Two Months Later
Conner Hayden fought his way through the woods. Branches snapped at his passing, disintegrating into puffs of dust, as if every drop of moisture had been sucked out of them. Tendrils of mist curled around his legs like serpents seeking to pull him to the ground. He could feel their weight as he struggled to walk. But he had to press onward. He had to keep going.
He had been here before.
Darkness fell around him like a thick blanket, almost smothering him. His chest pounded as much from the strain of his movement as from the fear rising inside him.
He knew what was out there.
But he heard no voices this time. No ghostly whispers from the dark, save one. One single, moaning plea.
His breath came in steamy puffs. The passing branches lashed at him like razors, slicing into his hands and face. The trees seemed to lean their gnarled limbs into his path, blocking his way and closing in again behind him. He would never find his way out.
Please, someone help me!
“Mitch!” Conner hissed through his teeth. For two months Mitch Kent’s face had haunted his dreams. The thought of the young man he barely knew, trapped inside this place—trapped between life and death—gnawed at him day and night. Conner had to help him. This was his sole mission. This was the reason God had saved him. Brought him back from the dead. Back from the edge of the abyss.
A light flickered between the twisted branches. Conner lowered his head, threw his arm across his face, and plowed through. The trees seemed to claw at him like a swarm of angry cats. He almost thought he heard them hissing as if not wanting him to pass. Trying desperately to keep him from moving forward. It was the only way he could tell he was headed in the right direction. It seemed to be the one place they didn’t want him to go.
Conner stumbled into the clearing and found himself staring at the old cabin. Again. It stood weathered and barren, the roof sagging under its own weight. A dull, orange light poured out from the crusted glass of the single window in the front.
He stepped closer. “Mitch?”
Conner peered through the window. The cabin was empty, just as he remembered it. He cracked the door open and slipped inside. And winced. The odor flooded his nostrils like an overflowing sewer. He turned toward the door, gagging. His head swam from the stench. This was not what he remembered.
Conner gathered himself and inspected the interior more closely. The wood-burning stove poured out a sickly orange light. But there was no heat.
“Mitch, where are you? It’s me. It’s Conner.”
Something thumped against the wood. Conner spun around. The doorway stood open and empty. Nothing moved in the darkness outside.
There was a second thump and a sharp crack. The entire cabin shuddered. Then something burst through the floorboards directly in front of him, splintering the wood. An arm reached up. Blackened flesh dangled from the bones. Maggots poured from abscesses in the rotting skin. A skeletal hand gripped Conner’s ankle like a bear trap. He couldn’t move. The stench flowed up stronger now, overpowering him. His eyes rolled back, and the cabin seemed to sway beneath him. Conner tumbled backward onto the floor, but the hand kept its grip.
A second arm burst through the boards and clutched his hair. Then two more crashed through, pinning his shoulders to the floor. Conner screamed. . . .
He sat up straight. Chest heaving.
The cabin dissolved into the shadows of his bedroom as Conner gasped for breath. Cold sweat soaked his T-shirt. He felt something stir beside him.
Marta rolled over and reached for the nightstand lamp. “Connie?” Her voice was hoarse with sleep. She sat up and slipped her arm around him, pressing her hand lightly against his sternum. She held it there as she rested her cheek on his shoulder. “Was it the dream again?”
Conner could feel his heart pounding under her hand. He sucked air into his lungs, deep and slow. He had to control his breathing. He had to calm himself. Finally he nodded. “Yeah. The same one.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No.” His heart rate began to slow. He rubbed his eyes and lay down again. “I’m all right.”
He closed his eyes but could still feel Marta’s stare. She was worried about him; he could tell. More so than usual. In the two months since his heart attack, he hadn’t made it through more than three consecutive nights without having that dream. But he’d only described it to her in vague terms. He didn’t want to give her the details. He didn’t want her to press him with questions about his “experience” during the heart attack.
Because he hadn’t told her everything.
“Something’s bothering you,” she said.
Conner yawned, trying to shrug off her insinuation. “D’ya think?”
“I mean there’s something else. Something you’re not telling me. I can tell when you’re hiding something, Connie. I always could.”
Conner glanced at the clock. “It’s three. Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
“You know I’m going to keep pestering you.” She leaned against him and trailed her finger through his hair. “I can be very persistent.”
Conner tried to roll onto his side, but Marta pressed her weight harder against his shoulder, pinning him in place. He chuckled. “Believe me, no one knows better than me.”
Marta stared at him for a moment, one eyebrow raised. Then she leaned over and flicked off the light. “Just so we understand one another.”
Three and a half hours later, after Conner had showered and sat down for breakfast, Marta slid a plate of toast in front of him. Conner downed his orange juice and spread some jam over the toast. He could feel her stare again and wondered what she would think of him if he told her the truth. What would she do if he actually told her everything?
She’d want him to see a shrink. . . . No, the old Marta would’ve had him see a doctor. This one would want him to speak to their pastor.
Conner had been going to church with her for the past five weeks—since they’d gotten officially remarried—and she’d been pestering him to set up a meeting with the pastor. Conner’s journey to his newfound faith had been dramatic to say the least, but he was still an independent thinker. He didn’t want somebody else telling him what to believe. He wanted to discover it on his own. He needed to figure it out for himself. It wouldn’t seem real to him otherwise.
Conner bit into his toast, avoiding Marta’s gaze.
“So anyway,” she said after several seconds, “I think I’ve had about enough of this.”
Conner stopped chewing and looked up. “Enough of what?”
“Of you keeping all this stuff penned up inside you. What’s it going to take for you to figure out that you can talk to me? A heart atta—? Oh, wait . . . that’s right.”
Her sarcasm was improving.
Conner started to laugh and that at least felt good. “You’ll think I’m going crazy.”
“Very funny.” He paused, taking another bite of toast to buy himself some time. “Actually, I have been wanting to tell you something. It’s just that . . . well, it all sounds a little . . .”
Marta lifted an eyebrow. “Crazy?”
Conner sighed. “The night of my heart attack, I told you how I found myself standing at the edge of this cliff. This huge chasm.”
“Well . . . what I didn’t tell you was how I got there.”
“What do you mean?”
Conner drew a deep breath. “When I was dying . . . I didn’t actually know I was dying. I didn’t know what was going on. I was in my study that night when I saw this weird storm outside—big black clouds rolling across the sky with lights flashing inside them. It wasn’t like any storm I had ever seen before. Then I blacked out, and when I woke up the next morning—or what I thought was the next morning—I found myself all alone. Everything seemed as real as this does now. But Rachel and you . . . and the entire world had just . . . vanished.”
Marta frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“There were buildings and cars and trees, but no other people. I drove around town, but the entire city was deserted. It was like I was the last man on earth. Then I saw these things—these creatures watching me. Following me. For a while there I thought they were aliens.”
Marta leaned forward. Her frown was deepening but she didn’t say anything.
Conner went on. “I finally met up with some other people who’d all had the same experience I did. They had seen the storm too and woke up the next morning all alone.”
“So that’s what that list of people was all about. That you had asked your assistant for?”
“Yeah. Mitch Kent and Helen Krause. And Devon Marshall, Ray Cahill, and . . .” A slight shudder rippled down his spine. “And Howard Bristol.”
“You actually met them? spoke with them?”
“Yes,” Conner said. “They were as real as you are right now. I swear. But we were all dying. My heart attack, Mitch’s accident, and Helen’s overdose. Devon had been shot. But Howard . . . Howard wasn’t what he seemed.”
“What do you mean?”
“He saved us from some of those creatures. They were attacking us. They had dragged Ray Cahill off into the darkness. And they were coming for us, too. But Howard showed up and saved us. He took us to his farm and we thought we were safe. But he was . . . working with them. Or maybe he was really one of them . . . some kind of being that could make itself look like a friendly old farmer.”
“And when they dragged people away,” Marta said, “these things . . . they brought them to that chasm?”
“That’s where they brought Helen. A bottomless, black abyss, and I would have ended up there too if they hadn’t revived me.” Conner closed his eyes. After several seconds he regained his composure. “But Mitch isn’t dead yet. He’s in a hospital in Winthrop Harbor, hooked up to life support—his body is, anyway. But his . . . his soul is still in that place. Howard called it the Interworld. Mitch is still there with Howard. And he doesn’t even know what’s really happening to him.”
Marta leaned back and bit her lower lip. She didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity.
Conner spoke up again. “So that’s it. Now tell me . . . do you think I’m crazy or not?”
Marta’s eyes traced a path around the kitchen. Conner could tell she was trying to process the story. She looked like she was trying to understand . . . or decide if she believed it.
Finally she shook her head. “It’s just . . .” She seemed to struggle for words. “I mean, I’ve heard of people having near-death experiences. But never this detailed. Nothing like this. This just seems so . . . so unreal.”
“But it was real.” Conner grew solemn. “I didn’t believe it myself at first. I kept telling myself it was just a hallucination. But when Nancy came with my list of names, when she found those people—people I had never even met before . . . I knew it was real.”
Marta folded her arms. “That’s who you’ve been trying to get in touch with? Mitch’s father? That’s what you’ve been so worried about?”
“I know it probably seems like I’ve lost my mind,” Conner said. “I hardly know Mitch. I don’t know anything about him. But I can’t just leave him there. I know what’s waiting for him if he gets disconnected. I’ve seen it. If they let him die . . . Marty, I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“But what can you do about it? It’s not your decision.”
Conner shrugged. “I don’t know. But like Rachel told me once, God brought me back for a reason. He saved me for some purpose, and I think it’s to try to help Mitch. I think He wants me to save Mitch.”
“But how do you know that? How are you supposed to save him? What are you supposed to do?”
“I don’t know.” Conner slumped in his chair. As though a weight had just been dumped onto his shoulders. “That’s what’s so frustrating. I feel like God wants me to do something, but I have no idea what it is or how to do it. And in a way, I feel like I’m getting angry at Him all over again. Why doesn’t He just come out and tell me? Why does everything have to be so difficult?”
“I know you’ve been trying to avoid this, but why don’t you talk with Pastor Lewis?”
Conner started to protest, but Marta cut him off. “Please? We’ll go together. This is something neither of us has any experience or knowledge about. Please, Connie? Let’s at least try.”
“I’ll think about it.” Conner glanced at his watch. “I need to get going.”
He’d been back to work for three weeks already. But he found he was having trouble getting into a routine. He was also finding it difficult to concentrate.
He could no longer view his job the same way. There were things he used to do, tactics he once had no problem with, that now caused him a sort of inner turmoil. He wasn’t the same man he had been. He found he was developing new priorities, new values that were beginning to conflict with his old ones.
And he knew it was only a matter of time before it would affect his job.
Conner packed up his laptop and went out to the car. He had to get to the office.
But there was something he needed to do first.