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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
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101
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Chapter 29

“What the hell is a hex bag?”

“Used by witches,” Xander replied, taking the box and putting it into a lower empty drawer in his desk. “As a way of attempting to curse potential victims. For fun, or for a power source.”

“What do you mean?” Freddie asked, drifting over to the couch to sit. Daron joined her.

“Fun like revenge. Just to cause pain. Or for power, to drain the victim to increase the witch’s vitality. Or something similar.”

“Come on,” Daron chimed in, raising his eyebrows at his boss. He could see Freddie taking in the new information with wide eyes, and he didn’t want to see her frightened over what amounted to basically a fairy tale.

“I’m just explaining the lore, Daron.”

“What was it doing in Jeremy’s room?” Freddie asked. “Who would want to curse a little boy?”

“That’s a good question,” Julie said.

“Listen, I hate to ask for another late night, but Daron...are you able to work on pulling the recording from the EVP reader? I need to work on safely disposing of the hex bag tonight, or I would try first,” Xander explained.

“Yeah, no problem boss,” Daron replied. He’d have to text Taylor cancelling their dinner tonight. He ignored the slight feeling of relief that rose in his chest.

“What can I do to assist with the bag?” Julie asked, turning to Xander. Xander, to everyone’s surprise, shook his head at the offer.

“Nothing. It’s been years since I’ve seen one of these, and they are extremely delicate to handle. I know you haven’t dealt with one before, and I don’t have time to explain. Now, I need all of you to make me a promise,” Xander said, catching each of his employee’s eyes. “Tomorrow, before work, please call me before coming in. Or assign a point of contact to do so, and let the others know. If I don’t pick up, if you don’t speak to me...please do not come. Call the police and have them check the house first.”

“Xander, are you serious?” Daron asked as the group stared at their boss, shell-shocked.

“Unfortunately, yes. I don’t want to worry you, but I do need to make sure all my bases are covered. Even the worst case scenario.” Xander took Julie’s hand and offered a light squeeze. “Go spend time with your kids. Okay? I need to get started.”

“Call if you need anything at all,” Freddie told the pair as she dressed in her coat to depart. The air was depressing, but she forced a smile through it. She gave each a quick hug, before waiting for Daron by the door. Once they stepped outside to give Xander and Julie some privacy, she asked, “could you use any help with the EVP reader? I know I’m not as tech savvy, but I could listen to whatever you can recover. And um, maybe provide moral support.” Under her cheerful words, Daron could sense an urgent need to not go home alone after the day they’d had. A feeling he understood. It came through more in her final word: “Please?”

“Yeah, Thornberry. Let’s go.”

Before they left, Xander had given Daron both gas money for the day and a generous sum for ordering out for dinner. Once they reached his house, he told Freddie he was going to get them food soon as they took off their coats.

“Yeah? Chinese?” Freddie asked.

“I was thinking Anchor.”

“Wait, really? But they’re so fancy!”

“But not like, small portions fancy. We’ve got the cash, it was a hell of a day, let’s just go for it.”

“Okay, good point,” said Freddie, looking impressed. “Could I get their ahi steak?”

“You got it.”

A little over an hour later, Freddie’s ahi steak and Daron’s seafood alfredo were delivered. In addition, Daron had splurged on steak fries, risotto balls, and a cheese plate for appetizers. Why not? Nothing quite like genuinely good food for a brief reprieve from the world.

“Damn, nice,” Freddie said as she opened up their containers. Daron continued to tap at his desktop hooked up to the EVP recorder, frustrated by the lack of progress. The reader was thoroughly dead, but he knew nothing was gone forever. Recovering the recordings just eluded him for now. “Does Taylor not like Anchor?”

“What do you mean?”

“Uh...I just wondered about you ordering it tonight, rather than like....waiting for it to be...with her.” Freddie brought a plate over Daron loaded with food, batting her eyelashes once, then twice, in an attempt to look innocent. Daron sighed.

“No, Taylor loves Anchor. What Taylor doesn’t love is seeing me stuff myself with it, or anything, like I’m going to do now. But you knew that already, and trying to make me think about it is what your question actually meant.”

Freddie’s blush nearly matched her hair. Daron continued,

“I get it. And I’m not mad. But it's not the time. I need to focus on this. Okay?”

Freddie nodded. “I’m sorry. And...thank you for getting the food.”

“Thank Xander tomorrow,” Daron replied, keeping his tone lighthearted.

“I will.”

Eventually, Daron was able to begin extracting the day’s recordings. As he did, he sent them over to Freddie, who listened through headphones and made occasional notes on a pad in front of her. A little while later, through his own headphones, Daron heard Freddie hesitantly saying his name.

“Daron...Daron?”

“What?” he said, pulling his out of his ears.

“Um...okay, don’t get mad, but will you come listen to this? I don’t know if I’m losing my mind or just tired or what,” Freddie said, running her hands over her forehead and through her hair.

“Why would I get mad?” Daron asked, his tone more irritated than he wanted as he rolled his chair over to her.

“‘Cause...I dunno. In case we disagree. Just listen. This is from the stairwell.”

With the headphones on, Daron cringed as an enhanced hissing reached his ears. As it went on, though, one sound became distinguishable from the rest. It sounded more guttural, almost like something was being spat. Daron had to resist the urge to tear the headphones out of his ears. Whatever the opposite of ASMR is, this was it.

“What are you hearing?” Daron asked finally, pulling down the headphones and looking at Freddie.

“I…” she hesitated, then plowed forward. “‘Get, get’?”

Slowly, Daron replaced the headphones, and knew immediately what Freddie meant. With the word in mind, it seemed obvious, hitting his ears over and over. When Daron didn’t immediately speak up to correct her, Freddie’s eyes widened.

“Oh my God you hear it too, don’t you?”

“I hear...something. That is strange, but could be other environmental or electronic interference that we’re just projecting our weird-ass day onto.”

“Daron, isn’t that the point of an EVP recorder? To condense environmental interference into words or phrases?”

“You got me. I just work here.”

“Okay. Well, if I tell Xander what I heard in the recordings tomorrow, you won’t be pissed?”

“No, Fred. I’m sorry if I made you feel like I would be,” Daron said with a sigh. “You holding up okay? We’re almost at hour 16 for today.”

“Yeah, no, I’m good,” Freddie assured, gesturing for Daron to return to his seat. “Keep ‘em coming.”

Daron could feel the length and intensity of the day tugging at his eyelids, but he fought against it to try and parse out all the recordings from the box. Still, he hadn’t quite finished when all faded to black. The next thing he knew, the sound of ringing was pulling him up from the depths of his rest. He hadn’t intended to go to sleep, so he had never silenced his phone. Sitting up from where he had passed out at his desk, Daron saw his phone lighting up with Julie’s name. Quickly grasping the implications of the call, Daron pressed accept.

“Yeah? Jules?”

“Hi Daron,” Julie said. “I just wanted to check in and let you know that I spoke to Xander this morning, and that his ritual was successful. I’m sorry to wake you, but I figured you’d want to know.”

“No, yeah, I do. Thanks. What time is it, anyway?”

“6. I’ll see you at 9 for work, okay? Go back to sleep, I apologize again. Should I call Freddie now or can you let her know?”

At that moment, Daron saw with surprise a pink head rise sleepily off his lounge chair across the room.

“Uh, I’ll let her know. Don’t worry about it. See you later, Julie.”

“Thanks, Daron. ‘Bye.”

Daron hung up and watched Freddie rub at her eyes.

“Shit, it’s morning? I’m sorry, when you started to drift off I was like ‘I could do a nap’ and then uh...I guess it got away from me. What’d Julie say?”

“She spoke to Xander, he’s fine. Hex bag didn’t eat him or whatever he was worried about. We’re on track to go in at 9.”

“Thank god,” Freddie said, swinging her legs off the chair and stretching her way up to standing. “I think I got through everything you sent me, so I’ll get out of your hair. Do a workout and shit before work. You good?”

“Yeah. How do you also have this much energy first thing in the morning?”

“One of God’s chosen, I guess,” Freddie replied with a shrug. “See you later, Daron.”

Rather than go back to sleep, Daron splashed water on his face and got back to work. There were still three minutes missing, and he’d be damned if he didn’t deliver the complete package to Xander. Luckily, he got them extracted and onto a flash drive with the rest before 8, and was able to take a shower to prepare for the day. Sleeping without Taylor meant not having to worry about keeping his abs tight & sucked in, and so despite being exhausted from lack of rest, Daron felt surprisingly relaxed. He dressed for comfort, in a pair of jeans and an old Genesis t-shirt with a flannel over it. Not the most flattering, as it definitely hugged his belly, but he couldn’t make himself care.

Rolling up to work right at 9, Daron was surprised to find Freddie had beat him there. She was talking to Xander at the front of the room, pink hair a little darker than usual from the shower as it rested on her shoulders clad in a soft black cardigan over a blue dress. Julie was listening from nearby.

“These are the time stamps for when I thought I heard something,” Freddie was telling him, holding the notepad from the night before. Noticing Daron, she smiled broadly. “Oh good, you’re here!”

“Hey everybody,” said Daron, gesturing with the USB drive in his hand. “I got EVP."

“Thanks for doing that, Daron,” Xander said sincerely, crossing to take it from him. “And Freddie, for doing recon without being asked. That’s very helpful. Now, if everyone could have a seat, I have a couple updates for you.”

Daron and Freddie took their usual seats on the couch, and Julie sat across from them in a chair. They listened as Xander confirmed the destruction of the hex bag the night before, after which he had received an unprompted phone call this morning from Frederick updating him on the status of the family. There were two major developments.

Firstly, a growth had been discovered in Jeremy’s head during a CAT scan. It was benign, but pressing on developmentally important areas of the brain. The surgery to remove it was scheduled for the next week.

Secondly, Jeremy’s mother, Angela, had disappeared.
 
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RosieS

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Jul 24, 2021
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Manchester UK
There is something about this story that’s absolute crack to me. It’s so amazingly well written, can’t stop reading it even when it freaks me out! Thanks for sharing this story with us!
 

loopytheone

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Ahhh, it always leaves me so hungry for more! ...also, poor Daron, he deserves someone better than Taylor, it must be crushing his self esteem.
 

Ghostboo

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Joined
Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
Location
United States
Chapter 30

Xander gave the team Friday off, a relieving way to cap off a long week. For the rest of Thursday, Xander worked his own way through the EVP recordings while the team busied themselves with paperwork.

“I hear it too,” Xander had spoken up, gesturing at Freddie. “‘Get’ at 12:20, and ‘out’ at 13:50.”

“You heard another word?” Daron asked, surprised.

“I did,” Freddie admitted. Daron looked at her, resisting his follow up question - why didn’t you tell me? - which she answered anyway. “I didn’t want to bug you, and…I wasn’t sure. It was really late.”

“So, wait, you both heard a ghost or ‘phenomenon’ or whatever, say… ‘get out’?”

“Not just that,” Xander said, brushing off Daron’s trademark skepticism with his usual ease. “In the last few minutes, there was another word.”

“I didn’t hear that last night,” Freddie said, eyes wide.

“I didn’t get the last three minutes extracted until this morning,” Daron said. As Freddie and Julie gathered right behind Xander at the computer, Daron instinctively moved closer too.

“Here, we’ll go through them all, and you can let me know what you think,” Xander said, and started the recording. Daron recognized the first bit, the heightened extraction of the hissing leading to a repetition of what was recognizable as the word “get”, if you were looking for it. Next the tone took on an almost sighing quality, an exhale that quickly took on the quality of the word “out”. Daron half-shook his head, trying to get out of the zone of hearing it, to no avail.

A few seconds later, the staccato of the word dropped off, and illegible muttering took its place. Until about half a minute later, when the breathiness returned, preceded by what sounded like a groan. It took a few moments, but Daron realized with a start what Xander meant: the noise was startlingly reminiscent of the word “no”.

“You all hear that?” Xander asked after a few more seconds, looking at the team behind him.

“It’s saying ‘no’,” Julie said. The others all nodded at various speeds. Shortly after, the sound crescendoed, then ended in the scream Freddie and Daron had heard the day before. Out of the computer, it sounded even less like an electronic short, and more like something or someone in pain…or anger.

“Isn’t this just an audio version of pareidolia?” Daron asked, after a moment. “The tendency to assign humanity into random stimuli, like house faces?”

“So the collective delusion is coming from inside the house?” Freddie replied, smirking at him.

“I understand what you’re saying, Daron. But from an EVP community standpoint, these are valid. No manipulation on our end aside from volume levels,” Xander said, clicking a few times on the computer. “And I like to think I have amassed a team with such a variety of viewpoints that the ‘collective delusion’ is unlikely at best.”

Daron rubbed his large hands against his face, too tired to argue. Discussion continued off and on the rest of the day, with Freddie and Daron double checking there was nothing else they could do before moves were made to depart for the weekend. Xander assured them that there was not, as the police would be looking into Angela’s disappearance, and they’d keep tabs on Jeremy as needed over the next week.

“Get some rest this weekend,” Freddie said, nudging Daron with her hip as they made their way to the door a little after 5. Daron nudged her back instinctively, and she stumbled with a laugh.

“You too, Thornberry.”

And he did, as best he could. Daron managed to proceed as mostly normal from Thursday into Friday, but his exhaustion caught up by Friday after Taylor was done at work. That evening, Daron ended up dozing off less than half an hour into the movie Taylor picked out. He’d jerk awake a few times when she laughed especially (and he’d guess deliberately) hard at moments, but he literally couldn’t keep his eyes open. After they made it to bed, Daron was out like a light, and slept for nearly 10 hours. He may have even gotten closer to 12, if he hadn’t woken up to the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen outside his bedroom.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” Taylor said tightly as Daron entered the room. He considered asking why she seemed so irritated, but 1. He figured he knew the answer and 2. He quickly decided if she didn’t volunteer the info, it wasn’t exactly his problem. “I’m making eggs.”

“Morning. Thanks, smells good,” lied Daron. It smelled like nothing, which probably meant spinach was involved.

It turned out he was right, and in the next few minutes, a plate with a veggie scramble clattered in front of him. He raised his eyebrows at Taylor, and to her credit, she smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry, honey. Enjoy!”

Although, “veggie” turned out to be a bit generous. It was just tomatoes and spinach, and the serving probably contained no more than an egg and a half mixed in. Daron finished it within a few minutes, and looked over to see Taylor still taking her time to pick out and eat each individual piece of tomato at a time. Sipping his coffee, Daron waited another couple minutes before he got up and pulled out an english muffin from next to the fridge.

“Whatcha doin’?” Taylor asked with faux innocence.

“I’m still hungry.”

“Um…are you sure? You know they say it takes 20 minutes or so for the ‘full’ signal to reach the brain. Maybe you should wait?”

“Yes,” Daron said firmly, turning to face his girlfriend after depositing the muffin in the toaster. “I’m sure.”

“Okay,” Taylor said, her tone tight again as she looked away. Stifling a sigh, Daron walked over and kissed the side of her head, thinking the sorority alumni gathering wouldn’t be particularly enjoyable if they were fighting.

“Thank you for the eggs. They were great. I’m excited for the party tonight.”

“Yeah,” Taylor said, cheerfully but not totally convincingly. “Me too.”

Taylor left after breakfast, to hit the gym and get ready for the evening. (Despite her earlier musings, Taylor had never actually invited Daron to go to her gym with her. He shrugged it off, as a fan of being at home.) Daron did some reps after she left with his weights while re-watching one of his favorite shows he had yet to convince Taylor to try, The Wire. After an episode and impressive burn in his arms and shoulders, Daron showered and played some Dark Souls while waiting for party time.

Does Allie want to ride with us? Daron texted Taylor, realizing her roommate may be intending to attend the gathering as well. He watched as typing bubbles popped up, then disappeared. He waited a few minutes, but didn’t get a response, so he returned to his game. Not quite an hour later, as he was saving and preparing to get dressed, he received back a: Sure.

Cool. Be there to pick you guys up in about an hour.


Deliberating on clothes, Daron thought his grey button up might read too fancy/business casual for a Greek life party. His knit sweaters also may be too warm inside. In the end, he chose a pair of dark wash jeans (that struggled only briefly to have their button meet) underneath a white Talking Heads shirt (that had once been oversized, and was now decently fitted) over which he layered a dark navy plaid long-sleeved top. It didn’t button anymore, but it didn’t need to. Satisfied by his clothes’ appearance, Daron added a little curl cream at the last minute before heading out the door.

On my way.

Text when you’re here


A few minutes later, Daron obeyed by shooting Taylor a here text from outside her home. A few moments later, Taylor and Allie walked out the front door, with Taylor laughing at something Allie had said. Her blonde roommate was dressed in a tight white mini-skirt and floral tank top, while Daron’s girlfriend had chosen painted-on black jeans with a black lacy crop top. There were criss-cross straps across her cleavage, and the cut of her clothing showed off her toned stomach. Daron felt his heart speed up in simultaneous excitement and dread.

“Hey, you guys look great,” Daron said honestly as they got into the car.

“We’re ladies, not guys, Daron,” Allie giggled.

“Ha. Sorry, fair enough.” He gave Taylor’s thigh a quick squeeze in her tight black pants before pulling away and towards the now-cleansed sorority house.
 
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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
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United States
Had it been up to Daron, they would have arrived at the party an hour or two earlier, but Taylor had seemed horrified at the idea.

“We can’t show up when it first starts, Daron. We’re not dead.”

Daron wasn’t sure what that meant, but the party was definitely in full swing when they arrived. They walked in the house to a large mixed crowd, about half clearly current or recent college students, and the other half closer to their 30’s like Taylor and Daron, or even older. He couldn’t help feeling relieved.

“Drinks?” Taylor said, looking from Allie to Daron.

“Yessss,” Allie cheered, but was quickly distracted by a tall, muscular young man in a Kappa Sig shirt who reached out to say hello on their way into the living room.

“Oh, just leave her,” Taylor said, watching her go off with the frat brother with an expression Daron chose not to identify as jealousy. They continued to the sunken living room Daron had grown familiar with during their previous case. Taylor was greeted by a curly-haired alumni, and the pair began to chat as Daron took a few more steps and surveyed the room. The folded table had been set up against the middle of the far wall as an impressively large beer pong game, with a young redhead and what appeared to be her mother as the team on one end, competing against a familiar pink ombre head.

“Daron!” Freddie said, beaming at him from next to the dark-featured sorority sister he recognized as Cece. Freddie was dressed in a shiny black skater dress, low cut and short sleeved, with blue and green dinosaurs patterned on it. “Hi!”

“Oh, hey Fred,” Daron said, moving over to stand near them. “What are you doin’ here?”

“Cece invites me to every sorority party,” Freddie laughed. “But the alumni one is the only one that doesn’t make me feel like an Ancient. I would’ve told you, but last I heard you weren’t coming!”

“Taylor decided a few days ago she wanted to come after all. Hey, if you’re an Ancient, what does that make me?”

“Infinite. Basically the Big Bang. Hey, wanna celebrity shot?”

“Yeah, looks like you guys could use it,” Daron said, observing how the redheads across the way had 6 cups left in front of them compared to Freddie and Cece’s 2.

“Hey,” said Cece mock-defensively. “I’m too sober to be any good right now!”

“I’m just not very good,” admitted Freddie with a laugh. “Been awhile. Here!” She offered Daron the ping-pong ball. As he tossed, he saw a tall, dark shape appear at his right side. Taylor had found him. He turned to her as Cece and Freddie erupted in a cheer.

“Wooooo!”

“Good job, Daron!”

He had managed to land the middle left cup, despite the younger girl’s attempt to finger it out.

“Don’t girls have to blow?” Taylor asked, her eyebrows raised.

“Oh, don’t be hetero-normative, Taylor,” Freddie said with a grin, waving her hand dismissively. “Anyone can finger OR blow!”

“Mmm.”

“Hey, if you want to hang out here, I can go get drinks,” Daron told Taylor. “Cece, sounds like you’re ready for another?”

“Yes! Definitely! Thanks Daron. Hi Tay!” Cece and Taylor offered each other cheek-to-cheek air kisses in greeting.

“I’m good,” Freddie said, her smile growing a little tighter at Daron’s words. Still, she offered him a wink before turning to make her shot. It went wide.

“Be back soon,” Daron said, squeezing Taylor’s shoulder before making his way through the crowd and towards the kitchen.

Once in there, Daron found an assortment of drinks - beer, wine, and a large punch bowl of bright green liquid.

“What is that?” He asked, mostly to himself, but a broad-shouldered man nearby answered.

“Gin, banana liqueur, aquavit, midori…shit’s not bad, actually.”

“That sounds intense, man,” Daron replied, looking at him with some disbelief. The man was a couple inches taller than Daron’s 6’, with lightly buzzed brown hair and a beard atop a severe upside-down triangle shape. He was probably right in between Daron’s age and Freddie’s. He grinned.

“That too, bro. Who you here with?”

“Oh, uh, Taylor Hassan? Class of 2012.”

“Ahhh nice, dude.”

“Is that Daron?” A voice right outside the hall spoke up, and in popped a familiar dark head. Taylor’s younger sister and instigator of the initial investigation, Rachel. Daron had met her during the case, and another couple of rushed times at Taylor’s house.

“Hey Rachel,” Daron said. “Nice to see you.”

“You too! Oh, and you met Jake?”

Daron and the taller man gave a quick, firm handshake to confirm.

“Jake was just trying to convince me on the punch,” Daron said.

“Oh, if you can handle Taylor, you can handle that punch,” laughed Rachel. After a pause, her tone took on a more sober - though still cheerful - tone. “But seriously, we’re just like…so glad she found herself a nice, normal dude.”

“Rachel, you know I checked this house for ghosts, right?”

“Okay, so not like boring normal, but has a good job instead of just like, a 6-pack? Huge upgrade,” Rachel said with a grin.

“Ahh,” Daron said, catching Jake’s knowing eye. He then glanced down at his broad middle, and gave it what he felt was an expected playful slap on his right side, looking away before having to watch it jiggle. Jokingly, he added, “You wanna tell her that?”

“Aww, I’m sure she knows! Taylor got like…real freaked after her 30th birthday, y’know? She’s always wanted to get married, and now it’s like…clock’s ticking” Rachel said, taking a sip out of a red solo cup. She looked distantly like Taylor, but with softer features. “Except all her boyfriends were hot dicks. So that wasn’t gonna work.”

“And I’m just a dick, so…she’s gotten rid of one of those issues,” Daron replied sardonically. Daron had definitely heard Taylor bring up next steps on the relationship escalator before, slipped into ordinary everyday conversation, but he was surprised to hear Rachel discussing it so openly. He’d taken the remarks with a grain of salt, but maybe he shouldn’t have.

“Ohmygod, stop! No you are not,” Rachel retorted with a wave of her cup.

“Seriously, man, if all she’s got to complain about is the gut…you’re beyond a step up,” Jake chimed in. Daron looked at him with a blink, then back to Rachel, who was nodding until she saw his expression.

“Oh, sorry, Daron. All the sisters are in each other’s business, and Jake’s here with Danielle, so he hears all about it.”

“To be honest, man, I figured you’d be way fat, the way she’s kept ya locked away,” Jake added casually. “But you’re just like, a big dude. Whatever.”

“Uh…yeah,” Daron said, feeling a little unsteady. “I’ve been lifting. That helps.”

“Ah, nice, man! Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it. Hard for these gals to break out of the ‘looks first’ mindset,” Jake said, winking at Rachel.

“Oh yeah, ‘cause you frat guys are known for being soooo into our personalities,” Rachel retorted, crossing her arms in front of her chest. Jake laughed.

“Hey, I don’t claim whatever’s going on with the undergrads now, but I am!”

“Yeah? You and Danielle discuss nuclear physics, huh?”

“Okay so,” Jake half-turned to stage whisper to Daron with a grin. “Maybe she’s blonde, first and foremost. Sue me.”

“Typical,” sang Rachel.

“I should, uh, get drinks back,” Daron said, looking between the pair.

“Oh god, yeah, don’t want to make Taylor wait for alcohol! Sorry Daron,” Rachel replied.

“No problem. Uh, do you know what Cece likes?”

Rachel and Jake helped Daron load up on beverages - a beer from a keg for him in a red solo cup, various wines in small clear plastic cups.

“Nice to meet you, Daron,” Jake said as Daron nodded at them in thanks.

“You too, man.”

“Come meet some more of the guys later if you want. We’ll be around.”

“You got it. ‘Bye, Rachel. Thanks.”

At which point he made his way carefully out of the kitchen, through the hall, and back to the living room. One of the first people he actually saw was Cece.

“Hey,” he said, handing her a cup half-filled with white wine. “Pinot grigio, right? You guys finish up beer pong?”

“Wow, how’d you know? And yeah, we lost,” Cece said, her nose wrinkling in disappointment.

“Ran into Rachel in the kitchen, she helped. Where’s Fred and Taylor?”

“Ohhhh,” Cece said, a little more knowingly than Daron would have liked. “Uh…I left them…over there.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yyyyyeah…? It got a little...weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Taylor brought up The Whale’s Tail? Y’know that bar, a few streets over? Not sure why. But her and Freddie’s looks at each other could’ve melted steel beams, so I was like ‘gotta gooooo’ and ran over here before I could figure it out.”

“Well, shit,” Daron said, distracted, as he peered through the crowd. Across the room, he finally spotted his girlfriend’s sleek ponytail. “Thanks, Cece. I’ll go…check in.”

“Cool,” Cece replied. “Thanks for the drink!”

Moving away before she had completely finished her thought, Daron offered a few half-hearted apologies as he squeezed past the partygoers. As he got closer, he could see Taylor standing with her arms crossed, facing a very stiff Freddie. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but based on Cece’s intel, it couldn’t have been good.

“Hey,” he said loudly once he arrived within earshot. He didn’t hear any thoughts in the meantime aside from something along the lines of “oh, really?” from Taylor. “How’s it going, guys? I got booze.”

“Ugh, thank God,” Taylor said, as she first reached for Daron’s red solo cup. Freddie turned to her friend and coworker, half-smiling ruefully.

“Oh, I got you merlot,” Daron said, instead proffering his girlfriend the clear plastic cup with red liquid sloshing inside. She stared.

“Umm, there wasn’t anything stronger?”

“There was, but…honestly, the punch sounded fucking weird. This is just the keg beer, I think it’s a lager,” Daron said as he swished the red solo cup. “Freddie? Did you change your mind? I’ll drink this, but you can have it.”

“Ughhhh Daron, beer? Really?” Taylor groaned. Daron remembered one of Taylor’s many calorie comparisons, and how regular beer was almost always at the top numbers-wise, and shrugged. Freddie, meanwhile, twisted slowly from looking at Daron back to Taylor.

“No thanks,” Freddie replied, staring unblinkingly at the much taller girl. “That’s all yours, Daron.”

“Okay…” Daron trailed off, watching helplessly as the two women in front of him looked at each other exactly as Cece had described - with glares that would melt steel beams.

“I’m gonna go…” Freddie said, glancing back at Daron, then over at Taylor again. “…somewhere else.” With that, she drifted off, and Daron couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“God, could you be any more thrilled to run into your work wife?” Taylor grumbled, taking an impressive mouthful of her wine.

“…I have never, and would never, use the term ‘work wife’. What’s going on, Taylor?”

“Well, she told me that she filled you in about the Whale’s Tail recently. Which you never mentioned.”

“I didn’t really want to talk about it,” Daron replied slowly.

“So you just…believed it? What she said?” Taylor demanded, and Daron stared back, uncertain of what she was looking for.

“Should I not have…?”

“I told you, Daron, that I don’t remember what happened and she has an agenda. So why automatically assume what she says is right?”

“Because you’ve said very similar things to my face,” Daron replied honestly. “So why would I assume my friend is lying to me about the same exact kind of thing, just to them this time?”

“What…” Taylor took another deep drink of red wine, then threw up her arms in exasperation. “What even was it?...Freddie wouldn’t say.”

“Just…shit about my weight. You know. The usual.” At this, it was Taylor’s turn to stare. Thinking of Jeremy, Daron continued. “Listen, if you really think Freddie might be lying, I can verify it next week. Someone else repeated what was said that night. I can ask them, away from her, what it was. Do you want me to do that?”

“Oh, Jesus,” Taylor said, half-turning away from Daron and then back, but avoiding his eyes. “I don’t…no. Whatever.”

“Taylorrrr,” crooned a voice from nearby, and suddenly a lanky girl with dirty blonde hair was leaning in to greet her. She wasn’t quite as tall as Taylor, but with her heels, she was close. “Ohmygod, babe, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” Taylor replied, flipping her dark ponytail as she turned towards her sorority sister. It was subtle, but as she angled, it left Daron slightly boxed out. This was backed up by the fact that she never introduced him, and just continued chatting. Daron sipped his beer and kept his eye out for someone else he might know around the room.

“Sounds like a dream job,” Taylor was saying to her as she divulged about an interview she’d had for a sales position earlier in the week.

“Well not like…astronaut or movie star dream,” giggled the girl. “But pretty good. But hey, if you could be anything, what would you do? I think I’d be like, a marine biologist.”

“Steve Zissou it up,” Daron chimed in. The girl looked at him, and at first he was worried that the reference was too unusual or old school, but she quickly smiled.

“Exactly,” she said. Taylor hardly glanced at Daron as she seemed to consider the question

“I think for me, the dream would be…judge on Top Chef,” Daron said, knowing that he was poking the bear just a little, but honestly getting past the point of caring. Taylor glowered at him, while her friend looked at him in curious interest. “Getting paid to be a pretentious critic and eat tons of great food every day? That’s makin’ it."

“I need another drink,” Taylor inserted as she guzzled the last few drops of her red wine. Her glare had turned quickly to horror at Daron’s words, followed by a thin-lipped steely resolve. “Manda?”

“Oh, yeah,” the lanky blonde said, allowing her arm to be taken by Taylor. Before she steered her away, though, the girl offered back to Daron: “that sounds like a good time!”

Daron offered the pair a cheers with his cup as they walked away. Before they vanished completely into the crowd, Daron could hear Taylor’s friend exclaiming:

Ohhh! Wait, that’s your boy…” before they and their words were swallowed up.
 

Ghostboo

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Feeling the need for some air, Daron crossed back through the foyer and into the dining room. It was a little less crowded, luckily. Across the large table, he spotted the broad shoulders of Jake standing in a semi-circle with a group of presumed frat bros. Practically unable to believe he had gotten to the point of doing this willingly, Daron crossed over to join them.

Honestly, it wasn’t the worst conversation he’d ever had. Yeah, a few of the bros were your average frat cliché, but Daron actually found it mildly entertaining as he let himself go with the flow.

“Would you want to team up for beer pong?” Jake asked him at one point, and Daron shook his head.

“Sounds fun, but I gotta drive.”

“Too bad,” a short, square man in a wide-brimmed baseball hat next to Daron said. “Looks like your tank can hold more than a few.” He gave Daron a light but meaningful elbow in the side. Daron turned to stare at the bro, who quickly stood down. Was Daron noticeably soft? Yes. Was he still significantly taller and more built than the man next to him who’d just invaded his space? Also yes.

“Just playin’, man,” the boy added hurriedly. “I’ll be your partner, Jake.”

“No, Mike, fuck off you dick,” Jake replied. The short frat brother rolled his eyes and drank his beer as he obliged and wandered away from the group.

“Sorry about that. Most of us aren’t Animal House in real life,” Jake said to Daron.

“That’d be fine though,” Daron said, smirking at the memory of the classic movie. Jake peered at him.

“You actually kinda look like Belushi, y’know?”

“I’ll assume you mean talent-wise, and say thanks,” Daron chuckled. “No but actually, I have heard that before.” Interestingly, Freddie had made the connection at some point, and seemed genuinely confused when Daron made a snarky remark about it in response.

“What do you mean? He’s not just fat, he’s also like…really charismatic and handsome. Definitely my favorite of the OG cast of SNL,” Freddie had said, watching a skeptical Daron with a furrowed brow.

“I’m not sure that’s the general consensus, Freddie, but thanks.”

“Yeah, well…you already know most people are fuckin’ stupid, so what do you care what their consensus is?”

Daron had taken the point as well made, and they’d moved on.

“Anyway,” Daron said to Jake, bringing his mind back to the present and nodding lightly at Mike. “I’m used to it. Not the first snarky fat joke I’ve gotten. Certainly won’t be the last.” Jake looked thoughtful at this, taking a drink from his beer.

“How are things with Taylor, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Daron answered honestly. “I’ve been crazy about her since the first time I saw her. But I’m not sure I can actually make her happy.”

“Girl’s getting in her own way,” sighed Jake. “I wouldn’t stress too much about it. You seem like a cool guy, like Rachel says. I’m sure you got plenty to offer.”

“Yeah, I do,” Daron agreed. “She just might need, or want, something…different.”

Daron spotted Freddie a few more times throughout the night, and while she’d always smile or salute or cheers at him, she kept her distance. Daron guessed it was to avoid running into Taylor again (despite them drifting through the party almost always in separate rooms), or just not to make anything harder for Daron if Taylor saw them and instigated another fight.

A couple hours later, Daron bit the bullet and approached Taylor, who appeared to be commiserating with the curly-haired girl from earlier. As he walked up, they fell silent.

“Hey, Taylor,” Daron said. “Sorry to interrupt. Just wanted to check in about when you thought you might want to leave.”

Taylor and her friend looked at each other, then Taylor sighed and crumpled her empty plastic cup.

“I’m not having fun anymore. Let’s go now.”

“Okay,” Daron said, half-lifting a hand in greeting and farewell to the girl she’d been talking to. The girl smiled tightly back at him, then turned to find someone else to talk to.

Once in the car, Daron considered his options, then began to head towards Taylor’s house. She’d barely spoken to him in hours, so he guessed she’d prefer to go home. A few minutes went by until Taylor picked up on it.

“So you’re just…going to drop me off at my house? Really?”

“I’d come in with you, if you wanted,” Daron said.

“God, that’s not the point.”

“What is the point, Taylor?” Daron asked. A few seconds of silence passed, and then she either pivoted the conversation, or gave an answer he couldn’t quite reconcile.

“You embarrassed me so much tonight.”

“Did I?” Daron wasn’t trying to be an antagonist, but he felt that familiar bone-deep weariness, and he couldn’t make himself commit to much more elaborate responses.

“Um, yeah? I mean, you show up in a t-shirt that’s way too tight for a party where you’re supposed to meet my friends for the first time, then you keep talking about food every chance you get…”

“My shirt isn’t too small,” Daron said, without thinking. His substantial belly was currently jiggling along with the road underneath the white cloth, that much was obvious, but it wasn’t like it was riding up or clinging to every roll. He glanced down to confirm. “It’s just not baggy.”

“Okay, but like, did you not consider anything even a little more flattering? Not something where it’s like, gut on full display, ‘hey Taylor’s sisters’. Like, how does that make me look?”

“Just about everyone that I spoke to tonight was great, and encouraging, and gave no indication they were judging you or me. It sort of seems like the only person there who cares about my body and clothes and shit is you.”

“I thought you cared, too. Based on what you told me when we first started dating, but whatever. You don’t know what people say not to your face.”

“Taylor, what do you want me to do?” Daron asked, exasperated but sincere. “I’m already exercising more regularly, I’m eating better…”

Taylor let out a whip-crack scoffing laugh. “Yeah, okay.”

That stung. Deep down, Daron knew the late night ice cream binges weren’t great, but he also knew that it was still better than before, in context. And besides, if he felt comfortable eating until he was full earlier, while dining with Taylor and her watchful gaze, they likely wouldn’t be happening at all.

“I am. Just because it hasn’t resulted in me looking the way you want me to doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Daron said as he rolled up to the front of Taylor’s house. He put the car in park, but left it running. “The truth is, I feel good. I’m stronger, healthier, and even like what I look like…sometimes. That’s just not enough for you.”

Taylor stared at him. “God, you are so sensitive. I’ve just been trying to help; I mean, you sure don’t act like you feel amazing.”

“I think…” Daron spoke carefully, but certainly, as the truth came to him. “I think that isn’t because I’m unhappy with my body. I think it’s because I’m unhappy in this relationship.”

What?”

“I don’t want to speak for you, but it doesn’t seem like you’re too stoked on it either, Taylor. At least, not now. Not while I’m settled where my body wants to be.”

“What are you even saying, Daron? Do you actually think you’d be able to go find someone better than me?”

“Maybe not. But my self-worth isn’t tied into being in a romantic relationship. If I go it alone, that’s okay too. Better than staying with someone who feels like I need to change when I know I’m fine as is,” Daron said, feeling simultaneous relief and nausea competing for top dog billing in his throat. Taylor looked back at him, disbelieving, for just a few more seconds before she ripped open the passenger door next to her and stepped out.

“You were right about one thing, when we first met,” Taylor said, facing him coldly as she stood on the lawn outside her house. “You are just some fat loner.”

And with that, she slammed the door and stormed away. Daron forced himself to wait until he saw her get inside her front door before he pulled away. Rather than head directly back home, he drove his car in the direction of a late night Philly Cheesesteak shack. Might as well talk to some good food about the evening.
 
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Just spent my entire morning reading this story (while making and baking a lemon and lime drizzle cake) as once I started I couldn’t stop. It has been an emotional rollercoaster and I love it. Thank you.
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 31

As Daron expected, Freddie didn’t bring up the party when they returned to work on Monday. (She did make a few probing jokes, clearly testing whether he was upset with her in some way, and he passed that with flying colors.) This was good, since Daron wanted some time to process everything. He also needed to return several of Taylor’s belongings that had moved themselves into his home at some point, and he wanted to give Taylor a few days to cool down post-breakup before arranging it.

By midweek, Daron had taken the box of various hair care products and some clothing over to Taylor’s for the dropoff. She had greeted him outside looking effortlessly stunning, in a cropped wife beater and sweats, and he couldn’t help the twist of sadness in his chest. The quiet, anxious voice in the back of his mind working overtime, wondering: are you SURE you can’t just try a LITTLE harder to lose the belly…? But he knew that whatever decisions he made while intoxicated by Taylor’s presence would rapidly deteriorate, and he was too tired to keep going.

He apologized, sincerely, for the unexpected turn of events and the hurt he had inflicted. Affirming that he did care for her, very much, and he just wanted what was best for each of them as individuals. Taylor sniffed and offered half-hearted thanks, but no apology or retraction for her own words. That was OK. Daron wasn’t expressing himself with an expectation for anything in response, he just thought it was the right thing to do.

So, the next day at work, he let the news slip to Freddie.

“Oh, shit,” she said, looking at him with wide green eyes. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“Yeah, I mean, it sucks. But it is what it is. I’m okay. And...you...probably know what happened.”

“That fucking bitch,” muttered Freddie. “Want me to egg her car?” Daron laughed.

“No thanks. I was actually the one who ended things, not her.”

“Wait, really? Why?” Freddie pulled one leg up onto the couch with them, holding it close to her chest.

“Well, I guess...you…” Daron hesitated, then figured he might as well get this admittance out of the way before Freddie said it first. “You were right. She did want to change me, and at some point I figured that just because that was the way she felt about my body doesn’t mean I have to agree. I actually feel pretty good.”

Freddie grinned widely, but tried to stifle it behind her hand as she replied: “Fuck yeah, Daron. I am… sorry I said that though, and the stuff about her just being desperate ‘cause she’s 30. She wasn’t actually settling.”

“I know,” Daron said. “But it was pretty clear she thought she was. Which made me believe it for awhile, too.”

“Yeah, ain’t nobody got time for that,” Freddie agreed. After a brief hesitation, she scratched her nose and asked: “So next time around, someone who’s all in on you is a good call - any other lessons from your time together?”

Daron considered this. “Things were electric with Taylor from the get-go. I was so attracted to her, I put up with...a lot. But that burned out eventually.” He half-nodded at Xander and Julie, who were chatting over near the office’s computer. “I think next time, I’d want something like what they have. Built on a foundation of trust, first and foremost. More of a ‘slow burn’, I guess.” A few seconds of silence followed this, and Daron looked from the computer area back over to Freddie across from him. Her eyes had grown even wider, which he hadn’t thought possible, and she was staring at him with an unreadable expression. “...Fred? Not good?”

“No! No, sorry. Yeah, that’s a really good idea.”

“I’m sure as shit not in a rush, though,” Daron added with a wry grin. “This is all hypothetical. I have so much gaming and fried food to catch up on.”

“Cheers to that,” Freddie said. “Death Before Quinoa.”

“Death Before Quinoa for sure.”

Daron stuck to his word as time went on, indulging in his favorite foods even during the daylight and enjoying some co-op gaming he’d neglected for nearly the past 6 months. He and Freddie made it to the next part of Divinity, and were enjoying exploring the new island. A few weeks after this shift, Xander gathered the team for a discussion.

“We have a request for a follow up,” he said, looking at each of his employees. “From Jeremy and Frederick.”

“What?” Freddie and Daron both said in unison.

“Isn’t that a police case now?” Daron continued.

“Have they found Angela?” Julie asked.

“Is he hearing voices again?” Freddie added, looking at Xander in confusion. Last they’d all heard, Jeremy hadn’t heard a single thing out of the ordinary since they’d found the hex bag and he’d gotten his surgery. The topic of which was responsible would often get…lively.

“No,” Xander said, looking at each of his employees individually for a moment. “Angela as a missing person is still technically a police case, but we’re not going to help with that, or anything too specific, really. Just to wrap up in person, and to visit. Jeremy is still recovering from his surgery, and he asked about you.” At this, Xander nodded at Freddie, who was now sporting bright silver tips to her hair.

“I do have a few questions I wouldn’t mind getting Frederick’s answers on,” Julie mused.

“Well, you can ask those while we go over the case. And Daron and Freddie, you two can keep Jeremy company, if you’re up for it.”

“But it’s so…far…” Daron half-whined, mostly joking. Still, Freddie looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“Too far to get paid to rock some Mario Kart 64?”

“…Nope. Good point.”

“Besides,” Freddie said, her voice growing serious. “Brain surgery the day your mom goes missing? That can’t be easy, poor kid. If it’ll help even a little, I’m happy to make the trip.”

Later that week, the team made the trek out of town to follow up with their former clients. Daron’s seat belt in the back got caught multiple times as he tried to buckle in, leaving him unable to click it around his round belly. Freddie laughed as he huffed in irritation.

“You’re very helpful,” he grumbled.

“You have to let it go all the way back…not keep yanking it…there, like that. Okay, now sloooowly…” Freddie actually reached out and tugged at the belt herself, and Daron felt her hand brush his as well as his belly. He flushed, sucked it in, and finally got the belt clipped. Freddie settled back into her seat, satisfied. “See? Patience is a virtue.”

A couple hours of being squeezed too tightly later, they arrived at the home of Frederick and Jeremy. The frosted lawn was more overgrown than it had been, but the energy somehow seemed less threatening than it had before. Not quite The Conjuring, and more suburban, despite the rural setting. Daron saw Freddie’s head cock with curiosity as she peered out the truck window, guessing she picked up on the same.

“Ready?” Xander asked as he unclipped and opened his door. His employees nodded, following suit.

After ringing the doorbell, Xander took a step back into the group and waited. A few moments later, Frederick answered, with Jeremy at his side. They both looked tired, and Jeremy still had a subtle but noticeably shorter patch of hair on his head from the surgery, but they still appeared to be doing well. Jeremy waved at the group, and smiled when he saw Freddie, who was standing next to Daron. She smiled back, and even Daron felt a ghost of one tug at his lips.

“Thank you for coming,” Frederick said, looking at each of the team individually. He stepped back to allow them entrance, while Jeremy moved further down the narrow hall to wait for them.

“Frederick, would you like to speak to Xander and I in the kitchen?” Julie asked as the group made its way to the fork in the hall. Frederick nodded.

“Yes, that’s what I was thinking. And we’ve got the N64 set up in the den, if you want to show them, Jer?”

“Do you want to play a game with me?” Jeremy clarified, looking at Freddie. She nodded enthusiastically before patting Daron on his flannel-clad shoulder.

“Yes, please! Can Daron come too? Three’s the perfect number for balloon battle too, if we want.”

“Okay,” Jeremy agreed, looking at Daron with a nervous but still polite smile as he opened the door to the den. Daron and Freddie followed him in, while Frederick, Xander, and Julie silently split off to the kitchen on the opposite side of the hall.
 
Last edited:

Ghostboo

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“How’re you feeling, Jeremy?” Freddie asked lightly as the trio got settled in the den. Daron sat on the couch nearer to the back of the room, while Freddie and Jeremy sat criss-cross on the floor in front of the large TV, pulling out the controllers.

“Good,” Jeremy replied dutifully. He held out a black controller and a blue controller to Freddie, who selected the blue controller after a brief hesitation. With a slightly nervous smile, Jeremy grabbed a red controller and held out that and the black one towards Daron.

“Which one do you want, my dude?” Daron asked. Jeremy looked down at them, then shrugged.

“Either one.”

“Thanks,” Daron said, selecting the red controller. Jeremy’s smile grew more genuine as he turned back to switch on the Nintendo 64. Freddie caught Daron’s eye with a slightly furrowed brow, and he knew she was concerned, but trying to hide it from Jeremy. Figuring a distraction might help, Daron got ready, then pounced as soon as the character selection screen was up.

“Hey!” Freddie cried, dancing her controller around his selection. “Give up Daisy, old man!”

“I’m feeling pretty today,” Daron replied, ignoring her narrow-eyed glares. Jeremy began to giggle.

“How dare you! I will NOT be Peach. You are so dead.”

“I thought you said you liked being Bowser,” Jeremy chimed in, looking from Freddie to Daron with wide - but still amused - eyes. Daron looked from Jeremy to Freddie, then gave himself an exaggerated slap on the forehead.

“Oh yeah,” he said, unselecting Daisy and scooting over to his usual. “I totally forgot.”

“I hate you,” laughed Freddie as she claimed her character prize.

“I’d hate me, too, if I knew I was about to lose to a character with actual handling.”

“Wow. Those words? Not gonna age well.”

“What cup do you guys wanna do?” Jeremy interjected, looking between his guests with a more relaxed smile as he cycled through the options.

“Do you have a preference?” Daron asked. Jeremy shook his head.

“Let’s warm up with the mushroom or flower? Then we can do the special cup?” Freddie suggested.

“Let’s do mushroom. I hate Toad’s Turnpike,” Daron said, and Jeremy selected the first cup at his behest.

“Even with all your amazing handling? I wouldn’t think a few li’l cars would create any issue,” Freddie mocked.

“Bowser’s got a few more inches to get out of the way than your princesses, and you know it,” Daron retorted. When Freddie twisted around again to look at him incredulously, he emphasized his point by pinching a handful of fat from around his waist, smirking. Freddie rolled her eyes and turned back towards the screen, but not before he caught a grin spreading across her face too.

“Okay, ready?” Freddie asked Jeremy, whose eyes were glued to the screen. He nodded. Daron kept an eye on his competitor’s controllers, and saw they were prepared for the initial boost with the pre-timed press of the gas button. Still feeling particularly devious, Daron prepared himself for the green light as well, then was off like a shot. Freddie, as the third player, was slightly behind him, and in her light speed, caught up almost immediately. Unfortunately, Daron had abandoned the goal of winning, and instead spun his joystick to smash deliberately into Daisy and spin her off the road.

“Oh, you dick!” Shrieked Freddie as she slammed the “a” button repeatedly to try and get quickly out of her spin. The rest of the riders of the grand prix rode past them, including Jeremy, who was giggling. Freddie blushed and added, “sorry! Sorry for the language, Jeremy.”

“That’s okay,” Jeremy said. “I know if you have a job you’re allowed to say bad words.”

“That’s…a good measurement actually,” Daron said, knocking racers out of his way on the track. Jeremy nodded.

“I know I can’t yet but I don’t mind. You can, if you get mad at the game, it’s okay.”

Freddie and Daron exchanged a quick look.

“Thanks Jeremy,” Freddie said, trying and failing to hit Daron’s Bowser with a green shell. “You’re a good kid.”

“Thanks.”

Soon, the struggling Freddie picked up a lightning bolt, which enabled her to shoot back up into third place for the track just in the nick of time. Jeremy won, and Daron came in second. This trend continued for the rest of the cup, and soon their characters were on their pedestals.

“Okay, but Special cup now? I swear, I can dominate on some Rainbow Road,” Freddie said.

“Sure,” Jeremy said.

“Whatever you want, princess,” Daron replied seriously, lifting his legs out of the way as Freddie turned to swat at him. “Ahhh! No abusing your subjects!”

“Have you gotten to play much Mario Kart with your other friends since your surgery?” Freddie asked Jeremy as the game got underway.

“No,” Jeremy said. “Just with dad, but he’s busy. Most kids in my class think I’m weird, so they don’t come over.”

“Oh,” Freddie said. “Well…” She hesitated, so Daron stepped in.

“Nothing wrong with being weird. Sometimes it can make it hard to find your people, but they’re out there.”

“It just might take a minute,” Freddie continued. “Like, Daron probably would’ve never been my friend when he was your age, Jeremy. But look at us now!”

“Okay well A. When I was Jeremy’s age you wouldn’t have been born yet, and B. You think I would’ve cared what other people thought?” Daron felt genuinely insulted, but hid it behind an exaggeratedly wounded tone. “Just because I have my natural hair color doesn’t mean I’m not just as weird as you.”

“What do you mean?” Freddie asked innocently as the last racer crossed the track’s finish line. Winking at Jeremy, she tugged at her hair’s silver tips and said, “This is natural, I’ve just gone very selectively gray.”

Since they were in front of a kid, Daron forewent his initial response instinct - you are so full of shit - and rolled his eyes instead. Jeremy giggled and shook his head as the next race started.

“What? Nobody believes me? Wow, guys,” Freddie said, taking on her own wounded tone as she navigated into the lead. Ironically, she probably would have won the cup in the end except for Rainbow Road. Daisy drove off just about every twist and turn that arose, much to her companion’s amusement. Even Daron audibly snorted with laughter when - with the finish line finally in sight! - she pitched over the edge once again.

“Lakitu is doing me dirty,” growled Freddie as the cloud-flying character slowly deposited her back on the track. By this time, every character but DK and Wario had crossed the finish line.

“Well, Thornberry, I’m obviously sorry I ever doubted you,” Daron said. Freddie made a move like she was about to throw the controller at him, and Daron ducked while Jeremy peeked out from between his fingers, grinning. Sighing, Freddie lowered the controller.

“Is it battle royale time?” She asked Jeremy. The voices from the kitchen of their coworkers and Frederick were audible as just a murmur, but no actual words. They still seemed to be going strong.

“Okay,” said Jeremy cheerfully, backing out to the main menu after the awards ceremony featuring just him and Daron. He changed his character from Toad to DK, though Daron stuck with Bowser while Freddie stuck with Daisy. Freddie went on the all-out offensive - especially targeting Daron - but he quickly adjusted to her tactics and soon, Freddie was out first.

“Daaangitttt,” she groaned, leaning back onto the ground and staring up at the ceiling. After a couple minutes, Daron and Jeremy finally finished battling over the last balloon, Daron emerging victorious.

“Good game,” Daron said, leaning forward as much as he could over his round belly to offer Jeremy his hand to shake.

“You too,” said Jeremy, taking Daron’s hand with good cheer. Sitting up, Freddie smiled at the pair before speaking up. Her voice was friendly, but a little hesitant, though Daron didn’t think anyone who didn’t know her well would pick up on the second bit.

“Have you been getting along OK since your mom went away, Jeremy? I know that’s gotta be hard.”

Jeremy paused thoughtfully before answering.

“It is hard. But I’m OK.” Facing the TV again, Jeremy selected a new battle stage for them. Unsure of what to add, Daron focused on fighting - or lack thereof, letting both Freddie and Jeremy land a hit each in hopes of raising their spirits. Unfortunately, right after, Freddie received a red shell, and suddenly Daron was out of the game completely. Sighing, he settled back into the red couch, setting his controller to the side and placing both his hands on top of his soft middle. He allowed himself to feel them rise and fall with his breath without feeling frustrated or panicked.

“I hope maybe we can get a pet now,” Jeremy spoke up again, his concentration on chasing Freddie with a green shell onscreen, but his voice conversational.

“Yeah? Are you a dog or cat person?” Daron asked.

“Either,” Jeremy said. “I like all animals.”

“Me too,” said Freddie. “Why couldn’t you have a pet before?”

Jeremy shrugged. “I’m not supposed to say.”

“Who told you that you aren’t supposed to say, Jeremy?” Daron asked, exchanging a quick glance with Freddie, who finally lost her second balloon to Jeremy’s green shell.

“My mom.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Jeremy,” Freddie said slowly, contrasting her fast-moving fingers on the controls. “But your mom isn’t here, and if we can help, we will.”

Jeremy didn’t reply for a few seconds, and Daron figured they had blown it. Soon, though, he spoke up quietly.

“Mom did something to them. I wasn’t supposed to see. Mom and Dad would talk about how they ran away, even though Dad looked scared. But one time I woke up ‘cause I was thirsty, it was at night, and when I went to get some water I found her carrying my turtle Leo. I asked what she was doing, and she said he had to go away, and not to tell anybody. ‘Cept, then I found Leo’s shell later in my closet. I miss her and stuff but while she’s gone I thought maybe we could get a new one. ‘Cause I miss Leo too.”

“Jeremy,” Freddie said as Daisy drove off into a pit of lava, her wide green eyes meeting Daron’s dark brown ones as he slowly sat up. “You didn’t have anything to do with your pets disappearing?”

“No,” said Jeremy. “The doctors I talked to thought I did though. And the voices told me what to say sometimes.”

“Have you heard the voices again lately?” Daron asked cautiously, tightening his core as he watched Jeremy watch the awards ceremony on the screen.

“No,” Jeremy said again, looking from the screen to his companions with innocent curiosity. “I haven’t. Not since mom left.”
 

Ghostboo

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“So what the fuck do we do?” Freddie asked from the backseat, breaking their usual tendency to wait until they were back in the office to discuss. “Do we tell the cops?”

“I think you’re probably the best person to answer that,” Julie replied after a pause.

“Do you think they’ll listen?” Xander asked, glancing back at Freddie.

“I mean, no, but better to be safe than sorry…I guess? God, she was cursing her own kid? That is so much worse than I was thinking,” Freddie rambled, burying her head in her hands. Daron looked silently out the window, mulling over the conversation.

After Jeremy’s revelation, he had looked at the pair with increasing worry, picking up at least some of their concern. Freddie had quickly assured him that they weren’t upset or mad, and were just glad he trusted them enough to let them know. She sounded convincing, but Daron had seen the near-panic in her eyes when she met his gaze.

“If dad asks, would you tell him you think it’s okay if I got another turtle?” Jeremy had asked hesitantly, and Freddie had nodded thoroughly. “Can we play again?” He asked next, and Daron affirmed while picking up his controller. About halfway through the next round, Frederick, Xander, and Julie had come into the room, with Julie joining Daron on one couch while Frederick and Julie sat on the other.

After the game wrapped up, Julie had asked for one more conversation with Jeremy, which he agreed to only after his dad told him that they were out of time for more games. Freddie moved from the floor to the red couch next to Daron when Julie got up and left the room with Jeremy. Freddie pulled her legs up beside her before leaning her head on Daron’s shoulder. Daron could hear her anxious breathing rattle next to his ear as she did, so he gave her arm a quick (and hopefully comforting) squeeze before placing his hands back on top of his widest point. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, his brain whirring past the events of the afternoon without landing on anything specific.

The good-byes after this were genuinely heartfelt, with Freddie giving Jeremy a hug after Daron received a fist-bump.

“Thanks for hanging out and talking with us today,” Freddie said. “Always nice to unite with a fellow weirdo.” Jeremy smiled at this, and his dad ruffled his hair.

“Thank you both,” Julie affirmed, giving Frederick a firm handshake before the team headed back to the truck.

“Will you swap me spots for the way back?” Daron asked, seeing Freddie head for the same door she’d exited out of to get here. Freddie paused.

“Why?”

“Because of that stupid seatbelt? It’s uncomfortable.”

“So…you think I should be uncomfortable instead?” Freddie asked, crossing her arms with a raised brow and the hint of a half-smile. Daron resisted groaning.

“Come on, Fred. There’s a lot less of you that the belt has to fit around. It’ll be easier.”

“But you’re the one with more built-in padding…” Freddie said, letting her eyes trace Daron brazenly up and down. He flushed and sucked in his belly in a hopefully subtle breath, squashing down his initial instinct that he was being flirted with. He knew better. It was Freddie. “So wouldn’t it be more comfortable for you?”

“Coming, you two?” Julie asked, opening the passenger door to call to them.

“Yep! One sec,” Freddie called back. Instead of continuing her journey to the door, she looked at Daron with a more pronounced smile and a touch of expectation. Daron felt himself squirm slightly under her gaze.

“Okay, Fred, maybe. But could you please…” emphasizing the word he knew she was looking for from between gritted teeth… “do me this favor?”

“Daron, of course,” Freddie said gallantly, giving him a half-bow as she gestured for him to approach the door. “I was only teasing.”

“Have to act out being the sore loser somehow, huh?”

At that, Freddie made a move like she was going to dash to the door in front of Daron, making him hurriedly pull at the handle. Laughing, Freddie countered his cross to the other door. It did take her a second to get the seatbelt across her own body, but not long enough to justify Daron stepping in with his own condescending and handsy help like she had, he noted with what almost felt like disappointment.

Still, Freddie’s seemingly playful mood vanished almost immediately once the truck got moving. Chewing on her lip, she caught Daron’s eye, and he saw the fun light from outside replaced with the worry from inside the grey home. So in a bid to help, he was actually the one who broke the silence.

“Did you guys pick up on anything new today? Because I think we did.”

“No,” Julie replied, looking back in surprise after making eye contact with Xander. “We didn’t. I thought Frederick might have been hiding something, but…we weren’t able to uncover anything. What did you find?”

“Though, the house did feel much lighter after the destruction of the hex bag,” Xander chimed in. Daron and Freddie looked at each other.

“And after his mom left,” Freddie said soberly.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Jeremy all but told us that his mom was the one killing pets. Not him.”

“But she…” Julie’s words trailed off as she processed this.

“So the day Angela went missing wasn’t just the day of the surgery,” Xander picked up, speaking slowly. “It was also the day after we destroyed the hex bag.”

Normally, Daron would have been weighing in with his regularly scheduled additions of “allegedly” and “that’s what they THINK”s but he still found himself unable to pin down his thoughts about the day enough to speak up.

“The references to Jeremy’s responsibility for the deceased animals all came from Angela,” Julie mused. “Frederick only ever saw their remains and seemed to take her word for it. I can’t believe I missed…”

“Me neither,” Xander said as Julie trailed off. “Some clairvoyant I am. Looking a witch in the face and only picking up some general darkness.”

“Well, however much she was masking, she was obviously doing it…very well,” Julie said somberly. Xander merely sighed at this, and Daron saw Julie rest a comforting hand on his knee. He was surprised to realize he felt a twinge of jealousy. Not of Julie in particular, of course, but just of the thought of having such a caring partner. It had been awhile for him, and he had meant what he told Freddie. The next time he took that step, it would be into an adult, and fully trusting, situation.

Darkness had begun to fall as they reached the office, and the last bit of the drive was spent in solemn silence. The summary of the interviews went quickly, as almost everything relevant had been discussed in the truck.

“Tomorrow, first thing, I’m going to talk to the cops,” Freddie said, biting off a piece of her middle fingernail with an anxious ferocity that made Daron flinch. “If Walters is there, he might…I don’t know. Anyway, just so they have all the info for their missing persons report.”

“Thanks, Freddie,” Xander said. “Daron, can you go too? To corroborate the story?”

“Sure,” Daron agreed.

“Then we’ll see you both here when you finish with that. Go get some rest.”

In the light of the entryway as they began their exit, Daron saw that at least two of Freddie’s fingertips were bleeding from her chewing. He let it be until they shut the door behind them and were alone, out in the icy dark of the driveway. He could tell that her breathing was even more ragged than it had been when she leaned on his shoulder. On quiet instinct, Daron took Freddie’s tricep and pulled her closer, wrapping his arms around her shoulders in a hug. At first, she stiffened with surprise, but quickly melted into the embrace by wrapping her arms as far around his soft middle as they would go.

“I just feel so awful…we fucking missed it, Daron, and what if we hadn’t? Could we have…would it even…”

“We can’t do everything,” Daron replied quietly. Freddie seemed to start to protest, but it dissolved quickly into crying, her face buried in his upper chest. “I’m here,” he continued. “And it’s going to be okay.”

The words had their desired effect on Freddie’s sympathetic nervous system, and her panicked breathing seemed to slow even as she continued to cry. He felt her grip on him loosen, and he moved one hand to briefly, comfortingly touch the back of her head before stepping away just slightly. Freddie sniffed and followed his lead.

“I’m sorry. I think I just…”

“You don’t have to apologize, Fred. Today was a lot.”

“Yeah.” Freddie avoided Daron’s gaze, but he saw her eyes were red-rimmed from the reflection off the snow. He resisted the urge to pull her in again, continuing to diligently refuse to look at his thoughts directly, and instead turned towards his car.

“Let’s get you home.”
 
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Ghostboo

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
Location
United States
Chapter 32

Winter turned more-than-slowly into a slushy spring. The cycle of snow at night, melt into mud during the day, snow, melt, snow, melt was putting nearly everyone on edge. In addition, the question mark of Angela’s disappearance wasn't helping Freddie, and the expanding of his gut despite the strengthening in his arms wasn't helping Daron. Unsurprisingly on both counts, the cops hadn’t exactly taken the “witch” news relayed from their former lab tech about their missing person seriously. And secondly, Daron pushing back after months of pseudo-dieting was wreaking havoc in his waistline. He was still growing stronger with his lifting, but his stomach’s fat seemed determinedly expanding with every indulgence.

These stresses were resulting in Freddie throwing herself into each case with a nerve wracking intensity, clearly terrified of missing something, which often caused a frustrated Daron to snap at her and then promptly feel worse. But even his newest clothing pinching his softest bits in uncomfortable ways was causing him excessive aggravation, and sometimes it took a second for his brain to catch up. Like right now.

“Freddie. Chill,” Daron hissed at his coworker on the couch next to him. Her boot was tapping against the ground with a frequency he’d label as near-frantic, and as a result, her leg was shaking the couch and causing Daron’s belly to jiggle slightly. He tugged his snug white sweater away from clinging to his middle, but it didn’t do much, and he scowled. Freddie looked at him, but said nothing as she slowed her leg before turning her attention back to the people in front of them.

The latest case the team had picked up was a family just outside town with repeated reports of paranormal phenomenon after moving into their new home. The Sundquists consisted of two middle aged parents, Terry and Laura, and their three children - Rebecca, 14; Hannah, 12; and Rick, 9. The presence of the children seemed to rattle Freddie more, despite the fact that the hyperactive Rick and his dramatic older sisters couldn’t have been less like Jeremy, Daron thought.

“Is it just me, or do you feel like we’ve been relegated to the unpopular table,” Freddie asked out of the corner of her mouth. Daron snorted, but didn’t respond. He knew what she meant - Rebecca had given everyone a once over, and unsurprisingly, had seemed to find everyone but Xander lacking. Julie’s business casual apparel had warranted an amused look, Freddie’s vintage clothing and ombre blue hair a raised eyebrow, and Daron’s too-tight ensemble a wrinkle of her nose. And once Rebecca’s opinion was known, Hannah had quickly followed suit with far from subtle haughty glances. Daron’s insecurity and frustration with his body couldn’t even blame them, but he also couldn’t laugh it off like the unusually (but still impeccably) dressed Freddie.

“I know now our state doesn’t require disclosure of previous crimes when selling a home,” Laura was saying, tightly holding Terry’s hand but unable to take her eyes off Xander. “So after about a month of dealing with these noises and feelings, I looked into it, and…a young woman and her…” her voice dropped low, checking to make sure Rick wasn’t paying attention “…lover were murdered by her disapproving father back when this house was first built.”

“And when was that?” Daron asked. Laura blinked and looked at him briefly with before directing her answer back towards Xander.

“1895.”

“And…have there been reports of hauntings or unusual activity from any of the other owners between now and then?” Freddie asked, looking at Laura with a raised brow. Despite her palpable anxiety, Freddie didn’t leave the skepticism out of her voice, and Daron smirked.

“Not that we know of,” Laura said after a brief pause.

“But…” Hannah spoke up, then quickly looked down at the floor when the team all turned their gaze to her.

“Yes, Hannah?” Julie encouraged gently. Rebecca put an arm around her sister and spoke up.

“We used a ouija board when we first moved in. We think we made contact with the girl…who lived here. That’s when it all started.”

“Thank you for telling us, Rebecca,” Xander said, and it was hard to miss the waves of pleasure the girls got from the affirmation. Meanwhile, Daron specifically didn’t miss Freddie flicking her eyes over to him (a more subtle move than rolling them, but still rooted in exasperation). He continued to half-smile as he leaned back into the Sundquist's stiff blue couch, crossing his arms over his chest to rest on his soft, wide shelf of a belly.

As the general rundown wrapped up, Xander asked Daron and Freddie if they were ready to check the house. Freddie hesitated, and Daron knew she was torn between wanting to hear what the family would continue to discuss and wanting to do her own research. He uncrossed his arms with a quiet sigh, unconsciously tugging at his sweater again.

“C’mon, Thornberry,” he said, hurrying along his coworker as he heaved himself to his feet and offered her a hand up. Freddie gave him a tight smile, and accepted his hand as a lever to pull herself to standing.

At her current pace, however, Xander and Julie could interview the entire family multiple times over before Freddie would be ready to leave the job.

“Fred, we need to go,” Daron said, trying and failing to sound less aggravated than he was as Freddie made her third scraping from the same corner of the room.

“I’m just trying to make sure I get everything,” Freddie replied, looking up at him from her squatted position.

“Right, but we don’t need everything. We’re coming back. You know this is all preliminary.”

“But…”

“I promise you that nobody’s going to die of ‘rustling at night’ before we can get back to do a more thorough search,” Daron said dryly, quoting the primary complaint from the file they’d looked over yesterday. Freddie looked at him with a slightly furrowed brow, then slowly she nodded and rose to her feet.

“You’re right. I’m sorry, Daron.”

“It’s fine, but double time now, okay?”

Even with hurrying their checklist from that point on, Xander and Julie were checking their watches by the time Freddie and Daron made it downstairs. When Julie asked if they were ready, Freddie cast an eye around for the family with a spike in her nervous energy.

“Are you sure you're done? Did you talk to all of them? Did you ask about-”

“Freddie,” Julie interrupted gently, exchanging a glance with Xander. “Can I talk to you outside?”

“Sure,” Freddie said, seeming to shrink a little as looked from Daron back to Julie. She quietly followed their coworker out.

“Let’s just give them a minute,” Xander said. Daron nodded and checked the time, stifling a groan that they clearly wouldn’t get back to the office until after 5. He’d been really hoping to get out early in order to make the long overdue trip to pick up some new clothes. The local big & tall store was much quieter than the major outlets, but only if you could make it there before most close of business. There was no shortage of husky men with desk jobs in the area looking for a quick, and less judgmental, shopping excursion.

Once they were all in the truck, Freddie stayed unusually quiet, though she gave Daron a quick smile when she saw him looking at her with some concern. Unable to read her expression, Daron resolved to table his curiosity until he could ask her about it.

Back at the office, they all agreed they’d be surprised if anything truly supernatural was happening at the Sundquist home.

“We’ll see how the labs come back,” Xander said, studying the file in front of him. “But it could really be any number of things at this point.”

“Divinity later?” Daron asked Freddie as the group called it for the day, and as she was clearly preparing to dash for the door. Freddie hesitated for a moment, then nodded with a smile. “Great. I gotta run some errands, but call you when I’m home?”

“Sounds good,” Freddie said, leaving quickly but with more ease than she had been moving before.

Slightly disgruntled by the late hour, but resigned to the necessity of the task, Daron drove to the store for a hopefully brief shopping trip. It was more populated than he would have liked, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He ended up grabbing a few articles of clothing he already owned, but one size up and in varying colors. These included a pair of jeans, a pair of light green slacks, a blue button-up, and a patterned red pullover sweater.

Back at the house, Daron changed into sweats and put away his new clothing as rapidly as he could before heating up a frozen dinner. It wasn’t ideal, he knew, but he was hoping to get in a couple hours of gaming before winding down for bed. After a few steaming bites, he hopped on the computer downstairs. With his headset on, he pulled up Discord and saw Freddie online, so he made the call.

“Hey Daron,” Freddie said as she answered noticeably breathlessly.

“Hey Fred. This a good time? Were you working out?”

“Yeah, but I was expecting you. It’s all good. It was my second workout today, so not exactly priority.”

Second? I don’t…understand you sometimes.”

Freddie laughed. “Yeah, well. It hasn’t been helping as much lately, but I figure it can’t hurt.”

“Working out hasn’t been helping?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that what you and Julie talked about?”

There was a pause from the other end, though Daron could still hear her somewhat heavy breathing.

“It…kinda was. She had some recommendations for therapists in the area that work will cover and that specialize in…anxiety and that kind of stuff. To help bridge that new gap.”

“Oh,” Daron said. “Gotcha. How’re you feeling about that?”

“Uh…anxious?” Freddie mused, and the pair both laughed as Daron started up Divinity. “No, but, really, better than being yelled at again, which is what I was expecting.”

Julie’s yelled at you before?”

“No, dork,” Freddie said wryly. “I meant you.”

“I didn’t yell at you,” Daron replied defensively, feeling an embarrassed blush heat up his cheeks.

“Right, sorry. I was mostly kidding,” Freddie said, her tone objectively exhausted. With a sigh, Daron knew he had to acknowledge that he was ashamed of his recent behavior.

“Okay, I have been a little off my game lately, and I know I’ve taken it out on everyone. Especially you. I’m sorry about that, Fred.”

“It’s okay. Just a perfect storm of issues for everyone, I guess. Is it from anything you want to talk about?”

Daron glanced down at his yet again more expansive stomach, sitting round and heavy in his lap. Then over at the meal he’d heated up, which was technically a family-sized portion.

“Not particularly.”

“Want me to shoot over any of these names from Julie, then?”

“Not unless one of them is also a nutritionist,” Daron replied dryly.

“Ahhh,” Freddie said knowingly, and Daron was glad for the audio only so his friend wasn’t able to see how his blush deepened. “Is Taylor still in your head a little?”

“Not…really,” Daron replied, but even to his ears he sounded entirely unconvincing. He heard a slight crackle from Freddie’s end, usually signifying that her cheek was rubbing up against her mic with a smile. “It’ll get better soon, I’m sure.”

“Yeah,” Freddie said cheerfully as the Divinity party began to explore on their screens. “I’m sure too.”

Daron glanced over to his closet and his new clothes, feeling like they just might be right, and not just foolishly trying to convince themselves. He had attractive clothes that fit again, and Freddie had someone professional to talk to about whatever she was going through. Maybe things were going to be just fine. And either way, Daron was going to live in the moment. He took a big bite of macaroni before leading his barbarian over to the yellow dot signifying an NPC, finally feeling relaxed.
 
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Ghostboo

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
Location
United States
Catch me uploading these dead tired because I am SCARING MYSELF INTO NOT SLEEPING EVEN JUST WRITING IT lol. If you’re still with us, I hope you’re having an amazing autumn full of pumpkin spice and/or your favorite mulled wine! Now, let’s get down to some character development, shall we? We’ve earned it!

Chapter 33

By the time they got back out for a more thorough investigation of the Sundquist’s, Freddie was committed to twice-weekly sessions with a psychiatrist a few streets over from their office.

“Two times a week, Thornberry?” Daron had clarified, his dark eyebrows raised in surprise. Freddie shrugged.

“Why not? I’m not paying for it, and I’d rather talk for a few extra hours than try more meds if I don’t have to.”

“So it’s helping, then?”

“Seems like it might,” Freddie said. “I think they know what they’re doing.”

“Yeah? Man or woman?”

“Non-binary. Dr. Capstone goes by they/them. It’s part of why I picked ‘em. Not too much older, and seems to get the…feeling different while still responsible for everyone thing, if that makes sense.”

“I think so,” Daron said. “That’s cool. Have a good appointment.”

Freddie gave him a mock salute before skipping out of the office. When she returned an hour later, Xander gathered them for a group meeting to discuss the next step on the Sundquist case.

“They insist the occurrences are getting worse,” Xander said. “So tomorrow we’ll go back out for a more thorough search. The rest of today will be packing up and preparing. They wanted assurances we’d look into everything, so we’ll be setting up the cameras to leave over the weekend.”

“Sweet,” Freddie said. “We’ve been overdue for some ghost photography.”

“The labs didn’t show anything, correct?” Julie asked, and Daron nodded.

“Yep. No copper in the pipes, no mold in the scrapings. But we’ll get more tomorrow,” Daron clarified, glancing at Freddie beside him. “Just to double check.”

As they got all their gear together, Freddie stayed mostly to herself, ensuring all the pieces of the cameras were in working order. The cameras themselves, the film, the sensors, and the bulbs for the flash in the large backlit attachments. Daron could hear her humming softly as she worked, pausing only to tune in when he or Xander or Julie spoke up. Which Daron mostly did to grumble about the state of the group’s electronics, or to state his belief that the Sundquists were frauds.

“Well, part of the reason I agreed to this case is because it’s not pro bono,” Xander said with a smile. “So if you want some extra capital to go towards upgrading our equipment, sometimes we need to indulge the frauds.”

“Yeah yeah,” Daron replied. “And they’re usually your biggest fans, so it’s all a win-win for you.”

“He has a point,” Julie teased. Xander clutched his hands to his heart as though he were being mortally wounded, and the group all chuckled.

“Xander’s aware of the effect he has on women,” Freddie said, referencing an old inside joke. Not long after she had started working with them, she had pulled up a screencapture of Idris Elba in The Office saying that line and asked, “does he remind anyone else of Xander?” It had caused even Julie, usually the most composed, to thoroughly crack up.

“You’re all traitors,” Xander declared, but not without a grin on his face as he turned back to type at the computer.

The next day at the Sundquist’s, the team divided and conquered with Xander and Julie further interviewing the family, while Daron and Freddie took more in-depth samplings from the home. Then, they’d join forces to set up the requested equipment. Cameras for spirit-specific photography, EVP readers set to record, and more. Freddie stayed even quieter than the day before, not ignoring Daron by any means, but keeping mostly to herself unless he initiated an exchange.

“Fuck, c’mon,” Daron groused as he tried to unscrew a particularly stuck lightbulb in Hannah’s bedroom. They could see quite a bit of dust and perhaps more gathering in her overhead light, so they just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything toxic inside. But it took a surprising amount of effort to get it open, even with Daron’s newly acquired strength. Still, he could feel his biceps and triceps standing at full attention, taking over his arm’s usual flabby appearance, as he worked. It wasn’t long after his groan that he got it unscrewed.

“Ah-ha! There we go,” he said smugly, turning to Freddie. She was watching him silently, her wide green eyes quickly jumping from his arm back to his face. Daron raised an eyebrow.

“You doing okay, Fred?”

“Yes,” she said simply, watching as he collected a couple samples from the bulb and then packaging them away with the rest. After a moment, Freddie gave Daron a subtle once over before adding, “you look nice today.”

“Oh,” Daron said. “Thanks.” He was wearing one of his new, loose fitting pairs of jeans beneath his new blue button-up, which was left open over a white undershirt. The undershirt was snug, and definitely left very little of his plump midsection to the imagination, including the distinct outline of his deep belly button. But the spring season had finally turned too warm for him to be layering as heavily as he would usually. So with Freddie’s eyes on him, he gave his white shirt a tug away from clinging to his frame while sucking it in a little more.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Freddie said seriously. Daron felt his cheeks flame with heat.

“Do what?”

“I just…meant…” Freddie stumbled over her words, then looked away, moving towards a corner Daron knew they’d already checked twice with a test tube in her hand. “You look great, that’s all. You don’t have to worry about…hiding it.”

“Oh…kay,” Daron said, watching Freddie with some amusement. “I think we already got there, Thornberry. Let’s keep movin’?”

“Yep, you’re right,” Freddie affirmed quickly, turning to follow Daron with a new blush of her own flaming on her pale cheeks. Daron hid a smirk, glad at least that his olive-toned skin hid most but the more dramatic complexion changes.

A few hours later, the entire crew and Sundquist family were gathered back in the living room.

“Now, these will be set up until next week,” Xander was explaining, pointing out each of the contraptions around them. The room had two cameras and backlights set up on tripods along with one EVP microphone. Each room had at least one of each, with an extra camera if it was particularly large. “They shouldn’t go off or bother you just from your family moving around. But they will if there’s an electromagnetic disturbance, something that can be attributed to a spiritual or an otherworldly presence. We will be back to review the footage and see what we’re up against on Monday. Okay?”

Terry and Laura, sitting with their hands held in almost the exact same position they had been the first time the team came over, looked at each other and nodded. Hannah leaned her head onto Rebecca’s shoulder. Rick skipped around the only empty chair in the room.

“We’re scared,” sniffed Hannah. Rebecca stroked her sister’s honey blonde hair, a slightly shorter mirror of her own.

“It’s okay to feel that way,” Julie said.

“We’ll get this figured out, girls,” Xander assured. The siblings sniffed and gazed adoringly at the team leader. Daron fought back a smile as he felt Freddie’s green eyes slide over to look at him on the couch next to her - are you buying this? - and he offered a nearly imperceptible shake of his head in response.

The rest of the week was spent running the more in-depth labs and furthering research, which caused the team to be split up most of the time. They spent the last bit of Friday together, with Freddie joining in a little later than the others due to a therapy appointment. When she finally arrived, she looked noticeably exhausted as she greeted the team before sitting on the couch and fixing her gaze on her shoes.

“All right, Freddie?” Xander asked, and she nodded, but didn’t raise her eyes to him.

“Yep.”

“Okay then,” Xander said, clapping once as he looked around the room at his employees. “Any more thoughts from the week?”

“We won’t have them all back until next week, but prelims on the labs still show nothing unusual,” Daron said. “Julie, tell me there’s something very wrong with those kids.”

“Only if you consider ‘tweendom’ and ‘being an excitable child’ to be very wrong,” Julie said with a smile. “Which, admittedly, many do.”

“So you don’t think there’s any mental issues at play here?” Xander inquired.

“Mmm…only with the possibility of collective delusion, but it does seem unlikely.”

“That murder did happen at the house,” Freddie spoke up, raising her eyes briefly from the floor. “I checked it out in the library’s archives. But nothing else has happened since, so it really seems like a convenient scapegoat, as shitty as playing with a ouija board is.”

“For one round of a generally harmless game to awaken an entity powerful enough to wreak havoc in their home does also seem unlikely,” Xander agreed.

“Hey, something we agree on,” Daron said wryly.

As 5 o’clock approached, the team wound down their brainstorming for the week.

“If our equipment doesn’t pick anything up, the next step is to be on call to witness the phenomenon,” Xander pointed out. Daron stifled a groan as he got to his feet. He doubted the cameras and recordings would show anything worthwhile, but having to leave his phone on loud in order to go check on late-night noises was incredibly aggravating, so he almost hoped they did.

“See you next week,” Julie told Daron with a smile, moving to sit on the edge of the desk nearer to Xander now that work hours were over. Daron nodded at her then made his way out the door, not realizing he almost shut it on Freddie, who was following quietly behind him.

“Shit, sorry Fred,” Daron said, pulling the door back open. She offered a brief smile.

“No worries.”

“You okay? Been kinda quiet this week.”

“Yyyyeah,” Freddie answered slowly. Her gaze was on the trees in the distance, but after a moment, she looked up at him. “Are you busy tonight?”

“Not really,” Daron said, thinking about his video games and leftover takeout at home. Not anything that couldn’t be done another night. “Why? You don’t have big Friday night plans?”

“Well, I’d like to get another workout in. But after that, no. Any chance you’d want to meet for a drink?”

“Ummm...somewhere quiet?” Daron asked, picturing he and Freddie yelling in each other’s ears between songs at a nightclub. Another ghost of a smile crossed Freddie’s lips.

“Yeah, ‘course. Maybe Garden Lounge?” Freddie suggested a small, dive-y bar not far from their apartments. Even on a Friday night, it was much more likely to be populated with grungy middle-aged men unwinding with grumpy stories than anybody truly looking to party.

“Sure,” Daron said. “Just gimme a call when you’re ready.”
 
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Ghostboo

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
Location
United States
Daron was deep into his replay of Dark Souls when his phone finally buzzed with Freddie’s message. He saw it was 8:37, and that she was on her way to the Garden Lounge now. Quickly removing his headset, Daron got his jeans back on and deposited his dirty dishes into the kitchen on his way out the door. He debated walking, as it was certainly close enough and then he wouldn’t have to worry about tempering his alcohol intake. But Freddie’s apartment was closer to the Garden Lounge than his, and he didn’t want her to be waiting for too long. He could always leave the car there if need be. Plus, he realized as he stepped outside, it was currently raining.

The Garden Lounge was narrow enough to be arguably referred to as a hallway. Nestled between a boutique shop and a pizza parlor, it extended back surprisingly far, but was hardly wide enough for the bar AND a few tables across from it. Though next to the front door was a large (if slightly grimy) bay window, with a semi-circular booth nestled right inside it. And Freddie had managed to snag the booth, Daron could see as he walked up. She wasn’t on her phone, she wasn’t talking to anyone, she just sipped a short glass of amber liquid and stared into space.

Daron entered the bar and ran a hand through his curls, now damp from the rain even just from walking between his car and the lounge. About a quarter of the stools at the bar were occupied by grizzled salt-and-pepper men, who glanced briefly to see who had entered before looking away in disinterest. Daron turned to his left to lift a hand to Freddie, who lifted her drink to him in greeting. Before sitting down, he approached the bar to order a whiskey of his own.

As he made his way to the booth, Redbreast in hand, Freddie stood to greet him properly with a hug. Daron promptly regretted sticking with his same work clothes - loose jeans, and a white undershirt beneath his red wool sweater. Freddie had not just dressed quite nicely, in a black knee-length dress that hugged her curves until flaring out at her hips, but she’d also twisted her ombre hair into an updo; leaving her clean but somber face fully visible. Her makeup seemed limited to some mascara, though Daron was also never fully certain when it came to women’s makeup looks unless they were blatantly obvious.

“You look great,” he said honestly, returning her hug. “Hope you weren’t waiting long?”

“Not at all,” Freddie assured him, sitting back into the further end of the semi-circle booth. Daron sat in at the other end, realizing quickly that this table was bolted to the floor. He fit between the seat and the table - but there certainly wasn’t a lot of room to spare. Luckily they don’t serve food here, he thought with a tinge of embarrassment. Tightening his core in an effort to keep the peak of his roundness a little further away from the table edge, Daron sipped his drink and looked over to Freddie. Her eyes stared past him to the wall, or due to their dreamy quality, possibly to another dimension. Just like she’d looked when he first walked up. Daron glanced past him to make sure there wasn’t anything there, and confirmed it was just wooden panelling.

“What’s up, Fred?” He asked. “Really good workout? Really bad workout?”

“It was fine,” she said. “Starting to think my therapist is right, though, that I can’t run all my feelings out of existence.”

“Well, that is great advice. It’s why I never run anywhere,” Daron said, self-deprecatingly patting his soft side. Freddie’s gaze followed his hand, rested on his belly for just a second, then looked up into his dark eyes. Daron saw fear in her green ones, and he cocked his head a bit. “So what feelings, Fred? About the case?”

“No,” Freddie replied, knowing he meant Jeremy’s, not their current shenanigans. “I mean, that dredged some stuff up, yeah. But therapy is dredging up...more than that.”

“Okay…” Daron wasn’t sure what they were dancing around, and he held her gaze as he raised his eyebrows. Freddie looked like she was about to answer, her lips parting to let in a deep breath - and instead she looked away and proceeded to down the rest of her whiskey. Holding up a finger to him in a one sec signal, Freddie went to the bar and got the tender’s attention in order to place another order. The older men at the bar looked at Freddie for longer than they had Daron, certainly, but they all still had their own demons to battle, and they lost interest quickly. Waiting with some irritation for her to return, Daron watched as she finally did, and waited to see if she’d speak up.

As she continued to hesitate, Daron’s irritation melted into concern. He placed a hand softly over one of hers, in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. Freddie stared at his large knuckles, and without being entirely sure why, Daron felt a heated flush travel up from his neck to his cheeks.

“So Freddie,” he said, trying to catch her eye. “I gotta figure you wouldn’t have invited me tonight if you didn’t actually want to talk about it, so I’ll ask: what exactly is therapy ‘dredging up’?”

A few seconds of silence passed, with Freddie tapping her free hand’s mostly-chewed fingernails on her whiskey glass. Finally, she raised her gaze to meet his again.

“My feelings for you,” she said, her voice firm, but the look in her eyes still clearly terrified. Daron’s head cocked again slightly, his brow furrowing as he tried to parse out her meaning.

“Your…? What feelings?”

“The...shit, Daron, don’t make me say it. The...big...one.”

“Hate?”

Despite herself, Freddie snorted out a laugh at this, turning her gaze out the window next to them.

“I mean, sometimes, yeah. Two sides of the same coin and all.”

Daron stared at her. He could feel his heart starting to pound a little more intensely, and he tried to ignore it as he took his hand back in order to have another drink from his own glass - a full mouthful this time.

“What exactly are you saying, Fred?”

“I’m saying that I’m into you,” Freddie replied, her voice tired. “And I’m saying...I just need to get it out there. It’s eating me alive.”

“You’re...what?”

“I’m fully prepared to quit Xander’s team, if it’s an issue. Whatever you need, I’ve come to terms with.”

“Oh, Jesus, Fred,” Daron snapped exasperatedly. “No one’s quitting anything. Don’t be so dramatic. I’m just….” What was he just? Daron’s heart hammered louder as he looked at Freddie, the sensation drowning out his thoughts. Out of all the ways he thought this evening would go, this was literally not covered in any of them. “I...have questions.”

“Yeah,” Freddie said, nodding, pulling her own hand back to cradle her whiskey glass. “Of course.”

“So…since when?” It was all he could think to ask at the moment. Was it all stemming from Taylor?

“Always,” Freddie shrugged. “I mean, I had a crush on you at first. Of course. A handsome, confident older guy. Who wouldn’t? I figured it’d...die out once we worked more together, you know? Except you turned out to be incredibly smart and interesting and challenging and...it did the opposite, instead.”

Daron stared at her, his brain completely white-boarded out with shock. Slowly, honestly, he replied: “Fred…I never, in a million years, thought there was a chance of this kind of conversation. So I don’t…really…know what to say.”

“You really didn’t know?” Freddie’s curious green eyes met Daron’s startled brown ones. She gently lifted her eyebrows. “Or even suspect?”

Suspect? That my beautiful young coworker had a 'thing' for me? The office’s grumpy fat fuck? No, Freddie, I didn’t know.”

“Oh,” she said, blinking in surprise. “I’m not really that young, Daron. My prefrontal cortex-”

“I know. Fully developed. I know.” Daron took a deep breath, determined to shake the aggravated stress out of his voice. He didn’t mean to direct it at Freddie, he just didn’t like not knowing things. And this was a very big thing that, as it turned out, he didn’t know. Before he could continue his zig-zag train of thought, his phone began to buzz loudly in his pocket. At the same time, Freddie’s phone began to blare the frantic intro to a Vampire Weekend song.

“No one calls me,” Freddie said, baffled, as she lifted the iPhone out of her bag. “Oh, shit, it’s Xander.”

Meanwhile, Daron’s phone displayed JULIE in bold letters. He showed Freddie, then tapped the screen to answer. Freddie, meanwhile, slid out of the booth to take the call outside.

“Daron?”

“Jules, what’s up?”

“There’s some kind of emergency at the Sundquist home. Can you meet us there? Xander’s calling Freddie now, maybe you can pick her up?”

“Yyyyeah,” Daron said. “What’s going on?”

“Apparently every flash bulb for our cameras in the home went off at once, before the electricity cut out completely and the Sundquists discovered that Rick is missing.”

“Holy shit, what? Doesn’t that make it a police case?”

“The police are busy at a standoff up the interstate. They say to call again if he’s still gone in the morning. Laura’s begging us to come help, and Xander’s promising overtime.”

“Yeah, no, of course we’ll be there. See you soon.” Daron hung up and ran a hand through his hair, breathing out heavily.

“Holy shit,” Freddie said, rejoining the table. “Do you have your car? Did Julie tell you what’s going on?”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to walk in the rain. I got it. Are you ready to go?”

Taking another gulp of the rest of her whiskey, Freddie nodded. Daron finished off his last sip as well before squeezing himself out of the booth and heading to the door, wondering when he’d be able to piece through all the events of the unexpected evening.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter 34

The drive to the outskirts of town was quiet, though Daron thought he caught Freddie preparing herself to say something a few times before changing her mind. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed by that, as his heart was still beating heavily enough that he was shocked it wasn’t jumping out of his sweater ala a Looney Tunes character. Still, as they pulled up to the house, Daron couldn’t fight the urge to speak up any longer, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what he meant.

“We got this, Fred.”

She nodded and half-smiled at him, clearly somewhat relieved, as they got out of the car. The house in front of them was ominously dark, aside from what were clearly flashlight beams occasionally passing by the windows at the front. Xander’s truck was parked in the driveway in front of them.

As Daron approached the front door with Freddie following, he knocked loudly before trying the knob. It was locked.

“It’s Daron and Freddie!” He called, trying to see if he could see anything through the narrow windowpane to the right of the door. He couldn’t, though shortly after the door opened to reveal Xander in a dark hoodie, carrying a large flashlight. He smiled at seeing the rest of his team, even if it was somewhat strained.

“Come in,” Xander said, stepping back to allow them passage.

“Have you found Rick?” Freddie asked as they walked past him, her voice fading as they entered. Daron had to resist the urge to back right out the door again, as the further they got into the home, the louder a howling noise from within washed over them. Daron hadn’t heard anything quite like it before, but if he were pressed, he would attribute it to something in pain.

“Not yet,” Xander replied, closing the door behind them. “We’ve been looking, but…there’s a lot going on, as you can tell.”

Behind the initial onslaught of the howls from the depths of the home itself was the wailing voices of the Sundquists. As Daron entered the living room, he saw Rebecca and Hannah clinging to each other on a couch in the light of Julie’s flashlight. Julie paused speaking to them when she saw Daron enter, flicking her flashlight over to him.

“Glad you could make it,” she said, crossing to speak to them quietly. “It’s a bit of a madhouse, and we can use the backup.”

“Where’s Terry and Laura?” Freddie asked, stepping up beside Daron, her right shoulder pressing very lightly into the soft flesh beneath his shoulder blade. Xander squeezed past on Daron’s other side, entering the living room to stand beside Julie.

“They’re searching outside, just to cover all the bases,” Julie said. “But we could use help searching the upper floor of the house while we stay with Rebecca and Hannah. We’ve gotten through most of the ground floor.”

“Do you have flashlights?” Xander asked.

“We came straight here from grabbing a drink,” Daron replied honestly. “I don’t have anything.”

“Let me check the truck for extras,” Xander said, and Daron moved further into the living room to let him pass. He was no longer touching Freddie, though he heard her shallow breathing until she moved over closer to Julie. The girls on the couch whimpered.

“No flashlight in your car emergency kit, Daron?” Julie asked loudly, clearly trying to distract the rest of the room from their fears.

“No, Mom,” Daron snarked back. “Just jumper cables and Triple A on speed dial.”

Freddie laughed, and Julie leaned in to whisper something in her ear. Freddie nodded, and Julie sat on the chair next to the couch where Rebecca and Hannah trembled.

“I’m here, girls,” she said. “And it’s going to be okay.”

It was a near identical mimic of Daron’s previous words to Freddie, and he remembered that Julie was the one who had taught him the best ways to calm people down early to mid-anxiety attack. He looked at Freddie, and through the gloom, saw her looking back. After a couple seconds, though, she turned her gaze down to her black Oxford heels, clicking them softly together.

“Here,” Xander said when he returned moments later, pressing a medium-sized green flashlight into Daron’s fleshy palm. “Just stick together, okay? I don’t trust phone flashlights.”

“Yes, sir,” said Freddie, her voice innocent with a dry undertone as she and Daron moved towards the stairs. Meanwhile, Xander had turned back to Julie, and even above the howling sound in the house Daron could make out him strategizing to do another lap around the ground floor while Julie stayed with the daughters.

Behind him, Freddie turned on her phone’s weak flashlight and began to tilt it towards any and all dark corners that Daron’s flashlight didn’t reach.

“What do you think is going on?” She asked, her voice simultaneously subdued but also lifted to be heard above the howling.

“Electricity goes out and Rick hides because he’s scared,” Daron said, more confidently than he felt. “We’ll find him soon.”

“Sure, but…what’s that sound?”

“…I don’t know yet.” It was definitely louder upstairs, though. As certain as he was that everything had a logical explanation, Daron couldn’t help feeling rattled by the chilling howl.

The first two doors upstairs were Hannah and Rick’s rooms, with a bathroom across the hall. Then Rebecca’s room sat farther down, across from the master.

“Rick?” Freddie called, raising her voice above the din. Daron paused, just in case that worked. But there was no response. “It’s okay, we’re here helping your parents!” Freddie hesitated, then lowered her voice back to the low conversation with Daron. “Damn, is there any way to not sound like an obvious murderer in this situation?”

“I don’t think so,” Daron replied, half smirking as they entered Hannah’s room. Both her and Rick’s rooms were tiny, barely able to be outfitted with beds and dressers, so Daron and Freddie made short work of searching them. Their bathroom, too, was even smaller than the rooms, which Daron realized when both he and Freddie squeezed in to search. Daron went first, pulling aside the shower curtain and finding nothing there. He turned, and inadvertently bumped his soft belly into Freddie’s head as she knelt down looking under the sink.

“Sorry,” he said, sucking in and taking a half-step back, which was about as much as he had room for. Freddie smiled at him, straightening up.

“You’re good. Ready to move on?”

Next was Rebecca’s room, which was about as large as her two sibling’s rooms combined. She had a twin sized bed, a small vanity with a chair, and instead of a dresser, a full walk-in closet. Freddie hesitated outside of it with her weak iphone light, then changed course and looked under the bed while Daron shone his light under the sheets.

“Nothing in there?” Daron asked, gesturing at the closet.

“I dunno. After Angela…I’m not going into a walk-in alone,” Freddie said, giving an embarrassed half-shrug. Daron, thinking of the hex bag, couldn’t blame her. He led the way, shining his flashlight past the clothes as he pulled them to the side to ensure Rick wasn’t hiding behind them. There were two levels of racks, so it took a minute. Behind him, Freddie was still shining her iPhone around wherever his light wasn’t at the time.

“Wait,” Freddie said, and Daron paused. “What is that?…Shine yours over here, please?”

Turning, Daron saw that Freddie’s light was pointed into the top corner of the closet, on the ceiling. He didn’t see anything at first, but as he dutifully pointed his flashlight there as well, he saw what she was talking about. It was partially hidden behind the opened closet door, but the square cracks illuminated by the lights suggested an opening to above. There was no knob, though, and everything was painted the same color, so it was incredibly easy to miss.

“What the hell? Did you ever hear any of them say anything about an attic?” Daron asked, and Freddie shook her head.

“No.”

“Okay…” Daron looked around them, but before he could continue, Freddie had stepped back out into Rebecca’s main bedroom area. He glanced out to make sure she wasn’t leaving, and saw her grab the chair from Rebecca’s vanity. “…you sure?” He said as she carried it over to him.

“Yeah,” Freddie replied, closing the closet door behind them in order to have better access to the square opening. “I mean, we gotta check everywhere, right? He could’ve pulled another way up with him.”

“I guess,” Daron said doubtfully, watching Freddie climb carefully onto the chair and then reach up. As she pushed in the middle of the square, it lifted, and she was able to shuffle it off to the side and out of sight. Now, above her, there was just dark.

Daron could hear Freddie take a shaky breath before she reached up again and through the opening, feeling around the lip of the square. She quickly found what she was looking for, and tugged down an attached half-ladder.

“Okay,” Freddie said quietly, clearly steeling herself as she looked into the darkness above. Glancing down at Daron on the floor, she asked, “ready?”

“Fred…” Daron’s uncertainty came out as a concerned exhalation of his companion’s name. Feeling claustrophobic already with the closing of the closet door, Daron was not liking the look of the dimensions of the attic opening. “I dunno, I think I might be…” he trailed off, feeling the words stick in his throat as he looked from the hole in the ceiling to down at his expansive middle. But he recovered enough to conclude, if a bit uncertainly: “better off staying down here?”

Freddie’s brow furrowed, but after a moment she seemed to catch on to what he was saying. Blinking, she followed Daron’s previous path with her own gaze, from the ceiling to his belly.

“Oh, Jesus, Daron…” Freddie sighed, and he couldn’t help but pick up the parallel to how he’d exclaimed the same words, in the same tone, less than an hour ago. “I do not want to go up there by myself. If there’s a kid in trouble, we can’t wait. And I promise you that you are not that fat.”

“I…” Daron was torn between laughing and…something. He compromised with a helpless shrug of acknowledgment, gesturing for Freddie to go ahead. “Okay then.”

Keeping his flashlight pointing above Freddie’s head - for all the good it did, illuminating nothing but dust - Daron watched her ascend the stairs. Until he rapidly redirected his gaze to the floor, because he remembered she was wearing a dress. Feeling his cheeks grow embarrassingly warm, Daron waited until he heard the boards above his head creak. As he looked up again, he saw Freddie’s worried face pop into the opening.

“I can’t see much in here with my light, but…Daron, it’s louder up here.”

“Shit,” he said, approaching the chair. “Okay, I’m coming up.” Freddie nodded, and her face disappeared. Praying that the chair didn’t break, Daron very carefully lifted one leg onto it - then as he lifted the other, made a quick grab at the ladder above him. His hand clenched it successfully, and he was able to use it to pull himself up, taking some of the pressure off Rebecca’s vanity seating. Relieved, Daron began to climb into the attic.

Unfortunately, Freddie wasn’t entirely right in her assessment. As Daron’s head, shoulders, and arms entered the attic, he looked down through the opening and saw nothing past his red-clad bulk.

“See?” He mumbled with a sigh, heaving himself a little higher with his forearms and his legs shifting on the ladder. “I am that fat.”

“What’d you say?” Freddie asked, and Daron twitched with surprise. He hadn’t expected her to go far, but he also hadn’t expected her to stay right next to the entrance. She sat on the floor directly to the side of the entrance, looking at Daron with curiosity.

“Nothing, just that…mmph…” as Daron’s widest point of his body met the opening, he could feel it pressing into him on all sides and give back enough resistance to slow his movement. Feeling his heart stop in horror, Daron sucked in his belly, twisting his waist back and forth like a cork with his upper body. Fortunately, this quickly popped his thickest part through, and he was able to catch a relieved breath. Okay, so maybe Freddie isn’t the only dramatic one. “Just that you were wrong.”

“I was wrong?” Freddie asked, her voice taking on a playful edge despite the circumstances.

“I’m one heavy meal away from not getting in here,” Daron said, pulling himself the rest of the way up and joining her on the floor. He patted his soft belly that now faced up at the ceiling. “Thank god Garden Lounge doesn’t have food.”

“Good to know it wasn’t all bad timing tonight, then,” Freddie said, grinning at Daron as she rose to her feet. “Drinks on me next time, I guess.”

“Yeah, you owe me one,” Daron said, groaning his way up to standing with her. As he got his senses back, he realized he could tell what Freddie meant - the eerie howling was louder here. But rather than cause him more fear, it settled Daron’s nerves and focused his attention. As he swiveled his flashlight around the attic room, he saw it was just about empty. No boxes, no ominous shapes. But a flicker back at him caught his attention, and he touched Freddie on the upper arm to alert her.

“Over here,” he said, approaching the window that had reflected his light back at him. It was barely larger than the attic opening, and had been left a couple inches open, exposing the attic to the outside elements. Which was, currently, rain, and… “Freddie, what’s the wind speed out right now?”

Freddie checked her weather app. “Umm, 10 miles per hour north-northwest.”

Daron held up a hand in front of the window gap to confirm, then turned to Freddie.

“Feel that.”

She did, and blinked in surprise at the way the icy blast hit her fingers.

“Dang, it doesn’t feel like that much when you’re just outside for a few minutes.”

“No, but it’s being concentrated here. Let’s see…” Daron turned the flashlight slowly, not sure what he was looking for until Freddie touched his arm to get him to stop.

“Look! Pipes.”

She was right. A little farther back into the attic, there were exposed water pipes, moving ominously back and forth in the wind gusts. But not just moving, as the pair discovered when they approached. Howling. As the pipes traveled through the rest of the house, their displeasure at their windy prison carried the sound with them.

Freddie reached into her pocket, and Daron saw her pull out a handkerchief. Approaching the pipes, she carefully grabbed onto one of them with the kerchief to stop its movement. Almost immediately, the frightening howl in the attic quieted, and not long after, the rest of the house had its sound reduced. Looking pleased, Freddie released the pipe, and the low moan began to pick up again.

Crossing to the window, Daron had to utilize most of his strength to drag it back up to close. But once he had, the howling settled, slowed, and finally stopped.

“Nice. Work. Professor.” Freddie said triumphantly, offering Daron a high five. Also pleased, he took it.

“You too, Thornberry. Should we get back to the search?”
 
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