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             How slow could one’s heartbeat really become when they fell asleep? There was a medical answer, of course, as there almost always is with these kinds of things. But that wasn’t the crux of what Joseph was asking himself. As he laid asleep, he felt his heart pound behind his ears so agonizingly slow, he almost thought he was dead until it came knocking again.

            With each beat into his skull, he became more aware of his sleep and of his surroundings just past his eyelids. He couldn’t feel the sheets of his bed, nor the heat and pressure from the small dog that usually curled so carelessly into his side at night. Even when the both of them would get too warm and shift away from one another, Delly was always sleeping next to Joseph. Except for now- Joseph was alone.

            With no bed seeming to exist underneath him, Joseph tried to move his arms and feel the space around him. To his surprise, his arms did not move with the gentle coaxing he had commanded of them. Instead, they stayed stuck, glued to his sides. Almost defiantly.

            Another beat in his mind, Joseph began to fidget. At least, he would be, if his body would even do that. No, he found himself completely immobilized. His feet, legs, torso, and chest were also unresponsive. The creeping understanding of this came to him all too suddenly when he realized he couldn’t feel himself breathe.

            Just like that, Joseph was choking. Asphyxiating on the knowledge that wherever he was -whatever this place was- he was either dead or completely out of body. Out of fear, but also a strange, morbid curiosity, Joseph opened his eyes.

            To his surprise, they did so. With his vision: his senses returned to him. There was indeed a bed underneath him, warm and comforting. The room in front of him was bright, as if the day had already fully begun. Joseph blinked against the onslaught of senses as he rose from his prone position. To his horror, he was not in his own room.

            He would’ve loved to chalk this up to a horrible one-night stand, or even an accidental stumble into the extra bedroom of the beach house, but no. He was back. He hadn’t been here since they broke up… how was he back?

            As quietly as a mouse, Joseph moved to step out from under the sheets. He noticed his movements seemed to stall in time, as if the frames of reality were getting caught by invisible thorns. Everything was just a bit too blurry for his mind to comprehend, but he still took a step onto the ice-cold floor and shivered.

            He remembered telling David that they needed a carpet for this room, so that they wouldn’t run into this problem. David had insisted that Joseph just wear socks to-and-from bed. Neither had taken the other’s advice. Neither, at some point in their relationship, really cared too much about doing something for the sake of the other. When did that change?

            Joseph tried not to think about it as he went looking for his belongings. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought if he could just get his keys and wallet, he could be out of there in no time. However, neither article was on top of the dresser when he went to look. Joseph looked back towards the bed, to see it had been made, but that there was also a suitcase placed on top. The clothing seemed to slither like snakes in and out of the open luggage. On the very top was a framed photo; Joseph could only make out one face. He saw himself, about 10 years younger, but smiling more than he ever remembered being able to.

            Why was he packing again? He got back to work, grabbing his clothes from the drawers. As he looked through the various shirts and pants, he thought to himself that none of them necessarily looked like his. Varying hues and styles that weren’t his cup of tea, and yet he knew exactly which ones were his. As he grabbed them, they seemed to melt away in his hands.

            Why is this happening again? Joseph was shocked by his own thought. Again? Nothing was happening again, today was today. It was still happening. But it wasn’t, was it?

            He knew deep down; this had already happened.

            Joseph got back to packing.

            A sudden noise made Joseph flinch. The front door had been swung open, making a terrible clashing from just outside the bedroom. Joseph could’ve sworn the door had been swung open right next to his ear. He put down the top he was currently inspecting and walked near the door to the room. He turned around briefly to look out the window and take a moment of solace before David would inevitably enter.

            From just the one window, Joseph would usually be able to see the entire Chicago skyline, and then be able to peak Lake Michigan from behind the towering structures. David’s apartment was nice, but that’s what you got for being a professional athlete. The real gem of the space was the view, and Joseph loved to revel in small moments with it. He liked to imagine that the city was like a live painting. Changing so softly, as if the painter went back to make changes.

            Instead of seeing the city that he now, admittedly, misses so dearly, he saw a swirling pool of blackness. His smile dropped as he looked in confusion to the sunrays bouncing off the floorboards. He looked back up to see a turbulent sea, with crashing waves and lightning in the distance.

            Joseph watched in awe as the ocean churned and seethed with malice. He didn’t know how an ocean could be angry, in the way a man could be. And yet here was one. The waves caught and lapped at one another, folding together like a deck of cards. Joseph’s eye was caught at the formation of a small vessel at the very bottom of the window.

            A small, red sailboat. Its sails were drawn tightly as it bobbed with the waves. Every so often, a wave would crash into the side of the boat. With it, gallons of water dumped aboard and seemed to seep through the open doors and holes on the top of the deck. With each crash, the boat sunk a little deeper. From the back of the scene, a large swell began to form. Joseph couldn’t bear to look.

            He turned away just as the tidal wave came close to the sailboat, and after waiting a few seconds, he looked back. There was no sailboat. There was no ocean. There was a dark cityscape, with the moon glimmering on the surface of the major lake. In the reflection, Joseph saw David. He flipped around, not realizing he’d entered the room, but came to discover he was alone.

            Only seconds later, the door swung open, and revealed a drenched man. He was covered in salty water, his eyes were stung red, and his breathing was short and calloused. David reached into his pocket and pulled from it a soaked cell phone.

            “You will not believe who I just got off the phone with.” David said. It didn’t sound like him. It wasn’t him.

            “Who?” Joseph knew who. He still had to ask.

            “Your mother.” The words still stung like poison when he heard them, even if the voice saying it was completely different from the original. “David” seemed to move in small bursts walking forward. His limbs jolted and jerked.

            “Why would she call you? Is she alright?” He didn’t want to ask these again. But he had to.

            “She’s fine… but you.” “David” pointed towards Joseph, “You have the fucking nerve. You fucking LIAR-“ Before Joseph could react, the soaked flip-phone was flying towards his face. When this had actually happened, Joseph had just dodged it as it crashed into the wall behind him. As it flew through the air this time, however, the phone disintegrated into a million small pieces. The fragments dusted into his eyes. He blinked them away, but with that, came the tears.

            “I never lied to you…!” Joseph knew his words were empty, “Look, we can talk this out, we always do- we always have… would I lie to you?”

            “I don’t know, would you?”

            Joseph fumbled, “No!! Never!! Never once, never now. If anything, there’s been a misunderstanding, and if I could just explain-“

            “EXPLAIN ALL YOU WANT!” His voice rang out with an eerie bubbling and cracking, “For all the things you’ve EVER had to ‘explain’ to me, explain why you abandoned her!”
            “I didn’t abandon her!” The tears were streaming freely down Joseph’s face now, “I didn’t! She abandoned me, she would’ve never understood! You know she never did!”
            “And so you left her to die?”

            Oh god.

            Please not this again.

            Joseph’s mind began to scream at him.

            Not this. Anything but this.

            “What do you mean?” His lips moved and his vocal cords rang, but he was not speaking.

            “How could you leave her to burden the cancer alone? How could you run away from that? And then, not telling her where you were- and that we were together?” David was gone from the room. The room was gone too. All that was left was blackness, “You are SICK. You’re disgusting. I want you to leave.  I don’t want to see your face in twenty minutes. Sleep in a motel for all I care. Or maybe crawl back to that ‘Thomas’ who was in your messages.

            We’re done.”


            Joseph woke up so quickly, it was almost like he wasn’t asleep. His breathing was scattered, frantic… almost helpless. As he jolted up from where he was laying, a bright beam of light blinded him. He shielded his eyes and felt a gentle rustling near his legs. Once his eyes adjusted, he was able to see Delly, just waking up himself. The dog turned over and began to wag his tail languidly, as if he had risen from the gentlest sleep.

            “Good mornin’, Del,” Joseph calmed himself, reaching forward to pet the dog. His room was illuminated with the gentle brightness of dawn, with a few scattered sunrays that were most definitely from the ocean. The one thing Joseph could comment on about California was how damn bright it was.

            As he slowly turned to get out of bed, his mind raced back to his dream. The terrifying plunge into his memories always shocked him, but he had this dream often enough that he could shake it off relatively well. It was an especially bad one, he thought, because of the recent move.

            This was his new room, after all, and his first night in it. The only thing “made” was the bed. The rest was still in boxes or luggage. He was grateful he didn’t own many things, but he would need a dresser and a desk. He couldn’t live out of boxes forever.

            For a moment more, still wrapped in the warm blankets of his new home, he allowed himself to feel grateful. Live in a motel, for all I care is what he had said, but Joseph was lucky enough that it wasn’t his reality. Instead, he had a backup plan. One that he had, admittedly, for months. The worst part was that it wasn’t even his suggestion, Leia had made the “go-plan” if things were to turn sour.

            Once they did, he was on a plane to LA. How did he end up in such a wonderful town like Bakersville?

            At first, it WAS Los Angeles and sleeping on Leia’s couch, doing temp work here and there. But Leia wanted out, and Los Angeles was so damn expensive… it was only fate that her parents had a beach house only two hours away by car, further north.

            He hadn’t seen the town in full swing, but the night before, the two had taken a short drive down the main streets. The nightlife was existent, if not extremely Californian. Slower, warmer, and full of older and younger couples alike walking gracefully down the roads. Even in December, they were wearing shorts and tank tops. That was nary a dream back in Michigan.

            Leia had pointed out where she grew up, what school she attended, and even some places she knew people worked at. They stopped in front of a closed coffee shop, at some point.

            “We HAVE to go in, see if my old pal is still working there!” Bubbly as ever, she made the date. Joseph had just smiled and nodded along.

            There was something exciting about such a small town, with so few people. It was strangely intimate and secluded at the same time. He was informed that it was a tourist town, and that almost half the condos and houses were owned by snowbirds, but that the actual population would reveal itself in the summer and fall, especially. Everyone who grew up knew each other and were either friends or in love. Everyone else was a complete stranger and was either there, or not. Even the neighbors next door who had introduced themselves the day prior were from Minnesota and wouldn’t be there, come spring.

            Joseph wondered what it must feel like, being someone who was so free in the world that they could pick up and move back and forth so easily, almost on command. He hoped someday, he might be able to do that. Maybe he wouldn’t want to, but the opportunity of chance was enough to convince him to try.

            When Joseph finally got out of bed, getting dressed felt all too familiar. Out of a suitcase, nothing ironed or folded properly, and entirely thrown together. When he decided on a band t-shirt he liked and a pair of shorts that fitted it well enough, he patted his thigh gently to signal to Delly. Delly, most likely one of Pavlov’s dogs himself, immediately bounced to attention. Pats on thighs (v); to go on a walk.

            As the two left their “to-be” room, there was a crash down the hallway. Delly yelped and ran for the living room. Joseph looked down the way the noise came from.

            “Y’allright?” Joseph called out, closing the door to his room.

            “YEAH!” Leia called back, “Grabbing an old box of high school stuff!”

            Joseph chuckled. It must be so strange for her, moving back into the house she grew up in, especially without her parents being there. Even weirder must be him being in her parent’s old bedroom. The O’Connery family was kind enough to let them rent their old house, if not for them to just live in a nicer place in Oregon.

            The house looked like it was still stuck in the 90s, if not for the modern appliances and hardware that must have been installed in the last 10 years. It wasn’t a fancy smart home, but it was just upgraded enough to feel almost too good to be true.

            The rent was also reasonable, something he was worried about from the get-go. For the first few months of living together, Leia had covered Joseph’s rent out of kindness, but even with the circumstances- Joseph felt like he owed her. He had got a job back in Los Angeles, and while it didn’t pay well, it did well enough to cover what he needed. Now, he was in the same boat. Job hunting was near non-existent online for the town, as everything was too small to have an online presence. He’d have to kick it old school, print his resume, and walk store to store.

            But before that walk- he had a more pressing one to attend to. Delly sat by the door expectantly, tail swinging like a helicopter propellor. Joseph picked up the leash as he walked through the living room, still filled with half opened boxes. They didn’t have many combined things, but there were also boxes left over by Leia’s parents that filled empty corners and open chairs. He would have to move them into the attic when he got back.

            As he leashed Delly up and exited the house, the sweet and salty smell of the ocean wafted on the wind. It was exceptionally bright for the morning, while not all too warm. He had come to learn last winter that while California didn’t stay warm through the winter, it never got necessarily cold. There was a nip, but it never stung like Michigan, not even near it. Instead, it was bright. With little precipitation in the air, cloud cover was non-existent. He squinted his eyes as they adjusted.

            He walked out onto the block, which wasn’t entirely populated at all. There were only houses on one side, attached to the beach. The other side had a sidewalk but was entirely parallel to the steep cliffs that held up the rest of the town. They were only about seven to eight feet high, but they still felt towering over his new home. The road itself wasn’t entirely paved, since it was private. Not something Joseph had to worry about though, he didn’t drive. As they set off on their walk, Joseph got a good look at the other houses down the road. The only times he had seen them were at night, but since there were no streetlamps on the street, he could barely make them out. They looked almost identical to the O’Connery place, but a few had modifications to make them more modern-suited. The closest one seemed to be the most “original” out of the bunch. In the front lawn was an older woman, probably in her early 70s, watering a large jasmine bush under her kitchen window.

            Delly ducked onto the sidebar of grass to sniff, allowing Joseph his own deep breath of the air. The gentle flowers let off such a nostalgic smell; he remembered the bush his mother planted under his childhood window. He closed his eyes, shaking himself of the memory.

            “Good morning!” Joseph opened his eyes to see the woman looking at him, a gentle grin spanning across her face, “Your dog is very cute!”

            “Thank you,” Joseph smiled back, “Your jasmine smells very pretty. I can enjoy it all the way from here.”

            “Just wait for the summer,” the woman stood from her kneel, “The warm winds carry the scent everywhere, and its ten-times better.” She walked towards Joseph, taking off her gardening gloves. Joseph pulled Delly closer, who had been wandering further away by a scent.

            “My name is Amelia,” the woman extended her hand, “Are you one of the folks who moved in next door?”

            Joseph shook her hand, “Joseph, and I am. My roommate and I came in from Los Angeles last night.”

            “How nice,” she smiled fondly, “I didn’t realize the O’Connery’s had sold the place! Are you and your girlfriend settling in nice?”

            Joseph’s face flushed, “W-well, no. I mean- we ARE! We’re just- I’m living with Leia O’Connery, their daughter? And we’re not together, just friends!”

            Amelia’s eyes went wide, “Oh dear! I am so sorry for assuming! I had seen the two of you move in last night in the dark and I couldn’t tell.”

            Joseph laughed, “No harm, no foul.”

            “Ah, but you live with Leia?” She laughed, “What a spunky girl! Glad to hear she’s back in town, tell her to come say hi! I’d love to chat and tell her Mr. Spunks is still around to say hello. She did love that old cat…” Joseph looked up just in time into Amelia’s window to see an old, grizzled orange cat staring at him with such disdain. Delly also seemed to notice, as he started to huff and puff, moving closer to Amelia’s lawn.

            “Well, I think that’s my cue. Delly has got a one-track brain. And I need it to focus on a walk,” Joseph chuckled, “It was nice to meet you, miss!”

            Amelia smiled, “Of course dear, you and Leia are welcome for tea later, if you’d like! Any time, just pop on by!”

            “Will do!” Joseph was already walking, pulled along by the insistent pup. One by one, they walked past each other house on the block. Some were quiet, but others were bustling with activity. One house in particular, at the end of the block, had a family of six piling out of the door and into a minivan.

            “But DAAAAD-“ one of the little girls whined, “I don’t wanna go with mom and Josh to Toontown!! I wanna go with you and Marney to Tomorrowland!”

            “You’re too short for the rides; next year.” Her father said matter-of-factly, buckling the small girl into her chair. She began to whimper and whine, but her father must’ve known this like the back of his hand, since he didn’t react in the slightest.

            Joseph had remembered similar trips to the water park when he was young, where his neighbors brough him and his brother along with their own kids. Joseph was always the shortest one out of the group, so he was confined to the younger kids, while his brother was allowed to roam free.

            He totally wasn’t still jealous. Nope. Not at all.

            As they reached the end of the block, Joseph saw the sidewalk completely ended where the road turned up the incline into town. The way back would either be the exact path back, or the sidewalk parallel to them across the street. Joseph opted for the new path, since it would give Delly a bigger area to sniff out.

            As they crossed the street, Delly darted forward, and Joseph lurched. He caught himself before he hit the curb and ate it, but he was still thrown off balance.

            “Jesus Dell-“ he spat, but cut himself off when he saw what the small dog was darting towards.

            He had only ever seen willow trees this large when he was on vacation in Minnesota. The tree looked like it was growing off of the cliff, and its massive weeping branches cascaded onto the sidewalk. Joseph didn’t even question why he didn’t see it from the other side of the street as he walked towards it. Delly sniffed insistently at the tree’s boundary, nuzzling his snout in the leaves. It took three seconds before the small dog made his way under the tree.

            “Del NO-“ Joseph tried to stop him, but it was too late. Joseph didn’t want to yank his leash in fear he’d catch the dog in the branches on the other side. Reluctantly, he followed in after. Brushing the leaves to the sides, Joseph uncovered something of a mystery.

            He’d heard the phrase a million times before from his nerdy friends back in high school, “it’s larger on the inside than the outside!” However, this wasn’t some blue time-travelling phone box. A single tree opened up into an impossibly larger one, where it towered a good ten feet more than he expected. The branches extended like fingers into the air, covered in the long fronds of leaves. Each waving branch cascaded into the sea of green that canopied the space.

            Joseph didn’t realize he had dropped the leash until he saw Delly about 10 feet away from him at the base of the tree. He walked over to the dog, too enamored and confused to even reprimand him. When he retook the leash, Joseph noticed Del staring up the trunk into the leaves above. He followed with his eyes, his breath trembling, to the source of his dog’s attention.

            About three feet above them, on one of the larger branches, was another cat. This cat was much younger that Mr. Spunks, but something was wrong. It had a gorgeous cream coat with speckles of a darker orange brown. It flicked its ears back and forth as it watched them, licking its paw meticulously before brushing it across its face.

            Joseph stared back at it, trying to find the reason why his heart was racing. What was wrong with this cat? Before he could figure it out, he suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling he needed to leave. He didn’t know why, but he was already walking towards the end of the tree again. Delly was following along as well, also obeying this unspoken command. As the both of them pushed through the leaves, they exited back out onto the street.

            Joseph gasped, sucking in air like he hadn’t breathed in minutes. Had he been breathing in there at all, he wondered. Why else would he be out of breath? He turned back around, pushing through the leaves again to test his theory- but to his horror, the space looked completely different. There was no cat, the tree was short and normally proportioned, and he was breathing normally.

            As he pulled away, Joseph could swear there was a fleeting feeling this wasn’t the only time he had felt this way in Bakersville. Ever since he got here, there was this sense in the back of his mind that something else was watching him. He felt it watching the people he saw walking on the streets and other people who inhabited the homes they passed. It didn’t watch Leia, Amelia, or that family packing up to go to Disney.

            Joseph’s toes got cold as he swallowed the lump in his throat; why was it watching him? What was watching him? The realization came creeping to him like a horrible, intrusive thought; all at once and as slowly as possible.

            The cat had human eyes.

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dannidorina

Bio: 19 years old, hobby writer, she/they pronouns. I am a major in Microbiology and Immunology who does writing and drawing in her free time! Catch me @dannidorina on other socials to see my art! My art/writing/story discord is under my website URL if you wanna come chat!

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