THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD Chapter I
(c)1998 B Stearns

I'm a long way from that fool's mistake, and now forever pay...
--Dave Matthews Band, The Stone


July 12th 1998

"Where the hell is he!"

Neal paced the length of the hallway again, more agitated with every passing minute, and Jon recrossed his ankles and slid further down in the chair he'd shoved up against the wall. Deen was flipping one drumstick at a time into the air and catching them behind his back, and Ross was demanding that he try catching one in his mouth. That had spurred a discussion concerning the many ways one could conceivably put one's eye out. No rehearsal among this group, no matter who'd been in it, had ever been boring, but this one was becoming a frustration. Their new singer was past fashionably late.

Jon avoided making two points: that another singer by the name of Steve had never been late. And...Neal was acting much like that particular Steve on more than an occasional basis since they'd returned from Athyri. The typically laid back guitarist had traded in his what the hell attitude for something closer to what the hell are you doing!

Some of it, Jon knew, could be attributed to the pressures they'd been under. Deciding to keep Journey going had been more of a mine field than what had preceded Trial By Fire. They had it coming from all sides now rather than just critics. There was no one left who had been able to keep their opinions to themselves. They'd all spent more than enough time reflecting on it. It was gonna fly, or it wasn't. They'd already come too far to turn back.

And they'd all spent some time trying to recover from what had happened to them. It'd changed them all. Smitty hadn't admitted it, but it had helped him decide to go back to Vital Information and stay there. The three remaining core members had decided not to explain their ordeal to the new members. If anything came up, they'd deal with it then. But it was better to put it all away and go on.

They were due in Wisconsin later that week for a festival, and there were some points they'd gathered to polish at Jon's home studio before heading out.

Only, Steve Augeri had yet to arrive.

Several calls to his home over the next hour proved fruitless. They did what they could without him before finally giving up for the day. They'd plan for another time before they had to leave. Augeri had forgotten, or something had come up, that was all.

But another day passed, and no one had heard from him. When Neal drove to his house that afternoon, the first thing he noticed was the lack of traffic, which became all the more obvious once he left Novato. He shrugged it off until he reached the small neighborhood Augeri lived in, which was utterly silent. When he got out of his car, there were no kids playing in the street, no dogs barking, no one coming or going.

Place is like a goddamn ghost town today, he thought, parking on the street and trotting up the driveway of the small, two story brick veneer home. There were cars in the driveway, one he recognized as Aug's. When he rang the doorbell, he listened to it echo through the house unanswered. There was no sound of a TV from inside, or any evidence that someone was home despite the cars in the driveway.

So they'd gone for a walk. Or out with friends, or....

Shit. Neal hated this, hated it when that goddamn alarm went off in the back of his head. Sure, it'd saved him from a lot of shit over the years, maybe even saved his life a time or two. He'd learned to never ignore it. There was something wrong, and he knew it, and now he had to figure out what, because Augeri wouldn't vanish for days without saying anything.

He rang the doorbell again, and knocked for good measure. When it was obvious that no one was going to answer, he tried the door against his better judgment.

He startled when the door swung easily inward.

On an empty house.

There was nothing; no furniture, no kid's toys, not a scrap of evidence that anyone had lived there at all. Ever.

"Oh, God," he said aloud. "God." Not again. Not all this again!

* * *

He hadn't wanted to tell Jon. His first impulse was to just say Aug hadn't been home, that they should wait awhile longer. But not sharing this with Jon was like lying to himself, and if they were involved with the namers again they had to look at their options.

So he steeled himself against the look on Jon's face, the disbelief, the panic that was just as quickly tucked away. Ross had already been there when he'd arrived, and they had dragged Neal out to the studio when they'd seen the look on his face.

"Empty," Ross said.

"Yeah. I mean, I know where Aug lives, for Christ's sake. I didn't have the wrong house. His car was in the driveway."

Jon's silence left Neal grasping at straws, and he said, "What are the chances--"

"No," Jon nearly shouted, stopping Neal in mid thought. "None. The namers would be more likely, and you know it."

Neal didn't ask Jon how he'd known what he was going to say. Jon simply did. But he finished the thought in silence anyway. What are the chances a so called Journey fan decided to make a point?

"This Steve doesn't take off at whim like another we know," Ross said. "Something's happened. We just have to figure out what. Until then, we don't say anything until we have to."

"Somebody better check to see where the other Steve is," Jon said. "We'd have our damn answer then, I think."

They stared at each other, weighing the possibility of what could be happening to them again. Then Jon said, "Lora...hasn't heard from him in awhile. He doesn't answer his phone anyway. He could be off somewhere trying to disappear. He's refused to talk to anyone so far." Yes I've been keeping tabs on him was what ran defensively underneath the words. And even though they couldn't hear each other's thoughts in their world, Jon's were still plain to Neal by the sheer connection they'd established upon meeting each other for the first time. So Neal could also guess what else was lying underneath Jon's words, that if anyone was in a position to know where Steve would haul off to, it was Neal.

"And," Neal said wearily.

Jon sighed. "I'll drive out there."

"I'm going with," Neal added just as wearily.

"I don't..."

"You're not going out there alone," Neal said shortly.

"We've had enough trouble," Ross said. "Count me in."

"I'll stay out of his sight, if he's around," Neal said.

Jon looked at them with raised eyebrows. "You guys know this is breaking the deal with the namers, if we all go out there. And goddamned obviously."

"Somebody's already broken the deal, Jay," Ross said. "It's just a matter of splitting hairs, now."

* * *

The spare key was where it had always been, and Jon let them in without further thought to the intrusion it represented. Jon was worried enough by then that he didn't care. Steve hadn't answered the door, and when they'd looked in the windows it was obvious he hadn't been home for some time.

The spare key had been missing the morning Jon and Neal had come to see if Steve had survived the wraith, forcing them to kick the door in. That had nagged at Jon, how orchestrated the whole thing had been. And like the last time they'd done this, there was the feeling of not wanting to walk past the living room, of not wanting to find the singer if he was dead. None of them noticed the stones on the porch...

Neal told himself that the singer, while resentful and wounded by their collective actions and by Neal's in particular, was too egotistical to do anything truly stupid. He repeated that to himself while they called Steve's name to the empty house. The air was stale, and Jon ran a finger across the table in the kitchen to find a fine layer of dust on it.

"Well," Ross said, "look on the bright side, guys. No chairs sticking out of the walls."

Neal made an inarticulate sound that could have translated to any number of obscenities.

Look, a small, bitter voice whispered in the back of his mind. Look what you've done to me.

"No," Neal said aloud. Jon and Ross looked at him, and Jon started to ask him what was going on. But he stared over Neal's shoulder instead, at the still open door, at the pitch black bird perched on the railing outside.

Neal turned, and the four creatures stared at each other in silent understanding.

"But we did what you said!" Jon shouted furiously, startling Neal into grabbing him.

"Jon...!"

"Goddamnit, what do you want!" Jon shouted.

The bird flew away.

* * *

By that evening they were forced to concede that there was a problem concerning more than one Steve, and it was beyond them now that they had no powers. Someone else had answered the number they had for Steve's stepdad, Marv. Lora's number had been disconnected.

"I don't believe in coincidences," Ross said.

"If they want something, you would think they'd just tell us sooner or later," Jon said. "Goddamnit, they could at least come to gloat."

"Should we call Smith?" Neal said, asking no one in particular.

"To warn him, yeah," Jon said. "But to involve him, no. We're over here, and having us together doesn't make that much difference on this side." At least, I thought so. "Damn, I'm tired of this. I just...." Want peace and quiet, want to live my life!

"I know," Neal said as if Jon had spoken aloud. "How long do we wait until we bow out of the festival?"

"Give it another day," Ross said. "With us, damn near anything could happen. And usually does."

* * *

Steve knew when he awoke that something was wrong.

At first he thought it was that damn woodpecker again, the one he'd never been able to get rid of. The thing had been knocking holes in the side of the house for years. But he remembered as he waded out of sleep that the woodpecker had been gone for years, had given up and found someone else to harass. Something else was tapping at his bedroom window in the pre dawn light. Something insistent.

His eyes snapped open, and he lay there for a moment pinned down by a very real fear, breath held, heart racing. He'd been here before, done this, and so long as the thing outside didn't hear him he would be fine...

What the hell am I doing?

He rose stiffly and yanked one of the curtains back, daring whatever was out there to do whatever it was going to.

First light framed the incredibly black creature at the window in hazy gray light before it cawed and flew away, startled by the sudden motion.

Steve watched the raven coast away into the nearby trees before releasing the curtain in disgust and heading for the bathroom.

But he couldn't shake the feeling that the world was wrong. It looked the same...and it wasn't as if he cared at the moment, but something was missing, and if he stopped thinking about it sooner or later it would become apparent, he figured. Something about that damn bird on his porch, staring at him all the time...

* * *