Award winning author Claire L. Fishback writes horror novels and short stories from beautiful Colorado, where she resides with her husband and pit bull mix.
She is the author of “The Blood of Seven” and “Lump: A Collection of Short Stories.” In her “spare” time she enjoys adding to her bone collection and poking dead things with sticks. You can find more about her and her books at clairelfishback.com.
The following is an excerpt from “The Blood of Seven.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Science Fiction/Fantasy
Fake it till it feels right again.
Or run as far and as fast as possible to try to escape it. Detective Ann Logan, if she could even call herself a detective anymore, ran along the trail, gravel crunching beneath her feet. Lodgepole pines towered overhead, blocking out most of the stars still visible in the early morning sky. According to her GPS watch, she was on mile three, but the nightmare images from the Salida Stabber case threatened to break her mind further than they already had.
She pushed faster. Sometimes it took only one mile, sometimes five, sometimes a sixer of her favorite brew. Her therapist urged against the latter. So, Ann ran deep into the San Isabel National Forest in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
The usual nightmare had awoken her at three in the morning and left her shaking under the sweat-filled sheets. It was the version in which Bruce, her old partner, came back from the dead to tell her his death was all her fault. Then, the Stabber’s last victim—Elizabeth Bradshaw, seven years old—did the same. Even though Ann didn’t believe in zombies or ghosts or anything like that, the dream wormed its way under her skin where it ate away at her sanity little by little.
They said two words over and over again. The same two words she chastised herself with.
Too late, too late, too late.
Their voices chanted in her ears in rhythm with her footsteps and the bouncing light from her headlamp. She hit mile four, and still they chanted. Images from the case flipped through her mind like a grotesque slideshow. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes closed. When she reopened them, she broke into an all-out sprint.
A tree root arched over the trail in the light’s beam. Ann jumped too late. It snagged her foot and sent her sprawling onto her stomach. The air rushed out of her body. The voices stopped. She rolled onto her back and looked up at the stars peeking through the trees.
After a few gasping breaths, she got her wind back and climbed to her feet. She walked a little way to catch her breath before breaking into a run again.
The clearing where she usually turned around to get six miles out and back came into view. The crescent moon hung in the sky like the Stabber’s sadistically perfect smile. Ann stripped her running jacket off and tied it around her waist, despite the fact that her breath puffed in front of her face with each exhale.
She walked in circles to keep her legs warm while her lungs returned to a normal breathing pattern and turned to head back down the trail when a tingling sensation spread over her skin. Ann rubbed her arms, but her flesh was free of goosebumps. The moonlight illuminated her skin. But no, that wasn’t it. The veins just beneath the surface glowed blue-white. She rubbed at it again, but the illumination didn’t go away. She lifted her shirt, then her pant leg. Her whole body glowed.
The tingling intensified. It burned. Like lava flowing through her nervous system.
She dropped to her knees, closed her eyes against the agony, and let out a low wail of pain. Static filled her ears.
Through the crackle, a voice compounded of many voices said, “Protect her.”
Ann opened her eyes. Bright light flooded her vision, blinding her. A thin black figure appeared in the distance. It came closer until it resolved into the silhouette of a young girl around six or seven—long curly hair stood out around her head. Her eyes glowed the same blue-white. Her hands moved, and she lifted something, a book, the interior gilded with the light. The book flew toward Ann. Scribbled words filled the pages. One of them flared, blinding Ann even further.
Ann’s heart boiled inside her chest. She cried out again.
Then the book and the girl faded away, replaced with a flash of light that burned three familiar mountain peaks—the Royal Mountains outside her hometown—onto her retinas. When she regained her vision, the clearing came back into focus. No girl. No book. No Royal Mountain peaks. Just the clearing surrounded by towering pines.
Ann’s breath came in short, painful gasps, as if she had just arrived in the clearing from the previous sprint. Her head swam. She must have pushed herself too hard out on the trail. That was all. Her brain was signaling a blood sugar crash or something. Her stomach growled as if to confirm.
She jogged back down the trail.
Or maybe it was stress. Stress did all kinds of things to people. Couldn’t it cause hallucinations? A second failed psych evaluation had taken its toll on her psyche.
Inside her truck, Ann pulled on her jacket. The fabric rubbed over a sore spot on her chest. She touched it and winced. The skin was raised and felt raw. She flipped open the collar and peered down at it. Then she grabbed the rearview mirror and jerked it in her direction.
At first, she thought the two-inch-long, raw and red brand was an Egyptian Ankh, but on closer inspection, it sort of resembled an upright Jesus fish. Three bands encircled where the lines met to become the tail.
“What the fuck?” Her voice rode on gasping air. “No, no, no. What is this?” She poked it again and winced. Nothing had touched her out there. She hadn’t even crashed into any overgrown bushes. She looked at it again in the mirror and then angled the reflective surface away from her. She gripped the steering wheel. Tears sprang to her eyes. She willed herself to keep it together until she got home and could assess the situation. Figure out the facts—what happened and what didn’t.
The keys jangled in her hand, but she managed to get the right one in the ignition.
She wasn’t ready. She knew that. No matter how ready she may have felt before this, no matter how ready she was to take another eval—she couldn’t go back to work. Her mind went into preservation mode. Her Lieutenant would understand. He already thought she was back too soon. She called him from her truck once she pulled up to her apartment building. He told her to take two weeks. Longer if she needed.
Ann shuffled to her front door, eyes on the ground in front of her. Footsteps took off down the corridor. She looked up, but they were gone around the corner already.
A box about two feet square sat on her doorstep. UPS was on top of it today. She’d never received a package during the night. On closer inspection, however, there was no postage of any kind. Just her name scrawled on the top in black marker.
She jogged to the end of the corridor, but the person who must have dropped it off was long gone.
Ann squatted next to the package and examined the outside. She took it to the coffee table in the living room. Using her keys, she sliced open the tape and folded back the flaps.
The first thing she noticed was the smell.
Teresa Hart sprayed furniture polish onto a rag and wiped dust from the crib. “Dusting day.” She sang and hummed a lullaby.
After wiping down the nursery furniture, she rearranged and fluffed the stuffed animals at the foot of the crib. She folded down the edges of the pink and white blankets. She stood back and admired how inviting the tiny bed looked waiting for the baby to be tucked inside.
“ ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ ” She kissed the cross hanging from a chain around her neck and left the basement.
At the top of the stairs, she closed and locked the door with the key she wore on her wrist. In the bathroom, she made herself beautiful for her husband, Derrick. She met her clear blue eyes in the mirror and wondered when the lines had formed around them. When did her frown become so permanent? Someone once told her the lines on one’s face were a road map to the life the person lived. She stopped a scowl from emerging at the thought and smiled instead.
Hair perfectly coiffed, makeup expertly applied, she went into the kitchen to pack lunch for Maggie, their adopted six-year-old. By the time she finished the peanut butter and jelly sandwich it was already a quarter past seven, and Maggie hadn’t come downstairs.
Teresa went to the landing. “Maggie, you’re going to be late.”
Back in the kitchen, she flipped on the coffee pot. When she turned around, Maggie stood behind her. Her long dark hair stuck out from her head in frizzy ringlets, a stark contrast to Teresa’s smooth blonde lob. That mess would take twenty minutes to comb out.
“What took you so long?” Teresa asked.
“I didn’t sleep very good,” Maggie said. She yawned.
“You didn’t sleep very well.” Teresa corrected her. “Here’s your lunch. Your backpack is in the living room.”
Maggie went around the breakfast bar and pulled her backpack onto her shoulders. She started toward the hallway.
“Maggie,” Teresa said. “Where’s my hug?”
Maggie shuffled back to Teresa, gave her a half-second embrace around the waist, and turned back toward the front door.
Derrick’s footfalls came from the stairs. Teresa watched from the kitchen. He met Maggie in the foyer. Her face lit up.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said. She hugged him tight. She looked up at him and whispered, “She forgot breakfast again.”
Teresa sighed. Rearranging her routine to make the child lunch every morning was hard enough, but breakfast, too?
Derrick said something about the muffin store in a low voice, and Maggie smiled and nodded. He pulled her hair back into a ponytail and fastened it with a pink scrunchie. When he glanced toward the kitchen, his mouth turned down at the corners.
“Wait on the porch. I’ll be right out.” He came into the kitchen while Maggie went outside.
“Good morning,” Derrick said. He pulled a travel mug out of the cupboard and filled it with coffee. He turned to Teresa. “What’s wrong?” His tone suggested, What’s wrong this time?
Teresa busied her hands with the dishes in the drying rack. Derrick touched her wrist and stopped her. She didn’t look at him.
“What’s wrong, honey?” The softer tone, the nicer one. He was pretending to care.
“Maggie doesn’t like me.”
Derrick shook his head. “Not this again.” He put his mug on the counter and crossed his arms. “Why do you think that?”
“She doesn’t hug me like she hugs you.” Teresa fiddled with her necklace. “She rarely makes eye contact.” What else? Oh yes. The most important. “She never calls me Mommy.”
“Don’t be silly,” Derrick said. “She’s just getting used to us.”
“She’s been here for three months.” Teresa dropped her arms. “How long until she settles in?”
Derrick shrugged. “I need to get to the clinic. I have an eight o’clock.”
The usual excuse to not deal with things. To leave the situation. To leave her. Harmony was a fifteen-minute town. It took him five to walk Maggie to school, another ten from there to the clinic.
He brushed a kiss across her cheek and grabbed his briefcase from the living room.
“Derrick,” she said, her voice cracking. “You know what today is, right?”
He shook his head. So easy for him to forget now that he had a replacement daughter.
“The baby . . . our baby’s . . . anniversary . . . of her . . . of her death.” She held the tears in, but her voice hitched.
“Oh, Teresa.” Derrick came back to her, hugged her. “I’m sorry. I forgot. I know how important it is to you.”
But not to him.
He kissed her forehead and released her, turned to leave but stopped. “You know,” he said, then paused.
Teresa knew what he was going to say. He was going to tell her to get over it. That’s what it always came to. He didn’t understand. He didn’t know what it was like to grow a human inside his body only to have it ripped away. But he reached for her again and awkwardly held her by the shoulders. His voice softened.
“It’s been seven years. Maybe you should . . . I don’t know . . . call your therapist. Start seeing him again.”
He wants me medicated.
“Or you could come help out at the office. Perhaps some . . . normalcy . . . or a new routine would help.”
“It was so easy for you to move on, wasn’t it?” Teresa said in the voice she used when she wasn’t sure if she really wanted Derrick to hear her. “So easy to be normal again. To forget our baby.”
“It was never easy, Teresa.” His nostrils flared. “I just . . .” He lifted his hands, then dropped them. “Never mind. I have to go. I don’t have time for this.”
She stood in the kitchen and listened to the front door open and close. At least he didn’t slam it this time.
Teresa scurried to the front room and looked out the window. Derrick and Maggie strolled down the sidewalk and out of sight. His smile was for her now. Teresa sat on the love seat. Across from her, an upright piano stood against the wall. Pictures in silver frames sat in a cluster on top of lace doilies from Bruges, from another time, another life. Pictures of them, together. Happy. Smiling. Carefree. She and Derrick.
Tucked in the middle, partially obscured by the music stand, captured for the rest of time in black and white, was Teresa holding the baby. They had the same fair skin and pale hair. She was only seven weeks old.
A tear welled in Teresa’s right eye but didn’t fall. She went to the bathroom, snatched a tissue from the box on the counter, and dabbed, careful not to mess her makeup.
Mommy . . .
A distorted voice, like a child talking into a fan.
Teresa whirled and peered out into the hallway. Across from the bathroom, the basement door stood wide open. She checked her wrist for the key. Still there. No one else had a key. She knew she locked it. She always locked it. The only other way to unlock it was from the inside.
She slid to the door and peered down the darkened staircase.
A shadow drifted by at the bottom. Prickly chills washed over her scalp.
“Who’s down there?” Her voice cracked. “Maggie?” she called, even though she knew she was home alone. Her mouth went dry.
Teresa took one step down the stairs and stopped. She didn’t want to be the idiot bimbo in a horror movie…