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This is The Signal, a place for readers to find well written short horror fiction, and for writers of said fiction to have their work seen.

The Signal is also a place for aspiring authors to submit their work for the upcoming podcast of the same name. We allow all subjects and styles of horror here, including sci-fi, comedy, fantasy, and everything else. Readers who enjoy the sub can contribute at https://www.patreon.com/signalobscura

This is The Signal, a place for readers to find well written short horror fiction, and for writers of said fiction to have their work seen.

The Signal is also a place for aspiring authors to submit their work for the upcoming podcast of the same name. For instructions on how, please read the directions further down the sidebar!

We allow all subjects, styles, and subgenres of horror fiction here. As long as they are well written and exist within the horror genre, feel free to post it here.

If you're looking to post any questions, comments, or discussions that are NOT a story, please use our official 'off topic' subreddit: /r/SignalHorrorOOC


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  • Remember, we accept every type of horror story you can think of, but with that said... If you ARE going to post any "Extreme Content" involving elements that you think might be distasteful or shocking beyond the limits of the typical horror story, do everyone a favor and tag it NSFW. An introduction can further help to explain your intent and prevent unnecessary downvotes, although it's not required. REMEMBER- your work has to be an actual story, NOT a catalogue of atrocities. Authors that forget this will find their post removed.

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One Drunken Night

It was all my fault, and it almost cost Felicia and I our lives.

Our friend Sandy was having a house party, and we both wanted to go. Sandy threw the best parties, and they usually got pretty wild. The last one had been a real blow out, and we both had little more than foggy memories from it. Sandy was celebrating her graduation from Nursing school, so we all knew that this one was going to be a serious rager before she had to settle in to pay student loans.

Before we went, Felicia and I had agreed that one of us needed to stay sober so we could get home safely.

“We don't want a repeat of last time,” Felicia reminded me, and I nodded as I remembered how the Uber driver had tried to hold us captive until we agreed to invite him in.

Running in heels is never fun, but we had managed it that night, and beat him to the door of our apartment.

So we did rock paper scissors for it, went ten out of ten, and I ended up with the loss. I wasn't happy about it, but I decided that I would do my best to stay sober so we could get home without having to A. Get rides with creepy, handsy guys, B. Get murdered by a stranger, or C. Having to take a cab that neither of us could afford. We pulled up to the house, the party already in full swing, and I took a deep breath as I prepared to say no to temptation and be the best sober friend I could be.

I lasted all of an hour at the party before I just couldn't hold out anymore. Someone handed me a drink, didn't even ask, and I drank it before I could think better of it. It was one of the very tasty screwdrivers I had seen going around, and I decided then and there that this would be the only one. I could still hold out, one drink wasn't going to get me.

An hour after that, I was completely plastered, and Felicia was not pleased. She had decided to go all in, so now both of us were drunk and had no clue how we were going to get home. We took one look at each other, laughed, and said screw it. We drank way more than we should have that night and had a blast. We danced and drank and mingled our way through the party, and when Sandy waved us out around two am, we were basically holding each other up.

I staggered to the car, but I couldn't even get the key in the door to unlock it, let alone drive. Felicia and I decided we would just walk home. It was seven blocks from Sandy's house, but we had no chance of getting a cab this late and the Ubers would all be weirdos at this point. Felicia agreed, but was basically dead weight three steps later. She was ready to sleep and certainly wasn't interested in walking seven blocks. I was holding her up, looking for options as my own buzz wavered, when I saw a yellow cab parked at the corner. I got excited. It was a little late for cabs, but I wasn't about to question providence. The light was still on, the guy in the front looking pretty awake, and I thought our luck might be turning around as we staggered toward it.

I knocked on the window and a guy with red hair snugged under a driving cap jumped as he turned to look at us. He was a big guy, big with fat instead of muscle, and he looked surprised but also delighted as he rolled the window down. He asked how he could help us, and I told him we needed a lift. He asked where we were going, and after telling him the address I offered to give him a nice tip if he got us there safely with no weirdness.

“Yes, ma'am. I believe I can manage that,” he said with a big smile, “Hop in.”

So we piled in the back, he turned off his light, and off we went.

Felicia was asleep about the time we made the first turn, but I tried to stay awake to make sure the driver didn't try any funny business. We were from a pretty big city, and girls had been going missing pretty regularly lately. You read about it on Facebook all the time, they'd go out, get a little drunk, and then they'd never see them again. No one really knew what it was, but a lot of people thought it was a murderer. It was scary to think about, but I felt a little safer being in a real cab rather than an Uber or some random guy. You never quite knew what the vetting process on Uber was, but I knew that cab companies had to do background checks on their drivers, so at least this fella was on the up and up.

“You ladies coming from a club?” he asked, making small talk as he took his first left.

“House party,” I said, trying to be polite, “Our friend was throwing a real heck of a get together and we partied a little too hard, I think.”

“Sounds like fun.” he said with a laugh, “Looks like your friend had a little too much though.”

I laughed, “Ya, she does that sometimes. I was supposed to stay sober so I could drive us home, but I'm not very good at it.”

He laughed, “Well, I guess it's a good thing for me.”

I made a noncommittal noise, and settled back. There was a little holder on the patrician with waters in it, and when I reached for one, I saw the cabby turn to track my movement. He seemed interested in what I was doing, and I held up one of the waters and said that one of his fairs must have left it behind . It was a shame, because my stomach was a little too full of alcohol and some water would have been nice.

“Oh, those are for fairs. I have a bunch in a cooler up here and I replace them as needed. Help yourself.”

I thanked him, testing the seal to make sure it was sealed. It seemed to be, but I never got it open. The feel of the wheels beneath me was lulling me to sleep, and I was losing the fight. I tried to stay awake, but I was just too drunk. My eyes kept slipping shut and opening, slipping shut and opening, and as I threatened to go under for good, I heard his phone ring. He picked it up, talking to someone on the other end, and it was like his whole personality changed. He spoke in a much different voice than he'd used with us, and gone was a jovial guy who had picked us up. Now he was gruff and kind of short with whoever he was talking to, and it seemed like a complete flip in personality.

“Ya, I gottum. We'll be there soon.”

I started to ask what he meant by that, but before I could question the statement, I was unconscious.

I don't know how long we were out, but I woke up suddenly and was unsure of where we were.

I looked around, groggy and disoriented. Felicia was still sleeping beside me, dead to the world and not showing any signs of coming back, and the cabby was still behind the wheel and driving us home. At least, I thought he was. I glanced out the window, no longer seeing tall buildings and concrete, and thought he must have taken a wrong turn. We were in the country, the buildings traded for rural pavement and shadowy houses. Everything was dark outside, no street lights this far out in the country, and I just watched it wizz by for a moment as I tried to make sense of it. I was confused, unsure how we had gotten so lost, and then I remembered the conversation before I passed out.

“Ya, I gottum. We'll see you soon.”

Even in my drink-addled brain, I remembered those words.

I glanced at the numbers on the dashboard clock and was surprised to see that we had been in the cab for over an hour. It shouldn't have taken that long to get home. Seven blocks would have been an easy drive this late at night, and as I tried to sit up I felt something press against my wrist. The unopened water was a cool presence against my arm. I didn't remember opening it, and realized I must have fallen asleep before I could drink it. My vision swam as I tried to come upright, and I blinked quickly to clear it.

“Where,” I tried, but my throat was dry, “Where are we?”

The Cabby jumped a little, probably figuring I had passed out like my friend, and when he looked over his shoulder I heard, again, the voice of that happy cabby who had picked us up came out again.

“We're driving to your home.”

I tried to make his words make sense, but it was like wading through mush.

“This isn't right,” I mumbled, “I live in the city.”

“You told me 175 Worth Street.” he said, tapping his phone in the holder on the dash.

“No,” I slurred, trying to make my head stop spinning, “It was 751 Worthy Street. We were,” I put a hand to my mouth as the hot vomit threatened to come coursing up it, “We were only seven blocks from our house.”

He put a theatrical hand to his brow, “Oh my gosh, I guess I put the address in wrong. Let me just find a place to turn around and we'll get you back on track.”

He started tapping at the phone, but I could see he wasn't hitting anything. I was suddenly wary, some of my intoxication ebbing as he put on a show of trying to get the address in right. I remembered those stories about girls going missing, and wondered if our names and faces would be on the news tomorrow. Would they think we just wandered off after drinking too much? Would they even look for us?

He turned down a side road, saying he was going to turn around, but instead of turning around he kept driving. I banged feebly at the glass that separated us, telling him he was going the wrong way, but I was so weak. I felt very dehydrated, my mouth dry and my head spinning. I reached for the water, but I thought better of it. I didn't want anything he might give me, and as the top came off, I squeezed it against the little holes that allowed us to hear him. He jumped and cursed, turning around to glower at me as the voice from the phone came back again.

“You stupid bitch! I hope you keep that energy when they get you. They'll teach some manners.”

My blood ran cold at that, and I let the empty water bottle fall as I looked for other options. I tried the doors, but the child locks were on and I couldn't get it open. I started to panic. I kicked at the door, at the glass, but each kick was more feeble than the last. I was starting to feel like I might pass out again. The Cabby laughed, telling me about all the terrible things the people he was taing me to would do, and my vision was swimming with tears. I bent over and puked in the floorboard, some of my vision clearing up as I purged the liquor, but it also left me feeling weak and unsteady. I banged my head against the glass as we finally came to a halt, and I went shakily to the window to see where we were. We were not, miraculously, in front of my apartment, the whole thing a dream or a hallucination, but in a vacant lot down some country back road.

At the end of the vacant lot, perched like a gargoyle, was a white van waiting for us to arrive. As we sat idling, the doors came open and shadowy men started getting out. I felt my blood run cold as they walked toward us, stopping halfway between as if waiting for the Cabby. I thought again about my car sitting in front of Sandy's house, about how I could have just driven us home if I had stayed sober.

“Looks like we've reached your destination,” said the Cabby, turning around to flash me a big creepy grin as he slid his seat belt off, “Don't go anywhere, I'll be right back,” and he hopped out to go talk to them.

I shook Felicia, trying to wake her up, but she was little more than dead weight. They would get her, and they would get me in my current weakened condition. I couldn't fight them off, I could barely keep my head up, and I cried bitter tears in the back of that cab. If I was lucky, maybe they'd just kill us, but I doubted it. We were both likely to end up in some overseas brothel or on the streets of South America, and either prospect sounded grim.

The Cabby shook hands with one of the shadow people, pointing back to the cab and likely telling them he had a couple of half drunk girls ready for transport. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no chance anyone was coming to help us. We'd be heading wherever in no time, gone and forgotten, never to be seen again, and there was nothing to be done about it.

It appeared, however, that someone had other ideas.

They had started walking toward the cab when lights suddenly lit up the back glass. Cars suddenly began pulling up, vans and undercover cars, and the people came out of them with guns drawn. The men in the headlights of the cab put their hands up and as they surrounded them they had them cuffed and collared pretty quickly. They took the men away and that was when they seemed to realize that they had people in the back of the cab. They helped us get somewhere safe so they could get us checked out and I'm pretty sure Felicia never woke up through the whole thing. They kept assuring us that we were okay, that we were safe, but all I could do was cry. I felt like I had been plucked from the brink at the last minute and I thanked them with every breath I had.

That was how I was almost trafficked by some gang or organization or another. The cops told us the less we know the better, and I agreed. I haven't drank since then, and now I'm the permanent designated driver for our group. I take friends of friends home too, sometimes intoxicated women we've met that night, just to make sure no one has to go through what I went through.

07:52 UTC


Missing Posters

Ralph walked a lot, like every day a lot.

He had lost his car a few years ago during the pandemic. Not because he couldn't pay for it, but because he had a habit of driving drunk and the cops took his license after the third time, so it didn't make a lot of sense to have it. He had walked ever since, and it kind of helped with his sobriety. He was a bit of a mess before that, drinking a lot, showing up to work hungover, eating too much fast food, but the walking had helped him drop a lot of weight and had kind of made him not want to drink. Walking while you were drunk was kind of miserable, and when walking was your means of transport you got pretty good at avoiding things that left you unable to do it.

Ralph was coming into town on Tuesday, walking up the sidewalk that led from the Trailer Park he lived in to the grocery store when he saw the first sign.

It was a normal enough white sign with big block letters at the top that read missing.

The thing that stopped him was the face that looked out from the sign. It was a guy of about three hundred pounds, thinning hair pulled back into a ponytail, and deep bags under his eyes. He was a deeply unhappy man, a man who looked like he was just looking for a hole to die in, and if it had a beer in it then all the better. The eyes that stared out of that poster looked like the eyes that stared from between the bars of a drunk tank, and they had more than once.

Ralph reached out and took the sign, staring into eyes that he hadn't seen in years.

He was looking at himself, just a past version of himself, a version two or three years out of date.

Out of date was a good way to describe it, like spoiled milk.

Missing- Ralph Gilbert

Address- 9733 Earin Way, Trailer 17

Last seen- April 23th, 2023 walking along the shoulder of the road.

Call Filibuster Sheriff's Office with any information.

Cash reward possible.

Cash reward, Ralph thought. It was weird to think that someone would be willing to offer a cash reward for someone like him, but he supposed it was possible. The friends he had now certainly valued him more than his bitch of an ex-wife or either of his ungrateful kids had, more than the family he had left too for that matter. He put the flier back up, thinking it was weird that they hadn't just come out to the house to see if he was there.

He had been there for a week after the...the what, he thought.

The night that something had happened, something Ralph couldn't really remember.

He kept walking up the street, enjoying the later afternoon as it dwindled towards dusk. This was his favorite time to walk, he thought. The weather was hot, even for early May, and he spent most days inside due to the heat and the way the sun had made his eyes hurt lately. The evening walks were about the best thing for him, and he couldn't wait till Autumn came and he could stand to walk during the day again. The last thing he wanted to do was lose his progress.

Two thousand twenty-one had been a pretty turbulent year for Ralph, but not all of it had been bad. He had started noticing that the walking was making him lose weight and that he felt better about being more active. It would have been very easy to sit on his couch and feel bad about it, he had certainly done that for a while, but as his food ran out and the money he had gotten from his disability payments had started to dwindle he knew he was going to need to do something. That was how the walking had started. Walk to the grocery store, walk to McDonalds, walk to the 24/7 Fill that he worked nights at, and walk home. After a while, people in the trailer park started noticing he was walking and they would offer to pay him if he would walk their dogs. Pretty soon, Ralph had a bunch of mutts on leashes and he became known as the Dog Man.

Soon people came to walk their dogs with him, and Ralph felt like he finally had friends. He hadn't had friends since high school, and the ones he'd had then had never led him into anything healthy. These guys were walking with him, helping him find shoes that wouldn't pinch his feet and give him blisters, suggesting pants that wouldn't give him a heat rash, and one day Ralph hopped on the scale and discovered he had lost fifty pounds.

By two thousand twenty-two, it was a hundred, and by the next year, he was at one eighty and feeling better than he ever had. His trips to McDonalds were down to once a week, his dog walking was making enough money to keep his bills paid and his fridge filled, and Ralph felt better than he had in years.

He had felt like that right up until last week when...something had happened.

As Ralph came into town he saw more of the signs hanging on the poles and was a little curious as to why no one had come to the trailer to check on him if they were so worried. He had been there all week, and they could have come and knocked. Ralph had been kind of out of it the last week though, and he was worried that he might have caught something. He barely remembered stumbling home after...whatever had happened. Ralph hadn't liked that. It reminded him of being drunk and out of control again. How many times had he stumbled into this trailer after a night of drinking to find that he couldn't remember how he'd gotten there? He sat on his couch, just looking at the dark Television, and suddenly he wondered where the groceries had gone?

That was when he remembered that he'd been carrying groceries. He had been coming back from the Forest Hill grocer, bags bulging in his hands, and he had come around the corner, Matheson Curve, and then...he didn't know. Something had made him squint and he thought, “Oh shit, there goes my milk,” and then he had been walking back into his trailer.

As he walked into town now, he saw more missing posters and it started to give him the creeps. Watching his own face, his false face, looking back at him was eerie, and he wanted to rip them down. He was here, he was alive, why were they looking for him? He wasn't missing, he was walking up the road. He passed people, side-eyeing them as if expecting to be recognized, but they just walked right past him without a look back. That was weird, Ralph thought. Yeah, he'd been gone for a week, but people surely hadn't forgotten him that quickly.

He'd been sitting in his trailer for a week before he'd thought that a walk had seemed like a good idea. It was weird, the food should have run out by now, but Ralph really hadn't been hungry. He'd moved between the living room and bedroom like a sleepwalker, sleeping like he hadn't done since he was still three hundred pounds of lazy couch potato. He hadn't felt like he needed to eat anything either though, and that was rare. Despite his weight loss, he still had to manage his prodigious appetite. He couldn't even remember drinking water that whole week, and until he'd gotten up to walk he had worried that he was catching the flu. He had wandered around in a daze, just kind of existing, and it made him feel good when the afternoon had finally called to him.

As he walked towards the supermarket, however, he suddenly wished he had stayed at home.

Sitting in the parking lot of Forest Hill Grocer, was a green Ford Focus that became the focus of his terror. It shouldn't have been that way, it was just a car, but there was something about it that made him stop and stare. His legs felt made of lead, and his bowels would have turned to water except he remembered that he hadn't done that all week either. That made sense, he supposed. Nothing going in meant nothing coming out...right?

It didn't matter, after a week of no food or water Ralph should be dead, and that thought seemed to move him at long last.

He was suddenly walking toward the car, his eyes falling on a dent in the front bumper.

That was a fresh dent, though Ralph didn't know how he knew that.

The door to the car was open, and Ralph climbed into the backseat like a sleepwalker.

He sat there, waiting for something to happen, feeling kind of silly.

This was stupid, the owner of the Focus would come back and ask him what the hell he thought he was doing. He would call the cops. Ralph would go to jail, and then he'd be in big trouble. Well, Ralph thought, at least then they would know where he was. Ralph supposed they could take the signs down if he was sitting in a jail cell.

Finally, after an indeterminable amount of time, the owner came out with groceries in brown paper bags. He was a young kid, maybe twenty or twenty-two, and when he opened the back door, he set them inside without comment. Ralph watched him move around to the front seat and climb in, cranking the car and driving off.

The further they went, the more sure Ralph was that the kid would see him. The kid would look in the rearview mirror, see Ralph sitting there and freak out. He might have a wreck, and Ralph would feel terrible about that. The longer they rode without the kid commenting on his presence, the stranger it all felt. Ralph leaned toward the kid a little, meaning to tap him, but as he did he caught a look at the rearview mirror and stopped.

The backseat in the mirror was empty, except for the groceries.

That's when he remembered, and suddenly Ralph wasn't in the kid's Focus anymore.

Suddenly he was back on the side of the road, near the guard rail for Matheson Curve, and he could see the headlights in his eyes again.

The kid had been going too fast, hot roding around, and his tires had screeched as he hit Ralph. Ralph's groceries had gone everywhere, his milk squishing under the tire as his lettuce rolled under the guard rail. The kid had come out to find Ralph lying across the guard rail, moaning and groaning as he lay dying. The hit had thrown him back, bringing him to rest against the metal rail that had broken his back. He had looked at the kid, begging him to help him, and in his panic, the kid had done the only thing he could think to do.

He had pushed Ralph over the side of the rail and into the drop below.

It was night now, and Ralph was looking over that rail again. He couldn't see his body down below, it had fallen to the bottom and likely been picked clean by scavengers, but he knew it was down there. Ralph would likely go on to be a town legend, someone who had just disappeared one day after making a slight splash in Filibuster, but for now, all he could do was look down into the ravine and wonder what to do next.

He had read some ghost stories when he was younger and wrote a few when he got older, but it wasn't every day that you became one.

Something wafted past on a stray wind, and when Ralph caught it, he realized it was one of the missing posters.

An idea occurred to him, and he thought maybe he wouldn't have to stay a mystery.

* * *

Officer Vermis stood by the guard rail, ready to catch the kid if he decided to take a nosedive. It was pretty high, he might opt for a short flight over a lengthy prison sentence, but Vermis doubted it. The wind pushed his hair just as it did the officer's jacket, and he pointed down almost accusingly as he turned to the kid.

"Is this where you pushed the body over?" Vermis asked. 

The kid, Tyler Mishet, nodded before being taken back to the station in the back of a different squad car.

Vermis sighed, that was going to be some hard canvasing, but they would find Ralph Gilbert. When they had gone to the kid's house, he had as good as confessed on the spot, and that had made it all very easy. He was repentant, very sorry, and very young, and some soft-hearted judge would probably not insist on the death penalty for him. It was unlikely he ould never operate a motor vehicle again, not unless the state prison let him run a tractor or something, and he supposed that would have to be good enough.

It was weird though, the police would have probably never known about the accident if it hadn't been for the tip they had gotten. Looking at Ralph's picture on the front of the poster, Vermis remembered the night they'd taken his license. He'd been a bad drunk, but he'd turned it around and Vermis hated that he had to end up like this. It was a bigger shame that the kid had his life ruined by a moment of inattention, but those were the breaks.

He flipped it over, looking at the odd writing on the back. It looked like it had been done with mucus, except it was a florescent green like the slime they used to dump on the kids on the shows his boys had watched when they were younger. He didn't know what had written it, and he didn't care. They could take Ralph Gilbert out of the unsolved case file and put him in the closed case pile, and that was good enough for him.

The message read, Green Ford Focus, dent in the front bumper, kid hit Ralph Gilbert about a week ago on Matheson Curve. Body in the ravine. Don't let him rot down there.

01:11 UTC


Inside the circle

I like exploring. From state parks to virgin wilderness, I love going out and seeing things. I used to go alone a lot, just communing with nature and really roughing it, but thankfully on the day in question, I had someone with me. Jake hadn't wanted to go, had said he had a bad feeling about it, but I insisted. Jake is kind of a shut-in, and I thought that some fresh air and sunshine might help get out of his shell a little. Plus, it was spring, and who doesn't like to go hiking in spring?

We were hiking in North Georgia, a state park I won't name so you don't go looking for it. It's beautiful out there. There's a river running through the gorge, places to swim and picnic, rock walls to climb if you're feeling bold, and lots of nature to commune with. We had come to the end of the usual trail, the river continuing on even if the marked trail didn't, and Jake looked at me oddly when I didn't turn around and go back.

"I wanna see what's up ahead," I told him.

I had never been beyond that, but I had always wanted to.

"No way," he said, "That's out of bounds. The signs say there are holes or unstable terrain."

"So?" I asked.

"So, it means it is dangerous. I know you're all about exploring, Chuck, but I'm not trying to die today."  

"Oh, come on," I prodded, "Just a little bit further. Don't be a wimp."

He looked like he wanted to go back, but my heckling had gotten to him a little.

"Okay," he said, "but if it looks bad, we turn around, understand?"

"Yeah yeah," I said, waving him off as we went past the signs and onto the unmarked trail.

The signs were needless anyway, I thought. Georgia is swampy in some places and sinkholes and subterranean caves aren't that uncommon. We'd just avoid the soft areas and we'd be fine. I had read online that there was a waterfall at the end of the trail, but I had never seen it. Some hikers said it was beautiful, and that it went all the way back up the cliff, which would be a pretty long drop for a waterfall. I wanted some pictures for my travel blog, and as we walked down the trail, I knew this was going to be a hike we’d both remember for years to come.

I must not have been watching where I was going very closely, because all the warning I got was a little cracking sound before I was suddenly in free fall. I was watching the hole in the ceiling get smaller and smaller as I fell, and then everything went black for a little while. When I opened my eyes, that circle of light above me was more like a spotlight. I groaned as I tested my limbs, my back, and my neck, and found myself mostly in good shape. My head hurt but my arms and legs still worked. I had fallen onto some kind of moss, something that had probably saved my brains from being splattered all over the floor, and as I lay there staring up into the ceiling, I saw a silhouette impose itself over some of the light.

“Chuck, thank God! I thought you were dead! I'm trying to get the Rangers, but I can't get a signal. You break anything?”

I sat up a little, rubbing my head where a knot was forming. I felt a twinge of pain in my back, but nothing too bad. I was smart enough not to push it, though, lest I mess myself up further and unrepairably. “I don't know. My back, I think.”

“Well, that's better than most people after they fall into an underground cave, I guess. Unfortunately, I got all the climbing hooks and you got all the rope. I'm gonna head back up to the swimming hole and see if I can get some help. Hang tight, I'll be right back.”

Before I could say anything, Jake was gone and I was left with nothing but the moss and the darkness around me. I didn't know how big the cave was if I was in a cave at all, but the blackness seemed deep and impenetrable. As I lay there, the pain beginning to seep into my body, I thought I heard something. It was slight, no more than a tickle on the senses, but it was definitely something. It was like something with claws walking quietly on stone, like a rat but bigger than usual. I thought it was my imagination at first, but as it circled my spot like a shark preparing to strike, I realized I wasn't imagining it.

I lay as still as I could, hoping that whatever it was would decide that I wasn't interesting or eatable, but when it spoke, I was taken off guard.

It sounded like a woman, like a young, pretty woman.


I stayed quiet, not sure what was going on, hoping it was a delusion or a hallucination.

“Is someone there?”

It sounded real enough, not like any of the voices I had ever heard in a daydream or a regular dream, and, despite myself, I decided to answer.


There was silence for several long breaths, and then it spoke again.

“Are you from up there?” she asked, and I assumed she was pointing to the ceiling.

“Ya, my name's Charles, what's yours?”

Silence, silence, and then it spoke again.

“I don't have one. No one has ever called me anything.”

That was weird, I didn't know anyone who didn't have a name. It made me wonder how long she had been down here, and who had left her down here? Had she fallen into one of these subterranean tunnels like I had? Had she gotten trapped without a way out? I asked her, but after two long breaths, she told me she didn't know.

“I don't remember ever not being down here. It's my home, and if I lived up there it was a very long time ago.”

The long pauses between conversations were a little weird, but I put it out of my mind. Clearly, she didn't get a lot of chances to talk to people, and she was just remembering how to make conversation. There was nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was glad she had found me. I didn't want to be down here all alone and maybe I could help her get out once Jake came back.

“Why don't you come over here into the light?” I asked, patting the stone beside my moss bed, “That way I can see you.”

Silence, silence, then speech.

“I don't really like the light,” she confided, “It hurts my eyes and it burns my skin.”

That made sense, I thought. If she had been down here long enough then she was probably kind of sensitive to the light. I remembered reading about people who live in the dark too long and go blind when they take them in the sun, and I felt foolish for asking. It was really more my sense of vanity anyway. The idea that I might be talking to some old hag had crossed my mind, but she sounded young and pretty and I guess I just wanted a look.

“Is there anyone down here with you?” I asked, hearing my throat click as I said it. My throat was dry, and when I reached behind me, I felt for my water bottle and realized it had rolled off in the fall. I was thirsty, and I didn't know how long Jake would be gone.

“Hey, uh, you don't see a clear bottle anywhere in there, do you? There's water in it and I'm very thirsty.”

Sitting in the sunbeam wasn't helping matters much, and I was too scared to move to go looking for my sunscreen. I wasn't in a lot of pain, but they said that neck and back injuries could be exacerbated if you moved. I lay there, frying like a fish, and I just knew I was gonna have a wicked sunburn when I finally got out of here.     

When the water bottle rolled out the darkness and bumped my hand, I had to stop myself from flinching away from it. I reached down, trying to move as little as possible, and as the water hit my throat it was like pure honey. I splashed a little on my face, imagining I could hear the sizzle, and sighed in relief as I found some comfort from the heat.

“Thank you,” I said, looking at the darkness as if expecting to see someone peeking out at me.

Silence, silence, then...

“No problem. You're the first person I've had to talk to in a long time. I didn't want you to lose your voice.”

I smiled, glad to give her the comfort of a human voice. We talked a little, mostly involving me talking and her adding in things every now and again. I told her about hiking, about Jake, about the world above, and she seemed to enjoy my descriptions of things like TV and movies. For her part, she told me she had lived in the tunnels down here for a while, and that she could see in the dark pretty well. She ate whatever she found in the tunnels, and I wasn't the first person to fall in.

That made me feel bad for her, “None of them offered to get you out?”

“You are the first one to be alive when you fell in. Some of them are alive for a little while, but they don't stay alive for long. No one comes for them and they succumb to the fall.”

That gave me a chill, “You mean they die?” I asked.

Silence, Silence, then...


“And no one comes for their bodies?” 

Silence, silence, then...

“They do not find their bodies. I told you, Charles, I eat what I find in the caves.”

My mouth was dry again, but it had nothing to do with the heat. She had just admitted to being a cannibal, but I suppose one couldn't hold that against her either. She was trapped down here, food was probably not plentiful. She had to survive the best way she could, but I couldn't understand how the park service didn't know people were going missing. How did they not collect the bodies before she got a chance to eat them? Did they just think people were lost in the park.

I thought that maybe they should be a little more proactive, but then Jake’s voice whispered in my head, “Like putting up a sign to stay off the dangerous trail?”

“Were you,” I tried to ask but my tongue felt stuck to the roof of my mouth, “Were you planning to eat me?”

Silence, silence, then...

“Yes,” she said, not showing the slightest bit of hesitation, “but you were alive and the sun was up. I usually don't find the bodies until after dark, so there's no sun to keep me away.”

That made me shudder. 

It isn’t often you get to have a conversation with someone who’s planning to have you for dinner.

“And if the sun had been down and I was still alive,” I started, but I couldn't finish the thought.

I didn't have to, though.

Silence, silence, then...

“Yes,” she said.

I was quiet, not sure how to answer, but she beat me to it again.

“I have to eat, Charles. All creatures must eat, and I am no exception.”

“You don't feel weird about eating your own kind?” I asked, trying to find the right words so she wouldn't be offended.


“I do not eat my own kind, Charles. I eat people.”

My teeth chattered a little at that. Translation: she wasn't a person. Which led my mind to ask the question I dare not voice; what was she? What was I down here with? Even if my back wasn't injured, even if I wasn't paralyzed, something I was pretty sure I wasn't, I still had no way to get out. I could no more jump thirty feet than I could have tossed Jake the rope, and I was at her mercy, it seemed. She needn't wait until dusk, I thought, as I watched a cloud cruise across the mouth of the hole. If it started to rain, if it became overcast, even if some stray cloud covered my hole in shadows, it would be nothing for her to snatch me back into the darkness. 

It was a sobering realization to discover that your life was hanging so tenuously.

“Charles?” she asked and I heard that clicking noise getting closer, “Charles? Are you okay?”

I hadn't noticed until now, but her voice sounded artificial. It was like something approximating the sound of a voice, a speaker playing someone's voice from a video or something. It was a good copy, but I wanted to know what was making it. The longer I lay here, the less certain I was that she was a girl, and the more certain I was that I was talking to a monster.

“Charles?” she said, and there was worry in her voice, as well as hunger.

“I'm here, darlin,” I said, making myself answer her, “I was just wool-gathering. I hit my head when I came down and it made me feel a little woozy.”

The clicking came even closer to the circle of light, a circle that was, suddenly, not nearly wide enough.

“I do not know this word, woozy. What does it mean? Is it like being tired?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Yeah, it's a lot like being tired.”

I kept looking up, hoping to see Jake and the Rangers up there. How long had he been gone? It had to be at least a half hour. I couldn't imagine that no help had come in half an hour. Even if he had walked all the way back to the station at the trailhead, someone should have come back by now. I didn't know if they could stop her from dragging me off and eating me, but I hoped so.


“Yeah?” I said, hoping my voice sounded steadier than I thought it did.

“Are you afraid?”

I had to stop myself from answering with a Texas-sized “Hell Yes” since that might provoke her, “Na, darlin. Why would I be scared?”

The clicking came up to the edge of the light, slow and unsure, and I imagined that I could see something there, just beyond the light. A face or something, and it did not look at all human. It looked like a bad driftwood carving or a strange idol from a heathen tribe outside of civilization, and I found it hard not to stare at the spot.

“Your heart is beating very fast, your blood is pumping through your veins like a river. I can hear it, it's making me hungry. Are you afraid of me?”

I opened my mouth to deny it, but that was when someone called my name and a shadow imposed itself across the light.

It felt like too much, and I wanted them to move as they blotted out some of the light.

“Chuck?” Jake yelled, “Are you okay?”

“Sure, great,” I lied, glancing over to see the face I hadn't seen was gone.

Someone else cast a shadow over me and I was shaking as my light was cut in half.

“Chuck, my name's Ranger Mike, and I'm here to help. Ranger Gabe and I are going to repel down. Is your back or neck injured?”

“I...I don't think so,” I yelled, listening for the clicking and the voice of the not woman, “I think I just hit my head,”

Mike talked to someone up there and they concurred.

“We're going to drop some flares down so we don't get stuck, close your eyes, okay?”

I nodded, but there was no way in hell I was going to close my eyes with that thing around. It was strange how quickly She had become It and how little I wanted to bring her back up with me now. I had no idea what I had been talking to, and suddenly I didn't want to know. I wanted out of this hole, out of this hell, and I promised whatever was listening that I would never scoff at signs there to keep me safe again.

If they would get me out of here, I might never come back to the woods again.

The flares came down, and I saw the cave was much bigger than I had thought it was. The flares sent up a ghostly light, casting everything in flickering illumination, and that was when I saw it. It was only for a second as it retreated down a side passage, but I caught a glimpse of what I had been talking to. The driftwood carving analogy wasn't far off, the whole thing looking white and thin and kind of fragile looking. It walked around on these long, thin legs that looked like nothing so much as pure bone, and its eyes were set high up on its bony forehead.

It looked at me almost apologetically as it left, but the two Rangers who repelled down never so much as glanced into the cave. 

They had me up and on a stretcher, before I could warn them, and after securing it all to ropes they had the three of us winched up as the flares burned in the darkness below. There were more rangers at the top, paramedics too, and as they got me top side I was dragged to stable ground and checked out by the EMTs. They said the bruise on my head was nasty but there probably wasn't any brain damage. My spine appeared fine, though they wouldn't know for sure until I had an EKG, and my neck felt okay too. Ultimately they said I was very lucky, and I told them they didn't know the half of it.    

I'm in a hospital room now, waiting for my EKG, but I just wanted to get this down while it was fresh. I can't prove that it wasn't a hallucination, the ER docs said I was definitely concussed, but I think it was all real. I talked with something under the ground, something that would have eaten me if it hadn't been for the light encircling me. I was extremely lucky, in a lot of ways, and I thank God I made it out with little more than cuts and bruises.

When/If I hike again, I'll be paying attention to the signs from now on. 

You never know what you might find just below the surface.

02:08 UTC


Makaro House

“This is Jay, Moody, and Kai, and today we are searching for Makaro House.”

The video was shot in shaky cam, the footage hard to watch without getting a little seasick. Officer Wiley, Detective Wiley now, had seen a lot in his time on the force, but a double homicide perpetrated by this fourteen-year-old kid in front of him was something he hoped he would never see. A double homicide, and carried out against two of his best friends, at that. The two kids in question, Marshal Moody and Kai Dillon, had been friends with Jason Weeks since elementary school, and there had never been any reports of violence or any other alarming behavior, at least none reported to the police. The boys had operated a YouTube channel, JMK Occult, for the last two years, and while their content was pretty typical for kids online, they had been uploading steadily every week since their first video about a strange deer in the North Woods around Cadderly.

Hell, Wiley even watched their stuff sometimes when he was bored.

People in the community knew them, and this was out of character for any of them.

Wiley paused the video, the three boys blundering through the South Woods and chattering like a pack of squirrels, and looked at Jason.

Jason, Jay to his friends, looked like he had aged a decade. He had a gaunt look usually reserved for soldiers who come back from war. His hair had been long and blonde for as long as anyone had known him, but the kid sitting here now was as bald as an egg and his scalp looked scoured instead of shaved. The shirt he had been wearing in the video was gone. He was still wearing the ring of it around his neck, the stretched fabric like a collar, and the jeans he wore were stained and ragged in places that looked fresh. He'd been found with no shoes or socks, but he was wearing the orange flip-flops of a jail resident now.

Wiley knew his parents wanted to bail him out, but he wasn't sure if the judge was going to extend him bail or not, given the nature of his crime.

The way those kids had been ripped apart was something that would haunt him for a long time.

“So, Jason, Officer Russel tells me that someone picked you up beside the road and you told them that your friends were dead and that you had killed them. Is that true?”

Jason nodded, not speaking a word as he continued to stare at the wall.

The woman in question was Darla Hughes, a mother of three who had stopped when she saw a young teenage boy walking on the side of the road in the state he was currently in. Stories of kidnapping and kids held in basements for months while God knew what happened to them were clear in the public consciousness. Darla thought she had found some kid who had escaped his situation, and when she stopped to help him, she said the poor lamb had said eight words and then nothing else.

“He said, my friends are dead, and I killed them.”

They had found the kids in a clearing in the woods about three miles in, a site he was familiar with.

How many times had he and his friends gone looking for the Makaro House?

Everyone in Cadderly knew about Makaro House, and most people's childhoods had been spent looking for it. John Makaro, a prominent figure in Cadderly's history, had been a prominent importer and exporter in England. He had come to America before the Revolutionary War to try to set up a similar business here, and Cadderly had been a large enough port to satisfy his needs without being so big that a new face would be lost. He established a manor in the South Woods, despite being told that it was Indian Land, and the bill of sale did very little to dispatch the native tribe that was living there. He survived two raids by the natives somehow, but his wife and daughter were not so lucky the second time. As such, he rallied a mob of townspeople to go into the woods and help him flush out the natives who were living there. The raid took weeks, but by the end, they had killed or scattered every member of the tribe that lived there.

Satisfied, Mr. Makaro built his lavish estates there, but strange things surrounded it from the first. Workers went missing, people reported strange lights and sounds after dark, and a shriveled figure in skins and feathers could be seen lurking after moonrise. Animals on the property acted strangely, and sometimes people found wolves or bears on the grounds. Usually, they were in a rage, but sometimes they simply fled as if they had been drawn there and weren't sure what to do now that they were. Once the house was finished, John Makaro had a hard time keeping staff. None of the hands he had hired to keep his livestock would stay more than a week, and they all refused to stay on the property after dark. His servants would likewise disappear suddenly, and none of them would stay at night besides his butler, who had been with him for years. People said that Mr. Makaro talked about hearing chanting in the house and seeing strange shadows, and when even his butler disappeared one evening, John locked the doors and stayed in the house alone for a long time. People who came to see him said he could be seen wandering the halls like a ghost, calling out for people only he could see.

When his mansion was seen in full blaze one night, those who were first on the scene said they saw a lone man silhouetted in the flames, his feathers and skins on full display.

He disappeared when they got close, but he had been seen by many in the years to come.

“What did you see out there, Jason?”

Jason continued to stare at the wall.

“I wanna help you, kid, but you have to help yourself first.”

He couldn't help but glance down at the kid's fingers as he left them splayed on that table like sleeping spiders. The nails were dirty, the beds crusty with something like blood, and several of them were torn and ragged. There was grime around his mouth too, and Wiley would have bet his next paycheck that it wasn't a Kool-aid ring. It looked like mud or paint, but it was probably blood.

Jason remained silent as the grave.

“Jason, none of us believe that you killed your friends. You,”

“You're wrong,”

Wiley had been fiddling with the remote, trying not to look at the kid's hands, but when he spoke, he looked up. Jason was still staring at the wall, but his head was shaking as his teeth chattered together. The kid looked like he was staring into the mouth of hell instead of the creme-colored wall of the interrogation room. Wiley almost didn't want to ask him what he had seen, but he needed to know. He needed to know how this kid had killed two other kids, one of whom was bigger than him by a head and sixty pounds.

“Would you like to elaborate?” Wiley asked.

He didn't think the kid would for a minute, but finally, he just reached slowly and pushed play on the remote. He kept looking at Wiley like he thought he might slap his hand, but when he let him get all the way across the table unsmacked, he relaxed a little. The video went on as they walked through the woods, joking and laughing as the woods lived their quiet existence around them.

“We went in at eight, just after Kai's mom went to work. She wouldn't have liked us going into the South Woods, but we wanted to investigate Makaro House. We wanted to do it for our first episode, but Moody said it was something we should work up to. The Makaro House was something big, and we needed to be ready for it. Turned out we weren't.”

On the screen, the kids kept walking through the woods, checking their compass and making their way carefully through the thick brush. They were still chattering, talking about what they might find when they got there, and whether they would find the clearing or see the mysterious mansion that people talked about sometimes. Legend said that a ghostly manor appeared in the clearing sometimes, the ghost of the house and that people who went inside were never seen again. Wiley didn't believe that, but as a kid, he had to admit that the clearing where the house had sat was spooky. All the wood had long ago rotted, the stones taken away for use in other things, but the land just felt wrong. Wiley had never been there after dark, but people claimed to hear footsteps and see things after the sun went down.

Wiley pushed fast forward on the tape and watched as the kids plodded on and on.

Jason wished that he could have sped through that part of the trip.

They had set out at eight, waving to Kai's mom as she pulled out of the driveway. The packs had been pulled out of the garage after she was down the road a piece, and the three set out for the woods. They knew the rough direction of the Makaro House, but no one really came upon it in the same way. Danny Foster had said it was a three-mile walk from the forest's edge to the property, but Jamie had claimed that he and his friends had walked for what seemed like hours.

“When we found it, though,” he said, “we found the house instead of an empty lot. We kept daring each other to go in, but we left when someone lit a fire on the grounds.”

Jason and his friends were hoping to find the house instead of the lot, and as their walk turned into a hike, Kai stopped and looked at the compass.

“We should have gotten there by now.”

Moody chuckled, “Maybe we're going in the wrong direction.”

“Can't be,” Kai protested, “The directions are to go south into the south woods for three miles. Then you'll come to the clearing where Makaro House once sat.”

Jason didn't want to jinx it, but at the time he thought that boded well for them finding the house.

They kept walking, Kai good for an endless stream of conversation, and as the sun began to set, Jason found he was out of breath. His tongue felt like leather as it stuck to the roof of his mouth, and the lunch they had brought had been eaten hours ago. Moody had argued that they should turn around and head back, but Jason had finally vocalized that this could mean they were going to find the house instead of an empty lot.

He was hopeful right until they got what they wanted

When the sun began to go down, Wiley knit his brows together.

“I thought you and your friends were only in the woods for a few hours?”

Jason shook his head slowly, “We were, and we weren't. The time on the camera says we walked for eight hours before I turned it off, but when I got picked up by the side of the road, it was barely noon.”

Wiley pursed his lips, “How is that possible?”

The video cut out, the battery in the camera having been exhausted, and Jason nodded at the screen.

“Those batteries have a max life of three hours. Dad said it was the best battery they had when he ordered it for me, and it was pretty expensive. There's no way one of those batteries could have recorded for eight hours, but it did.”

The recording came back on, and Wiley was shocked to see that they were standing on the lawn of an old Gothic mansion. The sun setting behind the house made a perfect backdrop for the shot, and the boys were oooing and ahhing appreciatively. None of them seemed to believe what they were seeing, the whole thing a little otherworldly, and there seemed to be some argument about who was going to approach the house first.

“Is that,” Wiley stopped to wet his lips,” it can't be. The Makaro House burned down hundreds of years ago.”

“But there it is,” Jason said, his eyes still fixed on the wall, “in all its glory.”

And oh, what glory there had been in it.

Moody had gawped at the house as he had never seen one before.

“No way, there is no way.”

“That's impossible,” Kai breathed, “that house burned to the ground before our father's fathers were even thought of.”

“But there it is,” Jason said, mirroring his later statement, though he could not know it, “in all its glory.”

As the sun set behind it, Jason thought it looked even spookier than it would at night. The mansion rose like an obelisk towards the sky, its towered roofs looking naked without flags or pinions. The boys stood at the edge, trying to shame or bluster one of the others into going there first, but in the end, Jason took the first step. The others looked surprised at his boldness, but they followed closely after, not wanting to be thought less of.

Jason expected the house to disintegrate as he approached, an illusion or a trick of the light, but as his foot came to rest on the boards of the old house, he felt their solidity and continued to climb.

When the doors opened for them, the broad double doors swinging jauntily on their hinges, the three boys pulled back as they prepared to run.

The camera captured their indecision, the portal yawning wide as it waited to receive them, and Jason seemed to surprise even himself as he came forward to investigate it.

“Jason, What if it's a trap?”

“This whole place shouldn't exist, and if you think I'm going to pass up the chance to explore it, you're wrong."

Jason went in, pausing just inside the doors as if waiting for them to crash shut.

When they didn't, Moody followed him and Kai brought up the rear.

Makaro House lived up to its Gothic exterior, the inside full of soft dark velvet and antique furniture. There was a fire burning in the hearth inside the sitting room, tables spread with books in the library, and as they came up the long hall that led towards what was undoubtedly a dining room, Jason began to smell something. It was something like a stew or maybe a roast, and the smell of meat brought them to the dining room. A long table sat in the middle, eight chairs on each side of it, and at the end sat a wrinkled old man eating soup from a bowl.

It was hard to tell before they had gotten close, but the old man looked like he might be Native American. He was dressed in hides, feathers adorning his head and necklace, and he wore a beaded necklace with bones and claws on it. He looked up as they approached, glowering at them evenly, before returning to his meal. He ignored the boys, all three standing back apprehensively before Jason found the courage to speak.

“Excuse me, sir. Is this your house?”

The spoon froze on the way to his mouth, and the old man looked like he'd been slapped.

“My house?” he asked, his voice sounding thin and whispery, “No, child, but it was paid for by my people. We paid with our blood, we paid with our lives, and in the end, the cost was high. I took some of that cost from the previous owner of this home, and now it's only me who lives here.”

Kai made an uncomfortable noise in his throat, like a dog trying to tell its owner that something wasn't safe, and Jason understood the feeling.

“Well, we'll leave you to it then. We didn't mean to,”

“Leave?” the old man said, sounding amused, “oh no. No one leaves Makaro House until they've played the game. It was always a way for our warriors to test their metal, and I have so longed to see it played again. Will you join me? If not, I'm afraid you might find it quite hard to leave.”

Moody took a step back, and Jason heard his heavy footsteps on the carpet as he tried to retreat.

“What's the game?” Jason asked, figuring they could outrun this old coyote if it came down to it.

Jason would wonder why he had thought of him that way, but he didn't have time to ponder it then.

“Choose your piece from my necklace,” the old man said, slipping it off and laying it on the table, “Claw, Talon, or Fang.”

“Then what?” Moody asked, Kai moving behind him as if afraid to come too close.

“Then we start the game.” the old man said, smiling toothily.

For an old man, he certainly had a lot of sharp teeth.

“Okay,” Moody said, walking forward as Kai followed in his wake, “I choose claw.”

“Talon,” said Kai, reaching out to touch it.

“Fang,” said Jason, and as he put his hand out, he felt a sudden, violent shifting in his guts.

He was shrinking, the world moving rapidly all around him. He was smaller, but also more than he was, and he was trapped. His legs scrabbled at the thing that held him, and he tore it to pieces as he freed himself. He heard a loud roar and something big rose up before him. The bear was massive, ragged bits of something hanging from him, and Jason was afraid that he would kill him before he could get fully free of his snare. Something screeched then, flying at the bear's face and attacking him. Jason saw blood run down the snout of the bear, and as it tried to get the bird, a large hawk, off its face, Jason circled and looked for an opening. He was low, on all fours, and he could smell the hot blood as it coursed down the bear's muzzle. Blood and meat and fear and desire mingled in him, and as something laughed, he turned and saw a large coyote sitting at the table. Its grin was huge, its snout longer than any snout had a right to be, and he was laughing in a strange half-animal/half-man way.

The hawk suddenly fell before Jason, twitching and gasping as it died, and he knew the time to strike was now.

Jason leaped on the bear, its arms trying to crush him but not able to find purchase. He sank his teeth into the bear's throat, and for a moment he was afraid he wouldn't make it through all that thick fur. The bear tried to bring its claws to bear, but as the wolf worried at it with its fangs, he was rewarded with a mouth full of hot blood. The bear kept trying to rake him with its claws, but its movements were becoming less coordinated. When it fell, the whole room shook with the sound of its thunder, and Jason rolled off it as it lay still.

“Bravo, bravo,” cried the coyote, clapping its paws together in celebration, “Well fought, young wolf, well fought.”

Jason took a step towards him, but suddenly he was falling. It was as if a whirlpool had opened up beneath him and he was being sucked into it. Jason thrashed and snarled, trying to get his balance, but he was powerless against the pull as it flung him down and into the depths of some strange and terrible abyss.

He came to in the empty clearing where the house had been, and that was where he found his friends.

Wiley rewound the tape, not quite sure what to make of this.

“So this strange man offered to play a game, and then he changed you three into animals?”

Jason nodded, looking like one of those birds that dip into a glass of water, “I picked Fang, so I was the wolf. The game wasn't fair, we didn't know what we were doing, but I still killed Moody. I killed both of them because I had been the one to approach the house first. I killed them when I agreed to play the game. It's my fault, I'm a murderer.”

Wiley wasn't so sure, but it was hard to argue with the evidence. The video showed Jason dropping the camera and then suddenly there was a lot of snarling and screeching. Wiley heard the animals fighting, but he heard something else too. Something was laughing, really having a good belly chuckle, and it sounded like a hyena. He couldn't see it, it was all lost amongst the carpet, but suddenly that carpet had turned into grass, and the camera was lying outside in the midday sun. Someone got up, someone sobbed and moaned out in negation, and then they walked away.

That was where the video ended.

In the end, Jason was sent for psychiatric evaluation and the whole thing was chalked up to a drug-induced episode. Jason and his friends were drugged by an old man in the woods and while under the influence of an unknown substance, a substance that didn't show up on any toxicology screening, they killed each other. Blood was found on Jason, blood belonging to Marshall Moody, but blood from the fingernails of Moody was determined to belong to Kai Dillon, which really helped push the narrative that Detective Wiley was working with. He told the press to report an old man in the woods who was drugging people and pushed the stranger danger talks a little harder than usual that year on school visits.

After that day, the tape he took from Jason Weeks was never seen again, but Wiley believed that the boys had run up against something they weren't prepared for. When John Makaro had led the extermination of the Native People that dwelt on his land, he had angered something he wasn't prepared for either. Wiley's grandmother had liked to tell stories about Coyote, the trickster god, and how he could be as fierce as he was cunning when he needed to be. Wiley didn't think they would ever find an old man out there in the woods, but he didn't doubt others would find him.

Coyote liked his games, especially when the players were people he saw as interlopers.

Makaro House remained a town legend, and Wiley had little doubt that those foolish enough to enter would be presented with the same game these three boys had been given.

Wiley shuddered to think how the next challenge might go when Coyote needed more amusement.

08:54 UTC


Something under the trestle bridge

It was just supposed to be another camping trip, like so many others we had gone on.

The town we live in isn't huge, but it does have a lot of woodland to explore. We live on the edge of what most people would call Appalachia and we’ve had more than one weird experience out there. Once, as my friends and I walked down the familiar trails, we smelled a strong and unpleasant scent. Brian thought it must have been a bear, but I’d smelled bear smells before. We’d had one winter under our back porch one year, and this was very different from the musty smell he had left when spring came.

Another time, while we were camping, we saw ghost lights in the woods. They were beautiful, red and blue and yellow and orange, and though Justin was afraid of them, I felt drawn to go to them and see them better. I knew better, though. Grandma had told all of us about the dangers of following the ghost lights and had assured us all that we wouldn’t like where they would take us.

“The lands of Fairy is beautiful, but also terrible for mortals to behold. They would make you young for the rest of your days, though that might not be as long as you might think.” She always said with an evil grin.

We’d heard whistling and strange growls, throaty yells, and strange birds, but none of it ever really scared me. The woods had always been a friendly place, a place of adventure, and I always looked forward to my time there. I never felt uneasy when I was within its borders, and as the four of us prepared to go back into the woods for another camping expedition, I was excited.

Brain’s brother had told him about an old trestle bridge deep in the woods and we all wanted to see it.

It was part of the old railroad, something that hadn’t run through the town in a long time. The tracks were still there, the old station too, but the trains had been mostly for passengers, and we had none these days. No one came in, no one left, and we had no industry for the trains to transport. All the wood we harvested went to the sawmill or the paper mill, and there was no need to transport it by rail. The trestle bridge hadn’t seen a train cross it in twenty years and spanned a small gorge in the middle of the forest. Brian said his brother claimed the bridge was where high school kids went to drink beer, and now that we were Freshmen, we should go out there too.

“He said it was a right of passage and that we should go see if the right had decided to leave us a gift out there.”

We didn’t know what sort of gift that would be, but we were all curious to see the bridge.

So, we told our parents we would be camping one weekend in April and took to the woods.

Brian and I were eager, talking about how cool it would be to see it, but Justin and Frank seemed hesitant. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Justin was hesitant, as he almost always was, and Frank was kind of ambivalent. We had met him last year at the start of ninth grade and he had made a pretty good addition to our trio. Frank wasn’t an avid hiker, but he liked to hang out in the woods and get a little high from time to time and that was good enough for us. He also brought outstanding camping snacks, so we were more than happy to hit the trails with him. I wasn’t certain there was a sleeping bag in that rucksack of his, but I could already hear the crinkle of chips and snack cakes within it.

“Any idea how far off this bridge is?” Justin asked, plodding along grumpily.

Justin didn’t mind hiking, but he wasn’t big on aimlessly wandering around in the woods. He had packed enough to make up for Frank’s lack of gear, and the tent poked up over his left shoulder. He was plodding along at the back of the group and I was sure we’d have to listen to a fair amount of complaining before we got there.

“My brother says it's about three miles into the woods, following the river until we come to the gorge. After that, it should be pretty easy to find.”

“And if your brother is playing a trick on us? If he’s just messing with us and we walk three hours into the woods for nothing?”

Brian rolled his eyes, “Then we have a fun little adventure to talk about when we go to college, don’t we?”

Justin grumbled about having to walk three miles into the woods, but we couldn’t have picked a better day for it. The weather was perfect, a slight breeze keeping the early summer heat at bay. The clouds overhead looked a little wet, but they were nowhere close. We’d have a nice camping trip this weekend, a nice little excuse to fish and relax and enjoy ourselves as we explored the old trestle. The woods around the town were full of things like that, and we’d explored old houses that had been retaken by the underbrush or abandoned vehicles that sagged amongst the leaves. When we were in seventh grade, we even found an old concrete culvert out there that led into an underground cave that looked a little spooky in the light of our flashlights.

The farther we walked, however, the less certain I was that the clouds wouldn’t be a problem. The deeper into the woods we went, the more the smell of rain surrounded us. Brian smelled it too, and our pace increased as we kept heading deeper into the forest. Maybe it was just a little rain, maybe it was just a short downpour, and maybe we could get past it before it soaked everything.

When the gorge came into view and I saw the rising, skeletal edifice of the trestle, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

“There she is, boys,” Brian said, sounding surprised to have found it as well.

“Looks pretty wrecked,” Frank said, tossing the stub of a cigarette into the gorge, “We aren’t actually going up on that thing, are we?”

“Wel, ya,” Brian said, “That's kind of the whole reason we came, wasn’t it?”

“You might,” Frank said, “but I don’t care what kind of surprise is up there, I ain’t going.”

He had plenty of time to rethink his statement. Just because we had found the gully, didn’t mean we had made it to the trestle. The closer we got, the more I could see that, for its age, it really was in amazing shape. It was less skeletal than I had thought and looked more like a covered metal bridge. The underside of the trestle was a dark cave, the shadows thick and deep, and I really didn’t want to explore the underside unless we REALLY had to. Something about it made me uncomfortable, and as we got closer and closer to the base, the whole thing seemed to grow.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally made it, and Brian let his pack fall as he set about climbing at once.

“Uh, you don’t wanna set up camp first?” Justin asked, taking out his tent and tools for making a fire.

“I want to see the woods from up there,” Brian said, looking at me as if to ask if I was coming.

I let my own pack side off and we climbed the side of the trestle side by side. We were laughing as the ground got farther and farther away, the girders lifting us above the trees until we finally crested the top and came to the old tracks of the railroad. I was full of wonder as I looked out over the woods, the trestle spanning the entire gorge before slanting back down to the woods again. From up here, the clouds looked very dark, and I wondered if the tent would be enough to keep us from getting wet.

“Check this out,” Brian said, dangling his feet over the side as he looked down into the gorge. 

Watching him made me slightly dizzy, and I didn’t dare join him on the precipice. 

When he came back up, however, he had a rope with him and nodded me over to help him pull it up. It wasn’t really heavy, but we were careful not to get it stuck on anything. Brian left me to pull so he could look over the edge and reported that the rope was attached to an old, red cooler. As it came up and over the edge, I saw that the rope was attached to the handle and the whole thing was the red of a kid's wagon left out in the sun. The box was ancient, the bystander of a thousand summer outings, and there was something inside it.

Brian opened the lid and smiled as he pulled out a lukewarm six-pack of Natty Ice, a brand I was passing familiar with. Dad, a staunch Budweiser man, had always shook his head and called it “pisswater” when he saw it on sale, but I figured for a bunch of kids who were barely old enough to buy beer the price was probably right. I assumed Brian’s brother had put it there, he had told us where to find the trestle bridge, after all, and as Brian fished the note out from under them, my suspicions were confirmed.

“Brian, this is a place where high schoolers have come to drink and hang out for generations. Our own mom and dad sat on this bridge and drank when they were in High school, and now it’s your turn. I spotted you a sixer this time, but you’ll have to bring your own next time. If you ever have extra, leave them in this cooler and then tuck the cooler back under the trestle bridge. Also, don’t go under the bridge, we think there might be a bear under there. Kevin.”

The thought of a bear so close to our campsite kind of scared me, but Brian brushed it off.

“He’s probably just messing with us. Want one?” he asked, popping the top on one as he offered me another one.

I hesitated. I’d never drank before, but I figured just one wouldn’t kill me. It was warm and tasted terrible, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever had. Brian drank his quick, laughing as he threw the can into the gorge far below. We watched it spiral down, spilling the last few remaining drops before it clinked weakly on the bottom.

As if in answer, there was a distant rumble of thunder, and from our vantage point we saw the lightning crack in the distance.

We were on a big metal structure with lightning coming in quick and rain already pattering lightly around us.

“We better go,” I said, Brian looking at the lightning as it rumbled again. He nodded and we decided to run down the tracks rather than try to scale back down. It would mean doubling back, but it wouldn’t be a long trip, and the thought of juggling the rest of the beers and trying to climb down sounded nuts. Brian was holding the four of them close as he ran, smiling to himself as he talked about showing them to the guys.

“Justin will flip!” Brian said with an evil laugh, “You know he still won’t even be around anyone who smokes because of that dumb DARE pledge?”

He was right too. Justin was furiously hammering in tent pegs when we arrived, looking up at the sky every time a drop hit him. He stopped, though, when he noticed us come back with cans that clearly weren’t soda. Frank must have recognized them because he laughed and commented that they had found a pretty cool surprise. Brian tossed him one, turning to Justin as he offered him one too.

Justin put his hands on his hips, looking like my mother when she was disappointed in me.

“Hell no, and you shouldn’t either. Why would you just drink something you found on a rickety bridge?

Brian blew out a long breath and popped open another one, “Because, spaz, my brother left them for us. There was a note and everything, so cool your jets.”

Justin went back to work, mumbling darkly about being reckless and drinking things that could be poisoned or drugged.

The tent came up, and not a moment too soon. The rain was really starting to come down, and it looked like there would be no fire tonight. We all headed into the tent, the wind picking up as it shoved at the tent and made the ropes and pegs groan. It was big enough to fit us all comfortably, and as the lamps came out, Brian held up the last two beers.

"Split the last two?" he asked, everyone but Justin agreeing. We poured them into our camp cups, starting to clink them together before Brian turned to Justin. He was pretending to busy himself with something in the corner, but it was pretty clear he didn't approve of what we were doing. 

"Come on, Justin, it's not gonna hurt you. I tell you what, if we see you become an alcoholic after one sip, we'll push you into the gorge and save you the embarrassment."

"Not funny," Justin said, but we had clearly worn him down. After another half-hearted refusal, he finally held his cup out to Justin who grinned as he poured the last of the beer into it. Then we clinked our glasses together and drank, everyone pulling a face which we laughed at. As the storm raged outside we ate some MREs we had packed just in case of bad weather and started on ghost stories. Brian was just telling us about a man with a hungry ghost in his basement when a big gust of wind hit the tent hard enough to collapse the middle brace and send it crashing down on us.

We floundered for a minute, looking for the zipper as we tried to escape, and finally stepping out into the driving rain. It was still afternoon, the sun an angry line amidst the storm clouds, and I turned as I heard someone struggling with the tent. Justin was trying to pull it, the wind threatening to take it from him with every gust.

"Come on," he shouted, "Help me get it under the trestle. It should work as a windbreak."

I remembered the warning about a bear, but Brian just shouted back that it was either the bear or the rain.

"Besides," he said, "If we see one, we'll just run like hell."

It was hard to argue with him while the rain was coming down, so we all grabbed a tent post and moved it into the dry cave created by the trestle. Unlike a lot of train trestles I had seen in movies and TV shows, this one was enclosed. I'm still not sure why, but it worked out well for us that day. We knocked in the tent pegs and sat in the tent as we watched the rain come down in buckets outside. Our stuff had gotten a little wet, but we hadn't brought anything that couldn't take a little water. As the light gave way to dark, we started breaking out our lanterns and cards, settling in for the night as we listened to the rain.

As I lay there watching Justin and Brian play their fourth or fifth game of Magic the Gathering, I started hearing something besides the rain. It was a deep rumbling, like something snoring deep under the metal bridge. I thought again about Brian's brother telling us there was a bear under there. I didn't want to get eaten by a bear in my sleep, and if we were going to have to move again, it was better to know now. 

I took out my flashlight and started looking into the shadowy depths of the trestle, but there was nothing to be seen. There was some very thick-looking mud under here, some of it having made little stalagmites on the ground, but I couldn't see anything sleeping under there. It wouldn't make a very good den, I reflected as I shone my light around. It was open on both sides with the gorge coming in about thirty feet from our tent. There was really nowhere for anything to live down here, but as I swung the light from right to left, I could still hear that weird breathing. 

On a whim, I pointed it up and under the bridge, and that was when I saw it. 

At first, I thought it was a bunch of bats clustered together, but when it flinched under the beam of my light, I knew it was just one big thing. It was a huge bat, maybe bigger than me, with its large, leathery wings pulled up tight around it. It was clinging to the bottom of the trestle bridge, and I imagine it had been a bad spot to hang when the trains still ran. I spotted a slight movement to its left and found a second one hanging not far from it. In total, there were four of them, and when one of them shifted its wings to look down at me with a red, unhappy eye, I turned off the flashlight and zipped up the tent.

The guys had some strong words when I started turning off the lanterns, but I told them to be quiet and get down. 

"What?" Frank asked, "Did you see something out there?"

"Was it the bear?" Brian asked, keeping his voice low as we hunkered doen.

"What bear?" Justin asked, but I waved a hand at them, trying to get them to be quiet.

"It's not bear," I hissed, but about that time, there was a weird sound from outside.

It sounded like a high-pitched yawn as something came awake followed by the rustle of wings. The talk in the tent had ceased now, and you could have heard a mouse fart. In the dark of the undercroft, we heard something huge and leathery take flight, rustling the canvas of the tent as it left the darkness. A second took flight a moment after, and I heard water cascade down as it shook the top of the trees. We all lay on our stomachs, panting for breath as we listened for more.

I had seen four, and only two had left so far.

When something hit the ground about a foot from our tent, Justin had to slap a hand over his mouth to stop from screaming. The hushed remnants squeaked from between his fingers like a deflating balloon, but if the creature heard it, it never showed any sign. I could see the vague outline of it as it rose to its full height, and as it flapped its wings and took flight, the tent rustled like it had in the wind. 

"Is that all of them?" Brian asked, three sets of eyes turning my way.

I started to tell them there had been a fourth, but that was when the fourth fell on top of the tent. We were very lucky, all things considered. It landed right in the middle of the tent, shattering the plastic pole and sending the plastic material down around us. The creature's toenails scrabbled across it noisily as it tried to find purchase, and when it took off I was afraid it would simply carry us off with it. Instead, it just ripped a hole in the top as it flew off, all of us still reeling as we lay under the canvas.

After a few minutes, it was decided that we would take our sleeping bags and our packs and leave the tent behind.

We spent a miserable night huddled under the biggest tree we could find. We probably looked like fat cata pillars as we hunkered against the roots of the big tree, but we were as dry as we could manage. We all kept looking towards the skies, afraid the giant bat things would come after us, but they never did. We didn't talk, we didn't dare, and when the sun came up, we made our way out of the woods. We arrived at my house cold, scared, and unwilling to talk about what we had seen. My parents probably thought we had run afoul of something like a bear or a cougar, but they had no idea. 

That was about two weeks ago, and we haven't been back in the woods since. Just knowing that those things are in the woods makes us not want to be there after dark. It's a shame because the woods were our spot, our sanctuary, and now it seems tainted. Brian doesn't even leave the house after sunset these days, and Justin looks at the sky when he's walking. Frank says he doesn't really want to talk about it, and I think he's stoned a lot of the time.  

I dream about it sometimes, the way that one big red eye looked at me when I shone the flashlight on it, and I can't help but wonder what something that big eats?

I think it will be a good long time before I talk any of them back into the woods, and our camping days may be at an end.  

03:14 UTC


Extra Credit

I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but I had fallen behind in my studies.

I’ve always been an honor roll student. I had some B’s here and there, but mostly fantastic grades. I wasn’t big into extra curicular activities, but I was a library assistant and I did a little volunteer work for the required hours I needed to graduate.

It all changed when I turned seventeen. My parents had gotten me a car for my birthday. Nothing fancy, but four wheels and an engine is always nice, but it came with a caveat. If I wanted to drive it, I would need to pay for insurance on it. This led me to pick up a job, which led to a lot of closing shifts at my local fast-food chain and not a lot of time for studying or doing homework.

So when Mr. Castleberry told me that I was going to fail 12th grade English if I didn’t bring my grades up, I asked him if there wasn’t something we could work out. I had meant extra credit, maybe a make-up assignment or retake a test, but it seemed that he had other ideas. He looked around as if what he was going to tell me was likely to get him in trouble, and then he scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. When I asked him what it was, he told me to open it when I got to my car and not to tell anybody.

He refused to say anything else about it after that, and as I sat in the front seat of my car reading the message, I was a little weirded out.

I mean, you saw these sorts of situations in adult films or in the back of hustler magazines, but you never really thought that it would happen in real life.

Meet me at my house at seven-thirty tonight, before sunset, be prepared to stay till dawn.

I started to go back in and tell him there was no way in hell, but I did need this particular class to graduate. Who knows, maybe he just liked to hang out with his students in the middle of the night. I didn’t believe that for a second, but I decided that it was worth looking into. If I wasn’t comfortable with it, I could always take the bad grade and figure something else out.

It worked out pretty good because I was off that night and Mr. Castleberry lived about fifteen minutes from my house.

I pulled up outside his house at about seven-fifteen and saw him peeking out the curtains as I came up to knock. He threw the door open, looking around as if to see if I’d been followed, and then practically pulled me inside by the front of my shirt as he closed and locked the door. He threw about four different locks, as well as a chain, and then told me to follow him to the bedroom. I raised an eyebrow, that was a little fast, but I did as he asked and figured we would talk over the particulars once we got there.

When I stepped into his bedroom, I noticed that Mr. Castleberry had an odd setup. His bed sat in the middle of a circle that I had a sneaking suspicion might be silver. The walls were painted in holy symbols and Mr. Castleberry was finishing a circle of salt around the bed as I took it all in. He pursed his lips, clearly not sure how to begin, and sat down on the bed as he tried to figure out how to explain it.

“We don’t have a lot of time, so I’ll try to be quick. I have a demon inside me, a demon that only comes out at sundown.”

“Bull!” I laughed, thinking he was joking, but his face was stone cold serious.

“Hand of God,” he said, “That's what the circle and the salt is for. I have people I know who come and sit with me, to make sure the demon doesn’t escape somehow, but sometimes I have to ask my students to stand in. I just need you to sit there and watch me until dawn. After that, you’ll have your A.”

I sighed, thinking this over. It appeared he didn’t want anything sexual, but he was certainly after something weird. Mr. Castleberry had always seemed like such a normal guy. Who would have thought he was secretly some kind of weirdo who thought he had a demon or something. Whatever, though. An A was an A, and I needed to pass this class.

“Okay, so, what do I do if this thing gets out?”

Mr. Castleberry was getting comfy in bed, “There's a box beside the chair,” he said, pointing to a old wooden chair by the wall, “Use what's in there. The gun is a last resort. The bullets in it are very expensive, so I hope you’re a good shot. Don’t call the police, and don’t invite anyone over. You got that?”

I nodded, reaching down beside the chair and finding the box as he got comfortable.

“Good, the sun's going down, so it won't be long. Oh, the demon will try to tempt you, just make sure you don’t listen to anything it has to say. There's earplugs in the box, but I don’t recommend that you use anything electronic to block him out.”

“Why not?” I asked, taking a battered old Bible and a cross out of the box. The gun inside was a heavy old revolver and it looked like it would blow a hole through a barn if I used it. There were earplugs, and a spray bottle labeled HW that I assumed would hurt the demon too. When Mr. Castleberry didn’t answer me, I asked again as I looked up. He was lying on the bed, arms crossed over his chest, as he mouthed the words to a prayer I didn’t know. He was speaking in Latin or Spanish or something, and as the sun got lower, he seemed to be fighting to finish it. His tongue was getting heavy, his words growly, and he was twitching like an epileptic.

As the sun slid below the horizon and true dark overtook the town, his eyes popped open and I heard a sound like someone popping all their vertebrae at once. He roared like a charging rhino and his body contorted on the bed like someone being flayed alive. I jumped as he writhed on the bed, knocking over the chair as I went for the door. I needed to call the hospital. This was beyond a joke, and he needed help.

“N N N N NOOOO!” Mr. Castleberry forced out, “D D D Don't llllllEAVE. Stay till…DAWN. ONLY WAY TTTTTT,” but that appeared to be all I would get from Mr. Castleberry.

He went limp then, falling back to the bed as a soft and satisfied growl left him.

As he lay there, I watched as his chest rose and fell. What was going on with him? Was he actually possessed? I shook that thought off. I had been raised Catholic but the older I got, the less sure I was that God existed. If there was no God, then there was no Devil so there were no demons either. That meant that the school board was just letting someone like Mr. Castleberry teach kids with whatever mental issues he had going on. Probably schizophrenia or multiple personalities or something. I didn’t know, but if I had to stay here all night to get an A, then I supposed I would. I was gonna be tired at work tomorrow, but I had Sunday off so I could always recuperate then.

“Ah, yes, the sabbath is a good day to rest. It was good enough for the All Mighty, at least, so I suppose it’s good enough for you.”

I felt my breath stick in my throat. The voice I had heard from the bed had been as different from Mr. Castleberry as sandpaper was to velvet. Whoever was talking sounded like the kind of people who do the kind of ASMR that gets you banned on YouTube. It was the kind of voice that lures kids into wells, the kind of voice that lures women away from happy marriages, and the kind of voice that leaves men questioning their sexuality.

I looked up to find Mr. Castleberry reclined on the bed, his head resting on his hand in what was likely supposed to be a seductive pose. His eyes were smoldering, something I hadn’t thought them capable of, and his smile was predatory. He was sizing me up like a predator preparing to spring, and I felt my skin erupt in goosebumps.

“Mr. Castleberry?”

It laughed, and I felt like I should join in but forced myself not to. “The old man’s gone to bed, but you can talk to me if you want. My name is Satan.”

I scoffed, “No way in hell. I’m sure Satan has better things to do than bother my English teacher.”

He laughed, “Very astute. The Spanish girl he brought in last time screamed and ran out of the room when I told her that. I see you have thicker skin, though. You may call me Raesh, and what may I call you?” I started to tell him, but I seemed to remember something about telling a demon your name and decided not to give him my real name.

“Sam,” I said, earning a wide, toothy grin from the imp.

“Astute and Cagey, I like that. So, how about you break that salt circle and let me out? I’m sure we could have some fun before this ole fuddy-duddy gets up.”

“Wouldn’t the silver circle hold you inside too?” I asked, dubiously. Raesh peeked over the bed and chuckled, “That crafty old duck. Who knew you could afford that much silver on a teacher's budget. Well, no matter, if you step inside the circle, breaking it with your foot, then it isn’t a circle and I can come out. Come on, what do you say?”

I found myself considering it. I had actually prepared to stand up when I realized what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about this creature, a change my mind had made from mental disease to creature, and I was just going to trust him? No, no I didn’t think so. I planted my bottom and shook my head.

“I don’t think so,” I said and was surprised to find that I was almost apologetic.

Raesh shrugged, “Of course not, why would you release me for free? Why wouldn’t you want to get something out of it, after all? So, what is it you want? What is this old man offering you to keep watch over me?”

“Uh,” I floundered and finally just decided on the truth, “An A in his English class?”

It sounded lame, and when Raesh laughed, I knew he had thought so too.

“A meaningless mark of completion? I could make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, get you any one person, any twelve people, you desire, or set you up in such a way that not graduating from school would be the least of your worries. I could do so much for you, and I don’t even need to take your soul. I just need you to free me. It’s been so long since I was free to roam the night, and I’m so very hungry.”

He had been weaving a spell around me, drawing me into his promises, but that last brought me back to my senses. What would this thing do if it got loose? Who would it hurt if it was just allowed to roam the night? I shook my head, trying to get the invasive words out of my skull, and when I turned back, Mr. Castleberry looked disappointed.

“A pity. I really could have done more for you than I can for this old stick.”

I ignored him after that, though he did not return the favor. I had brought some books to work on homework, but he was talking too much for me to concentrate. I spent a few hours trying to complete my Geometry Homework while he offered to help, offered to get me all the answers, offered to do things I’d rather not think about, and a hundred other such offers. He also threatened, promising a thousand different punishments for not letting him out only to walk them back a moment later and apologize.

I checked my watch as I finally closed the book and discovered it was only ten thirty. I had been at this for three hours, and it didn’t seem to be going by quickly.

“Only eight more hours until sunrise,” he said, guessing the source of my sighs, “Plenty of time for you to change your mind.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the earplugs, pushing them in and taking my American History homework out.

Two hours of mostly silence later, I put it away and looked up to find Raesh looking at me a little too intently.

I yawned, getting sleepy as I pulled out my phone and scrolled through TikTok. I couldn’t hear it, and as I reached for my headphones, I remembered what Mr. Castleberry had said. He had warned about using electronic headphones, but I figured one probably would be fine. Besides, they had noise reduction on them. That had to count for something.

Raesh tried to call out to me when I swapped the earplug for the headphones, but I ignored him as I popped it in.

I was listening to a two-minute story about something or another, but as I scrolled to the next one, I was surprised to find that it was a live stream from a familiar room. I could see myself sitting there, face glued to the phone, but as I watched, Raesh looked right at the camera and smiled. I was infuriated. Mr. Castleberry was just livestreaming himself as he scared some dumb kid of the week. In fact, the title of the stream was “High School Kid Tormented by “Demon”. He had tricked me! Why would he do that?

“Why indeed?” Raesh asked, staring at me through the camera as if he could see me through the phone, “What do you owe him? He made a fool of you online. What if your friends saw this? What would they think? You’d be a social outcast. Why not give them something to watch? I bet you’d love nothing more than to wrap your hands around this fool's throat and choke the life out of him. Do it. No one would know. Just walk over here and,”

I was getting up, but as I took a step towards the bed, alarm bells rang in my head. Raesh was messing with me. Looking back down at the phone, I could see it was a generic TikTok shop stream, and when I looked back up, Raesh was so close that his nose was pressed against the barrier.

“Come on, just one more step. One more step and you can do whatever you want to him. Kill him, kiss him, do his laundry, I don’t care! Just LET ME OUT!” he bellowed and I stumbled back into my chair as he laughed. After that, I just watched the TikToks with the subtitles on.

I didn’t trust my ears anymore.

I made it till two but after that, my yawns started to sneak up on me. I wished I had brought an energy drink or something. I wasn’t used to staying up this late, not regularly, and my eyes were getting heavy. I swapped over to an adventure game on my phone, but it kept slipping longer and longer the later it got. I could see Raesh watching me, catlike as if just waiting for me to nod off. He was tricky, and I wondered if Mr. Castleberry had coffee in the kitchen. I just had to make it a little bit longer, just a few more hours and I was home free. I made it till three ten before I lost the fight.

One moment I was running my eight-bit knight through my hundredth dungeon, and the next I heard someone giggle from the bed. I looked up to find not the leering Raesh, but Stephanie Morgan from my math class. She was joined by Tina Feller, Debbie Rose, and half of the cheerleading squad whose names I was a little foggy on. They were in their underwear and seemed to be beckoning me to come join them. There were comments about long division and making a human pyramid, and as I got slowly to my feet, something seemed off. Where was Raesh? He had been there a minute ago. He might not have been present, but something in their voices as they called me to bed reminded me of him. It was underneath their voice, something wicked and hidden, and I shook my head and snapped my eyes open not a moment too soon.

I was standing at the edge of the circle again. I had lost twenty minutes, and Raesh was cursing like a sailor as he had a tantrum in the middle of the large bed. He was thrashing hard enough to jounce the frame, but not hard enough to disturb the salt. He looked up at me with real scorn on his face, clearly contemplating all the terrible things he wanted to do to me.

“You were so close! The boobie trap always gets them!”

I was wide awake now, but I knew it wouldn’t last long unless I found something to focus on.

Three hours, I had three hours.

Despite that knowledge, I smiled at the old imp.

“Can’t trick me, Raesh. No deceitful person will dwell in my house, And no liar will stand in my presence.”

To my surprise, Raesh sat back like I had slapped him.

I blinked, that was different.

“What? Not a big fan of scripture?”

Raesh looked at me sardonically, “Obviously. I would prefer if you’d keep it to yourself in the future.”

Message received, I thought.

Maybe there was more to God than I had thought.

So that was how we spent the last three hours. I kept the old worn Bible on my lap, and whenever Raesh would start trying to worm his way back in, I would begin to read from it. It put him off talking, right up until the sky began to lighten. Then he turned to me, my eyes barely staying open, and delivered one final bit of crypticness.

“I don’t have much longer. When you think back on this time, I want you to remember ttttthat you cccccoulddddd have had mmmmm more than this old st st stick ever ddddIDDD.” he growled out.

As the first rays of light came up over the window sill, he twisted violently, so violently that I thought he had broken his neck. He twitched a few more times, screaming hoarsely until he finally settled back onto the bed. I sighed as he twitched again, realizing it was over as I packed the cross and the Bible back into the box with the gun and the earplugs. The spray bottle went in last, and as I secured the lid, Mr. Castleberry sat up and stretched grandly.

He blinked and looked at me, smiling as he realized I was still there. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t be so easy to scare off. As promised, you’ll pass with an A now. Here,” he said, and to my surprise, he fished two one-hundred-dollar bills out of his nightstand.

“What's this for?” I asked.

“I give anyone who works the sundown shift two hundred bucks when they're done. There's more where that came from if you’d like to come back. The number of people who come back, however, is surprisingly low.”

I asked him how he could afford this and he smiled, laughing warmly, “I don’t teach for the money. I teach because it’s what I love to do. My father set me up before I was born, something I don’t think Raesh knows. Money doesn’t mean the same thing to demons that it does to us, and I think he just sees it as a thing I have. I don’t covet it, so he doesn’t see it as a vice.”

Two hundred bucks, I thought, for twelve hours of basically nothing. I could sit with Mr. Castleberry for three nights and make what I made at the fast food place in a week. I would have to think about this very hard, but I was definitely tempted to come back. I knew what I was in for now, so it would be easier a second time. I knew Raesh would have new tricks, but maybe I’d be ready now that I was prepared.

Before I left that day, I asked him what the demon had given him to have such control after dark.

Mr. Castleberry thought about it for a moment and finally decided to share the secret with me.

“My mother was sick, very sick, and I was looking for a miracle to make her better. Raesh’Ieal came to me and offered me a deal. He would possess my body after dark, control me from sunup to sun down, and in exchange, my mother would be spared from the disease that was killing her. I agreed, on the condition he couldn’t do anything that would take away my ability to be free during the day. He agreed, but it was all for nothing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked,“Your mother lived, right?”

“For a while. He didn’t lie, he cured her of the cancer that was eating away at her. The cancer, however, had damaged her kidneys. She lived another eight months before she died of renal failure. Let that be a lesson to you, should you decide to come back. Demons always promise the moon, but they don’t tell you that the cheese is rotten.”

I left that room two hundred dollars richer and maybe a little wiser.

Wiser or not, it wasn’t the last time I sat with Mr. Castleberry and Raesh’Ieal.

1 Comment
00:31 UTC


Too Many Teeth

“Daddy! I lost a tooth.”

He lisped a bit as he said it, and as I held my hand out I saw that his hand had a tooth in it. It was one of the front ones, and I congratulated him on losing it so cleanly. I wondered if he had pulled it out himself, but I put that out of my mind. Brandon didn’t even pull his own splinters out, and I really couldn’t see him yanking out his own teeth. He was six, six and one month as he liked to say, and this was the first tooth he had lost. He was late in that respect, many of his friends had already started losing baby teeth, but he was giddy as he brought this one to me.

“Now the tooth fairy will come and take it away!” he said, skipping off to continue playing.

Ah yes, I had forgotten that part.

Brandon had become obsessed with the Tooth Fairy after his friend Nina had lost her tooth. He thought of her as the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, and he was very excited that she would come through his window and leave money for his teeth. He had asked what she did with all those teeth, where she got all the money, and a thousand other things. I was a pretty creative person, and I had come up with all kinds of stories about what she did with them, where she got the money, how she came in without making a sound, and on and on and on.

I was kind of glad that he had finally lost a tooth because I was starting to run out of material and thought if he experienced it he might lose interest in it.

We put it under his pillow that night and I assured him that it would be gone in the morning and there would be money there when he got up.

Then, of course, I fell asleep waiting for my wife to get home and woke up to find her sleeping beside me and the sun beginning to peek over the horizon.

I went quickly, but quietly, and thanked my lucky stars that Brandon was a sound sleeper. He hadn’t woken up yet, and I took the dollar I was going to put under there out of my pocket and prepared to make the swap. To my surprise, however, the tooth was already gone. No one had left money, but the tooth had disappeared. I looked around, thinking it had slipped out, but it was just gone. I left the dollar anyway, not wanting him to be disappointed, and went back to my room to get a little more shut-eye before the alarm went off.

We never made it to the alarm, because Brandon came in waving the dollar and saying the Tooth Fairy had come.

“Look what the tooth fairy left me. He said it was all for me.”

I told him that was awesome but internally I raised an eyebrow. He? The tooth fairy had always been a woman any other time he’d talked about her. Maybe, I thought, Brandon had just had a dream or something last night. He put the money in his piggy bank and I figured we could maybe put this behind us.

Two days later, as I put him to bed, I put my hand beneath his pillow and felt something strange.

I took my hand out and found another tooth.

“What’s this?” I ask him.

“Oh, I lost another tooth,” Brandon said.

No excitement, no hope that the tooth fairy would come. Just a matter-of-fact tone. I guess that was what I wanted, his obsession with the tooth fairy had ended when he had finally lost a tooth. He’d gone from being absolutely excited to absolutely unphased, and that stopped me for a moment.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had another loose tooth, buddy?”

“I, uh, don’t know. It just kind of happened.”

I put the tooth back under his pillow, telling him to make sure to say something next time, and then I kissed him good night and put him to bed.

When I went to put money under his pillow a little later, though, the tooth wasn’t there. Instead, there was a coin. I took a look at it, thinking it was a half dollar, but realizing I was wrong almost at once. At first, I thought it was one of those weird chocolate coins you sometimes get for Christmas. Turning it, I realized it was just extremely grubby. It was heavy, like it was made out of brass or copper, and the surface looked dirty like it had been at the bottom of a well for quite some time.

I started to take it with me, something in me wanting to keep it away from my son, but I put it back instead. It wasn’t mine, after all, and by the look of it, it was probably something that he treasured. It had been back under his pillow for less than a few seconds before his hand went searching for it. His fingers took hold of it almost greedily as he clutched it, and I decided to take the dollar back with me.

Brandon changed a bit after that night, but it's only in retrospect that I see it.

He became very secretive, not my little buddy like he used to be. Brandon didn’t want to play video games in the living room with me anymore. He didn’t want to read stories at bedtime anymore. He spent a lot of time in his room, and he just seemed to be closing off. His mother laughed at me when I told her I was feeling a little hurt by it.

“He’s just being a kid,” she said, “Kids go through phases sometimes. Don’t take it so personally. In a couple of months, he’ll probably be back to his usual self again.”

I hoped he would, but it was hard to ignore the physical changes that were going on as well.

Not only was Brandon quieter, but it seemed like he had grown. He hadn’t gained a foot in a single week, but sometimes it seemed his fingers were abnormally long, his arms were strangely jointed, and his face was oddly stretched. He would look at me sometimes, look at me like he was thinking about doing something that he knew would make me angry. I didn’t like it, but he never did it right out in the open. Like I said, Brandon never came to sit with me or play video games, but I would sometimes catch him peeking at me from the hallway, or from under the table in the kitchen.

It was creepy, but I figured it was just little kid behavior.

A month after Brandon lost his first tooth, I found another one in his backpack.

Well, not just one. I found five hidden in the front pocket of his backpack after he left it on the kitchen table when he went to the bathroom.

He had become pretty protective of the backpack, putting it in his room or keeping it close to him at all times, and I started getting suspicious of what might be in there. I didn't think it was drugs or anything, he was six, but I thought it might be something weird or dangerous. What if he had a snake or something in there? So when he suddenly ran off to go to the bathroom, I knew this was my chance to have a look. I needed to sign his folder for school anyway, so I took out the folder and looked over the day's report before taking a peek in the pockets. The teeth were just sitting there, bumping together when I poked at them, but they didn’t really look like human teeth. These looked more like animal teeth, and they were too strange to have come out of my son's mouth. They might’ve been from a cat or a dog, I suppose, maybe a

“What are you doing?”

I zipped the backpack and turned around, looking like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t.

“Nothing, just signing your folder.”

Brandon looked at me with a great deal of distrust, taking the backpack and going to his room without putting his back to me.

I told his mother about the teeth when she came home from work, but she brushed it off again, saying that little kids often collected strange things.

“My brothers collected animal skeletons they found out in the woods,” she said dismissively and she got ready for bed, “Thank goodness it’s just teeth and not a whole skull.”

I let it go, but it was hard not to see what was going on. Brandon started looking like he wasn’t sleeping well. He had huge bags under his eyes, and he was fidgety anytime he was made to sit still, like at dinner or for homework. He would get short and agitated, muttering to himself in a way I couldn’t understand. I listened carefully once when we were doing math homework, and it sounded like he was talking in a different language. He looked up when he saw me noticing, squinting at me with that look of distrust, and it broke my heart to see him like that. Brandon had always been my little buddy, and this sudden change in him was painful to watch.

Two weeks later, I got a call from the school.

They needed to speak to me about something important. Brandon had been in a fight, a fight where he had knocked more than a few of the kids' teeth out. I came down right away, afraid that Brandon was hurt, but when I saw him sitting in the principal's office he looked none the worse for wear. He had a bruise on his cheek, and his hands looked like he beat them against the wall, but he didn’t seem injured or in distress at all. Quite the contrary, Brandon looked happier than I had ever seen him.

I took a seat next to him in the office, waiting to see what they had thought was so important.

“We called you in not because Brandon has been fighting, but because of other rumors going around about him in class.”

“Rumors?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. The student he fought with said Brandon has been making strange deals with other students.”

Shook my head, not quite understanding, “What kind of deals?”

“They say he has been buying people's teeth.”

I shuddered, thinking about the teeth in the bag that I saw not long ago. I looked down at Brandon, questioning him with my eyes as to whether or not this was true. He looked back at me without hesitation, pretty much letting me know that it was.

“He’s been trading his lunch for them. He’s been trading other things for them, too, like toys and other small things. He has allegedly traded over twenty students for their teeth across three grades. Today, the student in question had taken the trade but refused to give him any teeth. Your son responded by beating the teeth out of his mouth.”

I looked back at Brandon, asking what he was thinking? He didn’t bother to answer, just clinched his fist in his lap and looked at the floor. I think that was when it really hit me how much he had changed. The bags under his eyes were dark and deep, and his fingers were long enough that I couldn’t see how anyone didn’t notice. Each finger seemed twice as long as it should be, and as he clinched, I could see a fourth knuckle on each of them.

“The reason we called you in, sir, is to get those teeth back.”

I turned and looked at the principal, “What do you mean?”

He looked a little green as he wiped his forehead with a napkin, “We believe your son has the missing teeth, but he won’t tell us where they are and he won’t give them back to us. We can’t seem to find them, and the mother is hopeful that the dentist can put them back in if they’re not too badly damaged. If nothing else, they want them back so they can take them to the dentist and make sure the teeth are baby teeth and not permanent. Brandon hasn’t said a word about where he put them, and we are deeply troubled by this behavior.”

I looked at Brandon and asked him where the teeth were?

He shook his head, not saying a word.

I asked him again, and when he shook his head this time, I heard something.

Something nearly indistinguishable, but altogether unsettling.

Something was rattling in his mouth.

“We can sit here until you decide to give us those teeth, but you’re not leaving until we get them back. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but,”

The idea that we wouldn’t be leaving seemed to decide him. He bent slowly over the principal desk, making eye contact with the older man the whole time as he opened his mouth. Three teeth fell out as he pushed his tongue out, and none of them appeared to be his. The teeth clattered onto the desk like old dice, and more than one of them had the root hanging from them. As he sat back up I had the sneaking suspicion that he was holding out.

The principal, however, seemed more than okay with what he had gotten back. He told us to go, saying that Brandon was suspended for two weeks, and I collected up my son as we headed for the door. The principal managed not to vomit before we got out of his office, but it was a near thing.

We talked the entire way home.

Well, I talked, and Brandon just sat there and said nothing.

I told him I didn’t know what all this was about, but that he needed to stop. This wasn’t him, this wasn’t like him, and he needed to tell me what was going on so that I could help. I was his dad, I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t help him if he didn’t talk to me. The whole time, he just sat there and stared at me. Most kids who are being chastised look out the window or look at their feet, but he stared directly at me in brazen defiance. His fingers kept flexing, and I saw him put a hand to his pocket more than once. I wanted to tell him to turn them out, to give me the tooth from that kid that he had kept, but something in me didn’t dare. I was loath to admit it, but I was a little bit afraid of my son at that moment. He looked nothing like the boy that I had known for almost seven years. My grandma used to tell stories about babies taken by fairies, and the changlings that they left behind. This reminded me of those stories. The kid in front of me was so fundamentally different from the one I knew that it was almost like I was talking to a different person.

As we pulled up in the yard, I told him he was grounded. No tablet, no TV, no dessert. Brandon didn’t seem to care, he just walked inside and went to his room. His tablet was still on the charger, and his TV remote had been left on the door to his room. I didn’t know what he was doing in there, but it clearly wasn’t playing. He was way too quiet, and when his mother called to tell me she was working a double, I almost cried. I didn’t want to be here alone with him more than I had to be, and that made me feel even worse.

He didn’t come out for dinner, and when I went to bring him his plate a little while later, I heard muffled voices as he spoke to someone.

“I tried to get the teeth, but they caught me.”

I didn’t know who he was talking to, kind of thought he might be talking to himself, but when a gruff voice responded I felt my stomach drop.

“You’ll just have to do better next time.”

The voice was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was deep and watery, like something from the bottom of a well, and it spoke in a way that made its mouth sound strangely full. It was devoid of any kind of kindness or charity, the sounds you sometimes hear when people speak to children. It was an authoritarian invoice, the teacher, and they were not pleased with my son.

“I’m grounded, they suspended me from school. I’m not going to be able to get you any teeth for at least two weeks.”

“Your father has teeth,” it said matter-of-factly, “Your mother has teeth too.”

When he answered, he didn’t sound afraid.

When he answered, it was with cold assuredness.

“They won’t just give them to me. They don’t understand what I’m doing.”

What was he doing? That’s what I wanted to know. I gripped the doorknob, hoping they wouldn’t hear me, and that was when the voice said something that made my blood run cold.

“Then do not ask for them. Take them, like you did from the boy today.”

I opened the door in one fluid motion, and my son looked up guilty as I walked into his room

“Who are you talking to?" I asked.

“No one,” he said much too quickly.

“I heard someone,” I said, “I heard someone in here talking to you, and I wanted to know who it was, and where they went.”

That was a lie. I didn’t think I wanted to know who they were. What I wanted was for them to never come back again. The person had sounded like some kind of demonic fairy from a kid's story, and I was afraid of what I would see if he did come back.

“It’s nothing,” Brandon said much too quickly again, “I was doing voices.”

I talked to him for a little while longer, but I got nothing. He wouldn’t talk to me, he wouldn’t tell me anything, and eventually I just left.

I should’ve left it at that, I should have just left it alone, but I had to try one more time.

It was late, about ten thirty which was pretty late for us, and I decided to try a peace offering. I felt pretty certain he was still awake, I had heard something moving around in there, and so I cut some of the pie I had made to go with dinner and walked to his room. I was going to offer him the pie and see if maybe we could talk. I just wanted to know what it was that had made him change so much. Most of all, I just wanted my son back. It killed me to have him act like this, but as the door came open, I got more answers than I had bargained for.

It was standing over his bed with its arm going under his pillow, and in the darkness of his room, I realized it had to be what he'd been talking to. The pie fell to the ground, but I had a death grip on the plate, and I realized I had sprained my thumb once I was in any state to feel it. I didn’t speak, I could barely breathe and as the thing turned to look at me I realized my fairy theory might not be too far off. It was grubby looking, like something that’s been living in a ditch. Its features were completely covered in something dark that had the texture of earth, except for the two large lamp-like eyes that protrude from its face like bubble lights. It was tall, something I realized as it took its full height. It had been crouching before, putting something under my son’s pillow, and it had to stoop so as not to bang its head on the ceiling, which is about nine feet from the floor. From its back, four insect like wings protruded. They weren't large enough to carry it, but they were large enough to be noticeable. Its hands and arms, the fingers multi-jointed, were far from delicate looking as it wiggled them ceaselessly.

I expected it to charge me, I expected it to attack me, but instead, it raised one huge finger to its face and made a shush sound.

“Shhhh, you’ll wake the baby,” it whispered, and its mouth sounded like it was trying to swallow something.

Then it smiled, and I saw not a double but a triple row of teeth inside its mouth. There’s no order to them, molars next to canines next to bicuspid next to what appear to be fangs and shark teeth. Its mouth is such a mishmash of teeth that it’s impossible not to feel a little woozy when you look at it. It pulled its lips down, somehow containing all those teeth, and before my very eyes, it vanished.

My son was pretty upset when I grabbed him up and carried him out of the house.

I put him in the car, and we waited till his mother got off work before taking him to a nearby motel. I told her what I had seen, as best as I could, and I think she believes there might be something going on now. My son is furious, saying he needs to get back home so that he can do his job, but he won’t say what that is.

Honestly, I think he’s been collecting teeth for whatever that thing was.

When I went back to get us some clothes and check the house, I looked under his pillow and found another of those strange coins. There’s a box under his bed, and inside it’s equal parts teeth and coins. There are around twenty of them, and they’re sitting next to teeth of every shape and every size. Most of them are animal teeth, but some of them are definitely human teeth. I’ve taken the entire box with me, but the phone call I got from my wife before I left the house was what really worried me.

She called to tell me that our son had locked himself in the bathroom, and she was afraid he was hurting himself.

“There’s a weird squelching sound, followed by him yelling and crying.”

He had locked himself in the bathroom, but I went and got the manager to unlock it for us.

What we found there will stay with me for a very long time.

We’re at the hospital now, my wife is in the ER room with him while I sit in the waiting room and wait for updates. The protocol states only one parent can go in at a time, and my son doesn’t want me to go in there. He can’t speak very well, but he made that very clear to my wife. I gave him space, not wanting to exacerbate his condition any more than I had to. I’ve got the box on my lap as I sit out here, and I’m not really sure what to do with it.

Inside are the eight teeth he managed to pull out of his own head before we got him restrained.

Whatever this creature is, it must get its due, and my son was apparently intent on giving it that due.

We'll probably end up having to take him to a mental facility, but I know he isn’t crazy.

I saw that thing, too, and I know it will find him no matter where we take him.

So be very careful when you tell your kids about the tooth fairy.

What comes to collect their teeth might be something far worse than even you could imagine.

1 Comment
01:01 UTC


Into the Blue

I opened the mailbox and started shifting the mail around to see what today's bunch of crap was.



Credit card offer

My hand froze as I looked at the envelope, my jaw quivering a little as I read the address on the front and the name of the sender.

This hadn't happened in years, not since I'd left for college, but I had felt safe enough to settle somewhere, hoping that the letters had stopped.

It had been three years since she'd written, but it made me feel like I was a teenager again, fearing that anyone but me would find one of those letters.

From Catherine Mansley to Justin Mansley

Dear brother,

It’s been so long, you should come see me in The Blue.

Love, Catherine.

I tore the letter up and went back inside, trying not to notice how the paper had made my fingers feel clammy and moist. The envelope too had been the same way, moist and difficult to hold. It was like wet paper that had dried badly, but it was always that way. When Catherine sent me letters, they were always like that. I had kept them at first, hiding them so no one would find them, but I burned them now, not wanting them near me.

I picked up my phone to call Daniel, but it went straight to voicemail. I tried my uncle, but Uncle Mike was hoping I had seen him. He said Daniel had been missing for about a week now, and everyone was getting pretty worried. I can hear him calling me as I sit on the floor with my knees against my chest, trying not to hyperventilate, but I know it's useless. That feeling is the closest I can come to drowning, the closest I can come to understanding why Catherine writes these letters.

Daniel, Carter, Clint, Henry, they're all gone now.

I'm the last one that Catherine hasn't got.

When we were kids or early teens, we would all go stay at Grandpa's Cabin over the summer. Grandpa was long dead, Grandma too, but the cabin was always called such. My mom and dad would usually come up first to get it ready, and I loved the times before my cousins got there, the times I could just enjoy the cabin. I haven't been back in years, not since we went to look for Clint, but I can still remember the cabin. It was more a lodge than a cabin, and Dad claimed that Grandpa's Dad (our Great-Grandpa) had built it by hand. It was made from the huge old trees in the area, and it had a big area downstairs with four rooms above it. The rooms were easily as big as hotel rooms, the Motel 6 kind, and they held our family and the families of my cousins easily.

Dad had a brother, Uncle Mike, and a Sister, Aunt Claire, and both of them had two kids.

Catherine was the only girl in the family, other than Aunt Claire, and the youngest. This meant she tried extra hard to keep up with her older cousins and it often led her into trouble. The time she fell out a tree and broke her arm, the time she'd bruised her legs and butt jumping her bike over a fifteen-foot drop, the time she'd nearly drowned at Carffer's Pond, were all times she was trying to keep up with us. We were merciless too, giving her no quarter, and it must have been miserable for her.

We loved to hike and swim and spend time in the cabin, but the thing we all looked forward to seeing the most when we came out here was The Blue.

The Blue was a hole in the woods, more like a pit than anything, with water inside that was perfectly blue, like the stuff inside the jar where the barber keeps his combs. It went thirty feet into the earth, the precipice sheer and easy to stumble into if you weren't paying attention. The water inside was so blue that it hurt your eyes if you looked at it for too long, and it always looked artificial to me. Someone had hung a bridge over it, a rickety thing that swung across on ropes, and my cousins and I thought it was great fun to go and tempt fate by bouncing on it and making it sway.

Thinking about it now makes me downright shudder, but all kids think they're immortal.

I was twelve when it happened, but it could have happened before then easily.

We had been at the cabin a week, swimming and fishing and generally enjoying our time in the woods when Clint said he wanted to go see The Blue today. He said it quietly, because if he had said it any louder, his mom or my mom would have heard and that would have been the end of it. All the adults knew about The Blue and had forbidden us to go anywhere near it. Dad had told us stories about playing on that bridge when he and Uncle Mike were kids, but Aunt Claire had always been too scared to go on that rickety old thing. I think my Dad knew that we were going out to The Blue, probably expected it, and never expressly forbade us to go there, like my mom did. He knew that forbidding it would just make it that much more enticing, and if he let us get it out of our systems, The Blue would become boring all on its own.

I don't think he believed something tragic would happen, but if he had, he might have kept a closer eye on us.

We told our mothers we were going on a hike, Uncle Mike, Uncle Dale, and my Dad having gone out fishing that morning, and they said that was fine but to be back by lunchtime.

We had made our way out as quietly as possible, thinking ourselves clever for not letting Catherine hear us making plans, but no sooner had we jumped off the back porch than here she came with a “Wait for me!”Clint grumbled that we should just run off without her, but that was when my Mom poked her head out and told us not to forget Cat. Catherine seemed pretty pleased with herself as she followed us out of the yard, and as we hiked towards The Blue, she realized where we were going.

“We can't go there,” She said, looking scandalous, “Mommy said it was off limits.”

“Well Mommy isn't here,” said Daniel, “So if you don't want to come, then turn around and go back.”

Catherine seemed to think about it but must have decided it was too far to walk back on her own. We were about two miles into the woods, and despite her desire to follow us everywhere, Catherine was kind of a scaredy-cat. She didn't like being by herself, and it usually led to her getting hurt when she tried to follow us into dangerous situations. She still followed us, but suddenly she was a safe distance away as we made our way toward The Blue.

When the trees parted and the edges of the pit opened up, we knew we had arrived.

“There it is,” Clint breathed, the lip coming into view not long afterward, “So cool.”

We had seen it dozens of times but it was always awe-inspiring.

The hole was like something punched by a meteor, the edges jagged and uneven. Maybe there was a meteor at the bottom, maybe it’s what made the water so blue, but we had never seen it, well, not yet. We were only really interested in the bridge that day and cared nothing for the natural beauty. We spent the first few minutes just leaning over the edge and spitting into the water below. We couldn’t see it when it hit, but we knew it had.

If the side had crumbled we’d have all gone in and then this story might be very different.

“Let’s go on the bridge,” one of them said.

I think it was Clint but it could have been any of them. It was definitely Carter who agreed, but we all wanted to go. The bridge was what we lived for, the thrill we came back for, and the second my hands touched the ropes of that swinging death trap, I felt the adrenaline begin to pump within me.

The bridge was in disrepair from the first time we found it, and it had only gotten worse over the years. It was missing a few boards, the ropes frayed and peeling, and we should have known it was only a matter of time before there was a problem. When we got to the bridge, all of us crowding onto it as we usually did, Henry moved to the front and began swinging it from side to side. The ropes creaked as we all laughed and held on. Henry was quite a bit larger than most of us, and when he rocked the bridge, he really rocked the bridge. It swayed wide over the gap, and we all laughed and joked as we swayed along with it.

We had been cheating death for a couple of minutes when we realized that someone was missing.

We looked back towards the lip of the pit and saw Catherine hunkered in the woods. She was miserable, not liking the sight of us trying to throw ourselves into The Blue, and didn’t seem to want any part of it. We joked and picked at her, but I wish now that I had seen the fear in her eyes and thought better of what we were doing.

I should have been a better big brother on that day.

“Come on, Cat,” Clint said.

“No way,” Catherine said, grabbing one of the trees like we might try to pull her onto the bridge.

“Don’t be a scaredy-cat,” Clint sing-songed, repeating the phrase scaredy-cat again and again as the rest of us picked it up.

I didn’t pick it up till last, but I chanted it right along with the rest of them.

Catherine was clearly on the verge of tears, but she still had her pride. She stomped over to the bridge, as indignant as anyone could be at six, but as she came to the edge, she started to look unsure again. Her hands shook if she reached for the ropes, and when Henry stepped out of the way, she walked hesitantly onto the rickety boards of the bridge. Henry closed off her retreat, and she stepped closer to our group as she tried her best not to cry.

“All right, Henry, let’s get some big swings this time.” Clint trumpeted.

Henry seemed all too willing to oblige, and soon the bridge was rocking farther than I had ever seen it rock before. It was swinging over The Blue like a pendulum, and even I was afraid that we might go in. It was pivoting back and forth, the ropes groaning like a ship's mast in a high wind, and I wondered for a moment what it would be like to fall into that blue water. You could only really tread water for so long before you went under, and I wondered how long that would be. Would anyone get back with help before I drowned?

I didn’t see it when Catherine fell off the bridge, but when Henry yelled out a moment later, I looked over and saw her when she hit The Blue. She didn’t splash, the water just staying put, and she came up thrashing as she tried to get her head above the crystal blue surface. The water must’ve been thick because she was really struggling to make any headway in it. She was calling for help with big, gasping breaths. The bridge had stopped moving, all five of us looking down into the chasm and knowing that we were in trouble. We had been playing where we shouldn't, we had been being stupid, and now someone had gotten hurt.

“We've gotta get help,” Daniel yelled, and his words were like a starter pistol.

I ran for the cabin to try and get help, Daniel and Carter coming with me. I prayed Catherine could tread water while we ran the twenty or so minutes back to the cabin, but I knew that Catherine wasn’t a strong swimmer. I didn’t expect she would still be treading water by the time we came back, but I prayed to God that she would be. Mom, Aunt Clair, and Aunt Liz were at the table when we ran in, drinking tea and laughing, but they jumped up when we told them what had happened. Mom came running, grabbing a rope and running along behind us, as we went back. My dad and uncles still weren’t back from fishing, but Aunt Liz said she would call emergency services to hopefully get someone down here. The run back took a little longer, all of us winded from the sprint to the cabin, but Catherine had only been in the water forty-five minutes by the time we got back. That wasn't so long, I thought. She could still be fine.

It was forty-five minutes too long, though.

Clint said she had gone under about five minutes after we left and she hadn’t come back up since. My mom tied the rope off to a tree, but it was too short to make it down to The Blue. She went back for another rope, my Aunt staying with us, and by the time she got back, she had emergency services in tow. They brought longer ropes and divers, and soon they were in The Blue trying to find her. The divers who went in said The Blue was miles deep, and the water was like trying to swim in Jell-O. They went as deep as they dared, but they never found Catherine. My Dad and Uncles came back from fishing to find my mother inconsolable and Catherine presumed dead. They didn’t have the heart to punish us for what happened, and all of us said it had been a terrible accident. We left out the part where we had been rocking the bridge, and they decided that Catherine must’ve just lost her balance and fallen in. They shouted a little that they had told us to stay away from The Blue, but they could see how shaken up we were by what had happened.

They thought we had been punished sufficiently, but it appeared that something else disagreed.

We never went back to Grandpa‘s cabin again. It held bad memories for all three of us, and I don’t think any of Dad's siblings went back either. None of my cousins went there willingly again. It held terrible memories for all of us, and I think that we knew something dark was waiting for us to come back.

The first letter showed up two weeks after Catherine’s funeral.

The two weeks after we buried my sister were a really bad time for me. I was sad about what had happened to Catherine, but I was also unbelievably riddled with guilt over it. I felt that I had every right to be guilty, I had played a part in what had happened, but I didn’t think I had been the biggest part. Looking back, my cousins were really the ones who had pushed her to get on the bridge, but I hadn’t stood up and tried to protect her. I had failed in my duties as a big brother, and she had paid the price.

My parents had been talking about back-to-school shopping, something they seemed unwilling to do, and my mother was trying to guilt my father into getting it done. They were both distraught over the loss of Catherine, but my mother had always been a bit of a realist when it came to things. My sister was dead, but I would still have to start school whether I wanted to or not and I would need things to begin school with. While they argued about it, Mom told me to go get the mail and see if the circular had come yet. I think she wanted coupons out of it, but I can’t really remember.

I would find it hard to remember much about that day when I looked back, except for the letter.

I went out to the mailbox and found that there was a circular in there. There were also two bills, a couple of condolence cards, and a letter in a strange envelope. The envelope felt moist, the paper, seeming damp and moldy, and I didn’t like touching it. I started to sandwich it between the condolence cards, and that’s when I noticed it had my name on it.

From Catherine Mansley to Justin Mansley

I felt the other pieces of mail slip through my fingers when I read the name. It couldn’t be. Catherine was dead, dragged into The Blue by whatever lay below, and there was no way this letter was from her. I thought it might be a trick from one of my cousins, but they had all seemed as Guilty about what happened to Catherine as I was. Clint hid it behind a constant stream of humor, but he still clearly felt like we needed to hide what they had done. Like me, he realized that we would get in trouble if they knew that we had been goofing around and I didn’t think he would be stupid enough to try to pull something like this.

I opened the strange envelope. I didn’t want to. I wanted to throw it away, but I had to know what was inside. Even at twelve, I knew there was no way this could be from Catherine. Dead people did not send letters to the living, but I still had to know what was going on here.

The letter was brief.

All of Catherine’s letters have been brief.

It’s your fault, you should be the one in The Blue.

I just stood there for a moment, looking at the letter. I started to rip it up, thinking again that this was a cruel joke, but something stopped me. It isn’t something I can really explain, but tearing that paper felt like tearing the page out of the Bible. It just felt fundamentally wrong, and I ended up stuffing it into my pocket instead as I collected up the mail that I dropped on the pavement. I couldn’t destroy it, but I didn’t want my parents to find it either. What would they say if they saw it? Would they know what I had done? I couldn’t risk that. I was in enough turmoil over my sister’s death without my parents blaming me for it.

I came in and dropped off the mail, sneaking back up to my room as I hid the letter in a box of baseball cards under my bed.

It wouldn’t be the only one soon enough.

Over the next two months, I got two more letters, each on the same day of the month. After the second one, coming about two weeks after school started, I started checking the mail every day to make sure the letter didn’t get picked up by my parents. I hid them in the same box, each of them reading similar to the one before it.

I’m lonely.

I miss you.

It’s your fault.

Come to The Blue.

Come to The Blue.

Come to The Blue.

It was October, the leaves already a vibrant orange in the front yard, when Clint called me after I received my third letter.

“Are you doing this?” he asked, sounding scared and angry.

It sounded like he was shaking something in the background, paper or something, and I asked him what he was talking about.

“These letters. Carter and I have each gotten three. If this is you, you need to stop. We all feel bad about what happened to Catherine, me especially, but this is going to get us in trouble. If one of our parents found those letters then we could be in serious trouble for what we did. Your sister is gone man, and I’m sorry for it, but this isn’t gonna bring her back.“

I knew what he was talking about without having to be told. I told him I had been receiving them too, and that I bet Henry and Daniel had been getting them as well. I still didn’t think they were from Catherine, there was no way for dead people to write you letters, but somebody clearly knew what we had done in the woods. Clint said that was impossible. We had been the only ones in the woods that day, or at least the only ones around The Blue when Catherine had fallen in. He said it had to be one of us, and before he hung up he said he was going to call Daniel and see if it was one of them playing a bad joke.

He called me back twenty minutes later and said they were just as freaked out as he was.

“He says he’s been dreaming about The Blue, and he knows that Henry has too. Henry is talking about The Blue a lot these days and Daniel is scared that he’s going to tell somebody what really happened."

I hadn’t thought of that either, but I suppose by then I thought it might be what we deserved.

The letters kept coming on the same day every month, and I realized that it was the same day that Catherine had gone into The Blue. We all received our letters on the anniversary of her fall, and as Christmas came around we all started to worry about Henry. Henry had always been a big boy, looking like a high schooler even though he was a year younger than Daniel, but when he came to our house for Christmas, he looked like he had lost about thirty pounds. It also looks like he might’ve been pulling out his hair. He was twitchy, quiet, and nothing like the boisterous boy had been a few months ago. Daniel told us that when he talked, it was about The Blue. He said he dreamed about it, drew pictures of it, and in the pictures, Catherine was floating in it. Henry and Clint had been the last ones to see her alive in all that blue, but in the pictures, she was waving at them from the water.

“He says that in his dreams, she comes out of The Blue and tries to get him to jump in. She told him that it’s nice down there, that it’s cool and wonderful, and that he would really enjoy it if you were to join her. He keeps talking about joining her, but I don’t know how we would. Dad told Mom that we were never going back to the cabin, not after what had happened. They’re all really afraid that one of us will fall off that bridge if they went back." Daniel told us as we sat at the kid's table in the den.

Henry sat at the table with us, but he did little more than move his fork around in his mashed potatoes, not really eating anything.

A couple of months later, my aunt and uncle put Henry in a psychiatric facility. Dad told us he was sick, but Daniel said he'd started having night terrors and he'd almost completely stopped eating. He couldn't go to school, he wouldn't play, and it was like he'd just shut down completely. Daniel was afraid to sleep in the same room with him, and he really hoped that whatever this place was they had taken Henry to, they would fix him.

A month after that, Henry broke out of that facility and was never seen again.

No one was quite sure how he had gotten out without being seen, but Henry was gone.

Everything in the room was exactly the way it had been the night before, including the restraints that were still buckled in the same way they had been when the orderly had put him to bed. The police thought for sure they would find him walking along the road or something, maybe in the woods around the place, but they never did. Uncle Mike and Aunt Liz were devastated, but the four of us were pretty sure we knew where Henry was. They would never find him, just like they’d never found Catherine. We were all pretty sure that he was in The Blue. The facility they put him in was about thirty miles from Grandpa‘s cabin, but we were still certain that’s where he was.

When I got my letter that month all my questions were answered.

Henry came to join me in The Blue. You should all come and see him. He’s much better now.

Daniel and Clint called me later that day, and I told them I had gotten the same news.

“What are we gonna do?” Clint asked.

I didn't have an answer.

Carter went next, though it took him two years to do it.

Carter was about two years younger than Clint, the youngest of the cousins besides Catherine, and he held out only because he and Clint were so close. I don’t think Clint‘s parents ever had any inkling of what was going on with their son, but by Thanksgiving, he was looking the same way Henry had. He was barely eating, and only then because Clint coaxed him. Clint had changed since that summer when we lost Catherine. He had softened a little, and I think he had realized that life was a little more fleeting than he had believed. He said Carter wasn’t sleeping, was having nightmares about The Blue, and told Clint that Henry was in the dreams too. Carter was smarter than the rest of us, not that this was saying much, but I think it helped him put off the bad feelings and get through it for a while. Unlike Henry, Carter just looked tired all the time, and when he came to my fourteenth birthday that year, the bags under his eyes looked like bruises.

“It's not as bad as it looks,” he told me with a faint smile, “My parents sent me to a doctor who got me some meds that help. Well, not really help, but they let me sleep. They make it harder to get out of the dreams, though.”

I asked him about the dreams, and despite Clint telling me not to make him think about them, Carter said he didn't mind. Daniel and I sat close, like students listening to a lecture, and Carter reeled a bit as he thought about it, not seeming sure where to begin.

“I'm standing on the bridge. It's nighttime, it's always nighttime in the dreams, and I'm looking down into The Blue. It's,” he blinked really fast for a few seconds and shook his head before going on, “It's glowing in the dreams. It's always glowing. As I stand and look down, Catherine and Henry come up out of the water and wave at me. They tell me to jump. They tell me to join them. They tell me how great it is down there. As they tell me, I kind of want to jump. I,” his eyes shut for a count of five before he jerked awake with a start, “I want to go to them. There are no dreams in The Blue, no nightmares or letters or anything. It's just peaceful.”

He leaned over onto Clint and started snoring, and Clint accepted his weight gratefully.

Carter nearly made it to my fifteenth birthday party, and a lot of that was due to Clint.

This whole thing brought us all closer together, and we called each other often. Daniel actually came to live with us for a while, his parents having trouble coping with Henry's disappearance. Aunt Liz was eventually put into the same facility Henry escaped from after she tried to overdose on sleeping pills, and Uncle Mike soon moved in with us too. He and Daniel looked sad most of the time, but I think they enjoyed having us close.

Daniel had started having the dreams a lot more often, but he was fifteen and starting high school, and he had other things to occupy his mind. If there was anyone who could have used our help, it was Clint. Clint had started high school too, he and Daniel were a year older than me, but he missed a lot of days while he tried to take care of Carter. Carter was losing his mind at an alarming rate, and Clint confided that he had started strapping him into the bed at night.

“I've caught him sleepwalking to the front door, and he fights me when I try to get him back to bed. I don't know how my mom and dad haven't noticed yet, but I may have to tell them soon. He's like a zombie, and I don't know how he makes it through school every day.”

A week before my fifteenth birthday, Aunt Claire called us to tell us that Carter and Clint had gone missing.

“They both disappeared in the middle of the night.” she said tearfully, “And I just don't know what to do. The police have no idea, but I was hoping that maybe they had gone to your house for some reason and they were safe.”

My mom said they hadn't, but she and Dad said they would help her look for them.

“Clint's bike is gone too. I told Dale that Indian Scout was a bad idea, but he swore Clint was responsible and that he wouldn't just up and leave without telling us.”

Daniel and I were eavesdropping, and he said we both knew where they were.

After my parents left to join the search party, we piled into Daniel's Jeep and went to Grandpa's cabin, as little as we wanted to. Uncle Mike had left him the Jeep when he got his driver's license, but this would be the longest trip we had made in it. Grandpa's cabin was about two hours from my house, and despite having left a note, I was sure my mother would be worried sick. The drive seemed to take forever, but when we pulled up in front of the cabin and found Clint's motorcycle out front, we knew what we would find.

It was dark when we got to The Blue, and Clint was kneeling on the ground as if he were praying.

The dirt beneath his forehead had turned to mud, and he didn't even look up when we approached.

“I didn't catch him in time.” Clint said through tears, “I didn't wake up until the sun was nearly up, and by then it was too late. He beat me here by minutes, though I don't know how. I tried to catch him, but he was already standing on the edge when I arrived. I begged him to come back, but he just pitched over and went into The Blue. He was right,” he said, pointing, “It glows at night.”

I hadn't even noticed, but as I looked up, I could see it now. The Blue was glowing like the iridescent moss you sometimes found in caves, and as I looked down, I thought I saw three figures swimming within it. They were looking up at me, but I leaned away before they could entice me over.

“Clint,” Daniel said, but he didn't respond, “Clint, we need to go.”

“Go?” Clint asked, not seeming sure of what he was talking about.

“Yeah, we need to go. It's too late for Carter, but your mother is worried sick about you. Aunt Claire thinks you and your brother have been kidnapped, maybe even that the same person got you who got Henry. Let's go back,” he coaxed, “Let's go back before something happens.”

“Something already happened,” Clint said, his voice husky, “Carter's gone, Henry's gone, and I'm tired of living with these dreams every night. They aren't going to stop until we all go in, and I'm tired of fighting it.”

“What are you,” Daniel started, but Clint had stood and sprinted for the lip of the drop before we could stop him. Daniel made a grab for him but missed him completely. We both stepped after him, trying to catch him, but he was over the edge before we could even process what had happened. He didn't splash when he went in, just like Catherine hadn't, and Daniel and I stood there breathing heavily as we watched the still surface of The Blue.

When he didn't surface, we walked back to the cabin with only the moon to guide us and called our parents.

As emergency services came out to dive into The Blue again, Daniel and I just sat there in shock.

“We've got to get some distance from this,” Daniel said, “Maybe if we go where she can't find us, the dreams will stop and we can avoid the same fate that the others did.”

I asked him if he believed that, and all he could say was it was worth a shot.

They sold the cabin after that. My Aunt Claire and Uncle Dale had lost both of their children in one night, and they took it pretty hard. Daniel and I helped each other through the next few years, but when Daniel graduated and said he was taking a job overseas, I could tell that the dreams were starting to get to him. I had kept my grades up, using the sleepless nights to study, and was eligible for early graduation. I had been accepted into a college three states away, something that broke my mother's heart, and Daniel wished me luck.

For the next three years, we just kind of maintained. The dreams got better with distance, and soon I stopped having them all together. Daniel told me the same and built a life for himself in South America. After three years, I almost forgot about the dreams and The Blue, just choking it up to something remembered wrong from childhood, and as I got closer and closer to graduating, I couldn't wait to start my new life.

Then, Aunt Liz had died, and Uncle Mike had begged Daniel to come back.

Aunt Liz had died of a stroke in her bed, having left the facility years ago, and Uncle Mike was a mess. He had never really gotten over the loss of Henry, and he begged Daniel to come back and help him. Daniel had agreed to come back to help with the funeral preparations but then said he had to go back. He invited Uncle Mike to go back with him, saying he could stay with him in South America, but he doubted he would.

“It's only for a couple of weeks, a month tops. I'll be fine,” he assured me.

Now he was gone too.

As I sit here on the floor, typing this out, I can hear something I haven't in three years.

The Blue is calling again, Catherine is calling again, and I don't know how long I can hold out.

Sooner or later, I'll go join the rest of them.

Sooner or later, I'll return to The Blue.

The old guilt is still there, it's always been there, and I was a fool to think I could run from it.

I should have saved myself the trouble and jumped the night Clint went in.

Now I'm the last, and it's only a matter of time before Catherine gets me too.

04:42 UTC


Why My School Canceled the Flat Stanley Project

Did anyone else become a participant in the social experiment known as Flat Stanely?

I went to elementary school in the mid-nineties (95-2001) and I was in third grade when our teacher announced that we would be taking part in the Flat Stanley Project. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Flat Stanley was a series of books about this flat kid who goes on all these weird adventures to famous places. New York, The Grand Canyon, France, Australia, this guy went everywhere and was like a flat version of Curious George. We started reading them in class, making them part of our English hour, and one day Mrs. Gazle told us we were going to have a contest.

"Today's English lesson is to create your own Flat Stanley. It can look however you want, but the winner of the contest will get three prizes from the prize basket, and be the classes Flat Stanley that we send into the world to participate in the Flat Stanley Project."

We were all excited. This was a chance to see our work in the pictures that would come back, not to mention get some cool stuff from the prize basket. We all drew out our own concept for Flat Stanley and set to work coloring and designing him. My Flat Stanley was a spy, wearing a big trench coat, a wide hat, and carrying binoculars. He wore his regular clothes under it, and he just looked so goofy that I thought I had a real chance of winning. My friend, Todd, laughed when he glanced over at it, telling me it was cool. His Flat Stanley was a football player for the Georgia Bulldogs, his favorite team, and I thought his Stanley looked cool too.

So when the class voted on the displayed Stanleys, I figured Kaylies Flat Stephany would win. It had a sparkly tiara and a ball gown she had made with felt. That was the one I had voted for at least, since we couldn't vote for our own, and if not hers, I figured Matts would win. His Flat Stanley was a truck driver, complete with a net hat and sleeveless t-shirt, and he had put a lot of work into it. I knew some kids thought mine was funny, but I didn't figure I stood a chance. I hadn't used any special materials or done anything really innovative, and I figured I'd hang him in my room when I got him back.

So when Mrs. Gazle announced that my Flat Stanley had won, I was shocked.

I went home that night with a new super bounce ball, a pocket-sized Stretch Arm Strong, and an eraser shaped like a Pikachu.

I also went home to tell my Mom that I had won the contest and that my Flat Stanley would be going out to other schools and other places so we could get pictures back and see all the cool places he'd been. She said that sounded really neat, and we brainstormed where he might end up. Paris, DisneyLand, the Moon (we both laughed about that one), or maybe even at an Atlanta Braves baseball game. We had a good afternoon thinking about where he might end up, and when Dad got home he joined us in our daydreaming.

I went to bed that night thinking of all the cool places Stanley might go, and what we might see when he came back.

It started out pretty normal. Mrs. Gazle sent the package out to a school the next town over and they sent us back pictures a week later. Stanley had been to a volleyball game, an art museum, and finally to play put on by the class. They sent it up the road to the next school, where Stanley went on a hike, went to the zoo, and then to a baseball game. It wasn't the Atlanta Brave, it was a t-ball game, but it was still neat. This went on for a couple months, Flat Stanley traveling to Texas, New Mexico, California, Idaho, and Kansas. We hung the pictures up, sent out thank you cards, and talked about the places that Flat Stanley had gone to. It was a good time, and we used it in our Geography class to help us learn our states. It seemed that Flat Stanley was in all our lessons that year. Math (if Flat Stanley travels from Burbank California to El Paso Texas, how far has he traveled?), Geography (If Flat Stanley is at the Alamo, then where is he?), and of course English where we read the books and the letters we got out loud.

It was approaching April when we came to class to find that Mrs. Gazle wasn't there. We were all pretty bummed, because Wednesdays were usually when we got our Flat Stanley letters, and the sub told us that Mr. Gazle would talk about it when she got back. There was no Flat Stanley that day, and when Mr. Gazle came back the following week, we moved on to something else. All the Flat Stanley stuff had disappeared from the class, and its absence was as noticeable as our missing teacher had been.

She never told what had happened, and it was a mystery talked about in hushed tones well into the fourth grade.

It would probably still be a mystery if I hadn't decided a decade later to pursue teaching.

I'm in my second year of college now, and I've progressed into student teaching. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at being an elementary school teacher, something like fourth or fifth grade, and when they gave me the name of my mentor, I realized I knew her. It was Mrs. Gazle, my old third-grade teacher. She taught fifth grade now, her retirement coming up on the horizon, and she smiled when she realized who I was, giving me a big hug.

"Welcome back, I'm glad to see you decided to take up teaching."

Her classroom was in the same room her third-grade class had been in, and the kids reminded me a lot of me and my friends when we had been her students. She had a good group. They were hungry to learn, and they liked her a lot. Mrs. Gazle was the kind of teacher who kept kids' attention effortlessly, and I hoped it was a skill I would learn from her. The kiddos in her class took to me pretty quickly, and soon I was teaching classes while Mrs. Gazle just sat back and observed.

Something about being in her class again made me remember my days as a third grader at this school, and that made me think about Flat Stanley again. There was nothing like that in her fifth-grade class, the kids would have probably thought it was babyish, but it did rekindle some of the mystery I had felt from a decade before. I tried to find a good time to bring it up, but nothing seemed to present itself.

Until Friday of my second week.

I was packing up to leave when Mrs. Gazle offered to take me out for drinks. I was a little surprised, and she must have noticed because she laughed airily at my look of chagrin.

"What?" she asked, her coat over one arm, "You didn't know teachers drank?"

I decided to join her and found a small group of other teachers waiting for us when we arrived. Some of them I knew, most of them I didn't, but it turned out that this was a regular thing for them. They drank and talked about their week, complaining about some students who were especially difficult, and generally blew off steam. Mrs. Gazle and I sat in the corner, nodding and listening to them, and she smiled at me over the lip of her fourth glass of wine sometime near eleven.

"I've been sending glowing reviews to your professors," she confided, "You're one of the better student teachers I've ever worked with. I think you're probably a shoo-in to be hired at the end of your training period, and I'll recommend you to the principal myself if he doesn't extend you a position."

I thanked her, sipping my second beer as I took it all in.

"Hey, can I ask you something?" I said suddenly.

"Neither of us is nearly drunk enough for you to offer me a ride home yet, big fella," she said, snorting into her glass.

"No, no, nothing like that. Something's always bugged me from my time in your class, and I was wondering if you remembered the Flat Stanley Project we did?"

Some of the color fled from her cheeks and I could swear she shuddered a little.

"I'm surprised you even remember that. It was a long time ago."

"Well, everything disappeared from the class so quickly, and when you came back you never brought it up again. All the books were gone from the class library, all the letters were gone, everything was missing. I think we talked about it for half of the fourth grade before something else caught our attention."

She looked far away for a moment as if contemplating whether she actually wanted to answer me or not.

"I think I need a little air. Would you care to escort me?"

I told I would, and we left amidst a hail of catcalls about "cradle robbers" and "cougars on the prowl." I had taken her arm, and she was trying to be unbothered by it, but she was stiff and a little unsteady as we walked out onto the patio. Something had her spooked, and I didn't think it was the half-hearted teasing of her peers.

When we came outside, she leaned against the railing outside the seating area, looking at the waves as they crashed against the water below us.

I came to lean beside her, realizing she was trying to figure out where to begin, and having trouble getting started.

"Are you sure you wanna know? That's a pretty messed up story, but I suppose we could count it as a part of your education. Maybe it'll help you avoid something that got me in a lot of hot water and canceled the Flat Stanley Project for the whole school."

I told her I did, pretty intrigued with what could have happened to make a whole school ban something as benign as a kid's art project.

"Well, you remember that we sent the little guy around to a school in the next town over? Well, they sent it to another school, and that school sent it to another school, and so on and so forth. We had about the best result of any other classes, getting back twice as much material as is normal. I started integrating it into the curriculum, as you remember, and it was such a huge part of our class. I appreciated the material, sometimes it's hard to keep kids' attention when they're that young, but Stanley really helped. Then, one day, I arrived to find that a new package had come the day before."

She stopped, shivering a little as she watched the waves.

"Someone had sent our Flat Stanley back, and I was excited as I opened the envelope. We were starting fractions that day, at least, we were supposed to, and I wanted to see if there was some way I could work fractions into the package. I would get my wish, but not in the way I wanted."

I had reached into my pocket for a cigarette, and Mrs. Gazle asked if she could have one.

I had never seen her smoke before, but as she inhaled that first mouthful, she closed her eyes and looked euphoric.

"Flat Stanley was supposed to go to Carter Wilde Elementary school in Boise, but it appeared he had gone somewhere else. You're too young to remember it, but there was a pretty terrible person in the Midwest in the late nineties. He was picking up young women who were hitchhiking, and the police would find them later after he was done with them. Somehow, he got our Flat Stanley and thought it would be funny to use him to taunt the police. He had murdered five girls that week," her voice broke as she said it, the tip of the cigarette jittering as she spoke, "and attached pictures of them to the Stanley he sent back. They were horrific, and as I spilled them out on my desk, I recognized what I had at once."

She was shaking, and as I put my jacket around her, she smiled ruefully at me.

"You're a good kid, despite making me relive this. We knew that the kids in my class had all kinds of wild ideas about what had happened, but we also knew that none of you knew the truth."

She took a long pull off the cigarette and let the ash dribble down.

"The first girl he sent pictures of was Ashley Mankse. He had cut her chest open, the X going right between her breasts, and skinned her open like some kind of flower. Her face was set in the worst possible look you've ever seen, and right there in the middle of her chest, was Flat Stanley; YOUR Flat Stanley."

I thought I got it then, but Mrs. Gazle hadn't even got rolling yet.

"Then there was Francis Carmichael, the girl he took from the fair. She was looking for a ride, and he gave her one. He cut her arms and legs off while she was alive, burning the wounds closed with an iron so she'd bleed out slower. He finally cut her throat, and after that, he put one foot from that Flat Stanley in her teeth and took a picture. He was standing upright, her body on display, and her burnt nubs are something I still can't quite get out of my head."

"I'm sorry," I started, but she cut me off.

"No, no. You wanted to know, so let me get it all out. It's like the confessional I used to go to when I was little. If I get it all out, maybe it won't haunt me as bad. He got Dawn Caimbridge and Betsy Caimbridge next, split their backs, and made a pair of blood angels out of them. He set Flat Stanley in the middle of them, the crevice between their sides, and snapped a picture. They were still looking for them when they found Ashley. Finally, he got Melanie Fasterly, and she was probably the worst. He beat her with a sledgehammer until her bones were like glass shards. The picture he sent back was unrecognizable as a human being, and if it hadn't been for the hair I would have never known what it was. He stood the cut out between her lumpy legs as if to save her modesty, and she honestly looked about as flat as he was if you don't count all the bone spurs sticking out of her."

Mrs. Gazle's jaw was shaking, the skivering causing her to stutter over the last few words, and when she looked back at me, there was regret on her face. All the alcohol had been burned out of her, the fear having shaken it all loose as her mind remembered what had likely been the worst day of her life.

"I called the police, of course, but my real concern was for you guys. If this psycho had mailed this back to us, then he had the address of the school. If he knew where we were, then he could pay us a visit and make us his next photo collage, and I couldn't have lived with myself if that had happened. So, I gave the police everything, and they agreed to keep an eye on the school for a while. I needn't have bothered. This twisted fuck had a particular hunting ground and a particular prey, neither of which were children in Georgia. He never did pay us a visit, but it took six more girls before they caught him. I didn't sleep well until they had him in custody, and I didn't sleep soundly until they slipped the needle into him last year. He was a rotten, twisted individual, and he deserved every ounce of what he got. I had to take the rest of the week to recover from his little present, and there was talk that they might want me to undergo counseling. When I got back, the school had scrapped all the Flat Stanley stuff. It was too much of a risk that some students would get a hold of it next time, and they couldn't have that. Some of the teachers thought we should tell the students, some of them thought we should tell the parents and a few of them thought I should be fired for some reason. It was decided that we wouldn't tell any of them, and we would never speak of it again. In exchange for not causing an uproar, I got to keep my job. I thought it was a pretty fitting trade back then. So that's the whole sad story, cure your curiosity?"

It did.

Mrs. Gazle was right, too. They offered me a job at the end of my training, and it turned out it was her job. Mrs. Gazle retired at the end of that year, wanting to spend more time with her grandkids and her daughters. We still get drinks sometimes, and she really is a lovely woman. As for me, I noticed one major part of the contract as it was presented to me. They put it in bold so you can't possibly miss it, and so if you break it, you really only have yourself to blame.

Under no circumstances will our students participate in any program that sends documents to other schools or entities without the express permission of the administration. This includes penpal programs, Hands Across the Water, the Flat Stanley Project, and other affiliated projects there within.

I signed that contract ten years ago, and now I instruct student teachers myself.

In the decade I've been teaching, I have never broken that rule, and I have Mrs. Gazle's story to thank for that.

When you send something like that out into the world, you never know who might answer back, and what they might have to say.

00:41 UTC


The Party Pooper

"I heard Susan was having a party this weekend while her parents were out of town."

"Oh yeah? Any of us get invited?"

"Nope, just the popular kids, the jocks. and a few of the popular academic kids. No one from our bunch."

"Hmm sounds like a special guest might be needed then."

We were all sitting together in Mrs. Smith's History Class, so the nod was almost uniform.

Around us, people were talking about Susan’s party. Why wouldn't they be? Susan Masterson was one of the most popular girls in school, after all, but they were also talking about the mysterious events that had surrounded the last four parties hosted by popular kids. The figure that kept infiltrating these parties was part of that mystery. Nobody knew who they were. Nobody saw them commit their heinous deeds, but the results were always the same.

Sometimes it was on the living room floor, sometimes it was in the kitchen on the snack table, sometimes it was in the top of the toilets in their parents' bathroom, a place that no one was supposed to have entered.

No matter where it is, someone always found poop at the party.

"Do you still have any of the candles left?" I asked Tina, running a hand over my gelled-up hair to make sure the spikes hadn't drooped.

"Yeah, I found a place in the barrio that sells them, but they're becoming hard to track down. I could only get a dozen of them."

"A dozen is more than enough," Cooper said, "With a dozen, we can hit six more parties at least."

"Pretty soon," Mark said, "They'll learn not to snub us. Pretty soon, they'll learn that we hold the fate of their precious parties."

The bell rang then, and we rose like a flock of ravens and made our way out of class.

The beautiful people scoffed at us as we walked the halls, saying things like "There goes the coven" and "Hot Topic must be having a going-out-of-business sale" but they would learn better soon.

Before long, they would know we were the Lord of this school cause we controlled that which made them shiver.

I’ve never been what you’d call popular. I've probably been more like what you'd call a nerd since about the second grade. Don’t get me wrong, I was a nerd before that, but that was about the time that my peers started noticing it. They commented on my thick glasses, my love of comic books, and the fact that I got our class our pizza party every year off of just the books that I read. Suddenly it wasn’t so cool to be seen with the nerd. I found my circle of friends shrinking from grade to grade, and it wasn’t until I got to high school that I found a regular group of people that I could hang with.

Incidentally, that was also the year I discovered that I liked dressing Goth.

My colorful wardrobe became a lot darker, and I started ninth grade with a new outlook on life.

My black boots, band t-shirt, and ripped black jeans had made me stand out, but not in the way I had hoped. I went from being a nerd to a freak, but I discovered that the transformation wasn't all bad. Suddenly, I had people interested in getting to know me, and that was how I met Mark, Tina, and Cooper.

I was a sophomore now, and despite some things having changed, some things had stayed the same.

We all acted like we didn't care that the popular kids snubbed us and didn't invite the nerds or the freaks to their parties, but it still didn't feel very good to be ostracized. We were never invited to sit with them at lunch, never asked to go to football games or events, never invited to spirit week or homecoming, and the more we thought about it, the more that felt wrong.

That was when Tina came to us with something special.

Tina was a witch. Not the usual fake wands and butterbeer kind of witch, but the kind with real magic. She had inherited her aunt's grimoire, a real book of shadows that she'd used when she was young, and Tina had been doing some hexes and curses on people she didn't like. She had given Macy Graves that really bad rash right before homecoming, no matter how much she wanted to say it was because she was allergic to the carnation Gavin had got her. She had caused Travis Brown to trip in the hole and lose the big game that would have taken us to state too. People would claim they were coincidences, but we all knew better.

So when she came to us and told us she had found something that would really put a damper on their parties, we had been stoked.

"Susan's party is tomorrow," Tina said, checking her grimoire as we walked to art class, "So if we do the ritual tomorrow night, we can totally ruin her party."

Some of the popular girls, Susan among them, looked up as we passed, but we were talking too low for them to hear us. Susan mouthed the word Freaks, but I ignored her. She'd see freaks tomorrow night when her little party got pooped on.

We spent art class discussing our own gathering for tomorrow. After we discovered the being in Tina's book, we never called what we did parties anymore. They were gatherings now, it sounded more occult. We weren't some dumb airheads getting together for beer and hookups. We were a coven coming together to make some magic. That was bigger than anything these guys could think of.

"Cooper, you bring the offering and the snacks," Tina said.

Cooper made a face, "Can I bring the drinks instead? Brining food along with the "offering" just seems kinda gross.``

Tina thought about it before nodding, "Yeah, good idea, and be sure you wash your hands after you get the offering."

Cooper nodded, "Good, 'cause I still have Bacardi from last time."

"Mark, you bring snacks then." Tina said, "And don't forget to bring the felenol weed. We need it for the ritual."

Mark nodded, "Mr. Daccar said I could have the leftover chicken at the end of shift, so I hope that's okay."

That was fine with all of us, the chicken Mark brought was always a great end to a ritual.

"Cool, that leaves the ipecac syrup and ex-lax to you, my dear," she said, smiling at me as my face turned a little red under my light foundation.

Tina and I had only been an item for a couple of weeks, and I still wasn't quite used to it. I'd never had a girlfriend before then, and the giddy feeling inside me was at odds with my goth exterior. Tina was cute and she was the de facto leader of our little coven. It was kind of cool to be dating a real witch.

"So, we all meet at my house tomorrow before ten, agreed?"

We all agreed and the pact was sealed.

The next night, Friday, I arrived at six, so Tina and I could hang out before the others got there. Her parents were out of town again, which was cool because she never had to make excuses for why she was going out. My parents thought I was spending the night at Marks, Cooper's parents thought he was spending the night at Marks, and Mark's Mom was working a third shift so she wasn't going to be home to answer either if they called to check up. It was a perfect storm, and we were prepared to be at the center of it.

Tina was already setting up the circle and making the preparations, but she broke off when I came in with my part of the ritual.

We were both a little out of breath when Cooper arrived an hour later, and after hurriedly getting ourselves back in order, he came in with two twelve packs.

"Swiped them from my Uncle. He's already drunk, so he'll never miss them. I think he just buys them for the twenty-year-olds he's trying to bang anyway."

"As long as you brought the other thing too," Tina said, "Unless you mean to make it here."

Cooper rolled his eyes and held up a grungy Tupperware with a severe-looking lid on it.

"I got it right here, don't you worry."

He helped us with the final prep work, and we were on our thousandth game of Mario Kart by the time Mark got there at nine. He smelled like grease and chicken and immediately went to change out of his work clothes. I didn't know about everyone else, but I secretly loved that smell. Mark was self-conscious about smelling like fried chicken, but I liked it. If I thought it was a smell I wouldn't become blind to after a few weeks, I'd probably ask him to get me a job at Colonel Registers Chicken Chatue too.

Cooper tried to reach in for some chicken, but Tina smacked his hand.

"Ritual first, then food."

Cooper gave her a dark look but nodded as we headed upstairs.

It was time to ruin another Amberzombie and Fitch party.

When Tina had showed us the summons for something called the Party Pooper, we had all been a little confused.

"The Party Pooper?" Cooper had asked, pointing to the picture of the little man with the long beard and the evil glint in his eye.

"The Party Pooper.” Tina confirmed, “He's a spirit of revenge for the downtrodden. He comes to those who have been overlooked or mistreated and brings revenge in their name by," she looked at what was written there, "leaving signs of the summoners displeasure where it can be found."

"Neat," said Cooper, "how do we summon him?"

Turns out, the spell was pretty easy. We would need a clay vessel, potions, or tinctures to bring about illness from the well, herbs to cover the smell of waste, and the medium by which revenge will be achieved. Once the ingredients were assembled, they would light the candles, and perform the chant to summon the Party Pooper to do our bidding. That first time, it had been a kegger at David Frick's house, and we had been particularly salty about it. David had invited Mark, the two of them having Science together, and when Mark had seemed thrilled to be invited, David had laughed.

"Yeah right, Chicken Fry. Like I need you smelling up my party."

Everyone had laughed, and it had been decided that David would be our first victim.

As we stood around the earthen bowl, Tina wrinkled her nose as she bent down to light the candles.

"God, Cooper. Do you eat anything besides Taco Bell?"

Cooper shrugged, grinning ear to ear, "What can I say? It was some of my best work."

The candles came lit with a dark and greasy light. The ingredients were mixed in the bowl, and then the offering had been laid atop it. The spell hadn't been specific in the kind of filth it required but, given the name of the entity, Tina had thought it best to make sure it was fresh and ripe. That didn't exactly mean she wanted to smell Cooper's poop, but it seemed worth the discomfort.

"Link hands," she said, "and begin the chant."

We locked hands, Mark's as clammy as Tina's were sweaty, and began the chant.

Every party needs a pooper.

That's why we have summoned you.

Party Pooper!

Party Pooper!

The circle puffed suddenly, the smell like something from an outhouse. The greasy light of the candles showed us the now familiar little man, his beard long and his body short. He was bald, his head liver-spotted, and his mean little eyes were the color of old dog turds. His bare feet were black, like a corpse, and his toes looked rotten and disgusting. He wore no shirt, only long brown trousers that left his ankles bare, and he took us in with weary good cheer.

"Ah, if it isn't my favorite little witches. Who has wronged you tonight, children?"

We were all quiet, knowing it had to be Tina who spoke.

The spell had been pretty clear that a crime had to be stated for this to work. The person being harassed by the Party Pooper had to have wronged one of the summoners in some way for revenge to be exacted, so we had to find reasons for our ire. The reason for David had come from Mark, and it had been humiliation. After David had come Frank Gold and that one had come from Cooper. Frank had cheated him, refusing to pay for an essay he had written and then having him beaten up when he told him he would tell Mr. Bess about it. Cooper had sighted damage to his person and debt. The third time had been mine, and it was Margarette Wheeler. Margarette and I had known each other since elementary school, and she was not very popular. She and I had been friends, but when I had asked her to the Sadie Hawkins Dance in eighth grade, she had laughed at me and told me there was no way she would be seen with a dork like me. That had helped get her in with the other girls in our grade and had only served to alienate me further. I had told the Party Pooper that her crime was disloyalty, and it had accepted it.

Now it was Susan's turn, and we all knew that Tina had the biggest grudge against her for something that had happened in Elementary school.

"Susan Masterson," Tina intoned.

"And how has this Susan Masterson wronged thee?"

"She was a false friend who invited me to her house so she could humiliate me."

The Party Pooper thought about this but didn't seem to like the taste.

"I think not." he finally said.

There was a palpable silence in the room.

“No, she,”

“Has it never occurred to you that this Susan Masterson may have done you a favor? Were it not for her, you may very well have been somewhere else tonight, instead of surrounded by loyal friends.”

Tina was silent for a moment, this clearly not going as planned.

"No, I think it is jealousy that drives your summons tonight. You are jealous of this girl, and you wish to ruin her party because of this."

He floated a little higher over the circle we had created, and I didn't like the way he glowered down at us.

"What is more, you have ceased to be the downtrodden, the mistreated, and I am to blame for this. I have empowered you and made you dependent, and I am sorry for this. Do not summon me again, children. Not until you have a true reason for doing such."

With that, he disappeared in a puff of foul wind and we were left standing in stunned silence.

It hadn't worked, the Party Pooper had refused to help us.

"Oh well," Cooper said, sounding a little downtrodden, "I guess we didn't have as good a claim as we thought. Well, let's go eat that chicken," he said, turning to go.

"That sucks," Mark said, "Next time we'll need something a little fresher, I suppose."

They were walking out of the room, but as I made to follow them, I noticed that Tina hadn’t moved. She was staring at the spot where the Party Pooper had been, tears welling in her eyes, and as I put a hand on her shoulder, she exhaled a loud, agitated breath. I tried to lead her out of the room, but she wouldn't budge, and I started to get worried.

"T, it's okay. We'll try again some other time. Those assholes are bound to mess up eventually and then we can get them again. It's just a matter of time."

Tina was crying for real now, her mascara running as the tears fell in heavy black drops.

"It's not fair," she said, "It's not fair! She let me fall asleep and then put my hand in water. She took it away after I wet myself, but I saw the water ring. I felt how wet my fingers were, and when she laughed and told the other girls I wet myself, I knew she had done it on purpose. She ruined it, she ruined my chance of being popular! It's not fair. How is my grievance any less viable than you guys?"

"Come on, hun," I said, "Let's go get drunk and eat some chicken. You'll feel a lot better."

I tried to lead her towards the door, but as we came even with it she shoved me into the hall and slammed it in my face.

Mark and Cooper turned as they heard the door slam, and we all came back and banged on it as we tried to get her to answer.

"Tina? Tina? What are you doing? Don't do anything stupid!"

From under the door, I could see the light of candles being lit, and just under the sound of Mark and Cooper banging, I could hear a familiar chant.

Every party needs a pooper.

That's why I have summoned you.

Party Pooper!

Party Pooper!

Then the candlelight was eclipsed as a brighter light lit the room. We all stepped away from the door as an otherworldly voice thundered through the house. The Party Pooper had always been a jovial little creature when we had summoned him, but this time he sounded anything but friendly.

The Party Pooper sounded pissed.


There was a sound, a sound somewhere between a jello mold hitting the ground and a truckload of dirt being unloaded, and something began to ooze beneath the door.

When it popped open, creaking wide with horror movie slowness, I saw that every surface in Tina's room was covered in a brown sludge. It covered the ceiling, the walls, the bed, and everything in between. Tina lay in the middle of the room, her body covered in the stuff, and as I approached her, the smell hit me all at once. It was like an open sewer drain, the scent of raw sewage like a physical blow, and I barely managed to power through it to get to Tina's side.

"Tina? Tina? Are you okay?"

She said nothing, but when she opened her mouth, a bucket of that foul-smelling sewage came pouring out. She coughed, and more came up. She spent nearly ten minutes vomiting up the stuff, and when she finally stopped, I got her to her feet and helped her out of the room.

"Start the shower. We need to get this stuff off her."

I put her in the shower, taking her sodden clothes off and cleaning the worst of it off her. She was covered in it. It was caked in her ears, in her nose, in...other places, and it seemed the Party Pooper had wasted nothing in his pursuit of justice. She still wouldn't speak after that, and I wanted to call an ambulance.

"She could be really sick," I told them when Cooper said we shouldn't, "That stuff was inside her."

"If we call the hospital, our parents are going to know we lied."

In the end, it was a chance I was willing to take.

I stayed, Mark and Cooper leaving so they didn't get in trouble. I told the paramedics that she called me, saying she felt like she was dying and I came to check on her. They loaded her up and called her parents, but I was told it would be better if I went back home and waited for updates.

Tina was never the same after that.

Her mother thanked me for helping her when I came to see her, but told me Tina wouldn't even know I was there.

"She's catatonic. They don't know why, but she's completely lost control of her bowels. She vomits for no reason, she has...I don't know what in her stomach but they say it's like she fell into a septic tank. She's breathed it into her lungs, it's behind her eyelids, she has infections in her ears and nose because of it, and we don't know whats wrong with her.”

That was six months ago. They had Tina put into an institution so someone could take care of her 24/7, but she still hasn't said a word. She's getting better physically, but something is broken inside her. I still visit her, hoping to see some change, but it's like talking to a corpse. I still hang out with Cooper and Mark, but I know they feel guilty for not going to see her.

In the end, Tina tried to force her revenge with a creature she didn't understand and paid the price.

So, if you ever think you might have a grievance worthy of the Party Pooper, do yourself a favor, and just let it go.

Nothing is worth incurring the wrath of that thing, and you might find yourself in deep shit for your trouble.

01:11 UTC


Beyond Dollar General Beyond pt 2


Hey everybody, Alphabet man here.

Do you know what the best part about being back on this side of reality is?

I can actually ANSWER your questions!

So, to recap, Gail and Celene almost got snapped up miasma that appeared in my freaking house. So, we talked about it and came up with a plan of attack. Well, Gail wants to attack, anyway, so I agreed that it might be time to arm ourselves with something that would stop them if they came back. Like some of you suggested, we have kitted out the house for optimal dispersal of miasma. Every light bulb in the house has been upgraded to the highest wattage I can get and the biggest lumen count available. We've also added lights in places that don't seem to have enough lights. Every room has at least one new lamp or tap light in it, and it makes even the dreariest room shine like the sun. We also got some of those jog lights for ourselves, the ones that make light so people can see you at night. We even got one for Buddy, a collar that makes him look like a one-dog rave. We all have those deer spotting lights that can flag down plains, and we're working on changing our sleep schedules so we can stay vigilant all night. I've never been one for night shifts so that part has taken some getting used to.

If I sound a little crabby while writing this, that's why.

I suggested that it might be a good idea to reach out to people who knew more about this than we do, but Gale wouldn't hear of it.

"You want to let them know where we all are?" he said, sounding incredulous.

"Gale, they already know where we are," I said, trying to stay calm in the face of his mounting hysterics.

I hadn't known Gale long, even though we had been through a lot, but this seemed out of place for him. The Gale I had known in the DGB, at least the Gale I'd known before he had gone into the ceiling, had always been resourceful and not prone to letting his emotions get the better of him like this. Even when he was overwhelmed, he always seemed to keep it together and make a plan. This Gale seemed barely in control of himself, and his paranoia was at an all-time high.

Though, I suppose, if shadow creatures had come to grab me in the middle of the night, I might be a little paranoid too.

"I don't want them knowing a damn thing about us. They're in league with those things. Hell, they probably ARE those things. We tell them that we know what they're up to and we give away our advantage."

"What advantage is that?" I asked Gale, "They know we all live together in a house that I bought with the money they gave me? Come on, Gale. They probably know when we take a dump and how much it weighs. These guys aren't some Scooby Doo villain. These guys are organized, but if they think that we might blab to the wrong people, then they might leave us alone again."

Gale blew air out of his nose, sounding agitated.

"If you go to them, then I'm leaving."

A silence hung between us as the words sank in.

"Gale!" Celene said, but he cut her off.

"If you're going to lead them straight to us, then I'll just go ahead and take my chances on my own. I might be harder to find if I just keep moving."

I wanted to rail at him, I wanted to make him see reason, but after a moment of just staring at him, I put my hands up and sighed.

"Fine, I won't call them. But we need to figure out what's going to happen then because tonight it was pretty clear that we had no clue what we were doing."

That was when we made plans to set up the defenses I talked about earlier, and ultimately what brought us to this point. We've been staying up all night and sleeping most of the day for the past week. Poor Buddy is taking it the hardest. The poor pooch was made to be a night dog, and he seems confused anytime I tell him to go back to bed when the sun's out. Usually, I just let him run in the backyard, but I always end up getting up to let him back in during the heat of the day. I'm lucky to get four hours of continuous sleep most days, and it feels like I'm just taking a series of cat naps. Gale seems to be doing the best out of us. He sits awake all night like it's his duty to guard us, then sleeps like the dead all day. Celene is doing pretty well, but I've caught her snoozing a time or two.

This would have probably been a lot easier if we had done it right after coming back from the Beyond. In the Beyond, you always slept with the lights on. In the Beyond, you always slept when you were too tired to go on. There was no night or day, there was just time, and you passed that time as best you could. We were used to it, but after a few months in the real world, we've gotten used to sleeping when the sun goes down and being awake when it comes up.

It's weird though.

When I dream, I almost always dream that I'm back in the Beyond.

I can hear the soft buzz of the overhead lights, the tinny music that plays on the speakers, and silence that seems to moan at you after a while.

In my dreams, I go back to the Beyond, but they aren't nightmares, not always. Sometimes I go back to that first store, the one I destroyed, and search through the rubble for something. I don't what it is, but I know that I need it. Whatever I'm looking for, I never find it. I sift through the rubble, looking and looking, but I never discover what I've lost. Sometimes I find little reminders of my store, however. One night I found a coloring book that I had done, the adult kind with lots of swirls and little pieces. I had to wipe coffee ground off it, the moisture having wrecked the picture, but even wet and saturated, it was still beautiful. I couldn't believe I had destroyed it in my anger, and as I flipped through the book, I noticed there were pages at the back that I hadn't finished. I didn't remember these pages, but that's because I don't think they existed when I was here. They showed a forest of terrible crystals, their beauty undeniable. Inside the crystals were people, and as I flipped, I could see them turning into dust inside. Big shadow creatures were moving around, and as beautiful as the crystals were, the creatures looked like crayon drawings next to their complexity. They were moving around the crystals, tending to them, and as I flipped, I saw them bring in someone new. I don't know how I knew, but I knew it was Gale. The book started flipping pages in my hand then, and the images moved like a picture book. As they set Gale into the crystal that would grow around him, they put something into him. It was...well, it was like the opposite of light but it still shone. I know that doesn't make any sense, but it's the best I can do. It was inside him before they sealed him up, and as the crystal grew around him, it shone out with a strange dark light. Eventually, I came along and smashed his crystal and pulled him out, but even as we escaped, I could see that shard of darkness glowing inside him.

I wanted to tell them about the dream, but I knew Gale would scoff at it and Celene would just say it was nerves.

I don't think it was, but I never got a chance.

We were attacked on the fourth night if you can call it an attack.

My neighbors probably thought I was insane because you could see my house from down the street. On the third day, we had to go get thicker curtains after the little old lady next door nicely asked me to turn my lights down because it was keeping her awake. If it had been the Karen that lived two houses down, I would probably told her to eat me raw, but Mrs. Gorbetts is such a nice old lady that I felt bad for keeping her awake.

We bought blackout curtains and that peel-and-stick stuff that blacks out your windows, and Mrs. Gorbetts told me she slept like a baby the next day when I went to get my mail.

We all sat in the living room at night, the TV on but none of us watching it. Buddy was asleep in his comfy bed by the couch, his snoring making me a little jealous. Celene and Gale were on the couch, Celene cuddled up next to Gale and Gale looking like one of those stuffed husbands you saw online for lonely women. I was in my Lazyboy, drinking coffee and yawning. We were watching an old black and white movie, that was really all that was worth watching that late at night, and I was just about to suggest we find something on Netflix when something touched down on the carpet hard enough to make the board creak above our heads. It was followed by a loud roar that made Buddy jump up and bark, but it was gone a moment later.

"What," I started, but Gale put a finger over his lips.

"They're testing our defenses," he whispered, and sure enough there was another one from my room a moment later. Same thump, same loud roar, and then silence. Celene sat up, looking nervous but ready, and Gale put his big ole flashlight in his lap like they might come out of the crevices of the couch after him. We all kept our lights close by, mine was on the end table, and as much as I doubted they could get us I still put a hand on mine.

"I think," but Gale stopped as something big and dark stepped out of the small shadow cast by the TV stand.

It rose to fill the room, but there was only so much shadow left. The shadows that remained were there to act like bear traps, or so Gale thought. He said if we covered all the shadows, then they might get desperate. If we left a couple, and they tried them, then it would tell them that they couldn't get far, and it wasn't worth the effort.

The miasma sent one huge hand out towards Gale, but it turned to nothing as it came into the ocean of light we were bathed in.

We put our flashlights on it and burned it to a crisp as it grumbled away to nothing.

That was all for that night's battle, but the war wasn't over.

The next two nights were spent probing for weaknesses.

It was surprising what the miasma could manifest from, and shadows we hadn't even considered were suddenly vantage points for them to come through. Some of these we took care of, some of them we left but made note of, but it never did them any good. The light stopped them, it made them as intangible as weak spirits, and we began to settle into our nocturnal lifestyle. It was easy since we didn't have jobs, or anywhere to be. My parents were a little concerned about why I was staying up all night and sleeping all day, but I told them I had a third-shift job at a call center and they bought it. Gale and Celene didn't even have that to contend with. Gales's family was either dead, estranged, or refused to believe it was him when he reached out. Celene was an only child with divorced parents, both of whom were dead. The cousins she had tried to reach out to either didn't remember her, didn't care, or didn't believe her. She and Gale really just had each other, and me, which was probably why we had clung so close together. Even my parents didn't really understand what I had been through, though I didn't tell them more than they needed to know, and it had brought the three of us, four if you counted Buddy, into a found family built on shared trauma.

So, when Friday came we were all on high alert. We had been attacked three nights running, and we fully expected tonight to be the big one. This would be when they put all their knowledge together and launched something big. Despite his whining, we had turned Buddy's collar on and it was providing an eye-tearing show within the living room. We had our lights, we had our reflectors, and we had even created some new shadows for them to test out. We were ready, all of us were used to staying up now and sitting in a kind of self-imposed preparedness.

When the sun came up and nothing had happened, we were a little surprised.

When Saturday night came, we did the same, and again nothing happened.

"Maybe they've given up," said Celene.

"Maybe they're trying to lure us into a false sense of security," Gale said, not buying it.

Sunday we were all on pins and needles. We let Buddy sleep without his collar on, he really was having trouble sleeping with all the lights flashing, but we still donned our jogging lights, our headlamps, and our giant flashlights. We sat at the ready, sure that tonight would be the night, and we jumped at every little noise. Any noise, any creak, any groan of wood could be the miasma, and by midnight we were all standing up, not wanting to be too comfy. Buddy looked at us, annoyed at being kept awake by us, but we refused to let our guard down.

When they got here, we would be ready.

When morning came, and still nothing had happened, Celene started to laugh.

"They must be having laughing fits if they can see us. They got us to stay up for three nights running on high alert and then didn't even show up."

Gale looked like he wanted to be mad, but he started laughing too.

"I guess we must be pretty silly."

"It's a good thing we got those thick curtains," Celene chimed in, really cackling now, "or the neighbors would be having fits at the sight of us. We probably looked ridiculous, like we were waiting for vampires or something."

I couldn't help it, I started laughing too.

She was right, we must look silly.

"Well, boys, we made it, I guess, and I think this calls for a celebration. What's say we all go get some breakfast before we turn in? I think I could eat about three stacks of pancakes at the Chuck House and a pound of bacon, what about you?" she asked, turning to Gale.

Gale was still chuckling a little, "I hope they have a horse, caught I imagine I could eat a deep-fried Clydesdale, with a side of hashbrowns."

That got me laughing again, and pretty soon Gale and I were hanging on each other in stitches.

We were sleep-deprived and running on the dregs of pure adrenaline, cut us some slack.

"Well then, let's get out of these reflectors and get some breakfast," Celene said, ditching the lights as she went to get her coat out of the hall closet.

Buddy was barking as Gale and I finished up our laughter, and I thought it was because he was annoyed by us and all the noises we were making.

When Celene screamed, I realized my mistake.

We both went running into the foyer, but it was already too late.

We had put tap lights in all the closets. We had changed out the weak bulbs for something that would fry cockroaches. We had been so careful to put as much light in every space imaginable, but we had forgotten about one spot.

The arm coming out of the coat closet in the foyer was as thick as a tree, and as it dragged Celene inside, she was screaming for Gale.

He jumped, trying to catch her hand, but he came up short.

She disappeared into the closet, her shriek abruptly cut off, and as Gale dug the flashlight out of his pocket, the little one that he always kept on him, we could both see by the narrow beam that that closet was empty.

That was around sunrise.

It's closer to noon now, and Gale is inconsolable. He's been opening the door to the closet, the closet that now has a new halogen bulb in it, for hours, but Celene is never inside. She's been taken, but we don't know where. We assume she's gone back to that monochrome area in the ceiling, the one Gale was trapped in, but we don't know.

I made a phone call about an hour ago, a phone call I should have made from the start.

Gale can say what he likes, he can leave if that's what he wants, but I need answers.

I have a meeting with Agent Cash tomorrow at noon.

I will get to the bottom of this, and I will get Celene back.

Even if it means I have to plunge right back into the Beyond to do it.

10:03 UTC


Billy Gumballs

"Markie banged on the door, his eyes beginning to tear up as he called for help. He had gone into the equipment shed looking for answers, and what he had found scared him nearly to death. As he banged on the door, he could hear the creature pulling itself free of the wall behind him. The massive paws came to rest on the ground, the claws clittered on the pavement, and he could almost feel the rumble as the beast came for him."

I put a hand over my mouth to stifle a gasp, but Terrence didn't seem to have any such hesitation. He moaned like a trained mourner in a soap opera, and Ralphie slapped a hand over his gaping mouth as he leaned forward in expectation. Danny had all of us in the grip of his story, and he knew it. He continued to weave his tale as I tempered my excitement with the reminder to listen for the approach of Coach Tyson. "The handle, which had been unlocked when Markie had come in, was as unyielding as the walls around him, and as the beast came closer and closer, Markie felt terror growing inside him, threatening to overtake him."

I perked up my ears, having heard a noise on this side of the veil. Was it Coach Tyson looking for four missing students? Was it Coach Lianna coming to get something from the equipment shed? Was it a monster like the one in Danny's story that was stalking us from amidst the dusty football pads? Who could say?

"The monster leaned down over him, its breath hot against his ear as it spoke. "I told you what would happen if I caught you in my lair again. Now, I am prepared to make good on that promise." Something wet fell on his shoulder, the spittle dribbling down as it prepared to rip his head off."

We were all leaning in, our heads close enough to be clonked together like the three stooges, just waiting for the thrust.

"When the door opened suddenly, Markie fell into the hallway. Coach Blaskawhit looked shocked, and Markie crawled behind his legs as he looked into the equipment room, the creature nowhere to be seen."

As if on cue, the door came open and Coach Tyson poked his head in with a dramatic "ah ha." He acted like he had caught four weasels in his hen house, but he couldn't have been that surprised to find us here. We met here in the equipment shed every chance we got, and we were constantly ditching gym class to tell spooky stories. "I thought I'd find you four here. If you intend to finish your mile in the allotted time, you better hurry. There's twenty minutes left in class, and I think it's going to take every bit you've got to finish in that time."

I squinted owlishly as I came out, the sun very bright after being in the depths of the equipment shed, and rolled my eyes as I saw Justin and his friends, Ryan and Frank, sitting on the grass by the finish line. Coach Tyson probably hadn't even noticed we were missing until those three had finished their laps, and now we had less than twenty minutes to run a mile. Coach shouted for us to get a move on, so we got a move on and started beating feet.

As we ran, I asked Danny if he had meant for the Coach to burst in in his story.

"Absolutely. You didn't really think I would let the monster get Markie, did ya?"

I had, but I didn't say as much.

"Sucks he found us. I had a great story planned for today too."

Danny laughed, and it made me feel a little angry.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing personal, but your stories kinda blow."

I slowed a little, not quite wanting to understand him, before speeding up to catch up with the group.

"What do you mean? My stories are as good as yours."

They weren't, and I knew they weren't, but my pride was hurt, and I wanted to vent.

Danny looked like he was going to answer, but Terrence beat him to it.

"No way, dude. Danny's stories are the best. Your stories sound like something that wouldn't make it on a kids horror site."

It wasn't what Terrence said that got me, he was too stupid to chew gum and walk, but it was the little nod that Danny gave in return that really rankled me.

I was still thinking about it as Ralphie and I rode the bus on the way home, Ralphie trying to cheer me up.

"Come on, buck up. Danny isn't such hot crap."

"Stupid Danny," I groused, doodling on my pad as I sulked, "Thinks he's such hot crap just because he's in Mrs. Hurckamer's Creative Writing class, just because Mrs. Hurckamer invites him to the eight-grade writing club after school. I can write just as good as he can."

Raphie was watching me doodle over my shoulder, raising an eyebrow as the picture took shape.

"Who's this fella you're drawing here?"

I looked down, not paying attention to what I was doodling, and almost started. I had drawn a large, muscled man, his face bulbous and ugly. One eye bulged from his skull while the other seemed too deep in the socket. His cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk looking for nuts for winter. He had a hump, one shoulder higher than the other, and his arms ended not in hands, but in rounded tumors that had scabrous bulges on them that looked to be trickling puss or something. He had no fingers, no knuckles, just those big round bulges at the ends of his arms.

"Billy," I said, absentminded again though it was from the shock of this creature.

"Billy?" asked Ralphie, the bus jouncing him as it took off.

"Billy...Gumballs," I said, drawing a pair of overalls onto him. I added large, gum rubber boots without socks and a few more veins on his rounded not hands. I drew an undershirt but erased it. It didn't seem right, and it looked better without it, "He was bullied in high school for being different, and they called him Billy Gumballs because his cheeks bulged like he was chewing too much gum. When he was snubbed by his crush for the school dance, he murdered the kids at the dance and disappeared before the police arrived. The school was abandoned after that, and now the local kids think the place is haunted. They're right, because Billy still lives there he kills anyone who comes into his school."

Ralphie listened, nodding along as the story came together. As the bus rumbled away from the school and towards our street, I told him how four middle school kids had gone into the old school on a dare, and how each of them had run afoul of Billy Gumballs. Only the last kid had survived, and Billy had let him go so he could tell his story and people would be afraid of him. The kids died in the usual horror movie ways, but mostly they were crushed by the heavy tumor hands of Billy Gumballs. I illustrated some as I talked, and as the bus stopped at Ralphie's house, he smacked my arm and told me I had written a real great story there.

"What story?" I asked.

All I had been doing was doodling and talking.

"Your Billy Gumballs story. You should tell it tomorrow, I bet Danny wouldn't say it blowed."

I realized he was right, and what's more, I realized I could do one better than just telling it. As I got home, I lay on the couch and started drawing it out. I could make a horror comic out of it, something that even Danny couldn't do, and then I could impress him. That would show Danny whose stories blow.

I drew the last couple of panels as I lay in bed that night, and when I tucked it into my backpack,

I couldn't wait for school the next day.

I worked on the cover for it as I rode the bus to school the next morning, and when I stepped off, I was so excited to show it to Danny.

I was excited, right up until I ran into Justin, Ryan, and Frank.

"Whatcha got there, Nerd?" Justin said, seeing the hand-drawn comic under my arm.

"Nothin'," I said hastily, trying to get past the trio.

Justin and his friends, aside from being good at gym, were pretty big bullies in my grade, and when Ryan deftly took the comic from under my arm, I cawed and told him to give it back.

"Billy Gumballs?" he said, tossing it to Justin as they played keep away, "What the hell is this?"

"It's a school project," I lied, trying to get it back from them, "Come on, give it back before you wreck it!"

Justin opened it up, thumbing through the pages as he deftly avoided me, "Huh, not too bad, for a baby," he said, tearing one of the pages in half and letting it fall to the ground.

You can probably guess what happened after that.

By the time the bell rang, I was left on my knees in the hallway, trying not to cry as I salvaged the pages of my comic.

It was ruined, wrecked beyond repair, and as I sat in homeroom and seethed, I knew just what I would do.

I'd make another one, but instead of four friends going to find Billy, it would be four bullies.

I'm not sure why, there was no reason to do it, but as I remade the comic, Danny became the leader of the bullies. He hadn't done anything worse than offering honest criticism, but I couldn't help but think of him as responsible for this too. Without Danny, I would have never drawn the comic. Without Danny, it would never have existed to be destroyed in the first place. No one survived this time. They were all killed by Billy Gumballs, and as I finished the last page, I felt a weird surge course over the hairs on my arms.

It reminded me of something my Grandma had said.

It reminded me of having a goose walk over my grave.

When the bell rang, I found my friends by the stairwell, waiting for me before we went into English. Ralphie nudged Danny, who was standing off and looking guilty, and when he walked up he rubbed the back of his neck as he apologized. I was sure that Ralphie had put him up to it, but the longer it went on, the more genuine it seemed. "I'm sorry, I didn't know what I said affected you like that. I really didn't mean to hurt your feelings. Ralphie says you've been working on something cool. I'd love to see it if you want me to."

I wanted to say something, but I was dumbstruck.

Suddenly, the comic in my hand felt like an accusation and the last thing I wanted to do was hand it to Danny.

"It's not quite done yet," I said, pushing it behind my back, "I don't wanna show it to you until it's perfect."

Danny nodded, clearly wanting to see but still feeling guilty for what he had done yesterday.

"That's cool, I'd still be glad to look at it when you get it done. Ralphie has been talking about this Billy Gumballs all through homeroom. He sounds pretty cool."

I filled Danny in on some of the details, slipping the comic into my bag as we walked to class. I would redraw it later, I decided. I was a so-so storyteller, but I was good at drawing and I knew I could make another one before the end of the day. I'd just draw Justin and his friends getting smashed up by Billy. That would be fine. Danny had apologized, but I was still mad that those bullies had wrecked up my original comic. I doodled in English and then did some more in Math class. By social studies, I was getting close to completing it, and as the lunch bell rang, I put the finishing touches on it, yet again.

It was weird, though.

When I got done, I didn't get that same feeling I had gotten from the one I’d made earlier.

This time it just felt normal, like it always did when I completed a drawing.

I shook it off, figuring it was just nerves, and took it to the cafeteria to show my friends.

We spent the lunch period marveling at the intricate ways that Billy Gumballs smashed and bashed the three boys who had made our lives a living hell since kindergarten. Danny laughed more than he looked afraid, but when he tapped the comic with the back of his hand and declared it to be the best story I had ever written, I felt pretty proud of myself. The guilt I had for the one that was hidden in my backpack was gone, and I felt like maybe we could begin to get past this.

When a scream erupted from the hallway outside the cafeteria, we all ran to see what had happened.

It was Vanessa Franks, and she was pointing to the crumpled form of Justin's friend, Fred. He was leaning against one of the lockers, his head little more than a pulpy melon. We would learn later that his skull had been caved in, the bone shattered like an egg. Vanessa had been on her phone, not really paying attention to where she was going, and slipped in the pool of blood that was forming from beneath him. That was why she had screamed.

She had slipped and looked up into the ruined face of her classmate and nearly lost her mind.

They came and took the body away, but all of us were in the gymnasium by that point. They had moved all the students there and locked the school down while they searched for the killer. They felt pretty confident that they had to be somewhere in the building, and they would have to have a lot of blood on them after what they had done. Beating Fred to death would have left quite a lot of damage to them as well, and the teachers and police had interviewed most of the students to see if they could narrow down a suspect.

My friends might be chattering about the murder, but I was on pins and needles. They had forgotten about my comic, and thank God for that. The one they had seen, however, wasn't the one I was worried about. It was the comic in my bag that made me afraid. If the cops found that comic, I would have a lot of questions to answer, and they would probably be answered in a little room at the police station.

There was a picture in that comic of Fred with his head smashed against a locker, and it looked very similar to the scene upstairs.

Fred had been the first victim, and when Justine turned to Danny and asked what they were going to do now, Danny had told them they would find who had done this and put him down like a dog.

"It's weird, isn't it?" Ralphie said, bringing me out of my contemplation.

"What's weird?"

"You drew a comic about those bullies getting killed, and then one of them gets his head caved in."

I agreed that it was pretty weird, reflecting that I was glad the one I had shown them had featured Fred getting thrown down some stairs.

"You," Ralphie started, wetting his lips as if not sure how to begin, "You didn't have anything to do with that, did you?"

I wanted to deny it right away, but I was having trouble forming a good argument. Of course I didn't have anything to do with it. How could he even think such a thing? Just because I had drawn something similar, didn't mean I had anything to do with this.

"How could I, Ralphie? I was in the cafeteria with you guys when it happened, remember?"

Ralphie nodded, but the look he gave me was still pretty hard.

They put us all on buses and sent us home not long later. We were assured that school would be back in session tomorrow, but we weren't so sure. They still hadn't found the killer, not a trace of him, and Fred's parents were distraught. The bus Ralphie and I had been on had driven past his mother as we pulled off and she was shaking with tears as she sat on a bench outside the office.

Seeing that made me feel guilty all over again, but I wasn't sure why.

Ralphie didn't talk much on the ride home, and the goodbye he gave me when he climbed off was decidedly muted. I wondered if he really thought I had done this, and as my stop came up, I decided I wanted a nap instead of TV. I tossed my backpack down when I got home and went to lie down on the couch, but my nap wouldn't last long.

When the phone rang a little bit later, I got up and answered it groggily. It was Thursday, so Mom wouldn't get off till five, and Dad wouldn't be in till after bedtime. I had the house to myself till five thirty, but I wished they had been here. I needed to talk to someone about this, about the guilt I was feeling for some reason, and I just knew my parents would help me out.

I found Terrence on the other end of the phone, and he sounded hysterical.

"They found Ryan's body this afternoon at the school!"

I sat up straighter, not sure if I was awake or still dreaming.

"What do you mean?" I asked, "He was on a bus home, same as the rest of us."

"I know," Terrence said, "but my Dad called me about ten minutes ago all spazy. He said that one of the officers had been searching for the guy under the bleachers in the gym when he had found Ryan all crumpled up under there. He was beaten to a pulp, and he wanted to know if I had locked the doors and was being safe. I told him I was, and he told me to go upstairs and lock myself in my room until my mom got home. I'm scared, I don't know what's going on, but it sounds like kids at our school are getting killed."

No, I thought, as the phone slipped out of my hand.

Not just any kids from our school, kids that I had drawn in a comic dying in the ways they had been found dead.

In the comic, the one I had hid from my friends, Ryan had been dragged under the bleachers and the group had found him later beaten to a pulp. A literal pulp. In the comic, they only knew it was him by his sneakers since the rest of his body was a bloody pile of meat.

"Terrence, does your dad think they have any idea who's doing this?" I hedged, trying to find out if I was a suspect for some reason.

"Not a clue, but the police are really scratching their heads."

I hung up on Terrence and hovered over the number for Danny's house. I was hesitant to call him, wanting to worry him even less than I wanted to admit to having written this suddenly relevant comic. I dithered for a few before thumbing his name, listening to it ring before his mother grabbed it on the fourth one. She told me that Danny was at the pizzeria on Sherman and she supposed he had forgotten his phone. She asked if I wanted to leave a message, but I told her that was fine and I was going to meet him at the pizzeria anyway.

We hung up and I grabbed my backpack as I headed out.

My timing must have been impeccable because I caught him just as his pie arrived at the table.

"Hey, you feel like a slice too?" he asked, inviting me to sit.

"Na," I said, taking the comic out of the bag, "I need to come clean with you. I could overlook the first one as an accident, but after they found Ryan dead too, I don't think I can overlook it. This was the comic I did earlier today, something I wrote while I was mad at Justin and his friends."

Danny looked at the cover, opening it up and leafing through it. He raised an eyebrow when he saw himself leading the bullies. As he read, though, something strange happened. Far from being horrified, he began to laugh. When he came to Justin's death, the bully decapitated with a single punch, his head falling down the stairs and into the boiler room, Danny wiped an eye and looked at me in disbelief. He seemed confused that I wasn't laughing.

"Oh, come on. Sure, it's scary, but it's also so over the top that it's almost cartoonish."

"Two people have died in exactly the way I drew this. I am only one, besides you, who knows it exists, and I can't help but think it's a little bit serious. They'll put me in jail for this. They'll use this to put me in the electric chair down at Stragview! They'll think I murdered those kids!"

Danny shook his head, "There's no way you killed Fred. Ralphie and Terrence and I will attest to that. You were with us all through lunch, and I can't imagine that anyone would believe that a shrimp like you did that to Fred or Ryan." he said, holding open the book to the pages in question.

I was stunned, unsure what to do, and when he laughed again, I found myself laughing right along with him. How had I not seen this? They could testify that I hadn't been anywhere near either of those boys. The GPS on my phone could tell the police I had been at home all afternoon. There was no way to link me to any of this. I was safe. "Come on," Danny said, "Come hang out at my house till your mom gets home. Then I'll walk you home just to make sure that ole Billy Gumballs doesn't get you."

We laughed about it all the way to his house, cracking jokes as we talked about the character. Danny said he had some ideas for what Billy could do next, though we'd have to keep real people out of the story this time. We couldn't have the police trying to claim we were killing people through fiction, he said, and then both of us were laughing all over again.

As we came up the stairs to his room, I told him I was going to use the bathroom and I'd catch him up.

"Well, don't take too long. I'm gonna get some Dead By Daylight going so we can play co-op."

I said that sounded great, and we parted ways.

I was standing at the toilet when I suddenly remembered something. In the comic, Danny had gotten away in the end, but Billy had been waiting for him when he came home. He had come out of his closet, I reflected, and smashed his head after sneaking up on him from behind. I started to run to him, but I stopped as I zipped my pants, remembering what Danny had said. It was just a coincidence. Nothing like that happened. Heck, I thought as I flushed, I bet Justin was safe and sound at his house as I was thinking about this.

I shook my head as I let the water flow over my hands.

Such an idiot, I had gotten myself all worked up over nothing.

When I heard him scream from the room next door, I came tearing out of the bathroom as my flimsy hope fell apart.

I came running into the room, my hands still dripping water, and that's when I saw him.

Danny was sitting at his desk, the controller in his hand, with his head collapsed into his chest. Someone had driven his head in like a nail, and the perpetrator was still standing behind him, looking at me guiltily as he turned towards the door. I thought I was dreaming, that I was hallucinating, but as we stood looking at each other, I had to come to terms with his realness.

His head was bald, his skin was pale, and his cheeks looked like a squirrel preparing for winter. He wore overalls without a shirt under them, and gum rubber boots that were black as pitch. His hands were bloody, covered in old and new blood, but even so, no one would mistake them for real hands. They were rounded, a pair of bulbous tumors that sat at the end of each wrist, and when he turned to run, I yelled for him to wait.

Instead, he jumped out the window and was gone.

No one has found Billy yet, but I think the police have finally decided I didn't have anything to do with it. They didn't care that I had written the comic, they didn't care how much I tried to turn myself in, all they wanted was to bring the killer of four children to justice. You didn't misread, Billy had killed Justin before he got Danny. They found him in the school too, his head completely parted from his body.

I don't know what to do now.

Perhaps, if I am the one who created Billy Gumballs, there's some way that I can destroy him as well.

18:18 UTC


Letters in the Attic

I inherited my parents' old house about a year ago.

As a single guy in his mid-twenties, this was quite a windfall. My mom had died of a stroke in the upstairs bedroom, a room I now kept mostly locked up. I never knew my Dad, he split before I was born, but the house was something he left my mom before disappearing. It was a house that's been his family for generations, and it was the only piece of my father that I had left.

My grandparents have been dead before I was born, and my father was an only child. That being said, there was no real family to inherit the family estate when he was pronounced dead other than my mother and I. As an only child myself, my father hadn’t really got around to siring any other brothers or sisters for me, I had never really wanted for much. Dad’s estate took care of the bills, my education, and the upkeep of the house. I always kind of wished he had stuck around if he’d gone that far, but I suppose it had finally caught up with him. Mom always said Dad was an eccentric, a scientist who studied weird stuff for a research facility, and whatever he did, it must’ve paid well because I had made it all the way through college without even touching the trust fund that my mom had set aside for me.

And now, I had an eight-bedroom/three-bath mansion in need of some serious renovation.

I had decided to start with the attic.

The attic had always interested me, even when I was a child. I used to like to play up there, looking into all the old chests, peeking into armoires, and scaring myself with make-believe ghosts. It was nice up there, though. The stained glass window that overlooks the street always made little rainbows on the wood floor just for me. I wanted to clean it up a little bit and build an office up there so that I could do my accounting and bookkeeping in peace. The problem was that it was structurally unstable. The wall was a crumbling old brick, the mortar trying to let go for the last forty years or so. I was afraid that it wouldn’t take more than one good windstorm to knock it in, and I really wanted to fix it up and work my way down.

As I started cleaning it out I was delighted to find that the attic might actually pay for its own renovation. It was packed with old furniture and antiques that I found some interest with some of the local antique dealers. I took a few pictures on my phone and sent them to some of the antique shops, and they seemed all the more enthralled to get their hands on them. I separated off the things I wanted to sell, keeping a small pile of things that I did not, and after a couple of days of men with dollies coming in and out of the house, I found myself about twenty-five thousand dollars richer. The old attic had more than paid for its facelift, and I started looking at supplies to replace the old brick with.

I didn’t know if I’d have to replace the beams behind it, but I suspected that I might. Mom told me that Dad had said that the attic was one of the few original parts of the house, which had apparently been built in the late seventeen hundreds. It was one of the first large homes to be constructed in the area, and his ancestors had received it from some fellow after working the land for him. They had been less indentured servant and more live-in caretakers. The man had hundreds of acres, a large farm, and several dairy cows that needed to be taken care of. My Dad‘s forebears and their children have been more than up to the task, having recently immigrated from Ireland. When he had left it all to them in his will, they had suddenly become very rich and very powerful in what was an up-and-coming part of the world.

That would make the attic nearly three years old, and the fact that it was still standing was a marvel in itself.

I had talked with a friend of mine who was a member of code enforcement for the city, and he had told me to be careful when I started taking down the bricks. He said he was pretty certain they weren’t loadbearing, but, if the attic was as old as I said it was, then it could be an accident waiting to happen. I had been up in the attic during all kinds of weather, and I had never so much as seen it sway in the wind. Whoever had built it had done an amazing job and had certainly built it the last. As I set to work, taking down the first of the brick, I did so with an ear out in case I needed to run.

I had barely set my hammer to work when I saw something sticking out between a loose brick. It appeared to be an envelope, an old and yellow thing that likely would’ve crumbled to nothing had it not been sealed up in the wall. I reached out for it, wiping masonry dust off of it as I looked at the front. It was signed To my child, from Marcus Crim, and it was dated 1934. This gave me pause. As far as I knew, there was only one Marcus Crim that had ever lived in this house, and that had been my father.

To my knowledge, though, he had not been alive in 1934.

I set the letter aside, not really sure what to make of it, and kept working. The wall appeared to be held up not by wooden beams, but metal beams. That struck me as weird because the means to do so in the seventeen hundreds would have been difficult to achieve. They were crude metal beams, to be sure, but they were very thick and very sturdy and had likely taken someone a very long time to put into place without a crane or some sort of tools. However the architect managed it, this was tremendous. I would save a lot of my recent windfall by not having to replace the wooden beams that I had assumed would be there and decided that the flaky wall was just a product of its time.

I was halfway through the north face of the wall when I found another letter.

The front of this one read To my child, from Marcus Crim, 1984.

The date on the letter seemed reasonable, my father would’ve been about twelve years old in 1984, but I doubted that he was writing letters and putting them in the masonry. I set it aside, wanting to get back to work, but it was hard not to open it and see what it contained. This one looked a lot newer than the other one, and I suppose it had spent a lot less time in the wall. Why was my father leaving letters for me inside a wall in the attic? I didn’t know, but I supposed that when I was done for the day I might sit down and see what he had written me.

By midday, I had found five other letters, and my curiosity was piqued. I had found one from 1984, one from 1934, another one from 1956, another from 1890, and a fifth from 1854. They’ve been stuffed into the wall behind loose bricks, popping out as I smashed up the wall with my sledgehammer, and as I broke for lunch, I decided that it might be time to have a look at them. I didn’t know if this was some elaborate joke someone was playing on me or not, but the idea of getting letters from the father that I had never known was intriguing. Maybe the date were a code or something, and I wondered if there was some other treasure to be found in the house besides the antiques in the attic.

I decided to open the letter from 1984 first, it being the closest to today’s date. Inside was a handwritten letter in what I recognized as my father‘s meticulous script. I had seen some of his journals in the library, writings on physics and scientific theory, and I was familiar with the way he wrote. He marked the envelope with a stamp, though I have no idea why, and it had been sealed with wax that crumbled as I broke it.


As I have not learned your gender yet, your mother insists that it be a surprise, I will just call you child. I suspect you have questions, and I wish I could answer all of them, but I fear this letter will be a poor explanation. Your mother may have told you that I was involved with an organization studying scientific principles. One of the principles they were very interested in was time travel. It wasn't something I believed in, but I was willing to take their money and study their theories. I thought the concept was so much hogwash, but as we began to make breakthroughs, I had to admit that there was merit to it. I began to get excited, thinking we might actually break the secret of passing backward and forward in time. On the day of testing, we all drew straws to see who would be the one to test the device. I drew the short straw, so I was placed inside the chamber. I pray they did not send anyone after me because it appears that something has gone terribly wrong. I closed my eyes in 1998 and opened them again in 1984. We had done it, we could go back in time, but there was a problem. I had no way to return, and it appeared that my means of time travel was unstable. I arrived in December 1984, but three days later I was in September 1984. I was jumping backward in time, little hops at first, but I suspect they might become progressively stronger as time goes on. I don’t know how to contact you, or if you will ever find these letters, but I know the house has existed for at least two hundred years. If I leave a letter in the attic, somewhere it’s not likely to be stumbled across until someone is looking for something else, maybe you’ll find it and you’ll know that I didn’t abandon you and your mother. You’ll know what actually happened. I’m going to break into your grandparent's house tonight and hide this in the attic. I remember that tonight was when they left me at a sitter's house and went out to see a late movie, so there should be more than enough time to get in and leave the letter in the wall of the attic. I hope this finds you well, and I hope that you are well. Sincerely, Marcus Crim.”

I was speechless for a moment, not sure what to make of it. Was this real? I had known my father was a little eccentric, Mother said he toed that fine line between genius and crazy, but this was out there. Had my father been playing some elaborate joke before he left? Had he been trying to trick a small child into thinking that his father was just a time traveler and not a deadbeat? I didn’t know, but it only made me more curious to see the other notes.

I shifted through them until I came to the one from 1956. It was the next one in chronological order, and it seemed the best place to pick up the story. I opened it with a finger, wincing as the old paper sliced me a little, but I sucked the paper cut as I spilled the paper onto the old desk I had kept up here from the antiques. A few drops of blood spattered onto the blotter, but the letter was spared, and as I sucked at it, I read what he'd written there.


I have spent the last week shifting backward every few days. Sometimes I would stay in a spot for days, sometimes seconds, but it seems I am destined to live my life backward. I always seem to stay in the same town, the town I grew up in, and it's odd to watch the town slowly grow younger. Opening your eyes to see the town shrinking a building at a time. I spent two weeks leaping backward at various speeds, but when I finally came to rest in March of 1956, I felt jet-lagged. The town was half the size it had been, the cars as different from the turn of the century as they would be in the early nineteen hundreds. People looked at me funny, my clothes likely appearing strange, but my money still worked. The tellers would get a shock when they realized they had bills that wouldn't be in circulation for forty years, but I needed to eat. I didn't have a lot of money when I traveled, a hundred and a couple of twenties in my wallet, but as the cost of things goes down, the money stretches a little further. Your Grandfather, my Dad, is so young. I saw him playing outside the house, a boy of maybe ten or eleven, and it was hard not to hail him and talk to him. I plan to break into the house again when the family is gone and leave this letter in the wall of the attic. I better do it soon, who knows how long I will have before I travel again. I hope you're doing well, and I hope your mother is also well. It's strange to talk to someone you've never met, but I hope these letters shed some light on where I have been and why I haven't been in your life."

I was beginning to think that these notes had been left by my mother, but how had she so expertly duplicated his handwriting? All of Dad's journals were written like this, this same meticulous script, and it even sounded like the voice I had always given him when I read his journals. He would sound like a scientist, like my science teachers had when I was in school, and as I reached for the next letter, I came across the one from 1934. The envelope was ancient-looking, the outside yellowed and sealed in the same wax the others had been. The wax on this one was brittle with age and it crumbled under the fingers as I broke it. I started to slide my finger under the adhesive but looked in the desk till I found the letter opener I remembered seeing there.

A quick slash and I had the note in my hand.


I went to sleep two days after delivering the letter to the wall and woke up sixty years in the past. This was the longest jump I have ever made all at once, and I had to write this one quickly before it sent me sailing off again. The town looks more like Mayberry from the Andy Griffith show than the bustling city I remember. Main Street is here, as is the post office and the police station, but everything else has changed. There are stores, but they seem less grand than the ones here before them. The house is still here, and I can see my Grandfather as he sits on the lawn with my Grandmother, both of them in their senior year of high school. Grandpa will get his draft notice in six years, taking him out of the steel mill before the explosion that kills so many and probably saving me from never being born. Grandma will give birth to my father a year after that, and Grandpa will come back from France with few scars and many stories to regale his son and, later, his Grandson. I never knew my Great Grandparents, not well anyway, and it's odd to see them as they go about their lives. I've seen men going into the house the last few days, men doing work on the study on the second floor, and I've managed to hook a pair of white overalls and caps from a clothesline. Tomorrow I will mingle with them and drop this letter in the wall if I'm not years farther from where I started then."

I sorted the remaining letters, my work forgotten, and decided on the one from 1890. It was the next one in sequence, though that sequence was far out of wack now. My hands shook a little as I opened it with the letter opener. Fake or not, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to set this up, and the story was so good that I had to know how it ended. My work had been forgotten, the mystery too much for me to put down. As the wax seal fell to brittle shards on the desk, I took out the thick and uncomfortable paper that had been laid into the equally heavy envelope.


It appears I sealed my letter in the wall at just the right time. The house was fumigated the next day, and it would have been nearly impossible to get back in. I also traveled again four days later, and this was one of my more hectic trips. I would be stuck in a time for a day or two, but just as I would pen a letter, I would be dragged backward into something else. I've started trading my money for gold and silver as I go farther and farther back. I'll soon come to a time when paper money might mean nothing, and then I might as well burn the notes to keep me warm. Gold, however, maintains its value, as does silver, and so I now have a few actual dollars left, and some mintings of gold and silver on my person. I've got them hidden in a backpack that also seems to travel with me. I wish I had experimented with this a little more, but even though these letters are decades apart, I've really only lost a month at the most. It feels like just last week when I opened my eyes in 1984, but I'm becoming worried that I might be slowing down a little. This last trip has brought me to 1890, and the town is little more than a general store, a saloon, and a collection of frontier businesses. I had to steal more clothes, my modern attire marking me as an outsider. I'm thankful that I traded for gold. My money would be useless out here, but gold is always useful. The house is still here too, but I've skipped four or five generations. The house is now a plantation, the land worked by field hands, and the house set considerably out of town. I went there to seek fieldwork, but they thought I was a cousin who'd come to call. They put me up, showing a lot of the old family hospitality I've always heard about, which will make it easy to hide this letter. I hope I come to rest soon. I hope this stops. I go to sleep, I blink, and my heart is filled with dread of where I will be when I open my eyes again. I hope you are well, and I hope you are living a better life than I."

I exhaled, looking at the last letter.

This one was marked 1854, and it was the last one I had.

As I picked it up, a thought occurred to me. How many more letters could there be in these walls? How many more could there be that covered dates in between the ones I had found? I was no longer skeptical, quite the contrary. I was hungry for more, and as I split this one open, I held the brittle paper gently, afraid it would fall apart before I got the chance to read it.


The traveling is definitely slowing down. I spent three months with my forebears in 1890. After that, I spent a month in 1880, two months in 1870, and now I have landed in 1854. I have returned to the house again, claiming to be a cousin, and it's odd to see the same people I saw in 1890 forty years younger. The Matron who invited me in is now a mere slip of a girl. Her brother, maimed in war, is now a healthy young man, passionate about states rights and the laws that govern man. I am embarrassed to report that the field hands I saw earlier have been replaced with slaves, but I suppose that was to be expected. They accepted me into their home again, and I suppose I will stay here until I travel again. I hope you are well, I hope you do not hate me too much."

That was it, but I felt like I knew where I could find other letters.

It was late into the night when all the bricks were torn down, and I looked amongst the rubble for any signs of paperwork. I had started out being very careful, an archeologist looking for old bones, but after hours of fruitless plinking, I began to level the walls with abandon. I no longer listened for the groan of old boards or the crash of the ceiling. The iron bracings had held the attic up this long, they would do it a while longer.

I searched and searched, looking for something, and when I saw metal glinting beside a bracing, I went to it and found a lockbox made of rusted old iron. It was a relic, the metal so old it had begun to disintegrate in places, and I was careful as I knocked the lock off and pulled at the lid. I didn't think it would open for a terrible moment, but as it squealed apart like a funhouse door, I saw a tube inside with a wax cap on the end. Someone had written 1775 on the outside, and I opened it carefully as I dumped the fragile paper out beside the rest. If the paper from the last one had been fragile, then this one was almost elven. It felt like skin, and it was so thin that I could almost see through it. The ink was thick and flaky, clearly done with a real pen, and as I read it, I realized I had come to the end, or maybe the beginning.



I've come back as far as I'm able. The last year was a series of travels, back and back and back. Sometimes I might get as much as a week in one time, but usually, it was hours. It seems, however, that I have come to rest at last. I have been living on the land that will one day be our family home, and I realized that there is no old benefactor waiting for us to come to settle here. The land is still mostly trees, but I have come to the spot where our house will soon stand. I went into town, the closest town I could find, and purchased it for, what I would consider a pittance. The man at the trade office seemed surprised by the amount of gold I had on my person, but it would seem like nothing to someone in our time. I had coworkers who had begun laying gold back for the coming millennium, sure that the banks would crash and money would be useless, but out here, money is nothing but paper and ink. I was able to buy one hundred acres and secure enough supplies to build the house and start the farm. I have shown them how to make metal beams, something I took for granted in my world of metal and glass. The house will be strong, no wooden beams to break and bend, and I secured enough strong backs to help me build it.


The construction is done, for the most part. The attic was difficult to build with their current level of technology, but I think we did okay. The house looks just like it always has, and as I set up the barn and the fields, I have begun to loan money to those who are in need. The interest alone has made me wealthy, and I have become quite well-known in the area. The workers I hired have settled land nearby, and I believe they are establishing the town that will one day encompass this house.


I have lived here for five years and have not traveled once in all that time. I think, perhaps, whatever moved me has dissipated, and I am now here for good. The town is doing well. They have established a general store and are now a steady trade route on the road west. I have men who work the land for me, who tend the cows and the sheep, and I sit in my mansion and rake in the profits. Life is good, but I am aware of what is to come. I am no fool, and I know where this path will take me.


I saw them today. They came to the house, asking for work. My eight-time great-grandfather came onto the porch with his hat in his hand and begged me for a job. He said his wife would be happy to be my cook, and his children would help with the farm. That sounded fine. Most of the young men who helped me build this house and work the land have gone to fight in the Revolutionary War, and I have been struggling to keep up with the chores around here. Thomas has ten children, a good big Irish Catholic family, and the youngest is old enough to help with the day-to-day affairs of the farm. I agreed to hire them on immediately. I am the generous benefactor my family legends speak of, and I will be dead in the next fifteen years. I may have stopped traveling, but I can feel my body aging faster than it should. Fifteen years is a long time, but I'm sure it will seem like no time at all to me.


The War has been over for two years, but a lot of the men who went to fight haven't come back. I'm going to finish this letter and put it in the attic while I still have the strength. I am barely fifty, but I look like a man in his seventies. I can barely make it up the stairs on a good day. I don't know how I will live another ten years, but I know that if I don't get this into the wall, it may be my last chance. It's sobering to realize that I am the one who's responsible for my family's wealth, the one who made it possible for those who came before me to live in relative ease, but I suppose that is the way of it. If you ever find this, I hope you won't hate me too much. It was not my intention to leave you, but I see now that I would have likely been a terrible father. My work held too much of my attention to ever take you to a baseball game or sit with you and spend an afternoon on the couch. I would have neglected you, and for that I am sorry. This, it appears, is my gift to you. Use it well. You never know when you might be called upon to make your own history. I love you, and I hope you are well.

Yours, always

Marcus Crim."

I sat at the desk and just looked at the collection of letters.

It was my Dad.

He had built the house, he had set our family up, and then he had died without telling them who he was. It was unthinkable, and I realized I had no way to prove any of it. There would be no records going back that far. The original owner of this house had lived before the town did, and any receipts of the bill of sale paperwork would not have survived. I suddenly wished that Mom was here. She would have wanted to see these letters and would have likely believed them without question. I wished a lot of people were still here, but there was no one to substantiate these claims.

I wondered if this was how Dad had felt as he walked to town to begin building this house? Had he felt so utterly alone, knowing that his only real family was still ten years away in a place he had never seen? I felt so alone, so utterly desolate, and I sat there looking at the letters and thinking until the sun made rainbows through the stained glass.

As it did, I saw them fall on something I had missed.

It was wedged far in the back, behind one of the braces, and I walked towards it like it might bite.

It was another tube, this one carefully placed so that it wouldn't be jostled or broken when it came time for repairs.

I opened it, and inside was a beautiful oil painting of a man sitting in the parlor downstairs. The blues looked a little different, the curtains in the style of the late 1700s, but the man sitting in a wingbacked chair was someone I knew. I had seen his picture before, but he had traded his white coat for a dark, rich suit. His hair was short, more orderly, and he had grown a mustache, but I would have known him even if he'd had a beard.

It was my Dad, and I knew what I would find when I carefully flipped the painting over.

"Marcus C Rim, commissioned 1774 by Warren Fritz."

It's framed downstairs now, as are the letters Dad left for me.

I think I cherish them more than the house, as well as the knowledge that Dad never really left us.

He's always been there, making sure our way was smooth from a gap of generations.

09:31 UTC


The Beggars Deal

"Penny for your thoughts, young man?"

I glanced down at the old man as he sat in the snow, his jeans getting crusty from the ice.

He held a grubby coin in his threadbare glove and his eyes looked up, imploring me to take it.

Homeless people weren't exactly rare in the city, and I was honestly tired of being asked for change today. I had been asked for change as I went to work that morning several times. I had been asked when I stepped out to have a smoke around ten that morning. I had been asked again as I went to lunch, and twice more as I returned. I had been asked for handouts throughout the day, but this was the first one who had offered to give me anything.

I reached down hesitantly, and when he moved it out of the way, I figured he would make his pitch now.

The coin would be rare.

The coin would be special.

He would want something for it and then I would be asked to give.

"Your thoughts first, son. An even trade, I'm sure."

I drew in a nose full of cold air, thinking about making something up before finally settling on the truth.

"Okay, you want to know what I was thinking about? I'll tell you. I pass people like you every day, people on the streets with nothing better to do than beg. Why not try to better yourself with all that time you have? Why not drag yourself out of your situation rather than sit and huddle in it? You have the ability to get out of your current quagmire, you choose not to, and that makes me angry."

I had expected the old man to get mad, I had expected him to get quiet and take his coin back, but he surprised me when he laughed.

"Is that what you think? That we're all just lazy bums out on the road with nothing better to do? I imagine you might change your mind if you had to do it yourself."

I scoffed, "Please. Living off the generosity of others? This is a city of thousands. Even if only one percent showed you charity, that's still likely more than I make in a week." The old man smiled knowingly, and that should have been my first indication that something was amiss. Even then, I sensed that something didn't feel right here. This wasn't the usual kind of banter one had with a person, even someone like this guy, and it was starting to prickle the hair on the back of my neck. Why had I stopped to talk to this fellow at all?

This whole thing just felt odd.

"Wanna make a wager on that?" the old beggar asked

He still had the coin out, and when I got a good look at it, I could tell it wasn't what I thought it was.

It was filthy, but it had the underlying gleam of gold, unevenly milled, and thick on the edge he had showed me.

"Live for a week as I live, if you can. After seven days, if you're still alive, I'll grant you any wish your heart desires."

I shook my head, thinking the old man had to be crazy. What was he, some kind of genie? My mind flashed to the Beauty and the Beast story too, however. Hadn't the fairy come to him on a snowy night and made requests? If I declined his offer, what would the consequences be?

I shook my head, I was a grown man out here weighing fairy stories, what was wrong with me?

"Sure, old-timer. It's a deal. What do I need to do? Prick my finger? Promise you my firstborn?"

"Just take the coin," he said, holding it out, "but make sure you hang on to it. If you go the full week but lose your coin...well, I can't promise it will end well for you."

I rolled my eyes, reaching for it without thinking. I wasn't really afraid that it might magic. It was more likely to be coated in something like fentanyl or acid. I had gloves on, and I didn't expect that whatever he had coated it in could soak through my leather wraps. I lifted the coin to my eyes, looking at it in the dim light of the lamp post, and saw that it was bigger than I had thought it would be.

It was the size of a half dollar, one side picturing a proud king while the other had a grinning skeleton. The words percussum est dela were printed on the front with vivere vel damnari ab eo emblazoned on the back. I knew they were Latin words, but that was all I knew. The coin was old, some ancient edifice of commerce, and as I looked at it in the street lamp, it flashed in my eye with a sudden stab of pain.

The last thing I heard was the old man laughing and then I fell into darkness for some undeterminable time.

I was awoken not by my alarm, but by the less-than-kind tap of a stick on my foot.

"Hey, HEY, I've already told you that you can't sleep here. Pack it up before I call the cops."

I came groggily awake, aware of being cold and slightly damp before anything else. I put a hand up to my eyes, wondering what had been on that coin the old man had given me, and as my vision came into view, I saw a large man in an apron standing over me with a broom. He held it with the blunt end raised, prepared to swing if I made a sudden move. I put a hand out and told him there was some kind of mistake, but when I raised my hands I saw they were wrapped in the threadbare gloves that had been holding the coin. What's more, my clothes felt scratchy, like bugs had been crawling on me, and as I got up, the man with the broom tensed like he might take a swing.

"I'm serious. Get out of here before I call the cops."

I told him I was going and as I stumbled out of the alley I saw that it was early morning. There was still ice on the ground, steam coming up through the sewer vents, and people were milling up the sidewalk on their way to work or wherever. I must have looked a mess because they walked past me without a second glance. The man with the broom was watching me from the mouth of the alley I had been sleeping in, and made it pretty clear that if I didn't start moving again he was going to make good on his threats to call the police.

As I made my way down the street, I was already reaching for my cell phone. I'd call an Uber and get back to my apartment. I was unsurprised to find it was missing, as were my wallet and my house keys. No problem, they had no idea which apartment I lived in so the keys wouldn't do them any good. A car was something I never saw the need to own, so I had no vehicle to steal. The old man had gotten away with about eighty dollars from my wallet at the end of the day, and anything he took from my bank account would soon be returned.

I would go to my apartment and tell them I had been mugged and they would help me get into my place.

I hoped the old man had a good laugh about drugging and stripping me, leaving me in an alley dressed as a vag as he took my stuff. "Live a week like us" indeed. I'd be back in my apartment in a matter of minutes and then the police could show him what it was like to live as an inmate.

I was full of indignant rage as I passed in front of the big shop window not far from my house and caught sight of myself in the reflection. At first, I thought the old man was taunting me, following me to see what I would do once I woke up, but when I rounded on him to give him a piece of my mind, I realized I was looking at my own reflection. I was the old man, his leathery skin and short gray hair, and I just stood there touching my face with my hands as I tried to make sense of it.

"Live as we live for a week if you can."

I suddenly understood that there would be no going back to my apartment. There would be no talking to my banks or getting my phone replaced. I felt something heavy against my left butt cheek and reached into the back of my threadbare jeans to find the coin nestled there. I looked at both sides, the Emporer and the skull, and suddenly discovered I could read the words there.

"Thus the deal is struck," said the Emporer.

"Live or be damned by it," said the skull.

I wanted to fling it into the street, but I remembered what he had said and slipped it back into my pocket.

I had noticed something else that both sides had shared, the minting date was a week from now and that mirrored what the old man had said too.

"Live for a week as I live, if you can."

I nodded, how hard could it be?

That first day was probably my highest point. I was full of resolve as I walked around the city. I didn't have any luck with breakfast, but that was okay. I didn't see any need to beg, I would find money if I needed it. Besides, begging would just prove that he was right. I was going to do something with my week, start a new job, or find an honest way to make money.

So, I set out to find work.

One look at myself was enough to tell me I would be turned away from most upscale jobs. I needed a shave and a haircut badly, my clothes were old and stained, and I needed a bath worse than I needed a meal. All of these things were outside my grasp without money, but I knew where I might get some of them. I had heard of the Mission Shelters, everyone had seen their billboards or heard their commercials, and I knew they had clothes I could use and maybe facilities I could use to shower. If I could get myself back to rights, then I could secure employment and not have to beg. I would likely have to spend a night or two in the Mission, but I would have a job and money and I could get back on my feet before the week was out.

I came to the Mission around nine and was met at the door by a man with a clipboard.

"Good morning, sir. Are you checking in?"

"I was hoping to get some clothes for an interview, maybe a shower and some,"

"Terrific," the man said, cutting me off, "are you part of our employment program? You don't look familiar."

"Well, no, but I want to use the clothes to gain employment so I can,"

"Unfortunately, sir, those clothes are only for people in the employment program, and there is a sizable waiting list for that program. I can get you on that waiting list, but it's likely to be some time before we can,"

I started getting a little indignant, "I mean, the clothes are donated. As a taxpayer, those are my taxes at work. I'll bring them back, I just want to look good for an interview."

The man's well-crafted smile was beginning to slip, "Do you have an interview lined up, then?"

I realized my mistake and admitted I didn't.

"Well then, you have no reason to need these clothes. Now, if you would like to get on our program list, we can do that, but, again, that takes time."

I was a little put out, the process seeming a little daunting, and told him I would like a meal and a shower if I could.

"And I want you to have those things, but if this is your first time here then we need you to fill out some paperwork so we can get you in the system. If you'll step over here we can,"

"Do I need to register for a bowl of soup and a hot shower?" I asked.

I didn't mean to become belligerent, I was just put out by the rigamoro.

"Sir," the man said, "Have you been drinking? I believe I detect alcohol on your breath, and you're becoming quite upset. We can't allow you in if you're inebriated, and you have to be twenty-four hours sober before you can enter the Mission. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave."

I said some things then, things I regret now, and I didn't even see the young bruiser who stepped between us as I got in the clipboard man's face.

When he tossed me onto the sidewalk, the man with the clipboard saying I wasn't welcome at the Mission again, I got creakily to my feet and checked to see if I was all there.

Other than some bruises, I was none the worse for wear.

I was still hopeful that I could make my way without them, and so I set off to find employment.

By the end of the first day, I was shivering on a bench in a park I had never been to before. The park was less for joggers and bird watchers and more for drunks and needlers. A pair of them were sharing a syringe near an old oak tree not far away as I tried to get warm under some newspapers I had scavenged. I tried to ignore my empty belly too as I lay with the cold wood beneath me. I hadn't eaten much today, just a part of a sandwich I had found in a garbage can, and I was feeling empty as I tried to sleep.

I told myself tomorrow would be better, and I fell asleep praying it would be so.

Just six more days to go.

The next day I woke up ravenous, my head spinning and my mouth dry.

It was early, first light, and I knew that if I wanted to eat today I needed to get some money.

As luck would have it, I found something not far from the park.

There was a warehouse nearby, and I heard men unloading a truck as they prepared to load up another. I offered to help, most of the workers looked like scabs, and the guy with the magazine and the cigar told me that he'd beat whatever I broke out of me and to get to work. I spent a few hours moving boxes from one truck to the other, and when the guy came out and told us we were done, he put a ten-dollar bill in my hand and told me thanks.

"Come back tomorrow if you want another one," he said.

I wanted to be happy as I looked at the crumpled bill, but I realized this wouldn't take me very far if I wasn't careful. I tried to make it last, buying coffee from a gas station along with some simple breakfast foods, but by noon it was spent. I had been walking the streets, trying to luck into more grunt work. I found another warehouse offering under-the-table work, but as the sun went down and we all came to the office to get paid, it seemed the boss had left and we were left with no other options but to disperse or answer to the police.

I went back to the same park again that night, but the cold after the sun went down was too much to bear in the open.

I walked around trying to find somewhere to sleep out of the elements, and around two, I found a doorway that lacked the little rounded spikes they usually put down to dissuade the homeless from sleeping there.

As I shivered in the doorway, I told myself it would only be another five days.

As I slipped into thin sleep, I hoped I would be alive to see the end of those five days.

The next day, the third day, I finally gave in and began begging. The job I had found the day before wasn't open, the gates barred and the snow deep enough to keep the trucks off the road. I was hungry, I was cold, and I didn't dare go back to the Mission. So, I found the warmest spot I could find and began panhandling. The crowd that morning was small, the snow closing a lot of businesses, and they weren't overly generous. By the time noon rolled around, I had a few dollars and some change in the can I had managed to scoop out of a dumpster. It got me some junk that wasn't very filling, and I walked around looking for work as the snow began to melt. I was a little more weary about taking odd jobs, lest I get taken like the day before, and as night began to settle and people made their way home, I once again set up to beg.

I was dozing against a wall, feeling weak and tired from the cold, when someone cleared their throat loudly.

I opened my eyes to find two cops standing over me, both looking cold and grumpy.

"Move along, sir. You know you can't do that here."

He poked my can with his foot, sending it tipping over as the small amount of change rattled out.

"I'm not hurting anyone," I breathed out, "I'm just hungry."

"Doesn't matter. Hungry or not, you can't do that here. Get moving before we move you."

I wanted to get indignant, but I simply didn't have the energy. I scooped up the coins and started trudging through the snow again. I didn't know where I was going, but I remembered the old man's words and knew I would lose that precious coin if I got arrested. I wasn't even halfway through the week and I already felt like I might not make it to reap the rewards.

The next two days were a blur. I remember trying to donate plasma and being turned away for various reasons. I looked for work, but the snow had ground a lot of businesses to a halt. I found warm places that would feed me, churches and soup kitchens, but they weren't equipped to let people stay. I ended up sleeping rough both nights, shivering on stoops or under the slight cover of alleys, my blanket soaking up the snow as it melted beneath me.

It was the most miserable I had ever been, and it made me wonder where I had ever gotten the idea that the homeless in my city were lazy. Looking back on my words to the vagrant, words spoken out of ignorance, I felt a deep sense of shame as I remembered that night. He was just trying to survive, just trying to get a meal or somewhere that wasn't a chilly bench for the night, and all I had seen was a leech trying to get fat off the hard work of others.

As I lay beside a dumpster Friday night, watching people drink in the warm lights of a familiar bar, I knew I'd never make that mistake again.

Saturday dawned cold and stark, the snow melt making the ice thick on the sidewalk as the world came awake again.

I had some luck after helping the owner of the store I was sleeping beside clear the ice from in front of his shop. He patted my shoulder, giving me a plastic bag of sandwiches he was about to throw away. I marveled at them, counting about twelve of the plastic-wrapped squares, and he even threw in a large cup of coffee to go along with it. I tried to tell him it was too much, but he waved his hand and laughed.

"You're doing me a favor, really. Those sandwiches were going into the garbage before I almost busted my ass on the slick sidewalk. If you can get some use out of them, more power to ya. Take them with my thanks."

By ten I had eaten about five of them, the coffee was long gone, and I felt full for the first time in quite a while. It was something I had taken for granted, that feeling of being nearly too full, but as I sat in the park, my blanket keeping the worst of the snow from soaking into me, it felt good to be here again. I had refilled the coffee cup from a nearby fountain, and as I drank water and soaked up the sunshine, I felt pretty good about the direction I was going.

"Hey, friend," came an unfamiliar voice, and my eyes snapped open as I started to bolt.

It was a man in similar dress, his face a scraggle of many days of beard growth, and he was smiling through his remaining teeth at me. I could smell him between the ten feet that separated us, but it wasn't an altogether unpleasant smell. He simply smelled earthy as opposed to bad, stale in a way that made me think he was taking care of his clothes when he could, and the jackets he wore bulged tumerously, making me think he wore at least two.

"Whoa there, didn't mean to scare you. I was just wondering if I could trade you for one of those samitches? I've got some of the vitamin C packs from the free clinic. You could mix them with that water and get something nice to drink to go along with your full belly."

He was holding out a crumpled silver packet with the words Emergen C on the front and I nodded as I held out a ham and cheese for him. He smiled again, asking if he could sit as he tore into the sandwich with gusto. He had clearly not been eating well, and I realized that must have been the way I had torn into the one I'd eaten earlier.

"Names Carter, good to meet you, friend. Haven't seen you around, are you new to town?"

I told him I was since it wasn't technically a lie. He laughed and told me I had picked a heck of a time to come to town. It was the worst snowstorm they had seen in a long time, and the homeless guys were having a hell of a time keeping warm.

"Between the missions and their paperwork, the cops and their endless rage for guys just trying to get by, and the shopkeepers not wanting us in their alleys or stoops, it's getting hard to find a place to lay your head most nights."

A few others had wandered over to see who Carter was talking to, and they traded some food for sandwiches as well. I ended up giving away a few of them, and as the afternoon stretched on, they all decided to migrate somewhere to find warmth for the night.

I told them goodnight, meaning to find my own place to sleep, but Carter called my name before they left the park and asked if I was coming.

"There's always room for one more around the fire," he said

I spent that night sitting in an alley that in the middle of a four-way intersection of buildings. It cut the wind nightly, and someone had secured a tarp to keep the snow off us. The barrels here had coals burning in them, and the people who stayed here had created a kind of oasis in the swirling snow.

"It's not much," Carter said, "but it's better than nothing."

I spent the evening in the company of the other cast-offs, laughing and sharing food around as we warmed ourselves by the fires that glowed through the night. Someone had a guitar, others told stories, and I fell asleep against a wall in the best shape I had been in for the last five days. I wished I had known these people from the start, and wished I had found this place from the first day, but I was introspective enough to know that I would have insulted them when this strange journey began. This was a place I had to come to naturally, a state of mind I had to reach on my own, and as I slipped into blissful slumber, I hoped it wouldn't simply disappear when I woke up like some kind of dream.

I wish it had now.

The alternative was a lot worse.

I woke up to the sounds of people yelling and running. One of the barrels had been turned over, the coals making smoke as they tried to catch a sleeping bag on fire. People were screaming, scooping up what they could as people moved in the dancing shadows with purpose. I shivered beneath my blankets, certain we were getting attacked by demons, but as the shapes got closer, I saw they were police officers.

They had discovered our camp, and now they were taking away our one refuge from the cold.

I sat as still as I could, trying to be still and unseen, and when they moved away, I made a break for the nearest alley. I saw flashing lights and heard someone yell at me, but I just kept kicking up snow as I ran for my life. The sun was turning the horizon into a hopeful pink, but I just kept moving. When people got in my way, I went around them. When bus stops or stoops rose up to block me, I moved around them too. I didn't dare stop until the sun beat down on my neck, and only then it was because I just couldn't go anymore.

My legs were tired, my head spinning from over-excursion, and when I flopped down onto a bench in a bus shell, I was out of breath.

I kept trying to make sense of what had happened, but it just wouldn't mesh in my brain. Why had they come after us? We weren't hurting anyone, we were just looking for a warm place to gather. They had come in like we were terrorists, and I hoped that Carter and some of my other friends had made it away.

I don't know how long I sat there, but as my stomach started to growl, I knew I would need food. I thought I might put my hat out and try to get some money. The longer I just sat there with my eyes closed, the more I wondered what the point was? The oasis now felt like a dirty trick. They had allowed me a moment of happiness so they could pull the rug out just as I thought I might have found something better. I almost preferred the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect, I thought, and as the day passed and I continued to sit on the cold metal bench. What was the point, after all? If everything could change in a second, if all safety was just an illusion, then why do anything?

"Enjoying your new life of leisure?"

I jumped, realizing someone had sat down beside me.

I opened my eyes and realized it was me. I looked exactly the same as I always did in the mirror, but I realized it had to be the old man pretending to be me. As I sat here, day had become night and, just like that, we had passed seven days. I had done it, I had weathered the storm, and I liked to hope I was a better person for it.

"Just basking in my newfound sense of understanding," I answered, realizing it was true.

I took the grubby coin from my pocket and held it in my hand, feeling a strange warmth coming from it as we sat in the chill.

"Well, you made it, and a deal is a deal. What will you wish for now that you have all this knowledge?"

I put the coin in his hand, feeling the warmth transfer between us.

"I want the means to make sure no one else has to live like this. I want to help people, even if it's just in this town. Is that too vague?"

He closed his hand around the coin, and I felt that warmth radiate through my stomach.

"I can work with that."

I opened my eyes and suddenly I was me again.

I was sitting there as if waiting for a bus, and when I got up, I knew what I had to do.

It was hard starting out, but the backers came and the money came and slowly I fed them.

Slowly, I brought them off the street and gave them a place to stay.

A decade ago, I took a coin from a beggar.

Today, I own one of the largest shelters in the city. There are no confusing forms, no prerequisites, and no red tape. We feed those who are hungry, we house those in need, and when I see the hope in their eyes, I know my wish has come true.

22:17 UTC


A shadow of her former self

It all started when my wife died eight months ago.

Susan was everything to me. We had been together since high school, and it had been love at first sight. We married after graduation and had spent eighteen years together in wedded bliss. I worked as a writer, finding jobs in editing or column writing, Susan working as a receptionist for a friend of my mother. We spent a lot of time together, my days spent mostly waiting for her to come home. I lived for the moments when we were sitting in front of the TV together or curled together in bed as we talked about our day. We never had children, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I was afraid she would leave me when she discovered I was infertile, I’d been injured when I was small, but she just smiled and said we would just have to be satisfied with each other.

It was never something we struggled with.

Instead of kids, we gave each other our full attention. We traveled as often as we could, ate out often, had date nights at least once a week, and loved each other more than anyone else we knew. Susan was my everything, and I hoped I was hers. She never gave me any doubt that it was so, and those eighteen years were the happiest times of my life.

They weren’t enough, though.

A million years wouldn’t have been enough.

I was writing something for some rag that Susan liked to read when I got the call.

She had looked over my shoulder that morning before she left, cooing appreciatively as I edited a piece from one of her favorite writers, other than me, of course. She wanted to read it when I was done, and I promised I would let her see it when she got home. I had been invited to write a column too, something they might let me do more often if it did well, and I had just started fleshing it out when I decided it was time for a second cup of coffee. The coffee maker was burbling happily, filling my mug with liquid happiness, when my phone rang. I thought it might be Susan, letting me know she had made it to work, and I almost didn’t answer when I saw it was an unknown number. The telemarketers had been particularly bad lately, and the last thing I wanted was another conversation with someone who wanted to sell me solar panels or extend the warranty on my car.

Turned out it was the police.

There had been an accident.

They were sorry, but she had passed very quickly, likely instantly, and hadn’t felt any pain.

My cup smashed as it hit the floor, soaking my feet in hot coffee as I gripped the counter for support.

I would need support for the next few months. I was a wreck, my wife had been my whole world and now, suddenly, I was alone. I couldn’t even go into the bedroom for the first two weeks. It smelled like her, her pictures were everywhere, and I slept on the couch a lot on those days. I didn’t even go in there to get my suit. I just bought a new one off the rack for the funeral. It was small, and neither of us had a lot of friends or family, but the girls from the doctor's office were very supportive and very sorry to lose such a dear friend.

We buried her in Mountain Hills, a cemetery not far from the house, and after they lowered her into the ground, I just sat there, trying to figure out what to do now.

I was still sitting there when the guys from the funeral home came to pick up the chairs, the sun setting behind me as I watched the hole in the ground where my wife now lay.

“Sorry for your loss, Mr, but we’ve gotta pack these up now.”

I got up, drove home, and just sort of sat on the couch.

When the sun came up, I was still sitting there.

This became a pattern.

The next two months are kind of a blur, honestly. I lived my life like that quote from Forest Gump. When I was tired, I slept. When I was hungry, I ate. When I had to go, I went. I really didn’t leave the house unless I had to, and when I did, I walked. I didn’t trust cars after that, and I’m still not comfortable riding in anything with wheels. The walks probably did me good, but I was so lost at this point in my life. She had been my everything, my whole world, and I just didn’t know how to get by without her.

I didn’t work, and my contracts quickly dried up. I wasn’t working on my books either and I had fallen into a deep funk. If something hadn’t pulled me out, I would have probably wasted away right there. Thankfully, something did.

That was when the gifts started showing up.

The first one came on Valentine's Day, though I know now that was no accident. I had stepped out in the evening to check the mail, and there it was on the stoop. I almost stepped on it, and that would have been a shame because someone had left my favorites. Sitting there was a bouquet of wildflowers, a box of those dark chocolate truffles Susan had always bought me, and a card. I was stunned for a moment, not quite believing what I was seeing. This was just the sort of thing she would do, too, and I was expecting her to jump around the corner and surprise me. Susan hadn’t been very large, a wisp of a thing, but she liked to scare people and found it hilarious when she managed to.

As the minutes stretched by and no scare seemed incoming, I picked up the stuff and brought it inside.

I put the flowers in some water, I had never gotten flowers before but I remembered that much, and set the chocolates on the table. I opened the card and found a pretty generic card, flipping it open to see who had sent it. I snorted as I read it, wondering whose bright idea this had been, but feeling a little better nonetheless.

"From your secret admirer." was written inside, the handwriting fine and spidery.

As I ate the chocolates, I felt the tears come on unbidden. The taste, the smell, it all reminded me of Valentine's Days past. We would sit and watch a movie, curled up on the couch together, while she munched at her Ferrero Roches and I on my chocolate truffles. We’d trade sometimes, and I wished now that I could see her eyes light up as I handed her one of my chocolates again.

I passed out on the couch a little later, but my dreams were a little brighter that night.

After that, I started finding other gifts. Food from my favorite Chinese place, candy, and books by writers that I liked. One time someone even delivered a seafood feast from Sir Crabbingtons, and I was halfway through it before I realized it was mine and Susan's wedding anniversary. I waited till after I had finished before crying this time, but the tears were still there.

I never questioned these gifts, but I never looked for them either. I assumed they were from friends or from the girls at the office she had worked at, but their dedication was heartwarming if it was. My wife must have talked about me a lot for them to know my favorite foods and snacks, and I was honestly just happy for a break from the sadness. Each of these gifts made my day a little better, and the pain ebbed away a little bit more with each new package. Suddenly I was writing again. Suddenly I had the energy to reach out to my old contacts and try to work again. I was running in the evenings, I was doing laundry and dishes, and I felt like I might be getting better.

The gifts were nice, but it was the other things that started to make me wonder if the gifts were all that was being given.

Sometimes, I would wake up to find that the clothes were folded or the dishes were done, and I couldn’t remember doing them. Other times it would be simpler things, things easily explained but no less odd. A blanket thrown across me where there hadn’t been before. A pillow under my head when I had slept on the couch and left it on the bed. Sometimes, as I came awake a little in the night, it seemed like I could see shadows moving in my house. I would sit up sometimes, the living room bathed in the light of whatever TV show I had fallen asleep watching, and look around for the source of the movement, finding nothing. It was weird, but I figured it was probably just my imagination. I had been through a lot lately, some mild hallucinations might be expected.

It was on one of my jogs when I finally discovered the identity of my secret admirer.

I was coming up the hallway, huffing a little from a longer walk than usual tonight, when I saw someone leaving something outside my door. I had to grab the wall for a minute when I first saw her because I thought it might be my wife. She was short, a little chubby, with brown hair cut short. She was dressed normally, jeans and a t-shirt, but the hightops were also something my wife had favored. From the back, she looked exactly like my dead wife, except for the hair. My wife had always talked about getting it cut short, but she favored ponytails and braids too much to cut it too short. She was bent at the waist, leaving food or something for me, and when I called her name she jumped.

When she turned around, though, I could see I had been mistaken.

The woman was similar to my wife, but her face was different. They could have still been sisters, but there were definitely subtle differences. Her nose was rounder, her face less angular, and she just seemed less substantial. I began to wonder if she might be a cousin or something, but I couldn’t think of anyone in Susan’s family who looked much like her.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, looking embarrassed, “I guess you caught me. Sorry for being so mysterious, I just didn’t want to mess up your mourning. I was a friend of your wife’s, my name's Anne.” she offered me a hand to shake and I likely looked just as unsure of myself as I took it.

I told her to knock next time, to come in and share a meal with me, and she agreed.

That began our strange friendship.

Anne was just the companion I needed, and we spent two to three nights a week in my living room. Some of you will lift your eyebrows at that, but it was never anything more than talk. Anne cried as often as I did, the two of us reminiscing over Susan and what she had meant to us. Anne, as it turned out, had known Susan far longer than I had. The two had been friends since they were children, and Anne told me about Susan’s early life in a way that made them sound like sisters. The more she told me, the more I wondered why I had never heard of her before? If Susan had known Anne since they were children, why was this the first time we were meeting? Many of her stories were things I had heard before, so they tracked, but any misgivings soon melted away as we spent our evenings remembering.

Sometimes, she held me while I cried, sometimes I held her, but it was nice to have someone there in my grief.

She had just gotten done with a particularly funny story about how Susan had cut her hair too short and given herself something like a mullet before shaving it down into a sloppy pixie cut when she suddenly began to cry. Her despair was deep, the sobs racking her, and when I moved to hold her, she pressed her face against my chest.

“I’m sorry,” she said through blubbers, “but I just miss her so much.”

I held her that night as she wept, and I think that was when I started to fall in love with her.

It made me feel terrible, but I couldn’t help it. She was so much like Susan, even her voice reminded me a little of my dead wife. I didn’t want to move on, I was still trying to process what to do next, but Anne helped a lot and I got the feeling that she didn’t mind being that person for me. Suddenly, she was coming over every night, bringing food or wine, and we spent our evenings together. It didn’t seem to bother her that I never wanted to leave the house, it didn’t make any difference to her that I didn’t cook, but the longer she was in my life, the more that changed. Suddenly, I was paying more attention to my clothes, I was taking on columns for online magazines and selling my short stories again. I was cooking dinners instead of eating takeout, and I felt as if I were getting better.

Anne was a big supporter of this too, pushing me to get better, and that was when I started to notice that something was a little off about her, something I should have noticed before then.

Anne only came by after dark and was unavailable during the day.

Anne had a very demanding job but would change the subject anytime I brought it up.

Anne would always leave before dawn, if not well before.

Anne wouldn’t stay at the house, wanting her own space, which I could respect.

These things, on their own, didn’t seem so strange, but all together, they made me curious. I had also started wondering why Susan had never talked about Anne before. It was something that had always been at the back of my mind, but now it began to linger like a fishbone in my throat. If they were so close, why had I never met her? If they had been friends since childhood, why hadn’t she been at our wedding? Parties, trips, gatherings of people we had drawn around us, and Anne had never been at any of them.

I asked Anne about that one night, but she waved it off, telling me I must have seen her at those things.

“I’ve been to every gathering you guys have thrown. I was at your wedding, I was at the funeral, I’ve been with you guys all the way.”

It made me think I was going crazy, but I couldn’t remember seeing her before that night two months ago. I thought about going through old pictures, but neither of us had ever been picture-taking people. We kept our memories inside, not on our phones, though it made it a little difficult to check now. I was hesitant to bring any of this up in front of her as well because I didn’t want her to feel like I was accusing her of anything. Anne had become very important to me, and I didn’t want to go back to sitting in my depression on the couch every night.

That is until I saw something I shouldn’t have.

We’d been watching a movie on the couch, something Susan and I had seen a thousand times, and I had dozed off towards the end. I had laid my head over onto Anne, and if it bothered her, she gave no indication. I don’t know how long we sat like that, the two of us together on the couch, but when she got up to leave, I came half awake as I mumbled something about seeing her later. She didn’t respond, which I thought meant she hadn’t heard me, but as I opened my eyes a little, I saw something that froze me in my couch divet.

A black shadow was standing in the doorway, it's back to me as it prepared to step out into the dim hallway. The creature looked like tar, its form more of a feminine insinuation than a fact. It must have had its back to me, but when I inhaled harshly and fell off the couch, it turned back to see what had happened. I was on the floor, breathing harshly and trying to find enough breath to scream, when the shadow creature bent down in front of me and spoke in Anne’s voice.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. This wasn’t how I wanted you to find out, but I suppose it was inevitable.”

I couldn’t find my breath. I just looked at the thing that was speaking with Anne’s voice, trying to make sense of all this. What the hell was going on? In my head, I had wondered if Anne was some kind of stalker or a weirdo who was only pretending to know my wife, but this…

This was a little bit beyond anything I had thought about.


She glanced at the sliding door to our apartment, noticing the sun beginning to peak up and sucking in air.

“I don’t have time now, but please, listen. You have to trust that I would never hurt you, and I will explain what's going on. Some of the answers might not make a lot of sense, but I promise I’ll tell you what's going on. Just wait till tonight, till I get off, and I’ll tell you everything I can. Can you do that?”

I nodded, and she returned it slowly.

She got up and walked towards the door, but turned back just before passing through it.

“I’m still Anne, I’m still the person you’ve known for the past few months. Just keep that in mind.”

Then she walked through the door and left me sitting on the floor of my living room.

I was a mess all that day. I didn’t understand anything. All I knew was that someone I’d grown pretty close to had turned into a featureless monster right before my eyes. I kept trying to convince myself throughout the day that it had all been a dream, that I was still dreaming, but the longer the day went on, the more I had to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t. That meant that whatever it had been, it was coming back here tonight, and I would have to make a choice when it got here.

Did I let it in, or did I tell it to go away and lose Anne forever?

When the knock finally came, night having crept up on me as I worried the day away, I looked out the peephole to see the same old Anne standing on my doorstep.

As I opened the door, she breathed a sigh of relief and asked if she could come in.

I let her in, figuring that if the creature had wanted to hurt me, it would have done it before now.

“Okay,” she said, not sitting as she paced the living room, “I know you’ve probably got a ton of questions, but just let me tell you my side before you jump to conclusions.”

She took a deep breath, steadying herself as she tried to find a place to begin.

“I didn’t lie, I have been with your wife for a very long time. In fact, I’ve been with her since birth. Susan and I have gone everywhere together, right up until the day they buried her. I,” she paused, clearly not sure how to say it, “I’m Susan’s shadow.”

I squinted at her, not really sure what to make of that.

“When your wife died, I was reassigned to someone else. Someone new, someone very new, but I still remembered you. I wondered how you were and what you were doing. I hoped you were doing okay, and as this little person napped and sat, I knew I had to go make sure you were okay. I had to stay with my new person during the day when shadows are the most noticeable, but at night I was free to roam a bit more. Babys don’t move as much as you might think, and with a seven o’clock bedtime, I was left with a lot of time to kill. I leave at five when the sun is coming up, and come back at night so I can see you.”

She stopped, looking at me in an expectant way, but my mind was altogether unprepared.

“So…you’re Susan’s shadow? How?”

She shrugged, “Shadows are a part of people, but once they're dead, we aren’t really needed. I’ve been with Susan since the start, since the first time she met you, and I fell in love with you right alongside her. I had to know that you were safe, to know that you hadn’t given up, so I started to come back to our old house, and I found you suffering. So, I left you gifts to keep your spirit up, little things to make you realize you were still loved, but I got careless. I let myself get seen, but I guess that worked out in the end. Turned out, I was hurting too. I missed Susan, missed her more than I had any of the people I had been attached to before, and talking with you helped me get over her, just as it helped you. We helped each other, in the end, and that was what we both needed. We became what the other needed, and I’m thankful that you happened along and found me that day.”

I had questions, all kinds of questions, but the one that stuck seemed the most obvious.

“If you have someone new that you’re attached to, does that mean that eventually you’ll have to go?”

She nodded slowly, looking like she hoped I wouldn’t think of that right away.

“Eventually. As the person I’ve been assigned to grows, she will need me more than just during the day. I may have to stay with her more and more often at night, and that will ultimately mean less time with you. I want to be here for you, but I don’t want to stop you from moving on either. You need to get past her, to get past me, and eventually return to life as you knew it. You deserve that, you deserve to be happy.”

I felt the tears leaking down my face, smearing her and turning her into a wavy half-person.

“Will you stay with me as long as you can?” I asked.

She nodded, smiling, “I will. I’d really like that.”

That was six months ago. The little girl she has become the shadow of, Anne, is starting to move around more, and Anne is happy with her progress. She doesn’t think it will be much longer before she’s walking, but she promises that she’ll still come and see me for a while to come.

“One day she may decide that the nights are for going out or working, but for now she’s still tossing in her crib before the sun goes down, and that's just fine with me.”

I don’t know how long I’ll have my Anne for, but I know it would never be long enough.

Even as I write this, I know there will come a time when her visits become less and less, and I know that will be fine too.

I had Susan for eighteen wonderful years, and I’ll take whatever time I have with her shadow as a gift.

16:19 UTC


The Kids of Orwin Woods

The job at the gas station was a blessing when they called me, but it would become something of a megrim before I finally quit.

I worked the closing shift at the Fill-N-Go for the better part of eight months, and it was eight months of making coffee, stocking coolers, and listening to weary women with too many children argue about what you could and couldn't buy with EBT. My first job was construction, working as a carpenter's assistant since I was sixteen, and after the big layoff during the pandemic, I was tempted to go back. The amount of construction work hadn't changed, but the call for laborers had waned, it seemed. Suddenly, I was forced to look elsewhere for work, and my savings were starting to get dangerously low when the Fill-N-Go finally called me.

The worst part about the job wasn't even the job itself, not really.

The worst part was the walk home when the day was done.

I lived in the Shady Oaks Trailer Court, about three blocks from the gas station, and it just made sense to walk to work. I didn't have a car, it was one of the first things to get repoed when I was out of work, so if I needed groceries or booze or a bite to eat, I was walking. It wasn't much of a problem, I like to walk, but it was the sights that made the walk unbearable, especially at night.

Walking past Orwin Wood in the middle of the night was enough to give anyone the shivers.

Orwin Wood had existed long before the children's home that had given it its name, but the long-gone orphanage was why it was infamous. Established in eighteen ninety, Orwin Children's Home was a place for cast-off children from all over. The rambling plantation home, lovingly donated by Mrs. Orwin before she died, boasted thirty acres, complete with a barn, fields for growing, a pond for fishing and swimming, and a lot of room for rowdy, growing children. At its pique, it had held some hundred and twenty kids and had been a place of new beginnings and fresh starts for many lost boys and girls.

Those were not the reasons it was remembered, however.

The reason it was still whispered about in fireside stories was the fire of forty-two.

By nineteen forty-two, the orphanage had fallen into disrepair. They had some thirty-odd children they were caring for, and the consensus was that the fire may have been set for reasons of insurance fraud. Others claim it was a candle that was left lit after bedtime or a stray spark from the fireplace, but however it was started, the results had been devastating. Thirty people lost their lives in the fire, twenty-five of them children, and that was when the stories began. You could still see the ruins of the children's home as it hulked in the overgrowth, reclaimed by the forest after the blaze, and the area around the hulk was supposed to be haunted. Lots of people had seen ghostly apparitions, hand prints in the dirt on their cars, or had toys glide into the road without warning. The Orwin Woods played into a lot of local legends, and it was widely agreed upon to be a very haunted place.

I explain all this so you understand why I might have been a little eager to get home on my evening walks.

Nothing strange had ever happened to me, nothing besides that feeling of unseen eyes watching you, until last night.

Last night, I got off work to find about a foot of fresh snow on the ground.

It had been expected. I had watched it come down all day as I rang up coffees and gas for customers. I had walked to work through flurries earlier that day and had dressed accordingly. Still, I thought, as I pulled my hood up and turned to lock the doors behind me, that wouldn't stop it from being a cold, wet walk home.

The dark gas station disappeared behind me as I started shlepping home, tonight's cigarette already between my teeth. It's a terrible habit, I know, but it's about the only vise I can afford to have these days. Tonight, however, I was having a hell of a time getting the tip lit. Every time I would lift my lighter to spark it, the wind would pick up and blow my little flame out.

Cold as it was, however, the shiver that passed up my neck had nothing to do with it as I came even with Orwin Woods.

I tried not to look as I walked past, the forest a dark shadow on my left. Like almost any night, I could already feel those phantom eyes as they marked my passing, and I kept my gaze firmly ahead. My Grandma had always told me that when you sense the supernatural taking notice of you, it's best not to let it know you see it. "Some things don't like being seen, Bug. Remember that," she would say, and it made a lot of sense on nights like tonight.

I was still trying to get the cigarette to kindle, but the wind was keeping me from my evening smoke. I put a hand up to block it, but it seemed my fingers weren't even a good enough barrier for the capricious gusts. The unlit cigarette was a good distraction from the creepy woods, however, though maybe a little too good. If it hadn't been for the snow, I would have walked home without incident, but I supposed I could have also unknowingly let something follow me in too.

Suddenly I was done with the games. I was jonesing for a smoke, and I bent almost double as I tried to spark the tip. Three clicks and a lot of cursing later, I managed to get the flame to stick, but as I took that first long drag of gaseous pleasure, I noticed something beside me on the sidewalk.

It was a pair of footprints.

No, not just any footprints, a pair of children's footprints.

I don't mean shoe prints, either. I could count the individual toes on these prints, and there was a line of them beside my much larger ones. I didn't know when they had picked up my trail, and I didn't really care, either. Whoever had made them had disappeared, and I looked around curiously. It was twenty-three degrees outside, so my phone said when I left the station, and I was looking for the kid bold enough to walk barefoot in the snow. There was no one, though, and no footprints going hastily away from mine, either.

I was alone in the snow, though the fact that they had stopped right next to my own let me know I might not be as alone as I thought.

I glanced back, wanting to see if I'd been mistaken, and that's when I saw the second set. They had stopped about five feet behind me, but they were just as plain as the first set. As the wind hit me again, I tried to keep my teeth from chattering. The chill I felt had nothing to do with the weather, and I found my eyes drawn to the new prints as they waited patiently for some sign.

Two perfect pairs of tiny feet, sitting placidly in the powder.

Then, before my eyes, a third set came crunching toward me, and my cigarette made an angry hiss as it hit the fresh snow.

I was running before that third set came even with the second, and this seemed to be the sign they had been waiting for. I heard those bare feet as they slapped wetly at the concrete behind me. My head cried out for caution, it would be very easy to take a tumble out here and get hurt, but my desire to get away was up and my adrenaline was coursing in the face of this formless threat. I slid as I rounded the corner, but my sneakers held purchase as I kept showing my heels. I could feel the burn in my chest as I ran, my breath steaming like a loco as I ran for my life, and I knew if they caught me, I would never see home again. None of the stories I ever heard about the woods spoke of the children hurting anyone, but by the sounds of their ghostly feet, I guessed they weren't trying to sell me cookies.

By the sound of it, there were more than a dozen after me, and I could just imagine the intentions of this legion.

I saw the trailer park coming into sight, but that seemed to be where my luck ran out.

I came off the curb, running flat out, and when I hit the patch of ice, I stumbled and went down hard on my outstretched hands.

I was lucky, I suppose.

If I had hit my head and gone unconscious, there's no telling if I would have ever woken up.

As it was, I just gashed my hands on the concrete beneath. I could still hear them behind me, getting closer and closer, and I walked on my hands and knees until I got across the street and managed to right myself. I was running up the narrow walkway, dashing between the trailers as I saw my faded red one coming into sight. I prayed the stairs wouldn't be icy, and when my foot touched down on the first step, I was rewarded with a groan and the firmness of unfrozen wood.

I darted up the steps, crossed the porch, and rammed the key into the lock as I frantically walked into the entryway. I sighed in relief, I was home, and nothing could hurt me here. I turned to slam the door, the screen door not feeling quite firm enough, but my hand stopped.

I saw my breath as it came puffing out, and it felt as if it were thicker than usual.

There were dozens of footprints in the snow outside my trailer. Some were in the yard, some were on the porch, but all of them led to my front door. It was as if all those kids had followed me home, each of them beckoning to be let inside so they could come out of the cold. I could just picture a dozen or more half-burnt children, the snow falling on their ruined skin, looking hopefully at me as if just asking for a place by the fire.

It was all too much, and when I slammed the door shut, there was a note of finality to it.

I made a mental note that night to try and find a new route home, but the situation, it seemed, fixed itself.

I was awoken at six am the next day by my boss, telling me that Dixie, his day manager, had called to tell him she quit that morning.

"Run off with her damn boyfriend, and good riddance I say. You've been a solid night guy, but I figured I'd offer you a chance to come work days if you want. The position comes with an extra three bucks an hour, but you'd have to start today. Interested?"

I was, and the forest seemed a lot less spooky in the daylight.

I haven't encountered any more phantom footprints after that night, but I'll never forget how the ghostly mob chased me home one cold February night.

21:55 UTC


The Woodland Seat

Everyone had heard of the throne, but very few people had ever seen it.

The Woodland Seat was something of a local legend. If you follow the river into the woods, turn east at the huge rubber tree at the fork, walk into the setting sun, you will come to the devil's clearing. In the clearing, a place where nothing is said to grow sits a chair of stone. If you sit on the chair, you will be cursed by the devil himself for all time.

It's a story I've heard since I was old enough to go to sleepovers, and it's a story I've always wanted to prove or disprove. People have gone into the woods, and I remember the first time someone showed me shaky cam footage from a camcorder of a weird stone chair with faces carved in it. It was later proven to be fake, the chair was something they had made themselves and shot at night, but other people claim to have gone into the woods and found it. Their videos proved to be either better or worse than that first bit of wobbly cinematography that I watched on the couch at my friend John's house, but they all fed the fire of my enthusiasm. It's always been my dream to see it, the REAL seat, and when Mrs. Ragles assigned us a final project about urban legends for senior English class, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The assignment was actually about the cause of urban legends and she wanted us to make our own.

When I asked if we could make our project a search for The Woodland Seat, she looked absolutely tickled.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with John's senior project for AV, would it?" she'd asked, giving me a little wink.

"It might," I hedged, as good as telling her our intentions.

John and I have been friends for years, and his interest in movies, especially making them, has been ongoing since the two of us were in elementary school. John got his first camera when he was six, some cheap thing that his dad had picked up from Toys R Us after John practically begged him for it. I'd say John definitely got his money's worth from it because we spent the next four years making our own short films and "epic" movies in the backyard. Through the years, John's cameras may have changed, but his interest in filmmaking hasn't. He often calls on me and our other friends, Shawn and Fred, to star in his latest projects, and this would be no exception.

"I've got enough battery packs and memory cards to record for three days straight." he told us as we sat in his garage and suffered through his pitch meeting, "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to shoot the next found footage masterpiece."

John's project, his senior film thesis, was also about Urban legends too, specifically their place in horror films. He wanted to make the Woodland Seat the antagonist in his found footage movie, the witch in his Blaire Witch project, and use us as his bumbling teen cast that go looking for it. I was looking forward to using this trip to write my own paper for Mrs. Ragles, but Shawn and Fred were just looking for an excuse to go camping for a few days in the lush woods that surround our town. We'd all grown up in the area, and the woods weren't unknown to us. We all enjoyed camping, right up until the first winter chill sent us back inside every year, and I too was looking forward to cooking hotdogs and smores as we told stories and just hung out this weekend.

So, when we told our parents we'd see them Monday night and headed into the woods Friday afternoon, we were prepared to spend three nights in nature. We had plenty of food, plenty of water, and were properly prepared with a four-man tent and sleeping bags. It was April, and the weather was already becoming unseasonably warm, so we didn't think we needed anything too strenuous. John was carrying his film equipment, his camera already out, and the three of us were carrying the stuff we would need for camping and survival, acting as his trusty pack mules.

As we came to the river, the surfacing frothing with late-season snow melt from the nearby mountains, John told me this would make a great place to film our intro.

"The river is, after all, the first leg of our journey. From here, we set out to find the Woodland Seat, and write our names for all to see across history."

I'll never forget the grin that spread across his face at that moment.

It was a golden moment, but nothing gold is made to last.

He counted me down as I stood beside the river, preparing to give my lead-in statement. Fred and Shawn had unanimously decided that I would do most of the speaking in this little movie. Neither of them really wanted to learn any of the lines John wanted read, and I had the "most video-worthy narration voice" they said. I think they just wanted to goof off on our camping trip, but, to be fair, so did I.

"This is the Leftry River, the start of our journey."

I wasn't sure I could even be heard over the rushing rapids, but John gave me a thumbs up, and I struggled on.

"Legend says that if you follow the river until you come to a huge old rubber tree, turn east, and walk into the woods until dusk, you will come to the Devil's Clearing, and find the Woodland Seat. Those who sit upon it are cursed, tormented for all eternity for daring to sit where the Devil himself once took rest. Tonight, we intend to find that seat."

"and Cut," John said, hitting the stop button as he nodded slowly, "Very nice, love it,"

"So, what happens if we don't find this rubber tree?" Shawn asked as we shouldered our packs and headed deeper into the woods.

"I guess we just wait till we find the fork in the river," I said after thinking about it for a second or two.

"What if we don't find that?" Fred asked, taking a sip from his water as the leaves smooshed wetly beneath our feet.

"Boys," John said "You're missing the point.

"Which is?" Fred asked.

"The point isn't to find the Woodland Seat or not," I said, "We're here to follow the instructions and see if we find anything or not, that's the project. The legend is what brought us here, the power of the urban legend itself, and now we seek to learn where it can take us."

Fred laughed, "So this could all be a wild goose chase is what you're telling us."

I snorted and bumped him with my shoulder, "You're getting a three camping trip out of it, Fred. Buck up."

We followed the river as the afternoon rattled on. The woods were nice this time of year. Summer was on the cusp of arriving and everything was green. The water would be too cold for swimming, though I supposed Shawn might try. Shawn liked the cold, he was built for it, and he would probably take a swim tomorrow before we set off. None of us figured we would make it to the Devil's Clearing by sunset today. We would set up camp, cook some dogs, do some fishing, and tomorrow we would proceed at sunset.

We were camping, after all, so what was the point of hurrying?

We walked most of that first day. We weren't going very fast, we had been at school all day and we weren't in any real hurry. Monday was a holiday to boot, and our parents knew we were and wouldn't expect us home till Monday night. We talked and joked, the usual high school boy banter filling our afternoon, but as the sun began to set, we started looking for this tree or this fork. We had been assured that this was the way to go by some kid who had "totally been to the Devils Clearing" and that too was part of the project. If we couldn't find our way by urban legend alone, then what was the point?

It was starting to get dark when we came to the rubber tree. It had to be the one from the story. For one, it was huge. It was far larger than any normal tree I had ever seen, and the leaves left very little mystery around its type. It was also smack in the cleft of the river, the water diverting east and west from there, and it seemed like as good a place as any to set up our tent. Shawn started assembly as Fred and I went to collect firewood. We left John to set up our firepit and returned with wood to find the pit dug and the tent already erected.

As proper dark fell around us, we filled the woods with the smell of roasting weenies, canned chili, and smores.

"So how do you reckon the chair curses you?" Fred asked, blowing the fire off his blackened hotdog before laying it across a piece of white bread.

"Dunno," said John around a mouthful of meat, and I just shrugged.

"I thought you were the expert, here," Shawn said to me as he closed his s'more into the metal square he used to toast the whole edifice.

"I mean, I know the chair is supposed to sit in the clearing, but I don't actually know anything about what it does. There are no stories about how it curses you, so I guess no one has ever been stupid enough to try and sit in it."

"Or," John said after swallowing his bite, "it's so bad that it stops anyone from talking about it."

We discussed it a little more as the night went on, but as the food was packed away and the fire was doused, we all retired to our sleeping bags for some much-needed sleep.

I think all of us thought about the seat a little as we drifted off, but it was hard to focus on much after such a long hike.

The next day was spent swimming in the river, fishing, and going over what we would do that night. John explained how we would come onto the clearing at dusk, the setting sun making a great backdrop for the film. Shawn would sit in the chair, pretending to get possessed or something while the rest of us ran into the woods. There would be lots of heavy breathing and shaky cam, and then we would begin recording again once we had set a campsite.

"We'll explain how Shawn went missing and then we'll stage some weird noises or something as we record inside the tent."

"What happens if we find the chair before dusk?" Fred asked.

"Then we stop or make circles till the time is right."

"What happens if we don't find this place at all?" Fred asked.

John shrugged, "We shoot a piece saying that our search was fruitless and that the legend remains just that."

And so, as the sun began to sink behind the trees, we set off toward it.

From the start, today's hike seemed different. The walk yesterday had been filled with talk and jokes, but today the woods seemed to scowl at the noise we were bringing into their depths. I didn't know right away if the others noticed, but I started to believe they had felt it too. Shawn had tried to initiate jokes more than once but ended up looking around guiltily when the laughter became too loud. Fred was the same way, shushing us more than once before looking around as if to ask why he had done that. John was oblivious, his camera taking it all in as we plodded. If anything, he probably thought we were playing into his vision, and was glad for the implied tension.

I found myself watching the sun as it rode lower and lower in the sky, not sure if I was dreading being in these suddenly silent woods or finding the thing I had always wanted to see. The closer we got, the more sure I was that we would find it, and that scared me. I could believe that the devil had come to this place, could believe he had walked this very path, and I found myself looking down as if I would see hoof prints. No bird song graced this place, none of the usual sounds from insects as they anticipated nightfall, and the silence was unnatural. The woods were lush, the trees thick, but the whole place felt...wrong. I didn't have a word for it at the time, but I do now.

The word I was looking for was blighted.

"When do we get to this thing?" Shawn asked as he wiped his forehead.

He turned to look at me, but I just shrugged.

"It said to walk towards the sunset and then you would find it."

"Well it better hurry up," Shawn said, "We're losing the light and we'll be setting up camp in the dark in another hour."

The sun was getting low beyond the trees and I realized he was right. The story had never actually said how far you had to walk, just that you had to follow the setting sun. Who knew how far one would actually have to go or how long you would have to slog before you got to the seat?

We walked for another twenty minutes or so before we began to see something ahead.

Something that thinned the trees as we walked.

The shadows were gathering as we approached the clearing, and it seemed that they gathered around the large and intimidating chair.

"Holy shit," John breathed, "It is real."

Boy, was it ever.

The chair was roughly five feet tall and as wide as a lazy boy recliner. It looked to be made of concrete, set with carvings of gems that were painted on with a deft hand. Across the back of the chair, right where a person's back and head would sit, were three gray faces with red eyes and open mouths. They all looked identical, but the more I looked the more I realized how different they all were. One appeared to be crying, another laughing, the middle one simply scowling. The whole construct looked like it would be at home in a mini golf course, a weird maze attraction, or even a temple found randomly in the middle of the woods. It looked as out of place in the clearing as a dining room set, and as much as I had wanted to see it, I couldn't bring myself to get too close to it. It was wrong, its very essence was foul, and I couldn't comprehend why I had ever wanted to find it in the first place.

As John recorded the thing, he pulled his eye away long enough to wave his hands and try to get Shawn's attention. He wanted him to go sit in the chair, as they discussed, and the fact that he was still standing there frustrated John. Shawn, for his part, seemed willing enough to comply but was unable. He was frozen in place, staring at the seat as if he had never seen a chair before, and John pointed at him and then back at me as he tried to get him to go.

Shawn shuddered as I shook him, looking at me almost dreamily as I got his attention.

"Go sit in the chair," I whispered, and Shawn nodded slowly as he approached it.

He was stopped, however, when Fred pushed him out of the way and made to plant himself on the seat.

"What the hell is he doing?" John mouthed.

I didn't know how to answer him. The two struggled with each other, and the fight would have looked theatrical if I didn't know they weren't acting. Both of them had this blank look, the kind of look you get when you're listening to someone on the phone while you do something else. Fred won their little scuffle, shoving Shawn back hard enough to make him fall on his butt, and claimed his prize. He took his seat on the throne, a look of deep satisfaction stretching across his face that slowly became something more exalted. Shawn just sat there, looking at him with ambivalence, and as John stepped towards him, something happened.

As he sat there, basking in the glow of his newly won seat, Fred's skin began to blister. At first, it was just a general reddening that I nearly missed in the diminishing light. It was something I could have set aside as just a sunburn until the blisters began to appear. His arms and face broke out, the puss-filled sores growing and bursting in fast motion. The blood and puss ran down the arms and seat of the chair, and as the sun set, his skin began to boil off his bones. He looked like the guys from Raiders of the Lost Ark as his bones began to show through his skin as he basked in whatever glow he was experiencing.

As he liquified in The Woodland Seat, I saw Shawn get up and shove Fred's distinctly drippy skeleton out of the chair so he could take its place. I tried to stop him, calling his name as I came towards him, but he showed no hesitation in the face of Fred's sacrifice. I looked back at John, expecting abject horror, but he had taken the camera away from his eye, and I could see him crying as he watched Shawn begin to redden. Not crying in terror or anguish, that would have been easily explained.

John was crying in exaltation, like a priest who's seen the face of God.

"John," I said, shaking him, "John, we have to go now."

He didn't seem to hear me.

He had eyes only for the quickly blistering Shawn.

"John! John!" I yelled, shaking his arm, "We need to get away from here. We need to tell someone what happened. We need to get Shawn out of that thing. We need to," but when I turned back, it was already too late.

Shawn's skin was melting off his bones, the white already visible, and as his eyes liquified in his skull, I tried to pull John away.

"John please," I begged, "Please, we have to go. Don't," but he was already walking towards the chair.

As it finished with Shawn, he shoved the skeleton out of the seat and sat down amongst the goo and the rot that lay there.

That was when I noticed something else, something I hadn't seen until Shawn's skeleton hit the earth.

Fred's bones had disintegrated into a powder, a powder that was already being taken away by the forest breeze.

I started to run, but something caught my eye before I could get out of the clearing. I saw the camera, the little handheld that John had brought into the woods, and I scooped it up before beating a hasty retreat. I fled like a coward, leaving my best friends behind, and I prayed I would never see that cursed chair again.

I stumbled through the woods for three days, eating whatever I could find and drinking from the stream when I finally got back to it. I wished many times that I had picked up one of the bags on my way out of the clearing, a tent or some food at least, but all I had was the camera and the clothes on my back.

I thought about the tent many times as I lay shivering on the damp forest floor, watching the trees for anything.

The shadow of the chair.

The walking corpses of my friends.

I wasn't sure which I was more afraid of seeing, but I just knew that both would be after me before I could escape.

When the search party found me on Tuesday, I was afraid my fears had come to pass.

They took me to the hospital, but when the police tried to question me, I just handed them the camera and trembled in the face of their questions.

That was years ago, nearly a decade, but it's something I'll never forget.

I haven't seen the footage I gave the police, and I have no desire to. The officer who reviewed it said it was the most disturbing thing he had ever seen, but it did exonerate me of the crime. I think they might have been planning to look further for the bodies of my friends, but after seeing the tape, they scrapped the idea. There was no sense in looking for kids who were no longer there and less sense in risking officers who might decide to have a seat as well.

I lost my best friends that night, and sometimes it feels like the chair cursed me after all. Everyone in town assumed I had something to do with their disappearance, though they never got the courage to say it to my face. I ended up leaving town to attend college, and I've never seen any reason to go back. Kids, however, still go missing in those woods, and I can't help but wonder how many of them are lost to The Woodland Seat.

So if you find a strange chair in the forest, steer clear.

It's made for only one occupant, though it will gladly accept you for as long as you can bear it.

03:29 UTC


Pale Death

I can't explain it, but the butterflies seem to know where the bodies are.

I've been a park ranger since I was eighteen, and after five years, I really can't imagine doing anything else. I was in the scouts when I was younger, and I've been an avid hiker all my life. Time spent in the woods is time well spent, and the ability to work there every day is honestly a dream come true.

Being a park ranger, you see your fair share of bodies in the woods. People come out here to hike and swim and forget that there are things here that will kill you. They run afoul of animals, they get sucked under in the rapids, they don't pack enough food or water, or they just get lost and aren't found till someone chances upon them.

Spring two thousand twenty-three was the year that we got some help from the butterflies.

It started with the death of Angel Myers, but it certainly didn't end there.

Angel Myers was what you would call a minimalistic camper. She would come in with a few essentials and a blanket, just kind of camp wherever she decided to drop down. She knew which plants would kill her and which ones would nourish her, which was good. She also knew which plants would get her higher than airplane wings, which was bad. We had called the police on Angel several times, but they always cut her loose after a few months, and the rangers refused to toss her a lifetime ban from the park so she just kept coming back.

When a pair of hikers told us they had found a body in an area we knew as The Meadow, we supposed this would be the last time we called the police for her.

She was naked, and it wasn't the first time any of us had seen her in this state. She wasn't bad to look at, but it was always a little weird to find someone stark naked in the elements. She was splayed out, spread eagle, in the flowers that grew in the meadows, and her eyes and tongue were missing. That wasn't terribly uncommon either, not with all the varments in the park, but the little black growths on her skin were definitely something I had never seen before. She had three rows of perfect little spikes, each of them about three inches long and each line about nine spikes long.

Other than the spikes, the strangest part of the whole scene were the butterflies.

They were not a species I was familiar with, and they were bone white with light black patterns on the wings. They were thick over the body, and I assumed they had been what had drawn the hikers. They were circling in a thick cloud, the whites easily seen against the green canopy around them, and I was as amazed by them as I was the weird protrusions on her skin.

"What the hell are these?" I asked, reaching out a finger to test if they were sharp, but finding them squishy and full of green liquid.

"Pallida mors," said Rico, one of the rangers who worked with me.

"One more time in English, for the rest of us," I said.

"Pale Death," he said, pointing to the butterflies, "They're rare, I don't think I've seen one in the flesh. They're supposed to live in the deep woods, and they only come out once every few years to lay eggs."

I pointed to the little row of black spikes running up her thigh, "On corpses?"

Rico nodded, "That's why they call them Palida Mors. They lay their eggs on corpses, though it's usually of animals. I have heard of them laying eggs on human bodies, but it's rare. I guess they found the corpse before we did."

The hikers said the same when we questioned them. They had been hiking to the meadow, his fiance wanting to see it in spring, and as they came to the end of the trail, she had noticed the swarm of pale butterflies and wanted a closer look. She had thought they were so pretty, but as they came closer, they had seen the body and realized what they were swarming around it.

We called the station and got some guys from the coroner's office down to pick her up.

We hoped she would somehow be the last body we found that spring, but I think, even then, I knew this wouldn't be the last body I saw taken from the park that year.

The next one was a hiker named Marcus Dray, and his death was truly terrible.

Some campers had gone fishing in the Conusquat River, the waterway that runs through the park, and as they chased the trout who were beginning their journey to the spawning grounds, one of their kids came across a grizzly sight. He said it looked like a scaled claw was sticking out of the river, and he ran to get his mother, thinking it was a monster. She had expected a rock formation or maybe a stick with some moss on it, but what they found was an arm covered in the black spike pods the butterflies left behind.

"They looked like scales," the mother had said, still a little shaken by the experience, "and I could understand why he thought it was a monster hand. It wasn't until I got closer that I realized it was an arm jutting up from the foam."

At first, we thought the guy had just fallen into the river and gotten stuck between the rocks after drowning. When we pulled him out, however, we got a better idea of the extent of the damage. Something forced him into the small space between the two rocks, and they hadn't done it gently. His shoulders were broken, like snapped in the middle and just folded up. He was crumpled up like a suit coat in the hole, and that wasn't all.

Something had eaten his face.

Not like Angel, where her eyes and tongue were missing. They had eaten his entire face off, down to the skull, and there was nothing left but ragged flesh and scored white bone. If it hadn't been for the arm sticking up, we might have never found him until someone panning for minerals found a finger or a skull.

The butterflies, the Pale Death, presided over the whole thing as we managed to get him onto the shore.

After that, we found four more bodies in a month.

One was left on a mountainside, its hands missing and its nose and lips chewed off. He had been climbing the low-grade mountain we have on the grounds, and when he'd gone missing we thought it might be a small avalanche due to snow melt. When a fisherman found him laid out on the lowest peak of the mountain, however, we knew it was something much worse.

The second was a woman who'd gone into the woods to relieve herself during a picnic and was found in the low branches of a tree, well, half of her was. The other half was high up in the tree, and something had eaten her legs. The husband had to be hospitalized after he identified the top half of his wife, and I felt bad for her kids. They had been here to enjoy a picnic in the park, and something had taken that away from them.

The third was, unfortunately, a child named Kaitlyn Mills. Kaitlyn would have been six in July, but she never got the opportunity. Kaitlyn was the strangest and also the easiest to identify. Kaitlyn had left her parents campsite in the night, but it appeared that whatever had found her had taken an interest in her. Something had taken care of her in the woods. Something had fed her, something had changed her clothes, something had made sure she drank clean water, and then, unfortunately, its care had lapsed. Kaitlyn hadn't died because her face had been eaten off, she had died because her skull had connected with the ground and cracked. It was pretty clear she had fallen out of a tree, but the coroner said she would have needed to fall from a pretty steep height. She was stretched out too, as if something had made her comfortable as she lay dying.

The fourth was the worst, and the reason for what came after.

The fourth was Ranger Franklin Carpenter, and he had gone missing after going to check one of the pump stations. We had six pump stations, things we used to bring clean water to the campgrounds, and he had been responding to a call about a malfunction in station four. He had gone out before lunch, and we found what was left of him the next day after he never came back. If he hadn't died wearing his name tag then we wouldn't have known who it was. His arms and legs were missing and believed to have been eaten. His face was gone, as was the top of his skull and what lay within. Something had gnawed his chest, eaten his buttocks, and chewed his genitals off for good measure. He was just a torso and part of a head when we found him on the edge of the woods, and a lot of us got pretty scared after losing one of our own like that.

Over all four bodies, the butterflies held sway, and their eggs were in evidence.

I expected a visit from the Head Ranger, but when he arrived with a man in a dark suit the next day, we should have known something was about to happen. He had a few other men in similar attire, and Rico lifted an eyebrow as we took our seats at briefing. None of these guys were dressed for more than a slow stroll over concrete paths, but I doubted that was their intention.

"Agent Lee has been gracious enough to come and help us with our little problem. We will be splitting all of you into groups so you can canvas the woods. We need to find whatever is doing this before summer starts, especially with one of our own being a recent casualty. We have a lot of ground to cover, so, Rangers will be splitting off with two of Agent Lee's boys to show them the trails and help them bring this to a close."

So, that's how I found myself in the woods with Agents Fiest and Agent Martin. Agent Lee might have looked like an investment banker, but these two had traded their Brooks Brothers suits for camo and assault rifles. We had broken out the shotguns that we used for putting off angry wildlife to supplement the firepower the Agents had brought, and the three of us proceeded through the woods. Agent Fiest wasn't a big talker, but Agent Martin made up for it by asking questions about what we had seen. I told him about the bodies, the parts that had been eaten, and the butterflies that seemed to hover around everything.

"Butterflies?" Fiest said, and it was probably the only thing I had heard him say in the hour we had been walking.

"Yeah, Rico calls them something in Latin that basically means Pale Death. They show up around the bodies and just kind of mark where they are."

Fiest gave Martin a look and the two nodded knowingly.

"Have you seen anything near the sights? Footprints or scales maybe? Stuff like insect skin?"

I shook my head, "No, mostly just dead people."

I was preparing to ask them what they thought we were looking for since they clearly knew something, when we came through a dense stand of trees and into an open space that was anything but open. It seemed invested with the pale butterflies, and as we stalked in, they fluttered around us almost gladly. The two Agents took this as a good sign but I wasn't sure what to think. These things had been a pretty foul omen in the last few months, and finding a huge number of them now seemed less than ideal.

As we moved into the cloud of butterflies, it also seemed like something was stalking us. Through the thick wave of insects, there was a large shadow that stalked us. It almost appeared human-sized, but the longer I watched it flit through the swarm, it seemed to grow. It may have had as few as two arms, or as many as eight, but the wings I saw stir its smaller kin were what worried me.

They were tall and white, just like the others, and it seemed to be using them as a blind as it lured us deeper.

"It's close," Martin whispered.

"Steady," Fiest said. "If we spook him, he might fly away before we can take him out."

"What?" I half whispered, talking too loud, but too scared to care.

Fiest looked at Martin, shrugging at something in the other's face.

"You've heard of the moth man? Well, there are counterparts to that thing. The people of Joplin talk about how many of their children were saved from a tornado by these "butterfly people," but they assume those who were lost were taken by said tornado, and not the same creatures who saved them. We call them Lycaenidae Bipedus, and they are extremely," but he never got to finish.

Suddenly the cloud of butterflies enveloped us, their small bodies clinging to us as they struck. Our vision was cut off, and as the automatic weapon chattered, I hit my belly and started crawling. I wanted to get out of the swarm, to get away from the wild bark of the gun, and as I crawled, I heard people yelling. The wet sound of something being torn cut off some of the screaming, but the gunfire persisted as I kept making my way out of the cloud of insects.

I kept crawling until I made it out of the clearing, and once I was no longer being buffeted by butterflies, I got up and started running.

I could still hear the gunfire behind me, but I knew that what I wanted was to live.

I knew that if I stayed, I'd be dead, and I still very much wanted to live.

I ran until someone yelled at me to stop and shoved a gun in my face.

It was another one of the Agents, and as they all coalesced, I was ordered to take them back to the spot where I had left Agent Fiest.

As little as I wanted to go back, I agreed.

By the time I found it again, Fiest was sitting on something he had covered with a tarp. Fiest's left arm was hanging uselessly at his side, his clothes were ripped to shreds, but he was grinning like a big game hunter who's bagged the big one.

"Get it to the truck. Tell the boys back at base I had no choice but to kill it. It refused to come peacefully and forced my hand."

Martin was dead, his body covered in a slew of crushed butterflies. I saw him before they could tarp him as well. Something had torn his thrown out, and I assumed it was whatever was under the big tarp that Fiest was guarding. They took both the tarped bodies away, and when Fiest came towards me, I was worried he would be angry that I had fled.

He put a hand on my shoulder instead and nodded in understanding.

"Don't feel bad, kid. I would have run too if I'd had the choice. Both Agent Martin and I knew what we were getting into. You got us here, that's what counts."

They took it away, and the murders stopped.

We lost two more hikers that year, but they were both killed by the elements.

The butterflies left that same day, never (hopefully) to return.

I can’t help but think about that spring again as winter abates and the season gets warmer.

I tell you one thing, I’ll be keeping an eye peeled for butterflies from now on.

03:58 UTC


Shadows of the Valley

Article 1- https://www.reddit.com/r/Erutious/comments/14a5id0/the_ghost_grass_hermit/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

Article 2- https://www.reddit.com/r/Erutious/comments/18mh245/beware_the_toy_makers_woods/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

Hey guys, it’s me again, back with more of my travel diaries.

I heard how much you liked my trip to Maine, so I figured I would share my latest travel with you. I was in Arizona, taking in a local festival when my editor asked if I would investigate a Mesa about three hours away. I wasn’t really on board, I had met someone at the festival and was looking forward to spending a couple of days with them, but when I saw the advance check he sent along I was excited to get underway.

I know, I know, but I have bills to pay, too, and festivals come and go.

So, I hopped in my rental car and headed to The Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix. The state park is pretty interesting. Lots of red rock and cacti, kind of reminding me of old westerns I used to watch with my grandpa. There are a lot of Buttes, and you have to be careful about critters getting into your campsite, like most places out in the desert. The instructions I was given were for a particular canyon with a name that was nearly unpronounceable to me. I’ll have to type it out phonetically when I go to write the article, but the native Americans who lived in the area called it Watcher Ridge. Apparently, lots of campers in the area had reported seeing strange figures up on the ridge that surrounded the valley, and it was supposed to be pretty cool, if not a little spooky.

I asked some of the park Rangers about it, and they told me they had never seen anything like that, but anything was possible.

“You do see weird stuff out here from time to time,” one of the park rangers told me, “ and you do get kids who come out here to use drugs sometimes, not that that would change their experience. These are old places, and sometimes they are home to old things. Watch yourself out there and make sure you’re being safe.”

I asked him if he had any advice for capturing photos of the watchers, and I wish I had listened to what he said.

“My advice is that I wouldn’t. Things like that don’t like to be looked at for too long, and they certainly don’t like having their picture taken. Do yourself a favor, young man, take some pictures of the Butte, do a little camping, and see your watcher, but only write about what you see. People go missing out there, and it could always be because they decided to take more than memories home with them.”

I drove the car down into the canyon and by nightfall, I had a firepit dug and my tent pitched. I walked around a little as the afternoon grew shadows, taking pictures of wildlife and the gorgeous views. It was hard not to feel intimidated by the towering buttes that surrounded my campsite, and I took a lot of pictures. As the sun set, I made my way back to my tent and started making inroads on dinner.

I sat by the fire a little while later and watched the sky come to life. It was a beautiful night, the stars spreading out before me like a tapestry, and I was feeling cozy as I sat beside my fire and took it all in. I still hadn't seen any watchers, but the reports I had said they didn't come out till later. It was early spring, and the next closest fire was a little dot on the horizon. It felt like I had the park to myself, and as I sat looking at the stars, I thought that if the watchers had this kind of view every night then it was no wonder they stayed.

Speaking of the watchers, I kept an eye out for them as the night grew late, but I didn't see any. I had made sure to put myself amidst three large buttes which was the best place to see them, or so said the accounts, and while they were quite imposing, I had yet to glimpse one of these mysterious figures. I reached for my phone and opened the email I'd gotten, looking over the accounts that my editor had been sent.

There were three, one from a solo hiker, one from a couple on a camping trip, and one from a group of college students who had come out to party.

The solo hiker, who called himself Frank, talked about stopping for the night in the valley and seeing the figures on the cliff side. He had been camping in the valley where I was now, just his sleeping bag and the stars when he had noticed some weird shapes on the rock wall. They were vaguely humanoid, or at least human-shaped, and had been watching him intently. He couldn't tell much about them, but they had looked like shadows that had just been cast up onto the rock wall. He had ignored them and they had watched him right back and when he'd woken up the next day, they were gone.

The couple had said much the same, except that when her husband had flashed his lantern at them, more had appeared on the adjoining butte. Her husband had thought it was funny then, and kept flashing his lantern at them until the ledge was ringed in shadowy figures. His wife had begged him to stop before it got that far, and as they sat in the canyon and watched the gathered shadows look down at them intently, the mood had begun to shift. Suddenly it wasn't quite so much fun with all those ominous eyes on them, and the couple had packed up in a hurry and stayed at a Howard Johnson that night.

I looked up before reading the last one, checking to see if they had come while I was doing research, but no such luck.

The third account was by far the strangest.

A bunch of college kids from the University of Arizona had come out to camp for the weekend and pursue academic matters in the desert.

And by that, I mean they came out here to drink beer, bother people who had come for a quiet weekend, and generally be a nuisance for the park service. They had set up about five tents, two barbecues, and tried to set up a volleyball net before the park service stopped them. They had requested the spaces for the weekend, but they had only lasted until the wee hours of Saturday morning. There were four different accounts, but they all boiled down to one story.

The twelve of them had started drinking before the sun went down, and five of six of them were still drinking at about two in the morning. They had built a large fire, something they probably weren't supposed to do, and were sitting around it and telling stories or anecdotes or whatever. They were all three sheets to the wind, and that was when one of the guys had said they should tell some ghost stories. No one seemed to remember who had suggested it, but Parker was telling a story about a shadow figure that had dogged his heels one night as he went back to his dorm when one of the girls noticed the figures on the ridge. The boys had started out puffing their chests and saying how they better stay away from their girls or they would mess them up, but as the figures stayed up there, the group started to get curious. They claimed there were two at the start, but as they watched them, they noticed two more farther down. One of them thought they had binoculars in their pack, but as they used them to look at the assembled figures, everything changed.

The figures had started getting angry then, their shadowy forms moving fitfully as the four became eight, became sixteen.

The report claimed they had started coming down the butte, just descending like ants out of a hill, and the drunk kids had decided to put out their fire and get in their tents. All six had pilled into the same tent, waking up the two people already inside, and they said that all at once it was like something was shaking and pushing the outside of the tent. They could hear people yelling from the other tents too, but if anyone went outside, they never said. This went on for about five to ten minutes before it stopped as quickly as it had begun.

All twelve of the kids had went to check on the campsite, and they said it looked like an army had ransacked it. Grills were trampled, coolers were reduced to foam pulp, and the chairs they had been sitting in around the fire were metal and cloth hulks. The kids hadn't even bothered to clean up. They had got into their vehicles and left, leaving their campsite behind. They had called this report into the forestry service, refusing to come and clean their campsite, and were likely on some kind of list now. They would have to choose some other national park to trash in the future, I thought, as I stifled a yawn and reached for my paperback.

I looked back up at the butte and hoped they wouldn't make me wait all night.

I yawn again as I found my spot in my much loved copy of Clash of Kings and settled in to wait. The longer I read, the more the words began to run together, and it wasn't too long before the book lay across my chest and I was snoring beside the small fire, my head propped up on my rucksack. The fire was low, thankfully, and nothing came up to inspect me, nothing with sharp teeth and a rumbling belly, at least. The night went on around me, the moon sliding across the sky, and if the watchers on the butte saw me, they didn't say anything.

Not yet, anyway.

I slept till around one, and when I jerked awake I was aware of little beyond how low the fire had become and how late it had gotten. I cursed, closing my book and stuffing it back in my rucksack as I sat up and rubbed my face. It couldn't be helped, of course. I had driven all day, set up a campsite, and then tried to stay up all night. Something would have to give, and I suppose my body would need to recharge sometime.

I had turned to get my rucksack so I could take it into the tent with me, when I saw something on the lip of the butte behind me. It was a smudge, more like the idea of a shadow, but the longer I looked, the more I saw something hunkered up there. The moon was nearly full, the light casting everything in an ethereal light, and as I glanced along the ledge, I became aware that I was surrounded. The ledge was full of shadowy figures, and as they goggled down at me, I reached for my camera.

They hadn't liked when someone had looked at them through binoculars, but I needed a shot for the article.

I lifted the camera, zooming in a little as I tried to get as many as possible in frame, but I had been careless.

When I clicked the button, the flash went off, and in the dim light it seemed like a miniature sun.

I could see them through the little window, the zoom pretty good on my camera, and the way the kids had described them hadn't done them justice. They boiled down the side of the butte, like lava from a volcano, and I grabbed my pack and made a run for my truck. I tossed the pack in, climbing behind the wheel as I keyed the engine and peeled out of the campsite. It took me close to a mile to realize I still had my camera in my hand, and it took everything I had not to toss it roughly into the backseat. I needed those pictures, but I needed to be alive to turn them into my editor and get paid.

The moon was almost full, as I said, and it cast the flatland below the butte in stark light. I could see them roll over my campsite, and as they came after my car, I continued to floor it. They were fast, but after a mile or two, I stopped seeing them. By the time I got to the edge of the camping area, they were gone, but I still kept driving until I made it to the visitors center near the entrance to the park.

I slept in the backseat with the doors locked until the sun came up, and then I went back to clean up my campsite.

I was a little braver than a bunch of kids, at least when the sun was up.

My campsite was destroyed. The tent was wrecked, pulled up and shoved about twenty feet from where I had staked it. The campfire looked like a marathon had run over it. The little camp stove I'd brought was equally flattened, and I was pretty glad I had remembered to grab my backpack. I took some pictures of the campsite too. Might as well give the readers the full picture of what they might encounter. I cleaned up the mess, pilling it into the back of my rental car, and dumped it all into the dumpster near the rangers station.

“Looks like you got more than photos,” came a voice from behind me.

I turned to find the ranger from the day before, his arms crossed as he leaned against the side of the bus shed that sat near the dumpster. He didn't look mad, more bemused than anything, and I couldn't help but chuckle a little as I nodded. He was right, I hadn't listened and I had paid the price.

“Ya, guess I should have listened.”

He shrugged, “Eh, I didn't figure you would. Some people just have to go looking for things, and they need proof to take back. I'm just glad you made it out in one piece.”

I asked him what he meant, and he glanced behind him before stepping closer.

He clearly didn't want to be heard.

“I didn't lie yesterday, I have never seen anything like what you're talking about. That being said, we do find abandoned campsites from time to time. It's usually people just camping in their sleeping bags under the stars, the ones who don't have access to a tent. Even a simple door seems to keep them out, but that won't stop them from pushing it. We had a fella get his RV pushed over a few years back and we had to get a tow truck out here to pick it back up. His kids had been stargazing and must have noticed they had an audience. We started telling people to be careful, but we haven't had a disappearance since last year and I didn't think they would bother you. Guess I was wrong.”

I got a hotel not too far off to finish my article. The lodge is “rustic” but it still has HBO and a whirlpool tub in the suite.

The article is coming along nicely, but the memories of that night in the valley may take a little longer to finish with me.

Stay tuned for more of my travel articles, I'm sure I'll take you with me again sometime.

02:52 UTC


I'd like to tell you about Bill Meags.

Bill Meags was nothing if not a giving man.

He’d give you the shirt off his back, even if it was sewn right onto him!

This was a lifelong trait of his. In childhood, he stopped eating lunch once his mom stopped packing one for him and he had to start buying it at school. All it took was throwing a certain kinda look Bill’s way, or just making at him like you were going to ask him for his money, before he’d hand it over, not wanting to get in the way, he’d say, and he’d say it like he was apologizing, too.

That character never went away from Bill, no sirree. He was always real considerate, a sweetheart, especially to his parents – even though his dad saw him as a pushover (and another p word that doesn’t feel all that Christian for me to be repeating). I lived real close to him growing up, down the same block on Copperfield Drive, so we got all acquainted like kids that live close to each other at that age will do a lot of the time.

My bad, friend. I’m getting a bit lost in the weeds here, aren’t I? What I’m getting at is the generosity of Bill Meags, and why it is that you and I find ourselves in our situation at the present moment. You must be wondering about it, aren’t you? You seem like the curious type.

A few more things about Bill in those early years, first. Bill, you see, was always sharing his toys with his brothers back in those days. Not a birthday would go by – Bill’s birthday, I mean – where his brothers wouldn’t make out with at least half of his new toys stuffed in their greedy little pockets. Far as I know, this went on as long as he still had birthdays at home.

He was never real popular with the ladies either, when we got to that age where liking girls and their nice legs and nice smells went from gross to sweet. Bill was not a bad looking guy, but he was not a good looking one either. He was just there most of the time, as much as it pains me to say. He was just about decent at school, not an ivy league contender or anything like that, but better than you woulda expected out of a guy who was like Bill – a guy that was just there, who looks kinda like he’d fit better standing next to a potted plant or the wallpaper than around other people. I think him doing well in school made sense. He got the reps in. As in, he had been doing everyone’s homework for them. No one had threatened him, there was never anything like that.

The rumor that was floating around certain circles at our school was that if you asked Bill if he wouldn’t mind helping you with your homework, and you made it seem like it would be just the biggest fuss for you if you had to do any of it, he would tell you not to worry, that he would get it done, and he’d say it like he felt guilty that it wasn’t already done even though he just had it handed to him. Didn’t matter the subject, he’d do it. He always denied the rumor when I’d ask him about it, but I was pretty sure it was true, and I think he wouldn’t tell me because he didn’t wanna break up my peace of mind. So, yeah, I think he was alright at school because he was doing homework for classes he wasn’t even taking.

Me? I think it ended up being his helping his classmates with homework that led him to meeting Ana, a girl that took a real liking to Bill. Or maybe her name was Ava… it was something like that. Strange how time fades the clearness of your memories like they’re in a heavy fog, isn’t it? Well, in any case, Ava or Ana was a nice girl, and pretty, too, and she made her intentions real clear to Bill Meags, and that was unusual at the time, you see, for a girl to be that forward with a guy in the romantic sense. That was lucky for Bill, because I don’t think they woulda gone out if it wasn’t for her...

And they did go out. For a time, anyway. Until Brad Something-or-Other had come up to Bill one day and told him he thought Bill was such a nice guy, one of those real generous types, and Brad was acting all like he didn’t know that Ana (or maybe it was Ari?) was going steady with Bill, and he was really hamming it up and saying how it would be just swell to have the chance to go on a date with that cute girl from third period math. Brad was one of those guys, you’d know the type if you saw him, that made you wanna question the Creator when all your knowledge of what it meant to suffer was that you were stuck at home again with your parents on Saturday night. He was a complete jackass – there’s just no other word that works here – but he was also gifted by God and genetics and growth hormone to be a good-looking jackass. He was tall, a jock, and had a jawline that angled his face in a way that seemed to slide the looks that girls would give him into the rest of his face. What I’m getting at is that Brad could go on a date with anyone he wanted, and had gone one dates with anyone he wanted, “gotten down” with girls in higher social brackets compared to Bill’s girl. And he was too plugged into the social jungle that is high school to not have known they’d been going steady.

This is important, you see, because even though I can’t prove it, I believe deep down that Brad was pulling a prank on Bill. But Bill didn’t see it as a prank, and Bill agreed with Brad, telling him of course, you and Ana/Ava/Ari would make such a cute couple, you should go for it. Bill didn’t wanna impose on Brad, and he didn’t wanna get in the way of their potential future relationship, he told me later. Wouldn’t it just be awful, he said, if I were the reason they weren’t happy together? I can’t get in their way, I just can’t do that. That’d be just plain selfish of me.

Thing is, this was 8 months into their relationship, and he was as into her as one got at that age. But he didn’t want to be a bother, didn’t want to burden Brad-the-Tall-and-Chiseled-Jackass, didn’t want to get in the way or be an obstacle, so he stepped back, and Brad and Ava/Ana/Ari/Ash had gone on 3 dates before he forgot to wear a rubber on the third and knocked her up, and Bill was real outta their way when they both dropped out of school together to raise it. But Bill was heartbroken, he was, even though he’d never say it.

Ah, you don’t need to say anything for me to know what you’re thinking. I can see it in your face. I’ve been at it again. Rambling, haven’t I?

There is a point, I promise; a reason I’m telling you this and telling it to you the way I am. But we should fast forward a bit, shouldn’t we? Time is ticking, and midnight is getting closer, and I would like you to know why we’re here, hard as that might be from your perspective to believe.

So, fast forward some decades, and Bill’s married. His wife’s a presence of a woman named Martha. Now, lemme tell you, that Martha, she’s a force – both her and her mother.

Only reason Bill and Martha got married was because she asked him directly if he was planning to propose to her. Some 5 years into their relationship, that was. And Bill sure wasn’t going to tell her no, was he? That wasn’t in Bill’s nature. It was about that time, he told me after he broke the news of their nuptial plans, that I got myself good and married. Then, almost like it was just an afterthought, he added how he didn’t wanna annoy her, or make her feel all negative because he had struck the idea down, even if the answer woulda probably been not right now. So instead of saying not right now or let’s talk more about it he said yes, both right then and right there. She made him propose all formal with a ring, of course, but she was happy. Martha’s version of happy, anyways.

Now here come the newlyweds, and not 10 months later, out of Mrs. Martha Meags comes their first and their only, a boy they named Artimus. Bill had wanted to name him David, but Martha wanted to name him Artimus, so Bill and Martha named him Artimus. The child was adored, I can tell you that. Even after he started getting hard to be around since he was turning into one of those mopey teens with one of those mopey faces who always talks about how no one could ever understand them. Martha told Artimus he could do no wrong, and she told him that even after he started coming home in the back of a police cruiser. He started with shoplifting, getting caught wearing expensive shirts and sweaters under the oversized hoodie he’d always wear. But because he was underage, and since Martha had settled into one of those clerk jobs at the precinct office (and because she had come to know some of the fellas on the force), the young and troubled Artimus would often come back home after getting caught, at least in the beginning. You best believe I prayed for that kid every morning and every night. But God helps those who help themselves, my momma always used to say, God rest her.

Bill, at this point, had raised the idea of sending Artimus to a disciplinary school over the summer break. The way Martha reacted you’da thought you told her she needed to sacrifice Artimus in some pagan ritual. She would hear none of it. She said her son was one of those boys that came into his own a bit rougher and a bit later than the other boys, but it was because he was sensitive, and sensitive boys need extra coddling. Bill had thought about how he had been as a kid and felt his son woulda been one of the ones to ask him to do his homework if they’d been kids together. I guess this thought musta sparked something in him, because Bill didn’t back down off the jump and he raised the issue again with Martha. Or at least that’s how he told it to me. In any case, he said to her that he was concerned that one day Artimus wouldn’t come home in the back of a police car, that he wouldn’t come home at all, that instead the police officer would come to their home without Artimus and tell them that their son was dead or dying alone in some cold hospital bed. She went into hysterics, said that Bill was completely exaggerating, there would be no way that she would let her son go off canoodling with delinquents and murderers and rapists and thugs. And so off to the disciplinary school their dear Arty did not go, and into trouble their dear Arty stayed.

You can see I’m shaking now. I can tell it from the way you’re looking at me. It’s because he’s getting closer. But I think we’re still making good time, we should wrap up just as midnight comes. But no more dilly dallying – because he is getting closer. I can feel him, and I think you can too.

I think it started happening right around the time Bill had been in the running for a promotion. The guy right above him had been dropped by a heart attack at the ripe young age of 40. He survived it, but he was starting to take a good hard look at his priorities, as some men get to doing when they remember that the Almighty calls them back eventually. He decided he wasn’t spending enough time with his kids and wife and quit his job the day before his heart decided to permanently quit on him. So the position – Bill’s boss’s position – was open, and it paid pretty well, at least compared to what Bill was getting paid at the time, which was little more than peanuts. Didn’t matter how many times I told him, but Bill just wouldn’t ask for a raise. He didn’t want wanna offend his boss, or his boss’s boss, or make either think that Bill was ungrateful for his salary. That could hurt one of their feelings, maybe even both of their feelings, and the idea made Bill feel uncomfortable.

Right around the time Bill was in the running for the promotion, his boss’s boss got real sick. I heard it was something with his diabetes, but the short of it was that he needed a new kidney or he’d die. Estranged from his immediate family, as it happens, which is not the spot you wanna be in if you’re in the market for a new kidney. He was looking for donors in all the ways he could: taking out ads in the paper, putting up a billboard you’d see taking the ramp off the highway into downtown, hanging up flyers on the streets, all that.

Bill read the ad in the paper, and it just so happened that he has a compatible type of blood and kidney, and he knows this fact about himself. Martha knows it about him too, and she also knows that Bill has been up for that promotion. Martha asked Bill to donate his kidney to his boss’s boss, that Martha did. Bill didn’t wanna give away his kidney. But Martha wanted Bill to do just that, and after she contacted Bill’s boss’s boss, the man who paid Bill’s salary had wanted Bill to do just that, and Bill was not going to disappoint Martha or his boss’s boss, so just that was what Bill did.

That was just the beginning. It wasn’t long after they did the kidney removal – the scar was like a big smile that ran from his middle belly to his right hip like a real big gun holster – that Martha’s dear mom was the one who got real sick.

Ah, don’t move. You’re starting to slip a bit, let me tighten that for you.

Looks about right and good. Well, anyway, Martha’s mom was heavy handed with the bottle, that woman, and eventually consequences caught up with her actions as the good Lord makes right sure of, and she found herself looking down the barrel of life-threatening liver failure with the trigger half-pulled.

She would die if she didn’t get a new liver, or at least part of one. The doctor had explained to Bill and Martha near her mother’s room that livers were “adept” at regrowing themselves. Live liver transplants were becoming more common, he told them. You see where this is going, I think.

Martha had wanted Bill to give away a piece of his liver. Bill had not wanted to. But Martha had, and so had Martha’s mother, and so (I think) had the young doctor who wanted to impress the more senior doctor. And so Bill did.

The liver procedure was a bit more complicated than the kidney one. Bill was far from spring chicken territory, but he wasn’t that old – so they felt he would be safe to get a hunk of his liver taken out so soon after having the kidney removed. But he lost a lotta blood, Bill did, and the wound wasn’t healing as quick as they wanted. Eventually, not enough blood was making it to his kidney, the only one he had left, and so his left and only kidney died. The doctor recommended they remove it before it got infected and caused him more problems. They assured him that his kidney would be used for research, so they could help prevent this from happening in the future. To other patients, of course. Bill would be on dialysis for the rest of his life.

I went to visit Bill lots when he was in the hospital during that time. I was always the only familiar face to him around there. That would be the case until Artimus was a patient in the room next to him.

Artimus Meags, dear Arty to his mother Martha, had been drag racing in a car that did not belong to him. He told his mother dearest that he was going to study at his friend’s house, and Martha had believed Arty because Arty could do no wrong. Blood alcohol was twice the legal limit, and he was not the legal age, but he could do no wrong. He had crashed into a park tree, and they estimated he had been going about 98 miles per hour, give or take. The car was hugging the tree, and the picture they showed us made it look like one of those abstract metal art exhibits.

How he survived at all was a mystery to us. They found him pinned under the spear of a tree branch that jabbed into the driver’s side window, with his legs folded backwards and over his head at all these odd angles, and the jagged edges of the crumpled car door were drilled through both his arms like rows of nails through drywall. One of the doctors in the hallway had said loud enough for me to hear: Artimus’s legs came in mangled strips, tendon and bone and muscle all mushed together… indistinguishable, each one from the other. They counted the one blessing that Artimus had passed out early – either from the pain or the booze – and wouldn’t wake up until after the amputations. Amputations, more than one.

Artimus, dear Arty to his mother, no longer existed below the waist, beyond the left shoulder, above the right elbow.

At first, they were trying to save the left arm and the right upper arm if they could. The left arm, the doctors said, had some potential to recover, it was still getting blood and they might be able to salvage it. They said that on the first day. On the second day, the doctor had said pretty much everything except for what he was thinking, which was well, let’s just wait and see, that’s all we can do right now. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and Bill and Martha were told that surgery was the “mainstay of treatment for a gangrenous limb,” but please try not to worry too much because they were making big advancements in fake limbs, in prosthetics, and the quality of life for quadriplegics was getting better, they’re even doing trials on limb donations! Of course, these trials were in the early stages, but they were so grateful for their generous donors who gave so much so they could do such vital research. They said it was all above board, but when I got the chance some time later to actually look it up myself, I could find nothing at all about it online. When I called the hospital to ask them how the trials had gone, they acted like I was crazy. Can you believe that?

Anyway, as you can imagine, Martha jumped on that real quick, oh yes she did. Limb donations? Do y’all do them here? Bill had been so generous already, and, now turning her attention to Bill and cooing in a way that always made my skin crawl, oh, Bill, wouldn’t it be so wonderful if you could give the gift of walking to our son, to our baby boy, so that he could move his arms again, and grab at things again, and live his life again, like it’s all normal and this never happened. Oh, he was so young, wasn’t he? And you’ve lived a life, Bill, with those arms and those legs. Our Arty hasn’t.

Martha wanted Bill, the man with two less kidneys than you and me and a large chunk taken out of his liver, to donate his arms and his legs to their son. To Artimus, the boy who had moved only when he began to seize in his bed, who made no noise on purpose and whose breathing was being done by a machine that shoved oxygen through a tube down his throat, and whose eyes had to be taped down so they would not stay open and dry out because the part of his brain that gave his eyes the command to blink was asleep or dead.

Yes, Martha had wanted Bill to do this. Bill did not want to, but Bill smiled at Martha and said yes, Martha, because he just couldn’t tell her no. It’s the right thing to do, was his reason this time, which he gave me right before the operation when they were getting him ready (I was the only visitor; Martha was at Artimus’s bed). Besides, he added before they wheeled him away, I don’t want to make Martha feel sad, or make her feel like I don’t love our son. I would hate to let her down… I don’t want to let him down, either. I can handle living without my arms and my legs. I’ll adapt, and better I adapt to it than he does. I tried. I couldn’t get through to him, but I did try. So, then, he went with the folks in the scrubs, and that was the last time he was whole.

He was now without limbs, any of the four. His head sat atop his torso, and his torso atop his bed, and everything else had been sealed with some foam and some surgical duct tape. It was gonna be two surgeries, so they didn’t sew him back up on the first go. I was able to see through some of the foam packing they put on his stumps (the nurse didn’t do such a good job changing it, and Bill stayed silent because he was sure she was busy, even though he started leaking onto the bed), and I could see the sawed-off edge of bone splintered in uneven edges. I looked away right quick after that.

The next request came to Bill’s room pretty soon after that. It was sometime after Bill’s boss’s boss had decided to let Bill go from his position since he had taken off one too many days since he was in the hospital, and he thanked Bill for his years of service to the company. The requester was a lady who had overheard one of the nurses in the hallways talking about the remarkable and generous gift that the father had given the son. The mother of a young blind girl had come to Bill to ask him if he would be willing to donate his eyes and optic nerve, to give the gift of sight to the sightless, and she showed him a picture of her daughter, a young girl with blank sheets of snow for her eyes where the color shoulda been, and Martha had started weeping and saying that of course Bill could, and the doctor at the door who had overheard was saying that he had never seen such generosity from one man and Bill did not wanna give off the impression that he didn’t care about the girl like he was an uncaring type of person, and he didn’t want them to think that he wasn’t open to their thoughts on the best use of his eyes and optic nerve – and, he said to me before the operation, is it really all that fair for me to have my eyes and the nerve that lets me see if that girl can’t? Do I deserve them any more than she does? That’s what he told me, anyway. But I knew better, I knew Bill said yes because Martha wanted it, and the girl’s Mom wanted it, and the doctor wanted it, and it no longer mattered what Bill wanted, or maybe it hadn’t mattered for a while now, maybe ever, so Bill’s eyes had been scooped out, the space around his optic nerve taken out to remove it in one full piece, and the girl saw out of Bill’s eyes, and Bill saw out of no one’s.

By then, news had traveled quick. Local news first picked the story up, and larger media outlets megaphoned it out, and now there were hundreds of people showing up to Bill’s room in a single day, Bill unable to talk to them all but unable to get up and leave either. The hospital set up official lines and rules for these visitors – they gotta line up in this line or the other, fill out the official appeals form, circle on the diagram which part of the body they are in need of and from which body system, and give a response to: In 200 words or less, explain why Mr. Bill Meags, the always generous Mr. Bill Meags, should donate his organ/tissue to you or your loved one? Bill, unable to read and write because he didn’t have the eyes to read or the arms to write, gave complete medical decision-making power to Martha and the doctors. He hadn’t wanted to, but he had been asked – Martha the one doing the asking – and it seemed to him it would really ruffle her feathers, maybe even cross into inconvenient, if he said no, so he said yes.

His skin was given to a 44-year-old firefighter who had saved a child from a burning building. His skin had melted clean off, several layers of it.

Burn pains hurt. One of the worst pains you can experience, did you know that? All touch becomes real painful, a light breeze sets your nerves on fire, the cloth of your bedsheets feels like fire ants marching and you can’t shake them off because they’re a part of you.

But once the firefighter started wearing his new skin – the skin that they had cut off Bill like the pelt of an animal – he no longer felt the fire on his nerve endings or the ants crawling around anymore. They were Bill’s now, and for Bill, every second was agony. He never said so to anyone, and he never screamed, but he did tell me once when he was floating on a cloud made of morphine that he felt like screaming a lot of the time but didn’t wanna make too much noise. That could disturb the other folks here. I don’t wanna stop anyone from healing.

His right lung came out next, this one given to one of our state’s senators. The politician, one of those folks who make a real career out of politics and campaigning, got cancer in his lungs after smoking like a chimney his whole life, but he was running for a fourth term and he wasn’t ready to meet his Creator, so they took out his bad lungs and gave him one of Bill’s good ones. The senator was 75 years old, two full decades Bill’s senior, but that didn’t matter, of course. The senator’s third wife had pleaded to Martha, and Martha had said yes and of course and Bill was a patriot and Bill always followed their campaigns the most close out of anyone and so that was that and Bill’s chest had been opened and out came his lung. They took out the lung all the way to the place it forked into his throat, and I know that because they left his chest opened, they didn’t sew him back up, so it would make the next operation easier to do, the doctors told us. I sat by the bed afterwards – it happened too quick this time, and there wasn’t enough time between the agreement and the operation for me to see him off – and he told me, in between real deep gasps he had to take even with the tubes forcing oxygen into his nose and only lung, that even though it was ‘an adjustment’ to breathe now, he woulda felt like just the worst if he went ahead and said ‘no, I’d like to keep my lung, thank you.’ But he couldn’t do that to Martha, he said, or to the senator or to the senator’s third wife (who the senator had ended up divorcing not two months later after he was caught in bed with a different woman. He won his fourth term). Besides, what right do I really have to my lung? At least I have the other one.

Until he didn’t, of course. But by then I had started losing track of which parts were being given to which people, especially with Martha doing all the approvals herself. Next to go was Bill’s mouth, which made conversations much more one-sided. They had gone ahead and removed both the top and the bottom rows of teeth in Bill’s mouth. The bottom row of teeth was removed with the jawbone, all in one piece, but I’m not real sure what they needed his jaw for. But they musta decided to take out the tongue while they were in there too, maybe so it wouldn’t just be hanging out of his face all the time like he was a dog dying of thirst. They sliced the tongue out, and when Bill would try and talk you could see the little sutures tied in the back of what was left of his tongue and it looked like barbed wire that was waving at you.

Much of those days were foggy, and it wasn’t long after that when I stopped going to visit Bill for a while, for which I hope to be forgiven when I get to the Pearly Gates. I couldn’t right stand it, see? It was becoming more and more difficult to see less and less of him. But Bill, silent and unmoving, was becoming an eyesore. They had started removing his muscles and some of the other bones in his face by the time I stopped coming to see him most days. One by one, his face started missing features, and that’s why Bill started to look less human and more like a slab of raw meat that got stuck in the gears of a slaughterhouse grinder. His head had become a skull with some of the muscles still attached in spots, muscles that would move like a pulley and lever system when he’d react to something because you could see them shrinking and contracting against each other. That was the only way you could tell he could still hear you because his eyes were scooped out of his head like they were two spoonfuls of ice cream, and his teeth and tongue were missing and his jaw was missing and the entire base of his head was missing except for the part that was attached to his torso, and the head was the only thing attached to that torso, it was. Not a pretty sight. I couldn’t right stand it.

Sorry, friend, guess I didn’t ask if you were the squeamish type. But… I’m getting used to the idea that it won’t matter if you are for too long, and that all this is for real and it’s happening. You woulda thought it gets easier the more times you do it, but it doesn’t.

Bill’s nose, the tissue that made up the full thickness of it, had been lopped off, and he now had no eyes and two almond-shaped holes where his nose used to be. His mouth – which was now a hole in the middle of a lake of exposed muscle – looked so little like a mouth, but it sometimes moved when he tried to mime out words that would come out as grunts instead. But that didn’t matter all too long, because he stopped the grunting and the miming when his vocal cords were out.

Bill, the man, the generous man with emptying insides and with no eyes, no nose, no mouth, who could not scream; who had no skin but the island of it on top of his head which made up the scalp that his hair grew out of like sprouting weeds; that man, Bill, existed here and there on the hospital bed, in pieces, pieces that were getting smaller, pieces made of tissue and organs that were going to be removed soon because some of it was starting to die while it was still on him, decaying and rotting like spoiled meat. Or at least that was what the doctors told him. But by then he couldn’t say or ask much.

I am not sure he woulda asked much of anything anyway.

Once, though, while he still had neck muscles and could still shake his head or nod it, this young lady, some girl from one of the colleges around here, had come and asked him if he really agreed to all of these donations – as in out of his own free will. Willful consent she had called it, or something like that. She was one of those activist types, looking for a cause, and Martha wouldn’t’ve let it happen if she’d been paying attention, but she had been spending a lot of time talking to the doctor about how Artimus was doing. Since it was just Bill and I and the lady and cause his neck muscles were still attached and working at the time, he would nod in agreement to whatever questions she asked.

Martha did find out later, and she was real pissed, you can bet on that. Pretty soon after that, Martha had the fortune of coming across the perfect candidate for the muscles in his neck, and Bill could nod and shake his head no more.

It was maybe 2 months when I saw him next, because I had the occasion to be in the hospital myself. Made it through, God bless, and I knew it had been a while since I had seen Bill, and… well, anyways, I had decided I better find myself paying my dues to make things even and all that. When I entered the room, it took me a good long minute to realize that there hadn’t been a mistake, and that I was in the right one.

Bill wasn’t there, you see.

Well, he was, but he wasn’t.

The bed had been removed from the room, the bed he had spent the large part of a year not moving from. A table, like one of those you’d see in a high school chemistry class, had been put where the bed was before. And on the table were a couple of large devices and a small transparent tub with some water, the tub with a brain sitting at the bottom of it like dead weight. And then I realized it’s not water in that tub, it’s one of those preserving solutions with nutrients and electrolytes and all that, one of those solutions meant to keep the brain alive, to keep the cells in there from dying like they’re supposed to when the brain isn’t connected to the rest of you. The nurse told me in a hushed and awed kinda voice that the rest of Bill had been donated, so generously, and wasn’t he just the most giving person you’ve met? and I couldn’t do that myself, but I have so much respect for him and for the people that do. I asked the nurse if Bill could think and if he would be able to tell that I came to visit, and she looked at me the same way the hospital lady sounded when I called her asked about the trials. No, I don’t think he can.

I stayed in the room a bit, kinda just looking at what was left of Bill. He was just a pink blob, with what looked like a maze carved into its surface. Bill was that blob (or he was in it somewhere) but either way he was an anchor at the bottom of the tub, kept alive by bathing in a liquid and being stimulated with electricity which came from a device on a timer to shock the cells so they wouldn’t die off from not being used, a blob whose body was everywhere and nowhere, a blob which was Bill’s or just Bill and who would stay sunk in this transparent solution until Kingdom Come.

Well, I turned out to be wrong about that last thing. I read in the Times later that week that he had given (with such generosity) the two halves of his brains, the “hemispheres” – like Bill’s brain was a globe, and I guess in a way it was – to the children.

Apparently – and maybe you know more about this than I do, given how folks your age are much more on the internet compared to folks my own – some kids can be born with half their brain missing. And most of the time, those kids – being younger than me and you both – have the ability to regenerate their brain since they’re so young. So the half of their brain that did develop is able to do the tasks that the missing part woulda done normally. You wouldn’t even be able to tell they were missing anything.

But sometimes, the kids aren’t alright, the one hemisphere can’t pick up the missing one’s slack, and those kids with half a brain act like you’d expect a half-brained kid to act. They’re in beds, on life support, and often bleeding their parents’ dry of their savings. Of course, the money isn’t the priority, but you gotta consider it anyway. Bill’s hemispheres, both the left and the right, were separated and placed in the skulls of two young girls who belonged to the second of the two groups and had been on life support since babies, and each of Bill’s hemispheres had been attached to the half of their brain that the young girls were born. Each operation had taken 36 hours and I read they had neurosurgeon on top of neurosurgeon, all wanting a hand in the girls’ heads and their names in their paper and their egos inflated. ‘The Times’ sat down with Martha Meags, the late wife of the generous Bill Meags. She describes the difficult decision Bill Meags had voiced to her in his final days: to donate the rest of his body to those who needed it most. ‘I had to come to peace with it,’ she told us, holding back tears. The picture on the paper showed a black and white Martha with a real solemn look on her face, like she was trynna be brave for everyone.

I can see you’re shaking real bad now. You can feel him, too, can’t you? This part is the worst part – the waiting, especially when he gets close. And he’s terribly close now, no more than a few minutes, but I think I got the time to piece it altogether for you, God willing.

21:42 UTC


Lights Out

"Come on, Bobby. How come I always have to do it?"

Clyde Arnet could hear the weight that his brother put against the pause button on the controller of his NES. The controller made that click sound that was somewhere between breaking and annoyed. It was the sound that let Clyde know that Bobby was just about done with his whining and would stop talking and start shouting. Bobby, for the most part, had been trying to be patient lately. He was dating some girl who was really into good Christian values and just being kind to people. Bobby was really trying to follow her example, but Clyde was, apparently, really good at pushing his buttons.

"Because, oh brother of mine, you need to toughen up, or this world is going to eat you alive."

Clyde felt a sudden burst of fear.

Being eaten alive was exactly why he was afraid to go downstairs and do what needed to be done.

Bobby laughed, "Not literally, kiddo. I mean, like, if kids at school learn that my twelve-year-old brother is still afraid of the dark, they'd never let him live it down. He'd be a social outcast, unwelcome anywhere. I leave the job of turning off all the lights to you for that very reason."

Clyde looked at the open door as if he could already feel the eyes of the thing that hunted him and despaired.

The house they lived in had been his mother's childhood home. She had lived here with her two older sisters until she went off to follow their dad when he joined the Navy, a year before Bobby had been born. When Grandma had died suddenly, Dad having beat her into the grave by six months after a motorcycle accident, she had generously left the house to whichever daughter wanted it. His aunts had their own homes by that point, and the two-story home, free and clear with no leans on it, had seemed like a dream.

The first night they had been alone in the house, their mother having to work late most nights, she told them that before they went to bed, she expected all the lights to be off downstairs.

"I won't have my power bill up over the roof because you guys are trying to light the whole neighborhood."

Clyde had been assigned the task of turning off the lights before bed since that very night. This task had been handed down by Bobby almost at once. He got away with this because A- he was the oldest and B- because mom worked five to six nights a week to pay for bills and taxes on the property. This meant that most nights it was just the two of them in the house, and Bobby was in charge when it was just the two of them. As such, Bobby usually gave Clyde the chores he didn't want, and that included turning off the lights.

"Come on, Bobby," Clyde tried again, but his brother wouldn't budge.

"Don't start, kid. You need to get over this, and the only way to do it is to do it, know what I mean?"

Clyde didn't, but he nodded anyway.

He took the stairs like a palsied old man, watching as the downstairs got closer and closer as he came to the landing.

He switched the light off beside the stairs and began.

The lights, as it turned out, had to be turned off in a certain order. If you didn't turn off the stair lights first and the lights by the basement last, they would all come back on again. Neither of them understood why, but Clyde attributed it to the thing that lived in the dark after the lights went out. He had named it Mr. V for some reason, and even he didn't know why. He supposed he had to call it something, and that was as good a name for his nemesis as any. Bobby just thought it was some faulty wiring and told him that if he meant to get the job done then that's how it would have to be.

You could leave the stair light on, the ones on the stairs. In fact, it was advised so you could find your way back. Sometimes it was the best way to find your way back from the depths, and Clyde had used that light as a lighthouse more than once. He went into the foyer and turned the lights off, went to the mud room, and turned the lights off, but made sure to leave the porch light on so Mom could find the lock when she got home. Mr. V didn't care about the porch light, it seemed, and that was good because Mr. V could have a temper when he wanted to.

The first couple of nights, Bobby had gone with him. As long as Bobby was with him, nothing ever seemed to happen. The two went room to room before walking casually back to the stairs and up to their rooms. Whatever Mr. V was, he didn't bother big kids, or maybe it was just kids who didn't believe in him. Clyde didn't know, but it was always different when he was by himself.

He turned the lights off in the dining room slowly, finishing with the switch by the door so he could turn his back on the room and walk out. This was part of the game too, and it seemed to make it better if whatever it was didn't see you seeing it. Sometimes the dining room would be empty when he turned the light off, but sometimes he would see a figure standing in the dark space when he was done. Sometimes it was standing behind the chair at the head of the table, sometimes it was standing by the window, but it was always looking at him. It was never close, like the horror movies he and Bobby sometimes watched when mom worked late. It was never just right in front of him, ready to grab him when the lights went off, but it was still closer than he would have liked.

As he walked towards the living room, he could almost feel the eyes of Mr. V on his neck, and it made him shudder.

Clyde looked at the leather couch that his mother had brought from the apartment, her only addition to her mother's furniture, and felt a pang of guilt as he looked at the scratches across the leather. That hadn't been his fault, not really, but he had caused it. The pastor at church said that people had to take accountability for their actions, and Clyde was man enough to admit that this had been his fault. He had broken the rules, and he had to pay the price.

It had all started very subtly. He would notice little things once the lights went out, and he would make note of them for later. The shadow man was one, a thing he thought of as Mr. V. Then there was the way the shadows lengthened and twisted sometimes when the lights were off. The whole downstairs took on a kind of puffy, unreal look after dark, and he had seen it swell or shrink depending on its wants. He still wasn't really afraid of Mr. V, still didn't really believe in him, but he was afraid of the dark, and that made it easy to tell yourself that anything could be living in it.

Even this mysterious Mr. V.

He had spent weeks running up the stairs as he fled the kitchen for the living room. He had never felt anything grab at his ankles or claw at his shirt, but it had always felt like a close thing. The week before the incident had been a bad one. He had felt a sense of foreboding hanging over the dark rooms, and it was making its way into his dreams. Sometimes when he dreamed, he would run through endless corridors, the shadow man chasing him as he fled. It was weird to be on the cusp of eleven and feel like you might be on the verge of having a breakdown, but Clyde was getting there. He had tried to explain it to his mom, but she just said that Bobby was in charge, and it sounded like he was trying to help him. Bobby was relentless when it came to ridding his brother of his fear of the dark. He told him how the other kids would pick on him if he went into middle school with his fear, how no one would want to be his friend, and that hadn't helped his anxiety either.

That night, when he'd come downstairs, Bobby was already asleep and Clyde really didn't want to turn off the lights alone. He had turned off the lights in the foyer with a shaky hand, but then he had seen the shadow man, Mr. V, lurking by the front door and his legs had started to shake. The man was looking at him, staring into him with his nonexistent eyes, and as he watched, Clyde realized he was backing up. He was slowly backing up, making his way towards the stairs, and when he dashed up them, he closed the door to his room and locked the knob. He climbed into bed and covered up, closing his eyes tight as he heard something terrible happening downstairs. Crashing, bashing, furniture being turned over, and all of it because he had been too scared to turn off the lights.

His mother had woken them up when she got in, yelling for them to get downstairs.

Clyde had still been awake and had suspected what they would find.

"What the hell did you guys do? All the lights are on, the house is destroyed, I want some answers!"

As the two looked over the destruction, they saw she wasn't wrong. Neither of them could come up with a good enough explanation, and their mother had set them to clean it up as she got ready for bed. The house looked like a tornado had been through it. Books were thrown off shelves, the couch was cut and ripped, the end table was turned over, and the whole room was just an unholy mess. Bobby had complained about it, even cornering his brother after Mom had gone to bed and asking him why he had trashed the house? He hadn't been awake to hear the destruction, but Clyde had. He knew he hadn't done this, and he knew Bobby hadn't done it, so unless his mom had come home early to trash the house, it had to be Mr. V.

After that, Clyde had been more diligent about getting the lights off, and as long as he pretended not to see Mr. V, he never bothered him.

He shut the lights off in the living room now, the mended slash lost in the dark and headed for the kitchen. The dishes were in the drying rack, the sink gleaming after Bobby had wiped it out, and the chairs were all pushed in around the table. Clyde turned to look, marking his escape route in his mind as he prepared to make a run for it, and shuddered as he saw the dark head peeking out from the door to the den. It was waiting for him, waiting for him to turn the lights off, and when his hand shook as his finger hovered over the switch, Clyde hoped he had the strength to do it again.

He pulled it down and immediately took off.

He heard something come out of the den, but he was already running through the door to the living room. He bumped something with his hip as he passed by the couch, slowing him a little as he made for the stairs. It wasn't the first time he had bumped something, but it wasn't the pain that had slowed him. The side of the china cabinet had felt like Play-Doh, not quite solid, and it only reminded him that once the lights were out, it was different down here.

When the lights were on, this was where he and Bobby sat and watched cartoons or MTV after school.

When the lights were on, this was where he and his mom sat on the couch on Sundays and watched Lifetime.

When the lights were off, however, the landscape was something else, a place that he had no control over.

He could see the stairs, the light casting long fingers down into the dark, but as he got close, his greatest fear was realized.

Until then, he could tell himself that it was all in his head. He could tell himself that this was just his imagination playing tricks on him and that it would pass once he was Bobby's age. Clyde could come up with a thousand excuses for his fear when he was safe in his bed, and the monster was downstairs, but as something grabbed his leg, Clyde knew that the excuses were nothing but a paper shield.

The thing that grabbed his leg wasn't a hole beneath the couch or a toy that had been left out.

The grip was iron, the claws were sharp, and when he turned back to look, Clyde wished he hadn't.

The sight of that pitch-black face undulating in the semi-darkness of his living room was the most terrifying thing he had ever seen. The mouth was full of gnashing teeth, the eyes were like spiral circles drawn by an uncreative child, and Clyde screamed in terror as he kicked at the thing with his free leg. It took the first kick between the eyes, but the second made the grip loosen some, and the third finally found him able to yank his leg free. He felt the claws scratch across his flesh, leaving four long marks, but Clyde didn't care.

Clyde was running up the stairs on all fours, and when he came to the top, he looked down and saw the thing sitting at the bottom of the stairs, looking at him. IT didn’t seem to care that it hadn’t caught him, it didn’t seem to care that he had escaped. The look in those black on black eyes, let him know that, eventually, it would get him.

Tomorrow was another day.

“What happened?”

Clyde turned, cowered as a new figure rose up from the dark hallway.

He screamed again, sure he was about to die, and Clyde almost cried when he heard a familiar voice.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Bobby asked.

Clyde tried to tell him, but he couldn't properly articulate what he had experienced.

It remained one of the scariest events in his life.

1 Comment
20:26 UTC


Colors of Fear

When I came home from work and saw the package on the front porch, I was filled with an irrational flood of joy.

You would have thought I had received something spectacular, and, to me, I had.

I had been waiting five days for Amazon to send this package, and as I brought it inside and cut the tape, I couldn't wait to see how it looked.

Reaching into the buffer pads, I pulled out not a game or a new Funco Pop, but a single light bulb in a package that seemed bigger than it should have needed to be.

Not just any lightbulb, however, but one of those color-changing LED light bulbs.

I had seen them on TikTok and thought they looked cool. They would go through a whole spectrum of colors, thanks to the little remote they came with, and I thought the whole operation looked very soothing. I liked to watch people lay in bed as the colors shifted, and I thought it might help my recent mood. I'd been experiencing some heavy seasonal depression lately, and the inclusion of some colors might be just what I was missing.

I read the instructions, installed the bulb in my ceiling fan, and smiled as I looked at the little remote in my hand. There were so many colors to choose from, and I felt a giddy sense of anticipation. Which one to try first? Red? Maybe blue?

I settled on a light and buttery yellow. As I lay in my bed, I felt like I was under the kind of suns I had always drawn as a little kid. The yellow was the thick shade of melted crayons, and I was happy as I lay beneath it in my single room. It had been hard to get out in the cold lately, and this made me feel like I was out at the park or under the warm sun at the beach.

It wasn't actually warm, but I could trick my mind into thinking it was.

I lay there for a few minutes, just soaking up the fake sunlight before I got up and went to my computer. As I logged onto World of Warcraft for a little gaming, I looked at the remote and decided on a different color. As I explored the game, I changed colors depending on where I was going. The rusty red of Orgrimmar, the deep green of Stranglethorn, the light blue of the Undercity, back to the sunny yellow of the Barrons, and so on and so on. The bulb had a color for every occasion, it seemed, and I really enjoyed playing with it as the evening progressed.

I fell asleep that first night under the soft dark blue of the night sky and slept deeper than I had in a long time.

In my downtime the following week, I found myself playing with the light and trying out different colors. I discovered a button for mixing colors and found myself making color combinations that turned my room into all kinds of different shades. I found I liked a few of them, the blue and green combinations reminding me of undersea videos I had seen on the Discovery Channel when I was younger. There was the red and yellow of the deep desert, the purple-blue of icy peaks, and I found myself lying in bed some evening after work and trying different combinations.

I fell asleep on Thursday night, the soft blue and deep purple making me think of glaciers, and woke up to a nightmare.

I opened my eyes to find myself floating in a room that looked smeared with blood. The walls held strange shadows, the reds and blacks mingling like filth in a morgue, but that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was the creatures. They were a dirty white that was almost translucent, their eyes like lamps as they stared at my prone form. I wasn't sure what to make of them, at first, and I wondered if I was dreaming? If I was, this was the most realistic dream I had ever had. Their bodies were long and narrow, like pale reeds, and other than their eyes they seemed devoid of features. There were two of them, one in the corner by my desk, and the other perched in the junction of the ceiling and wall.

We stared at each other for some undeterminable time, and I was nearly convinced that I was actually dreaming when my phone chirped and lit up on the nightstand. All three of us looked at the light, and when I looked back at them, the one in the corner of the ceiling had dropped soundlessly to the floor. The skin around the bottom of its head seemed to rip open to reveal a double row of butter-yellow teeth, and his fellow-creature did the same as the two stalked closer to me on their noodly-looking arms.

I whimpered, reaching for the bat I kept beside my bed, and as I turned I must have rolled over onto the remote.

As the bulb changed back to the same buttery yellow I had basked under on the first day, I came up with the bat out in front of me to find the room devoid of nightmare creatures.

I turned it back to normal fluorescents and looked around in a panic, trying to figure out what had just happened.

I was still awake when the sunrise lit the windows, and I wasn't sure I'd ever sleep again with the image of those creatures thumping around in my head.

I tried to get about my morning routine, getting ready for work and getting breakfast together, but the image of those horrible things wouldn't leave me. They followed me through my day, dogging my steps as I tried to get my work done. By lunch, I was a mess, and when my boss saw me in the breakroom, my shaking hands struggling to open my lunch bag, she told me I looked ill and said I should go home and get some rest.

"You look ill, dear. Take the rest of the day, have a good weekend, and we'll see you Monday."

I told her that wasn't necessary, but she insisted.

I was grateful for the chance to get some rest, but I found my anxiety growing as I got home.

The same place I had seen those horrors.

I checked the corners where I had seen them, hoping to find some sign that it had just been a dream, and was rewarded with nothing. There were no marks on the eggshell white walls, no sign of claws or dirt from the filthy skin of the creatures, but it did little to soothe me. Sign or not, I knew I hadn't been dreaming, and that meant that these things had to be real. The idea that I couldn't see them, that they only existed in the dark, was even more terrifying, but despite my fear, the need to find out what they were and how they had disappeared wouldn't leave any sign wouldn’t leave me.

I started by just turning off the lights, but I didn't think that would do much good. I had woken up in the dark plenty of times, and I had never seen anything like these creatures. No, I thought, it had to have something to do with that light that had been covering the walls. It had changed when I rolled onto the remote, and whatever combination I had bumped had allowed me to see the creatures. I knew about things you couldn't see with the naked eye, things that were too small or hard to see outside the right color spectrum, and I wondered if these things were like that.

More importantly, if I could only see them in that spectrum, then was it a two-way street?

Could they only see me when that spectrum was on?

It might explain why they didn't attack me otherwise.

I didn't want to see them, the thought of looking at them terrified me, but I was curious as well. The thought of them followed me as surely as the creatures might, and I needed to be sure of what they were. I was no scientist, not by a long shot, but my desire for answers was greater than my self-preservation in this case.

I started playing with different color combinations on the remote, my bat always at the ready. Before you ask, I tried red and black, but it gave me something like a desert cave more than anything. The remote was small, but if you held the buttons, the colors would change further. They would get darker or lighter, they would change depth and perception, and the combinations really were vast. My computer sat untouched that weekend, my books and TV left to catch dust, and by Sunday I was a mess. I hadn't slept much that weekend. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see were the faces of the monsters that had stalked me, and my rest was thin.

When someone knocked on the door, I jumped and looked around fitfully.

I peeked down the hallways as someone knocked again, and when Debby called my name, I realized it wasn't a monster trying to trick me out of my little cocoon.

I didn't even realize I wasn't dressed for company until I made it to the door. I was in clothes that my mother would have called grubs, and my hair was loose and unwashed. I likely smelled, I hadn't showered since Friday morning, and I was extremely self-conscious as I opened the door to my apartment. Debby smiled, bundled up against the cold, and when she saw the state of me, she came right in and asked me what was wrong.

"Wendy said they had sent you home on Friday with some kind of sickness, and I see why now. You look terrible. It's not the COVID, is it?" she asked, pulling her scarf over her nose and mouth.

"No, I'm not actually sick," I admitted.

"Then what's going on? Have you been sleeping okay? Here," she said, taking some egg drop soup from a bag and setting me on the couch, "I brought your favorite sick soup to help you get passed this."

I smelled, realizing that I hadn't eaten since the night before when the delicious steam hit my nose.

Bless her, Debby was a true friend.

As we sat, Debby had brought dumplings to go along with the soup, I told her about the weird creatures I had seen. Unlike me, Debby looked excited at the prospect of seeing something different. Debby was into things like ghost hunting and cryptids, and she loved the idea of actually getting to see one.

"Oh my gosh, you have to let me help. Come on, we'll have a picnic in your room. If this is making you sick, I want to help you see it through."

I was glad for her help, but I didn't want to get her caught in the same crap I was likely to get caught in. Debby was my best friend, and the thought of the creatures getting her too, all thanks to my curiosity, was something I would rather avoid. Debby, however, was not taking no for an answer. We took the food to my room, and I showed her the remote and the lightbulb. Debbie scratched her chin as she looked at the buttons, asking if I was sure it was the red and black ones as she started working through the settings.

"When I woke up it was definitely red and black, but it was different. It was greasy looking, ethereal, not quite real. It was like a dream, that's why it took me so long to realize I was awake."

Debby started changing the colors in quick succession, the colors dancing as they went through the spectrums. I was afraid she would burn it out, the colors changing too quickly for my liking, but she just shook her head. She said it would be fine, they were meant to sustain these kinds of things, and it would speed it up if she just kept flipping through.

So, we sat there eating and flipping the lights at an almost nauseating pace for the next few hours.

The sun went down and the moon came up, and as I lay on the bed and played on my phone, I realized it was almost midnight.

I had to go back to work the next day, and I told Debby I needed to get to bed.

"I appreciate your help, but I've gotta be up early in the morning."

"Just a little more," Debby said, the lights still dancing by, "I know I can do it."

I rolled over and shook my head, reaching for the remote, "I appreciate your help, but I just don't think it can be done."

She moved a little away, still flipping through the colors as I reached, and as I came off the bed, she scuttled a little further off.

"Come on, just a little longer. You can be a little tired tomorrow for a good night's sleep, right?"

"No, Debby, I'm tired. I need to,"

I grabbed the remote, Debby pulling back, and that's when it fell over us.

I don't know how, but we were both suddenly enveloped in the aura of dirty red and black light. The walls oozed like fresh blood, the dark hung around them like smog, and I was suddenly aware that we weren't alone. There were more than two this time, their numbers nearly a dozen as they clung to the walls and ceiling like grizzly insects. Debby's mouth hung open, her scream stuck midway up her throat, and I realized this had likely not been what she was expecting.

As their mouths split their faces, their teeth huge, my hands shook and my stomach dropped.

They fell on us then, and I rolled under the bed without thinking. Debby's scream came out, loud and strong, and I pulled my knees to my chest as I tried to think of what to do. They were killing her, they were killing my best friend, and the only thing I could think of was changing the lights back. It had worked the first time, maybe it would work now.

I looked around, finding the remote on the ground, but as I reached for it, I saw the giant yellow eyes find me.

One of those noodly arms came reaching for me, and as my fingers found the plastic face, I pushed the first button I could find and snatched it away from the sharp teeth of the creature.

The light returned to something like normal before it popped loudly, and I was left in darkness. I took out my phone and turned on the light, looking around to make sure they had gone. I found the remains of our picnic, but that was all I discovered.

By the light on my phone, I discovered that the creatures were gone, but Debby was also gone.

I've ordered another light bulb, but it won't arrive until tomorrow. I paid for express shipping, but I don't know if that will be soon enough to save Debby. I don't want to see those things ever again, but if there's a chance that Debby is still alive, I have to find her.

She wanted to help me, and now it's my turn to try and help her.

So be careful with your new light bulb if you buy one.

You may see more than you bargained for, and you may lose more than the cost of shipping.

02:28 UTC


Whispering Pines Memorial Forest

“It is my pleasure to unveil an innovation in burial services.”

The investors looked uncomfortable as they sat in the hot sun on the edge of John’s latest investment. When the tech mogul had bought five hundred acres of swamp land, people had speculated that he meant to build another factory for his microchips. Tech magazines had floated the idea of everything from warehouses to a new robotics division and everything in between, but none of them could have guessed his intentions. His stock price had doubled since the announcement, and investors seemed to be holding their breath to see what would come out of Yomite Solutions this season.

Only his accountant knew the real story, and he had been sworn to secrecy.

“Not a word of it to anyone,” John had said, winking as his casual smile spread across his face.

Wayne had snorted, “John, no one would believe me if I told them.”

Now here they were, their eyebrow raised as he talked about not some new piece of tech but an innovation in the burial of all things.

“Behind me stands five hundred acres of new growth, trees ready to provide mankind with oxygen, and many helpful species of insects and wildlife with a place to live. Beneath them, however, are the first in a long line of subjects in our Land Renewal Initiative. The bodies are infused with seeds, the seeds take root and use them for nourishment and, as such, become a sort of casket for the dead.”

He saw some of the squirming looks held by those gathered and decided to squash them.

“Behind me stands what will one day be a new forest, a forest that will be untouchable thanks to the laws now in place. Think of it, every cemetery, a forest, every boneyard, a park, every place of death, a place of rebirth. This is the future, a future that bodes well for the earth and for the health of our planet. Welcome to Yomite Pines Memorial Forest, a place of peace and rest.”

The investors clapped. It wasn’t over-enthusiastically, but they clapped. They would see, in time, that this was a good middle ground. John had done a lot of harm to this planet with his factories, his smog, and his landfills full of obsolete electronics. If he could turn people's minds and grow a memorial forest in every state, it would go a long way towards making him feel better about his business and his soul.

John Yomite, in fact, hoped to be buried in one of these forests himself one day.

He had no way of knowing how soon that dream might become a reality.

	* 		* 		* 		* 		*

That was the first night he had the dreams.

He was running through the rows of newly planted pines, the ground groaning as they grew towards the heavens. They towered over him, their branches grasping for the sky, and as they blotted out the moon he heard their whispers.

“Join us”

“Join us”

“Join us in the soil!”

The ground sucked at his feet as he ran, the sand clung to him as if trying to hold him down, and as he jogged through the park he had created, a cold wind blew among the trees. He woke up in his bed as the whispers grew, and breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it had all been a dream. Did the water in his morning shower look a little darker as it went down the drain? Were there leaves in the pockets of his sleep shorts? Was there maybe even some mud he overlooked on his arms and legs? Maybe, but if there were, John didn't see them.

He shook it off as nerves as he got ready for the day, but it wouldn't be the last time he ran through the trees by night.

“Wow! John, if you had told me that this thing would take off like this a year ago, I would have called you crazy.”

John looked down over the forest of pines and oaks, their tops coming in as they grew strong. The glass window of his tower made the perfect observation platform, and the glass was thick enough to block out the whispers he sometimes heard when he walked the grounds. Wayne was going over numbers, but John was barely listening.

“You did call me crazy,” John said, looking out over the forest of trees.

He had built this tower so he could watch the forest grow, and he found he was truly at peace when he stood up here.

Watching them sway, watching them grow, it was all so different from anything he had done before.

“Did I?” Wayne asked, “Well, guess I was wrong. This has been a bigger windfall than any of your previous endeavors.”

John would have agreed if it hadn't been for the incidents that kept cropping up.

“Who would have thought that people would pay so much to save the planet and be one with a burgeoning forest?” John asked.

“Now if we could just figure out why people keep going missing we'd be set,” Wayne said.

He said it with a laugh, but John didn't really find it funny.

If it had been one or two then John could have understood, but what kind of memorial garden loses double-digit guests in their first year?

The large forest had become a popular tourist spot and people had come to camp and walk and take in the natural beauty of the new-growth forest. The trees were only about half the size they would grow to be, but there was still an impressive stature to them. They were the living embodiment of those who had nourished them, at least that's what the papers and some of the journals were saying. There were plans to grow more of them if participation was good, and so far it had been. People were interested in helping the environment and having a quiet and beautiful place for their relatives to visit them, and the list of people who had bought places in Yomite Pines would facilitate the buying of another twenty or thirty acres at least.

It had all been looking promising before people started going missing.

At first, it wasn’t anything to get too excited about. A couple of campers never arrived back home. An older couple that never returned to their car after a visit. A man who never walked back out the front gates after walking in. These things were odd, but not unexplainable. People did all kinds of silly things, and this was no more than someone who had simply decided to leave by another way or had forgotten to check out or, perhaps, decided to lose themselves on purpose and find a quiet place to die.

The kid, however, was something else.

Marcus Le’Rane was six and had accompanied his parents into the little forest so they could “visit” his grandmother. They had walked amongst the trees, taken in the paths and little bridges and the shallow river that ran through it, but when they had turned to go, Mrs. Le’Rane had noticed that her son was nowhere to be found. She swore he had been with them when they crossed the little bridge over the river. She swore he had been with them when they stopped to dip their feet in the river. She swore he had been with them when they stopped at the bathrooms. She also swore that she couldn’t be certain after they had passed the picnic area and started heading back towards their car.

“I don’t remember much after the picnic area if I’m being honest,” she said, her dreamy voice at odds with her tearful demeanor of the moment before, “I had been walking along, listening to something, and, for a moment, it was almost like I was hearing my mom talk to me. I know how that sounds, but I’m telling you that I could almost hear her voice.”

Her husband had said something similar, though not the same. He could swear he heard people whispering just out of sight like they were sitting in the woods and discussing important matters. He described it as the scene in The Hobbit where the dwarves kept interrupting the elves' parties. He could hear them, but he knew that if he went to investigate they would all just melt away and reappear somewhere else.

Regardless, neither of them could say when little Marcus had left their side, but he was gone now and they wanted him found.

John stayed with the parents while the Forest was searched. He had set up a little command center near the visitors center and was directing volunteers from there. Mr. Le’Rane had gone out to help them at the start, but by sunset, he was back at the tent and sitting with his wife. The two were holding each other, both praying quietly as they waited for their son to return. They were upset, but John had yet to see them cry. They were afraid, but they didn’t seem overly fearful. He would have thought they were in shock, except that they kept looking into the Forest as if someone were calling them, before going back to their prayers.

“This isn’t good,” Johne said under his breath.

“You don’t say?” Wayne had said, looking at the parents as he pitched his voice low.

“Be as glib as you want, but Marcus Le’Rane’s disappearance doesn’t look good.”

Wayne pulled him aside, out of earshot of the “grieving” parents, so they could talk.

“Do you have any idea how many kids go missing in National Parks every year? Do you know how many theme parks lose kids without the help of creeps? Kids wander off, John. We’ll probably find him asleep under a tree somewhere.”

They did not find him asleep under a tree somewhere.

They didn’t find him at all.

Marcus was the fifteenth person to go missing in the park that year, but he wasn’t the last.

“We've had a hundred more pre-orders for the upcoming acreage. We sell the plots as quickly as they become available. It's almost like printing money.”

John was glad that Wayne had forgotten about the kid so easily, but John found it a little more difficult. He remembered each of the names, each of the civil suits their families tried to file before his lawyers shut them down, and he supposed he probably always would. Wayne went on talking, but John couldn't take his eyes off the trees. The sway was so hypnotic. Maybe this was why people kept going missing.

That, or the whispering he heard sometimes.

He could hear it a little up here, but it was always worse when he was on the ground. It was like a slithery little voice that wormed its way into his ear, begging him to come and join the others who had already come to this place. And why not, he thought. They all seemed to have found peace here. Everyone seemed to find peace here. Maybe that was why so many of them came here to...

“How's your mom?” Wayne asked suddenly, and the question jarred him back to reality.

“Some days better, some days worse. She's fading, but she's going out slowly.”

“Will you plant her too when the time comes?” Wayne asked, the question sounding uneasy.

“I saved her a spot from the very start,” John said, looking at a place near the base of his tower here, “I grew this forest for her, after all.”

Wayne excused himself after a little more small talk, but John just stood there and watched the trees sway.

Who wouldn't want to be laid to rest in such a peaceful place?

	* 		* 		* 		* 		*

“It is an honor to stand here and ring in a year since the opening of Yomite Pines Memorial Forest.”

The crowd applauded excitedly, but as he stood looking out over them, all John could hear was the wind through the trees behind him. They were all pines here at Yomite Pines, mighty pines that grew lush and deep green in the hearty soil. In just a year they had grown past the projections put forth at the start, and John now stood beneath towering trees that had been little more than half-grown saplings two years ago when he had begun planting.

He shuddered a little as something else rustled against his subconscious, but he put it aside like he always did.

It was just nerves, after all, just like the dreams.

“We’ve incorporated another one hundred acres, fifty of which have been donated by the North American Wildlife Foundation to help with deforestation efforts. Of those new one hundred acres, we have already filled fifty of them with fresh growth and new remains. The Yomite Pines Memorial Forest will soon be a forest stretching across the newly reclaimed land, and our world will be better for it.”

The applause from the crowd was much more enthusiastic than they had been last time. The thought of a forest of the dead had been a little sickening, a little spooky, but now they were behind him. His reforestation program was a big hit, and people were signing up for plots in the hundreds.

Though Yomite Pines might be a big hit with the people, John was beginning to have reservations about the project.

It had been six months since Marcus had disappeared, and now his mother and father were also missing.

John had once liked to stroll out here, just taking it all in and soaking in the peaceful landscape he had created. He was on one such walk, about two weeks after Marcus had gone missing when he saw Mrs. Le’Rane walking down the path towards him. Walking might have been a stretch. Shelly Le’Rane was wobbling like a drunk as she came towards him and looked like she was barely in the world. He called out to her, asking how she was doing and if there was any news on Marcus, but it took three such calls for her to look up and acknowledge him.

“Huh?” she finally said, shaking her head as if she’d been sleepwalking, “Oh, Mr. Yomite. I’m,” she seemed to muddle through what she was before answering, “As well as I can be, I suppose.”

“Did you come to look for Marcus?” he asked, wondering why she was here if she was still looking for her son.

The whole park had been searched from border to border, but no sign of the kid had been found. It was as if the ground had simply swallowed him up and left nothing behind. They had moved on to the surrounding scrubland, but John was certain he had seen the mother in the park more than once. The father had come in once as well, but that was the last time John had seen him. He hadn’t come back again after that and John supposed he was doing better than his wife.

Here she was, high or drunk or both, and John would have to tell security to keep an eye on her.

“Yes,” she said, looking off into the trees as if someone had called her, “Yes, it's like I can hear him when I’m here. He keeps calling for me and I keep hoping I will find him. Excuse me,” she said and stepped into the tree line as she went off into the towering gravestones that surrounded them.

That was the last time John saw her, the last time anyone saw her, actually.

The whole family had disappeared, and Scott, the security guy over the park, actually showed him a security video of Mr. Le’Rane coming in but never leaving.

He asked what John wanted to do with it, and John told him not to tell anyone about it.

“He must have left in a crowd and we missed him. There is no reason to tell anyone about this.”

It was a tragedy, all of it, but as guilty as John felt, he couldn't have something like this sabotaged by one family.

This was his chance to make amends for some of the things he had done, to make amends to the one person whose opinion mattered to him.

That was the last anyone spoke of the Le’Ranes, but it wasn’t the last John thought of them.

“The new acreage will be open to the public next year, once the new growth has had time to get its roots. Until then, I invite all of you to enjoy Yomite Pines to its fullest.”

They applauded again, dispersing as John waved his way off stage.

Wayne was waiting for him off stage, all smiles.

Maybe it was because he was an accountant, but as long as the money flowed in, Wayne was happy.

“Great speech,” he said, walking beside John as the two walked towards the tower.

John watched as many of the people seated there took up walking through the park, looking in awe at the trees grown from human compost.

“We shouldn’t be letting people just wander around the park anymore.” John said suddenly, “It's too dangerous.”

Wayne looked confused, but as John finished, he grinned like a shot fox.

“How else do you intend to pay for park services and expansion?” he said, smiling woodenly.

“It shouldn’t expand, it shouldn’t be open to the public. No one picnics in a graveyard, and no one goes bird-watching at the cemetery. The longer we let them walk the paths of Yomite Pines the more of them will go missing. We’re up to twenty this year, and it's probably more like twice that number. Something is happening here and you’re too money hungry to see it.” John said, now real emotion in his voice.

Wayne looked like he wanted to say something cutting, but he contented himself with a lame, “Says the billionaire tech mogul.”

John rounded on him, “This has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with fame or glory either. I have spent years killing this planet with my selfish ventures and now it's time to give back. The planet deserves a chance to heal and I intend to give it that. Yomite Pines will sweep as far as I can push it, an untouchable beauty that will heal this world, but there's no reason people should be free to wander through it.”

The door to his car was opened and as he climbed in he gave Wayne one final, withering look, “I want to close the grounds by the start of next month. I don’t care what it costs, make it happen.”

Wayne watched him go, and he sighed as he watched him get smaller in the rearview mirror.

John felt more at ease as he drove off. The incessant whispering was finally cut off, and that was good because it was getting to be more than he could take. Every time he came out to the Pines it got worse, but John still found himself drawn to the place. Most nights he dreamed about the park, and sometimes he woke up with dirty feet or muddy shoes at the foot of his bed. John didn’t live too far from the park, but it was still five miles or more. Was he walking there in the middle of the night? Surely he wasn’t driving, but what other option could there be?

In his dreams he walked amongst the trees, hearing the voices on the wind.

In his dreams, he saw people walking amongst those trees, people who were as thin as fruit skins.

They wanted him to join them, to come and be a part of them, and John found it harder and harder to ignore their call the longer it went on.

He knew that one day he would have to go to them, but until then he still had work to do.

This was a gift to his mother, to the woman who had been so disappointed with his actions but had never stopped loving him. This was his final gift to her before she left this world forever. This was the last thing he could do to make amends.

The valet parked his car as he pulled up to the hospital, and as he rode the elevator up to the seventh floor he wondered what state he would find her in today. She had been getting weaker as the cancer ate at her, and it seemed unfair that it should be something like that that would take her from this world. She who had marched against deforestation, who had gone to sit-ins for cleaner oceans and for endangered species, the woman who had loved the earth with all she had was going to be taken from the earth by something as mundane as cancer.

His mother was going to be eaten alive by something that none of his money could do anything about, and John hated that more than anything.

He came in to find her napping, but she opened her eyes as he took her hand and smiled at him.

“How are you feeling today, Mom?” he asked, trying not to cry but knowing that his eyes were leaking.

“Like I’m dying,” she said, smiling despite herself, “just not fast enough for the cancer's liking.”

“We added another hundred acres to the park today. The ceremony was great, I wish you could have been there.”

“Me too,” she said, her eyes dropping. She was so tired these days, so easily tapped out.

“Mom, am I doing the right thing here? I know this is helping the environment, helping the world, but is it the right thing?”

His mother smiled, her face sad but content, “I can’t tell you that, dear. We all have to decide what's right and wrong for ourselves.”

“I only wanted to do what would make you proud of me, what would make you proud to have me as a son.”

John was crying, really having a good boohoo, and he didn’t care who saw it as he pressed his face against her shoulder.

“Well,” she said, laughing hoarsely, “then I’m glad my pain could be useful for something.”

He just sat there with her, the two of them enjoying the other's company.

John had saved her a place for after she was gone, a place where she could be at peace within the earth.

Her final good deed for the planet she loved so much.

She would grow within the heart of the park, likely the largest tree in the park when she was done.

She would rise above all the others, dwarfing all the pines as she rose for the sky.

Until then, however, he would mourn her one day at a time.

	* 		* 		* 		* 		*

He was running, the soil mashing between his toes as he went.

The trees rose up around him, their voices high and beautiful. They called to him as he ran, asking why he was fleeing from them. They could bring him peace too. They could make him complete within the soil. The moon was a ghostly sickle over top of him, and as he ran over the muddy ground of the park, his park, he felt more and more lost.

He had built this place, had designed the layout, and it was unthinkable that he should be unable to find his way.

This was a dream anyway, he told himself. He was dreaming all this, no matter how much dirt he found on his sheets some mornings. These were all just nightmares, he reminded himself, regardless of the filth he found on the bottoms of his feet. Nothing here could hurt him, nothing could really get him, but that did little to hamper his fear as he ran.

“Come to us, John. Come find your peace in the soil.”

His spine prickled.

Had that been Mrs. Le'Ranes?

He took turns at random, his feet feeling heavy the further he ran as the ground sucked at him. The ground was hungry, and now it wanted him to go along with all the others he had given it. He didn't understand how it could still be so hungry, but it ate greedily as he sank more and more of them into the soil.

Now it wanted him too, and as his feet came onto the sidewalk he breathed a sigh of relief.

The ground couldn't get him on the sidewalk, at least he didn't think so.

He seemed to come back to himself as that thought came to him, and he realized this may not be a dream. Suddenly he was standing on the sidewalk, wearing his comfortable sleep pants and his sleeveless t-shirt, and staring out at the whispering sea of trees. He had found himself here before, wondering again how he had gotten there, and as he reached for his phone, he realized it wasn't in his pocket. It wouldn't be, would it? It would be on his nightstand, right where he had left it.

He looked at the tower and was thankful that he paid for night security.

He started walking towards the edifice, preparing to answer some questions yet again.

“This is starting to become a problem, John.”

Wayne was pacing around his office in the tower as John sat drinking coffee in his night clothes. Scott had called Wayne for some reason, and John would have to have words with him about it later. John signed the paychecks around here, not his accountant and VP. Scott was likely worried that John was having a break from reality, John realized, but that didn't change matters.

This was still John's project, and he was in charge.

“If the shareholders find out about this, it could be bad.”

John laughed, “Shareholders? What shareholders? This project is being bankrolled by Me and me alone.”

Wayne shook his head, “I'm not talking about the park. I'm talking about the shareholders in your other companies. If they find out that you're wandering around in your memorial gardens every night, they might worry that you're losing it.”

John shrugged, “Let them think what they want. This is more important than anything else.”

Wayne looked at him like he thought John might be crazy.

“Talk like that is going to bankrupt you. I know you're torn up about your mom, John, but this isn't the time to give up.”

John didn't say anything for a little while, staring at the coffee in his cup as it sloshed.

“I don't know if I want to add more acreage to this place. I don't know if I want people here or not. The only thing I do know is that this work is important, to the planet if not to the people, and it needs to continue.”

Wayne left not long after that, and John was left to stare into his cup and wonder.

Despite what he had told Wayne, they added another hundred acres to the park.

Despite what he had told Wayne, the people still came to the park.

They had a man-made lake now, three picnic areas, and enough parking for everyone buried here and then some.

They also had added nearly thirty missing patrons to their tally, putting them around sixty.

There had been many searches of the grounds, but no one was ever found. It had become quite the mystery, and as John drove into the park he grimaced at the graffiti on the welcome sign. People kept spray-painted Whispering over the Yomite on the sign and John had replaced it several times already. He would have to get Scott to check the cameras again, though he found the name extremely appropriate.

John’s dreams had far from abated and he rolled his window up as the whispers tried to find their way in again.

They beseech him to come to them, to join them, and John didn’t know how much longer he could resist them. The dreams were drawing him out here nightly, and he had started waking up in the park more often than not. It was becoming more and more apparent that he was simply walking there at night, and there didn’t seem to be any way to stop it from happening.

Lately, however, the calls had been in a voice he couldn’t refuse.

He walked into the park, sliding in his airpods as he came through the gates and the whispers intensified. It really was a beautiful place. The Pines had come in nicely and they were growing tall and healthy. They stretched out from the gates now, a mighty forest that he had risen from nothing, and he was proud of his work. He was haunted by that work, too, but that didn't stop him from being proud of it. He had accomplished much in the two years since starting, but there was still so much work left to do.

He stopped by one of the trees, the one near the base of his tower, and looked down at the new growth already poking its way through the soil.

“Hey, mom,” he whispered, “Looking good.”

She had passed about three months ago, not long after their conversation in her hospital room. He had laid her to rest here in the park, his last gift to her, and the placard he had put in front of her tree was his only real allocation for grave markers. Everyone else had a small number so their loved ones could find them, but his mother would only be important to him, and he knew it. She had been his last family, the only surviving piece, and now it was down to him to mourn her.

When she had joined his dreams, adding her voice to the chorus, he didn't know how much longer he would be able to hold out.

Wayne was waiting for him when he got to the top of the tower, holding up the plans for the latest expansion.

“We just got approved for another hundred acres,” he said, unrolling the property plan, “We should have it filled before June and then the next hundred filled before this time next,”

“How much would it take to get another thousand acres?”

Wayne's eyes got a little wide, “I mean, some of it would be available through government grants, but the cost would still be steep.”

“Make it happen,” John said, “I don't care how much it costs.”

Wayne looked at him oddly, “You feeling okay? Not planning to do anything...drastic are you?”

He seemed to have noticed how close John was standing to the window, and John couldn't exactly blame him for his concern.

John was feeling a little hinkey, as his mom had been want to say, and he wasn't sure what to do about it, or what he might do about it.

“I'll get the papers drawn up,” Wayne said, rolling up the survey charts, “I talked with Scott about the sign too. As usual, he can't find anyone on camera to blame it on. Just kids out for a little helling, I guess.”

John nodded, but it was pretty clear that Wayne couldn't hear the whispering. He didn't get it, and probably never would. He was the perfect one to run something like this, though he would never understand the importance of it or the horror. The nights John spent out here had shown him where the missing people were going and had shown him his own fate as well.

The whispers would get him, one of these nights.

It was only a matter of time.

John was tired, but the terror made his legs move as the mud sucked at his every step. Maybe tonight was the night. Maybe this would be the night they got him. Maybe this was the night he became a part of Whispering Pines. Even the name had slunk into his consciousness. It was fitting, too fitting, and he could no more outrun it than he could the ground that sucked at his feet.

Suddenly, the ground did a little more than pull, and John was up to his thighs in the hungry ground. Beneath the soil, he could feel the strong grip of searching vines and realized that if he didn't start fighting soon, the jig would be up. He yanked and tugged, his strong runner's legs feeling ineffective in the muck. He was losing ground, one step forward and two steps back, and when the paved path came into view, he waded like a drowning man. The roots tripped at him, dragging him back, but John pulled onward, working for the shore. Suddenly the dirt was up to his hips and he was wading through that fresh mud. He wasn't going to make it, he thought. The roots would get him, the ground would take him, and he would be with the dead.

One of his nails tore up painfully as he grasped the sidewalk, but he pulled himself up nonetheless.

He limped a little as he walked towards the tower, one of his ankles having twisted a little as the roots grabbed at him. John's steps weren't just heavy because of the ankle, though. John hadn't gotten a good night's sleep since he opened this damn place. He was exhausted, living off catnaps in his office, or the four to five hours he snatched a night. John was used to weird sleep schedules and had kept strange hours throughout college, but as he got older it became harder to maintain. He didn't know how much longer he could last like this, and as he came to a familiar placard he stopped in front of it.

His mother's tree was larger than it had been a week ago, seemed larger than it had been this morning, and the concrete bit into his knees as he dropped down before it.

“Mom,” he said, the tears running down his face, “Mom, I don't know how much longer I can do this. I'm so tired. I want to rest. I want to,”

When her voice shuddered against him, like the caress of a bird's wing, he looked up and saw her. She was lovely, bedecked in leaves and green, the queen of summer in all her glory. When she reached down to touch his face, her hands felt like flowers against his skin. He closed his eyes as he leaned into her touch, her words like summer sun on his skin.

“You've done the best you can, John. Come, rest with us.”

John nodded, pitching as the earth swallowed him up.

He should have been terrified, but the embrace felt almost womblike.

It felt so natural, like coming home, and John breathed in a lungful of soil as the darkness enveloped him.

“Welcome home,” his mother said, and John felt at home.

*		 * 		* 		* 		*

“It gives me tremendous pleasure to announce the expansion of Whispering Pines Memorial Forest. The park has become less of a memorial, and more of a forest in its own right now, and I hope someday to see hundreds of forests like it instead of useless granite slabs that do nothing but take up space. I know if my friend, John Yomite, or his mother, Terry Yomite, could see how this project has expanded, they would be very proud of the work we have achieved here. I have watched this garden grow into a mighty forest, and I couldn't be prouder to be a part of it.”

John watched as Wayne spoke to the crowd, telling them about the new backer who was interested in what they were doing here. John understood the words he said, things like the woman named Titania Thurston, the Green Society, and Cashmere Botanical Gardens, but they didn't mean anything to him. If someone was interested in his ideas, that was good. If they let the forest rot, he supposed that was okay too.

John was part of the Whispering Pines now, and he supposed that others would be soon too.

Being a tree was probably the best thing he had ever experienced, and he was eager to share it with others.

Wayne still couldn't hear him, but he would, someday.

Some of those in the crowd could clearly hear him and they would likely join them, eventually.

John had time, after all.

He certainly wasn't going anywhere.

23:03 UTC


The Perfect Job

When I got the call, at first I couldn’t believe the news.

The voice belonged to the woman who’d interviewed me less than a week earlier. “Lauren Mackerly,” she’d said as she’d held out her hand. Her cobalt suit, sharply tailored to her narrow frame, and formal way of speaking contrasted with the grungy atmosphere of the coffee shop where we’d met.

She hadn’t asked me any questions. Rather, we’d chatted about our respective family histories before she asked me if I had any inquiries about Abernathy Industries. When I requested a more detailed description of the nature of the work the job entailed, Lauren refused to expand beyond the vague platitudes in the listing: “workplace support,” “PR assistance,” and “corporate image refinement.”

I asked a second question. “The salary in the listing…is that fully accurate?”

As she nodded, her face settled into a dazzling smile that displayed her perfectly shaped, immaculately white teeth. “Yes, Monica, it is. Those worthy of joining our family are compensated accordingly.”

I’d left the interview convinced my efforts would amount to nothing more than those I’d expended on the other applications I’d submitted in the months since I’d been laid off. It’d had been my first position since graduating from college a year ago.

The posting had undoubtedly attracted a plethora of highly-qualified candidates, especially given its minimal experience prerequisites. I doubted I’d be a serious contender, and Lauren hadn’t treated me as one.

So, naturally, I felt elated when Lauren offered me the position. No longer would I be begging my roommate Elijah for more time to reimburse him with my portion of the monthly rent. No longer would I be asking my parents for even more financial support. No longer would Alice and I begin our date nights nibbling on ramen noodle soup or the same boring plates of store-brand pasta.

I texted her the news right away. Alice insisted on coming over, and she embraced me upon arriving. “I’m so happy for you,” she said before planting a kiss on my cheek.

I thanked her through a blush. “I’m sure something will turn up for you, too, before long.”

Alice had been a year behind me in school, and she had yet to land a job since graduating. I’d warned her that a creative writing degree would only get her so far in today’s job market, but she’d insisted on going through with it. She was passionate about her writing, and I loved that about her even as I worried about her ability to ever afford to leave her parents’ house.

Once we’re both working, and we’ve saved up enough, we can finally move in together, she’d told me. At the time, it had seemed like a far-off dream. Now, it felt tangible.

We ordered and ate better food that we could cook before settling in together in my bedroom. We cuddled, made love, cuddled some more, and watched a show on my laptop as Alice slowly drifted to sleep in my arms. I set an early alarm and soon joined her in slumber.


When the private security guard came to unlock the lobby doors of my new workplace, I was already there waiting. He was short and burly, and his nametag displayed “David.”

I was dressed in a formal gray skirt suit. During the commute, I’d recounted everything Lauren had told me, such as bringing two forms of ID for the security check.

She’d also said something strange. “We pride ourselves on maintaining a clean, uncontaminated work environment. Accordingly, you will be expected to comply with our procedures for keeping it that way.” I hadn’t thought to ask Lauren what she’d meant by that.

“I’m looking for the front desk,” I told David.

He directed me to another guard, a curly-haired woman named Donna who presided over a kiosk.

“New hire?” she asked.

I nodded. “Ms. Mackerly told me to ask for her.”

“Well, you don’t have long to wait,” Donna replied. She motioned to the front door, where Lauren and a group of four men, all at least double my age and dressed in business suits, had just entered the building.

“Before you go,” said Donna, “let me tell you one thing.” She leaned across the desk, until her head was close to mine, and spoke in a firm whisper. “Whatever you do, don’t turn back.”

“Turn back?” I repeated, perplexed.

Donna ignored me. On a dime, she adopted a bright, bubbly affect as she greeted Lauren and the men who accompanied her. “Good morning Lauren, Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Fitzgerald.”

Lauren, alone, acknowledged me. “Look at you, here bright and early! Let me tell you – we are all so happy to have you onboard.”

“I’m happy to be here.”

“We have much to show you today,” she continued. “But, first, we need to go through our standard morning protocols.”

“Morning protocols?”

“This way.” I followed Lauren to a set of elevators. By this point, more employees had arrived. The elevator had at least fifteen people on it. Lauren was the only other woman, as well as the only other person who looked to be under forty-five.

We ascended only one floor. To my surprise, the doors opened to reveal a yellow-tiled locker room. I gasped at the spectacle before me of dozens of fully naked adults.

As the men who’d ridden up with me dispersed across the room, they, too, began abruptly stripping. After stuffing their outfits in lockers, they headed towards a large, communal shower.

Lauren gripped my arm and led me forward. “Your locker’s this way, right next to mine!”

“Um…” I mumbled, shocked by what was happening. “Is…um…”

“Cat got your tongue?” giggled Laura as she opened a locker for me. “Just leave your clothes here.” She handed me two white towels.

“I, uh…I already showered today.”

“That isn’t good enough, honey! You had to travel to get here, after all. We can’t have people carry the stench of the street in with them. Why, if we allowed that, our office would be a pigsty in no time!”

“But…I just…”

“You just what?”

Instinctively, I averted my gaze from Lauren who, by this point, had removed nearly all of her clothes. “I just didn’t know this was going to happen. You can’t expect me to just strip in front of so many strangers with no warning. I can’t do that.”

“Well, silly, I told you that we take cleanliness seriously! Same decontamination procedures for everyone. Plus, it’s too late to give up now!” A passing figure, donning the same birthday suit as so many others, caught her attention. “Oh, I need to chat with Mr. Ellison – catch up with you later!”

She hurried off, leaving me staring into the open locker before me. What the fuck was happening?

The problem wasn’t that I was a prude, or that I was particularly shy about my appearance. I’d been in locker rooms before, though they’d always been gender-segregated. I could deal with a situation like this at a pool or rec center.

But this was a workplace - one where, seemingly, I was expected as a condition of employment to be fully naked around all my new coworkers.

I considered returning to the elevators and leaving, job be damned.

But, I reminded myself of the salary. I needed that money. Without it, I’d be back to groveling – with Elijah, with my parents, with my landlord. Was what was being asked of me more or less dignified than that?

“Whatever you do, don’t turn back,” Donna had whispered. The more I thought about the dire tone she’d used, the more an ominous feeling enveloped me. Lauren’s words, too, flashed through my mind: Plus, it’s too late to give up now! Was leaving even an option?

I can do this, I repeated to myself. It’ll just be like one of those Japanese bathhouses Elijah had mentioned. Everyone here just wants to get to work. They won’t be paying attention.

I placed my jacket and heels in the locker. My dress shirt and skirt followed. With the towels wrapped tightly around my waist and breasts, I slipped off my underwear and bra. I took a deep breath before approaching the showers.

Dozens of showerheads dotted the large chamber. Underneath them, my co-workers cleaned themselves comfortably, seemingly at ease with the situation.

At its far end, I spotted a handful of individual shower stalls, their entrances covered by curtains. Relieved, I headed towards them.

I halted at the sound of Lauren’s loud, panicked voice. “Those aren’t for you, Monica!”

I paused, self-consciously sensing dozens of pairs of eyes walking all over my half-covered body. “W-what do you mean?”

Water rained down over Lauren where she stood in one of the room’s corners. She lathered a bluish liquid across her bare chest and shoulders as she spoke. “You have to be with us for a while to get a private stall! I don’t even have one.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “Then, um, where do I…”

Lauren cut me off. “You’re standing right under it!”

I glanced up, spotting a shower head installed into the ceiling. Next to it was a red light. “Here?” I asked. “Not even against a wall?”

“No, silly! You have to earn a spot against the wall. But it makes no difference – you’ll end up just as clean, no matter where you shower! Just place your towel on the rack and press your foot against the switch,” she said, gesturing to a flimsy piece of plastic shelving and a round metal protrusion on the floor next to it, “and get to scrubbing!”

Jesus fucking Christ, I thought, as I realized that I was expected to clean myself in the center of everyone, in a spot fully visible from all angles.

I felt frozen, my feet welded to the floor. How could any of this be real?

Others started to notice my hesitation. “You millennials have it so easy,” uttered a coarse voice belonging to a figure showering under a wall-mounted faucet.

“Um…excuse me?”

“You heard me,” he said, his uncircumcised schlong jostling as he vigorously rubbed soap across his butt and upper legs. “When I was your age, I broke rocks at a quarry. Nearly lost my hand twice in a crusher. Would’ve loved something like this. These days, you young’uns just expect to be pampered. Given your own private stall on day one.”

His comments infuriated me. I wanted to curse at him. To scream in his arrogant ear. To tear out his few remaining strands of gray hair.

But I did no such thing. I can do this. I told myself once again. I disrobed and put my weight on the button.

Warm water descended on me. Doing my best to ignore my surroundings, I used the soap and shampoo on the rack to clean myself as quickly as I could.

Mercifully, no one whistled or taunted me. As far as I could tell, no one had anything that could be used to photograph or film me. For a moment, I felt that everything might be okay.

When I stepped away, a deafening, high-pitched alarm shattered my sense of relative calm. I felt every inch of my nakedness as I again found myself the subject of everyone’s attention.

“Sorry, Monica!” called Lauren, “I forgot to tell you: you can’t leave until you’re fully decontaminated! The system will tell you when you’re ready.”

I reluctantly returned to the shower and continued to clean myself. In the agonizing minutes that followed, I felt more embarrassed and exposed than ever before.

Finally, the light above me changed from red to green. Frantically, I threw the towels around me and hurried back to my locker.


“In the future, you’ll need to be faster,” said Lauren, as the elevator brought us from floor 2 to 39. “But I’m sure you’ll catch on in no time!”

Dumbstruck by recent events, I stared at the shiny door before me, where my blurry reflection, once again donning the formal outfit I’d arrived in, shivered from the dampness of my hair in the building’s low temperature.

Thoughts swam through my mind. I’d just been asked to do something humiliating…and I’d just done it, all for a paycheck. What did that say about me?

The doors eventually opened to a marble lobby. I followed Lauren past offices and conference rooms. She stopped when we reached a dead end where several pieces of furniture were stacked against a wall. “And, here it is!” she said with a smile. “Your workplace!”

“What workplace?”

“Oh, sorry, one moment please.” Lauren removed from the pile a flimsy plastic chair and placed it before me. My jaw dropped, I watched as she then lifted an open-front student desk – the kind you’d see in a middle school classroom – and placed it in front of the chair. “Ta da! Your office is complete.”

I felt something snap inside of me. “Lauren, this is ridiculous. First, without any warning, you ask me to-”

Lauren interrupted me. “Monica, I get it! One hundred percent. It upset me at first, too. But guess what? There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” She removed a thick envelope from her purse and placed it on the desk.


Ten thousand dollars?” stammered Alice, as bewildered as I’d been. I’d gone straight from work to her place.

I nodded. “But she made me sign something about it. If I don’t keep the job for sixty days, I have to give it back.”

“Maybe you should give it back.”


“Everything you’ve described…it’s gross. You should quit.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but…I rely on so many people for help as it is. And rent’s going up soon. I can’t turn this down.”

To my surprise, there were tears in Alice’s eyes, and her voice cracked when she spoke. “Monica, I don’t want to be like, controlling about your life decisions, but, I-I don’t like the idea of you being, you know…in front of all those people like that.”

I wrapped my arms around her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think about it like that.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “Who am I to judge. Living in my childhood bedroom while you try to support yourself.”

“No, I understand. It’s just…I want to give this some time. I’ll apply elsewhere, and I’ll have something else figured out when the two months are up.”

“Okay.” She looked down as she spoke. “It’s getting late, you know.”

I checked my watch. “Oh, right. I’d better get going.” Alice’s parents didn’t like her having company past nine.


Over the next few days, I arrived at the building as it opened, well before my shift began. That way, I’d at least begin my shower with only a handful of co-workers around me.

While I occasionally caught someone peeking or leering at me – something my death glare usually convinced them to cease – no one did anything worse than that.

A corded phone had been placed on my desk, but nobody ever called it. I used it several times to reach Lauren, who responded evasively to inquiries about my duties.

“You’re doing a great job!”

“But I’m not doing anything.”

“Just keep up the good work. Oh, and I hope you’ve put your first bonus to good use.”

I had, in fact, burned through much of the money, though not on anything frivolous. I’d paid back my parents for the last two checks they’d sent me, and I’d reimbursed Elijah for what I owed him.

My first assignment came that Friday. Lauren took me several floors up.

The windows that lined the wall of the office she led me to provided a breathtaking view of the surrounding cityscape. A large executive desk made of mahogany wood stood in the room’s center. At Lauren’s instruction, I sat in the matching leather chair behind it.

“Just turn on the computer,” Lauren ordered, “and wait here.”

The computer’s screen displayed across three monitors. It was an impressive setup. But, for now, there wasn’t much that I could do other than admire it, as the computer prompted me to enter login credentials that I didn’t have.

When Lauren returned a few minutes later, she was leading a group of four men, all older and well-dressed. “And right here,” said Lauren, with the forced enthusiasm of a tour guide, “is our newest associate, Monica Wilson.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Contrary to what you’ll read in lousy, unfounded articles accusing us of running a homogenous ‘old boys club,’” Lauren continued. “Abernathy Industries in fact has a diverse workplace, as you can see. In fact, Monica has a grandparent from Taiwan!”

“Oh,” said one of the men with a smile. “My family’s from Taiwan.”

“Exactly!” Lauren exclaimed. “Now, please follow me.”


I sat, perplexed, for several minutes. Eventually, Lauren slid the door partially open and popped her head inside. “Monica, I don’t have much time, but I just wanted to tell you that you did great!”

“Wait, what? That was the project? Who were those men?”

“The type of people who supply this company’s lifeblood, Monica. You made a very positive impression with Mr. Tsai.”

“But…how did you even know about my grandmother?”

“You mentioned her during your interview, silly! Look, I’ve got to go, but I’m sure you can find your way back down without me.”


Over the next two weeks, I fell into a mind-numbing routine of greeting David and Donna, showering, sitting at my flimsy desk, and spending the hours that followed on my personal phone. My only assignment during that period consisted of driving Mr. Morgan’s car from the 10-minute spot where he’d left it to a garage.

When my first paycheck arrived, it felt too good to be true. Why were they paying me so much to do so little?


The next week, Lauren reported to me that Mr. Morgan had again requested my assistance, this time by ordering his favorite drink from the bar on building’s top level and bringing it to him in the lounge nearby.

“I can do that, but didn’t you tell me that I don’t have access to the lounge?”

“I’ve arranged for you to have permission to carry out this task. You are to leave promptly after delivering the drink. No looking around, no loitering.”

“Got it.”

“Oh, and one last thing: make sure the bartender uses fresh nutmeg. Mr. Morgan prefers it that way.”


Soon after, a man in a tuxedo held the lounge door open for me as I carried a full coupe glass inside. A lush, red carpet stretched across the floor, and portraits of wealthy, well-dressed men lined the walls.

The room’s occupants resembled the subjects of those paintings. They congregated around pool and poker tables and murmured in quiet conversation. One let out a loud ‘sniff’ before handing a rolled up dollar bill to another.

Several made snide remarks about my presence (“What’s she doing here?” “You sure ‘she’ is the right pronoun? You never know these days.”), but I ignored them as I looked for Mr. Morgan. He was a little younger than most of the executives, and noticeably well-built.

A young woman walked briskly past me. I’d seen her once before in the locker room, but I’d yet to introduce myself to her. She was the only co-worker I’d encountered who appeared close to my age, she presently wore a fitted black velvet dress.

She approached the poker table, where she handed a wooden box to a man I recognized as Mr. Hoffman. He opened it, revealing a set of premium cigars. “Just right, Courtney,” he said, brushing his hand against hers as she stepped away.

I flagged her down and asked if she could help me find Mr. Morgan.

“I think he’s in the VIP section.” She motioned to a corridor covered by a purple curtain. “But you can’t go in there, even with the permission you have.”

“So, what do I do?”

She shrugged. “Just wait until someone exits or enters. Don’t bother anyone in here, and don’t try to go in.”


For several minutes, I listened to voices from the other side of the curtain. Mostly, they consisted of periodic, raucous cheers, as if reacting to a high-stakes sports game. But, every so often, I discerned something disturbing: piercing cries of misery and pain, all seemingly emanating from the same unfortunate soul.

Eventually, someone did leave the room, and he agreed to fetch Mr. Morgan for me. When Mr. Morgan pulled open the curtain, I got a brief glimpse into the VIP area. There, a group of important-looking men were transfixed by something out of my line of sight.

Mr. Morgan closed the curtain as he greeted me. “Good to see you, Monica.” I handed him the drink, which he sipped. “Perfect,” he announced.

“I’m glad,” I said, thankful I’d been firm with the bartender about the ingredients. “Um, is everything okay in there? Is someone hurt?”

“Don’t be nosy, Monica,” he snapped.


“You’re doing well so far, Monica. You’re in my good graces, and I’m a valuable friend around here. And if you want to keep things that way, don’t ask too many questions.” He gave me a playful wink before returning to the VIP section.


“How’s the job search going?” asked Alice.

“You’re asking me that?” I responded, incredulously.

“Monica! You know I’m trying my absolute hardest. And I have gotten a couple story acceptances.”


“You told me you’d be out of that hellhole by now.”

“Yeah, but…”

“But what?”

“I…I’m still looking.”

Are you, though? Where have you applied?”

“Forget it.”


That night, I looked at my bank account. For the first time in years, the balance it displayed didn’t send me into a panic.

I spent hours crunching numbers – listing prices, projected balances, and potential expenses. Eventually, I arrived at a certainty: I was on track to be unshackled from student loans and the many other obligations that had for so long ensnared me.

Soon, I’d have the life I’d always hoped for – one where I could afford to do more than tread water.


As time went on, I got more acclimated to the showers, to the point that my brain navigated them on autopilot. I no longer showed up unnecessarily early, and I no longer spent the duration of my time there in a state of worried embarrassment.

We were just humans cleaning our natural bodies, and if a few men took the opportunity to gawk at me now and then, I could live with that. The paychecks kept coming, after all.

Meanwhile, the ‘projects’ Lauren assigned to me continued to be uncomplicated and unchallenging.

One morning, Lauren gave me detailed instructions for picking up a box of luxury cigars from an outlet in midtown and delivering them to Mr. Hoffman. I mentioned that I’d seen Courtney carry out a similar task.


“Courtney. I don’t think I ever got her last name.”

“Oh, right, Courtney!” exclaimed Lauren. “Unfortunately, her employment with us recently came to an end.”

“What happened to her?”

“Don’t be nosy, Monica! That’s confidential information!”

“Right, sorry.”


The next morning, I arrived at my desk, my hair still damp, to find Lauren waiting for me. “It’s your quarterly anniversary!” she announced. “To celebrate, I have a very special assignment for you.”

The elevator took us all the way down to B3, the lowest level. We traveled through a maze of narrow corridors, all painted in a blinding shade of white, and by rooms full of flasks, Bunsen burners, and men in lab coats. Eventually, we arrived at a janitor cart by a door labeled “CR B3-23.”

“Your task,” Lauren explained, “is to clean the room inside. It needs to be spotless and sanitized.”

“I’m happy to help, but, isn’t the janitorial staff better equipped than me for something like that?”

“No, Monica, you’re just the right person for the job!”

I pushed the door open, curious how bad of a mess awaited me.

Nothing about the room’s layout – which consisted of three chairs arranged around the central, circular table – was abnormal.

What was abnormal was the massive amount of red liquid – parts of it a dark and rusted in color, and others a lighter, vibrant crimson – that dripped from the walls and the ceiling into puddles across the floor.

“So, Monica, do you have any questions?” asked Lauren, totally unphased.

Impulsively, my mouth started to form words like “What the fuck happened in here?” and “Are you asking me to wipe up a crime scene?” But, I recalled what so many people had told me: don’t be nosy. I shook my head.


I worked late into the night. Thankfully, the cart contained protective gear and multiple cannisters of hydrogen peroxide, but scrubbing out the stains took an exhausting amount of elbow grease.

By the time I’d restored the walls and ceiling to their original, unblemished appearance, my muscles were sore, and my body ached. When I repositioned one of the chairs around the table, I found something on it that I hadn’t noticed before: a thin strip of black velvet fabric.


When I checked my phone while riding the metro back, I noticed several missed calls and text messages from Alice.

I’m so sorry, I typed out. I totally forgot about dinner. I got caught up in something at work.

My phone soon buzzed with a response. It’s okay. I just feel like I hardly see you anymore.


When I reached the room Lauren had directed me to, I knocked at its door.

“Come in,” greeted Mr. Fitzgerald. He sat at a long, ovular table between two younger men who scribbled furiously onto paper notepads.

One of them handed me a blue collar. The nametag that dangled from it displayed “Monica.”

“What do you want me to do with this?” I asked.

“Dogs don’t talk,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “Please take this exercise seriously.”


“Dogs don’t stand on two legs, either.”

They stared at me expectantly as I examined my surroundings. An exercise mat stretched across the floor in front of the table. On it stood a flimsy wooden doghouse and bowls containing food and water.

“We’re waiting, Monica.”

Stop asking questions. Just do what they ask. I placed the collar around my neck and snapped its two ends together.

This prompted an excited “Good” from Mr. Fitzgerald. He removed something from an outer pocket of his suit and tossed it towards me.

It rolled against my shoe. I unfolded it to see Andrew Jackson’s face and the number “20” displayed in three of its corners.

I dropped to the ground and crawled towards the dog house.

“Very good!” said Mr. Fitzgerald. Shortly after, two more bills hit the ground. “Now, be a good girl and roll around on the mat.”

The mat felt sticky and damp. Something had been sprayed on it, but I’d learned better than to ask what it was.

“A good girl drinks her water.”

I stuck my face into the bowl and swallowed several gulps of it.

“A good girl eats her food.”

I shot a desperate glance at Mr. Fitzgerald.

“Do you need me to repeat the instruction?”

For a moment, my body simply refused to commit to the action I ordered it to take. Fuck it, I thought, as I mustered the necessary willpower.

I filled my mouth with the disgusting pellets and promptly swallowed, using water from the other bowl to help wash it down. I did this a second time, then a third. The food left behind a putrid, fishy taste, and I barely avoided vomiting.

A sizable pile of bills had formed around me. I glanced up from it to Mr. Fitzgerald, who, thankfully, seemed pleased with me. “That will be all.”

I gathered the money – which I estimated totaled at least $300 – and climbed to my feet. I felt filthy, and the mat’s dampness had transferred to my clothes.

“I have good news for you,” he said.


“You’ll be receiving another bonus. And, you no longer need to shower in the room's center. You’re now permitted to use the spots around the perimeter. Not the corners, though.”

“Thank you.”

“Also, make sure to clean your clothes thoroughly before wearing them again. You’ll want to avoid touching them, and then touching your face, until then.”


When Alice arrived at my place that night, I sensed on her the vague, sulfuric scent that the metro tended to leave on its passengers.

“You’re welcome to use my shower.”


“Never mind.”

We sat in my bedroom, her at the foot of my bed and me in the swivel chair by the closet. “What’s up with your work clothes?” she asked, motioning to the plastic bag into which I’d stuffed them.

“Oh. Don’t touch them. Some kind of harmful chemical got on them today.”

“That’s terrible.”

“It’s alright.”

“No, it isn’t alright. You can’t let them treat you like that. Why haven’t you quit yet?”

I sighed. I wasn’t sure what to say.

“You haven’t actually applied anywhere else, have you?”

I shrugged. “Look, um, I don’t want to talk about that.”

She shot me a frustrated glance.

“What do you want to talk about?” she asked.

“I found a new place. A condominium. I’ve saved up enough for a down payment.”

For a moment, her face beamed. But her expression changed as she started to understand what I was saying. “And you never mentioned this to me?”


“Because you don’t want me to move in with you?”

“Look, Alice, you know that you mean a lot to me, but-”

“Are you telling me that this is it? For us?”

“I, um…”

“I can’t believe this,” she croaked. “Look, Monica, I’ll do it. I’ll stop trying to be a writer. I’ll get a real job, and I’ll pull my own weight. I’ll even do night school at the community college like you suggested, if that’s what it takes. We can make it work.”

“Sometimes, in life, hurdles come up, and people take different paths to navigate around them. It doesn’t mean-”

“Did you get that from some HR person? Monica...we were happy together, and now…” She bawled. I brought her a tissue.


After she left, I couldn’t settle down.

Eventually, I wandered into the frigid air outside. I hailed a taxi. When the driver asked me for a destination, I impulsively identified my workplace.

I soon sat alone at the bar. I’d downed two drinks when someone took the seat next to me.

“Mind if I join you?” asked Mr. Morgan.


During the ride to his place, I imagined conversations between Mr. Morgan and the other executives. In one version, I was ridiculed and ultimately fired for going along with what he wanted. In another, I met with the same fate as a result of turning him down.

He took my hand and led me to his building’s central elevator. “Look,” he said, after the doors closed, “I know I talk a big game about being on my ‘good side.’ But, in all seriousness, I know there’s a power differential here. You can leave right now, and I won’t hold it against you. You’re totally free to go.”

I’d already made up my mind. I needed something, anything, to take my mind off of Alice, and I yearned to be desired.

I spoke confidently. “I understand, and I want this.”


We got off on the penthouse level. “Frank Hoffman has the unit down there,” said Mr. Morgan, motioning to the far end of the hallway. “But I doubt we’ll be seeing him this late.”

He unlocked the door and flipped on the lights. I slowly took in the extravagant sight around me: the astounding vista provided by the oversized windows; the sleek marble countertops; the private elevator; and the abundance of sculptures and artwork.

He noticed me gazing at a clear acrylic grand piano. As he played a slow, classy piece, I sat back on a corner sectional sofa and closed my eyes.

Sure, this wasn’t my life. I was only an interloper; a tourist. I didn’t really belong here. But, for a moment, I felt like I did – like maybe, just maybe, I’d have a place like this someday.


When we got to this bedroom, I put in a little bit of effort, but I didn’t go overboard with it. I sensed he didn’t need that.

Before long, he croaked, heaved, and collapsed against me. As he caught his breath, he held me tightly and whispered something. A name, I think. Maybe ‘Carol’.

I asked him what he’d said.

“Huh?” He sounded startled and quickly loosened his grip. “Nothing, sorry. You good?”

I nodded before I was sure what he meant.

“I, um, I’m going to wash up.” He swiftly proceeded to the nearest bathroom.

I soon followed him there, where he showered under a faucet that extended out of an ornate quartz wall slab.

He told me he didn’t mind if I cleaned up in there. But, when I approached the shower’s glass door, he instructed me not to enter.

“Oh. I can shower after you, then.”

“No, it’s…it’s not for you.”

“What do you mean?”

He responded in an exasperated tone. “All these questions. You all never learn.”


“Look, um, I need to be at work early tomorrow.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just stood there, awkwardly biting my lip as my mood sank into a feeling of bitter emptiness.

“Do you, like, need anything?” he asked. “A ride home, money, or something?”

I got dressed and left. As I waited for the elevator outside, a figure approached from the other end of the hall. I recognized her as Scarlett, Courtney’s recent replacement. From the streaks of makeup running down her face, I could tell that she’d recently been crying.

“It’s going to be okay,” I told her, although I wasn’t sure why.

We were halfway down – the floor indicator read ‘56’ – when Scarlett turned to me and spoke in a weak, broken voice. “Can I-”

She gave up on words, but I still understood her on an intuitive level. I let her lean into me and held her as she sobbed against my shoulder.


In the months that followed, the consequences I worried about never came to pass. Neither Mr. Morgan nor any of the other executives treated me differently. My workdays maintained their pattern of tedious waits between demeaning assignments.

My bank account continued to grow. Soon after I settled comfortably into my small condominium, I began eying listings for bigger, better living spaces elsewhere.


One day, Lauren explained to me that a new employee named Peter would soon begin. “He’ll be performing a role similar to yours. As I’ll be out of the office tomorrow, I want you to greet him and show him the ropes.”

When I arrived at the office the next morning, Peter was already waiting for me in the lobby. He was appropriately well-dressed. His lanky frame and sandy hair reminded me of my high school boyfriend. “You’re here early,” I said, shaking his hand.

“First day, you know,” he said through a nervous laugh. “So, um, Ms. Mackerly never really explained what it is I’ll be doing here.”

“Oh,” I responded. “A little of this, a little of that. Like, sometimes I get coffee for the executives, and other times I assist with testing products. Once, they even had me pretend to be a dog and roll around on some chemical. My skin burned a bit after that, but it went away after a few days.”

The chuckle that followed felt hollow. He wasn’t sure if I was joking.

He followed me up to the locker room. “What the hell?” he said as he absorbed his surroundings and the dozens of nude people inside. “What is this?”

“Just a shower, silly,” I said, as I started to undress. “There’s a spot in the middle of the room for you to use.”

“I’m not doing that. What's wrong with you?”

“It’s required, Peter. Everyone has to do it, every day. It’s important to have a clean workplace. Don’t be shy.”

He backed away from me. “No, no, I’m out of here.”

“Peter, please, don’t go,” I begged. “It’s too late to turn back.”

Peter ignored me and fled to the elevator. Soon after he pressed the ‘down’ button, its doors opened to reveal David and Donna, who swiftly grabbed him and dragged him away.

Over the following months, I answered the questions I received about Peter as Lauren had instructed me. “He just walked out during orientation. I never saw him again.”


It is a bleak, rainy day. Flash floods warnings buzz on my phone, and the wind nearly rips the umbrella out of my hand as I scamper inside.

Lauren comes to my desk. She promises a ‘reward’ for my exceptional performance.

She takes me to the lounge. “Not only can you now enter the main area, but you now have access to the VIP section as well.”

She brushes the curtain aside. Executives are gathered around a small bar. Mr. Morgan hands me a drink.

There’s another curtain at the far end of the room. “It’s showtime!” yells Mr. Hoffman.

Lauren pulls a cord. The curtain spreads apart, revealing a familiar young man.

Peter’s mouth is gagged. His body is bound to a wooden circle attached to the wall behind him. His arms and legs, both riddled with scars, are tied to edges behind him such that his body forms an ‘X’ shape.

Peter makes eye contact with me. He emits a muffled cry for help. On the floor beneath him is a crate containing a spiked bat and a stained handsaw.

Scarlett appears. She hands Mr. Hoffman a wooden box. He opens it and gives a satisfied nod. “Now scram,” he says. Scarlett dutifully obeys.

At Mr. Hoffman’s request, I look into the box. It contains a dozen darts carefully arranged in foam indentations.

“Take one."

The one I select is heavier than I expected, and it has a long, extremely sharp tip.

“What do you want me to do with it?”

“What do you think? Throw it at your target.”

I freeze.

“Think she’ll give up like Courtney did?” says someone.

Lauren speaks to me in a soft, firm voice. “Monica, you need to do this.”

“I can’t.”

“Let me show you.” Lauren announces that she’s giving a demonstration.

She takes a dart and approaches Peter, stopping at a line of green tape about two meters from him. She draws back the dart and rapidly releases it.

Peter whimpers as the dart embeds itself in his right arm. A line of blood forms, dripping onto the carpet.

The crowd cheers.

“You see?” says Lauren. “It’s easy.”

The executives chant my name as I slowly step forward. I want to throw the dart at Lauren or Mr. Hoffman. I want to untie Peter and escort him out of the building.

But, I’m terrified of what will happen to me if I do anything other than comply. Plus, I’ve come so far, and I’ve lost so much along the way.

I close my eyes and try to calm my nerves. I think about who I once was. The optimism I once had – not just about others, but about myself, too. All the nights Alice and I spent together.

We haven’t talked since I told her it was over. I’ve been tempted, many times, to call her, to apologize, and to try to make things work again. But I’ve long known it was too late to do that, even before she recently started posting pictures with another girl.

“Hurry it up already!” someone yells, snapping me out of my reverie.

I have to act. What if I miss on purpose? Would that fool anyone?

On the other hand, what if I just did it? I tried to warn Peter. He has only himself to blame for his predicament.

My arm shakes. I let out a roar, draw back, and release.

The dart grazes against Peter’s shoulder before lodging into the wood behind him. Judging by the lack of blood, it didn’t puncture his skin.

The executives hiss and boo as I return.

“She missed on purpose!” says one.

“No, she tried,” says another. “Look at how close it was.”

Mr. Hoffman holds out the open box. “Take another.”

I look at him, and then at the leering, awful faces of everyone else, before forcing a smile. I speak emphatically. “Maybe next time.”

A silence sweeps over the room. An eternity passes in the moments that follow.

Finally, Mr. Hoffman nods. “Next time,” he repeats.

As I exit, the crowd’s cheering resumes, followed by cries of pain.


“You’re gonna get soaked!” warns David as I open the lobby doors. Indeed, with no raincoat, I quickly find myself drenched. But I keep walking anyway, with no particular destination in mind.

I watch as standing water forms a small rapid on the nearby street. It leads to a storm drain, where the liquid swirls and sinks.

I imagine myself lying down on that road and letting the dirty water sweep over me. Maybe I’d emerge from it restored to the person I’d once been, rebaptized by the pollutants and street grime I’ve spent so long scrubbing from my body.

I shake my head and chide myself for indulging in such thoughts. That person was long gone now, and there was no bringing her back.

A luxury condo building towers over me. I glance up at it, take a deep breath, and begin the walk back to work.

13:05 UTC


Christmas Mourning

It all started with the John Doe.

He had come in by ambulance at about midnight on Christmas Eve after being found in an alley by a patrolman. He got there before I did, and sat there for most of the day, just taking up a slab. I remember feeling sorry for the corpse. Was there someone out there wondering where he was and why he had never come home? The police were baffled and no one was really sure who he was or how he died. Poison was suspected, but the coroner wasn’t in that day and we were really just minding the shop until he came back on the twenty-sixth. I was mostly just trying to make it till six pm so that I could sign off to the night receptionist and head home. It was Christmas Eve and I really wanted to get home, put my pj's on, and enjoy my evening.

We only had one visitor that day, and he was easily the strangest person I'd ever seen.

He came bustling in around noon, a middle-aged guy in dark clothes, and an honest God traveling cloak. When I saw him, I thought to myself that there must be some kind of Harry Potter thing going on in town. The guy looked like an extra in one of the movies, and not one of the extras you want to get to know. The guy just screamed "Death Eater" at the top of his lungs, and when he saw me, he made a beeline for the desk as he flashed his best shark's grin.

The eyes that hung above that smile, however, were the most intense eyes I had ever seen.

They looked like pools of green that danced like a lake full of ice.

A lake that held monsters beneath the surface.

“Excuse me, Miss. I’m wondering if you’ve had any John Does come in today?”

I told him I’d be happy to take a look and asked him if he could tell me anything about the body he was looking for.

“Oh, late thirties, dark hair, probably dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. “

I was instantly suspicious because it sounded like he was describing the body I had been wondering about all day. I asked for ID and proof of his relationship to the deceased, but he seemed unable to produce either. He said his brother hadn't come home last night and someone had told him about the police taking a body that had been found near their apartment, which had brought him here to check on it.

"I hope it's not him, but I just can't stand to see our poor mother worry over him."

The unfaltering grin he wore made me believe otherwise, but I told him that without proof of relation to the deceased, he couldn't view the body. I advised that he come back with a photo ID and identification for the body, perhaps a police report, and then we could do a proper ID on the John Doe. He smiled the whole time, but I didn't really trust that grin. He had expected to just waltz in and do whatever he meant to do, probably snap some pictures for a local tabloid or something, while the morgue was short-staffed for the holidays, but I wasn't about to play along.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I should have come better prepared. I'll go home and see what I can scrounge up."

He left, and I figured I'd never see him again.

I wish that had been the case.

The strange man came in around noon, but as I settled in to kill the second half of my day, something pinged on my camera around back. The morgue in our town isn't huge. A dozen pull drawers, of which about half are usually occupied, a freezer for long-term storage that holds about three or four cadavers at any given time, and three autopsy tables. Most of our business comes in through the rear, ambulances or herses from the local funeral homes, and the back door camera has a motion sensor so I can tell when one of them pulls up to pick up or drop off.

I wheeled over to the little CCTV monitor near the end of my desk and pushed the silence button as I checked the feed.

I had expected to find an ambulance with another drop-off, but instead, I was greeted by an empty alley on the grainy monitor. The cameras were old, the feed full of snow and off-color pictures, but with daylight still holding sway it was easy to see that nothing was out back but the dumpster we used for garbage. I figured it must have been a bird or something, and went back to playing on my phone.

When it chirped again, I glanced over just in time to see a shadow step out of frame.

A shadow with a cape, or maybe a long cloak.

I leaned in and looked at the grainy feed, trying to see where the shadow had gone, but there was nothing. Whatever had set the camera off had stepped out of sight, and I wondered if it might be a bum or something. We did, occasionally get vagrants in the alley, but most of them weren't in a big hurry to hang out around the morgue. Most of them knew that lingering in the pull-in lane would get you yelled at by emergency services, and the rest were just afraid of what they might catch from the dumpster since it was clearly where we disposed of the spare bodies (har har).

Seeing the shadow, however, made me think about our mysterious visitor, and I clicked around on the camera to the other four views we had.

The cold room was clear.

The autopsy room was clear.

The back hall was clear.

The front room was clear, except for me.

The movement sensor went off again then, scaring the tar out of me, and when I flipped over to the back alley I saw an ambulance pulling into the narrow alley.

I sighed, getting up as I went to lock the front door and open the back door for them.

I hate it when they don't call first, but that's the nature of the business.

Ralph was there, the guy who usually drives the bus from St Michaels, with a couple of car crash victims who had died en route to the hospital.

"They said the families will be by the pick the bodies up tomorrow. What a Christmas, huh? Sign here."

I signed off on his clipboard and the EMTs loaded the bodies into the freezer drawers in the autopsy room. They were pretty banged up, but I had little doubt that whatever mortuary they sent them to would put them back together in time for the funeral. It would either be Gladys or McMans if they were locals, and both did excellent work for the price tag. I stuck around to chit-chat with Ralph for a few minutes as he smoked, and as the ambulance rolled out of the alley, I remembered the mysterious shadow and had a look around to see if something was still hanging around.

The alley was empty, other than the dumpster and the trash cans, and there was nothing that could have made the shadow in the first place.

I headed back inside, having killed an hour at least watching them unload a couple of stiffs, and returned to find a surprise.

Two missed calls and a voicemail from a number I wasn't familiar with.

The voicemail turned out to be from someone named Candace, and she sounded scared despite the upbeat holiday music playing in the background.

I called her back, and she asked me to wait a moment as she stepped outside.

"Yes, hi, my name is Candace Guizeman. My fiance' never came home last night and," she sobbed audibly before regaining her composure, "I was wondering if maybe you’d had a John Doe come in recently.”

I told her we had, telling her about the man who’d been brought in last night, and I heard her make a heart-wrenching sound as I described him. She said it might be a few days before she could come and identify the body, something about needing someone to watch her children, and asked if we could please hold the body until she could come and have a look. I explained to her that the coroner wouldn’t be back until the twenty-sixth, and the body would likely go into long-term storage after tonight anyway. She said she would be there on the twenty-sixth when we opened, and thanked me for being so understanding.

“This is just going to devastate the kids if it’s him. They really loved Terry so so much, especially after the hell their real father put them through.”

She hung up, and I remember hoping maybe it wasn’t him.

Nobody wants to find out their new stepdad is dead on Christmas.

For the rest of the day, I kept catching strange blips on the camera. I would look up from my phone and see odd movements on the hallway cams or quick and agitated motions from the back area cameras. It was like a moth, or something was catching the lens, and more than once I thought about going to have a look. It was like being the night guard on a Five Nights at Freddy’s game, and the parallels were beginning to spook me as the day progressed slowly.

At four, after glancing up half a dozen times to find nothing, I finally went and searched the back for whatever was making the cameras wig out. The back hallway was clear, the emergency lights casting the linoleum in a sickly green color. The back door was locked, the shadows gathering in the back alley as I looked through the back window. The cold storage door was locked, but I opened it anyway and took a peek inside, finding nothing but closed drawers and a lot of condensation.

My last stop was the short-stay room, and I found the door still locked as I opened it to take a peek.

All the drawers were pushed in, all the tables were still clean, and nothing seemed amiss.

I didn’t find any bugs or wildlife that had gotten in when the back door was open and was forced to return to my desk and wait out the last hour and a half of my shift.

Fifteen minutes later, I looked up and nearly screamed at what I saw on the monitor.

The monitor in the autopsy room had detected movement, and I looked up to find a familiar man standing over one of the drawers. The body of our John Doe was lying placidly under his watchful eye, and he reached out the stroke the cheek almost tenderly. I watched as he looked up and into the camera as if he could see me. He grinned, raising his hand to wave at me, and that’s when I brought my shaky hand down on the big red button that locked the door between the back room and the front area. I’ve never had to use it, but I had heard it was installed after some weirdos tried to sneak into the morgue. The maglocks would keep just about anyone without super strength from getting back there, and they would engage the locks on the back door as well.

I called the police, and I must’ve sounded pretty frantic because they came immediately. The guy had finished whatever business he had with the John Doe and moved out of range of the cameras. I hadn’t seen him for close to ten minutes by the time the police got there, and the three uniformed officers told me to stay back as they went through the door once I disengaged the button.

They told me to re engage it after they had gone through, and the fifteen minutes I stood waiting for them to come back was agonizing. I could just imagine this guy getting the jump on them and somehow getting back out to me. He was weird enough to want to mess around with dead bodies. I shuddered to think what he would do to me and the police officers if given the opportunity.

When someone knocked three times on the door to the morgue hallway, I jumped and quavered out to ask who was there.

“It’s Officer Mathers, ma’am. We are ready to come out now,”

I asked if they had found the man, and they said I must have been seeing things, because there was no one back there.

I opened the door, after looking through the little window to verify who they were, and all three were more than happy to take me through each room and show me that there was no one there. I told them about the man who would come in earlier, the creepy guy who was wondering about the John Doe we had, and they took the description. Despite this, I don’t think they took me seriously. They said if I saw him again to give them a call, but that they had found no signs of forced entry, and no signs of anyone having been back there at all.

“Even the drawer that you reported opened was closed. Nothing disturbed or out of place, last as far as we could tell.” Officer Mathers added.

Luckily for me, my relief came in about that time because I don’t think I could’ve stood to be there for another second.

I told them what happened, even called my boss to tell them what had happened, and went home to try and relax and enjoy my Christmas Eve.

I’d like to say that was the end of it, but the real horror was to come the next day.

I was woken up at about eight o’clock the next morning by a phone call from the police.

They were sending a car to come pick me up from my apartment, and they had some questions they needed answered right away. The officer on the phone was being extremely cagey, and if he hadn’t started out by giving me his badge number, I would’ve probably thought it was a crank call. He assured me that it was very serious and that if I didn’t agree to come down to the station I might find myself compelled to do so. So, I got dressed and was indeed picked up by a police car and taken to the local precinct. I was put into a meeting with Detective Ruckers and asked about the nature of my call to the police the day before.

I told him the truth. I told him I had seen someone in the morgue area and called the police after locking down the building. Police had come, but they hadn’t found anything. I suspected that it was the weirdo who had come in earlier that day, and I gave the detective his description. The detective was very interested in the details of the weird guy I had seen, since now the case of the John Doe had taken a very strange turn.

“How could that be?” I asked, “He’s been locked in a drawer since they brought him in yesterday”

Detective Ruckers gave me a look that told me he was trying not to give me more information than I needed, but before leaving, he finally decided to throw me a bone.

“I’m afraid someone took him at some point yesterday and did something pretty terrible with him.”

I asked him what happened, my curiosity piqued, but he said he couldn’t share details of an ongoing investigation with someone who might be involved.

“We'll call you if we have any more questions, but I should tell you that you are a person of interest, and probably shouldn’t leave town for the next few days.”

I walked out of the precinct utterly confused.

What the hell happened?

Turned out I wouldn’t have to wait very long for answers.

The police were tight-lipped about the incident, but the news was less vague about the details.

It appeared that on December twenty-fifth at around four in the morning, someone had broken into the Guzman home. Mrs. Guzman, the woman I had talked to the day before, had called the police and went to lock herself into her children’s bedroom with them. She had no sooner left her bedroom than she heard the screams of her children from the living room. She was afraid that the intruder had done something to them and went charging into the living room to save them.

What she found were her children cowering before the Christmas tree, and the body of her fiancé, Terry Rustle, sitting in the armchair he had loved so much in life. Police had arrived, but it appeared that no one had forced their way in at all. The police said it looked like Mr. Russell had simply fallen out of the sky into his favorite armchair just to give his family the worst Christmas surprise of their life.

They interviewed Mrs. Guzman, and she told the reporter that her husband had been responsible for these things. It was pretty clear that the police and the reporter had been trying to get her off camera, but Mrs. Guzman was adamant that these facts had to be disseminated. I wondered why they hadn’t cut the interview, but I suppose it made the story even more sensational when you thought about it.

A distraught fiancé, talking about her vindictive ex-husband after finding the body of her new love in her home on Christmas morning probably boosted their ratings for the whole year.

“It was Martinez, I know it. He left my Terry there for me to find to remind me not to think I was safe. You have to protect me, someone has to find him, as long as he’s out there this will never stop. He filled him with presents, like some strange Santa Claus sack. He filled him up after he killed him and left him there for me to find. He left him there. He left him there. He left him there!”

After that, I had to have answers.

We didn’t get the body of Terry Russell when it was released by the investigators. They were probably afraid we would lose it again. I never got a chance to look at the report of what had been done to him, but I wasn’t without means. A friend of mine, who works for the police department in my town, agreed to have drinks with me. After some pleasantries, he told me all the details that were too gory for TV.

He told me how the body had been stuffed with cheap gifts that were wrapped in what appeared to be the divorce papers Mrs. Guzman had sent to her ex-husband.

“Most of us knew Mrs. Guzman already. We’ve been called out by the neighbors quite a few times for well checks or domestic violence claims. She never implicated Mr. Guzman, but the bruises we found on her and the kids made it pretty clear that the man had a temper.”

I asked my friend about Mr. Guzman, about what he looked like and how he seemed to them, and he had a lot more to say about the woman’s husband than the woman.

“The guy was a kook. He always dressed like some kind of wizard, with fancy clothes and fancy capes, and always had this look about him. I don’t know how to describe it if you’ve never seen it, but I deal with guys who make a lot of outrageous claims about what they can and can’t do. You deal with guys all the time. They tell you they’re gonna kill you where you stand, or how they’re gonna break both your arms and snap your neck the second you lay a hand on them. Most of those guys are full of crap, but Martinez Guzman was the first guy I believed could actually do it. He wasn’t a huge guy, but the look in his eyes made me think he was capable of violence, and that maybe he was capable of other things, too.”

He told me that Martinez Guzman had been nowhere to be found when they arrived, if he had ever been there to start with, but the body of Terry Russell had been seated in the chair just as Mrs. Guzman had said it would be.

“There was no sign of forced entry, just like it said on the news, and it was like he had just dropped out of the sky right into that chair. We searched the house first, not figuring her finance was going anywhere, but once we got back to the living room, we saw something out of place. There were things on the floor in front of him, things wrapped in paper that was discolored. They just kept falling to the floor as we came back into the living room, and we didn't really understand what they were until we came around the chair. It was,” He paused for a moment and took a long pull off his drink, “ it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. His belly had just opened up as if someone had drawn a zipper, and there were all these little paper packages lying on the ground. They were cheap things, little toys and costume jewelry, and they were all wrapped up in legal papers. We didn’t even know they were divorce papers until we got them back to have them analyzed. That was when we started really looking at Martinez. The papers were from a packet his wife's lawyer had mailed to him, and they weren't something just anyone could have gotten a hold of. It was like the son of a bitch had wrapped up all these presents for them to open and then just put them in her fiancé. Then he had turned the man loose to just walk home and deliver them.”

I asked him how the presents had gotten in there since we hadn’t even autopsied the man and he gave me this strangely mystic look.

“That’s the thing, there were no cuts on him. There were no incisions, no stitches, no staples. There was nothing. It was as if things had just appeared inside of him fully wrapped, and then he had taken them home for delivery.”

He took another long drink, and when he sat the glass down, he raised his hand at the barkeep to get another one.

“I’ve seen some weird shit on the force, you remember that alligator we found in the sewer and those girls that went missing who just randomly appeared in the cornfield last year, but this is beyond even me. I don’t understand it, but I believe Mrs. Guzman when she tells me that her husband is some kind of magic man. She talked about it constantly when she was at the station. She talked about how she and her kids needed protection, how they needed to disappear, how they needed to go somewhere Martinez would never find them. She was adamant about it, and most of the guys at the station think she's a nut. Looking at that and remembering the way his eyes looked anytime we would interview him, I don’t think she’s a nut. I think she got mixed up with something bad and I think if we don’t make her disappear, then we’ll find her and those kids dead someday.”

He finished his drink in one long slurp and then excused himself, saying he needed to get some air.

That was a couple of weeks ago, and the media has finally forgotten about the strange present Mrs. Guzman and her children were delivered Christmas morning.

They may have, but I haven’t.

There’s nothing I can do about it, except give out the description of Martinez Guzman, and hope that if anyone sees him they’ll know to stay away from him.

He’s a man in his early forties, Hispanic, with short dark hair and the most intense emerald green eyes I’ve ever seen. He was wearing strange clothes, like a costume from a Harry Potter movie, and when he spoke, it felt like spiders running up my spine.

I don’t recommend that you approach him. I don’t recommend that you attempt to apprehend him. For the love of God, I don’t recommend that you get to know him at all.

As Mrs. Guzman could attest, his presents are far from what’s on anyone's Christmas list

18:40 UTC


Christmas Memories

I've got a bit of a weird career, but it's lucrative.

People often get nostalgic over old shows from their childhood and want to watch them again. The problem with that is that most times shows from before the nineties aren't well archived. These days you can go on Amazon and buy a box set of your favorite show, but it wasn't always that easy. There are whole shows that exist in little more than clips and snippets now, and some shows that have been lost to time entirely. That's where people like me come in. We pick up VHS takes from yard sales and Goodwill and all over the place and see what's on them. Most of the time it's useless, but sometimes you luck out and find a show that someone recorded that turns out to be some of that lost media.

If it sounds tedious that's because it is.

If it doesn't sound lucrative, think again. I paid eight months of rent last year off lost episodes of a certain cartoon show that I found cassettes for at a church garage sale. I paid a good chunk of my student loans off with some early-run episodes of As The World Turns a few years ago. The money is there, you just have to be willing to look for it.

That was how I found myself going through tapes at Goodwill on the day in question. I was looking for the usual stuff. Disney VHSs, old or obscure cartoons, and hand-labeled tapes from someone who decided to record their favorite show. Pickings were slim, and when I asked Doug, the guy who runs the Goodwill in my area, if he had any more, he got a funny look before nodding slowly. I don’t think he knew what he had, not really.

That look was more akin to the look of getting two birds with one stone.

"Come with me, maybe you can help each other out."

He took me into the sorting area and into a storage room where he had six moldy old boxes that had been haphazardly filled with old VHSs.

"I can't sell them, and you're the only person who comes in who wants them. I was about to throw them away, but if you want to take them with you then you can pitch the ones you don't want. I'd rather have the storage space, personally."

I had to stop myself from salivating at the sight of all those tapes. What untold treasures might lie there? What lost media could I uncover on these? The possibilities were limitless, and I told him I'd take them.

"One thing," he said, bringing me up short before I noticed his grin, "You have to load them yourself."

He laughed when I went to the truck and came back with a handcart.

This wasn't my first rodeo.

I had them in the truck in two trips and paid him for the other box he had on the floor as a show of good faith.

I moved them into the house and prepared to start rummaging. I ordered some Chinese food from Dantes and got comfy, prepared for a long night of treasure hunting. As I popped the first one into the VCR I kept hooked to the living room set for just such an occasion, I just knew I was going to find something worthwhile here amongst these dusty old tapes.

Boy, I didn't know how right I was.

The VCR clicked and clacked before giving me nothing but static and the sound of plastic tape being eaten. I quickly shut it off, taking the tape out delicately as I fed the ribbon back in. This happened sometimes with older tapes, and as the spools reset I tried it again. The label said Jeopardy, but after pressing play delivered the same results twice more, I tossed it into a plastic bag I had set aside for just such an occasion and moved on to the next one.

Not a great start but I was hoping to make up for it with the next one.

Five tapes later I had a recording of the news from October 5, 1983, some home movies of a trip to the seashore in which a woman and a dog ran along the beach, two tapes that contained popular episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and one of those old Disney specials that used to come on sometimes where they showcased the art process and upcoming projects. The two TMNT tapes went into the bag, they had cut the commercials and the episodes were popular ones you could find anywhere, along with the Disney presentation since it had no commercials and was also well documented. I saved the news broadcast, I had a guy who liked to collect those, and the home movies too for another guy who used them to make odd little art pieces online.

Both tapes would probably net me less than twenty bucks so I knew I'd need to find more.

The next five were similar fare, and I added two more news broadcasts to the stack, a wedding video to a new stack, and two more broken tapes to the bag. The last of the two really stung because the label had read Jerry's Place, and that one was hard to come across after the accident at the studio during the second season. As such, any footage from Jerry's Place was worth cash money, and I dug it out after thinking about it so I could take it to Darrell and see if he could get anything from it. Darrell usually cleaned or fixed VHS film and his work was often worth the money.

The next four hours practically flew by as I watched tape after tape of home movies, cartoons, news broadcasts, game shows, and a thousand other things. Some of them I saved because they had shows I could sell. Some of them I saved because they had commercials that people would want clips of. Some of them I just saved because the footage would or could be used by someone to make something, and in this business, you never knew what somebody might pay for. For the most part, I only really ended up trashing the ones that didn't work, and I would have a full day of transferring some of these into a digital format so I could send them to people and assess their interest.

As the first box came up empty, I put the bag of broken tapes into it and pulled over the second box.

Right on top of the stack, the label meticulously written, was a VHS labeled Christmas Morning.

I picked it up and looked at it, sucking my teeth dubiously. The tape looked a little worse for wear, and it was missing one of the plastic glass windows that shows the reels. I wasn't sure it was going to work when I pushed it in, and when I hit play it made a crunchy sound that made me even less sure. I pulled it out, the tape trying to stay behind in the machine, and I figured the filament would break as I tried to put it to rights. It was a shame because kids opening gifts on Christmas morning was usually a favorite for creepy YouTube videos or adverts or other things. I wound it back up, slipping it into the VCR, and when I hit play, my expectations were very low.

When it played, I was pleasantly surprised.

As it continued to play, my surprise would become far less pleasant.

The static parted begrudgingly and I could see a cheery living room with a Christmas tree and a floor full of presents. There was a happily crackling fire set behind the Christmas tree and the whole scene looked very picturesque. The date on the camera informed me it was December 25th, 1982, and it seemed from the noises behind the camera that someone was very excited. As the camera wiggled a little, I heard a small voice say "There, it's recording" before quieting down as a man came into view. He was clearly an adult, his head hidden unbelievingly by a swoop of thin blond hair, dressed in footy pajamas like a giant child. He had put on an approximation of a kid's voice, high and wavery, and skipped happily into the scene before landing with a wump on his butt amongst the presents.

"Oh, goody goody. Lots of pwesents for Biwwy!" he trumpeted.

I couldn't help but cringe a little at what I was seeing. He sounded like someone doing a bad Tweety Bird impression, and he looked up at the camera with a gap-toothed grin as if he were making eye contact with me. It was highly unsettling, and I glanced away until I heard the ripping of paper and the happy gabble of the "kid". It was pretty clear that he maybe wasn't all there, and I felt bad for being so uncomfortable as some parent recorded their "kids" Christmas morning. It was cringy, but I didn't think there was any harm in it.

He unwrapped a large stuffed dog, the fur looking incredibly soft even through the screen and hugged it happily as he laughed.

"Awww, thank 'ou." he said, and that's when I heard something that made me hit rewind.

I had to rewind three times before I figured out that it wasn't just a distortion, but once I heard it it was impossible to unhear. It was clearly someone making a weird muffled sound out of camera range, and it sounded hurt. It reminded me of someone crying out from another room, and I wished I could isolate it so I could be sure of the origin of the sound. The man child, Billy I guessed, was making so much noise over the stuffed dog that it was hard to tell, and when he grabbed up another present, I heard the sound again followed by a muffled hushing sound.

Something was off here, and it had me interested.

It had never happened to me, but I had read some forum posts about people like me who had stumbled across odd, incriminating tapes. Sometimes it was CP or videos of murderers committing crimes, but the police usually paid money for these tapes. Sometimes certain collectors paid money for these tapes too. Either way, the date on the camera told me that the crime was long ago if it was a crime at all. I slid a fresh VHS into the other side, the side that recorded, and hit the red button. I'd just make a little copy in case I had to turn this one over to the cops.

Rent had to be paid, one way or another.

On-screen, the man-child had opened up a flashing police car, a large package of Hot Wheels, a few more plushies, and some books. He was ripping them open without any real joy but seemed to revel in showing them to whoever was off-screen as he thanked them for their gifts. I watched as the books went into the fire, the hardbacks blackening as the fire took them. Off-screen, I could still hear the uncomfortable noises of whoever was on the other side, and someone was clearly crying. Someone else was trying to shush them, to console them, but it wasn't working.

The man-child opened another gift and made a face as he discovered an expensive-looking package of make-up.

"Yuck! Who got me this girwy stuff?"

He threw it against the wall, breaking the package and scattering the contents across the floor.

He reached for another one, checking the label before throwing it against the wall still wrapped. He shook the next one before breaking it against the fireplace, spilling colorful clothes from a garment box. He unwrapped another one, finding a ceramic clown which also shattered against the fireplace. Clothes, make-up, jewelry, anything he didn't like seemed to find its way into the fire or against the wall and soon the ground was littered with glass and metal and bits of things. The man-child was gleefully flying a toy plane around, surveying his mess, before tossing it against the fireplace too, and crawling off camera as he laughed.

Someone screamed, the sound muffled, and he returned dragging a girl with him by the ankle.

She couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen and she was dressed in a nightgown that was now displaying an embarrassing amount of skin. She was bound and gagged, her hands tied behind her back cruelly, and as he loomed over her I saw him take a knife from the floor beside the fireplace. It was a big one, almost a sword, and I could hear other muffled cries and screams from beyond the camera lens. He smiled as she wriggled and squirmed and kicked, raising the knife high so she could see it.

"Time to unwap my weal pwesents," he said, the voice making it all the more horrific.

I suspected that I knew what he intended to do with this girl, but as I reached for the button, it appeared I was wrong. He plunged the knife down into her throat, the girl bucking and shaking as he sliced it down. It split her chest, sliding between her breasts as it slid across her stomach and into her nethers. It slipped out of her wetly, and I could see red spreading over her nightgown. She was shaking in her death throes, and a woman could be seen dragging herself into view from off-screen. She was looking at the girl with teary eyes, trying to comfort her in the worst and last moments of her life, when the man struck again.

The blade came down and she shuddered as he stabbed her again and again. The blood flew up to spatter the walls, sizzling into the fire as the woman bucked and shook her life away. The girl in the bloody nightgown was dead, her mother not far behind, and as he freed the blade, he looked back at whoever was left and grinned gleefully. The presents hadn't mattered at all to him. This was his gift, his Christmas Morning, and as he lept out of sight, the sounds of stabbing and tussling could be heard. Muffled screams and pleas for help could be heard behind the scenes. They were silenced just as fast, but not before they were scared indelibly onto my psyche. He spoke not a word, going straight to his work, filled his victims with holes, as the mother gave a final jerk.

I sat there, frozen, watching it all unfold. I was powerless to turn it off now. I had to know, had to see, had to understand why, but I would get no answers. I was as powerless as the people he was killing, and when he came back into view, I flinched in surprise.

He was naked now, his body painted in blood, and he smiled at his handiwork before turning to grab the tree. Like the Grinch had in the old storybook, he stuffed it up the chimney. He didn't get it far, but I didn't believe he was trying to go up with it. It got stuck halfway up, and the dry limbs began to burn. The fire crept over them, the broken garbage that had been the family's Christmas began to catch as well. As the house burned, he turned to the camera and winked luridly.

"Mewwy Cwistmas to aww, and to aww a good night."

Then he reached for the camera, and the video ended.

I stood there staring at the static for a long time, almost expecting to see that blood, crazed face reflected behind me in the screen of my television.

After a while, I finally found the strength to grab my phone and call the police.

They took the tape, thanking me for my diligence, and saying if it helped in the apprehension of a criminal, they would see that I got a reward.

The other tape I burned in the barrel out back.

I didn't even want to touch it, but I wanted it in my house even less.

Now I'm sitting here watching the static, trying to figure out what to do. I have five more boxes of tapes to go through, but the thought of watching them terrifies me. Every time I reached for them, I remembered how he cut that girl open like Christmas paper and stabbed her mother to death while she died feet away.

How many more tapes like that might be waiting for me?

How many more Christmas Mornings might be invaded by that ghoul in the footy pajamas?

I don't know, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be time to look for honest work.

05:04 UTC


Christmas Carols

The man with the wagon came every year, and his arrival was something we looked forward to when I was young.

He always sat up in the fountain area of the little mall in my town. He ran a little show similar to things like the Lynyrd Bearstien animatronic choir, or other such Holiday entertainment that sometimes came to small towns. I always got excited when I went to the mall and saw the colorful wooden caravan parked in the lot. I would get further excited when I saw the green tarp that he used like a stage curtain to block off his setup. It was like a herald of the season to see that green tarp, and it just didn’t feel like Christmas until I knew that the man with the funny tree was going to be there.

I grew up in a fairly rural town, but most towns had some kind of mall in the nineteen nineties. Ours was nothing grand, one of those barely holding-on kinds of places that was extremely dependent on the JCPenney and the Burlington Coat Factory that occupied the larger spaces. In the middle, there was a food court, a couple of bookstores, some clothing stores, and a Spencer‘s Gifts that the local Bible thumpers always seem to be trying to get closed down. The Mall was the place we all used to go to hang out, a safe environment where you could go and parous the edifices of capitalism. Nothing bad could happen to you in the mall, at least that’s what we thought at the time.

The man in the wagon always came the week before Thanksgiving.

I say he drove a wagon, but that doesn’t really do it justice. What he had was this large, colorful wooden house on wheels, something like an RV that was pulled by mules. It was covered in bright colors and strange symbols, and my mom told me that he had been coming into town for years. He used to set up in the Town Square from what she told me, and every few years he had some different display, though the content was always the same. When the mall opened up, he began to go there instead. It was where the people were, and the people were what he was after.

“He used to have a manger scene, and before that, it was a bunch of snowmen, but it’s always just a platform for the singing heads.” Mom would say.

Yes, you read that, right.

The singing heads.

The tree that he used was large and seemed to be made of fiberglass, though I suppose it could’ve been something else. It was about fifteen feet high, and in sections that he would drag out of the cart to erect. Once he had the tree in place, he would push out a rolling cart with a tarp over it, and we all knew that’s where the funny heads were. You never saw where he unpacked them from, you never saw how they worked, but we all knew what they did.

On the first day of December, he would unveil his show.

The first time the curtain slid back, we would all laugh and cheer at the sight of the tree with the funny heads covering the limbs. There were fifteen in all, and they all hung from the limbs of the tree like ornaments. Each head seemed to know its part, and the songs were always expertly performed. We assumed they were robotic because when they weren’t singing, they would close their eyes and almost appear dead. There were five that sat on the bottom row, four that sat on the second row, three on the middle, two on the second row from the top, and a single head that sat on the very top of the tree like some grotesque star.

They sang the usual holiday fare, Frosty the Snowman, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, and even the religious songs that kept them in the good graces of the people who were constantly trying to get the Spencer closed. Each show lasted about an hour, and he usually did about five a day. He would post the show times on a chalkboard near the ticket booth, and in between shows he could be seen sitting on the edge of the stage and whittling.

The town always offered to put the man up in a hotel, thanking him for bringing some holiday cheer to the community, but he always refused and insisted on sleeping in his wagon.

I wouldn’t want to be away from my stars for too long.” he would say with a sly wink.

The man and the tree, and the singing heads would stay until the day before Christmas Eve, and then they would disappear just as quickly as they had appeared.

We never knew where he went back to, just that he would be back on the last week of November, as he always was.

The man was mysterious, but the Talking Heads and the tree were the real show and the real mystery I suppose.

The man who had assembled the chorus was just as mysterious as they were. He was middle-aged but I suppose he could’ve been older. He wore a coal-black suit like an undertaker and had a tall, black hat that completed the mortician look. He had a cane, shiny black shoes that he had polished mirror shine, and I always remember he had the one tooth that winked when he smiled. He was always jolly, and his short white beard reminded me a little of Santa Claus. He always had candy canes for the children who came to see the tree, but there always seemed to be something a little off about him.

Even as a kid, my attention held by the tree of singing heads, I remember, keeping a wary eye on the man as he grinded and watched the show from the ticket booth.

It was the same warry attention I would give people who stood a little too close to children’s playground or mumbled to themselves on park benches.

It was that wariness we give to people who might not be all there.

I looked forward to the arrival of the man in his cart probably longer than I should have. The mystery of the tree and the singing heads would persist until I was nearly out of high school, though I wish now I had never found out.

I might be happier if I had remained a mystery.

I was seventeen and working at Hotdog on a Stick when I smiled as I saw the old man pushing his trolley towards the fountain area. He had the bottom part of the tree perched precariously on that hand truck, and I just knew that soon the mall would be full of the sound of the holidays. Carol, one of my coworkers at the stand, snorted and said she couldn’t believe they let that creepy old guy come back every year. I looked shocked, but then I remembered that Carol‘s family had only moved here two years ago. They had come up from Gladstone, a bigger town about three hours up the road, and this would only be her second year seeing the man and his caroling heads.

“He’s not creepy,” I insisted, though I didn’t quite believe it myself, “I love his Christmas show, most people in town do.”

“Really?” Carol asked, “How long has he been coming around? I assumed he was newish since he’s clearly trying to cash in on the whole animatronic fad.”

“Since I was a little kid,” I told her, “He’s been coming around for at least the seventeen years that I’ve been alive, and mom said he’s been coming around longer than that.”

Carol made a halfway interested sound at this, and we watched him make several trips back and forth to the wagon as he set up his tarp and began setting up the tree. Other people had taken notice too, and there was an air of excitement as they marked the old man's return.

I call him the old man, but he always looked exactly the same. He could always have passed for middle-aged, he never seemed to get any larger or smaller, and other than his white beard, he never seemed to gray or wrinkle as old timers sometimes did. People watched him as he came and went, and as the top of the tree rose above the tarp, we all secretly waited for the first week of December.

I was especially excited this year. I would have a prime seat for nearly every performance as I stood here and sold lemonade and hotdogs on sticks. I had been happy to take the job, after being let go when the Shoe Carnival closed up, and part of it was because I knew I’d be able to watch the Christmas tree and its singing heads. The man still gave me the creeps, though I had hidden it deep for as long as I could remember, but I looked forward to the show nonetheless. I couldn’t wait to see if he had added any new Christmas songs this year, and Carol likely got tired of my constant speculation.

Carol seemed less excited but was definitely interested to see what the old guy would bring to the table this year.

I was working the first day he opened that curtain and to my surprise, they had added not a new song, but another head. There were sixteen now, the bottom row now holding six, and it threw off some of the symmetry that had existed in the years before. The man took the stage and made a bow telling everyone he was glad to see them for another year. Then he lifted his conductor's baton and started the show. All the heads opened their eyes as if they had only been waiting for a signal, and as they broke into a rendition of "Oh come all ye faithful," Carol gave a long shutter and said she didn’t know how she was going to work here for the next four weeks with all that going on.

“Are you kidding?” I asked, “We get a front-row seat for every performance. We don’t even have to buy a ticket. It’s kind of cool.”

She gave me a look like I might be brain damaged, “Tell me this doesn't seem normal to you?”

“Well yeah, it’s a yearly thing. The cart rolls in, the man sets up, and then the first day of December we hear the singing heads, just as we did the year before.”

She pursed her lips, like she was trying to find the most diplomatic way to say what was on her mind, and finally decided on the truth.

“You know that nowhere else does anything like this, right?”

I furrowed my brow, having never thought about it before.

“I mean, they must do something like this. I’m sure there are weird little holiday activities in every town.”

“Yeah, but nothing like this. This is just sick. Who makes robot heads that sing Christmas carols? The whole thing is like a Twilight Zone episode. I don’t know how any of you guys enjoy this.” She said, going to the back to count sticks.

I just shook my head as some fella came up to buy a hotdog and on a stick and found my eyes wandering back to the show throughout the day.

We did amazing business that month, thanks in part to people coming over to get snacks before the show. The man put on five shows a day, the last one ending about ten minutes before the mall closed, and he always packed his heads back on the dolly and wheeled them out after the crowd had left. I remember wanting to go talk to him, tell him how much the show meant to me, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to. Even as an adult, at least that’s how I thought of myself, I was still a little hesitant to approach him. I remembered the way he made me feel as a kid, the polar opposite of the singing head, and always watched him shuffle back to his cart from afar.

It was December 21st, four days before Christmas, when I learned something about the show that would change my memories of it forever.

Carol and I were, once again, manning the stand when a camera crew came up to talk to the man in between shows. He was preparing for the final show of the night, tickets already beginning to sell, when a lady from Channel 4 News approached the booth and asked him if they could interview for a piece they were doing on the malll. He tried to put her aside gently, saying he had a show starting in about thirty minutes, but she pestered him until he agreed to do an interview and he finally walked off with her. As we watched him leave, Carol got a strange in her eye and seemed to be planning mischief.

“Hey,” she said suddenly, “let’s go have a closer look at those heads.”

My mouth came open a little bit, and I asked her if she was crazy?

No one got near the stage, no one.

The man’s demeanor was usually jolly, but anyone who tried to get close to the stage saw a different side of him come out. He could be scary if the mood took him, and those who attempted to touch or get close to his singing heads, discovered that the hard way. He had never hurt anyone, not that I had ever seen, but he definitely made them change their mind through some kind of sorcery. Even the surliest of teenagers, or the brattiest of kids quailed beneath his softly spoken words and his harsh glances, and very few people attempted to go near the stage.

“No one goes near the stage,” I told Carol.

“Yeah, because he’s always guarding it. He’s stepped away, so now we can go have a look.”

She explained it as if she was talking to a child, and I felt the same as I repeated to her that no one went near the stage.

“Oh, come on. Aren’t you a little bit curious to know what they are and how they work? It’s got to be something with the baton, maybe some kind of advanced robotics if they can sing all those songs. I don’t see any wires from here, do you? He’s got to be some kind of skilled tinker if he’s controlling them with nothing but that cheap plastic wand. Don’t you want to see how it works?”

I did.

I was very curious, but it seemed wrong to look.

It was like, knowing how a magician did his tricks, and it might take some of the magic out of it if I knew that the rabbit had been in the hat the whole time.

"Oh, come on." she said, "What are you, scared?"

She was moving before I could answer and I just got swept up in it. I wasn't scared, not really, but I didn't want her to go by herself either. I was honestly worried that if she went alone I would never see her again, and she had become one of my best friends in the time we'd worked together. We hung out outside of work, we went to the same school together too, and I liked Carol in that way we sometimes become attached to people. I really didn't want anything to happen to her, and after tossing down a "Back in ten minutes" sign, I followed behind her.

The crowd was sparse this early, just a couple of people wanting to get good seats for the last show of the evening, and it was easy to move behind the curtain and into the shadowy area backstage. The light came in from the overheads, but the curtain still cast the bottom part of the tree in a small shadowy bank. The heads looked a little grizzly with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep, and now that I was close, they looked less magical and more creepy. He had decorated his Christmas tree with severed heads, it appeared, and now that I could look at them properly I could see that they were hanging from their own braided strands of hair.

They swung from the bows like hanged men and women, and Carol seemed amazed by them.

"Wow," she said, getting right up on one of the heads, "These are amazing. Whatcha think it is? Some kind of robot or maybe some weird ventrili," but she never finished her thought.

The head, a dark-haired man with a short beard, opened his eyes and looked at her.

The two held the gaze of the other for a long moment, and then the head began to scream. The scream was high and terrifying, and as the other heads woke up, they too took up the scream. The sixteen heads began to keen in unison, lifting their voices to the sky as they shrieked and moaned. I could hear the crowd on the other side of the curtain, confused cries coming from the children as the adults began to call for help.

"Carol! We have to go."

Carol couldn't hear me, though.

Carol was screaming as the heads bellowed their fear and rage to the ceiling of our cheap mall.

I heard someone coming, the gravely voice telling them that everything was okay and that they should return to their seats. I knew that voice, and I did not want him to catch me back here. Even at seventeen, I was still a little afraid of the man in the dark suit, and I'm ashamed to say that I ran for my life.

I fled into the mall, hiding in a bathroom for about half an hour before finally coming back to find the performance in full swing as if nothing had happened.

I never saw Carol again, but the man and his singing heads never came back either.

I never knew why they stopped coming, but I was a little grateful for their absence. The memory of those screaming heads would haunt me for years to come, and I can remember waking up in a cold sweat as I remembered their open mouths and mourning faces. In my dreams, Carol was still screaming, and when she looked at me, her head would flop sideways and fall off her neck.

In my dreams, I couldn't run.

All I could do was watch.

I hadn't thought about the Choir of Heads for many years, but I was reminded of them today.

I have kids of my own now, six and thirteen, and I've moved away from the little podunk town I grew up in. I went to college and now I work in the library of said college. That's where I met my husband, and that's actually where he proposed to me. We've been together for fourteen years, and we couldn't be happier.

Anyway, that's not what you're interested in, so I'll get to it.

I had dragged the kids to a Winter Carnival that was being held at the fairground. It wasn't a huge event, just a couple of fair rides, some craft tables, and some food vendors, but as we got deeper into the event, I began to hear singing. My youngest was interested, thinking it was a local choir or something, and my oldest came along behind us like an angsty balloon. He clearly thought himself too cool for something like this, but if he wanted a ride home he knew he had better keep up with us.

I saw the top of the tree before I saw anything else, and the sight of that head perched at the tippy top made me want to scream. Its lips moved as it sang about a little drummer boy, and I was filled with the old fear again. My youngest wanted to get closer, thinking the heads were funny, but I scooped him up and told them both we were leaving. My youngest cried, not wanting to leave yet, but my older son was up and moving before I was.

He was done with the festivities and was glad to see I was too.

I nearly side-swiped another car on my way out of the parking lot and I was off and running as my kids made various complaints in the backseat.

That new head would play a part in the new nightmares I would have, and for good reason.

It would appear that Carol had discovered the secret of those heads the hard way.

No one had seen her again after that, and her parents had still been looking for her when I went to college. I didn't tell the police anything and they never came to ask me. I just knew that I would get in trouble if they found out what I had been doing, and when the man and his cart had left early that year, I assumed it was a mystery I would never know the answer to.

Now I knew better, and I suppose Carol did too.

Her head sat atop the tree at its place of honor, singing all the old holiday classics the heads had sung every year.

I told the kids to play as I went to my sewing room, just sitting here as I wrote this little confession of inaction.

I have no idea what to do and I'm not sure that anyone would believe me anyway.

So if you see the tree of singing heads this year, just remember to keep your distance.

Otherwise, you might be the new star of their little Christmas special.

04:08 UTC


Winter Whittling

I'll always remember that Christmas when the storm blew in.

This was back in 82 or 83, and my family was living in a little house in North Georgia. Dad worked as a logger, Mom stayed at home to take care of me and my brother, and Grandpa had lived with us ever since Grandma died the year before. My Uncle and Aunt had come to stay with us for the holidays and my two cousins, Ella and Jasper, were sharing a room in the loft attic with me and my brother. Our little three-bedroom cabin seemed pretty cramped, but we all just thought it would be until after the holidays.

That was until the blizzard rolled in.

It was December twentieth, four days before Christmas, and we were all playing outside. The adults had said we were being too loud and had asked us to go out for a bit, so we put on our coats and mittens and went out to play. My brother wanted to play hide and seek, and my cousins and I, all of us about four to six years older than him, had agreed begrudgingly. We were too old for baby games, my youngest cousin a whole year older than me, but we agreed, mostly so we would have something to do.

So Jasper and I were hiding under the porch, talking about something to do with hunting, I think, when I blinked as something drifted past my face. Jasper quieted as he noticed it, and I reached out my hand and caught a delicate-looking snowflake. I had seen snow before, you don't live in North Georgia for long without seeing some snow, but this was the first snow I thought might actually stick. It had been unseasonably warm for North Georgia, most days sitting around forty-five, and we had been worried that our white Christmas might be a bust.

As the snow began to fall harder, really coming down, we abandoned our game of hide and seek and devolved into little kids at the sight of all that powder. It was really amazing how quickly it came down, half a foot seeming to appear in minutes, and we began making snowmen, having snowball fights, and looking for the sleds in the tool shed so we could go to the holler and glide down with the fresh powder. Our parents came out onto the porch, looking in awe at all the snow, and when Dad tapped his little thermometer that hung next to the rain gauge, I realized that it was pushing fifty degrees. I didn't think about it at the time, but there was no way all that snow could be sticking. It was above freezing, and the snow should have been turning to slush before it hit the ground.

To us, it seemed like a Christmas miracle, but as the sun began to set and the adults went inside, I noticed Grandpa had come out and was looking at the sky with distrust.

I watched him as he walked out to the wood pile and took a piece of stovewood back in with him, my distraction earning me a snowball upside the head from Ella.

Looking back on it, Grandpa had to know what was coming, and even then he started getting ready for it.

We went to bed that night with visions of snowball fights and sledding dancing in our heads, but we woke up to a blizzard outside. Dad and Uncle went to stare at it on the porch, drinking coffee as they discussed what to do. Dad had laid by food, but he was worried that he didn't have enough for nine people long term. My Uncle joked that we could always eat Grandpa, but Dad said that would be like chewing on a boiled owl and they both laughed. Grandpa, on the other hand, was whittling something from the stove wood. He had been working on it through the night, and it kind of looked like a crossroads sign. It was thick through the middle, however, which made me think there might be more to it.

I was too excited for another snow day, however, to pay Grandpa much mind.

Not when there were winter festivities to get up to. My cousins and I played in the blizzard that day, but our games were muted some as the wind picked up and the snow began to fly. The wind was blowing too hard for our snowballs to fly straight. We tried sledding, but the snow was coming down too hard for us to see, and the ice that was forming hurt our ears and faces. By lunchtime, we were forced to come in out of the cold. Our coats, mittens, and hats were soaked through and after hanging them on the pegs in the mudroom, we went into the attic loft where we were all sleeping to warm up. We had all been set up in sleeping bags up here, my aunt and uncle taking the room I shared with my brother, and it was like having a little campout. The heat from the fire in the living room made it very warm up here, and as Jasper and I watched from the upper window, he leaned close to the glass and pointed into the woods.

"Do you see that?" he asked.

I squinted into the sea of white, trying to find it, and finally picked out a single silhouette. It looked like an animal, something on all fours, but it was gone as the winds blew up again, and we were both left looking at the snowy forest. He asked if I had seen it, probably trying to figure out if he had been seeing things, and I assured him I had seen it too.

We both sat by the window after the adults had gone to bed, looking out and hoping to catch a glimpse of something in the blowing snow.

We didn't see anything, at least I didn't, but we both assured the other that we could see all sorts of spooky things.

The next day, the blizzard was even worse.

December twenty-second was too stormy for any of us to even think about going out to play, and when my Uncle and Father came out bundled to the eyes in several winter coats and the old deer skin britches they sometimes wore for winter work, I knew they intended to go out anyway. Mom told them they were crazy, but Dad said they needed supplies. The town was only about two miles north through the woods, and they would get the essentials and head back before lunch. He kissed my mom and told me to hold down the fort while he was gone.

"I should be back soon. It's only a couple of miles."

They set out at seven, just after breakfast, and I didn't envy them.

With the blizzard raging, we mostly sat around the house and watched TV. The set only got ten channels on a good day, and today we were lucky to get two. The local weather station came through, on and off, and as the little kids watched public access stuff, I sat and read on the saggy old couch. My older cousin had decided to read a magazine he'd brought, and the only break up over the muffled sounds of the TV was Grandpa as he carved his little figure. The sciff sciff sciff of Grandpa's whittling knife kept leading me away from the adventures of Frodo and Sam, and I found myself looking at him as he worked. If he was self-conscious about it, he never showed it. Grandpa wasn't so old that he seemed ancient, but even as a kid he seemed like some wise old elf to a sprat like me.

After a while, I finally asked him what he was making, and his answer made me put my book down entirely.

"A totem."

"Like a tribal thing? Like in Robinson Caruso?"

He smiled wetly at me, "Kind of. This one is to keep something specific away though, something we may get a look at if we're very unlucky."

"What's that?" my cousin asked, and I realized he had been listening too. The magazine lay across his lap now, and as Grandpa sat his knife aside, he lay it on the arm of the chair and moved over to sit closer.

Grandpa had just opened his mouth to speak, when the lights suddenly went out, and the living room was left in semi-darkness. The power had struggled on manfully, but it had finally given up the ghost. The fire in the grate cast Grandpa in a ghostly pall, and I imagined that this was how his own Grandfather had looked when he told stories once upon a time.

"When I was young, younger than you two but right about little Mack's age there," he said, pointing at my brother, "There was a blizzard much like this one. It blew in right after Christmas, and it stayed for five days. My brothers and I thought it was great, and we played in the snow as the adults looked on with concern. Did we have enough firewood? Did we have enough food? None of that mattered to us, though. Those were matters for adults and we threw snowballs and built forts and played until the sun set each day."

The fire crackled as the little kids moved closer to Grandpa, and we settled in for a story.

"As the blizzard went on, we noticed that something was stalking the woods around the cabin. It came on all fours, like a deer or a stag, but sometimes, if you were quick, you could see it on two legs as well. It never got close, not in the beginning, but as the blizzard went on, it crept closer and closer to the house. At night, my brothers and I would watch it from the attic window and sometimes its eyes were red as coals in the dark."

We were all gathered around him then, listening to the tale, enveloped in the mystery of the creature.

Me and Jasper, especially, since I was pretty sure we had seen it yesterday.

"Every day, it got a little closer, and every day the storm got a little worse. My own Grandpa, a man who had seen the beginning of a new century, sat in a chair by the fire and whittled from the first day of the storm to the last. His old knife, this knife, actually," he said as he held up a fixed blade knife with a silver handle, "was very sharp and the wood had fallen in thick curls as he worked. I was enthralled by the little carving he was making. I asked him what it was as more of it came out, and he told me it was a ward against things that might come with the storm. I watched him, studied him, and at night we watched the red eyes of the deer thing get closer and closer to the house. By the second night, the eyes might as well be right on the porch, and we shuddered in our blankets as we wondered what it was."

The storm outside made a perfect backdrop for the story, and we were so captured by the tale, that we didn't even hear my mother stepping in from the kitchen.

"On the last day, as the blizzard raged, we heard hoofbeats on the porch. My father wanted to go out and see what it was, but Grandpa said he would fix it. He told us to go into the attic, told my father and mother to go to their room, and took the thing he had carved out to the porch. There, as we tried to see through the window, we saw a bright light and the deer fell back into the snow. The deer, however, was wrong. Its legs were too long, its arms ended in strange hands, and its eyes were,"

"Pop!" My mother said, making all of us jump, "I know you're not trying to keep these kids up all night with such tales?"

Grandpa had jumped a little too, so enthralled by his own story. He looked sheepish, like he had been caught doing something wrong, and shrugged as he gave another gummy smile. We all looked at her incredulously, as if not sure what to make of her, but if it made her self-conscious, she didn't budge.

"Just a little Christmas ghost story, Peg. I didn't mean any harm."

My mother gave him a hard look, “Well, if these boys are awake all night, shivering at the ghost of some story, you can sit up with them.”

She returned to the kitchen then, the smells of lunch still wafting from the wood stove she had in there.

"What was it?" I asked Grandpa, keeping my voice low so mom wouldn’t hear, but he shook his head as he returned to his whittling.

"Better not say, boy. Don't want your mother to tell your Dad, and get myself thrown out in the snow like the leftovers," he said with a wink.

He tried to play it off as a joke, but I knew that Grandpa was always very aware that he was a guest in my parent's house. He lived with us for most of my young life, seeing me graduate high school before dying in his sleep one spring, but Mom told me once that it was a blessing to him to be so close to her and my dad and his grandkids.

Her other siblings had moved away when they grew up, and Grandpa couldn't imagine himself living anywhere but in the woods he loved so much.

As night fell and my Dad and Uncle hadn't returned, Mom started getting worried. The town wasn't that far away and they should have been back well before now. She figured they had just gotten turned around, and maybe they would come stumbling in after dark, but as the dinner dishes were cleared away and we all prepared for bed, my mom and aunt became less sure.

As we watched through the window, seeing the red eyes that Grandpa had told us about, I heard them making plans to go look for them the next day.

"What do you reckon it is?" my older cousin asked, the two of us watching the eyes as they moved fitfully through the trees that surrounded our cabin.

"Dunno," I admitted, "I've never seen anything like it."

As my mom and aunt turned in and the lights that filtered through the boards went out, we settled in as well, still not sure what tomorrow would bring.

December twenty-third dawned cold with still no sign of my Dad or Uncle. Mom was frantic, flitting around the kitchen like a hummingbird, and when she called us to the kitchen around noon, we all expected what was coming. She was dressed warmly, her two thickest coats thrown over a pair of snow pants, and the boots she had on were some of Dad's with several pairs of socks underneath.

"I'm going to town to see about your father. Until I get back, your Aunt is in charge. You boys listen to her, okay, and keep an eye on your Grandpa. He may need help, and if I'm not here to help him then it's up to you two. Be good, and be safe. If the phones come back on, call the Sheriff and tell him your father never came home. If I haven't made it to town, then someone will need to go out and look for us."

She left around eleven, lunch already on the table, and I watched her go from the front door as she disappeared into the snow. I hoped I would see her again, but after watching my Dad and Uncle disappear out there too, I wasn't sure I would. As I watched, I could also see the shadow of the creature as it stalked our little home. It was still on all fours, its antlers sometimes knocking snow from the trees, but sometimes when the wind would blow up I would see it rise onto its back legs for the briefest of moments before it was lost from sight.

Mom didn't come back for dinner, and as we went to bed I could hear my Aunt crying in the room she had shared with my Uncle.

We all woke up on the twenty-fourth, Christmas Eve, feeling hopeless and unsure of what to do. With every passing day, this felt less like a fun time and more like a real problem. My cousins and I started to feel like a bunch of westbound settlers who were watching the hills for Indians. My Aunt didn't get up to make us breakfast, and Ella said that she had fallen asleep in my brother's bed with an empty bottle by her head. It was probably the corn whiskey that Dad kept for emergencies, and I supposed this counted as one of those. We ate cold food from the fridge, Jasper making some eggs to go with it, and the two of us sat and watched the shadowy creature from the porch as we ate.

My brother and Ella had gone back to the attic, feeling like they might just go back to sleep, which is why they weren't there for what happened next.

As we sat munching on cold ham and burnt eggs, the creature stalked the house from the depths of the rising storm. The blizzard was focused, a swirling vortex that seemed to enclose us in a swirl of winter. We were powerless to do anything about it, so we just sat and watched as it raged and frothed. The creature was barely visible, an outline more often than not, and it seemed odd now that we weren't more worried about it.

Both of us had hunted deer, however, and the thought of being scared by a half-starved buck seemed silly.

When it turned its horned head towards us, its eyes boring into our conversation as it stepped slowly towards the house, the idea no longer seemed so silly.

"What in the hell?" my cousin said, rising so quickly that his stool went spilling over, "What is that thing?"

It had come out of the storm, and we could see that it was a solid white buck, its skin hanging on it like a carcass. Carcass was an apt word. The deer looked like a corpse, like some half-eaten piece of roadkill that had gotten up to seek revenge. Its antlers were huge, the tines many and majestic. It was a thirteen or fourteen-point buck by my quick count, but as I watched, the sharp bones seemed to move with an eerie independence from their host. They squirmed like a nest of snakes, and the creature reminded me of Medusa as it stood glowering at us. Its blazing eyes still glowed like coals, and it was baring its flat teeth at us like it meant to bite.

I wished, suddenly, that I had my rifle, but it was in the room with my aunt and absolutely no use to me here.

I don't think either of us was truly afraid until the creature stood up on its hind legs, legs that now seemed as boneless as the Gumby character my little brother liked to watch, and began to run at us.

We barely made it into the house, slamming the door behind us, when it hit the wood hard enough to shake it in the frame. Jasper and I went deeper into the house, but as I came to the ladder that led to the attic, I remembered that Grandpa was still in the living room. Mom's words echoed in my head, and I told him to go on and make sure the others were okay.

He nodded, understanding, and when I got to the living room, I found Grandpa still working on his totem.

"Grandpa, we've got to go," I told him, trying to help him up, "This thing going to get us if we don't,"

"I'm almost finished, kiddo. Once I'm done we'll be safe."

I heard the door beginning to splinter, but Grandpa just shrugged me off as I tried to help him up.

"Grandpa, we need to get up into the attic. I've seen this thing, and I can tell you that your carving isn't going to," but I never finished.

The door burst open then, and the cadaverous deer creature came snorting into the living room.

I was frozen in fear as it strode in, its hooves clicking on the floor, and I saw its front legs end in the same kind of snakey appendages that decorated its head. They were like fingers in some nightmare picture, and his red eyes focused on us as he came striding into the living room. His horns made a hellish noise as they scrapped the ceiling, sending curls of wood down in a shower. He was focused on Grandpa, his eyes boring into him, but as I started to bolt, Grandpa swept out an arm and held me back.

I looked down and found that, to my surprise, the old man was smiling.

"Fancy meeting you again after all this time," Grandpa said, the deer snarling and snorting a mere fifteen feet away.

He started moving after a few tense seconds, and when Grandpa lifted his hand, I was momentarily blinded by a white-hot light that emanated from the carving there. I saw the face carved there for half a bitter second, the huge eyes and roaring mouth looking formidable, and then I had to throw my hands over my ears as my senses were assaulted by a sudden cry of primal rage. It was as if the totem was bellowing at the interloper, screaming down the deer thing that meant to kill me and grandpa, and all of my senses seemed assaulted at once. I was blind, deaf, smellless, unspeaking, and incapable of thought. I was as Adam must have been for the first few moments of his creation, and when I was able to gain my senses, I found myself lying on the floor as Grandpa looked on placidly.

Of the deer, there was no sign, and Grandpa's totem looked as if it had been through the heart of a blazing inferno. The features were still perfect, only charged to a dumb muteness by the effort of expelling the deer thing. It had taken everything the little effigy had to set the creature aside, and now it was used up.

Grandpa handed it to me, the carving leaving char stains on my fingers as it passed between us, "Here, you might need to know how to carve one yourself someday."

I started to thank him, but that was when I heard my father's angry yell as he asked just what the hell had happened to the door.

Some of his anger was set aside when I came running up to hug him, and I could see both my Uncle and my Mother standing slightly behind him and looking concerned and confused.

I tried my best to explain what had happened, but I don't think they believed me. Dad was skeptical that all this had happened in the few hours he had been gone, but Mom pointed out that he had been gone for at least a day and a half. That really threw him, and when he told her that he had just left this morning, she said he had been in the woods since at least the twenty-first.

"Yes," he agreed, "This morning."

The two went back and forth, but when I told Mom that she had been in the woods overnight as well, she also looked confused. Both of them had been in the woods overnight, Dad had actually been in the woods for two nights, but both parties said the sun had never set. They had been roaming through the woods, looking for town, and had just appeared back here all of a sudden. When Dad had found Mom out in the woods, he assumed she had come looking for him. They had all three returned home, a trip that had taken less than a few minutes, and figured they had all just gotten turned around in the blizzard.

Speaking of the blizzard, it had stopped as suddenly as it had started.

The power came back on a little while later, and when my aunt woke up to find her husband had returned, we all took stock of the fridge and began working on one of the best Christmas Dinners ever.

That particular Christmas was one I will always remember, and not just because of the deer thing.

We had many more Christmases like it in the years to come, but none quite so tumultuous as that.

I still live in that house, both my parents long dead, but every year we all get together and have Christmas like we used to.

We tell our kids, and Grandkids, about that Christmas we were snowed in, and I've been practicing my whittling since that day Grandpa sent the deer thing away in a blaze of light.

I haven't seen one since, but who knows who might come to visit one snowy Christmas in Appalachia?

00:46 UTC


Beware the Toy Makers Woods

Earlier Works- https://www.reddit.com/r/Erutious/comments/14a5id0/the_ghost_grass_hermit/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

Some of you might remember me, I'm the traveling photographer who chases photos in strange locals. My story about the Ghost Grass Hermit got the attention of a magazine that was interested in strange locals. It's not as much traveling as I'm used to, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't nice to sleep in a bed more than on the ground. I've spent the night in haunted hotels in Louisiana, shrieking forests in the Midwest, and looking for strange creatures in the various backwoods of the American South.

So when I got the message about checking out a forest in Maine, I was a little hesitant. This time of year the weather is likely to be frigid and blundering into haunted woods in the middle of winter is no one's idea of a good time. The check the magazine was talking about writing me, however, was definitely a game changer, so I packed my stuff and headed out. I had time to read up on it while I flew from Tampa (a skunk ape sighting that turned out to be a homeless guy) to Maine, home of the King of Horror and some pretty picturesque scenery.

The locals claimed that the woods were the home of some malevolent spirit, it seemed.

A spirit who made toys.

Local legend said that people had been finding wooden toys in the woods for years, the first being reported in eighteen sixty. Around eighteen fifty or so, there was supposed to be an old man who lived in the woods out there, an old man who sometimes came into town to sell handmade goods. He had the usual fare, bowls and animals and things, but his puppets were supposed to draw buyers from far and wide. He made enough from his hand-carved goods to live comfortably away from society, and most of people just believed he was a harmless old man.

One winter, however, a group of kids went missing.

The town turned out to try and find them, but as the snow came down and the hour grew late, hope seemed to dwindle that they would ever be found. They asked the old man if he had seen the missing kids, and he shook his head and told them he would keep an eye out for them. As the snow piled up, and the winter wind whipped, the people in town began to wonder if he had maybe seen the kids and just wasn’t saying. Someone said that a few of the boys had been seen talking with him not long ago, admiring his puppets and hanging around his stand. They began to get a little stir-crazy, thinking about the boys and picturing all kinds of unnatural things he could be doing out there.

So, in the dead of winter, they had gone out and broken down the old man's door, handing out a savage beating and searching every nook and cranny for the missing kids.

Except they never found any kids, and the beating they had handed down had been a little too zelous.

The old man was dead, and when the snows melted, the town found the kids dead in a drift under a makeshift lean-to they had made to get out of the snow. The townspeople sure were sorry about what they had done, but when they went to dig the old man up so they could bury him in the churchyard, his body was gone. They said they had glimpsed smoke coming up the chimney as well when they approached, and candles that suddenly went out when they knocked on the door.

After that, the puppets started hanging in the woods. Some people admitted to having hung them in memory of the old man and the terrible thing they had done to him, but some of them couldn't be accounted for by the mourners. People went missing every now and again too, and some of the puppets began to look like the missing people. The forest had since been integrated into a state park and the Toy Maker's Cabin was one of the park landmarks. It had been well maintained, as had the surrounding woods, and lots of people came to see the Toy Maker's Wood.

When my plane landed in Portland about three and a half hours later I was raring to have a look myself.

It was another three hours in a rental car from there, heading up into the heart of Maine as I followed the signs to a little town on the edge of the Masslow State Park called Bucklowder. They were pegged as one of those rustic tourist towns, kinda like Williamsburg but with less PR. They had done okay, I suppose, and it was likely thanks in part to the people like me who came and wrote stories about them. I rolled in right about nightfall and found people in long skirts and buckle hats closing up shop for the night. The tourists had either gone somewhere else or had turned in for the night and now the blacksmiths and hunters and tanners could go home and watch TV and eat their dinner and get some sleep so they could do it again tomorrow. The Hogs Mouth Inn was my destination, and I was glad to see it as I drove into the parking lot behind the building.

The snow flurries had been coming down for the last two hours, and I was very glad I had thought to pack a winter coat when I left Florida, which had been a balmy seventy-two degrees when I got on the plane. The temperature gauge on my car said it was around thirty-two now, and the tourists were going to be in for a winter scene tomorrow, I had no doubt. After checking in I decided to come downstairs and have a look at their after-hours show.

The bar area was a series of long tables where guests and actors ate by candlelight and paid a pretty penny for their ambiance. The place had a pretty steep price tag for somewhere I was expected to sleep on a mattress I'd expect to see at a Howard Johnson and eat vegetable stew with a bunch of guys in rough-spun clothes, but the magazine was footing the bill for expenses and I decided there would likely be no better place for getting local legends than right here in town. So, I sat at the bar, ate some lukewarm stew, drank a watered-down beer, and asked the woman in the apron if she knew anything about the legend of the Toy Maker's Woods.

Her eyes went a little wide, but it was clearly not the first time she had been asked.

"I wouldn't go out there if'n I was you. It's a haunted place, and it has a dark aura about it."

"So I've heard," I said, setting the glass down and asking for another, "So does the old Toy Maker still leave the puppets in the trees?"

She didn't seem to like the question, but it was probably the accompanying smirk that set her off.

That smirk tried to tell her that we both knew better. I was still pretty sure this was something the locals were doing to promote tourism at that point, an idea I wouldn't be divested of for a while yet.

"He does, as I think you know. You think yourself witty by making fun of our local legends, but there are still some things in this world that can't be explained away so easily. You'd think that someone like yourself, someone who'd seen the unexplainable and lived to tell, would be a little more open-minded."

I was speechless.

Had she read my articles?

"How do you know I've,"

"It's plain to those who've lived in the shadow of strange and terrible things all their lives. Let's hope you come out of the woods as easily as you came out of whatever it was you ran afoul of before."

I finished my second drink in silence, the barmaid moving to the other end of the polished wooden edifice and shooting dark looks at me until I left my money and took my leave.

I woke up the next morning to find a winter wonderland outside and had to make a trip to the local outfitters before setting off.

One pair of hiking boots, some snow pants, and several other warm bits of cover later, and I was off. The outfitter had also sold me a map of the area which showed the start of the trailhead not too far from the edge of town. It took a little longer than I would have liked to find it in the snow, but I eventually oriented myself and found the Toy Makers Trailhead. The snow had turned the woods into a German fairytale, and as I made my way down the snowy path, I couldn't help but feel a little like some peasant kid just trying to find his way home again.

With all that colorless terrain surrounding me, it almost felt like I was back in the ghost grass again.

The sign at the start of the path told me that it was about three miles to the Toy Maker's Cabin.

Not a very strenuous walk in the summer or the spring, but in the snow it would feel more like five or six. The powder wasn't waist deep, of course, but I was keenly aware of the crunch crunch crunch of my new snow boots as I made my way towards the cabin. I had my camera out and decided to take some pictures of the expansive winter landscape as I went. I saw signs of deer in the snow, some frozen pellets probably left by a rabbit, and when I went to take a picture of some long plants jutting from an icy pond I saw the first of the puppets.

I've been saying puppets, but I suppose what they were was marionettes. I inspected a few of them and found nowhere to put a hand to make their mouths move. They were sitting in trees, hanging from branches by their strings, some of them lying on the ground in a heap, but all of them looked meticulously crafted and expertly carved. They were dressed in all manner of outfits, but a lot of them looked like they might be wearing jogging gear or hiking clothes. Some of them were definitely children, and seeing them hanging merrily from the trees made me remember the story I had read on the plane.

Walking through all this snow made me wonder if this was what the kids had experienced as they trudged through the snow, cold and hungry, and just trying to get home again.

The farther I went, the more it seemed like I too could easily get lost out here.

I was a tourist, but I could imagine that even the locals would be hard-pressed to find their way out here. All this white, all this ice, would cover up landmarks and make it that much easier to get turned around. You could blunder around out here for hours just trying to find the right trail, only to realize that you had gone deeper into the woods instead of closer to town. The woods were made up of birches, spruces, and hearty old pines, and the snow bothered them not at all. They hung close together, baring the weight of all that powder stoically, and amongst the limbs were the puppets I had come to see.

Always those infernal puppets.

When it began to get dark, I realized I had been wandering this trail for hours. It had been early morning when I left, eight or nine at the latest, and as I watched the sun began to dip a little, I started getting worried that I was lost. The map I had did very little to help. The area was unknown to me and the landmarks that would have meant something to a local were just so much snow-covered nothing. I still hadn't come to the Toy Makers Cabin, and with every step, I was less sure I would ever find it.

It was three thirty by my watch when I noticed the smoke curling up on the horizon, and I headed towards it like a dying man towards rescue.

I had hoped it was someone's chimney in town, but the closeness of the trees made me think it might be the cabin I had been looking for. The thought that somebody had hiked out here at first light to pretend to be some creepy toy maker made me want to applaud his resilience, but I was hoping he had a snowmobile or something to get me back to town. Hell, I would settle for a guide to find my way back to the trailhead at this point. Whoever was up ahead likely knew the way out at any rate, and I was cold and soaked enough to want to be back somewhere warm.

My hands shook a little as I came upon the cabin, my camera coming up as I clicked a few pictures of the dark wood dwelling. It was a single-room cabin, nothing fancy by today's standards, but it was long and likely contained a loft above the floor. I could just imagine the workshop that must exist inside there. The tables and benches that held his creations, the wonders he could create there, and suddenly I wanted to see it.

I went right on wanting a peek until my knock was answered by something from a nightmare.

The door opened with a long and ominous creek, and the inside was less than inviting.

The shadows weren't particularly long outside, but the inside of the workshop was pitch black. The face that leered out had an unsettlingly toothy grin to go along with its coal-red eyes. Its body was indeterminable, the darkness hiding it like a cloak, but its face loomed down at me like a jack o lantern from a high shelf. He grinned at me from the space near the top of the door, and I felt my lower lip tremble a little as his eyes fell on me.

"Well hello, traveler. You look cold. Would you like to come inside and sit by the fire?"

Its voice sounded like an echo from the pits of hell, but that wasn't what had decided me on backing away from the invitation.

When the door had opened, a smell like wet copper had nearly bowled me over.

It was a smell like blood, and I knew that if I went into that house, I would never come out again.

"No, no thank you." I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking, "I was just wondering which way would get me back to town?"

"That way," it said, and I assumed it must have pointed, "I'd walk with you, but I can't abide the light. It hurts my eyes, you see. If you'd like to wait inside till the sun sets, however, I would be happy to walk you back to town."

I shook my head, "No, thank you. My friends are waiting for me, and I must be going."

"Of course. Hurry along now."

As it closed the door, the portal creaking on swollen hinges, I heard it whisper, "Wouldn't want to be caught out after dark, now would we?"

I ran as fast as I could, using the puppets as a guidepost.

Suddenly, their height in the trees made sense.

This thing had been crouching to talk to me, and I bet its arms would have no trouble placing those puppets in the bows of the nearby furs. They seemed to taunt me as I ran, enticing me to hurry. The sun might keep it inside for now, they seemed to say through their painted smiles, but what will happen when it goes down? I haven't been so afraid since I lay on the floor of the hermit's shack, listening as I wondered if he would kill me.

I ran as the sun set, and fate must have been with me.

The journey that had taken me all day seemed to end in a few moments, and I could soon see the town in profile as the sun set behind it.

I raced the shadows into town, expecting to hear a howl or a scream as the darkness allowed him to leave his den, and as I closed the door to the inn behind me, I saw the patrons at the bar looking up questioningly.

The barmaid, however, seemed to know what had happened.

As I came to rest at the bar, snow falling off my clothes, she set a mug of something hot down in front of me. Her look was knowing like she had guessed what happened, but it was also sympathetic, like she understood what I had been through. It was pretty clear that she too had been to the cabin and possibly seen something that haunted her to this day.

"Don't worry," she told me, "It doesn't come into town. Never has, not since our great great great great grandsires kicked in its door and murdered it for a crime it had no part of. It's called the Toy Maker's Wood for a reason, and that's where it hunts its prey."

I nodded, taking a sip of the mead she had put down in front of me.

It was warm and thick and good.

"How many have gone missing in those woods?" I asked, not really sure I wanted the answer.

"Not so many as you might think. Enough that the foresty service goes out with dogs a few times a month, but never after dark. It prefers to take locals if it can. It remembers that the townspeople are responsible for its suffering, and it means to exact revenge a drop at a time. To its credit, it probably kills as few tourists as it can. Tourists are usually noticed when they go missing. The locals know to stay out of the woods or to accept the danger of going in."

I stayed in Bucklowder for a few days, the snow drifts making me afraid to take my rental car back on the road. By the time the snow began to recede some, I had a great article full of Bucklowder's history and lore. My editor loved it, my readers loved it, and it definitely made an impression on yours truly. I had a little more respect for local color after that, though it didn't stop my editor from sending me to strange and interesting places.

I'm sure you'll hear from me again sometime, but until then, remember to trust that funny feeling you get sometimes when you're out on the trail or hiking in an unfamiliar area.

It just might save you from becoming a part of a local legend.

00:29 UTC


Footprints in the snow

She left no Footprints in the Snow

"Come on, just one more drink? You know I'm good for it."

The bartender looked at me evenly, his dark eyes slitted as he tried to hide his frustration, "I know no such thing. You've still got money on your books from the week before last, and you dare to come in here flaunting your wealth? I was a fool to let you drink before you had settled your tab. Now get out."

The other drunks at the bar laughed, egging the bartender on as he crossed his arms.

I wanted to argue, but the man was quite a bit larger than me, and I realized the futility of continuing.

He would win, just as everyone did when they went up against me, so I hung my head and mumbled something about leaving.

As I stepped into the cold winter air, I felt some of my buzz deteriorate, the derision of my drinking companions following me out into the chill weather.

I was too drunk to be walking home, but it was my only means of convenience.

I lived in Osaka at the time, back in the early two thousands. I was not what you would call a solid citizen. I believe the word most of my culture uses for people like me is NEET. It basically means I wasn't enrolled in school, I wasn't working on a family, and I wasn't in a job. I had never been a very diligent worker or a very good student. The jobs I'd had were menial and often didn't last longer than a month or two. My grades had been good enough to get me into several very expensive cram schools, but not into college. With no real prospects, I had settled into my life as a nobody. My parents paid for a cheap one-bedroom apartment in a part of town where you had to step over the winos as you stumbled home. They sent me money to avoid having me come to the house and bring shame on them. I didn't care, all my money went to booze or even less lofty pursuits, and I was essentially circling the drain.

I suppose fate had another plan because that was when I met a very special woman on my way home.

I had been celebrating a small victory that night, but it seemed that my luck had run out. I had a little extra money after my raffle ticket had brought a small windfall, and I had been buying drinks for a few of the barflies in an effort to get some female companionship that evening. They had taken my drinks and laughed at my jokes, but when the money was gone, so were they. I had drunk up all my extra money, and after having no luck mooching drinks from the usual bar patrons, I was forced to head home.

It was early December, and the snow on the ground was only an inch or two. The black ice glistened treacherously from the damp pavement, and I was trying my best not to weave too much as the bracing air took some of my buzz with it. The streets were mostly deserted, a few late-night pedestrians here and there, and the lights were far from seasonal. We don't really celebrate Christmas in Japan, not like Americans do, and the lights here were usually from the billboards or the advertisements that lit the night as well as the street lamps.

I had turned a corner, heading from the trendy part of town I had been drinking in and into the less savory area where I lived, when I first saw her. I stopped for a moment, not quite believing what I was seeing. It was a youngish woman, her long black hair blowing in the winter wind and her bare feet walking delicately atop the snow. She was dressed in some kind of robe, a wrapper too light for the weather, and I followed behind her as I tried to find the courage to speak to her.

If she was out here in so little on a night like this, then she had to be as drunk as I was. Either that or on some kind of drug, but neither of that mattered much to me. There was heat in my apartment and a little more beer in the fridge. We could get warm together, maybe have a little drink, and watch the sun come up over the edge of my balcony. In her current state, I had little doubt that she would be glad for a warm place to stay, and as I quickened my pace to come even with her, I tried to find my best opening gambit.

"Good evening, what's a beautiful flower like you doing in the snow?"

Now that we were even with each other, I could see her better. Her skin was as perfect as a china doll, her complexion smooth as porcelain and her color as pale as milk. Her eyes were small and dark, focused ahead as she made her way towards wherever she was going, and it almost seemed she was ignoring me. That was nothing new, women often pretended they couldn't see me, but it was the little glances that kept me invested.

She kept glancing at me with these coquettish glances, favoring me with these intriguing lifts of her thin lips, and they kept me interested.

"Aren't you cold? I know somewhere you can come to warm up. Your feet must be freezing."

We were about five or six blocks from my apartment, and since she seemed to be heading in that direction anyway, I thought my luck might be turning around.

The two of us kept walking, me chatting away as she glided across the icy sidewalk. She seemed immune to the black ice that sometimes tripped me up, and I began to notice how smoothly she moved. I know that sounds a little strange, but she moved as if her feet never touched the ground. It was like watching someone operate an extremely lifelike puppet, but it only seemed odd through the lens of my memories.

At the time, I was just a drunk and slightly amorous male who was hoping to trick this clearly intoxicated woman back to my apartment.

I'm not the hero of this story, that should be obvious.

"What's your name?" I asked, realizing I didn't even know what her name was, but all I got in return was that same sly side-eye. Her face was utterly emotionless until she glanced at me and smirked. She seemed to know how to keep my interest, and I had become less flustered by the wind the longer we walked. I felt myself slowing to match her pace, my wet socks and cold feet no longer bothering me, and as we turned onto a familiar street I realized we were about two blocks from my apartment. I could even see my window from here, the buttery yellow light spilling out onto the street through the dirty window of the sliding door, and I smiled as I thought about how the sun would look as it came in through that pallid portal.

When she turned suddenly, I almost missed it.

We were nearly there, the front gate to my apartment complex less than twenty steps up the road, and she had suddenly glided into the space between two buildings. The alley was a known haunt for winos and bums, and I found myself standing at the entrance as I watched her stroll into the semi-darkness. She had captured me effortlessly, and when she spun preternaturally in the low light and crooked a finger at me, I was taking that first step before I could stop myself.

Luckily for me, the black ice got me before she did.

I slipped, falling onto my butt, and as the cold rushed over me, I sobered a bit.

That was how I noticed that, despite the snow in the alley being deep enough to cover the first three inches of the garbage cans and dumpster, she hadn't left a single footprint in the snow.

I looked back and saw that the only footprints back the way we had come were mine, and that was when something hung in my booze-soaked broan.

"Beware of the Yuki Onna, my son," my mother had told me when I was very young, "Be careful that she doesn't get you while you're out in the snow."

I had stopped on my way out the door, my sled under my arm and my boots unmarked by moisture as of yet, and asked her what that was.

"Yuki Onna sometimes hunt for handsome men and try to take their life force. It stalks them through the snow, luring them away so it can get them alone, and freezes them in place as it draws out their precious life energy. So if a beautiful woman tries to take you away, come home quick and tell me so I can scare her off."

She had said it jokingly, but as I sat in the snow, I realized I was about to do exactly what she had warned me against.

The porcelain woman, a woman I now noticed left no trace behind, crooked a finger at me again, but I was up and running before it could waggle more than once.

Fortune was with me, and I didn't find another puddle of ice until I reached the stoop of my apartment. I could hear her behind me, her scream the roar of a winter wind, and as I rounded the gate and came into the courtyard, I expected to be pounced on at any minute. It would serve me right, I realized as I came shakily up the steps to the front door. I had thought I was the hunter, seeking my prey to lure it home, but I had been tricked and ran afoul of a much larger predator. I stumbled on the ice near the door, fumbling my key from my pocket, and as I looked up, I saw her reflected in the glass.

Her hair was no longer straight, writhing behind her as it rose like a nest of vipers. The wrapper now looked more like a funeral shroud, the edges tattered and dark with grave soil. Her dark eyes were now large and round, their centers full of terrible knowledge, and her jaw was opening much too wide as I slammed the key in the lock and rushed inside.

I shoved the door closed behind me, expecting a loud bang as she barreled through it, but when I turned to look from the stairs, the courtyard was empty save for the snowdrifts.

I drank the beer in my fridge alone that night, realizing how close I had come to death, and deciding it was time to make some changes.

I called my mother the next day and told her I needed help.

That was twenty years ago, and my nights of midnight carousing are behind me. I went to cram school, got my test scores up, started college, and now I work as an Engineer. My wife and I met in college, and we got married after she finished her doctorate. We have an apartment in a much better part of town, a son getting ready for highschool, and my current life is as far from that apartment where I saw the snow woman in as night from day. I no longer depend on my parents, and I've left the rut I had wallowed in for so long behind me.

I still go out drinking with my coworkers sometimes, but now I'm careful how much I have before making my way home.

On the night I barely escaped death, two homeless men were found frozen to death in that very alley. The news believed they had succumbed to the elements, but I think the Yuki Onna was simply looking for a third course to its long meal. Some nights, when the snow falls and leaves drift on the sidewalks, I sit in my apartment, and just wonder if it's still out there, hunting the streets of Osaka for its next meal.

Then I remember how lucky I am to have escaped the cold embrace of the Yuki Onna.

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