02-CelestialSecrets-SArthurs

Kelly Ann lay on her back in her twin bed, staring up at the constellations across her ceiling. They had been there for two years, made from hundreds of tiny, plastic glow-in-the-dark stars that she had received for Christmas. It had been a painstaking task, but her parents had pulled through for her, the summer night sky permanently overhead no matter what time of year it was. 

It helped her sleep, or at least it normally did. Tonight, she was wide awake, hands resting on her stomach and fingers fidgeting with her Barbie pajama top. She was thinking about her daddy, who had come home six days ago after being lost out in Culpepper woods for three whole days and nights. He’d gone deer hunting with uncle Charlie, like the two always did when the season came in, but only daddy had come home at all.

The search team hadn’t found Charlie, he was still missing, but they had found daddy. He’d been sitting inside the entrance to an old cave, rocking back and forth with a vacant look on his face. He’d spent a night in the hospital but they’d found nothing wrong with him, save for the fact that he couldn’t recall what had happened. They’d gone into the tree stand, Charlie had shot a buck, and they’d both climbed down to go after it as it staggered off into the brush.

According to what she’d overheard from the grownups, nobody had found the deer either. They’d even gone a few yards into the cave, but there was nothing. Just daddy all alone, who was now unable to speak. Or, perhaps, unwilling. Nobody was sure just yet, but they’d had to let him come home because they couldn’t prove he’d done anything bad. Kelly Ann didn’t think he had. Why would he? He was her daddy, and he was a good man. He took care of her and mommy, or he had before all this, anyway. He hadn’t gone back to work yet. Hadn’t done anything, really, besides stare at the two of them and move around the house like he’d never seen it before.

Tracing the lines of Orion with one outstretched finger, Kelly Ann shivered a little even though she was nice and warm beneath her favorite blanket. There was something wrong with daddy, but it wasn’t something she felt she could explain. She could see it when he was staring at her, something in his eyes different than it had been before. It made her feel unsafe more than anything, like she was in the room with something scary. Like the time she’d gone to aunt Maggie’s house and her big rottweiler kept staring at Kelly Ann and growling real low until one of the adults finally locked it up in a spare bedroom. Like that, only different, because this was her daddy and not some dog.

Breath hitching in her throat, Kelly Ann looked from the stars to her bedroom door, the light in the hallway on and shining underneath through the narrow crack. Not much, but enough that she saw the shadow of her daddy move past it as he made his way slowly down the hallway. Each footstep sounded heavy, like he was wearing shoes with big rubber soles or something, and the unease she felt spread from head to toe. She heard a door open down the hallway, and her mommy say her daddy’s name with a gasp before the screaming began.

The way her mother screamed made Kelly Ann feel sick rather than scared, at least at first. It was the strange squelching sound that spooked her more than the screaming, and that was when she decided to get underneath her bed. She scurried under quickly, laying on her back just as she had been, only now she had her hands over her ears to try and block out the sound. After a couple of minutes, the screaming stopped, and then so did that wet, disgusting noise. She lowered her hands from her ears to listen, those heavy footsteps coming back up the hallway.

“Kelly Ann,” daddy called out to her, finally speaking as he slowly pushed open her bedroom door. That voice, one she hadn’t heard in days, didn’t sound like her real daddy at all. It was too sugary, too fake, and she clamped a hand over her mouth this time to stifle any noise she might make. She had seen that in a scary movie once at a sleepover, and while her mother had been furious she had watched it, she felt grateful now as she’d gleaned at least something useful from it. 

“Come out, Kelly Ann. It’s daddy. I want to show you something.”

Closing her eyes tight, she listened as he walked around her room, checking the closet first. He came to a stop at the foot of her bed and tears welled up behind her eyelids. A hand snaked beneath the mattress and grabbed her ankle, her eyes opening wide and a shriek escaping as she was jerked out into the open. Daddy stood above her, smiling down at her with a grin that was too wide to be real. Too wide to be human. The look in his eyes was predatory, that was the word, and she couldn’t stand to look at it.

Instead, Kelly Ann looked beyond him, to the stars up above them both. She counted the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross, Capricorn, and waited. Waited for daddy to do the terrible thing he’d come in to do with the hatchet in his hand, dripping little teardrops of mommy’s blood onto her pink Barbie rug. This wasn’t daddy, not really, but the thing inside of him. The thing that had taken him in that cave in the woods, crawling into him like a parasite. The thing that had feasted on uncle Charlie. The thing that had now come for her.

But all she saw was brilliant stars. To the very end.

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