“Holy ****,” Freddie said as the words became clear in front of them. She crunched down on a fresh roll and peered closer over Daron’s shoulder. Daron also finished his fried roll, swallowing as he read.
Christian not ready for kids
Help - excommunication for childfree?
Christian couple’s therapy
Christian wives anonymous
“Well that’s a hard right turn,” Daron muttered as he scrolled.
“What’s that?” Freddie pointed at the screen. Her index finger had chipped sparkly blue polish on it, with her nail and skin around it chewed down with anxious energy. Daron looked where she was pointing.
“Naamiyah,” he read out loud. “I dunno.”
“Can you send me this?” Freddie asked as she leaned over his shoulder to get a closer look.
“Yeah, one sec.” Daron got the search results into an email and shot them over to Freddie, who skipped back to her recliner and balanced the laptop on her knees while she ate from the plate on her stomach. Daron watched until he was sure she wasn’t close to spilling food on the keys, then turned back to keep scrolling through the results.
It was a lot of the same, the searches becoming more bold and open as time went on. It painted a picture of a very, very unhappy girl. Daron felt the excitement of a breakthrough, but also felt badly for Erika. She clearly felt trapped in a way he could barely imagine.
“Dude, come look at this,” Freddie said, setting her barely touched food to the side and sitting up properly. Daron looked down and saw his plate was more than half empty. Whoops. He slid himself over in his desk chair so that he didn’t have to stand, and peered over Freddie’s shoulder.
She had a Demonology webpage open, with a tea-stained tint and a cartoonish Gargoyle looking drawing series along the sides. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Daron leaned closer and saw what Freddie was reading in particular: the story of Naamiyah, which alleged certain biblical interpretations described as a demon that tempted both Cain and Abel into impregnating her simultaneously. She gave birth to an army of half-breed demons, with the motivation to eventually outnumber humanity.
“The ****,” Daron breathed, not even realizing he had said it out loud until Freddie responded.
“I know, right?”
“So…” Daron grasped quickly for an explanation. “She’s been planning the ‘possessed’ game for a minute, huh?”
“No,” Freddie replied. “I checked - she only searched Naamiyah the once, and it was just over two weeks ago. Nothing else going back before this all started that even hints at demonology. Unless there could be another - I dunno, double secret search history?”
“No,” Daron echoed. “This would be all there is. Can’t erase anything entirely. But…” He trailed off. Daron didn’t like leaving things feeling unfinished.
“Why would she lie to us about the demon’s name that she knows and has looked into?”
“Maybe she’s playing the long con,” Daron said, a little reluctantly. “Was going to reveal it later.”
“Maybe,” Freddie said, her tone echoing his own. “I’ll keep looking.” Taking that as his dismissal, Daron scooted back over to his computer. Freddie frowned at the laptop’s screen as she took another small bite of fried rice, and Daron clicked through the next round of searches as he scooped up some panang.
They worked in relative silence. Daron filled up his plate with Thai food twice more, while Freddie finished up her one plate.
“There’s still enough left to feed a small army,” Daron said wryly at one point.
“Yeah, but you know part of what’s great about Thai food is how well it keeps. I love me some leftovers,” Freddie said.
“Fair. Want a beer?”
“Yes, please.” There was an obvious tinge of relief in Freddie’s voice.
Using the time to rub his eyes and take a break from the screen, Daron headed upstairs. In the kitchen, he stretched out away from Freddie’s gaze (even his decently loose shirt rode up and showed a few inches of tan, round belly when he reached up) before opening the fridge. Grabbing a couple lagers from the northern California coast, he twisted from one side to the other, feeling a relief as his back cracked before heading back downstairs.
“Here you go. I tend to keep ‘em in the bottle but there are pint glasses if you want,” Daron said as he handed Freddie the drink.
“Bottle’s good. Fits the frantic research aesthetic,” Freddie replied with a flash of a grin up at Daron as she accepted the bottle. Her eyes behind the smile were still troubled, though. Daron didn’t push it.
He was most of the way through his lager (and his third plate of food) when Freddie called over,
“What?” He asked, bringing his beer with him as he scooted back to his spot behind her in the recliner.
“There was a link to this Christian Wife Confessional tumblr in the search history - I thought it might just be more research but look. She’s the author. I found the drafts under the ‘Maskil of David’ folder.” Freddie turned to look at Daron to make sure he could see.
“Goddamn,” Daron said as he scanned the text in front of him. The blog wasn’t just confessional. It was angry. And terrified. The words could have been strung together by a cougar in a trap.
“Should we…call Xander?” Freddie asked hesitantly after a few minutes of silence while they read through the vitriol. Daron looked at the dates, noting that there were only two blog updates since the possession had taken place.
“I’ll let him know we found something,” Daron pulled out his phone to send the text. “But we should get all the info we can and convene tomorrow, I think.” The quick text response from Xander confirmed: they were having some luck as well, and would go over all of it the next morning. “Can you send that link to me?”
“On it,” confirmed Freddie, copying and pasting into an e-mail. “This poor girl,” she added quietly as Daron headed back to his desk. He looked at a clearly concerned Freddie and searched for the right thing to say. Nothing came to mind, though.
“‘I know my DH wants them more than anything but I can’t do it and I can’t tell him,’” Xander read aloud in their meeting area the next day. He looked up over his dark square reading glasses. “‘DH’?”
“Dear husband,” explained Freddie from next to Daron.
“Ah, of course.” Xander returned to the screen in front of him, as Julie alternated looking at him and looking at the pages in front of her. “‘I can’t tell anyone. I’m going to lose myself more after every kid. But there is no where else to go.’”
“Not so picture perfect,” Daron said. Julie nodded.
“‘I am alone,’” Xander continued solemnly. He studied the screen momentarily, and Daron knew he had reached the end of one of Erika’s many lengthy dissertations on her fear of having children. “From...May. Were there any more recent?”
“Just two,” Daron replied, after confirming with a quick look at Freddie, who nodded. Xander scrolled, then stopped at the latest blog post.
“‘Matthew 10:36’,” he read aloud.
“And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household,” Freddie recited. Xander and Julie looked at each other. Freddie, meanwhile, avoided Daron’s eyes as she added, “there’s something else.”
Daron resisted groaning. He and Freddie had had a slight disagreement about the relevance of the other website they found. He knew Xander would latch onto it, but he also knew it was just a red herring.
Xander looked up from mouthing along to the Latin in Erika’s latest blog post, at Freddie. She had hopped up nervously and came around to the other side of Xander, tapping at the screen in front of him. Xander’s smooth dark forehead creased with concern as he looked in at the website that popped up.
“Naamiyah?” He read out loud, catching Daron’s eye first and likely noticing the slight eye roll.
“It’s nothing. Just some research for her little possession game,” Daron asserted. He could feel Freddie’s green eyes on him, but he avoided them, not wanting to be guilted over his opinion.
“Then why did she keep it from us?” Julie asked, backing up the point Freddie had tried to make the night before.
“Come on, Julie. Those blog posts back up what you were saying about a late onset mental break, doesn’t it?”
“Mostly,” Freddie muttered, crossing her arms. The last two entries were weird, Daron had to admit, but that didn’t mean this was anything supernatural.
“I should go talk to the church,” Xander said, breaking away from the group at the front of the room and heading towards his coat by the door. “And the family. Julie, can you join me?”
“Of course,” Julie said smoothly.
“Feel free to take a break, you two, but keep your phones on you,” Xander said as he put his coat on.
“I’m good,” Freddie replied. “I’ll probably finish up the paperwork on the last case and try to follow up on the lab results from Erika’s.”
“I can help with that,” Daron added, an olive branch that Freddie didn’t respond to.
“Sounds good,” Xander said. Julie gave Freddie’s arm a friendly squeeze before joining Xander in getting her coat on and exiting the room.
A quiet filled the space. Daron cleared his throat and tugged his shirt away from his middle. He and Freddie had worked late into the night, so unfortunately, his laundry still hadn’t gotten done. His pants bit into the underside of his belly more than was ideal, and his now-snug band t-shirt from a Pepper concert in 2014 wasn’t doing his figure any favors. He had tossed an oversized flannel on to try and cover up his too-tight outfit at least a bit, but it was at least a couple days past needing to be washed itself. Lose-lose.
“I can handle this if you want to go,” Freddie said in a slightly clipped tone as she turned towards one of the desks in the room where she and the others would write up their reports for the file cabinets against the wall. “Get lunch or something. I thought we were gonna have leftovers from yesterday, but.”
Daron couldn’t help it: he let out an incredulous laugh. He knew she was referring to the massive amount of food she had ordered last night, and how Daron had managed to finish all of it by the time they wrapped up their investigation late into the night. He felt immediately defensive - it was over the course of 5 hours, after all! - but he buried that.
“Winnifred,” he replied, leading into the shock in his voice. “Did you just make a fat joke? Is that how angry you are with me?”
“What? No!” But Freddie’s pale skin had flamed bright red at being called out, betraying her. She looked determinedly down at the desk, straightening the papers sitting on it. “And don’t call me that!”
“Wow, I can’t believe this was all it took for the façade of friendly professionalism to come tumbling down,” Daron said wryly, shaking his head and unconsciously tugging his shirt away from his belly button again.
“It’s not a façade! Oh, my God. You’re such a dick. It’s not up to you what info is relevant to a case, Daron. You don’t get to pout just because you think Xander will take it the wrong way,” Freddie retorted. “Like you just did over an innocent comment.”
“Yeah, mmm-hmm, right,” Daron said, smirking across the room at the girl who still wouldn’t meet his eye. He took a pause to consider the rest of her statement, then added, “You’re right, and I’m sorry, Fred. I didn’t mean to, uh…pout.”
“Men never do, and yet,” Freddie muttered, but finally met his eye and smiled a little. Relieved to have bridged the gap somewhat, Daron leaned back on the couch and pulled two things out of his pant’s pockets - his phone, and a packet of skittles.
“Anyway, I’m gonna stay and help despite that generous, passive-aggressive offer. I’ll check in with the lab, and I’ll do my best not to waste away,” he told Freddie dryly, shaking the skittles at her. The blue-haired girl looked like she wanted to say something in response, but she visibly bit her tongue as she sighed and began writing on the paper in front of her. After a mouthful of skittles, Daron put his phone to his ear to work on the lab follow-up.
Always good to hear more of this! Hahaha, both of them being kind brats here, but I think we all are sometimes! I think the comments from 'Erika' earlier did touch more of a nerve with Daron than he'd like to admit, hah.
A few hours later, Xander and Julie returned. Daron and Freddie had all but wrapped up on their work, and were shooting the **** while looking over some photos on the walls.
“God, Xander just doesn’t age, does he?” Freddie marveled as she looked over the stills from Psychic Adventures.
“Nope. The man is blessed,” Daron said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice as he recalled the “oof” he exhaled upon standing his plump and unwieldy body up from the couch earlier - something he no longer seemed able to avoid.
“Oh, man. I always forget what a glow up Julie had,” Freddie marveled, moving on to photos from earlier years of the freelance business. Xander and Julie and a young man Daron didn’t know posed awkwardly in front of the office/cabin they were inside now. Julie’s hair was longer, verging on unkempt, and even through the photo her energy was much more stifled, far less of the calm confidence she possessed now.
“Yeah, homegirl really came into herself after she left Brad,” Daron agreed. “Not that she wasn’t great before. But…”
“He was draining her. You can tell,” Freddie said, so self-importantly that Daron snorted with laughter. Freddie hadn’t even been there, and yet...it was true. So credit where credit was due.
“You’re not wrong, Thornberry.”
Before Freddie could respond, there was noise at the door, and Xander and Julie entered.
“Hey! How’d it go?” Freddie asked, turning to greet them.
“It was fine,” Xander said, giving his employees a tight smile. Julie greeted them with a nod. Neither made a move to take their coats off.
“Did they agree to get her some help?” Daron asked, stepping up next to Freddie. Xander and Julie exchanged a glance.
“Yes,” Xander said, but they caught his pause.
“But…?” Daron filled in.
“But they wanted to cover all their bases,” Julie chimed in. “So they will be getting an exorcism for Erika as well.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Daron groaned, less angry than exasperated. Directing his less-rhetorical follow ups to Xander, Daron went on. “You have to recommend that to the church for them to agree, don’t you?”
“I do,” Xander confirmed. “I was not convinced this was entirely based in mental illness. Chances are, it is. But they would not agree to a psychiatrist without also involving the church.”
Daron threw his hands up at this before sticking them in his noticeably tight pockets and turning away.
“Well, I mean, that works,” Freddie added. But even she didn’t sound completely sure.
“Yes, it is a win,” Julie said firmly.
“Get your coats, please,” Xander said. “It’s been a long couple of days, and I’m taking everyone out for a drink.”
“Yeah?” Freddie said, her voice picking up with a hint of excitement. It had been awhile since they’d had an after-work outing with everyone. Freddie was used to having to beg even one of them to join her on the days when she didn’t have other plans.
“We’ve definitely earned it. How about The Door? Or Sisemite?”
“Sisemite,” Daron voted, facing his coworkers again. Freddie cocked her head in an unspoken question, and Daron rolled his eyes and elaborated. “The Door doesn’t serve food, and I’m starving.” He wished he had been able to keep the very slight note of defensiveness out of his voice.
“You got it. You two want to meet us there?” Xander asked. Freddie looked from their leader back to Daron again, her brow furrowed slightly but her eyes hopeful.
“Yeah, I’ll drive,” Daron sighed. He crossed the room and grabbed his coat. It was late fall, which meant varying temperatures in their neck of the woods, hence the layering. Over his band tee and flannel Daron threw on a snap-up wool blend jacket in dark grey with brown elbow patches. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant the snaps, which was good, because they definitely strained noticeably around his belly button now.
Freddie followed his lead and grabbed her black button-up jacket, a lighter version of the peacoat she’d worn to Erika’s the other day. Xander offered them a smile, then held the door open for Julie.
“We’ll see you there,” Xander said as he followed her out.
“See you soon,” sang Freddie in response, offering Daron a grin. Despite his irritation with the way the possession had unfolded, and with his body, and with the day overall, Daron smirked back at Freddie’s infectious enthusiasm before leading the way out of the work cabin.
Sisemite wasn’t far from their workplace, but Freddie still grabbed the aux cord before Daron had time to object. Still, he was surprised that she put on one of the few artists they could occasionally...tentatively...agree on, Coheed and Cambria. He didn’t say anything as he adjusted his seat back a little. He hadn’t driven Freddie that morning, so he had left his belly precariously close to the steering wheel for a guest to see, he had realized as he squeezed into the car. Sucking in a little, hopefully conspicuously, Daron fastened the seat belt around himself as they pulled out of Xander’s parking lot.
“I know it kinda sucks, but like, at least they’re getting her some help,” Freddie was prattling. “Just in case. You know. It’s like baptizing a baby. Might as well.”
“What? Are you baptized?”
“Well, no. But I guess if I had a kid and my partner wanted to, I would. ‘Cause why not?”
“I’m not sure where to start with why not, Thornberry,” Daron replied. “Waste of time and money? Could be doing literally anything else? Not supporting an archaic institution and tradition?”
“Point taken, I guess,” Freddie sighed. “But if it’s like....you can either suck it up and have what amounts to basically just a party for the kiddo, AND ALSO all the support of modern medicine and ****? OR you can have NEITHER? I mean. Choice seems obvious.”
“But we’re only having to make that choice because of idiots like that procreating,” Daron said, tilting his head in his guess of a direction towards Erika’s house. “Her family drove her to this point and feeding into the delusion with an exorcism isn’t going to help. All that’ll help is getting out.”
“Well, maybe therapy will be a good step towards that,” Freddie replied as they turned into the lot for Sisemite.
“Yeah, maybe,” Daron conceded, turning off his car as they looked at the dive bar in front of them. Sisemite didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside, there was stained glass that allowed in the perfect amount of mood lighting and quality seating set ups. The drinks and food were decent, with general portions. And they were still in time for happy hour.
Xander and Julie were already inside, in a large semi-circular booth for 4 or 5, depending on the size of the patrons. Xander sat closest to the edge, and Julie was in the middle. Daron hesitated only for a moment before he began to scoot into the booth on the opposite end. He felt panic grip his heart as he noticed the table push stubbornly back into his rounded middle, but a second later, he realized the table was giving a little as he steadied himself with his hand. It wasn’t bolted down, thank god.
“Sorry man,” Daron said to Xander as he shuffled the table back a bit away from his soft gut, feeling heat rising in his face. Xander accepted the table being moved closer to him with a smile.
“No problem,” he said, helping Daron to move the table along the ground away from his employee. Freddie, luckily, was distracted by another patron seated across from them that she’d managed to make friends with in the 30 seconds since they entered the establishment.
“Have a good day,” she told them with a grin before turning back just as Daron finished scooting in next to Julie. Hopping down easily next to him, tons of room to spare, Freddie snatched a menu from the middle of the table (thankfully not mentioning now how much farther it was away from her than usual).
“Is it too early for a gin and tonic? It’s just so good here,” she said as she flipped the pages back and forth. “And a crazy good price for being all local ingredients.”
“Get whatever you want, Freddie,” Xander said.
“Ooohhh...I may do that too,” Julie said.
“Whoa, calm down over there,” Daron said dryly to the woman next to him. Julie flushed.
“The kids are being watched until 8 at least, I wasn’t sure how long we’d be working today…”
“Julie, I’m kidding. You go crazy,” Daron assured. A server approached the table, asking if they knew what they wanted.
“Two gin and tonics,” Freddie blurted before the young man in front of them could fully finish his sentence. She blushed a little as her coworkers chuckled.
“Cheese fries!” Freddie burst when it became clear Daron had ended his list. “Please. Don’t worry, I’ll share,” she added as the server nodded and left with their order.
“Cool, I won’t,” Daron said. They laughed again. There was a tinge of relief to it. It had been a long couple of days. At first the conversation hedged on the safe side, but as they received their drinks and began to imbibe, the case began to come up.
“I have seen too many people who really need help but won’t get it,” Xander said, shaking his head as he finished up his frosty, light beer. “Ever since Psychic Adventures. It’s heartbreaking. At least this family would compromise.”
“Thank goodness. That poor girl,” Julie said. “She needs it. But this has certainly been a strange one.”
“I’ve argued for less convincing exorcisms, that’s for sure,” Xander said.
“Why?” Daron asked, exasperated. He started to say more, but he caught a sharp elbow in his soft side. Looking over, startled, he saw Freddie giving him a dark look. Realizing he had just been about to say the same exact things that had caused him and Freddie to be fighting most of the day, Daron sighed and closed his mouth.
“Just in case. There are cases where it will definitely do more good than anything else. And I know, sometimes it does harm. But I’ve been doing this awhile and have learned to truly weigh the costs.”
“It just...makes me…crazy to see people treated that way,” Daron admitted, thinking about the poor young girl surrounded by, in his mind, zealots. Forcing her mind into this state. The server dropped off the wings to start, weaving through people. The bar was starting to fill up a little more. Xander motioned for another round of drinks.
“Not all religious people feel trapped that way,” Julie said gently. Daron snorted.
“Maybe not, but it sure as **** doesn’t help.”
“Sometimes,” Julie conceded.
“Oh please, you’re not an idiot, Daron. You know some people find actual comfort in whatever spirituality,” Freddie chimed in, finishing her gin and tonic with a flourish. “Just because most institutions encourage a lack of individuality doesn’t make anyone with beliefs bad.”
“I don’t think I said that, Miss Queen of Hyperbole over there,” Daron replied wryly.
“You’re acting like it and you know it!”
“I’m just pleased to have such a diverse team,” Xander said with a grin, helping himself to one of Daron’s wings. Daron glared, but not sincerely. He was glad someone besides the fat guy was eating as he stripped teriyaki-dripping meat off the bone rather than snap back at Freddie. Moments later, drinks and cheese fries arrived, which caused Freddie’s expression to lift from its fierceness into a pleased grin.
Halfway through their second round, and most of the way through all the food, conversation was still lively. Daron was diligently ignoring the fact that, now approaching full, his belly was close to touching the nearly fully pushed back table. Taking a sip of his second porter, Daron cast a look over his shoulder and saw a girl, lanky and short-haired in her late 20s or so, keeping a curious eye on their table. She didn’t notice Daron, keeping her eyes on the animatedly chatting Freddie as she sipped her dark iced drink.
Soon, though, the tall girl saw Daron. Grey eyes met his dark brown ones, and she took another sip of her drink, clearly taking her time as she thought. Daron, concerned, didn’t break eye contact, but did semi-set his porter on the wide shelf of his belly. It sunk in a little into the soft flesh, despite the hearty stock of bar food now digesting in it. Meanwhile, the girl seemed to make a decision, and she began to move towards their table.
“So all I can think is - you know - who stays married for forty years and still needs to be on the phone to keep in touch with their spouse all day?” Freddie was laughing as she told the table about a former coworker at the police department.
“Or what had they done to make that necessary,” Xander added, pointing a dark finger at Freddie and giving her a knowing look. Freddie laughed and touched her nose in a “you got it” move.
“Exactly! What was this dude getting up to that made her think she needed to call the department every hour?"
Julie was laughing along, but right before the mystery girl reached their table, Freddie realized that Daron wasn’t as invested in her story as the rest of them.
“Hey…” she said, turning to him, and seeing his eyes following something nearby. Swiveling again, Freddie saw the girl as she approached and stopped in front of their booth. Freddie’s sentence stopped as abruptly as it began.
Up close, the girl was even leaner than Daron had seen under the polar fleece vest she was wearing over a loose, artistic tee-shirt. She had a very androgynous look to her, between the relaxed fit and her short, swept hairstyle. If she wasn’t as tall as Daron, she wouldn’t have been much shorter.
“Hey Fred,” she spoke with a low but projected voice. It filled the space.
“Victoria,” Freddie said, her voice quiet and practically swallowed by the girl’s greeting. Xander and Julie exchanged a glance, but Daron, in his semi-coma of food and beer, drew a blank. He did gather enough of his wits to move his porter from the top of his soft tummy back to the table, at least.
Freddie slowly got to her feet, distinctly more wobbly than she had been about an hour ago when they all arrived, and hugged the lean girl in front of her - Victoria.
“This is, um, Xander, Julie, and Daron,” Freddie said, sweeping her left arm away from Victoria to gesture at the table. Daron saw that Freddie’s right arm hesitated and stayed around Victoria. Victoria’s left arm held onto it. “We work together.”
“Right,” Victoria said in her husky voice, an easy smile playing across her angular face. “‘Psychic Adventures’, right? I remember.”
“That’s right,” Xander said, standing up out of the booth and offering Victoria a large, dark hand to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Victoria and Freddie released each other as Victoria took his hand in greeting. Julie made no move to get up, merely nodding at Victoria with a tight smile coming over her slightly concerned features. Daron, not exactly wanting to deal with extracting his large and unwieldy body from the tight table confines, followed her lead and stayed where he was.
“Nice to meet ya,” Daron said.
“And you,” Victoria said, first to Xander, then nodding at Julie and Daron. “I’m going to get back to my friends, but Fred, feel free to come say hi when you’re done with your meeting.”
“Is Ana here?” Freddie asked.
“No, she stayed home. I’m just here for a quick weekend conference.”
Freddie’s eyes turned down towards the floor. Victoria offered the table another half-smile before squeezing Freddie’s hand briefly and sidling off, sipping out of her cup. Freddie, slowly, sat back down next to Daron.
“Your ex?” Daron asked, starting to (finally) put the pieces together. Freddie nodded.
“She’s great at showing up at the worst possible time. She lives in Switzerland with her wife Ana, but...always seems to know when I’m feeling particularly lonely or...otherwise...vulnerable. I dunno.”
“Wait, what about Jared?” Daron asked, referring to a particularly muscular sandy blonde that Freddie had brought around work a few times. He felt another elbow in his side, but this one was from the other side. Surprised, he blinked and looked over at Julie, whose eyebrows were raised at him. Shrugging in a definitive “what?” gesture, Daron returned to looking at Freddie for her answer, and was surprised to see her eyes flashing with genuine hurt.
“Jared and I broke up,” Freddie said. “Like...awhile ago.”
“Ah,” Daron said, slowly realizing that he hadn’t actually seen Jared since late August. “I’m sorry-” he started, but Freddie cut him off.
“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” she mumbled, avoiding their eyes as she shuffled out of the booth and walked away, towards the front of the bar.
Silence fell over the table for a moment.
“So...that was the ex?” Daron said, his tone a little wry as usual, but also with a genuine request for confirmation.
“It was,” Julie said with a sigh. “Quite the way to end an already long week.”
“That it is. Poor kid,” Xander said sympathetically. Everyone nodded as they sipped out of their drinks, and Daron stuffed a few cheese fries in his mouth, figuring at least while he was chewing he wouldn’t keep putting his foot in his mouth. He kept this logic in mind as he snacked on the rest of the table’s appetizers, and Xander and Julie chatted.
A little while later, a slightly flushed Freddie returned to the table. She looked at her plate of cheese fries, which had gone from one-third eaten to just a few errant fries on the plate. She looked from it to Daron, who caught her eye and smirked, preparing himself for a snarky remark about how she hadn’t meant that much sharing. But Freddie stayed quiet, helping herself instead to a fried pickle and nibbling at the breading. Meanwhile, Xander finished signing the credit card receipt that had been delivered to the table and smiled at his employees.
“Would you like a ride home, Julie?”
“Please, thank you. And this was lovely, Xander. We appreciate it,” Julie said. Daron and Freddie nodded in agreement, though Daron knew it was buying into the stereotype that he and Freddie were the “kids” of the group while Julie was like the mom.
“See you on Monday,” Xander said as they scooted out of their side of the booth.
“Will do,” Daron replied.
“Get some rest, you two,” Julie added before they left the table.
Daron, feeling especially full now, stretched both his elbows up towards the ceiling while holding the back of his head with his hands. Unable to stop himself, he grunted softly as he prepared for the drive home. The top of his back cracked gently as he twisted from one side to the next and then dropped his arms, tugging his too-tight t-shirt back down and out. He was diligently ignoring the urgent pressure that his already snug jean’s button was applying to his belly’s underside.
Laundry tonight. Definitely.
“You ready, Thornberry?” He asked.
“Oh, um. I think I’m gonna hang out here for a bit actually,” she replied, not meeting his eyes.
“What do you mean?” Daron said. “What time is it? I guess I can chill for a little longer…”
“No, nono. That’s okay. You should go home,” Freddie said hurriedly. “You’ve been working so hard. I don’t want to keep you.”
Daron stared at her. Freddie had never stayed out longer than him without begging him to stay. Even if she had other friends out...oh. Other friends. “Freddie,” he said, a little more softly, trying to catch her eyes even as they stared determinedly down at her hands. “Are you sure?”
Freddie nodded quickly. “I’ll be fine,” she replied, finally looking up and meeting his dark eyes with her bright green ones. But it was just for a second, and she looked back down at her hands before he could pin down the emotion in them.
“Oh...kay. Um,” Daron looked around. Freddie was still sitting, blocking him from the closest exit from the booth. He could scoot all the way around, and exit where Xander and Julie had, but the table was still almost fully pushed over to make room for his expanding and now fully stuffed belly. He shuffled a little over closer to where Julie had been, and within a couple feet met resistance that kept him from being able to move further. He sighed in irritation, looking down at the table pressing into his soft gut, which was what caused Freddie to look back up.
“Oh! Here, I’m sorry,” she said, jumping up and gesturing for him to move past her. Feeling his face turn a little red, Daron sucked his belly in as he scooted back the way he had come and stood up next to Freddie.
“Thanks,” he said, a little uncertainly, his thumbs going into his tight pockets. “I guess...I’ll see you on Monday?” He felt idiotic for echoing Xander’s cheery workplace departure, but wasn’t sure what else to say. He didn’t want to leave Freddie here to fend for herself with the ex, but she was all but shoving him out the door.
“See you then,” Freddie said, offering him a tight smile and then a quick hug. She wrapped her left arm around his soft middle and buried her face very briefly into his chest. Still a little stunned, Daron wrapped his arms around Freddie’s shoulders to return the hug, but she pulled away just as quickly as she had pulled him close. “Drive safe.”
Making his way to the front door of Sisemite, Daron saw Victoria standing near the bar. Victoria saw him too, smirked a little, then looked past him to where Freddie was standing near the group’s former table. Troubled, but not sure what else he could do, Daron made his way out the door and to his car. Freddie was an adult, and it was laundry time.
That next Monday, Daron rolled up to the office feeling pretty good. He’d had a relaxing weekend of video games and takeout, and had managed to get all his laundry done without too much stress. His clothing today was comfortable, and he might even dare to say, a little stylish. A well-fitted beige knitted henley made allowances that he was obviously a big - though not NECESSARILY fat - guy, and the color contrasted nicely with his dark features. He’d even added a casual suit jacket over it for his fall layer, a gray knitted piece with elbow patches a slightly darker beige than his shirt. (Freddie often called him “Professor” when she saw him in it, poking at the patches gleefully.) If he’d had to button it, it would have been snug around the widest part of his middle, but luckily it wasn’t much more than crisp out. He could do with it open as a reasonable choice.
As usual, Daron arrived after Xander and Julie were already there, but before Freddie. He hadn’t heard from her that morning, so he’d driven over to work without her, telling himself she was probably in a workout class. It wasn’t completely unusual to not hear from Freddie all weekend, though he couldn’t shake a concern over the way they’d parted and the situation she’d been in. He’d gotten a thumbs up on a meme about one of their cryptozoology inside jokes that he’d shot her over Discord, but that was all.
“Have a good weekend, Daron?” Xander asked, looking as though he’d rolled out of bed fully composed, as always. Daron was tempted to roll his eyes and tease his boss for the perfectly tailored slacks and button up he was sporting, but he knew that would have just been coming from a place of insecurity. Julie, meanwhile, sipped at a mug of coffee in a dark pencil skirt and blouse.
“Yeah, I did. It was pretty chill. How about you guys?” Daron allowed himself to semi-flop over onto the nearest couch, which looked a little silly, but helped muffle his oof that was inadvertently expelled every time he had to fold over his round belly. Which his nice shirt did a less efficient job of disguising while he sat, Daron had to admit as he leaned back into the soft couch cushions.
“It was fine, thank you Daron,” Julie replied.
“Well I found us a new case!” Xander said, holding up the file in his hand. Julie and Daron both raised an eyebrow at their boss, half-smirking at his enthusiasm. “By which I mean...I had a great weekend, thank you for asking.”
“There ya go,” Daron teased. At that point, the door opened, and Freddie - always seeming to move a million miles an hour - dashed into the room. What was immediately noticeable to Daron, and probably everyone in the room, was that Freddie’s light aqua hair sections had been transformed into a deep green color. Swamp - no, that isn’t a great way to put it. Forest. Forest green, Daron thought, watching the younger woman hang up her sweater near the door. But it was awfully dark to be “forest” green, the hair blending into her dark roots in a vaguely ominous way. It may have been a forest, but it was a forest well after the sun had vanished behind the trees and the shadows had begun their reign.
“Hi Freddie,” Julie spoke up, at the same time as Xander:
“Looking good kid!” which was offered at the same time as Daron’s somewhat skeptical:
Freddie sat on the couch with Daron, but with a cushion space between them. She didn’t look at him long enough to notice his professor jacket, to what Daron found was his disappointment. Freddie looked...Daron understood why Xander had said “good”, wanting to offer a compliment for her hair change, but that wasn’t the word he’d have used. Compared to the professionalism of the rest of the group, Freddie stood out in loose green shorts (a similar deep shade to her hair, but with more hints of yellow) over black tights, into which a t-shirt with a pop art design of a pinup blonde being chased by a wolfman was tucked. She looked like she should be working at a comic book store, or other kind of merch counter. Which to be fair, Daron had to admit so did he, usually.
“Yeah hi,” Freddie half-laughed, swiveling her head to greet everyone in the room. Her hair was still a little damp, Daron could see up close. She didn’t meet his eyes again, and Daron settled back into the couch, trying not to let it bug him as he folded his hands on top of his soft middle.
“Xander has a case,” Julie offered.
“Should probably get on with it before you explode, man,” Daron said.
“I’m ready,” Freddie said, patting her hands on her thighs a couple times in emphasis and looking up at Xander.
“Well, we have more than a few reports from a home near Franklin University,” Xander began, straightening up as he opened his folder. “Spanning several years.”
“So why are we looking at it now?” Daron asked.
“Because most of the girls - it’s at a house managed by the university and occupied by the Delta Epsilon sorority - thought it was just animals or other environmental issues and were talked down. But the house has been inspected from top to bottom by officials” - Xander paused and turned the page in his folder - “over 12 times. And they’ve found nothing.”
“A sorority?” Daron asked incredulously. He was about to continue with a sentiment along the lines of are we in a damn sitcom? but Freddie had spoken up at the same time.
“Was it exactly 13 inspections, by chance?”
Julie chuckled a little into her coffee mug, and Xander smiled.
“Could be. But one of the current residents is very persistent that it’s not something natural occurring. And with so many complaints already, I said we’d take a look. First things first, I’ll be going to the Delta Epsilon house to speak to the girl who got ahold of us - Rachel - and Julie will be going to interview her older sister, who happened to be living in the house during the first set of reports. Give us an idea of any possible…”
“Collusion?” Freddie suggested. Xander chuckled a little.
“Precisely. So, we were thinking Freddie would come with me - since you’re the closest to their age - and Daron would join Julie. If that's amenable to you?”
Freddie looked at Daron directly for what felt like the first time.
“Do you want to take the sorority girls, or…?”
Daron uttered an involuntary “yyyyuch” noise. “Hard pass on the teenagers, thanks. But good to know you think so highly of me.” His tone was wry as usual, though he couldn’t help feeling just the tiniest bit offended.
Freddie flicked her eyes up to the ceiling in exasperation, then looked back to Xander.
“Sounds good then, boss. Let’s roll.” Grabbing her oversized men’s cardigan from the coat rack, Freddie headed out the door.
“We’ll reconvene later if we have time,” Xander said as he followed Freddie out the door. Julie watched them both go with a slightly furrowed brow.
Instead of asking what was clearly on both of their minds, Daron said, “OK, Julie?” And his coworker turned to him with a tight smile.
About 15 minutes later, right on the outskirts of downtown, Julie pulled her car into the driveway of an adorable two-story house in a light mint color.
“Damn, nice place,” Daron muttered, flinging his passenger door open the moment the car stopped. Julie hadn’t even put it in “park” yet. He wasn’t attempting to be dramatic, but Julie’s car was a little...snug for a man of his proportions. He understood why she wanted to drive, being a parent, but cramming himself into her tiny Suzuki was growing especially tiring of late. Even with the passenger seat moved all the way back - impossible if there was anybody or anything in the backseat - Daron’s knees bunched up and pressed into his ever-expanding tummy. It was an irritating reminder that he avoided as much as he could.
“Yes it is,” Julie said, politely ignoring Daron as he shook the cramps out of his long legs. Still, she couldn’t hide a slight knowing smile as she began to move towards the front door. Straightening his jacket, Daron followed. After a ring of the doorbell and a brisk knock, the door opened to reveal a blonde with a high forehead and unnaturally white teeth as she flashed them a smile.
“Hi! Julie?” The girl said brightly, bobbing up and down a little in flip-flops underneath yoga pants and a flowy crop top. Daron’s lack of surprise that she had once been in a sorority was immeasurable.
“I am Julie, and this is Daron,” Julie said, gesturing to her colleague behind her. “Are you...Allie?”
Allie beamed. “I am! Come on in, Taylor’s just finishing up some work but I know she’s expecting you.”
Oh, Daron realized. This isn’t the sister. It’s her roommate.
Following Julie and Allie into the house, Daron took in the tastefully decorated interior. It was adult without being sterile, ala Monica’s house. The front door opened up into a foyer and then the living room, with a dining room and kitchen within sight if you craned your neck to the left. Allie swept out of sight into a back room, presumably to fetch Taylor. Julie and Daron stepped into the living room, a brightly lit room with a large flat screen and L-shaped couch. The only part of it that screamed “sorority sisters” was the large Delta Epsilon flag hung up behind the couch. Daron couldn’t help but cringe slightly at the Greek letters and loud colors in the otherwise simple and attractive room.
“Here she is!” Sang Allie as she entered the living room, followed by a tall, dark-haired girl. Or - no, girl isn’t the right word. She was definitely a woman. Daron had been alive long enough to know how to catch himself before he started staring, but it was still hard to resist. Daron was expecting a recent college grad, but Taylor had to be at least a few years older than Allie - so late 20’s, early 30’s. Her legs looked impossibly long in a pair of black leggings, topped with a short sleeved beige button up with a black & white tiger pattern. It was topped with a pussycat bow, and looked, somehow, simultaneously casual and professional. She had kitten heels on, which meant she’d be slightly below Daron’s sightline at 6’ when she took them off. Right now, they were very nearly eye to eye. Her long hair was tied back in a high ponytail that swished as she moved further into the living room and took in him and Julie.
“Hi,” Taylor said, offering her hand to Julie first. “Taylor.”
“Julie. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us.”
By the time Taylor let go of Julie’s hand and turned to Daron, he had realized he was tugging nervously at his henley (which almost perfectly matched her shirt’s beige color) as a way to uncling it from his round middle. Sucking in a breath to tighten his ab muscles instead, Daron offered Taylor a half-smile (often the best he could do) and his hand.
“Daron,” he said, and watched her dark eyes trace partially up and down him once...twice...then take his proffered hand. Up close, he could see that her light brown skin was smooth and clear aside from some dark freckles dotting her nose. “Nice to meet you, Taylor.”
“You too, Daron,” Taylor said, offering a half smile back.
“Ohmygod, I can’t believe Psychic Adventures is finally doing the Delta Ep house,” Allie chirped.
“Well, Xander from Psychic Adventures is heading up the investigation, but it won’t be filmed or aired anywhere,” Julie replied gently. “We’re just here to help, not broadcast.”
Taylor nodded, and Allie deflated a little before re-composing herself with a wide smile. Daron couldn’t look directly at her teeth for too long without feeling blinded, so he cast an eye back around the room and found himself making eye contact with Taylor. He fought his instinct to look away immediately (but not his instinct to suck it in a little harder - he allowed himself a LITTLE vanity) and she smirked before turning her attention back to Julie.
“So we just had a few questions about your experiences, and then we’ll be out of your hair,” Julie concluded. Allie still looked disappointed. “With...a caveat that we may need to follow up with the rest of the team.” The tentative promise of meeting Xander perked Allie and her intense smile right back up, and Taylor uttered a small sigh before gesturing to the couch.
“I’m sorry, we’ve been awful hosts. Would you like to have a seat so we can talk? Water, anyone? Or coffee, tea…?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Allie echoed, but took the opportunity to sit on the far end of the L-shaped couch instead of staying up to help her roommate.
“Coffee would be lovely, if it’s already made,” Julie said with a smile. “Do you mind if I…?” She gestured at a rocking chair in the corner of the room underneath a fringed lamp. Taylor shook her head.
“No, go ahead. And we should have a pot still warm. Daron? Coffee?”
“Just water would be great,” he said, waiting for Taylor to leave the room before he sat on the other end of the couch while Julie moved the rocking chair closer to be able to face them. Instead of leaning back to give himself ample room for his burgeoning (or honestly, pretty heavily burgeoned already) belly, Daron leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. In his mind’s eye, this was keeping his rotund form mostly under wraps, especially as he kept his stomach muscles tensed in order to feel his chub creep further back on his thighs.
Allie, meanwhile, was asking eagerly if Xander was as tall as he looked on TV.
“Taller,” Julie in her infinite patience replied with a smile.
“Ooooooooo,” squeaked their smaller host. “I can’t imagine how you get any work done…”
To Daron’s surprise, Julie didn’t have an immediate response to this, a flush rising up her neck from the collar of her blouse. Luckily, Taylor re-entered the room before it got to an uncomfortable place of silence, one white teacup and saucer in her hand and a pint glass of water in the other.
“We have some almond milk if you’d like,” Taylor said to Julie as she handed her the teacup. Julie shook her head.
“Black is perfect, thank you Taylor,” she said. Daron saw Allie raise her eyebrows suggestively, and assumed Julie hadn’t until the blush reached his coworker’s cheeks. Meanwhile, Taylor crossed the room to Daron, handing him the water before taking a seat on Allie’s side of the L. He murmured a thanks and took a sip, still from his position leaning forward over his middle.
“So if you don’t mind getting right down to it - you were both in the house when the disturbances were first reported?” Julie asked, flipping open the file on the case and considering their hosts with the exact kind of open and friendly curiosity that made her such a great people person. The girls nodded.
“I was a sophomore when Taylor was a senior,” Allie said. “And, ohmygosh, it was so spooky you guys. You don’t even know. Moving into a big old house with all girls and suddenly there’s all this - noise in the middle of the night... the banging…” Allie shuddered dramatically.
Daron caught Taylor rolling her eyes at this. Julie scanned the document in front of her.
“Right, it started as unusual sounds that seemed like they were coming from the walls, is that correct?”
“Totally,” Allie said.
“An animal or something had gotten in,” Taylor added, nodding slowly.
“Except there was, like, whispering too,” Allie jumped in right at the end of Taylor’s sentence.
“Something spoke to you?” Julie asked, looking at Allie with interest.
“Well not, like, me. But a couple of our sisters totally heard something in their room whispering at them. Sandra’s BFF Chelsea who moved in a few years after us even heard words! It was threatening her.”
“What about you, Taylor? Did you hear anything?” Julie asked. Taylor was looking in the opposite direction from her roommate, her teeth subtly grinding.
“Did I hear rumors about ghosts from sleep deprived undergrads who had listened to one too many cryptid podcasts? Sure,” Taylor replied. “Did I hear anything supernatural try and whisper in my ear in the middle of the night when I lived in that house? Yeah, no.”
Daron, never great at playing neutral, couldn’t help a grin that flashed across his face before he hid it behind his free hand.
“But your sister is there now and seems pretty convinced it’s not natural, is that right? She’s the one who seems to have persuaded Xander to take a look,” Julie pointed out gently.
“Yes, my half-sister has...a lot of thoughts,” Taylor said with a tight smile. “And a lot of feelings. But they’re not all exactly based in reality.”
“Aw, c’mon, Tay…” Allie whined, eliciting a raised eyebrow from her roommate. “You know they’ve checked the house for animals and stuff and never found anything, and Rachel’s not so bad.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be shocked if whatever’s living in the walls is smarter than the university maintenance staff,” Taylor said. “Especially when they’re clearly just phoning it in over reports from some ‘hysterical girls’. Which is...I guess...not completely unfair.”
“So you and Rachel...is there bad blood there?” Julie asked.
“Nah, nothing like that. We’re just nine years apart. I remember being 21, but...I prefer not to,” Taylor said with a half-smirk. “I think she’s just...impressionable. So after finally getting to move into the Delta Epsilon house years after hearing all these stories about the ‘ghost’? I’m just not shocked she’s made this such a...cause. That’s all.”
“Okay,” Julie said, nodding at her file. Daron took another sip of water to hide his twitching smile. “Well, Allie, I’d love to hear some more about what you heard or heard about during your time in the house. Perhaps we could go into the dining room? And, Taylor…Daron may have a few questions for you, boxes to tick on his end?”
Allie, eager to keep storytelling away from her nay-sayer roommate, nodded eagerly and stood up. Taylor and Daron locked eyes again, and they nodded as well - more thoughtfully - in near unison. Julie patted her thighs before standing up with her file and teacup, starting to follow Allie out of the room. Before she did, though, from now behind Taylor’s back, Julie offered Daron a wink so quick he thought he might have imagined it before disappearing to the dining room.
“So is dealing with the more difficult ones supposed to be your specialty, or…?” Taylor asked, her head cocked at Daron. He offered a sharp laugh in response and sat up a little, remembering just in time to suck in his stomach extra as he did.
“Just the opposite. Julie has infinite patience for ghost and conspiracy theories, and I...don’t.”
“Interesting line of work then,” Taylor said with a raised, and perfectly groomed, eyebrow.
“It’s a good team and good pay. Why not? Besides, I’m sure you can guess how often it’s actually the monster everyone thinks it is and not Old Man McGreely.”
“Well, I don’t think you’d be so certain if it was a monster even once, Shaggy,” Taylor replied wryly, picking up on his Scooby Doo joke.
“Ding ding ding,” Daron declared, deciding it wasn’t relevant to bring up the mysteries that were never fully solved. Just because the noises stopped after a séance didn’t mean it DID anything. Just that whatever the real issue was went away, coincidentally, at the same time.
“So then what is your job? What’re your...boxes to tick?”
“Tech primarily, but also kind of a jack-of-all trades behind the scenes. I usually work with a partner to investigate the houses and possible environmental factors too while Julie and Xander handle the people.”
“Sounds like a dream. This isn’t the ‘haunted’ house, but do you want to see it anyway? I’m pretty proud of it, to be honest,” Taylor said, smoothing her ponytail back with one hand as she offered Daron a half-smile.
“Might as well,” he said, finding himself smiling back with ease. That was pretty unusual. “I wouldn’t mind a tour. You’ve got a great place.”
“Thanks,” Taylor replied, standing up from her position on the couch. “We can check upstairs first, give them time to chat.” She gestured back towards the dining room, where they could hear Allie’s animated voice rising and falling with her story.
“Sounds good,” Daron said, putting his water on the ground. Taylor was still watching him, and he hesitated, not sure he wanted to get to his feet while her eyes were on him. After an awkward beat, Taylor moved around him to get to the back of the room with the stairs, and Daron heaved himself to his feet. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t keep himself from a soft oof as he lifted off the couch, even with a pretty girl watching. One of these days he had to get used to his new center of gravity, right? Steadying his feet, Daron turned to see Taylor look quickly from his form to a painting of a sailboat on the wall.
Tugging his knitted shirt away from his middle, Daron blushed a little and made his way past the couch. Seeing that he was following, Taylor offered a quick smile before beginning to make her way up the stairs.
“So do you own this place?” Daron asked.
“I do. I have for a few years. I rent out the spare room to old sorority sisters sometimes for some extra cash, but...gotta say, it’s not always worth it,” Taylor replied with a shake of her head. “I mean, I’m 30 years old and still gotta have our old sorority flag hanging in my living room? And hear about how a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-sister totally got attacked by the ‘ghost’ from my senior year? I mean.”
“Yeah, that’s a lot,” Daron agreed with a chuckle. “But I’m that cliché guy in tech who’s lived alone with his video games since the moment he made enough money to justify it, so I’m biased.”
“Ha, okay, I can see that,” Taylor retorted as they reached the top of the stairs.
“What is it that you do, exactly?” Daron asked, curious and emboldened, leaning against the bannister. He held both sides of his suit jacket in his hands, tugged out in front (or, more realistically, adjacent) to his belly.
“I work for the city. Not nearly as glamorous, but I have a little flexibility for things like hosting ghost hunters in my home mid-week,” Taylor replied, turning to face Daron.
“And in a house like this, no less. Seems plenty glamorous to me.”
“Touché, tech guy. So, that’s Allie’s room -” Taylor gestured from the landing at the open door that revealed a bright blue-and-pink bedspread and more Delta Epsilon materials than Daron could count. “My room and master bath is behind that door, half-bath here…” Daron was paying attention, he could swear he was, but as she pointed Taylor’s buttoned top rode up just a little to reveal a pierced belly button and intimidatingly toned midsection. It caught his breath and reminded him of The Mission - keep the roundness of his middle held in at all costs. “You good?” Taylor asked after a brief silence.
“Yeah, sorry. Full disclosure, if I was really ticking every box on my form...I’d be snooping in there for any ghost-making materials,” Daron confided in her, motioning at Allie’s room. Taylor’s eyebrows raised, and her dark eyes glinted.
“Oh really? Well, we wouldn’t want you to get in trouble at work,” Taylor said in mock concern.
“And her door is open…” Daron cast an eye back down the stairs, but he knew Allie and Julie would be talking for as long as Julie would put up with it. Which was nearly indefinite.
“Just a peek,” Taylor said, sticking her tongue briefly between her front teeth in a playful gesture before leading the way into Allie’s room. “So what are ghost-making materials, usually?”
“Oh, you know. Halloween masks. Glitter. Night vision goggles. The usual,” Daron joked back casually as he looked around the brightly decorated room.
“Sure,” Taylor said, casting another look up and down Daron before opening and then closing her mouth.
“What?” Daron asked, feeling a little self-conscious under her gaze.
“Oh, I just...God, I’m sorry to ask, I hate it when people do this to me, but...what’s your heritage, exactly? I can’t put my finger on it. Are you....Latvian? Greek?”
Daron laughed in surprise.
“Almost 100% Armenian, with Ashkenazi. But those were decent guesses.”
“Ohhhh! Okay. Sorry again.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem. But Taylor…” turning to face her, Daron adopted an inflection of the most ignorant middle American tourist. “Where are, um, your 'people' from?”
Taylor laughed. “Fair, that’s fair. I’m Egyptian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern...you can kinda name it and you’d probably be at least a little right.”
“Damn, okay,” Daron said, and before he could stop himself, “it’s all working, anyway.”
“Thanks,” Taylor chuckled before they both fell into an investigative silence. There was a MacBook on a desk, but Daron knew better than to go full-on hacker in front of anyone outside the team. Otherwise it was just clothes, clothes, Delta Epsilon merchandise, and more clothes.
“I think your roommate’s probably in the clear. Unless she’s secretly an evil genius,” Daron concluded finally, grimly.
“Ha!” Taylor retorted, leading the way out of the room. “Yeah, I feel confident that’s a dead end.”
“Is that because…” Daron paused for dramatic effect - “you’ve actually been the Delta Ep ghost this whole time?!”
“Ahhh, you got me,” laughed Taylor. “With just the power of your words. Amazing.”
Daron grinned back, but couldn’t help thinking about how entertained Freddie would have been. He hoped she was having a good time at the sorority house, though if most of them were like Allie…
Just as probable they’re mostly like Taylor, though, right?
“So did you need to see anything else up here...?” Taylor asked, holding his gaze with an unreadable expression in her dark eyes. Ignoring the heat on his cheeks, Daron broke eye contact to take another glance around the landing before his gaze landed on the half-bath.
“I’ll just make sure your pipes aren’t poisoning you and we can call it good.”
After running a few basic tests in the bathroom and peeping into Taylor’s bedroom, Daron and Taylor made their way back downstairs. Unsurprisingly, Allie’s voice was still rising and falling from the dining room, so Taylor showed Daron the second full bathroom and the kitchen off the left of the stairs. The kitchen did attach to the dining room, so Julie caught Daron’s eye and offered a small wave.
“We’re just wrapping up here,” Julie said, and Daron caught Allie’s blink. Clearly the girl would talk the entire afternoon away. “I got a text from Xander and they’ll be ready to meet back at the office shortly. Make sure you got everything you need.” Ignoring the semi-pointed nature of her last sentence, Daron caught Taylor’s eye, and the two of them began moving (again, in near unison) to the living room.
Rather than sit and attempt another ungainly get-up later (while trying to hide the much more obvious fluff that rounded out from his belly in a seated position), Daron leaned in what he hoped was a casual way against the couch back. Taylor mirrored him from the other end, cocking her head slightly as she watched him.
“I can keep you updated on the Delta Epsilon house status, if you want,” Daron found himself saying conversationally. “Julie and Xander have protocols they’ll follow, but...I wouldn’t want you to have to learn anything new from your sister.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said, not taking her dark eyes off Daron.
“So if you’re cool with it, I could get your number and let you know who’s under the monster mask,” Daron continued. “Just to make sure you’re fully prepped for a sorority-wide ‘I Told You So.’”
Taylor cracked a smile. “Sure, Daron. Let me…” she craned her head before spying the pen & paper she was looking for, on a small table under a lamp nearby, and tore off a piece to write on it.
“Full disclosure…” Daron started again, swallowing and fervently sucking in his belly. He could play it cool, sure, but he was also in his mid-30s and not looking to beat around the bush. Taylor handed him the strip of paper, and he smacked it against his other hand in nervous emphasis. “I may also use this to ask you out. Is that cool, or…?”
“It’s not…not cool,” Taylor said, breaking his eye contact as she looked down at the floor for one of the first times since they met. Daron wondered if that hesitancy was cause for concern, but Taylor continued, “but of course, priorities - making sure I know I’m right is up there.”
“Oh yeah. I’d never deny you that in my quest for a date. Rest assured,” Daron replied, feeling a flutter of relief.
“Well...perfect, then,” Taylor said, nervously smoothing her ponytail back again as she peeked up at the man in front of her. Daron couldn’t hold back a grin, and she smiled tentatively back.
“Knock knock,” Julie said a few moments later from the house’s foyer. “We’re all set, Daron?”
“Yeah, I’m good to go,” he called back, not breaking eye contact with Taylor until the end of his sentence.
“Great, well, we’ll be in touch,” Julie said, smiling at Taylor as they approached the foyer and then at Allie behind her. “Thank you so much for taking time to meet with us, ladies.”
“Anytime!” Allie chirped, at the same time as Taylor replied, “it’s no problem.”
“Have a good one,” Daron said easily to the pair as he followed Julie out the door. It was still a crisp fall day, but the sun had come out from behind scattered clouds, and Daron could feel it lightly warming his face. He tilted his head up towards it, hands on his suit jacket.
“Someone’s in a good mood,” Julie observed, and Daron realized he’d even been smiling as he took in the sun.
“I guess I am,” Daron admitted as he pulled the passenger door open. Even the re-cramming into a too tight space wasn’t enough to damper his spirits. “After all, it’s not every day I get...a phone number!”
“Good for you,” Julie said as she started up the tiny car. She caught Daron’s dark brown eyes with her own lighter brown ones, and looked as though she was going to say something more, but seemed to change her mind as she pulled them out of the driveway and back towards their office. Daron didn’t push it, instead reveling in the rare glow of a new connection.
Xander and Freddie were already at the home base by the time Julie and Daron pulled up - Allie’s stories and Taylor’s easy conversation had easily eaten up over two hours. Inside, Freddie typed fervently at a desktop they used to transcribe files from their cases. Xander was dictating notes from the file folder in his lap as he leaned against the large desk.
“Welcome back!” He greeted the pair as they entered. “How’d it go?”
“Well, if it’s mass hysteria, we have at least one outlier,” Julie replied, hanging up her coat. “Taylor is not at all on board with Rachel’s crusade. What about the house itself?”
“The girls there are sure convinced. We’ll have to make at least one more trip back for a closer look at the house though, we need maintenance access and of course, the noises are ‘only at night.’”
“So no banging on the pipes or ghostly wails while you were there?” Daron asked, crossing the room to Freddie at the computer, who swiveled to face him.
“Unfortunately, no,” she said, pulling a face. Xander and Julie chatted on the other end of the room, comparing notes on their interviews, while Daron leaned on the desk next to Freddie.
“How was it otherwise?”
“God,” Freddie groaned. “I really thought everything I’d seen about sororities was a stereotype. My college didn’t have Greek life. But it is not, Daron. I’m burnt out on human interaction forever.”
“Were they too...dramatic, for you?” Daron asked pointedly, and Freddie playfully struck out at him.
“Yeah okay, Professor, whatever. Was it better with just the one?”
“Two,” Daron corrected. “And...yeah, yeah it was.”
“Oh?” Freddie asked, blinking at her coworker’s cheerful expression.
“I mean, Julie definitely got stuck with the ultimate Delta Epsilon amalgamation - allll the stereotypes in one blonde, y’know? But the older sister was different. She was pretty rad.” He shrugged as he pulled the grin off the face, but Freddie wasn’t fooled.
“Yeah? Did you tell her how...rad she was?”
“I’m not sure she needed me to,” Daron replied dryly. “But...maybe I will when I call her up for a date later this week.” He pulled the paper with Taylor’s digits out of his pocket and played with it between his fingers. Freddie blinked.
“Damn. That’s great. I hope she knows how lucky she is. Because you don’t...like anybody, I mean,” Freddie said, glancing across the room to where Julie was standing with Xander.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Daron flexed his vanity muscle playfully. “Who better than me?”
Freddie pulled an eyebrows-raised, lips-pursed I don’t know face as she continued to look across the room. Julie seemed to have caught her eye, because the other pair soon joined them.
“Sounds like a productive day, team,” Xander congratulated. “Let’s keep spitballing on ideas and finish up paperwork for the day, yeah?”
Freddie silently swiveled back to the computer while Xander and Julie swapped paranormal and psychological terms that could fit the case. Daron took the opportunity to enter the numbers on the scrap of paper into his phone. Taylor Skeptic. Damn, it had been a good day.
Daron was in a bad mood. It had been three weeks since they’d interviewed Allie and Taylor, and both the case and his love life were at a stand-still. They needed maintenance access to investigate the sorority house further, but the university staff was exceptionally skilled at dodging their calls and requests. There was another job they were working on in the meantime, a haunted house claim from a woman who insisted her dead husband was trying to communicate with her. Except that Daron could tell from the second she opened her mouth that this woman was making **** up for attention. But Xander still insisted on treating her with the same level of care and respect as the rest of their cases.
Which is why he’s the big boss. And the most well-liked. And the richest. Daron had to admit. And he also had to admit he’d probably have more patience for it if he’d heard back from Taylor by now. But as of day 23 after meeting her, Daron had reached out on four separate occasions - and had yet to hear anything back.
Initially, Daron patiently waited two nights before giving her a call. He knew texting was all the rage for flirtations these days, but he knew he wanted to ask her out, and he wanted to hear her voice when he did it. Typing it out felt like cheating to him, which he knew just told his age (emphasized by the way Freddie rolled her eyes and turned her attention to her Switch when Daron mentioned it at work the next day). The phone rang what seemed like an ungodly amount of times before voicemail picked up - it was generic machine, but did have a familiar voice saying “Taylor Hassan” partway through confirming he had the right place.
“Hey Taylor,” Daron said after the beep. “This is Daron, from the other day. No big break in the case yet, though there’s some good ideas being thrown around. So far, ‘poltergeist’ and ‘mass hysteria’ seem to be the front runners. If you’d like to place your bets on which, just let me know. Um...give me a call back at your convenience. Bye.”
He felt just the right sort of anxious about the message, and prepared himself to wait a couple days for a call back. But a couple days turned into a week, and after all the stress at work with trying to chase down the maintenance department, and a late-night stakeout of the sorority house where they tried to hear the infamous “noises” - nothing, except lots of loud and frightening undergrads - Daron was feeling the shine of possibility wearing off. He tried her again after a weekend of decompression and lots of comfort food.
“Hi Taylor,” he said after the beep. “Just checking in. I’d love to take you out for a drink sometime soon, it’s been quite a week. No real updates about the case, but plenty to vent about if you’re up for it. Gimme a call back.” He recited his number in case her phone had issues with showing it, then hung up.
By the next morning, still no word, and Daron realized he had slacked on laundry in favor of relaxing in front of the computer. He only had a couple pairs of clean pants, and each of them bit into the underside of his belly in a very irritating, and very telling, way. But he didn’t want to be told. He just wanted to enjoy food and life. So what if creamy, calorie-heavy dishes were that much more delicious? So what if he wasn’t particularly active outside of work? It wasn’t that bad, he thought, and therefore he shouldn’t be getting that much bigger. And yet.
“Fine,” he grumbled to the empty room between gritted teeth as he released the waistband of his forest green pants. It snapped back against his soft middle, painfully, snugly. He pulled a new-ish cream sweater from a high shelf, one he’d purchased specifically to be oversized, but that he was convinced got shrunk in the wash somehow. It was still roomy enough, but it rode up enough when he had to reach for anything that it would show flashes of his lower belly hanging over his pants. The one part of his body he would really rather not show off right now, thank you very much. So he tucked a dark fitted undershirt into his waistband first, then tossed the sweater on over it. A few large, wooden buttons decorated the top of the sweater, and he left the top one undone.
Still, despite his best efforts, that day at work Daron had to snag something from a high shelf. And when he did, he knew the sweater would ride up, but he wasn’t expecting the undershirt to follow. He only knew it had when he felt Freddie’s finger poke lightly into his belly’s soft skin.
“Ahhh, what the ****,” Daron snapped as he pulled down the book he’d been reaching for, face flushing bright red. He shifted it into his left arm while his right tugged down his top. Freddie went from a playful grin to looking stricken.
“I’m sorry! I just couldn’t resist…”
“Well, resist anyway,” Daron said in exasperation. “I don’t need any more reminders that I’m fat, thanks. I got that memo. Uncool, Thornberry.”
“I wasn’t...that’s not what I meant!” Freddie’s green eyes filled with tears, and she added, so rushed it all sounded like one word, “I didn’t mean that I’m really sorry Daron.” Before getting up and rushing out of the office.
Daron uttered a sigh and stared up at the ceiling. Julie looked over at him silently.
“What?” He asked, trying to keep his defensiveness to a minimum. “It’s not my job to go make her feel better.”
“Nobody would say it was,” Julie replied. Stifling a groan, Daron settled into the couch with the book he grabbed, ignoring the churning feeling of guilt in his gut.
They’d made up since then, of course. Freddie composed herself and made a more structured apology, and Daron accepted, admitting he overreacted after a rough morning. All in a day’s work. And as it was the first time Daron had admitted to actually being fat out loud, he accepted he’d need to go and get some new clothes sooner rather than later.
It’s still “sooner”, Daron told himself uneasily as he settled into work a couple weeks later, tugging his snug band tea away from his gut. No, he hadn't made that trip for much-needed new clothes yet. Whatever, he’d been distracted. One follow up text ("Hey, Taylor, it's Daron. Is this your number?" and one more call (with no message left this time) to Taylor had elicited no response, and he’d given up. All his energy was taken up by trying to keep it together at work, and not go off on the sorority girls or clearly mental Dead Husband Lady, Sonja. Freddie was a lifesaver on those days, always catching his eye during the most insane ramblings and down to vent in the car on the way back, or with a beer after on the rare days he still had energy after.
“Freddie, Daron, we’ve heard from Delta Epsilon that there’s been activity almost every night for the past week,” Xander said from his position against the desk. “But we’ve also promised to assist Sonja with a séance. If Julie and I tackle that tomorrow, can the two of you take another shift at the sorority house?”
“Any word from Maintenance?” Daron asked, who had yet to get any insight into the crawlspace or other suspect areas of the house, and it was bothering him more every day.
“What do you think?” Xander replied sardonically. “It’s unfortunate. But perhaps if you two can get some decent recordings of the disturbances, we can turn up the fire under them? And of course, if either of you would rather assist with Sonja, then Julie and the other can take Delta Ep.”
“Absolutely not,” Daron said at the same time as Freddie blurted, “Oh god no.” It was definitely the lesser of two evils, but still. The bearability of a house of sorority girls was lightyears beyond Sonja and her inane (and clearly fake) babble.
“That’s what I figured,” Xander said with a slight dancing smile.
“I should be there anyway,” Julie agreed. “I have a bit more experience than the rest of you with pathological liars.”
“My 5th grade best friend who kept insisting her dad was Vice President and that she’d been run over by multiple cars and also that she had ten shiny Charizards but she couldn’t show me any of them was enough for a lifetime,” Freddie muttered.
“Ten? God, bold play,” Daron said back, smirking at his coworker.
“Well, once you guys have packed up the necessities for tomorrow, feel free to take off for the day. I know we’ve all been working hard,” Xander said, giving a slight clap as he lifted off the desk.
“Thank god,” Daron couldn’t help but groan as he and Freddie headed for the recording equipment and other essentials for a stakeout. Night shifts were always a trial, and he was feeling the metaphorical sting of rejection and real-life sting of his jean’s button digging into his belly and he was ready to be in comfortable clothes until he absolutely had to leave his house again.
“Do you want me to handle this? Honestly, you can go now,” Freddie said, looking up at Daron with some concern. “I don’t mind, I get it.”
“Nah, Thornberry,” Daron brushed her off. “It won’t take long with the two of us. Want to try for some Divinity tonight?”
“Sure,” Freddie said, grinning. They had made decent progress with their party in Original Sin II, with Freddie’s witch and Daron’s dwarf fighter. The discord calls may be loud, but they were pretty fun to unwind with.
“Cool,” Daron replied. “Think we’ll catch the poltergeist red-handed this time?”
“Please, it’s a collective dementia,” Freddie replied airily. “We won’t hear ****, but they will. I bet you right now.”
“Okay, let’s shake on it,” Daron grinned and reached out his soft olive-toned hand. “Loser buys the next round.” Freddie took his grip eagerly.
The next night saw Daron and Freddie arriving at Delta Epsilon a little before 8:30pm. It was dark and especially cold that night, and as they entered the foyer of the house, he realized with a stab of irritation that it was barely warmer inside. Earlier in the night, he had gotten a little lost in a couple rounds of Slay the Spire before realizing he needed to pick up Freddie for their excursion momentarily. At that point he had to get dressed quickly, without too much thought. The jeans he grabbed were well fitted after a couple days of wearing and stretching them out, then a plain black t-shirt (that may cling a little overly to his middle, but he trusted the “slimming” rumors surrounding black clothing), and topped with an old favorite red plaid flannel.
Unfortunately, the key word on the flannel was “old”. So as Daron stood in the chilly entryway and began to button it over himself for some further warmth, his irritation deepened with the realization of how snug his outer layer was. The bottom button made it OK, sitting under his belly, but the next one up didn’t come together at the first tug. Inhaling deeply and drawing his roundest point in, Daron pulled with more determination and got the button and the hole to meet. He kept his breath held as he got through the rest as fast as he could, up to two from the top. Upon completion, he uttered a low disgruntled sigh. Which luckily, the buttons still held on valiantly for.
“Thanks Nancy,” Freddie was saying to the redhead sorority sister who answered the door. “We’re just going to set up in the den if that still sounds good to you guys.”
“Yep! Sounds great. You should be able to hear it from there. Or at least be able to hear one of us screaming, if it’s whispering in our room again,” Nancy said with a nervous giggle.
“You can always come get us, too,” Freddie reassured.
“Good to know,” Nancy beamed. “Is maintenance going to come let you into the crawl space or anything yet?”
“No,” Daron replied without any attempt to hide his bitterness.
“Dang. I was really hoping they’d turn on the heat while they were here. The university is SO stingy, like, it’s def almost winter, y’know? It’s time. Anyway, see you guys,” Nancy waved as she headed back up the stairs.
“Okay, ready?” Freddie asked Daron, who gave a shrug of confirmation. The pair headed into the den area, which was a large space a couple steps down in a “sunken” style. Perhaps to give the ceiling a higher effect. There were multiple worn couches, a wide mounted TV, a couple chairs, and an open space with a folded table leaned up against the wall next to it. The beer pong table, almost certainly. A great hang out spot that was currently empty and quiet, almost eerily so. But the girls had known they were coming, and it was a school night after all. Voices still drifted into the area, but not loud enough to make out the words.
Freddie dumped her bags and began turning on a few of the lamps. Daron started unpacking the recording equipment they’d brought with them and might need to utilize at a moment’s notice if the “noises” started up. As apparently they had almost every night this week, according to insistent phone calls to Xander from Rachel, Taylor’s younger sister.
Ugh. Daron was trying not to dwell, but it was hard not to feel the bruise on his ego. He had always done fine with the fairer sex, nothing to write home about, but nothing to get desperate over the lack of either. He just didn’t feel a strong connection to many people below a superficial level, but when he did, his instincts had often been spot on and a relationship had bloomed. It had been a few years since his last one, though, when his partner Sissy had been all in jumping up the relationship escalator - marriage, kids - and Daron wasn’t there yet. And with kids, he wasn’t sure he’d ever actually be. So, with the easy conversational flow and attraction to Taylor, he couldn’t help ruminating yet again - where did I go wrong?
“Freddie!” The call was followed by a short-haired Indian girl popping her head into the den. “I thought I heard you!”
“Hey Cece,” Freddie said, turning to greet the girl. Daron recognized her from their last stakeout of the house, as she and Freddie seemed to have gotten friendly and he was introduced before Cece departed for bed and the team settled into the den. “What’s up, girl?”
“I heard you were coming back to check for the spoooooks again! Did maintenance get back to you about the crawl space?”
Daron uttered a low scoff of frustration. Dammit, he hated waiting on having access to information.
“Not yet,” Freddie confirmed, smirking at her work partner before looking back at Cece. “Total runaround. We just gotta stick it out in the den again and hope.”
“Oooohhhh,” Cece said, her eyes lighting up as she came further into the room. “Maybe not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay so, last weekend I was at a Kappa Sig party and this alum brother Rick was there and I told him about how shitty it was that maintenance wasn’t coming by to turn on our heat or to let y’all into the crawl space or anything and turns OUT Rick used to party here! And he totally figured out a trick to getting into the crawl space to hide from cops or smoke out or whatever.”
“Seriously?” Freddie said at the same time as Daron asked, “Wait, really?”
“Yeah,” Cece replied, her gaze dropping briefly from Daron’s face to where his middle strained under the buttons of his flannel then back again. “He showed me how, and I can show you guys if you want!”
“Well let’s do it,” Freddie said eagerly, looking at Daron for confirmation. He nodded firmly and abandoned his task of unpacking the mics in favor of flashlights and testing kits for collecting scrapings, just in case. Cece clapped three times, quickly, in excitement.
“Lead the way,” Daron said as he handed Freddie her flashlight and offered Cece what he hoped was an encouraging nod. He knew he wasn’t at his best now, but if she could really get them access to the rest of the house without needing to beat down maintenance’s door, that would go a long way. And he was appreciative.
Feel free to skip ahead to Chapter 20 if mild claustrophobia is not your bag! But y'all know I had to.
Wooden steps off the den led down into the basement, a small bare room housing only the water heater, circuit breakers, and a low square door into the crawl space. Cece led the way, then Freddie, then Daron bringing up the rear. As they approached the small door, Daron studied it again - the round knob was turnable, but the door wouldn’t open without the key for the hole underneath it.
“OK so,” Cece said, turning to the pair with an overly grand wave of her arms. She looked like a circus ringmaster about to reveal her headline act. “We all thought the same thing - you couldn’t open this door without the key from maintenance. Right? BUT. It’s old AF, guys. Like, OG house status. So all you gotta do…” Cece turned back and gripped the knob firmly in her right hand. Her other hand steadied against the wall next to it. “I practiced with Rick...pull UP...to the left...jiggle it a little...then…” the Indian girl yanked hard, and then the door burst open.
“Holy ****, Cece! Nice!” Freddie cheered, offering a high five to the sorority sister. Cece took her up on it enthusiastically.
“No problem guys! I didn’t go in, ‘cause…” she wrinkled her nose and gestured at the dark opening. “Ugh. Spiders, anyone? But you guys have fun. Make sure to leave the door open too, or it’ll lock behind ya.”
“Of course,” Freddie said. “But...keep your phone on you, just in case?”
Cece laughed and echoed Freddie: “Of course, girl! Good luck.”
“Thank you so much Cece,” Daron said, leaning a little closer to the door and seeing the shapes of wooden frames barely visible in the gloom of the crawl space. He flicked on his mini-flashlight, and they became clearer. There was also a chain dangling just inside the door, presumably (hopefully) for the crawlspace’s own light.
“You got it Daron!” Cece said. “I’ll see you guys soon.” And the girl turned and scampered back up the wood steps.
A moment of silent passed as Freddie turned on her own flashlight, and the pair studied the opening. Neither made an initial move, and they looked at each other hesitantly. Daron felt embarrassingly unchivalrous, but he couldn’t help but want to avoid going first. A big guy crawling through a little door on his hands and knees (there was no way he’d fit even attempting to crouch) sounded a little too vulnerable of a position for letting someone he knew watch from behind.
“Let’s see…” Freddie leaned over and pulled the chain. A single hanging bulb inside the crawl space illuminated, and they could see the tunnel-like area lined with wooden beams heading back into the center of the house. “Okay. We got this. I’ll go first.”
Relieved, Daron avoided staring as Freddie tugged self-consciously at the bottom of her skater skirt before crawling quickly into the opening. Once he saw her begin to stand back up, he went to follow on his hands and knees. His belly brushed the bottom of the doorframe and he tried to suck it away as he awkwardly maneuvered his legs up through the door and onto the dirt floor inside. Once fully in, Daron gripped onto the traitorous door frame and used it to heave himself up with a soft groan. The “ceiling” of the crawlspace was low enough that even Freddie had to crouch, and the pair pointed their flashlights ahead.
“Not to be cliché here but I hope Cece was wrong about the spiders,” Freddie said after a brief pause.
“Freddie,” said Daron with an exaggerated seriousness, putting a hand on her shoulder. “She almost definitely wasn’t.”
“Great, thanks,” Freddie laughed as she brushed his hand away. “Such a comfort.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
With their nerves somewhat settled, the two began to walk slowly into the depths of the crawlspace. The light from near the entrance soon felt much dimmer, and they utilized their flashlights to illuminate each darkened area as they went. As they neared a fork in the tunnel, the dirt floor became covered in clear plastic tarp, which made loud crunching noises as they walked and twisted it.
“Okay…” Daron pointed his flashlight left, then right. Straight ahead was blocked off with more wooden beams, and as far as he could tell, both directions looked near identical. “Should we split up?”
“Oh, God…” groaned Freddie.
“Freddie, c’mon. We can basically the end of the tunnels - and this isn’t exactly a murder house.”
“Fine. But just because I want to get out of here,” Freddie replied defensively, gesturing down the right-hand fork. “I’ll go this way.”
“You got it. See you in a sec,” Daron said, turning down the left hand of the passage. As they parted ways, they could still hear each other’s crunchy footsteps on the tarp on the ground, which was strangely comforting.
Daron took his time as he made his way down the path, but it still didn’t take too long until he was at the wall. Nothing had seemed out of place except for a few inches above the ground, where a rectangular piece of plywood was drilled in at three corners - the top two, and the bottom right. The bottom right corner had been broken off, with jagged pieces revealing a small hole in the wall, Daron assumed for electrical hookups. But as he passed his flashlight over the plywood, he caught a glint from the dark opening. Something reflected back at him.
Taking his time kneeling down, Daron shone his light into the hole where the brief glint had come from and nearly dropped his flashlight. It was a *camera*. A small one, not any bigger than a webcam or subtle security cam, but still.
What the hell, Daron thought. Reaching into the opening with his free hand, Daron grabbed the camera. As he removed it, cords followed from back in the gloom of the wall.
Setting the camera down, Daron went from kneeling to laying flat on his rounded front (after only a brief hesitation of concern for his favorite flannel). Whatever, it’s too small now anyway, he reminded himself unhappily as he lifted up the corner of the plywood to look further into the opening in the wall.
Inside, a little ways back, there was an electronic box. It was about the size of a DVD player, maybe slightly larger, and Daron recognized it immediately as the recording system for the camera he’d removed. And, as he saw the other cables extending from the box and up into the walls of the house, he knew there were probably more cameras attached.
This was not good, and Daron knew he needed to get it out immediately. The box was further back than he was able to reach, but he also knew the reason the corner had been snapped off of the plywood was to allow better ease of access. So without thinking about it too much, Daron rolled onto his right side and put the travel-sized flashlight into his mouth. With his left hand he lifted the corner of the plywood up as much as it would go, and with his right hand he reached forward into the wall, using it as leverage to tug. Between that and squirming back-and-forth with his plump body, Daron squeezed into the opening past his chest without too much trouble. Not long after that point, though, he needed to let go of the plywood, and felt it utter a light smack as it settled into the softness of his tummy. He flushed a little at the sensation. He couldn’t help it.
Still, Daron ignored the new pressure and began to work on getting the box unhooked. It took a couple of minutes to get to every cord that was attached to let go, but eventually, he was victorious. Relieved and just the tiniest bit sweaty, Daron held the device in his right hand, ready to back out of the opening.
Except...it wasn’t that easy. Squirming and pulling had gotten him forward, but now the end of the wall was beyond Daron’s grasp, making it impossible to push off of. Wriggling his body back and forth did nothing now, with the edge of the plywood pressing into his round middle above his belly button and keeping him firmly in place.
Daron reached back with his free hand, trying to feel for the plywood to lift it off of him. But enough of his impressively-sized gut had gotten through that the plywood was all but inaccessible to him. There was no way to get his fingers squeezed back and into his plush, squished middle enough to try and extradite the edge of the wood.
Putting down the box, Daron used his other hand to take the small flashlight out of his mouth and tried to look around more for solutions. Nope, there was definitely nothing else to push off of in this cubbyhole, and yep, the fat of his stomach that had managed to squeeze inside was blocking his view of the outside and the end of the plywood corner.
Great, he thought sarcastically, teeth gritted with frustration. He was continuing to squirm, but carefully, making sure he didn’t stuff himself further inside. That would be the opposite of helpful. Still, his legs treading metaphorical water on the outside of the hole were making crunching sounds against the floor-tarp, and it wasn’t long before it attracted attention.