite Minecraft YouTuber build a ship of some sort. The guy was incredibly family-friendly, so Theodore didn’t mind her preference for his videos over most shows aimed at kids her age. Of the ‘kid’s content’ available on the platform, she certainly could have chosen someone far worse to enjoy.

“Vera goes back to school on Wednesday. We can start looking at therapists or psychologist or… whatever after that. If that’s okay with you?” Theodore asked.

Russell nodded. “Yeah, should be. We can meet up on our lunch breaks and start researching the ones around here. We can narrow them down based on whatever criteria you’d like to.”

“Based on criteria?” Theodore asked.

“Of course. Male or female, location, specialities, interests… We’ll choose a therapist that you’re the most comfortable with, Teddy. You won’t get anywhere if you’re scared or nervous around them.”

“I don’t know how you manage to be so level-headed with all this, but I appreciate it. It… it means the world to me, Russell.”

Russell smiled. “I know what it’s like to be someone’s punching bag for years, andd I know what it’s like to need help afterward. You’ve got yourself an experienced man, Teddy.” Theodore raised a brow. “Hey, mind outta the gutter. I’m experienced in the way that matters.”

“Therapy?”

“Bingo.”

Theodore snorted. “Well, I’m glad to have you, then.”

“Me too.”

Theodore shifted, laying the side of his head on Russell’s shoulder again. He reached out, gently skimming three fingers up Russell’s forearm. “When you went to therapy after… this, was it just for work?”

“Mostly,” Russell said after a moment. “I, uh, I was on the job for… a while before I was able to give up the drugs.”

“Jesus,” Theodore whispered. He pulled away from him so he could look the man in the eyes. “You were…?”

Russell nodded, gaze shifting over to Vera for a moment. “I shot up for almost a year after they let me get back to work, after I had ‘passed’ my mental health evaluation.”

“Did they know?”

“Not until I did it in the wrong place and got caught.” Russell cleared his throat, his free hand moving up to his throat. “I, uh… would like not to talk about this anymore today, if that’s all right.”

“God, of course. I’m sorry.”

Russell shook his head. “Don’t be. It’s good to talk about it. It’s good for you to know. I just…” Again, he shook his head. “It’s still an unfortunately recent scar in comparison to everything else, you know? I’m not as philosophical about this just yet.”

“Of course, Rusty. That makes sense. We can just cuddle and watch Minecraft. Deal?”

One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “Sounds absolutely perfect.”

***

Russell had ended up spending the night again, which wasn’t really out of the ordinary. Sunday nights were one of the more regular nights they spent with each other, and Theodore usually caught a ride with Russell on the way to work.

By the time Theodore awoke, Russell was already in the shower. It didn’t happen often, but it always managed to surprise him. When he had been married, any movement Shane made beside him immediately woke him up and threw his system into overdrive. But with Russell, on occasion, he managed to simply… sleep through it. He still couldn’t believe it.

Theodore barely managed to finish feeding the fish before Russell came out of the bathroom, dress pants pulled up and unbuttoned, his undone belt hanging from the loops on either side. “Good morning.”

Russell smiled, but it was a little duller than usual. “Good morning. Sleep okay?”

“Not too bad, considering. Still… recovering from the kitchen trigger, umm, issue.”

The detective nodded. “Yeah, I get that. Always takes me a while to fully come back from them.”

Theodore nodded as he tucked the fish food away beneath the table. A hand wrapped around his cane, he rose back to his feet. “How did you sleep?”

Russell scratched the side of his head before walking over to his overnight bag. “Okay.”

“I don’t know as much about your tells as I want to, but… I do know you’re lying to me. Should I be worried, or do you just not want me to know you had a shitty night?”

Russell dug through his bag as he said, “I don’t want you to think me not sleeping well is your fault.”

“Was it… heroin-related?”

He blew out a long breath and leaned back on his heels, white button-up in hand. “I don’t know, Teddy. I don’t remember much of what kept me up. Only really remember small bits and pieces. Most of what I remember was shit about Dad.” A pause. “About my father. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. They usually pick up at the beginning of January and fade out again in a week or so.”

“Do you know why?” Theodore asked.

“Yeah.”

“Do… you wanna talk about it?”

Russell stayed silent as he shrugged his shirt over his shoulders. “He was always gone at the end of December. Supposedly for business shit, but I always doubted that. Still do. He’d come back right at the beginning of January with a vengeance, make up for lost time, I guess.” He finished buttoning his shirt and pulled his tie from the bag. “I normally try to sleep through them, but I just stayed up after the second one. I didn’t wanna risk shouting or tossing too much, waking up you or Vera. I’ll probably stay at my place until it’s over. I can function on very little sleep, but I’m a bit testy when it’s because of nightmares.”

“I get it. I get that way too.” Theodore sat down on the edge of the bed, unwilling to risk infiltrating Russell’s personal space. “If you don’t want to come over because it worries you, I understand. I’m not going to push you on it. I already know you wouldn’t push me if the roles were reversed here.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.” Russell stood up, draping his tie around his neck. He walked over to the bed and leaned down to kiss Theodore. He let out a soft sound, lifting his hands to either end of Russell’s tie. Russell pulled back only enough to break the kiss. “I’ll come over for suppers and meet you for lunches, but I don’t feel comfortable sleeping here. Or… I know I would be able to sleep while I’m worried about waking you guys up at every hour of the night.”

Theodore nodded. “Of course. Just… just trying to take a page out of your book, Rusty.”

A little smile tugged at one corner of Russell’s mouth. “Well, you’re doing great.”

“Thank you.” Theodore smoothed his hands over Russell’s tie before working to tie it. “You take whatever time you need, Russ. Text me when you’re okay to. Call me when you’re okay to. Visit me when you’re okay to. I don’t want you pushing yourself for me.”

“Thank you. Again.” Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s forehead as he finished with his tie. “And thank you for that too.”

“You’re welcome. Or, no problem.” Theodore smiled. “Another page outta your book.”

“I love it. And I love you.”

Heat rose to Theodore’s cheeks. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Russell only smiled. “Bathroom’s all yours. I’ll be in the kitchen observing the options in the fridge. I promise I won’t touch any pans without my supervisor present.”

Theodore laughed. “Sounds good. I’ll be out in a few.”

***

Making breakfast with Russell had been easy, like it always was. Most things were easy with Russell. In comparison to how things had been with Shane, anyway. Compared to how things had been with other people before Shane, everything with Russell was like a challenge, like a hurdle he had to jump over every single time he came to it, no matter how many times they’d done the thing–like making breakfast together–before.

He wasn’t sure how long they’d have to be together before that went away. Based on how Russell talked about his own past, Theodore wasn’t sure it ever would be fully okay. He still hadn’t quite figured out he felt about that realization.

Theodore lifted his head as Russell stopped the car and shifted into park. He looked out at his parents’ house, clearing his throat. “Are you all right to head up by yourself, baby girl? Or do you want me to come with?” Theodore asked, leaning over to meet Vera’s gaze in the rear view mirror.

“I can do it. But don’t leave until I’m inside,” Vera said.

“Would never dream of it, sweetheart,” Russell said.

Vera smiled, looking down as she unbuckled her car seat. “I’ll see you tonight, Russ?”

“Yep. I’ll pick you and your Daddy up and drop you both off at home before I head over to my friend’s place.”

“Okie dokie. Love you, Daddy.”

Theodore reached back and squeezed her hand. “Love you too, baby girl.”

Vera cllimbed out of the car and ran up to the house. She knocked, and it wasn’t long before Theodore’s dad opened the door. After waving their goodbyes, Russell backed out of the driveway.

“So you won’t be home alone tonight?” Theodore asked.

“I haven’t decided yet. I just don’t want Vera to think I’m gonna starve tonight if I don’t come over to your place,” Russell said.

“I’m sorry I told her you don’t eat much when you’re not with us.”

“Pfft, no need to be. I’ve told you both that too. I just don’t want her worrying about me, is all. You’ve both been through too much to worry about me.”

“One could say the same about you, Rusty.”

Russell offered a soft smile. “Yeah, one probably could. Guess we both just like caring, huh?”

“Something like that.”

Russell reached over the center console and grabbed Theodore’s hand. He gave it a little squeeze before holding it on the console. “I’ll go over to Andy and Emey’s place tonight. They worry about me too much too, especially since I worked Vince’s homicide. They invite me over all the time, so… maybe I’ll finally go, give ‘em some peace of mind.”

“I like that idea. I feel better knowing you won’t be alone all night,” Theodore said.

“Me too,” Russell said quietly. “You and Vera gonna be okay tonight?”

“Oh, yeah. We’ll be okay, I promise. We both love having you at the house–maybe a little too much–but we can still manage on our own. You just worry about taking care of yourself tonight.”

Russell lifted Theodore’s hand long enough to press a kiss to the back of it. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Teddy.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have had to explain your addictive past to someone throwing shit at you.”

“You weren’t throwing shit. You’re a father and a man recovering from an abusive relationship with a coke addict. You had and have every reason to be concerned about me hiding it from you.” Russell cleared his throat. “I would’ve had to explain it to you eventually. I planned to, and I wasn’t expecting it to be all rainbows and sunshine. I expected pushback. I expected doubt.”

“Really?”

Russell nodded. “Really. People are scared of addiction, even people who don’t know a single person who’s ever been addicted. And I can understand that. Addiction is scary. It’s terrifying. That shit runs in my veins, and it always will, even if I had never tasted alcohol or smoked pot or shot up. It’s scary, and people usually don’t know how to react. Figuring that part out is… difficult, and I try not to fault people for that, just like I hope people will do for me.”

“If you put understanding vibes out into the universe, the universe will give them back,” Theodore said.

Russell squeezed his hand. “Exactly. That’s how I try to live with it, anyway. If I try my best to understand people’s reactions when they find out–the quiet ones, the loud ones, the awkward ones–then I hope people will try to understand why it happened and that I’m not that person anymore.” He smiled at Theodore. “Like you did.”

“I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if I’d thrown you away for your past. If you hadn’t known me from the case and the hospital, when you found out I was recovering from an abusive marriage, I wouldn’t have wanted you to throw me away. It’s only fair I do the same for you.”

“And that’s why I love you.”

Theodore couldn’t help but smile. “I hope you know how sweet you are, Russell.”

He chuckled, though it missed just a bit of his usual charm. “I think I’ve been told a time or two.” He gave Theodore’s hand another squeeze. “I’m gonna play today out by ear, if that’s all right. If I’m feeling like me by lunch time, I’ll text you and bring food. If I’m feeling… off, I’ll text you and let you know. Okay?”

Theodore nodded. “Of course. Take care of yourself and do what you need to do.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. How can you take care of everyone else if you ignore your own needs?”

After a moment, Russell nodded. “That’s probably the most effective way anyone has ever gotten that message across to me.”

“It still makes me a little nervous to admit, but I do pay attention to the things you consider most important. Family and taking care of that family are very, very important to you. And you… you have to take care of you if you want to take care of them.”

“Thank you, Theo. For… understanding.”

“No problem, Russ.”


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S. Carved – Chapter Nineteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Nineteen

Dallas couldn’t believe it. It had been almost two hours, and he still couldn’t believe it.

Me, neither, Tex. Can’t believe you talked that girl into killing herself.

Fuck you. I didn’t talk her into anything.

Ed chuckled. Whatever helps you sleep at night, darling.

Dallas bit back a growl, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. He had already handed his blood-spattered shirt and jacket over to forensics and changed into a clean set. Now, he sat down in the lab with Bo, writing up his report of the incident.

He glanced up at Bo, who sat on the floor rather than at the table or counter. He had been quiet. He hadn’t spoken a word since, ‘Don’t touch her. They’ll need pictures’.

Man, if only we’d known sooner how to shut him up so quickly, huh? Ed asked.

Dallas rolled his eyes rather than responding. He’d had enough of Ed’s bullshit that day, even more so now.

“Bo?”

Dallas turned to the doorway at the same time Bo scrambled to his feet. Bo hurried across the room and wrapped his arms around the black man in the doorway.

“Oh, God, I’m so glad you’re okay. Your picture was all over the news with reports of a suicide or a shooting, and I…”

“I’m okay.”

“I know, Squirt. Thank God.” The man rested his chin on top of Bo’s head. “Your mom’s been texting me from work, worried sick. I’ll let her and let her know you’re safe. Proven with my own eyes and everything.”

Bo chuckled. “Okay. Thank you.” He took a step back, tucking his hands behind his back. “Dad, this is the rookie homicide cop I’m babysitting. Dallas, this is my dad.”

The man lifted a hand. “Denzel. Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Dallas smiled. “Wasn’t expecting to meet the guy that raised this genius so soon. Was hoping to charm Bo into a supper invitation or something.”

Denzel laughed. “Good luck with that.” He reached out and smoothed a hand over Bo’s hair. “You want something? Blatantly ask him for it. He’ll give you a yes or no, but he prefers direct questions.”

Bo offered a smile. “I’m sure my mom would love to have me over tonight so she can also confirm my state of liveliness. If you’d like to join us, she never minds another person at the table,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, he’s sure. He wouldn’t offer if he wasn’t,” Denzel assured. “I’ll have your mom text you, okay?”

Bo nodded. “Okay. And… thank you for checking in on me. I appreciate it.”

“No problem, Squirt. Stay safe, okay?”

“I will. You too.”

“Of course.” After the man left, Bo retreated to his spot at the table rather than the floor.

“So… your dad’s pretty cool,” Dallas said.

Wow. Hard-hitting, emotional stuff, Tex. Great connection there. Really.

“He is,” Bo agreed after a moment. “I lucked out with the Austens.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t believe there are many people who would have put up with me, especially as their child.”

The quietness of Bo’s voice was more than enough to let Dallas know he didn’t want to discuss his adopted parents any further. “So, case-wise. Why the hell did she shoot herself?”

“Are you done with your report?”

“Yeah. Still need to hand it in, but it’s written.”

Bo nodded. “Well, why does anyone kill themselves? There are a number of reasons, some more common than others. Mental illness, accidental, they feel as though they have no other option, silence… There are many reasons. One could assume her reason, but that’s all it will ever be.”

“Because she’s not alive to confirm the reason for us,” Dallas said quietly.

“Yes, exactly. It will always be an assumption, but in this case, I would… be willing to say that assumption will be necessary.”

Dallas raised a brow. “Are you saying you’re going to bounce ideas off of me?”

Bo offered a smile, shaking his head. “No, but I’m willing to let you bounce ideas off of me.”

“Will you respond to them with more than a ‘maybe’?”

“Yes. I’ll do my best to.”

“That’s good enough for me. You know those suicide cults? Do you think there’s a possibility this is one of them?” Dallas asked.

“I think… it’s unlikely their intention is to commit suicide together as some kind of message. Let’s call the ones who supposedly eat the organs ‘the elders’. The elders of this cult have gone through far too much trouble to end their own lives, and intentionally sacrificing the life of a young person who has yet to provide a strong and healthy organ for them seems unlikely to me.”

Call me whatever you’d like, but he makes a good point.

I usually stick with calling you an asshole.

Ed laughed.

“You make a good point on that one, Austen. Do we know if she had any cuts or scars on her? If they were… preparing her for something?”

Bo offered a shrug. “Because we were there for the shooting, I haven’t been involved in any of the examinations of the body. Once both of our reports are marked off, we’ll be allowed to return to the scene and exam the house, and we’ll be able to look at the body.”

“And if not?”

“Then I imagine the case will be assigned to someone else, and it won’t be our problem any longer,” Bo said. “But for Burke’s sake, she might want to hope that our reports are approved and we’re both signed off as good to go.”

“Why’s that?”

“Questions will be asked as to why we were there and not her and her partner.”

“I… almost hope we don’t get signed off.”

Bo chuckled, but it was quiet. Hell, if Dallas hadn’t been paying attention, he probably would have missed it. “It unfortunately wouldn’t do much. At most, she won’t get her next promotion as quickly as she had hoped for.”

Dallas shook his head. He wanted to push Bo further on the subject of Tessa Burke, but he knew better. He didn’t need to earn Bo’s distrust again, not when he was slowly closing in on actual trust. “I don’t know how you put up with her.”

“I just try to keep my head down. Outside of that, I love my job, and I won’t let her take that from me.”

So he has SOME fight in him. I’m not sure if that increases or decreases my desire to choke the life right out of him.

Dallas cleared his throat, doing his best to ignore the flash of his hands around Bo’s throat in his mind. It wasn’t often Ed sent him little bits of imagery of what he wanted to do, but when he did, it was difficult to simply pretend it wasn’t there.

But he’d do what he could to accomplish just that.

“I’m actually pretty proud of you for that kind of ambition. It can’t be easy.”

“I don’t want to talk about Burke. We’ve discussed this.”

“I don’t mean because of her. I mean after all the shit you’ve been through. Bullying, abuse, already having this job taken from you a couple times. That has to eat away at your ambition.”

“Oh.” After a moment, Bo nodded. “It does, a little bit. But if keeping my job requires pushing harder for what ambition I have left to do the work, so be it.”

“Yeah, definitely proud of you.”

Bo smiled faintly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Dallas turned around in his chair, crossing his good arm over the back of it. “Think she did it so we couldn’t bring her in an pull information from her?”

“It’s… certainly a possibility.”

“So you think that one’s, like, logical?”

“I think if the elders of this cult want to eat the organs of young people, they aren’t going to risk that information getting out to the police. It wouldn’t surprise me if the other members have been told to avoid police at all costs. And if you can’t avoid them, well…” Bo closed his eyes for a moment before shaking his head. “Then I suppose we know what one’s only other option might be.”


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A/N: I’ll make an official blog post about it later today after I’ve slept, but I’m going to start setting view goals for every month, trying to make each month a little higher than the last. This month, we’re aiming for 8K views in the entire month (a little under 260 views a day). Views from any and all pages and posts on my website count toward this goal, not just Symbolically Carved. The exciting part? If we can reach 8K, I’ll be posting a short story of the day Ed talked Dallas into finally letting him kill his dad.


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