My pain isn’t so bad today. In fact, I feel pretty darn good given my age and my condition. Just days ago the slightest movement would make me grimace. Does that make me sound overly dramatic? Well, I’m not kidding. Every inch of me was a lightning rod for agony. Pain medication didn’t cut it.
I felt miserable for a couple of days running.
To add insult to injury, my physical therapist has been stopping by daily to help me recover. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a sweet young girl and I’ve gotten attached to her. When she pops in, though, I have to stop myself from whining like a kid. It’s the pain, you see. She smiles that apologetic smile of hers but still insists that I get out of bed and shuffle my way around the hospital room. She keeps telling me I won’t get better if I don’t move. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. She’s adamant, and I always end up being pulled, stretched, lifted, and walked in a manner that was probably first perfected in some torture chamber many centuries ago.
That said, I’ve got to admit that the PT is starting to work. I’m seeing improvement in just a couple of days. The girl is good at what she does, not to mention that she is heartbreakingly pretty. If I were twenty-five again, I’d make the moves on her.
Full disclosure: I’ve flirted shamelessly with her, but she keeps acting like I’m just being nice. Of course, I am probably old enough to be her grandfather. There’s also the minor detail of a huge engagement ring on her left hand that sparkles with every movement. All by way of saying, she’s got her eyes permanently locked on some young stud beyond these hospital walls.
Funny, when I was twenty-five, I didn’t have the skill to make a good impression on a girl like her. My upbringing virtually guaranteed I’d end up turning into a strange adult, at least in those early days. I pushed myself, though, developed a kind of subtle wit, engaged in some crafty shenanigans, and finally shed some of my awkward tendencies. College helped. I learned how to write and tell stories, although this ability doesn’t necessarily mean you can talk in an interesting way or land the most gorgeous girl in the room. But in my case, it helped a little. I eventually settled down on that narrow rope of sand jutting into the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast, got married, and earned a living writing books and being a reporter. Opportunities to earn extra cash were available during the summer, when thousands upon thousands of tourists crammed onto our barrier islands for a little bit of paradise. Shopkeepers and repair people often needed cheap labor during those months, and the experience helped me generate ideas for my writing.
Anyway, all of that is water under the bridge now and well in the past. Rebecca, she being my PT, just sees me as another old guy needing her therapy skills. Still, she likes my stories, and I can rattle off a lot of them. She regales me with wedding plans she’s making with her betrothed, David. Or is it Donald? Dennis? I’m pretty sure it’s one of the D names. He’s a lucky bastard, whatever his name is.
The brightness in the room has reached the point where I can tell the sun has cleared the horizon. I was always partial to dawn. It’s a healthy time of day, when I feel most relaxed and at ease. The rest of the world is barely waking up or slurping down lukewarm coffee while standing at the kitchen sink. Many of these folks are facing the same old drudge of a day they faced the day before and the day before that. For me, early morning has always provided an opportunity to wonder what thrilling adventures will come my way throughout the course of the next twenty-four hours. I realize that sentence sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I swear to God.
My sunny outlook on the dawn of each day contrasts so much with that of my grandson—which is probably why I’m rambling on about early mornings. I mean, the poor kid is sometimes afraid of them. I cannot imagine it. Can you? Afraid of mornings? It’s some kind of anxiety thing, I guess. That’s what they say, and my well-meaning daughter clings to that explanation because it means that maybe he’ll recover. Not that I blame her for the boy’s condition. Good God, she’s had a difficult time of late. When he describes the dread he feels, the images he sees, or the sense that he’s no longer in his body, well, that’s enough to send chills down your spine. I can understand why she needs something to embrace, some kind of diagnosis that puts this whole alarming thing into a manageable perspective. The boy’s doctor and therapist gave the condition a name. Depersonalization, or something like that. Never heard of it, but then again, who has if they never went to school for that kind of thing? I guess it’s pretty rare, or so the shrink says, and it tends to strike teenagers most often.
As odd as this whole thing sounds, I prefer depersonalization to the explanation provided by my other daughter. Somewhere along the way, Veronica turned into a right-wing religious nut. I can’t even begin to identify the sequence of events leading to her transformation. She certainly didn’t get it from me or my late wife. Not that we were opposed to religion—we did the church thing while the girls were growing up. Still, though, she’s morphed into this fire-breathing, intolerant woman who sees darkness around every corner. I love my daughter, don’t get me wrong, but the idea that her nephew is under some kind of a spiritual attack by an evil presence (and that’s what she calls it) is going a bit too far. She frightens my other daughter, who imagines levitating beds, rotating heads, and projectile vomit when she hears this kind of talk.
Just for the record, the boy has never done any of those possession-type things. Well, let me revise that slightly: maybe a little bit of vomiting, but nothing projectile in nature.
Outside my door, I can hear the sounds of activity. Time to get ready for the same old routine. The nurses’ station is getting chatty and chair legs are sliding along the floor in the lounge area farther beyond. Pretty soon, Melvin will appear in my room asking how I feel. He’ll do a check on vitals and then help me in the bathroom if I need it. I don’t need his help anymore, thanks to Rebecca’s PT sessions.
Melvin is this huge black man who’s incredibly gentle and soft-spoken. If I saw him on the street, I’m ashamed to say that I’d probably cross to the other side. If I couldn’t do that, I’d probably put my hand on my wallet and scramble around him as quickly as possible. I read somewhere that people call this kind of behavior microaggression or something. Anyway, I’d be guilty of it. It’s a darn shame we make all these assumptions about people; they’re often not accurate.
This morning I’ll be able to tell Melvin that I’m doing well. The pain is quite manageable, thank you, though my face and upper body are still uncomfortable due to all the injuries. Smiling makes it hurt, so I have to be careful about that. Melvin will find that funny and get after me about being such a sourpuss. That’s okay. He takes care of me and I like him.
I miss the kid. Even though he has struggled so much, he makes me feel like the best grandpa in the world. He always liked being with me, asking me to tell him stories. I have a captive audience when he is around. He never tires of the stories either, which is quite a bonus. My daughters always rolled their eyes when he and I settled into one. For the boy and me, however, these opportunities were priceless. He hasn’t been able to visit as much as I hoped, which makes me yearn for his presence even more. Most of the time you wouldn’t be able to guess that he’s troubled—or under spiritual attack, if you believe my younger daughter. He smiles the entire time he’s here, rambling on about this or that.
During our last visit together, I broached the subject of what happened and the next steps he needs to take. I think it jolted him. I keep forgetting that he’s still a kid—what is he, thirteen? Almost fourteen? I forget; besides, it doesn’t matter. He’s struggling with all the events, plus his own mental condition. It’s tough. He doesn’t have the perspective that I do. Doesn’t have the context, really. So, maybe he’s hanging back right now. Trying to make some sense of the mayhem, the death, the very haunted nature of the whole thing—on top of his own anxieties. That would throw anybody into a panic.
Unfortunately, we’re pushing up against some time constraints. Nothing serious, I don’t think, but we need to get beyond where we are now. As I consider it, I’ll be walking a fine line between keeping things light and pushing the acceptance of the disturbing. The grandfather in me wants to protect the dear boy. The other part in me, the writer and the journalist—the storyteller—well, that part wants to gather the facts and get to the crux of the matter. Even if those facts are beyond understanding.
There I go again, sounding melodramatic. I can’t help it. So much has transpired over the past two weeks. Everybody is more than a little jumpy. You don’t often encounter the horrors of human nature on display for all to see.
“So there you are.”
Griffin huddled on the built-in bench of the boardwalk. He stretched his hooded sweatshirt over his bare legs, which were scrunched up next to his chest. The weather was turning colder by the minute, just as his mom had warned that morning. He didn’t listen on principle and was now paying the price.
A seagull was nearly motionless in the wind at the shoreline. Twenty feet off the ground, wings spread effortlessly, the bird glided on the northerly wind as if resting in place. Griffin wondered if it was enjoying the ride or if it was scared because it couldn’t move.
The incoming tide and breaking waves pounded the shore. Sometimes the Atlantic could be placid, but not today. Wind-driven whitecaps boiled over the rolling surface of the water as far as the eye could see. Froth sprayed along the beach.
“Look at you. You’re freezing.”
With his back to the wind, which now felt like a gale, Griffin tore his gaze from the floating gull and turned to his right, watching his grandfather mount the stairs to the section of the boardwalk that spanned the highest point of the sand dune. Griffin saw him only in silhouette; the late afternoon sun cast his features in darkness. Only when his grandfather reached the platform and crossed to the bench could Griffin see him clearly. The old man looked tired. Alarmingly so.
“It’s not too bad.”
His grandfather chuckled as he sat gently on the bench just beyond Griffin’s feet.
“That, my dear boy, is the biggest pile of bullshit I have heard from you yet.”
Griffin smiled and turned his face to the gull. It was still coasting on the current.
“It was warm yesterday.”
“Yesterday was yesterday. The forecast was for rapidly dropping temperatures today.” His grandfather glared at him, trying to look stern. “It has, too. You should listen to the weather report. Or your mother. She has your best interests at heart, you know.”
“Soren.” Griffin sneered at him. Kids thought it strange that he called his grandfather by his first name. Griffin supposed it was, but he’d always been “Soren” as far back as he could remember. Never “Grandpa” or, worse, “Grandfather.”
Griffin shrugged. “Do you think it’ll snow?”
His grandfather stretched his legs out and leaned back into the wooden seat. Recently renovated, this particular boardwalk sported wooden plank seating along the perimeter of the railings where it bridged the massive dune. The structure had beach access with stairs and accessible ramps on either side—one descending to North Carolina Highway 12, North Virginia Dare Trail, and the other reaching the beach. These beach accesses aligned with streets that intersected with NC 12 so that summer vacationers and the residents could walk to the beach without trampling the fragile sand dunes.
December brought few vacationers, however. The beach was typically deserted except for a walker or two out for some exercise—Griffin could see one approaching. Some people came for the holidays, but nowhere near the multitude that arrived weekly during the summer months. For those living on the Outer Banks, a successful summer season was critical for survival.
“Was it last year or two years ago we had that pretty good snowfall?” his grandfather asked. He kept his face oriented toward the setting sun, as if enjoying the warmth. His eyes were closed, although Griffin had no trouble imagining their piercing blue color, which reminded him of denim.
“Last year. Two years ago we just had flurries.”
“That’s right. A couple of inches, wasn’t it?”
“Two or three at least, I thought,” Griffin answered.
“I made a snowman with Tanner. We went sledding at the Wright Brothers Memorial. Remember?”
“Uh-huh. Using a packing box, right?”
“Yeah. It didn’t last long. Neither did the snow.”
Soren agreed with the slightest tilt of his head.
Right now Soren seemed comfortable, although Griffin knew some days were worse than others. He never complained when he was feeling really sick. It was only recently that his complexion had changed. His tanned, robust look turned to spoiled milk. His hair was thinner on top, if that was possible. Griffin found it hard to tell, however, since his hairline was high on his head and the top always showed streaks of scalp visible between strands of fine gray hair. Not that Soren had a comb-over. He pulled his hair, which Griffin found amusing on an old dude, as straight back and tight as possible and put it into a ponytail. It wasn’t that long, so it wasn’t embarrassingly shitty; he kept it at about two inches. He looked like an aging artist—which he was, Griffin realized. Sort of, anyway.
Griffin’s sense of perspective flattened, like he was watching the beach on a movie screen. The impact was sudden, and his muscles automatically tensed to maintain his balance. Griffin gripped his legs tighter.
Shit. Here we go. He felt like screaming to keep grounded. He focused on the beach to distract himself from the alarming sensation.
The beach walker was high on the sand, closer to the dune than the shore. Griffin suspected that there was less wind there and probably not as cool. He would pass about ten feet below them, a little shy of where the platform stairs disappeared into the sand. The guy looked vaguely familiar, which meant he was a local, too, but Griffin couldn’t place him. The man was eyeing him cautiously and Griffin’s nerves went from wired to frantic.
“This guy’s looking at me weird,” Griffin whispered out of the corner of his mouth. Did the dude hear him? He hoped not.
“Hmm?” His grandfather eased himself upright and turned toward the beach.
“Pastor,” he called, and waved a little.
That’s who it was. The minister from Aunt Veronica’s church. He was a chubby guy who shaved the parts of his head that still had hair, so he tended to blend in with a crowd. After all, there were tons of fat, balding guys around.
He also had on a gray track suit, which wasn’t his normal getup. The pastor barely acknowledged Griffin’s presence before diverting his gaze to the sand in front of him and hurrying past. To Griffin’s right and just beyond his grandfather, a flash of reddish copper caught Griffin’s peripheral vision and he turned sharply to peer through the wooden slats at the opposite end of the platform.
He shuddered. “What is it?”
Griffin stared a second longer but didn’t see anything. “Nothing. I thought . . . It was nothing.”
Soren looked questioningly at him, so Griffin turned back to follow the progress of the pastor. He was yards away by now and seemed to be moving more quickly than before.
“That was weird.”
“Indeed it was,” Soren replied. “I don’t understand that man. Men of the cloth are mysteries to me. To be fair, I don’t know him well. The exercise suit doesn’t flatter him, though.”
Griffin’s smile was cautious. Soren had a way of saying things that took the edge off sometimes.
“Hey,” Griffin said after a few rapid heartbeats, “maybe he’s the Gray Man?”
His grandfather paused and considered. “The Gray Man. Usually he’s someone unknown. But maybe the good reverend will serve that purpose for us.”
Griffin’s smile broadened. “I always liked that legend, but he didn’t warn us about anything, so it can’t be him.”
“Who says? Maybe we have a variation on an old theme. We can make it work for us. Especially if the snowstorm pans out.”
Griffin beamed. “That’d be cool.” Distraction was helping him relax a little bit.
Soren reached out his hand and placed it under Griffin’s hood. The hand was surprisingly warm on Griffin’s head as his grandfather caressed his scalp and then his cheek.
“It’s good to see you enjoying things, Griff.”
Griffin felt bashful suddenly, as if this were an important moment that required something to say. “I always enjoy your stories.”
“Ah, the stories. Yes, my boy, those are always my ace in the hole.”
“No, Soren, you’ve got a lot going for you.”
Now it was Soren’s turn to beam unabashedly. “You, Griffin, are a true blessing.”
Griffin was eight the first time he heard the first Gray Man story. The entire family was just finishing dinner at Soren’s house. The talk was all about the hurricane brewing offshore and whether it would turn harmlessly toward the ocean or make a turn for the Outer Banks.
“I suppose the Gray Man will make an appearance. Soren?” “Oh, please. Not these dark stories again.” Aunt Veronica rolled her eyes and started clearing her place.
Griffin perked up. “What’s the story, Soren?”
“I’m going to take off. I want to make sure I’ve got what I need in case we need to, you know, batten down the hatches.” Griffin’s dad got up, but he left his plate on the table. He and Soren didn’t like each other.
“Good idea, Ralph. That probably needs attending to.”
Griffin thought the tone sounded like good riddance instead of good idea.
No one said anything more until his father strode out the kitchen door. Griffin felt the angry footfalls on the wooden stairs outside the house.
Soren had a big house in Kill Devil Hills, and Aunt Veronica lived with him. There were two levels to the house, three if you counted the ground floor, which was being converted into a bedroom for Griffin to use when he visited. Later, after his parents divorced, it became his permanent room. Like many houses on the Outer Banks, this one was built on pilings in case of flooding. A section typically smaller than the upper floors served as an access from under the house. It was ground level and would flood in a calamity but otherwise was large enough for a laundry room and another bedroom with a bath or workroom—in addition to the outside access and an indoor stairway to the main levels above. This extra guestroom, or “Griffin’s room,” as Soren referred to it, was the plan and Griffin was excited about it.
His father hated visiting or, when a hurricane threatened, bunking there with his family. His mother’s logic was that the bigger house was safer than their smaller one just a few blocks away. This was one of the few times, and maybe the only time, his mother got her way. “The guy is a fucking freak, I tell ya,” he’d growled at his mother one time. Griffin feared that his father might hit his mother—he had that look after all—and he had been violent before. Although not against her at least.
“Let’s go outside and I’ll tell you about the Gray Man. It’s a short story, so it shouldn’t take long.”
“Can I, Mom? Please?”
She smiled. “Of course, honey. Go ahead. Just clear your dishes first.”
Griffin frowned. “Dad didn’t.”
“Dear boy, listen to your mother. Mature young men clear the table. That’s a scientific fact.”
Griffin didn’t recognize the implication of the remark at the time but saw it years later. Soren loved tormenting his father, even when he wasn’t in the room.
“There are different accounts, so they’re all jumbled together in my mind.” They sat together on a porch swing, gliding lazily in the breeze. It was early autumn. The air possessed a draining quality as the humidity had been climbing all day. Thunderheads were sprouting to the southeast, and in the setting sun, their anvil tops reflected a cotton candy pink.
“The Gray Man has a long history. No one knows when he started appearing or even who he is—or was. There are speculations, mind you, but like every other speculation, there’s nothing beyond legend and old sea-captain yarns. He is a ghost—that much is known—and unlike some ghosts, if or when you see him, you know that he’s there to help you.
“There’s lots of stories about this ghost; you can read about them. I have a couple of them in my books. One was told to me personally, however, by a man named Franklin Hart. At the time he saw the Gray Man, he was a young guy—a soldier, actually—who was going to be stationed overseas in a few weeks. This was in the late 1950s or early 1960s, I believe, and he wanted to spend a little vacation time with his family before he went.
“The Hart family came to the Outer Banks and was having a great time. There was Franklin, his wife, whose name I don’t remember, and their little girl. His wife was going to have another baby. The poor man was going to miss the birth of his second child, another girl, as it turned out.
“The weather was fantastic for three days straight—hot but not too hot and not a cloud in sight. Then, on the fourth day, things changed. They woke to an overcast and windy day. The temperatures were still fine, but Franklin saw low clouds racing below the higher overcast. He could sense a storm coming. In the morning, however, he could tell that the rain was still hours away, and there was no sense in wasting another great beach day. Besides, the little girl was getting antsy. So, out to the beach they went.
“There was a handful of people walking along the shore and a couple more spotting the sand with their blankets. He didn’t remember the particulars of the morning. They rode the waves and made sand castles. Typical things you’d do on a day at the beach.
“Out of the blue, his daughter piped up, ‘Daddy, who is that man?’ “Franklin looked up and was surprised to find that they were the only family on the beach. There was one other person, though, walking along the point where the strongest wave reaches the dry sand. The man was dressed entirely in gray, including a raincoat that was far too warm for the weather.
“The more they watched, the more uneasy they became. The gray clothes may not have been always been gray. They looked like the colors had been washed out after being exposed to the elements for who knows how long. The brim of his cap also covered his face—which was looking downward. Franklin couldn’t see what he looked like.
“He told his wife and daughter to stay put, and he approached the man. He couldn’t foresee any danger, but at the same time something wasn’t quite right. All Franklin knew for sure was that he had to protect his family.
“When he was about ten feet away from the man, and I mean he was that close—at least according to Franklin—the Gray Man disappeared. He just plain vanished.
“Franklin just stood there. He couldn’t move. If someone had told him he would get one thousand dollars if he lifted his left leg right at that moment, Franklin swore up and down that he wouldn’t have been able to do it. Finally, and he wasn’t sure how long he stood there, Franklin heard his wife calling him, and there was an edge to her voice. He was finally able to turn then and saw his wife as white as a sheet. She had seen the Gray Man disappear, too. His little girl looked puzzled, and he was relieved that she wasn’t frightened. ‘Where did the man go?’
“He replied that the man had an appointment. He held off all further questions by announcing that they had to go, too, because a storm was coming on.
“Here’s the deal. Everyone who’s spent time on the Outer Banks knows about the Gray Man. When the Gray Man appears, that means only one thing. He’s warning you that a strong storm, and most likely a hurricane, is on its way. You have to leave the coast as soon as possible.
“Franklin, who’d been to the beach many times since his family lived in Elizabeth City, was explaining this to his wife as he quickly picked up the family belongings. They drove to the cottage, packed up, and left the Outer Banks about two hours later. Within twenty-four hours, the hurricane hit. The cottage they were staying in was destroyed.
“You see, the Gray Man saved their lives. Just like he saved countless others in the past, and still does today. According to legend, that is.”
Griffin hadn’t said a word. He’d just swayed on the porch swing with Soren while the old man told the story.
“They never saw his face?”
“No. People typically don’t. Although I did hear of one account— and this was from a person who heard it from another person, who heard it from a third person; you get the idea. Anyway, this account says that a person did see his face, and the expression was grim. His face is gray like the rest of him and pasty, too. His eyes are lifeless, with all color drained from them.”
“So, they’re gray, too.”
“Has this guy, Franklin, ever seen him again?”
“No, never. He still lives pretty close, up in Virginia now, the last I heard. He’s a grandfather, too.”
Griffin smiled. Knowing that Franklin had grandchildren somehow made him feel secure, at least momentarily.
“Okay, kid, out with it. What are you smiling about.”
Griffin came back to the present and his smile broadened. He was warmed by the memory.
“I was just thinking about the time you told me the story about the Gray Man for the first time.”
“One of our all-time favorites.”
“You wanted to go to the beach after I finished the story. To search for the Gray Man.”
“I remember. Mom was really pissed at you.”
“Still can’t understand why. You’re a creature of the Outer Banks. You need to know these things.”
“Yeah, but she made us stay in the house.”
“Sad, but true.”
“The storm missed us, too. It curved at the last minute and stayed over the ocean.”
“Yep, all that preparation for nothing. We had a good time, though. You guys stayed over. Your father didn’t.”
“I was glad he didn’t, it was more fun without him.”
The world plunged into dimness as if a black cloud passed in front of the sun. Griffin flinched.
Crap, not again. “What’s wrong, bud?”
The exhale was more controlled. “Nothing.” He looked at his grandfather. “I’m getting cold, I guess.”
“Hmm. I’m not surprised.”
He knows, Griffin thought. He knows I’ve been nervous.
“Well, Griff, we should probably start getting on home. Don’t you think?”
Soren stood and stretched.
“Yeah, probably.” Griffin didn’t want to leave just yet, although he could tell his grandfather was ready.
“Okay, son; be careful.” He motioned toward Griffin’s bike. “I’ll see you back at the ranch.”
“You’re walking, then?”
“My exercise routine demands it.”
His grandfather moved soundlessly along the platform to the stairs. His steps, while quiet, were not tentative. His health seemed to be holding on. Griffin watched him disappear around some wild sea oats sprouting from the dune, but not before the old man raised his hand in a wave. His back was turned, and Griffin marveled at how the man knew he was watching the silent departure.
Griffin needed to get on his bike and ride home. Sitting here and mulling over what had happened would only make him more distressed. The flash of reddish copper under the platform, the beach turning into a two-dimensional image, the sudden wave of darkness like someone flipping a dimmer switch—all of these foretold one thing. The very thing he was trying to fight against.
His iPhone vibrated.
A text. From Tanner: Coming over?
There were three people Griffin loved with his entire being: his mother, his grandfather, and his cousin Tanner. Getting the text at this moment, however, right now, was going to send him over the edge. Griffin knew it.
The motion felt like a firm yet gentle tug from his perch on the bench. In many ways, it was like being in a plane taking off, but with a steeper ascent. The feeling was unexpected, and Griffin gasped while his stomach plunged as if he had run full speed off a cliff.
Soaring into the sky, Griffin started rotating like he was on a carnival ride. He wasn’t surprised to glimpse his body still seated on the bench. He could still sense the wooden slats below his butt, behind his back, and under his feet. Yet, this other part of him, some neurological or spiritual part, maybe both, rose skyward until slowing to a stop three stories into the air.
Dr. Kiser’s voice echoed in his ears: breathe, two seconds in, then two seconds out . . . through your nose, pay attention to your breathing . . .
The rotating sensation stopped, but he still felt like he was being gently handed from one invisible support to another.
He spied his motionless body on the boardwalk being stalked by a figure pantomiming a stealth-like approach. Red hair flying in the wind, masking features . . .
An additional jolt of adrenaline . . . his breath escalated . . . He imagined his body streaking headfirst as the supporting forces let go . . . his head smashing like a melon in the sand . . .
Breathe, two seconds in, then two seconds out . . . through your nose, pay attention to your breathing . . .
He tried to control his breathing, and control his racing thoughts and images about falling.
I’m in the freaking air!
His heart rate doubled. He couldn’t control his reactions anymore. He screamed. His adrenaline burst through his gut . . . and then it was silent.
No sound of wind or waves. No seagulls squawking. No heartbeat, either.
He died. He died here in the sky while his body began to decompose on the beach-access platform.
Soren! Soren, don’t leave me! I’m dead. I’m—
He plummeted, crashing and spinning. The ocean slapped him like a concrete slab, and Griffin was pulled underwater. He slammed the sandy bottom and stuck. Hands, or something, grabbed his limbs and pulled him through the sand. He screamed. Choked. Something reddish—seaweed, maybe, or hair—waved before his face. Then eyes, eyes, dulled by ocean water, glared into his face and disappeared.
Pushed, or more accurately, shoved with such force he was catapulted from the sea.
He sat, stunned, on the bench and remembered to breathe only after the passage of multiple seconds. It was all he could do to control the urge to hyperventilate into another panic attack.
No one was watching, thank God. Although they probably wouldn’t have seen anything strange because, Griffin realized, he had not moved. Both legs were still drawn to his chest and his arms were still wrapped around them. His fingernails were digging into his calves, and loosening his grip took a concentrated effort. Fortunately, the skin was not broken.
Holy shit, that really sucked.
His mother’s words rang in his ears.
Griffin, how is your depersonalization disorder?
Geez, Mom. I don’t want to talk about it.
What about anxiety attacks? Still get them?
Mom. For God’s sake, leave me alone.
No, this wasn’t going to be over anytime soon.
On top of all this, the red-haired kid was back.
US Route 158 was an east-west highway that spanned most of North Carolina. The road turned north-south when it reached the Outer Banks region. From the Wright Memorial Bridge to Nags Head, Route 158 was a four-lane aggravation that turned into a nightmare during the summer, when thousands of vacationers, occasional drunks, and frequent teenagers shared the road—and everyone was driving over the speed limit. The result was a mass of traffic jams, fender benders, and periodic head-on collisions in the center left turn lane. Makeshift crosses and memorials dotted the roadway in honor of past victims.