The first time I saw him was on the last day of summer at The Georgia Peach Diner, where I worked. It was a relatively slow shift, mostly moms dragging their kids off to the mall for last-minute back-to-school shopping. I was putting in yet another order for a hamburger with ketchup when my best friend, Triston, beelined toward me, bumping into tables and knocking over condiments as he ran. “Kalib, that’s him,” he said, his mouth to my ear as his hand clasped my shoulder. “That’s the man who moved into the Old Vic this summer.” Triston’s red hair and pale face matched the red and white uniform we were forced to wear at work.
The man was sitting three booths back on the other side of the diner—my section.
It was rare for someone new to come here unnoticed. Hainesville wasn’t a particularly large place. The only new people that turned up were usually here to visit RavenTech Labs, the large prosthetics company at the edge of town. Whenever someone new moved in, people talked.
Triston took gossiping about newcomers to a whole new level. He was a class A nutcase. He always babbled on about conspiracy theories and our imminent doom. The week before, he’d convinced himself the government was tracking everyone through their smartphones. The week before that, it was something about TV and autosuggestions brainwashing us to think what they wanted us to think. This was just the latest in a long list of conspiracies. Apparently, the man looked at Triston funny on the street earlier that day as he’d walked into work. Now, he’d be convinced the man was following him.
“I’m telling you, Kalib, there’s something weird about that guy,” Triston said, followed by a quick and painless jab from his elbow. “Quit staring! He’ll see you.”
“Relax,” I sighed, rolling my eyes and reaching for the next order. “I’ve got to give the guy his pie.” I was running a little late that day, and someone else had already given the man his coffee. I grabbed a slice of pie from the counter and pushed past my friend, humored by his overreaction.
Up until that point, the day had gone as normally as any. The diner was dotted with the same faces having the same conversations. Damien Daslic was slumped over his grilled cheese sandwich at the end of the bar, don’t bother me practically written across his face.
Sarah Withers, from school, beckoned one of my coworkers to her table with her newly remodeled prosthetic arm. Courtesy of RavenTech.
Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy sat at a booth in the back corner by the window, looking out and bickering about the weather as usual.
Mr. Jones, the CEO of RavenTech, sat opposite the Abernathys with his daughter Caliyah on their weekly family outing.
And then there was the stranger. I suddenly realized he’d had his eyes glued on me as I made my way across the diner.
“Your pie, sir,” I said, presenting the plate. That’s when things got weird.
“Thank you, Kalib,” he replied as the edges of his lips curled. His smile was forced and unnatural. I looked down at my chest to see if I was wearing a name tag. I wasn’t.
“H-how’d you know my name?”
“You’re Mayor Donovan’s kid.” He feigned nonchalance as he pried the plate from my hands. I heard the slightest hint of an accent. Not too strong, but enough to notice it was there.
I squinted. What is that, Irish?
“I’ve seen you in pictures. You don’t move into a new town without doing your research.” He picked up his fork, cutting into the flaky crust of the peach pie.
“Oh, uh … yeah,” I muttered, ignoring the growing knot in my stomach.
“Kalib Donovan, right?” The stranger spoke as if he’d just remembered my name, but even this sounded well-rehearsed. The fork scraped across the plate en route to his mouth.
“Andrews, actually,” I corrected. “I go by Kalib Andrews.”
“Oh.” The man bobbed his head up and down. “That’s right. You’re adopted. I think I read that somewhere. Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Kalib.”
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was too dry to allow it. Research, he said.More like stalking. Who is this man?
I mean, sure, a person would have to be blind not to know I didn’t look like Donald and Susan Donovan. Anyone with eyes could see I was adopted. It wasn’t just my appearance, either. Aside from the contrast of my bright blue eyes, curly brown hair, and mocha-colored skin, with their straight hair and slightly pink complexion, I had simply never felt like their son. I suppose that’s why I never called them Mom or Dad. It had never felt right.
The Donovans, both of them, were about politics and appearance. I, on the other hand, never fit that mold. I learned young that I didn’t care for politicians. They always seemed to be talking in circles, never saying what they meant. I preferred honesty. I could always tell when someone was hiding something, and it seemed my family was hiding a lot.
“Now, that’s an interesting necklace,” the stranger said, dabbing the sides of his mouth with his napkin. I reached for the pendant that hung from my neck, passing it between my fingers. I was used to people asking about the necklace; it was a unique piece of jewelry. Three arrows welded together to make a silver triangle, and at the center of it was a blue stone. I wasn’t sure what kind of stone it was, but I assumed it was valuable. But what most people were curious about were the strange silver symbols engraved onto the stone. The symbols wrapped around the pendant, so every angle revealed a different mysterious image when you looked at it.
“What are those inscriptions?” the man asked. “Those symbols, they look foreign. Do you know what they mean?”
“Oh. No, I don’t,” I admitted. “It’s a family heirloom, I think. I’ve always had it.”
The man’s eyes locked on the pendant for a moment. Then meeting my confused gaze, he asked, “A family heirloom from Andrews, you mean?”
Maybe it was the way he said it or the way he leaned forward on his elbows, eyes fixed on mine. His foot tapped anxiously beneath the table. Something about this man didn’t sit well with me. A voice inside of me said get out!
“Yeah,” I whispered, so intimidated I could barely push the word out.
“Have you met him?” His voice seemed to drop in volume as if telling a secret.
“No,” I admitted, “all I have is his picture and his name.”
The stranger considered me for a moment. “Blue’s a good color on you,” he said, clearing his throat. “It matches the color of your eyes.”
“Well, I … I should be … getting back to work.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Kalib.” The man extended his hand towards me.
“Thank you. Uh, you too.”
I reached out, and the moment my hand touched his, I felt something, as if a thousand insects scuttled up my arm. Voices—whispering voices—filled my head. Thousands of them. My legs turned to putty, and I fell.
I fell through a dark, endless void as the whispers erupted into a singular chorus. A deep rumbling laugh. And a voice, rising from deep within my mind, said:
Though death, magic, and fire rehashed,
The blood of the Angel Warrior shall be paid at last.
The pounding words seared across my mind. “Soon,”it said with a final boom, and a bright white light burst through my head, blinding my senses, drowning out the noise. I closed my eyes, overwhelmed.
And then I was back at the diner.
I stared up at the stranger who had caught me from tumbling to the ground. The light fixture above the table flickered, but no one else seemed to have heard the voice.
Damien Daslic slid cash across the bar, hopping off his barstool and starting toward the door.
Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy, meanwhile, were in a heated discussion about hurricanes.
For the briefest moment, as I steadied myself against the table, the stranger looked at me with terror in his eyes. “You alright?”
“Yeah. Just feeling a little lightheaded.” I caught sight of Triston peeking at me over the vinyl seat of the table he was pretending to bus. I tried not to make eye contact.
“You should sit down.” The stranger gestured toward the booth. “Please.”
“Actually, no. I—I have to go,” I muttered, my feet moving before the words even left my mouth. I turned and ran toward the back, nearly colliding with Mr. Jones as I did so.
“Where’s the fire?” he said as I rushed past him.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A stranger comes into town, does some weird ritual, and a hero is born. But let me set something straight. Full disclosure, I’m not going to be the good guy in this story. You should know that before you get the wrong idea. You’re probably expecting that I’m some kind of hero, warrior, or chosen one. Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. But I’m not. I’m just a normal kid. Some would even argue that I’m evil, and I guess … I am. It’s complicated; you’ll see.
At the end of my shift, I rushed home. I’d walked that route a million times before, but for some reason, it was creepier than usual. I found myself jumping at every sound and shadow.
I couldn’t explain what happened at the diner; that voice and the light. Maybe it was exhaustion? I’d been putting in late hours at work. Was it all catching up with me?
When I finally made it to my usual shortcut, the alleyway between Georgia and North Carolina, I froze. It was a creepy back alley at the best of times, but today? It was somehow darker and even more menacing than usual. I couldn’t shake the feeling danger was nearby.
No. I stopped before stepping into the alley. I’ll stick to the main streets.
It would add ten minutes to my walk home, but at least I would be around people. I’d seen enough scary movies to know how this could go down.
Strangely, no one was out that night. No one at all. The main drag down the middle of Hainesville was completely empty. The shops had closed up early. Café and convenient store workers had all gone home. It was like everyone had the same feeling I did—only they were smart enough to stay off the street. All I needed was to get past St. John’s Lutheran Church at the end of the street, and I would be as good as home. My neighborhood was the next block.
I made it halfway down the road before I heard the sound of footsteps, as if someone were walking behind me. I looked around, but there was no one there. I’m hearing things, I convinced myself. I’m jumpy from earlier. I resumed my journey, walking faster down the street.
Where is everyone?
I heard the footsteps again. The sound bounced off the stone walls and echoed down the street. Someone was there, but I couldn’t see them. I stopped, afraid to move, afraid to turn around, and listened for the source of the steps. I heard nothing but my own erratic breathing and my heart pounding in my chest. There was no one there, nothing but an empty street stretching out as far as I could see. I scanned the lifeless storefronts, wondering what could be lurking beyond those doors, waiting for me in the darkness just beyond the shadows. Peering at me. Watching me sweat. Spying me jump at every sound. But it felt like the person—whoever it was—was behind me. I stared into the darkness, but no one was there. Am I imagining things?
“Who are you?” I shouted. Why are you messin’ with me?
“Akaaaaakkkkiiiiooossss,” a cold chilling voice echoed along the row of houses. It was barely human.
“Akaaaaakkkkiiiiooossss.” At the end of the street, a winged figure shrouded in darkness extended a cloaked arm in my direction.
“Akaaaaakkkkiiiiooossss,” it chanted a third time. A shiver ran down my spine. I wanted to run, to get the heck out of there, but my feet were bolted to the ground.
In a flash, the figure appeared halfway down the street, and then right in front of me. The smell of rotten eggs and burned hamburger meat filled my nostrils. If I hadn’t been so scared, I might have vomited. The figure extended its talon like hands toward my throat. Its ragged cloak was made of swirling ethereal shadow. The claws at the end of its spindly fingers, dug into my neck as it lifted me from the ground. Its hands were like ice against my skin, and I couldn’t see its face. There was nothing there but blackness.
I thrashed in the air, trying to break free from its grasp. My fingers were useless against its grip. It tightened, trapping terrified screams in my throat, suffocating me. I kicked and thrashed but hit nothing. I tore at its fingers, but its grip only tightened further. My insides burned, and my head began to spin.
Darkness crept into my vision as the figure stretched its other hand toward my throat. This was it. I was about to die. In the fading corner of my vision, an object shimmered in the darkness, but I couldn’t make out what it was. Just as everything faded to black, something inside me exploded. A white light burst from me and, just like that, the figure was gone.