Work contained normalcy and he had embraced it.
A whirring zipped past his ear and he coughed, spewing all over his notes. Slamming his empty cup down, he glared at Josephine.
The little faery blinked, looking up at him.
“What are you doing here? You’ve been bugging me for days, but you haven’t ever pestered me in here before.”
She kicked her foot over his papers, examining them, before walking over to his cup. Hoisting herself up to the rim, she stuck her head in. She came out sniffing, and sneezed like a kitten, shuddering. “You drink what was in that? Disgusting.”
Her wings fluttered, then she fell still, staring at him. Ashton slumped back in his chair. Her silence more of a warning than any haranguing could have been.
“You have to stop hiding in here, Ash. There’s things you need to do.”
He snorted and suppressed an unhealthy laugh. “Do? Really? The only thing I need to do is get my work done so I can get transferred out of here.”
“Your potential is opening up, Ashton. You can’t be stuck in here when it happens.” She kicked his pencil and it rolled off the table.
He grabbed after it, missed, and struck his forehead on the edge of the table. The pencil hit point first. He felt absurdly like he wanted to cry, so he lashed out instead. Lunging, he tried to grasp the faery. She easily shot out of his reach and he dodged after her. After a quick, fruitless chase, his steam ran out and he collapsed back into his chair, breathing heavily. Josephine settled onto the shelf above him and swung her feet. He refused to meet the compassion in her eyes.
“You’ve entrenched yourself somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe, Ashton. You’re a badger, dug into a den and not willing to move, but a flash flood is coming. You have been ignoring us.”
“Damn straight.” He doubled over, gripping his hair, resting his elbows on his knees. “I can’t sleep. The dreams are taking over. As soon as I close my eyes, they’re there. They went away briefly after that one nightmare, but now-”
“You’re having nightmares?” She interrupted.
“Some of them are, but not all. It doesn’t really matter how pleasant they are, they take over.” His grip relaxed. The floor spun beneath his feet. He shook his head and sat up, reaching under the bench he fished a pill bottle out of his laptop case. Josephine flew down to hover at his face as he swallowed two of the pills.
“Ashton, what are you doing?”
“I need to stay awake. Now, go away.”
“This won’t stop what is happening from being real.”
“What is real?” He snapped, then took a breath and spoke softer. “I am not going to listen to the little voices in my head telling me to do things. Even if they have pretty wings.”
He dismissed her and returned to work. She flew and scattered his papers. Suppressing a very unmale-like shriek, he glared at Josephine’s angry face.
“Real?” She sputtered. “You’ve touched me. I’m warm and breathing…”
He cut her off with a slash of his hand. “And I have a mark on my chest from a dream. If I can get that in a nightmare, who’s to say a hallucination can’t seem real in my waking world. I’m so sleep deprived I can’t tell up from down.”
He focused on the mess his work bench contained. “And now this experiment is ruined.”
One of his coworkers popped his head around the door jamb. “Who are you talking to Ashton? Is Frank still here? Whoa. What was that?”
His coworker flinched to the side. A spark of relief kindled that Josephine made it out the door, only to have it drown in the despair consuming him.
“Sorry.” Ashton sighed. “A giant bee got in. I’m allergic.”
The full moon cast down enough light for Ashton to lock the office doors. The night was quiet and still, no fluttery offenders descended on him. That circumstance engendered both surprise and relief. The constant pressure of their presence had allowed him no peace to work through what was happening to him.
Josephine had been correct about one thing. The lab had become a safe haven. But in reality, it was just another place to hide. The Faeries and other creatures had taken over his world. Even at home he couldn’t escape. At work, his focus had to stay on task which let him avoid confronting the strangeness.
Pocketing his keys, he started his trek to the bus stop. The warm night pulled at him, slowing his steps. All that waited for him at home were dreams. At war with himself, he walked past the shelter and headed across the street into the park. His body engaged in a losing battle as the stimulants wore off and his need for sleep escalated.
The woods called to him. Alone finally, his thoughts wandered freely for the first time in days. The constant tension of denial that he stubbornly held on to lifted from his shoulders. Slipping into the trees, the moon’s light shot broken shadows across the trail.
Wandering absently, Ashton stopped to rest on a tree root. He shook his head to clear his vision. Tears pricked his eyes from the relief as the sudden peace chased away pain he hadn’t realized he had. Even the sparkly glow, zigzagging through the tree branches, didn’t dim the release.
Resigned, Ashton waited for the little delicately laced wing creature to land. The faery fluttered his wings and dropped onto the branch. The little male stared at him and Ashton groaned.
“Are you trying to hide from us, mortal?”
“I, uh…” Ashton clenched his teeth as more gossamer wings zipped nearer. “Well…”
“You haven’t left your box this early in days. So we were not prepared. It would not matter where you went mortal. We would find you. This location just makes it easier.” The faery looked over his shoulder then jumped off the branch. Josephine took his place. She cocked her head before plopping down on the branch, her feet kicking.
A little of his disgruntlement with her resurfaced, “Couldn’t this wait? Do you have to hound me now?” I suppose I should be grateful for small miracles, at least I’m not at work anymore.
“Stop being a grumpy goblin. Time is running out. You have to do it soon.”
“Do what!” He jumped up throwing his hands in the air, his serenity evaporating. “You keep telling me that. You haven’t given me a moment’s peace. Completely disregarding that I have suddenly started to see or talk to things that nobody in their right mind would consider real. I’m scared to death to fall asleep, because some scary bitch of a horse is out to get me, and you expect me to just act like its business as usual. Yougo do whatever it is that you think is so important.”
“If you weren’t fighting this so much, Ash, it would be easier.”
Ashton folded his arms and glared right back at her. “You come to me, completely disrupting my life, and have the gall to tell me it would be easier not to fight it. Do you know how hard it is to explain you? The mess you made in my office? I’ll give you some reality. You are so lucky Robert didn’t get a really good look at you today, or you and your little Tinker Belle friends would be stuck through with a pin in a butterfly box. That’s what scientists do, you know.”
The fairy’s eyes got wide as saucers and her companions all dove for cover in a flurry of colorful wings. Remorse flooded him. “Wait, I didn’t mean…”
A sharp prick stuck him in the back and he froze.
“They are right, Ashton. I’ve been calling you long enough. I’m tired of you ignoring me.”
Josephine rose to her feet on the branch, “Do you want me to stay, Milord?”
“No, Josephine. I’ll take it from here. I’ll call when I need you.”
Barely daring to breathe, Ashton met the faery’s eyes, full of compassion and a touch of fear, before she flew reluctantly away. Ashton swallowed slowly, a shiver running down his spine. The sharp point at his back hadn’t lessened. The night took on a new depth as he stood frozen, waiting to die.
The light breeze that rustled the leaves above him echoed loudly in his ears. His thoughts skittered and he took a deep breath of the warm, wet night air in an attempt to contain his panic.
The point dug deeper and Ashton stumbled forward a step with a gasp. The prodding continued, sending him through the soft loam of the forest.
“Tell me human, why have you been ignoring my summons? It took you long enough to get here.”
“This isn’t real. None of this is real. I’m a scientist. My life is based on truth.” Ashton whispered. This experience could just go on the list with all of the others. Otherwise he would finally have to acknowledge that the dreams were genuine too.
“I assure you, everything in life is quite real. Even dreams.”
The mark on his chest blazed. His lungs seized from the pain and he fell to his knees. An answering light incandesced from behind him. He managed to turn his head and see through his blurring eyes that it hadn’t been a knife in his back after all, but a wickedly sharp spiral horn.
The agony finally succeeded in breaking Ashton’s will, and he passed out.