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Ghostboo

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Chapter 25

A mild fall tumbled into a surprisingly bitter winter. Snow fell in consistent blankets over the town, making everything seem particularly quiet and slow-moving. Daron was just fine with this, though, as he had Taylor to keep him warm on the long nights.

He knew he was prepared to be all in by that third date, after the surprise work inquisition. Taylor had brought a chilled bottle of white, Daron had put on Ocean’s 12 as a background flick (as Taylor had admitted to “probably” seeing the first one) and within a couple glasses she was unable to keep her hands off him. I mean, sure, it was mostly his chest and arms and up, but he understood the appeal of the firmer parts of his body.

Before Taylor poured herself a third glass, he stopped her - suspecting for the first time that her being an “expert at pacing” was perhaps a stretch of the truth - and asked if she was okay with what they were doing. He didn’t want to keep going if not.

“Yes, of course,” Taylor had looked mournfully from Daron to her glass. “You’re a gentleman, but…I have a really high tolerance. And I want this with you.”

“If you’re sure,” Daron had said, still nursing his first glass. By the end of her third glass, Taylor was tugging him towards the bedroom. Due to his nerves, Daron left the lights off for their first time, and Taylor didn’t request any different.

Three months had passed since then, and Daron stomped the snow off his boots as he entered work on a cold, clear February morning. He took off his black overcoat (that he had never told anyone made him feel like a Scotland Yard detective) and tugged his under jacket with the elbow patches tighter around his body.

“Alright, Daron?” Xander asked from the desk near the front, glancing up at his employee as he flicked through a thick file.

“Good, yeah. Just nippy out.”

Julie arrived moments later, and Freddie burst in her usual 10 - 15 minutes late, her cheeks flushed red.

“Damn Fred, you run here?” Daron asked. Freddie grinned and winked at him as she unwound a blue scarf from around her hair, revealing bubblegum pink hair beneath her dark roots. “Wait, really? I would’ve driven you!”

“Nah,” Freddie replied, flinging herself on the couch next to Daron. “Cold sunny days are my fave. I wanna be outside as much as I can.”

“That…can’t be good for you,” Daron sputtered. “It’s literally below freezing out.” Freddie shrugged and turned her attention to the front of the room.

“Whatcha got, boss? Anything fun?”

“Not quite,” Xander admitted, handing a thick dossier to Julie before bringing two over to Daron and Freddie. “This is going to be a delicate one.”

“A kid?” Freddie said as she flicked open the first page.

“Jeremy,” said Xander.

“8 years old,” Julie murmured, flipping through the pages with a furrowed brow.

“The family is at the end of their rope, so I said we would look into it. They’re…” Xander looked up at the wooden ceiling, clearly weighing his words. “Frightened.”

“Damn,” murmured Freddie, and Daron found himself unusually speechless as he skimmed the pages. But Freddie echoed his thoughts as she continued, “I mean, some of this like the TV is weird, but - the dead pets? The revealing secrets? Isn’t this just…like…antisocial personality disorder?”

Julie cocked her head to the side, but didn’t answer immediately.

“You’d think something like that,” Xander said. “But Jeremy has not been diagnosed with anything definitive.”

“But doesn’t that just mean he’s good at…what do you call it, Julie? ‘Masking’?” Daron weighed in regarding a term he’d heard before from his coworker about individuals - and often kids - very skilled at hiding their symptoms from therapists.

“It’s not a bad guess,” Julie replied, flipping to a previous page in her file. “But he’s been to 9 different psychiatrists. That’s quite a few to fool.”

“The last three have been several hours out of their way,” Xander added. “They’re desperate.”

“Fuuuckin a,” Freddie whistled.

“There’s a lot to get through,” Xander said. “So we’ll focus on learning what we can from the files today, and then take a trip out to meet them tomorrow. They’re a couple hours out of town, so we’ll get an early start.” At this, he gave a meaningful look at Freddie, who blushed as pink as her hair.

“I’ll be here! I’ll be here,” she assured the room.

“I’ll get you here,” Daron retorted. “We’re not relying on you running through the snow. Be ready.”

Freddie rolled her eyes, but couldn’t hide a smile as she dramatically flipped up her case file in front of her face.

The rest of the day was spent reading, and spitballing theories. Despite being only 8 years old, Jeremy had amassed a more impressive record than nearly any of their other cases. Clearly, his family had left nothing out. This included multiple pet deaths (that no one had ever borne witness to, but the circumstances were always suspicious), constantly malfunctioning electronics, and threats and information spilling from Jeremy that apparently, he would have no way of knowing. The entire group ended up staying past working hours, absorbed and ruminating on the info until the sun dipped below the horizon.

“Wait for me,” Daron said gruffly to Freddie as the team began to make moves to leave. “You’re not running home in the dark.”

“But…” Freddie looked from Daron to gazing longingly at the moonlight glinting off the snow outside.

“No, Freddie. C’mon. Let me drop you.”

“Fine. Brat,” Freddie groused, sticking out just the tip of her tongue at Daron.

“That’s me,” he snorted. “Help me up?”

On the way home, the pair noticed how the billowing signs lining the entrance to the local university had been changed to advertising the upcoming Alumni Week.

“Are you and Taylor gonna go to anything?” Freddie asked. “I hear her sorority puts on a pretty big to-do.”

“A ‘to-do’, huh?” Daron asked wryly. In truth, he hadn’t heard much about it. Freddie was from the area but had left for college, and Daron had gone to a community college before transferring to the local university for the last couple years of his full bachelor’s. In his short time there, he hadn’t gotten involved with much besides his classes. “I dunno, Thornberry. Sounds like this kid might take up most of our time.”

“True,” Freddie conceded. “Poor thing.”

“Hopefully we’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
 
Last edited:

Ghostboo

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After dropping Freddie off, Daron headed home and let himself in to the smell of…quinoa, he was guessing. (The air tasted like rice, but worse.) Taylor spent most evenings at his house, with her home only on the docket during weekends that Allie was out of town.

“Hey, beautiful,” he called, heading into the kitchen to kiss the top of her head. “How was your day?”

“It was okay,” Taylor replied, giving Daron a tight smile as she stirred the seeds on the stove in front of her. “Yours?”

“Long. And doesn’t look like it’s gonna let up anytime soon unless there’s a big reveal tomorrow,” Daron said, collapsing on his couch with a sigh. “But hey, assuming it does, did you want to do any Alumni Week stuff? I saw the flags are up. Were you planning to go to your sorority’s shindig?”

“I’m not sure,” Taylor said slowly, carefully, from the kitchen. Daron raised his eyebrows as their eyes met, and Taylor looked away before asking, “how’s the diet going?”

Daron’s face flamed red at this. He could feel the heat spread to his toes as he looked down at the belly in front of him. It was a fair question, considering the promises he had made earlier on in their relationship. But he still didn’t like to think about it.

In his defense, Daron had stuck with weight lifting like he hadn’t in years. He liked feeling strong, the slight ache in his muscles from working hard was a pleasant enough sensation, and flexing in the mirror after a hard session made him not want to look away immediately, which was new. But knowing he was building muscle, Daron avoided the scale, telling himself it weighed more than fat. So he’d just be setting himself up for disappointment. And he knew he was eating better.

Better, but still a lot. Taylor ate like a bird, and Daron, never one to waste, was happy to finish her meals as well as his own. If it was a particularly light fare, as Taylor often preferred, sometimes Daron found himself waking up hungry in the middle of the night. And the locally made organic ice cream consistently stocked in his freezer HAD to be better than the Snickers and other mass produced snacks he used to have, right? (Better, yes. But not lower calorie.)

He’d barely lasted a week trying to go hungry. Freddie had started whipping candy bars at him the second she heard his stomach rumbling.

“Jesus, Fred, I’m trying to diet,” Daron would groan as he heaved the sweets back in her direction.

“Well going hungry is a bullshit way to do it, Daron. You’re gonna trash your metabolism, for fuck’s sake,” Freddie had retorted, throwing the candy back yet again.

“Are you serious?” Daron had asked, looking from Freddie to Julie and Xander. Freddie rolled her eyes.

“Freddie does have a point,” Julie contributed.

“It’s true. That’s not sustainable,” Xander echoed.

Daron thought about this for half a second before breaking into the candy bar on his lap. Freddie threw her hands up in irritation from the other end of the couch.

“Sometimes I know things!” She said. Daron ignored her as he felt the warmth of the chocolate spread into his empty belly. Since then, he’d listened to his body, and eaten what was available when he was hungry. And, well, maybe sometimes he anticipated when he’d be hungry, and went for good food before the sensation could arrive. Just to be safe.

But as a result, the fit of Daron’s clothing hadn’t changed much. Sometimes he felt like his older garments were getting back to being looser, and felt hopeful, but then he’d wash them and they’d be right back to needing a few tugs to get them closed or otherwise into place. He didn’t have much time to think about it, what with the excitement of Taylor being in his life, but they still made love with the lights off, and typically just with her on top. Sometimes she’d be open to doggy style, but at one point she admitted,

“Daron, I can feel your belly on me when you…you know. I don’t like feeling like a shelf. It’s weird.”

And after that realization, Daron stopped asking.

“Diet’s going fine,” Daron replied to his girlfriend, his careful tone matching hers. Much like in a courtroom setting, he knew better than to elaborate too much. Taylor nodded.

“Great,” she said. “Dinner’s just about ready.”

That night, Daron stuck to his own plate of quinoa and lamb, allowing Taylor’s leftovers to go in the fridge for her lunch the next day. He even resisted until nearly 3AM before he gave in to his hunger pangs and had a serving (or three) of ice cream.
 

loopytheone

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Nice to see Daron is about as good at dieting as I am, hah! I was worried if he was going to lose weight but given the nature of this website, I imagined he would put it all back on if he did. This is super cute though, I like this. =)
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
Also, while reading this yesterday when I got to the part about Darron buying new size 42" waist slacks and 2X tops I was like "waaaait! That doesn't sound right. I'm currently in 2X tops and 44" waist trousers and I never have issues with too tight chairs or not enough room in booths." But then later I remembered that the last time I was actually out at restaurants or whatever I was a size smaller in both, so now I'm curious to see if the world has shrunk on me in the last 17 months .... (but one quick note, generally up to size 42" is available in quite a few stores, without going to a big and tall store. Not that he couldn't get those at a DXL, but he seems more the time to grab them somewhere more general in nature. Now at a 44", the number of stores carrying the size suddenly plunges)
 

loopytheone

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Size in clothes is an interesting thing though. Like, my other half is the same height as you, Tad, and 300 lbs (maybe a little more now, but that's a different topic =p) and he's only a 2XL and 42 waist and they are quite roomy on him. Given how much lighter/smaller you are than him, it's interesting how clothes fit you both. Clothes be crazy.
 

Ghostboo

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Sidenote: I pulled those clothing sizes & experiences from my IRL husband! It surprised me to hear how much men’s sizing can vary like women’s. So while 42” (which is still sometimes too big, still sometimes too small) would likely be available at a lot of stores, if it’s not a place more specifically for, as he says, “the big boys”, it’d take wayyy more time to comb through & find & confirm it actually fits like it’s supposed to. (In my mind, Daron, so many of us, loves efficiency and hates taking time to shop, hence specialty over just Gap.)

Of course, we’re in a pretty rural area, so YMMV! But I promise they’re not just coming out of my butt in reverse #menwritingwomen shenanigans :p
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
Sorry for that post -- I was tired enough not to think twice before hitting save. I didn't mean to pull discussion away from the story.
 

loopytheone

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I am 100% sure that neither of us mind talking about fat guys Tad, so don't worry. =p
 

Tad

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I am 100% sure that neither of us mind talking about fat guys Tad, so don't worry. =p
It just isn't the right place for that discussion. This is for the story, I could have taken my thoughts elsewhere (as well as phrased some stuff better)
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 26

The next morning, a sleep-deprived Daron was the one who nearly made him and Freddie late. One too many presses of the snooze button, and clothing choices that wouldn’t quite cooperate (though luckily Taylor left for work earlier, so no too-tight struggles that she bore witness to) led to him scrambling to get out the door in time. He ended up with his nice grey button-up on, despite having meant to save it for a date with Taylor later that week, since nothing else would quite button properly over his belly clad in a snug black v-neck. With a pair of stretched-out but still fitted jeans, though, it was solidly a casual yet work appropriate look.

Here

Daron texted Freddie before rubbing his large hands over his face and hair to try and wake himself up a little more. Almost too quickly, his coworker hopped in the passenger seat, black pants showing out the bottom of her long grey coat.

“Hey,” she said, lolling her head over to look at him. Daron forced a smile, put his car back into drive, and pointed them towards work. “How ya doin’?”

“I’m…tired,” Daron admitted.

“In a good way, or a bad way?”

“What’s a ‘good way’ to be tired, Fred?”

“Y’know…for a good reason?” Freddie replied hesitantly. Daron glanced over and shrugged.

“Ambivalently, then? Neutrally? Inevitably, as the world turns?”

Freddie laughed appreciatively, and turned to watch the snowy city pass by her window.

“‘Kay, Daron. Fair enough.”

They made it to work just under the wire. Julie and Xander halted whatever conversation they’d been in the middle of as Daron and Freddie entered. The latter waved enthusiastically.

“Road trip time! Hey, Xander, can we get coffee on the way? I didn’t have time to make any at home,” Freddie said innocently.

“Same here,” Daron added in gratefully. Xander, ever the magnanimous boss, smiled.

“Absolutely. But don’t get comfortable, we should head out now so I can get gas too and make it there in time. All right?”

“Yay! Thanks Xander,” Freddie sang, linking her arm through Julie’s, who smiled at her younger coworker. The foursome loaded up into Xander’s truck, and soon, they were on their way.

Feeling a little more like himself with every sip of his americano, Daron heard Freddie humming to herself as she scraped whipped cream out of the top of her iced coffee’s container. It was a different tune than the low country music that came out of Xander’s speakers. Xander and Julie were chatting off and on in the front, not paying attention to the pair in the back.

“You’re in a good mood this week,” Daron said to Freddie. And as the coffee did its job, he started to remember why that might be. “Have you got big birthday plans for this weekend?”

In what would have been imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know her, Freddie stiffened.

“I’m not sure…not really,” she replied, licking her straw then replacing it in her coffee. “Maybe drinks with some friends. Hey, you wouldn’t be free for any Divinity, would you?”

Since starting to date Taylor, Daron’s free time for multiplayer video games had diminished significantly. What was once at least a weekly event had dropped off to…much less than that. Daron couldn’t actually recall the last time they had played.

“Yeah, Thornberry. Absolutely. Whenever you think you’ll be least hungover. I don't want to be carrying you and The Red Prince in the fights."

“Saturday then,” Freddie said, snapping a finger gun in his direction. Daron smirked, then turned to look out the window as they left town. He didn’t bring up her body tensing, because he was pretty sure he knew what the issue was. She was worried he’d ask about the plan for drinks, and end up showing up with Taylor. And honestly, that was a fair concern.

A month or so before, Freddie had invited Daron out with some of her friends to a local nightclub. With the same sort of cadence as a child having been firmly told by their parents to be polite, she had assured Daron that Taylor was welcome too.

Taylor had hemmed and hawed when Daron brought it up to her. “It sounds fun, but how old is she again? 22?”

“Freddie’s 25. Fully developed pre-frontal cortex, promise. And we don’t have to go this weekend, but she IS a good friend of mine. I’d like it if you guys met outside of work at some point.” Daron had never relayed Freddie’s concerns about Taylor to her, obviously, but he’d still found it difficult to get the two together. “It could be fun to do a group thing? If any of your friends want to go too?”

Taylor wrinkled her nose slightly and checked her nail beds, so Daron continued.

“Otherwise I’ll give Freddie a raincheck and we can do dinner next week instead, maybe.”

“I’m not sure we need MORE of our outings to revolve around food,” Taylor had sighed. “Okay, sure, I’m down to go out this weekend.”

Daron had given Freddie the affirmation, and they’d all ended up at The Whale’s Tail. A midway point between bar and nightclub, The Whale’s Tail had comfy booths for sitting as well as an impressive dance floor. So there was something for everyone, and Daron appreciated the thought outside of the usual “dark and too loud”. Upon arrival, there were re-introductions and expressions of pleasure that everyone could make it before Freddie skipped out onto the dance floor, led away by a thumping bass beat.

Daron and Taylor had posted up at a high-top table, as the booths looked a little cramped for his liking. Taylor got through a drink and a half before Freddie re-joined them, slightly breathless and red-faced from a long bout on the dance floor.

“Are you friends coming?” Freddie had asked Taylor.

“No, they couldn’t make it,” Taylor replied. It was the first Daron had heard this, although he wasn’t surprised. That always seemed to be the case, and he’d learned not to push it.

“None of them?” Freddie said curiously. Daron turned, just a little, and caught his coworker’s eye. Freddie looked away, but caught his please drop it meaning clearly. She’d not pressed the issue when Daron had admitted he hadn’t met any of Taylor’s friends to her at work, but obviously, she hadn’t forgotten about it.

“Apparently,” Taylor said sweetly, stirring her drink with her straw and taking a long sip. “Are yours missing you?” She gestured over to the dance floor.

“Oh, no,” Freddie replied. “I’m insufferable for long stretches of time. Gotta give everyone a break, just to be fair.” Daron laughed.

“Mmm,” Taylor said. “I need another drink.” She had finished her second since Freddie arrived at the table.

“What would you like?” Daron asked.

“Another hurricane, and a separate kamikaze shot, please,” Taylor said.

“Fred?”

“Uh...nah, just gonna refill my water.”

It wasn’t long before Daron realized with a start that his girlfriend was thoroughly drunk, while Freddie, who he’d always thought of as an avid partier, was somewhere solidly between completely sober and barely tipsy.

“I’ve had plenty, I swear,” Freddie told Daron when he asked if she was sure that she didn’t want another drink. “I just get into Party Mom mode really easily.”

“Fair enough. Speaking of, I’m gonna run to the bathroom,” Daron said, catching Freddie’s eye and then nodding over at Taylor. Freddie understood his meaning, and moved closer to his girlfriend in case Taylor stumbled or otherwise needed looking after while Daron was gone. “Be right back, gorgeous,” he told Taylor, kissing her temple before moving to the back of the club.

After waiting in a decent line, as expected in a bar nearing midnight on a weekend, Daron made his way back to their table a little over ten minutes later. Freddie stood as soon as he approached, not meeting his eye.

“Hey, I gotta go,” she said, her heels tapping nervously on the sticky floor.

“Yeah? Did your friends head out?” Daron asked, before turning his head and seeing the usual small group of 20-somethings in a circle on the dance floor.

“No. I just, I don’t feel good. Ah. Sorry to run out,” Freddie replied. Taylor leaned into Daron and uttered what could’ve been a hiccup, or a giggle, or a grunt, or all three. With her heels she was almost as tall as him, and she leaned her head sleepily into the crook of his neck.

“OK.” Daron’s instincts told him not to press the issue. “Text me when you get home safe, Freddie. I’ll see you Monday.”

The rest of the night was fairly awkward, between juggling a very drunk Taylor and Freddie’s friends who hadn’t heard when she left. They still stopped by the table to refuel and drink water, but conversation was stilted, and it wasn’t long before Daron closed out and got his girlfriend home.

The next day, Taylor was worn out, but not in too much pain. If nothing else, she was exceptional at remembering to drink a large glass of water with two Advil right before bed after a night of drinking. Deciding that if he couldn’t talk to his girlfriend about it, he had no business calling her that, Daron tested the waters.

“So Freddie left pretty quick last night,” he said casually as he cooked up some bacon and eggs on the stove. “What’d you guys talk about when I was in the bathroom? Did she seem okay?”

“Hmm?” Taylor asked, lifting her head from the couch just a fraction of an inch. “I dunno. When was that?”

“Right before she left. Maybe 11:45. Remember?”

“I don’t, honestly, no. Sorry. Eggs almost done?”

That was all he’d gotten about it. Freddie had never brought it up, but she’d also never again extended another invitation to Daron (and, by virtue of them dating, Taylor) for one of her weekends out. Daron suspected that she’d tell him what had happened if he asked, but the fact that she didn’t volunteer the information made him hesitant to press for it. At the end of the day, he wasn’t sure he actually wanted to know.
 

Ghostboo

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A few half-hearted (except for Freddie) rounds of 20 Questions later, the team pulled up to a large grey-blue home. It was a little ways out of the small town they’d passed through on the way, and there were no neighbors immediately obvious, just an expansive front yard wrapping around the two story house.

“Oh, good,” Freddie said. “It’s only exactly like the house from the first Conjuring.” That was a tiny bit of a stretch, but Daron chuckled anyway.

Each holding a bag of a general catch-all of gear, Daron and Freddie followed Xander and Julie up to the front door. A somewhat worn, but still cheerful, wreath was hung in the center. Xander rang the bell then knocked lightly before taking a step back.

A couple around Daron’s age opened the door, displaying a similar wear to their wreath, but still attractive. The husband was tall and dark, solidly built in the way Daron wished he could lay claim to, with a square jaw and salt-and-pepper hair. His wife was long and lean in build and face, with highlights in her mid-length dishwater blonde hair. They were both in casual, but nice, jeans and zip-up hoodies.

“Hi, everyone. Welcome,” said the man. “I’m Frederick. You can call me Fred if you like. And my wife, Angela.” Angela smiled.

“Sorry, but you’ve gotta be Frederick,” Freddie piped up. “I’m already Fred. And Freddie.”

Xander turned and gave her a raised eyebrow.

“It’s true, I heard her dibs it,” Daron chimed in with a regretful shrug. Luckily, Frederick and Angela chuckled.

“No problem, Freddie. Good to meet you. And…?”

“Daron.”

“I’m Julie, hello.”

“I’m Xander, we spoke on the phone?”

“Right! Thank you all so much for coming,” Frederick said, standing aside to let them into the narrow foyer. Angela clapped her hands lightly together twice, smiling tightly as she moved deeper into the house. “Come meet Jeremy.”

The eight-year-old was waiting for them in the kitchen as the group squeezed down the foyer one by one. Feeling a little claustrophobic, Daron took a deep breath as they entered the more open room, settling in a corner opposite the wide windows. On a stool at the kitchen island was Jeremy, watching them enter with wide light eyes that matched his mother’s. Otherwise, most of his features mirrored his father’s.

“Jeremy, this is Xander, Julie, Freddie, and Daron,” Angela said to her son, who waved at them.

“Hi,” he said. Freddie waved back.

“Hello Jeremy,” Xander spoke in his low, comforting voice. “We’re here to talk to you and your parents, get to know you guys, and take a look around your house. Is that okay?”

Jeremy nodded, his legs swinging lightly on the stool.

“I was hoping to get a few clarifications on the file we read over yesterday,” Xander continued. “Perhaps Jeremy could give Freddie and Daron a tour while we speak to Frederick and Angela?” He made eye contact with each of the people he mentioned, briefly. As soon as his eyes met Angela’s, she nodded.

“Will you show them around, Jer?” Angela asked, and Jeremy nodded again, hopping off his stool. Freddie unbuttoned her coat, wrapping it around her arm as she smiled at him.

“Can you show us your favorite spots?”

And Jeremy nodded as he led the way out of the room, followed by Freddie and then Daron. The door to the kitchen closed softly behind them.

Across the hall was a large living area, with an enormous but old style of TV and two couches, a two-person and a three-person, each a deep burgundy.

“Wow,” Freddie said. “This is your living room?”

“Yes,” Jeremy replied, nudging at the hardwood floor with his socked foot. “We watch movies in here and…and stuff.”

“What stuff? Do you have any games?” Freddie asked, and at this, Jeremy brightened. He hesitated only briefly before opening a cabinet next to the TV and standing aside to show Freddie and Daron a Nintendo 64, a GameCube, and a Wii.

“Dang, you’ve got all the classics!” Freddie cheered.

“Very nice,” Daron chimed in.

“Which one is your favorite?”

“I like racing,” Jeremy replied, smiling a little more than he had before. “On this one.” He tapped the N64.

“Oh my God, me too! I used to only play as Daisy. If anyone else picked Daisy, I wouldn’t race,” Freddie confided. Jeremy giggled, and Daron hid his grin by looking down.

“I like to play as Toad, most of the time,” Jeremy said. Then he and Freddie both glanced back at Daron.

“Bowser,” Daron said, then added: “obviously.”

“Well I still won’t play as a blonde, so I guess I can’t judge you for being too on the nose,” Freddie teased. Daron rolled his eyes and sat back on the first couch behind him, the three-seater. Doing his best to stifle his “oof”, he interlaced his fingers and placed them on top of his belly, watching Freddie crouch by the cabinet with Jeremy.

“I like your hair,” Jeremy said. Freddie tugged at a pink handful and grinned.

“Thanks! I change it all the time. Last week it was blue.”

“What kinda blue?”

“Mmm…” Freddie glanced around the room, then pointed at a painting of deep cerulean flowers. “Like that? But I decided I wanted something more cheerful for mid-winter. It’s nice that our boss lets me do it.”

“Do you guys meet lots of kids like me?” Jeremy asked, looking from Freddie to Daron. He chewed his lip.

“Um…not really,” Freddie said, also looking back at Daron briefly.

“But almost all our cases are different,” Daron offered. “And that doesn’t mean it’s bad. We don’t work with a lot of kids, but we work with all kinds of people.” He tip-toed around the issue, not certain how much Frederick and Angela had told Jeremy.

“Oh,” Jeremy said. His brow furrowed, and Freddie quickly took up the mantle of chatting more about Nintendo. Jeremy joined in cheerfully, and Daron added his takes when the pair looked at him. Mostly, though, his exhaustion settled in to his bones and caused him to space out. He knew they should probably be getting a move on through the house, but wasn’t up for pushing it.

At some point, Freddie was laughing at something Jeremy had said. The boy grinned at her before it faded, and he cocked his head into space. The gesture was so abrupt that Daron was brought back to reality, and he tuned in. After tapping Freddie lightly on the shoulder, Jeremy leaned in and whispered in her ear. Freddie’s smile faded rapidly as he spoke.

“Who told you that?” She asked, turning and looking at Jeremy. Daron sat up, unlacing his fingers. Jeremy looked immediately regretful.

“They did,” he said. “The voices. They told me to say it. I’m sorry, I did think it was mean but…”

“The voices?” Daron spoke up. Jeremy looked near tears.

“Sometimes it’s the right thing and sometimes it’s the wrong thing but I don’t know until I say it! I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, I’m not mad,” Freddie said, still looking shell-shocked. She wouldn’t meet Daron’s eye. Moments later, they heard a door open from the kitchen, and then footsteps.

“All right?” Xander said as he stepped into the living room.

“Oh my gosh, yes,” Freddie said, though her voice had a stumble in it that wasn’t there before. “We had a great time talking Nintendo in here.”

“Fun!” Julie said, leading Angela and Frederick into the room. “Well, we’re ready to ask Jeremy a few questions…if you’re up for that, Jeremy…then you two can finish the house check?”

The three that had started in the room nodded nearly in unison.

“Thanks for hanging out, my dude,” Freddie said to Jeremy as she rose. “Can I get a high five?” Jeremy indulged her, and Freddie smiled, skillfully hiding the concern behind it. Daron shoved off the back of the couch up to a standing position, teetering with his low center of gravity only a couple times. “Don’t worry,” Freddie added, low enough so that only Jeremy (and probably incidentally, Daron) could hear.

As they checked for the usual environmental suspects, Daron kept a close eye on Freddie.

“What was that?” He asked. Freddie just shook her head.

“He couldn’t know that,” she said.

“What?”

“What he said. He had no way of knowing. Fuck. I just need to think.”

And Daron didn’t press it as they moved through the house with their gear. Nothing stood out as unusual, but they would run their scrapings to the lab tomorrow and know more.

“Good luck Toad,” Freddie told Jeremy with a grin as the crew prepared to leave a little over an hour later.

“Thanks…Daisy,” Jeremy said. Daron snagged his own high five before the group headed back to the car. The team agreement was to keep discussion to the office, so during the ride home, Freddie stared intently out the window. Not demanding to play a game or get control of the aux cord, just watching the landscape go by. Daron scrolled Reddit on his phone, trying to ignore the anxious pit in his stomach.
 

Ghostboo

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By the time they got back to the office space, Daron had stumbled upon no less than the 6 minimum references to how disgusting and unattractive fat people are on the site, and was in an even worse mood. Without Freddie’s chatter to distract him, he’d gone down the rabbit hole, and found himself feeling especially tense as he clambered out of the truck.

“Well, this is quite the case,” Xander affirmed as they headed inside for the last hour or so of the day. After they had hung up their coats, Julie began to rundown what they had learned from their interviews with the family. It was just slightly more specifics on what they had seen in the files, nothing revolutionary.

“I think it could be a case of early onset schizophrenia, or another mental illness combined with acting out for attention. But that doesn’t explain why it got by so many other psychologists,” Julie said. “It’s unclear at this stage. What about you two? Anything stand out?”

“Well, nothing environmental,” Daron replied.

“That’s because it’s not environmental. Or psychological,” Freddie spoke up, shaking her head. “It’s something else. He knows things.”

The three other coworkers stared at Freddie in astonishment. Freddie would toe the line sometimes, but she had never asserted anything definitely had a cause beyond explanation in the natural world. Daron felt the knot in his stomach twist.

“What do you mean, ‘knows things’?” Xander asked carefully

“I don’t know, Xander, like it said in the file. He said something to me he had no way of knowing.”

“You mean like Erika did?” Daron couldn’t keep the skepticism out of his voice.

“No. I don’t mean things he could…like…figure out by observing us closely. I mean, someone or something had to tell him.”

“Come on, Fred,” Daron replied in exasperation. “That’s not possible.” Meanwhile, Julie asked,

“What did he say…?”

Freddie’s mouth opened and closed a couple times silently as she looked around the room at the faces staring at her. Xander’s open curiosity, Julie’s concern, and Daron’s irritation. Finally, she threw her hands up in a show of surrender and turned to Daron.

“Did Taylor ever tell you what she said to me that night at Whale’s Tail?”

Out of the millions of things that could’ve come out of Freddie’s mouth, that was the absolute last one Daron expected. His brain pulled up a fully blank sheet in response.

“What?”

“That night we all went out. And I left early, right after you got back from leaving us alone. And you probably guessed it wasn’t because of whatever bullshit I made up, because you’re not an idiot. Did Taylor tell you what she said?”

“…No. She says she doesn’t remember.”

“I’m not even a little surprised by that,” Freddie replied after a sharp laugh. After this, she looked from Daron’s pale face to Xander and Julie. “Well, Jeremy knew word for word what she said to me when no one else was in earshot. So if you don’t know, Daron, how’d he find out? And even if your girlfriend managed to piece it together in the cold light of day, do…you think she called our 8-year-old client? To scare us? Does that seem more feasible?”

Daron just stared.

“That is…a lot,” Julie said.

“I didn’t get the impression of possession while we spoke to Jeremy,” Xander mused, half to himself. “I wonder what it could be?”

“A toxin in the living room able to affect everyone in it?” Daron offered, feeling like he was getting his footing. “I was pretty out of it in there. Could’ve been that.”

“Oh, Christ, Daron, I didn’t imagine it,” Freddie groaned. “I was sober that night, and sober in that house today. I know what she said.”

“Freddie, calm down please,” Julie said quietly, taking a step towards the younger girl. Coming from anyone else, Freddie likely would have exploded, but with a shaky breath she listened to Julie.

“I’m sorry,” Freddie said, catching all her coworker’s eyes. “I just don’t like thinking about it.”

“Can you tell us…?”

“I’d really rather not. But please trust me.”

“Daron,” Xander spoke up. “Would you like for one of us to interview Taylor? See if she recalls the exchange and if she told anyone else about it? Just to wrap up that potential loose end.”

“No, no,” Daron said. “I’ll handle it.”

“Are you sure? You’re very close to the situation,” Xander asked gently. The unspoken part of the sentence - will you even know if she’s lying? - hung in the air.

“Yes,” Daron said firmly. He didn’t see what he didn’t want to see, but he could handle this. Plus, he wasn’t exactly eager for whatever words Freddie was playing close to the chest to get out and be heard by more coworkers. The room fell silent. Freddie’s eyes stayed trained on the floor.

“Well...we’re close enough to 5 o’clock, and we’ll have a long day tomorrow. Let’s go get some rest and recoup then,” Xander said. Julie nodded in agreement, but turned to speak to Xander in a tone low enough that it didn’t reach Freddie or Daron. Meanwhile, Freddie was up like a shot, and putting on her coat before Daron could even get off the couch.

“Freddie, wait,” he said as he got to his feet. Her green eyes met his dark ones, and she hesitated in her frantic buttoning. Nodding quietly, she kept a hand on the door until Daron had his own jacket on, then she opened it and stepped out into the snow. “Can I give you a ride home?” Daron asked once they were outside.

“No, thanks,” Freddie said. “I’m gonna meet some people, I think. Take my mind off things.”

“Okay,” Daron said. After a moment’s hesitation, he brought up what they both undoubtedly knew was next: “What’d he say to you, Freddie?”

Freddie promptly buried her face into her hands with a soft groan. “Daron…there is no way I don’t end up the bad guy here.”

“Fred, come on. After all that? I can’t be left in the dark. It’s not fair.”

This appeared to strike a chord, and Freddie looked up back into Daron’s face. She seemed to be searching for something before finally answering.

“Talk to Taylor tonight. Sleep on it. If you still want to know tomorrow, I’ll tell you.”
 
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Clandy Caine

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I like how unpredictable this story is. The plot has taken a lot of really unexpected twists and turns and kept me guessing throughout. Can’t wait for the next part!
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 27

Once at home, Daron stripped out of his work clothes and into a pair of fitted (but soft) sweatpants and a sweater. He ordered two pizzas to be delivered in the next hour, then sat on his couch with some Assassin’s Creed on his PS4 to unwind and wait for Taylor. Within the next half hour, he heard a brisk knock and then the opening of his front door.

“Hi honey,” Taylor said as she entered the living room. “How was work?”

“Hey, gorgeous. It was long,” he answered honestly.

“Aww. As rough as you thought it would be?”

“Just about, yeah. How about you?”

“Work was fine! I’m getting hungry though. I was thinking I’d make us a salad? We could add some root veggies to it, since it’s winter and all,” Taylor said.

“I ordered pizza already so we didn’t have to cook tonight. Should be here soon.”

Pizza? Oh, Daron…”

“Taylor. I need to talk to you.”

His tone actually got his girlfriend’s attention, and she stopped her disappointed head shake to look at him with concerned curiosity.

“What is it?”

“It’s about the night we went out to The Whale’s Tail. I know I already asked you once, but I need to know if you remember anything about what happened when I was in the bathroom. When you were alone with Freddie.”

Taylor crossed her arms defensively in front of her chest. “Why, what’d she say?”

“Nothing,” Daron said. “But apparently someone else did at work today. We just...need to know if you told anyone else.”

Taylor let out a scoffing laugh, and Daron began to worry he wasn’t handling this in the best way.

“Told anyone else what? I told you, Daron, I don’t remember. One, it was forever ago, and two, I was drunk. Who’s even ‘we’?”

“Just the four of us at work,” Daron said, sitting up a little straighter. He debated standing, but decided against it, keeping his core tight as he folded his hands in his lap and kept his eyes on his girlfriend. “Taylor...please. You don’t remember anything at all about what you guys talked about? I promise I won’t be upset, but even the tiniest thing could help.”

Taylor sighed loudly. “God, I should never have even gone that night. That girl has such an agenda.”

Daron felt the deep bone-weariness settle into him, but also a flash of irritation. “So is that a no?”

“No, Daron, I don’t remember what we talked about while you were in the bathroom, and I don’t get why it matters. I sort of remember a weight being lifted off me when she did leave and we could party on our own, so whatever it was, must’ve been worth it.”

Daron took in his girlfriend’s glare and aggressive stance, wondering exactly how he got here, and what possible response he could give, when he was saved by the bell. As the doorbell chimed around them, followed by hearty knocks, Taylor uttered another sigh before dropping her arms. Daron stood carefully, and went past to answer the door and pay for their pizzas. A thin-crust veggie lovers for Taylor, and a Hawaiian for him. (He hoped it appeared to be lighter fare than the meat lovers he would have preferred.)

They ate in relative silence before moving to the couch for a movie. The Whale’s Tail didn’t come up again, and before long, Taylor was snuggling her feet into Daron’s lap like nothing was wrong. Daron did his job and rubbed them, doing his best to focus on the flick in front of them, but falling short. He was still hungry after three pieces, but didn’t dare get another slice until after Taylor was asleep, which would cut into his own (very necessary) rest. It was around 2AM, after hours of staring at the ceiling, that Daron finished off the rest of his pie before falling into an uneasy sleep.

At work the next day, the team first gathered in the office to touch base.

“Taylor doesn’t remember anything,” Daron told the team, keeping his voice neutral. “Some feelings from the night, but no specifics from a conversation with Freddie.” He didn’t miss the way Freddie’s eyes rolled up towards the ceiling, but she kept quiet.

“Okay,” Xander said after a pause. “Good to know.” He and Julie exchanged a look, and Daron had to fight back the urge to demand to know what it was about. “Keep in touch today, but unless we find something monumental, we probably won’t meet back up. Once you’re done with the labs, you’re done for the day.” The group nodded, and went their separate ways.

Daron dropped Freddie off at one lab with some of the scrapings, and he went to another. Their interactions during the brief car rides were strangely formal, and Daron tried not to let his nerves get the best of him as he worked.

As suspected, no one found anything that required immediate debriefing. There were still some lab results Daron and Freddie were waiting on, but otherwise, it all looked normal. Apparently the same could be said for Xander and Julie’s end of the business, so they stuck to their previous agreement to meet up again the next day.

“Want to grab a drink?” Daron asked Freddie after collecting her from the first lab, and she nodded. Alibi Room was getting uncomfortably close to transforming into their nightclub state, so after only a brief hesitation, Daron took them back to Sisemite. Freddie didn’t seem to react as they pulled into the parking lot, her eyes diligently fixed out the window.

Inside, the pair grabbed a two-person table near the back corner. It was starting to fill up with the after-work happy hour crowd, but they still got helped by a server almost immediately. To Daron’s surprise, Freddie ordered a whiskey on the rocks along with her standard cheese fries order. Thinking about the meager fare he’d have to look forward to at home, Daron chimed in with his own food order of hot wings and a flatbread pizza, but echoed Freddie’s drink order.

“Okay, Fred, I slept on it,” Daron said as they got their whiskeys. He held his in both hands, while Freddie swirled hers, allowing the ice to clink against the edges of the glass and each other. “You can tell me now.” She sighed.

“Daron, you never asked me what happened that night for a reason. I thought it might’ve been because Taylor had already spilled. But if not…” Freddie trailed off. Daron felt heat rising in his cheeks.

“I know. But I don’t like feeling left out of my own life, Freddie. Please.” He caught Freddie’s eye, and she nodded, taking an impressive sip of her whiskey.

“Okay. You left to go to the bathroom, and eventually I asked how things were going with you two. To fill the silence. Um...she leaned in, just like Jeremy did, and goes: ‘he’s sooo nice, but still sooo big. I’m thinking about getting a lock for his fridge. Anything to get him to eat less.’” Freddie spoke flatly, but with elongation and emphasis on the words where she’d heard it before. She clacked her nails against her whiskey glass, keeping her eyes trained on it, as Daron’s blush deepened. “I think she was trying to...to bond with me over it? Or joke around? I don’t know. She was definitely really, really drunk. I told her that that...sucked to say. Or something. Honestly, I kind of rage blacked out. She just laughed in response. Then you came back, and I left, because I knew I wouldn’t calm down to be able to hang.”

At this, she lifted her serious gaze to Daron’s dark eyes. “I didn’t bring it up again because I had barely come to terms with the two of y’all dating in the first place, much less if you continued to after hearing that. I couldn’t see any way I’d tell you and not be the same bad guy warning you away in the beginning, and I didn’t want to damage our friendship further.”

“Nah, I get it, Fred,” Daron said, on autopilot, feeling a little lightheaded. He took a drink of whiskey, eliciting the flavor to ground him.

“I slept on it too,” Freddie continued. “And I do know it’s your life. So whatever you choose, I’m here for you. I…” she paused, looking back down at her drink. “I hated hearing you being...talked about like that. But maybe I just don’t know her and her...humor.”

“Yeah,” Daron said. At that moment, the wings and cheese fries arrived at the table. The pair stared at them like they were aliens. “I figured it was something like that. I mean, she definitely isn’t happy about all this.” He gave a somewhat severe, if localized, shake on the right side of his gut. “But I knew that going in.”

“Yeah,” Freddie echoed, excavating a french fry from the cheese pile and biting it thoughtfully. “But how do you feel about it?”

“What?”

“‘All that’,” Freddie said, offering a half smile as she gestured to where Daron had jiggled his side.

“I don’t know,” Daron replied honestly, taking a hot wing from the plate. “I prefer being in shape, I guess. I’ve been lifting a lot and enjoy that.” Freddie, to his surprise, blushed again at this and looked down at her whiskey glass before swirling it a few more times nervously. “...what? Fred?”

“Oh. Yeah. I’d, uh, noticed,” she said, not meeting his eye. Still, he tilted his head until he was in her line of vision and raised an eyebrow. With the frustrated air of someone being forced into submission, Freddie huffed, “Dammit, Daron, you look great, you’ve clearly been working hard, but I don’t believe in criticizing or complimenting on anything that can’t be changed in the next 7 minutes! Leave me alone!”

Daron burst out laughing.

“Shit, Thornberry, thanks…? And hey, there’s been some progress on that front since The Whale’s Tail, so maybe Taylor agrees.” It was Freddie’s turn to raise her eyebrows at this, and Daron shrugged and had to silently admit it was a bit of a stretch, especially considering Taylor’s reaction to his ordering pizzas even yesterday. They chewed for a few moments, then Daron continued, more seriously: “thanks for telling me, Fred. I know that shit’s not easy.”

Freddie shook her head, dipping two fries in the hot sauce gathering under the wings on Darron’s plate. Taking another wing himself, Daron considered the reason for this conversation in the first place.

“I wonder how Jeremy knew.”

“I have no idea,” Freddie said. “But he even...I don’t know, he sounded like her. It was fucking terrifying.”

The pair were sobered by this, and took more time to eat and drink until Daron’s personal pizza showed up. He allowed Freddie a bite, despite mocking her for her assertion that flatbread pizza might be her favorite kind of pizza.

“That’s frankly unamerican,” he insisted.

“Unlike your conformist attitude,” she retorted. “I’m sorry, I thought Benjamin Franklin said I could like any kind of pizza I want in the land of the free.”

“Oh yeah,” Daron laughed. “I’m pretty sure he did. Good point.”

They got another drink after finishing up their food, and Freddie even ordered a couple desserts to share. The rest of the evening they spent unwinding, avoiding the topics of Jeremy and Taylor. By the time Daron got home, it was several hours into darkness, and he told Taylor he wouldn’t be able to have her over. Using only the tiny white lie that he was going to still be working late into the night.

He wasn’t even angry with Taylor. Just disappointed all around. With her, yeah, but also with himself for not successfully losing any more weight since then and burying his head in the sand over it. With the fact that Freddie hadn’t felt like she could tell him. He’d made his choice regarding Taylor, though, and he didn’t see this as a reason to change course. Despite the fact that, if pressed, he’d have to admit it did hurt.

The next couple days at work, it was hard not to feel back at square one. Nobody had new info to report, and the discussions got frustratingly circular before everyone would break apart to research. Despite their overall bonding evening at Sisemite, Freddie and Daron still squabbled a few times over their theories.

“It’s not supernatural, Freddie,” Daron would remind her.

“Well Daron, it’s either that or your girlfriend is lying to your face, so…?”

“Freddie! Can you come help me with this?” Xander or Julie would swoop in and claim one of the pair to cool them down. It was looking bafflingly hopeless, until the rest of the lab results were returned near close of business on Friday.

“Wait, what?” Daron said, squinting at the paper. “Fred, can you make heads or tails of this?”

Freddie, who’d been reading over his shoulder, snatched the paper to study it more closely.

“Huh…” she said.

“What’d you get?” Xander asked, he and Julie watching the pair curiously from the head of the room.

“They found…something,” Freddie said, tilting the paper to one side and then the other. “In the scraping from Jeremy’s room.” Daron nodded, then looked up at his boss.

“We just don’t know what.”
 
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Tad

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I keep forgetting to 'like' chapters because I'm so busy jumping to the next chapter, eager to know what is next!
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 28

That next week, two things happened. One was Jeremy, Frederick, and Angela left on a referral for Jeremy to get checked out by a physician in another town half a day’s journey away. Frederick spoke to Xander and left permission for a more thorough search of the house while they were gone, to try and narrow down the source of the anomaly in the labs. The other thing was Taylor, in a move perhaps coincidentally preceded by Daron pulling back from her a little, invited him to her sorority’s alumni party on that weekend. It would be the first time he’d meet most of her friends.

“Can you two handle it?” Xander had asked Freddie and Daron as they rounded up all the equipment they could think of for another venture out to their client’s home. “There are a few loose ends Julie and I could tie up here. I’ll reimburse you for gas, of course, Daron.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Daron replied.

“You got it, boss,” Freddie added cheerfully, stuffing an EVP reader into a rucksack.

By midweek, they had double and triple checked enough to make the second trek out to the family’s homestead. Daron arrived to work on Wednesday in a previously roomy grey cable knit sweater over a tight white undershirt and slightly snug dark wash jeans.

“You can have the aux cable on the way there,” Daron said as he and Freddie loaded his car with the equipment. “But no ska.”

“Is it exhausting to go through life hating joy so much, or…?” Freddie asked as she shut the back right car door.

“Nah, my spite uplifts me.”

“That’s the spirit.”

After they picked up coffee for the ride, Freddie hummed along to The Space Between as she sipped her cold brew.

“Really?”

“What, Daron? I read that Dave Matthews Band fans are some of the happiest in the world. I’m trying to help.”

Daron just shook his head with a half-smile as he drank his black coffee.

A couple hours and easy listening playlists later, Daron and Freddie arrived. The day was overcast, and the more confined appearance of the sky caused the house to loom larger than Daron remembered. The blue-grey paint of the exterior leaned heavily towards the latter color in the dim light.

The brief reverie was broken by Freddie slurping through the straw at the bottom of her empty coffee cup. Daron started, and caught Freddie’s sheepish smile.

“Sorry.”

Once their packs were unloaded into the house, the pair began in the living room.

“Hey Daron, can you take a picture of me? For the ‘gram?”

Freddie struck a pose with her hip out as she put on a large pair of headphones. The girl had unpacked the EVP reader, a mechanism designed to pick up “supernatural” voices. It came with a hand-held box to record, a fuzzy yet understated boom mic, and headphones to listen to what was going into the box from the environment around them. In her black knee-length dress and hot pink hair, Freddie looked like the perfect addition to any piece of ghost hunting popular culture.

“Not now that I know what it’s for,” Daron retorted, making moves like he was about to leave the room.

“No! No, please,” Freddie laughed, chasing after him. “A selfie won’t capture the whole ensemble. Pleeeease!”

“God, you are…” Daron took the phone Freddie was pleadingly proffering to him.

“Your favorite coworker?”

“Completely insufferable.”

After Freddie was satisfied, Daron collected the tools for more intricate sample-taking, and the pair got started. They hadn’t received anomalous results from the other rooms, but still took the opportunity to comb through the rest of the house more thoroughly, without interruption. They worked efficiently, but with Freddie still leaning into her ghost hunting for fun. She’d solemnly wave the boom mic into each corner before giggling and following Daron to the next room.

“Hold on a sec,” Freddie spoke as they headed up the stairs. Daron turned around to see her holding up one finger to him, with another finger against the right side of the headphones, frowning. Raising his eyebrows, Daron watched as Freddie blinked, then gave a tiny shake of her head. “Okay, sorry. Let’s go.”

Cocking his head to the side just briefly, Daron turned back around and continued up the stairs. At the top was a landing that had four doors leading off it. Two smaller rooms on the right, a spare bedroom closest to the stairs and then Jeremy’s room, while on the left was a bathroom followed by the master bedroom.

“I think we got the bathroom pretty good,” murmured Daron as he peered inside. After confirming to himself they had covered almost every potential environmental factor last time, he turned and walked into the spare room across the hall. The teal walls matched the teal accents in the bathroom, and the full sized bed took up most of the room. The crisp white bedding was reminiscent of a hotel to Daron. He looked around, sighing, wondering what else they could investigate in such a sterile room. He glanced behind him and saw that he was alone in the room.

“Fred?” He asked, sticking his head back out the door. Freddie was standing at the top of the stairs, her frown having deepened as she moved the boom mic slowly. “Whatcha doin’?”

“…listen to this,” Freddie said slowly, removing the headphones. She handed them to Daron, who put them on skeptically. At first, all he heard was the soft buzzing of electronic white noise. But as Freddie leaned her arm holding the boom mic slowly past him, he heard another tone. It almost sounded like a snake, a soft hiss in his ears beneath the background hum. But the further Freddie moved, the more the noise seemed to separate out. Almost like there were words.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know. But it gets stronger up here,” Freddie said, bringing the boom mic back towards her. As it approached the stairs, the hiss softened even further before nearly vanishing. If he hadn’t known what to listen for, he wouldn’t have been able to tell it was there.

“That’s fucking weird,” Daron said, taking the headphones off and offering them back to Freddie. “Interference, maybe? I think we got all we can in these rooms, want to go for ground zero?” He gestured at Jeremy’s bedroom.

“Yeah, but we don’t know what’s in there,” Freddie said, reaching into her purse. She pulled out two surgical masks and handed one out to Daron. “So safety first. I’ve got gloves too, in case we need them.”

“Okay,” Daron said, after only a brief hesitation. The concern on Freddie’s face was real, and he didn’t feel like getting into a fight over her abundance of caution. He took the mask and hung it from his wrist by the straps before gently pushing open Jeremy’s door.

Freddie followed, but hesitated in the doorway. She leaned the mic first into the room towards Daron, then out and towards the master across the hall.

“It’s coming from in here,” she said as she walked slowly into Jeremy’s room.

“You sure?”

“Come listen,” Freddie said, not taking the headphones off, but tilting one so it opened towards him. Leaning in until at first all he heard was Freddie’s shaky breath, Daron felt the soft ring of the headphone against his ear, and he listened. Now, with the boom mic in Jeremy’s room, the paced hissing had caught up to the white noise ambiance in volume. It was much louder, verging on the word he refused to allow himself to think

whispering it’s whispering

and Daron leaned away.

“Shit,” was all he could think to say.

“Yeah,” Freddie said, slowly re-tilting the headphones. Rather than replacing it on her ear, she left it just behind.

“The original scrapings were from the window,” Daron said, recalling how they had gathered the material from between the frame and the screen. “So if we can check the rest…” in front of the window was a desk with some books. Daron lifted each one slowly, noting there was nothing underneath. He then pulled the desk out from the wall and peered behind it. It was dirty, but not any more so than other family households in their dark corners. Gathering some of the dust into a test tube, Daron squatted down, cringing at the way his knees cracked.

“Daron,” Freddie said, and the urgency in her voice made him stand up faster than he normally would have. Turning, he saw her in the doorway to Jeremy’s narrow walk-in closet. Deeper than it was long, there was only room for one person at a time. “It’s in here.”

“What is?” Daron said, stepping next to her.

“I don’t know, but fuck, it’s loud.”

Walking another couple steps into the closet, Freddie pulled the headphones down to rest them on her shoulders. Daron could hear, even from behind her, the rapid spitting hissing from the EVP reader. There wasn’t a separate light for the interior of the closet, so the mini-hallway setup seemed dark and cramped as Daron joined behind Freddie. Clothes brushed on his back and the front of his round belly as he turned to the side and tried to shrink down.

“What the fuck…?” Freddie whispered, and then the headphones erupted in what sounded like a scream - but, of course, Daron knew it had to’ve just been an electronic malfunction - and then fell silent. Ripping them off her shoulders, Freddie let the headphones clatter to the floor of Jeremy’s closet. She lifted and tilted the EVP reader and they both managed to make out, despite the gloom, that it had gone dead. After a moment, Freddie set it down next to the headphones and turned her attention back towards what she had seen on the back wall.

A low white shelf set against the back held several pairs of shoes, and on the top were a couple fabric bins. Moving them to the side, Daron saw now what Freddie had: a small square door, a little larger than the bins, blending into the white of the wall.

“Ohh, what the fuck,” Daron echoed. Freddie turned back to him soberly.

“Mask on,” she said, putting hers over her nose and mouth. Daron pulled his off his wrist and followed suit. Pulling out her phone, Freddie turned on her flashlight and pointed it at the door, illuminating a small but elongated handle. She reached out, then paused.

“I can get it, Fred,” Daron spoke up. They both looked at the door, then at each other.

“No, it’s cool,” Freddie said, offering him a smile. “Let’s just put these on.” With that, she handed him a pair of blue latex gloves.

“Two by two.”

“Hands of bluuue,” Freddie sing-songed back as they each pulled on their gloves. With a deep breath, she nodded at Daron, then turned back. “Here we go.”

Feeling himself tense in preparation, Daron watched Freddie open the small door and shine the light inside. At first, it appeared to be an ordinary empty storage area, the same white as the closet. But as Freddie swept her phone’s light through the space, it landed on a small sack of burlap, a little smaller than a tennis ball, tied shut with a string at the top.

“What is that?” Daron asked, less because he expected Freddie to know, and more because he felt like he needed to put it out there that nothing was making sense to him right now.

“I don’t know,” Freddie said. She didn’t move. Shuffling carefully closer, and retreating further back into the clothes so that too much of his belly didn’t press into his coworker, Daron leaned slowly in to grasp the bag with a blue-covered hand.

“Daron!”

“What?”

“Just…careful.”

Moving the bag closer to the opening, Daron carefully undid the tie on the string. He had to use his other hand to help, and he sucked it in fervently while he did. He could still feel himself softly folding into Freddie’s arm though, and blushed.

“Sorry,” Daron murmured, returning his other hand and doing his best to get out of Freddie’s way.

“Don’t worry about it,” Freddie said quietly as the bag fell open. They watched as the interior was revealed to contain a few tufts of hair, what appeared to be dirt, and…the duo stared, dumbfounded, before Freddie spoke up:

“Oh, my God, is that a tooth?”

“Christ." There were actually not one, but two, hard white shapes that lay in the burlap. One looked like it could’ve been a baby tooth. The other was...larger.

“Can you let me out?” Freddie said, glancing back with wide eyes. The closet was narrow enough that it would have been difficult for Freddie to squeeze past Daron, and not without a significant amount of touching.

“Yeah! Yeah.” Daron shuffled his way out of the closet sideways, back into Jeremy’s room. Freddie followed, grasping the pieces of the EVP reader in her hands.

“Let’s get that back to Xander,” she said. “I’m going to grab a transport container. Can you tie it back up? I don’t…want to handle all that.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Daron said. Nodding gratefully, Freddie hurried out of the room.

Taking a deep breath reminiscent of one right before plunging underwater, Daron headed back into the closet. Telling himself it was so they could go over it with everyone, he didn’t look too closely at the contents as he re-tied the burlap. Ignoring the heavy dread in his chest, Daron pulled out his own flashlight and traced it through the closet. Other than the little sack, the space was empty.

“Got it,” he heard Freddie call from Jeremy’s room. “You good?”

“Yep,” Daron replied before carefully picking up the burlap. “Coming.”

Freddie had left the EVP reader behind in the living room, and was now carrying a bulky lidded box. They took one to each gig, and it was actually approved for carrying hazardous materials. Daron always joked about the overkill, but in this case, he had to admit he was glad they had it. Tilting the lid so one side opened about six inches, Freddie offered the opening to him, and Daron deposited the sack inside.

“Should we finish up here then check the master?” Freddie said, though her voice lacked enthusiasm. Daron nodded slowly.

“Yeah, we should cover all our bases. Even though I want to get that back to HQ,” he said, clearly echoing Freddie’s thoughts. Nodding, the girl turned and left the room, presumably to deposit the box with the rest of their equipment.

Outside of Jeremy’s room, they removed their masks and gloves, trying to disguise the deep breaths they took from each other. The master was a quick sweep, luckily. It was kept decently clean, and only a couple additional scraps were needed for testing.

Daron and Freddie loaded up the car hurriedly, but quietly. Once they got driving, though, the spell seemed to break, and they were laughing about the situation. As the house faded into the grey clouds in their rearview mirrors, so did their dread.

“I texted Xander that we found something, and we’d show him when we get back,” Freddie said.

“Think he’ll laugh at us for putting it in the hazard box?”

“No! Xander would never. He’s like the most benevolent leader in the universe. I’ve never had all my feelings so validated before.”

“Good thing I’m around to balance that, huh?”

“Ugh, yes. Whatever would I do without you?”

“Get way too comfortable. That’s for sure.”

“Can’t have that.”

“Nope.”

Making surprisingly good time, Daron and Freddie pulled into Xander’s driveway within the hour and a half. Rather than start unpacking, they decided to head in first and beg help from their coworkers. Letting Freddie go first, who skipped to the office door to stretch her legs, Daron followed right behind with his heavier, but longer, step.

As Freddie opened the door, Daron spied over the top of her head that Xander and Julie were inside. It appeared that Xander had been whispering in her ear. Not unusual on its own, except that the reaction from the pair was to rapidly move away from each other, turning to with guilty expressions that Daron thought were usually reserved for teenagers.

“Ohhhh, what?” breathed Freddie, giving an exaggerated twitch of surprise. “What is this day?!”

“Daron, Freddie,” Xander said, his deep brown skin turning an impressive shade of crimson. “I didn’t know you were on your way back. I didn’t hear from you after I asked when we could expect to see your discovery.”

“Yeah man, I put my phone away in the car,” Freddie said. “What is going on?!”

“Freddie, it’s not really any of our business,” Daron spoke up, feeling badly as he watched Xander and Julie squirm.

“Like hell! You all know all my secrets!”

“Well that’s just not true,” Julie said. “You didn’t tell us what Jeremy said.”

“Well, yeah, but I told Daron! So COMBINED, you all know all my secrets!”

“Same here, then,” Julie said with a half-smile. Freddie groaned.

“Come on! Are you actually dating?”

“Yyyyyyeeeesssss,” Julie said slowly, looking from Freddie to Xander.

“So it would seem,” Xander smiled. “This was an unprofessional way for you to find out, and I apologize. It’s early, and with the stress of this job...well, we’re taking it slow.”

“Okay, got it,” Freddie said, nodding. “We’ll be cool. Right?” She looked back at Daron, who lifted his hands in a wait, what? gesture.

“Freddie, I was never not cool here.”

“Okay good. Daron will be cool too,” Freddie said, clapping twice. “Wow! wow wow. Hey, wanna see what we found at their house?”

“Yes, I do,” Xander said.

“Great! Let’s unload the car!”

Reeling a little, Daron led the way back outside and unlocked his car. The hazard box was in the backseat, so they got the rest of the equipment unloaded before grabbing it. In the meantime, Freddie was discussing the EVP phenomenon.

“I’ve never heard anything like it, Xander, but then it blew out right when we found this thing.”

“Interesting,” Xander said, watching Daron grab the box from the back. “What is it? Why did you use the Type A package?”

“Possible biohazard,” Freddie said, wrinkling her nose as they headed inside. “Take a look.”

Setting the box on Xander’s desk, Daron stood on one of the four sides. His three coworkers each took up position at one of the other three, and Xander removed the box’s lid and set it aside. Looking down at the small sack inside, Xander’s expression was unreadable. Daron began to feel sillier by the minute.

“It doesn’t look like much,” Freddie said, clearly feeling the same urge to defend them. “But inside is like, hair and tooth and we think two teeth? It’s gross.”

“Did you touch this with your bare hands?” Xander asked, his voice calm but serious.

“No,” Daron said. “Freddie brought gloves.” They made brief eye contact as Xander went to replace the lid.

“Good. This is a hex bag.”
 

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