Freebie Mondays: The Specter of Memory (Prompt Novel Chapter 3)

Freebie Mondays: The Specter of Memory (Prompt Novel Chapter 3)

For 2024, I have decided to devote my prompt writing time to a novel. The twist is that the novel plot will be generated entirely by the writing prompts I chose to use for the project – which were rolled randomly using my trusty dice and a few online prompt lists. You can find the Table of Contents here.

For Chapter 3, the prompt was: “High school sweethearts reunite.”

Since we’ve already established the MMC and FMC in the previous chapters, I took this opportunity to establish some of the side characters. I think it’s important for even the supporting characters to have strong motivations and story arcs, because it makes the world feel more realistic and less like it centers around the main characters and their plots.

If you’d like to see this chapter come together, you can watch the VoD on Youtube!
. . .

The restaurant was fancier than Nala expected. The kind they used to hover outside when they were younger and peer longingly through the windows at the patrons. In high school, no one Nala knew had ever been able to afford eating at a place like this. Every table was shrouded in a thick white table cloth – real fabric, not just paper thrown haphazardly across the surface. The place settings were spread out instead of wrapped in a napkin – two of each utensil arranged in a pattern around the small plate that would serve for appetizers. Beside the water glass – already filled with icy water – sat a gleaming empty wine glass, waiting to receive either amber or crimson liquid, depending on the diners’ choice.

The waiter pulled Nala’s padded chair out from under the table and waited until she settled uncertainly against the cushion before helping her push it forward. The gesture brought a small blush to her cheeks – the sort of thing she normally hated.

She couldn’t remember the last time she felt this damn flustered!

“Sorry,” the man sitting across from her murmured, perhaps picking up on her embarrassment. “It’s too much, isn’t it? I just really wanted to take you somewhere nice. You know… since I never got to before.”

“It’s fine,” Nala said in a rush. She tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered like a flock of butterflies in her chest, but it didn’t surprise her that he could still make her blood rush and her heart pound. He had, after all, been the boy who once took her hand and kissed it beneath the full moon just outside the homecoming dance in front of all their peers to make up for some stupid thing he said earlier in the night.

He had been the boy next door who escorted her back and forth to school for three years before they finally agreed to go out on that first long-anticipated but also highly dreaded date. And he had once been the man she was certain she would marry – though it only took a glance at their ring fingers to confirm how that turned out.

Nala’s breath caught in her throat when she first spotted the thin gold band on Delmar’s left ring finger. She’d known, of course, that he married, though she hadn’t been able to attend the wedding. But seeing it made it all real.

Her ring fingers – both of them – were bare. She wondered if the waiter noticed when he poured the crimson colored wine they chose into the glass sitting in front of her.

“I mean, I’d have been just as happy to revisit one of our old haunts,” she added cheerfully, worried her simple reassurance wouldn’t be enough.

“You mean one of the old timey diners with the plastic seats and fake jukeboxes at every table?” Delmar countered and arched an eyebrow.

The two of them burst into laughter at the same time. Nala worried they would be considered too rowdy for the fancy spot, so she quickly covered her mouth with the back of her hand. As soon as she could breathe again, she lifted her wine glass, swirled the liquid lightly and took the first sip.

That should at least keep her quiet for a few moments.

“In all seriousness,” she said when Delmar had also regained a somber composure, “I would have been happy meeting anywhere. I’m just happy to see you.”

“Me too,” Delmar replied with a wide grin. “I’m happy to see you, I mean.”

There was a goofy look on his face when he made the correction and, for a moment, Nala was transported to a long ago moment shared between the two of them. She didn’t think it was the same night as the homecoming dance, but she remembered wearing a fancy dress. The high heels she forced herself to wear clicked on the pavement with each of her steps, and Delmar held a small rectangular device over his head while he waved his arm back and forth.

“Still no bars,” the ghostly specter of her memory declared as he offered her phone back to her. “Do you think your parents will give us a pass on missing curfew because we couldn’t call roadside assistance?”

“My parents?” Nala snorted. “They’re going to put me under house arrest even if we get a police escort back to the front door confirming our story.”

“Ah well,” Delmar murmured and laughed – he had always been the optimistic one. “I’ll just have to perfect my interpretive dance so I can send you loving messages from the front yard.”

“It’s been a long time,” Nala murmured, realizing only when her voice struck her ears that she spoke in a whimsical tone filled with nostalgia for the past.

“Too long,” Delmar agreed as he finally lifted his wine glass to his lips and sipped the dark liquid.

“That’s what happens when your careers take you halfway across the country from each other,” Nala replied, sober and fully anchored in the present once again.

They had tried the long distance thing. With video conferencing technology, it should have been easy. But that hadn’t accounted for time zones or the expenses required for in person visits.

Or the attractive new people who would waggle eyebrows at both of them before luring them to separate parties and then, eventually, separate interests.

Nala had been adamant about pursuing technology. It might be a male-dominated field, but she wanted to be on the cutting edge. She was under no delusions she’d cure cancer, solve world hunger or invent the next microchip. But she was damn well going to try to push them toward the next era even if she had to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of the hardware available.

Delmar’s ambitions had been… softer, gentler. He wanted to take things slow and explore what the world had to offer before he settled into a long-term plan. He wanted to take week long trips to the beach or explore the woodland of a national park. He wanted romantic dinners beneath the moonlight and confessing the secrets of the soul beneath the stars.

When they were young and the entire world was fresh and new, his perspective enchanted Nala. It was why she agreed to go out with him, why she let him take her to all the school dances – though she found such activities frivolous and pointless. It was why she once believed they’d be together forever.

But out there, in the cold, harsh reality of the Silicon Valley, Nala had been forced to choose between romance and ambition – and the siren call of success was just too loud.

“What have you been up to?” Delmar asked, once again dragging Nala back into the present from the depths of the past. “I shouldn’t be surprised it took so long for us to arrange this meeting, but I admit I hoped you would have an opening in your schedule much sooner.”

“I should have,” Nala replied, and the passion she applied to the statement was at least partly born of annoyance. She didn’t want to think ill of the men she worked with – each was intelligent and talented in their own way. But lately, it felt as though they were holding her back. “This project has just been… shall we say, challenging? It certainly hasn’t matched the expectations of our outline.”

Six months ago, when they activated the simulation for the first time, it should have been able to run without constant supervision. Nala was of the opinion that any one of the patches they used to update the software since the start date should have been enough to stabilize the program – and all her math bore that out. She didn’t want to believe one of her coworkers was sabotaging the project. But it was either that or…

One of us is a lot less smart than we think.

And she was starting to worry maybe it might be her.

“Aren’t you trying to essentially simulate an entire digital universe?” Delmar countered in a tone that suggested she was selling herself massively short.

“That was the original plan,” Nala admitted. She couldn’t say a ton about the project, but Delmar had known her long enough to know what she was up to even before she signed the new contract and the NDA associated with it. “But we had to scale back massively. Now it’s just a digital simulation of an entire city.”

“A realistic digital simulation of an entire city,” Delmar corrected and grinned again. “I can’t say I entirely understand the benefits that can be gleaned from that kind of project, but I know enough to know it’s no small thing.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be,” Nala agreed, “if we could get the damn thing to work for longer than ten minutes.”

“I’m guessing this isn’t the kind of thing where you can just snap your fingers and expect it to work out all right,” Delmar protested, once again suggesting with his tone that she was being too hard on herself.

But someone had to face the reality of this situation!

“I suppose it’s possible the complexity is significantly steeper than our initial projections,” Nala conceded – though only begrudgingly. The words burned her tongue as they drifted from the depths of her throat. She was nothing if not thorough, and she did not like to be proven wrong. Success should flow in the opposite direction, especially when she was involved. “But I could live with that if it was the only factor. No… there’s something going on with this project. It’s almost like it’s cursed.”

Now there was a word that seared her soul to speak!

“Cursed?” Delmar repeated with a look of disbelief suffusing his features. He even performed a double take as if he expected to find her replaced by an entirely different person when he glanced across the table the second time. “Who are you and what have you done with the real Nala? Because I know for a fact that my Nala doesn’t believe in anything remotely supernatural.”

Nala’s heart performed a tiny backflip when Delmar referred to her as his Nala and, for a moment, her throat constricted so painfully, she couldn’t speak. Was this what she had given up? Moments like this? Because she genuinely wasn’t sure looking back if she made the right choice if she had to choose between the warmth of the man sitting across from her and the disaster waiting back at her small office.

“I know how it sounds,” she replied, trying to maintain her good humor – it was shockingly easy when he words produced another soft chuckle from her dinner companion. “But I’m not sure how else to describe it. There’s this guy on our team…” Nala decided not to say his name. She highly doubted anyone she worked with would ever travel in Delmar’s circles, but it was best not to skirt the edges of the NDA. “And lately it seems like everything he touches breaks.”

“A series of unfortunate coincidences, surely,” Delmar protested, sounding more serious than he had a moment before.

“That’s what I thought at first too,” Nala admitted. “And if it had lasted only a day or two, that’s what I’d still think. But it’s been weeks, Del! And no one is that clumsy.” Certainly Alyial wouldn’t have gotten onto a project like this one if he’d always been so hapless around computer technology. “It started small. Like a coffee got knocked onto the computer while we were in the middle of some frantic damage control. Shit like that happens, unfortunately, especially on these government projects with small budgets and big expectations. But it’s just gotten more ridiculous as time has gone on. Random gravity faults in drives that tested in perfect working order an hour before. Shorts in devices. Brownouts. Messages going awry or getting stuck so they aren’t delivered on time. I’m half convinced this man is a walking EMP, though I can’t imagine what happened to him to make him this way since he wasn’t like that at the start of the project.”

“Maybe he’s the real experiment,” Delmar suggested, though his tone indicated he was teasing. “The government used one of their other projects to make him this way and now they’re monitoring to see how you react.”

“That might actually be less insane than all of this being random happenstance,” Nala replied and allowed her exasperation to show.

There was a small break in the conversation because their waiter returned with the food they ordered, and Nala took a moment to savor the delicious fare set in front of her before she worried about her job and everything that crowded her mind along with it.

Her dinner companion also seemed content to share her company in silence while he dug into the food on his plate. From the corner of her eye, Nala watched him cut small slices of meat, drench them in the juices on his plate and lift them to his mouth. He ate with an ease that suggested he partook of these sorts of meals often.

It could have just been because Delmar was Delmar; he was the sort of person who was relaxed and at ease in just about every situation. Which meant he would be as at home in a fancy restaurant as he would be in a fast food joint. He probably didn’t even bat an eyelash at his surroundings or even really notice them.

But given the kind of place where they grew up and given the family situations they’d both come from – working middle class, struggling to get by but living in big suburban houses because that was the expectation for families of their generation – she found it hard to believe he could act this at ease without genuinely feeling like he belonged here. Which meant Delmar had to have some experience with these kinds of places – and that explained why he’d chosen this particular restaurant for their reunion.

What did you expect? His wife is a corporate bigwig. She designs and seals contracts for high-profile clients. She probably had to drag Delmar to a fair number of schmoozing meetings, which might be where he picked up the habits on display tonight.

Or maybe he’s just grown used to living in a different world than the one we grew up in.

“So what’s been going on with you?” she asked when she grew uncomfortable with the silence. And she braced to hear about his wife.

“I’m not sure we’ve finished with you yet, have we?” Delmar protested. “You sound distraught over the state of your project.”

“I can’t really say much more about it,” Nala insisted, and a light blush flooded her cheeks, making her feel like a school girl all over again. “Though it is to the point where I’m worried about the success of the project. We could be shut down if we can’t soon produce some actionable results.”

“I take it that would mean you’d have no reason to stay in town?” Delmar asked and raised an eyebrow.

Why does he care?

Nala’s heart performed another backflip, but she ignored it. “I’m more worried about what will happen if one of my projects fails,” Nala retorted without hesitation. “I have a reputation to uphold. I can’t have a big red F printed on my file.” Then she’d never get where she was trying to go.

“Ah,” Delmar murmured and seemed somewhat disappointed. “You’re still the same old Nala, I see. Still determined to change the world even if it kicks and screams and fights you the whole way.”

That should have been a good thing – Nala considered it one of her best qualities. But the way he spoke made it sound like it was a bad thing.

It is the thing that ultimately tore you apart, girly, isn’t it?

Nala shook her head to clear the ancient voice from her mind.

“It doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “There’s no point in dwelling on something that may not even happen. Come on now,” she added, and pointed toward him with her fork, “I want to know what you’ve been up to. And you don’t have to sign an NDA, so I expect details.”

Delmar laughed, but it was a far more reserved sound than it had been a few minutes ago. “Actually the main thing that has been occupying my thoughts lately is my wife. Her family’s in the midst of a bit of a crisis, and I wish there was more I could do about it.”

“What happened?” Nala pressed, though it was hard not to roll her eyes. She expected something like one of the aunties cheating or some misplaced family heirloom – something that hardly mattered in the long run but had to be a big deal because of the money or morals the family insisted on maintaining.

“Well…” Delmar said slowly, and his face grew grim, “her nephew disappeared last week and they still haven’t been able to find a trace of him.”

Nala nearly choked on her dinner. She spent several seconds coughing and chugged half a glass of water before her throat was clear and hydrated enough for her to speak again. “Holy shit, Del, why didn’t you lead with that? Why even have this meeting tonight if your wife needs you?”

“It’s okay,” Delmar insisted and hastily held up a hand to forestall further argument. “I offered to reschedule, but she insisted I come. I’m not sure if she’s trying to reclaim some semblance of normal out of all the chaos or if she just worried her problem was somehow impinging upon some part of my life. But she’s right that there’s not much I can do for her or anyone else right now, and I had no idea when another hole might open in your schedule. You’re not exactly easy to keep in touch with, Nala.”

Her cheeks blazed red, and there was no possible way she could hide it. “I know I am, but this is big Del. A missing kid?”

“It’s not great,” Delmar agreed on the tail end of a soft sigh. “But it happened half a state away and the police still don’t have any leads. Ira spent several days with her sister searching the woods out near their old town where they think he might have gone missing, but they didn’t turn anything up. And she and her sister get explosive if they spend too much time in close proximity. But it’s hard, you know? Ira really wishes she could do something and she can’t, even if she goes back home.”

“I’m sorry,” Nala said softly. But she wasn’t sure what else to say. It sounded like a kidnapping case, and everyone knew the danger of bad news increased for every hour that went by without word when it came to missing kids. “They don’t have any idea who might have done something like this?”

Delmar shook his head. “The police don’t, anyway. I think Ira has an idea in her head but… It’s silly.”

“I don’t think anything related to a kidnapping case can be labeled silly,” Nala protested, her tone slightly chiding. But the look her dinner companion flashed her made her press her lips into a thin line.

Delmar looked sad and more than a little defeated. Suddenly it seemed as if he had just rolled out of bed after three hours of trying and failing to sleep and just barely concealed the restlessness beneath a thin vainer of organization.

“Ira grew up in a small town,” he admitted. And instantly, Nala understood that what he was about to share with her was as complex as the problems she and her team faced with their simulation.

She nodded for him to go on.

“The people who live there, especially the ones raised there, have this… superstition. It’s based on some weird urban legend only relevant to the area. Specifically, the woods where Ira’s nephew went missing.”

“And she thinks it’s related to the disappearance?” Nala pressed gently, hoping it would be easier for him to share if he only needed to nod.

“I think she hopes it isn’t but fears it is,” Delmar agreed, obviously relieved by her ready understanding. “The story… the legend involves some creature. She’d be mad at me for mentioning it because you aren’t supposed to say the name, but it’s called the Mawor.”

Nala blinked but, even after scanning back through her experience with odd and twisted stories, she couldn’t say she’d ever heard of it. She shrugged to show the word meant nothing to her, and Delmar nodded as if to confirm he expected as much.

“Like I said… It’s silly. This Mawor is a man-turned-beast said to hunt in the woods out behind the old mill that used to fuel a lot of the town’s employment. And I think Ira knows, logically, such a thing could never exist. But because she had a bad experience in those woods when she was young…”

“She can’t get over the idea that the same might have happened to her nephew and he just wasn’t as lucky,” Nala concluded. Then she swore softly. “I’m sorry, Del. That all sounds terrible.” She hesitated a moment. She knew nothing about Delmar’s wife and had never met her. But the logical portion of her brain, the part that was always looking for patterns, was hard to switch off.

“Do you think…” she started when the silence stretched between them. She waited for Delmar to glance up before she continued. “Is it possible that whatever she encountered in the woods is the same thing her nephew encountered?”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Delmar replied and exhaled explosively. “If there’s some crazy old man hiding in those woods taking advantage of the urban legend, who the hell knows where he took this poor kid. But I also have a hard time believing that the police wouldn’t look into that possibility. They might not have taken Ira seriously when she ran out of the woods in the middle of the night raving about a thing chasing her, but they certainly have to consider the possibility that someone might be using the woods as cover now that a kid is missing.

“But I’m not a police officer,” he added and sighed again. “I only know a little about how these investigations work. And until they can give my wife something concrete, the past is going to drive her mad. So the best I can really do is be there for her when she needs me.”

Nala couldn’t say she knew anything about kidnappings, but she did understand being haunted by the specters of her past. She was staring across the table at one right now, and it was growing increasingly difficult to ignore the discomfort it fostered in her gut.

The rest of their meal was shared in silence. And while that silence was comfortable, it made her long for days of old when she and Delmar could chatter endlessly about anything and never run out of energy or things to say.

The waiter had just turned up to ask about dessert when Nala felt a sharp and frantic buzz emitting from her purse. She cursed silently as her stomach twisted with dread, but she couldn’t ignore the second set of vibrations. They clearly indicated trouble.

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly as she lifted her phone free of her bag to glance at the screen.

The first message read only: Emergency.

The second said: Conference required. Future of project at stake.

Both were from Noodles, which explained why they were so short and to the point. But the second made her sigh. It was exactly what she had been anticipating – she just didn’t know why it had to happen now.

“I really hate to do this,” she said and cast Delmar an agonized look. “But I have to go. Normally I’d ignore anything and everything in favor of a night with you, but the fate of the project is at stake.”

A thin smile stretched across Delmar’s lips. Nala told herself the pained nature of it was because he was worried about his wife, but she was keenly aware it probably had just as much to do with her cutting and running on him. After he took the time away from a family crisis to spend with her.

Ouch! But I’ll make it up to him somehow.

“It’s okay,” Delmar insisted. “I get it. And it wasn’t exactly a light dinner.”

Nala wasn’t sure if he meant the food or the topic, but she flashed him a dazzling smile none-the-less. “I know a few great bakeries in town, of course, so it shouldn’t be difficult to finish this another night.”

Her phone buzzed frantically three more times, and Nala tried to push it to the bottom of her bag so it wouldn’t cause too big a disturbance. “It was nice seeing you,” she murmured. She wished like hell she had more time to linger.

“It was nice seeing you too,” Delmar murmured.

When he didn’t say anything else and Nala’s phone buzzed again, she rocketed to her feet, murmured another hasty apology and practically sprinted toward the door.

She was keenly aware as the restaurant disappeared behind her car this was the exact reason she and Delmar never would have worked – and she was desperate not to think too much about what that meant.

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