“So, you think your husband is trying to kill you?”
“Yes! He is, I know it. I know he took life insurance policies out of me. Well, we did it together, actually…”
“But how does that prove that he’s trying to kill you?”
“He is, just trust me. You’ll be paid really well!
“Listen, I don’t trust people who are trying to kill someone else. You have to prove to me that one, you have proof that he’s trying to kill you, and two, prove that his life insurance policy is real as well.”
“Okay, well here are the documents from the insurance company, and I found a loaded gun that he purchased recently in our bedside table. Here is the picture.”
“That still doesn’t prove he’s trying to kill you.”
“Well then can you do some surveillance on him or something?!” She stood up, slamming the desk.
“Mrs. Goodrim, we are here in a place of business. If you don’t like my services, you can ask any of the other hunters in this place, but if you are being rude to me, then consider yourself refused.”
She sat back down, looking down, showing some sign of remorse.
“I apologize, I just want him dead before me.”
“Well, do you have the money?”
“Yes. 20% of the life insurance policy, right?”
She reached into her purse, and pulled out 10 stacks of $10,000.
I counted them, totalling $100,000.
“Alright, now do you have any other proof that he’s trying to kill you?”
She pulls out her phone, and begins going through her text messages to her husband.
“Read this. This is proof.”
Honey, do you want to go for dinner tonight? Maybe Lalabella restaurant on Fifth, maybe around 7:30PM?
“How is this proof? This just shows a man offering to take his wife out for dinner…”
“Do you not understand? He’s trying to lure me to a restaurant!”
“Yeah, a public restaurant, with many people around. He wouldn’t try to kill you there if he doesn’t want to go to jail…”
I looked at her, questioning my own stupidity, asking myself if I could be more stupid than she was… But I wasn’t here to judge, I guess.
“He doesn’t care, he’d get to cash in my life insurance policy! Do you not understand?!”
“Look… Mrs. Goodrim, I’m just here to do a job. Whether you can prove to me that this case is a legit one is up to you. Whether I decide to take the job is up to me.”
“Listen, you mongrel. I put $100,000 on your table to kill my husband, and I expect him to be dead by the morning.”
“Alright, well. I’m just going to reach over here, to grab my big red DENIED stamp, and press down into the ink…”
I looked up at her, and she was fidgeting. She wanted to play chicken, trying to put her balls on my table. I think she thought that with $100,000 sitting in front of my desk, I would just go ahead and say yes, but it doesn’t work that way. I only kill one person per year, and expect to get the highest payout.
“I’m going to life my stamp off the ink, and move it clo—-”
“Alright, wait.” Mrs. Goodrim looked at me with anger, as if she just lost a bet worth $100,000.
“Just do the job, okay? You can take my phone, take my bag. Here, you can have my 7 carat Diamond Tennis Bracelet as a tip, okay?”
“Well, I still have to make sure that this is a sound case to take on.”
I stand up from my chair, and step out of the room, closing the door behind me.
“Cher, send it to the client please.”
After about five minutes…
I step back in the room, and look at Mrs. Goodrim.
“Here, take this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s so that I can begin the assignment. Take it if you want to proceed.”
Without a second thought, she takes the pill and puts it in her mouth, takes the water bottle and gushes it with water before swallowing it.
“Okay, now what?”
“Well, let me show you something.”
I pull out my phone, and show her the picture that her husband sent me.
On the left, it showed that her life insurance policy paid $1,000,000 and that I would get a 25% cut. On the right was a hand-written note saying that she was deathly allergic to peanuts. Below was a transcript of the conversation that his wife and I were having, prepared by my secretary, which proved that she was trying to kill him.
“This is proof that someone is trying to kill him. This is the proof I needed.”
She put her hands up to her throat, grasping it tightly. She was choking.
“What was… you give…?”
“It was just a peanut in a dissolvable capsule.”
“Epipen… In… Purse…”
“Oh, the purse you gave me earlier? I’m sorry, but this is just business, your life insurance policy paid more.”
She collapsed on the ground, lifeless, in front of me.
I sit down, and begin to count the payment.
“One, two… Ten. One hundred thousand plus… This bracelet. It looks nice on me.
“Ma’am, Andrew Goodman has wired the money. The total was $250,000.”
“Thank you, Cheryl. Here’s a tip. Clean up after, will you?”
Doyle’s final great horror story is truly a worthy swan song – a tale who’s science fiction maintains a level of effective awe in spite of having been categorically disproven by aviators a mere decade after being written. And indeed the tale is science fiction, fitting snuggly on a shelf between the speculative horror of H. G. Wells which preceded it and the cosmic terror of H. P. Lovecraft which succeeded it.
Both authors’ DNA seems to thrive in Doyle’s plot, which resembles elements of Wells’ War of the Worlds, ”In the Abyss,” and “The Sea Raiders,” as well as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “From Beyond,” and “The Haunter of the Dark” – complete with gelatinous predators, barely hidden humanity-threatening horrors, and a set of written-out last words that rival Lovecraft’s infamous “I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan-blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…”
Where Wells foresaw terrors percolating in the solar system, and Lovecraft under the sea and in the stars, Doyle predicted the ten-year old aeroplane had the potential to unlock haunting terrors in the very atmosphere that snuggles the earth and gives humanity life. From this same nurturing comfort could emerge a devilish monstrosity, and all that was necessary to expose it was for science and technology to continue its trajectory into the blue, life-giving skies.
Set sometime in the near future (apparently the late 1920s or thereabouts), the story comes – Blair Witch Project-style – from a found document: the blood-splattered journal of aviator Joyce-Armstrong, which was found at a farm in Surrey shortly after his disappearance. Since it is missing some of the first and final pages, it becomes nicknamed the “Joyce-Armstrong Fragment” by the press. Known for his bravery and his ambition, Joyce-Armstrong was determined to break the flight altitude record of 30,000 feet (the record in 1910 was 11.000, and 30,000 wouldn’t be attained until 1919; his eventually achievement of 43,000 would finally be accomplished until 1930), undaunted by the grisly fates of recent flyers whose record-attempts resulted in their deaths.
There was Verrier, whose plane was recovered without his body; Baxter, who vanished but whose engine was recovered in a woods (an observer on the ground noted that the plane suddenly paused, midflight, seemed to be shaken up and down, and sucked into the clouds); Connor, a healthy youth who managed to land, but died of heart failure before he could be removed from the cockpit, and whose last word was “Monstrous…”; and of course Myrtle, whose decapitated corpse was found in the seat of his landed plane – clothes “all slimy with grease…” Joyce-Armstrong is undaunted by these tragedies, and brings his journal with him on his attempts to break the record.
He is, however, not a sceptic, per se, and blames the bizarre deaths on some as-yet undiscovered “air jungle” which he hopes to uncover and survive to relay his findings. He doesn’t think that air jungles cover the skies, but rather that they exist – rather like the infamous “vile vortices” – in particular places. One, he discerns, exists over the Pyrenees in France, one over Frankfurt, and one over his home turf of Wiltshire.
Without difficulty, Joyce-Armstrong takes off one day and achieves the record by climbing his monoplane to 41,300 feet, where he dodges meteors and stumbles into the ethereal wilds that he suspected to exist. Swimming around him among the clouds are glorious, gelatinous creatures resembling massive jellyfish. They are marbled pink in color with green veining – floating as softly as a soap bubble.
He finds even more of these creatures – ranging in size from a hot air balloon to St. Paul’s dome – along with ghostly, smoke-colored 30-foot-long serpents twisting about like water snakes. At first he is relieved by the impression that they are semi-solid – almost vaporous – but his relief is stunted when he is attacked by a squid-like monstrosity which is apparently more solid than the gauzy jellyfish.
It gnashes its vulture-like beak at him and changes colors from an indifferent rose to an angry purple, and appears to have evolved three transparent bladders on its head that allow it to float in the atmosphere while still providing a very material threat. Snapping aggressively at him, and reaching out with its greasy tentacles, the squid charges Joyce-Armstrong, who turns his gun on the beast, emptying both barrels into one of the bladders which explodes and threatens the creature’s buoyancy.
He returns to earth thrilled: “I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or horror than that is not within the ken of man.” But his delight is short-lived: he returns to the air-jungle shortly after, only to disappear forever. The bloodied journal is missing some of the latter pages, but the last words seem to be Joyce-Armstrong’s last: “Forty-three thousand feet. I shall never see earth again. They are beneath me, three of them. God help me; it is a dreadful death to die!”
It continues to surprise me how gripping this story can be. The idea that the atmosphere at 30,000 – 50,000 feet is populated by ethereal jungle-beasts is completely ludicrous, and we now live in a world where we are looking under every rock in the universe to uncover new life without avail. The seas are not peopled by aquatic civilizations, nor is the earth’s core a hollow kingdom of subterraneans, nor are the cities thriving on the moon, nor on Wells’ beloved Mars, nor Lovecraft’s dear Pluto. And yet this story, with its primitive account of cloud beasties has the ring of horror to it. Perhaps it is the setting, in the infancy of aviation, and the daring of its characters who are fledglings in the sky which is the natural domain of geese and meteors and cumuli, but a brave new world for mankind to toddle into, optimistic, ignorant, and vulnerable.
Today we have exhausted so many frontiers that it is perhaps refreshing to enter into a mindset where even the vapor above us has the potential to bring life to unseen leviathans. The seas have been plumbed, Everest surmounted, the earth orbited, the moon trodden, Mars sampled, Pluto photographed, and the Solar System escaped. We have accomplished much in five hundred years of active scientific exploration, but our reward is boredom and cynicism: the loss of wonder and mystery.
Doyle never lost those qualities. To him the fields of England still harbored the fairy folk of ages past, the spirit world bled into that of the living, monsters roamed forgotten plateaus and swam forgotten lakes, and each scientific advance heralded an opportunity to be either astounded or horrified, or both. Both are achieved in this story. Joyce-Armstrong flies to his death aware of the risks in order to prove something that he believed in.
It was perhaps wish fulfilment for Doyle to write of a man who was thought a fool – a romantic who dared to gauge the unseen world around our tiny civilization, and even though his end was a horrendous one, he was after all vindicated, or so he hopes to be, as his last instructions warn against misinterpreting his demise as accidental or mysterious. To Doyle the world was full of mystery, but so much could be seen, he felt, if men would only open their eyes to see and their ears to hear. As misguided as his passions may have been, we cannot fault him for being a hopeless and devoted romantic. His self-assigned epitaph sums up his quixotic character: “Blade Straight, Steel True.”
Estimated reading time — 18minutes“Halloa! Below there!”
When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.
From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and, raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.
“Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?”
He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question. Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down. When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.
I repeated my inquiry. After a pause, during which he seemed to regard me with fixed attention, he motioned with his rolled-up flag towards a point on my level, some two or three hundred yards distant. I called down to him, “All right!” and made for that point. There, by dint of looking closely about me, I found a rough zigzag descending path notched out, which I followed.
The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down. For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path.
When I came down low enough upon the zigzag descent to see him again, I saw that he was standing between the rails on the way by which the train had lately passed, in an attitude as if he were waiting for me to appear. He had his left hand at his chin, and that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast. His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it.
I resumed my downward way, and stepping out upon the level of the railroad, and drawing nearer to him, saw that he was a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.
Before he stirred, I was near enough to him to have touched him. Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step, and lifted his hand.
This was a lonesome post to occupy (I said), and it had riveted my attention when I looked down from up yonder. A visitor was a rarity, I should suppose; not an unwelcome rarity, I hoped? In me, he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works. To such purpose I spoke to him; but I am far from sure of the terms I used; for, besides that I am not happy in opening any conversation, there was something in the man that daunted me.
He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel’s mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked it me.
That light was part of his charge? Was it not?
He answered in a low voice — “Don’t you know it is?”
The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.
In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to flight.
“You look at me,” I said, forcing a smile, “as if you had a dread of me.”
“I was doubtful,” he returned, “whether I had seen you before.”
He pointed to the red light he had looked at.
“There?” I said.
Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), “Yes.”
“My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it may, I never was there, you may swear.”
“I think I may,” he rejoined. “Yes; I am sure I may.”
His manner cleared, like my own. He replied to my remarks with readiness, and in well-chosen words. Had he much to do there? Yes; that was to say, he had enough responsibility to bear; but exactness and watchfulness were what was required of him, and of actual work — manual labour — he had next to none. To change that signal, to trim those lights, and to turn this iron handle now and then, was all he had to do under that head. Regarding those many long and lonely hours of which I seemed to make so much, he could only say that the routine of his life had shaped itself into that form, and he had grown used to it. He had taught himself a language down here — if only to know it by sight, and to have formed his own crude ideas of its pronunciation, could be called learning it. He had also worked at fractions and decimals, and tried a little algebra; but he was, and had been as a boy, a poor hand at figures. Was it necessary for him when on duty always to remain in that channel of damp air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls? Why, that depended upon times and circumstances. Under some conditions there would be less upon the Line than under others, and the same held good as to certain hours of the day and night. In bright weather, he did choose occasions for getting a little above these lower shadows; but, being at all times liable to be called by his electric bell, and at such times listening for it with redoubled anxiety, the relief was less than I would suppose.
He took me into his box, where there was a fire, a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken. On my trusting that he would excuse the remark that he had been well educated, and (I hoped I might say without offence) perhaps educated above that station, he observed that instances of slight incongruity in such wise would rarely be found wanting among large bodies of men; that he had heard it was so in workhouses, in the police force, even in that last desperate resource, the army; and that he knew it was so, more or less, in any great railway staff. He had been, when young (if I could believe it, sitting in that hut — he scarcely could), a student of natural philosophy, and had attended lectures; but he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again. He had no complaint to offer about that. He had made his bed, and he lay upon it. It was far too late to make another.
All that I have here condensed he said in a quiet manner, with his grave dark regards divided between me and the fire. He threw in the word, “Sir,” from time to time, and especially when he referred to his youth — as though to request me to understand that he claimed to be nothing but what I found him. He was several times interrupted by the little bell, and had to read off messages, and send replies. Once he had to stand without the door, and display a flag as a train passed, and make some verbal communication to the driver. In the discharge of his duties, I observed him to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining silent until what he had to do was done.
In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
Said I, when I rose to leave him, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.”
(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)
“I believe I used to be so,” he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; “but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.”
He would have recalled the words if he could. He had said them, however, and I took them up quickly.
“With what? What is your trouble?”
“It is very difficult to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.”
“But I expressly intend to make you another visit. Say, when shall it be?”
“I go off early in the morning, and I shall be on again at ten to- morrow night, sir.”
“I will come at eleven.”
He thanked me, and went out at the door with me. “I’ll show my white light, sir,” he said, in his peculiar low voice, “till you have found the way up. When you have found it, don’t call out! And when you are at the top, don’t call out!”
His manner seemed to make the place strike colder to me, but I said no more than, “Very well.”
“And when you come down to-morrow night, don’t call out! Let me ask you a parting question. What made you cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ to-night?”
“Heaven knows,” said I. “I cried something to that effect —”
“Not to that effect, sir. Those were the very words. I know them well.”
“Admit those were the very words. I said them, no doubt, because I saw you below.”
“For no other reason?”
“What other reason could I possibly have?”
“You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?”
He wished me good-night, and held up his light. I walked by the side of the down Line of rails (with a very disagreeable sensation of a train coming behind me) until I found the path. It was easier to mount than to descend, and I got back to my inn without any adventure.
Punctual to my appointment, I placed my foot on the first notch of the zigzag next night, as the distant clocks were striking eleven. He was waiting for me at the bottom, with his white light on. “I have not called out,” I said, when we came close together; “may I speak now?” “By all means, sir.” “Good-night, then, and here’s my hand.” “Good-night, sir, and here’s mine.” With that we walked side by side to his box, entered it, closed the door, and sat down by the fire.
“I have made up my mind, sir,” he began, bending forward as soon as we were seated, and speaking in a tone but a little above a whisper, “that you shall not have to ask me twice what troubles me. I took you for some one else yesterday evening. That troubles me.”
“No. That some one else.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved — violently waved. This way.”
I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”
“One moonlight night,” said the man, “I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Some one else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then attain, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel. I advanced so close upon it that I wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone.”
“Into the tunnel?” said I.
“No. I ran on into the tunnel, five hundred yards. I stopped, and held my lamp above my head, and saw the figures of the measured distance, and saw the wet stains stealing down the walls and trickling through the arch. I ran out again faster than I had run in (for I had a mortal abhorrence of the place upon me), and I looked all round the red light with my own red light, and I went up the iron ladder to the gallery atop of it, and I came down again, and ran back here. I telegraphed both ways, ‘An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong?’ The answer came back, both ways, ‘All well.’”
Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. “As to an imaginary cry,” said I, “do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.”
That was all very well, he returned, after we had sat listening for a while, and he ought to know something of the wind and the wires — he who so often passed long winter nights there, alone and watching. But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.
I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my arm, —
“Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.”
A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it. It was not to be denied, I rejoined, that this was a remarkable coincidence, calculated deeply to impress his mind. But it was unquestionable that remarkable coincidences did continually occur, and they must be taken into account in dealing with such a subject. Though to be sure I must admit, I added (for I thought I saw that he was going to bring the objection to bear upon me), men of common sense did not allow much for coincidences in making the ordinary calculations of life.
He again begged to remark that he had not finished.
I again begged his pardon for being betrayed into interruptions.
“This,” he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, “was just a year ago. Six or seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again.” He stopped, with a fixed look at me.
“Did it cry out?”
“No. It was silent.”
“Did it wave its arm?”
“No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.”
Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.
“Did you go up to it?”
“I came in and sat down, partly to collect my thoughts, partly because it had turned me faint. When I went to the door again, daylight was above me, and the ghost was gone.”
“But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?”
He touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice giving a ghastly nod each time:-
“That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us.”
Involuntarily I pushed my chair back, as I looked from the boards at which he pointed to himself.
“True, sir. True. Precisely as it happened, so I tell it you.”
I could think of nothing to say, to any purpose, and my mouth was very dry. The wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail.
He resumed. “Now, sir, mark this, and judge how my mind is troubled. The spectre came back a week ago. Ever since, it has been there, now and again, by fits and starts.”
“At the light?”
“At the Danger-light.”
“What does it seem to do?”
He repeated, if possible with increased passion and vehemence, that former gesticulation of, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”
Then he went on. “I have no peace or rest for it. It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out!’ It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell —”
I caught at that. “Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?”
“Why, see,” said I, “how your imagination misleads you. My eyes were on the bell, and my ears were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did NOT ring at those times. No, nor at any other time, except when it was rung in the natural course of physical things by the station communicating with you.”
He shook his head. “I have never made a mistake as to that yet, sir. I have never confused the spectre’s ring with the man’s. The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.”
“And did the spectre seem to be there, when you looked out?”
“It WAS there.”’
He repeated firmly: “Both times.”
“Will you come to the door with me, and look for it now?”
He bit his under lip as though he were somewhat unwilling, but arose. I opened the door, and stood on the step, while he stood in the doorway. There was the Danger-light. There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the cutting. There were the stars above them.
“Do you see it?” I asked him, taking particular note of his face. His eyes were prominent and strained, but not very much more so, perhaps, than my own had been when I had directed them earnestly towards the same spot.
“No,” he answered. “It is not there.”
“Agreed,” said I.
We went in again, shut the door, and resumed our seats. I was thinking how best to improve this advantage, if it might be called one, when he took up the conversation in such a matter-of-course way, so assuming that there could be no serious question of fact between us, that I felt myself placed in the weakest of positions.
“By this time you will fully understand, sir,” he said, “that what troubles me so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?”
I was not sure, I told him, that I did fully understand.
“What is its warning against?” he said, ruminating, with his eyes on the fire, and only by times turning them on me. “What is the danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be doubted this third time, after what has gone before. But surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”
He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated forehead.
“If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it,” he went on, wiping the palms of his hands. “I should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was mad. This is the way it would work — Message: ‘Danger! Take care!’ Answer: ‘What Danger? Where?’ Message: ‘Don’t know. But, for God’s sake, take care!’ They would displace me. What else could they do?”
His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.
“When it first stood under the Danger-light,” he went on, putting his dark hair back from his head, and drawing his hands outward across and across his temples in an extremity of feverish distress, “why not tell me where that accident was to happen — if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted — if it could have been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not tell me, instead, ‘She is going to die. Let them keep her at home’? If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?”
When I saw him in this state, I saw that for the poor man’s sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind. Therefore, setting aside all question of reality or unreality between us, I represented to him that whoever thoroughly discharged his duty must do well, and that at least it was his comfort that he understood his duty, though he did not understand these confounding Appearances. In this effort I succeeded far better than in the attempt to reason him out of his conviction. He became calm; the occupations incidental to his post as the night advanced began to make larger demands on his attention: and I left him at two in the morning. I had offered to stay through the night, but he would not hear of it.
That I more than once looked back at the red light as I ascended the pathway, that I did not like the red light, and that I should have slept but poorly if my bed had been under it, I see no reason to conceal. Nor did I like the two sequences of the accident and the dead girl. I see no reason to conceal that either.
But what ran most in my thoughts was the consideration how ought I to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact; but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind? Though in a subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of his continuing to execute it with precision?
Unable to overcome a feeling that there would be something treacherous in my communicating what he had told me to his superiors in the Company, without first being plain with himself and proposing a middle course to him, I ultimately resolved to offer to accompany him (otherwise keeping his secret for the present) to the wisest medical practitioner we could hear of in those parts, and to take his opinion. A change in his time of duty would come round next night, he had apprised me, and he would be off an hour or two after sunrise, and on again soon after sunset. I had appointed to return accordingly.
Next evening was a lovely evening, and I walked out early to enjoy it. The sun was not yet quite down when I traversed the field-path near the top of the deep cutting. I would extend my walk for an hour, I said to myself, half an hour on and half an hour back, and it would then be time to go to my signal-man’s box.
Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically looked down, from the point from which I had first seen him. I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me, when, close at the mouth of the tunnel, I saw the appearance of a man, with his left sleeve across his eyes, passionately waving his right arm.
The nameless horror that oppressed me passed in a moment, for in a moment I saw that this appearance of a man was a man indeed, and that there was a little group of other men, standing at a short distance, to whom he seemed to be rehearsing the gesture he made. The Danger-light was not yet lighted. Against its shaft, a little low hut, entirely new to me, had been made of some wooden supports and tarpaulin. It looked no bigger than a bed.
With an irresistible sense that something was wrong — with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or correct what he did — I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.
“What is the matter?” I asked the men.
“Signal-man killed this morning, sir.”
“Not the man belonging to that box?”
“Not the man I know?”
“You will recognise him, sir, if you knew him,” said the man who spoke for the others, solemnly uncovering his own head, and raising an end of the tarpaulin, “for his face is quite composed.”
“O, how did this happen, how did this happen?” I asked, turning from one to another as the hut closed in again.
“He was cut down by an engine, sir. No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail. It was just at broad day. He had struck the light, and had the lamp in his hand. As the engine came out of the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and was showing how it happened. Show the gentleman, Tom.”
The man, who wore a rough dark dress, stepped back to his former place at the mouth of the tunnel.
“Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir,” he said, “I saw him at the end, like as if I saw him down a perspective-glass. There was no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. As he didn’t seem to take heed of the whistle, I shut it off when we were running down upon him, and called to him as loud as I could call.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!’”
“Ah! it was a dreadful time, sir. I never left off calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no use.”
Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious circumstances more than on any other, I may, in closing it, point out the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not only the words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself — not he — had attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated.
Estimated reading time — 18minutesI just killed myself for breakfast.
I sat in my 100+ degree car, reeking of maple syrup and incapable of many coherent thoughts save for that one. It swayed through my mind like a dead leaf, falling into my consciousness by random assignment. I had been up since 4:30 in the morning after a fitful night of intermittent sleep, slogged out of bed and into my uniform just in time to make it for opening the restaurant. I remember smoothing my apron over my skirt, my legs already sticky with sweat, dreading the impending stress I was about to expose my already exhausted body to.
It was Saturday morning at a breakfast place on the shore, so we were swamped by 5:30. First the fishermen, most already smelling a little bit like hard alcohol and craving eggs and bacon by the pound, quick to swat at my ass when I bent over to clear their tables. Then the commuters at 6, hating their lives as they pulled an extra day at their theoretically 9-5, nervously tapping their feet as they waited for extra large coffees and breakfast sandwiches they could inhale as they ran to catch the ferry. Last but not least, blossoming bright and early at 8, the bennys on their way to the beach – huge families, dozens of discontented children lacking in fine motor skills, parents numb to the piles of half-chewed pancakes and artistic crayon endeavors on tables.
With a good night’s sleep, I can take it all with a smile and a wink, pocketing the tips and accepting the daily grind for what it is. For the past week, though, I hadn’t been sleeping well. By the time I got out to my car at 3 I was nearly in tears, my hand shaking with emotion and exhaustion as I put the key in the ignition and pulled out of the lot.
The waitress gig was something I had picked up when I graduated from school to help tackle my impending mountains of debt in student loans, something to hold me by while I looked for something bigger and better that was actually in my field. I had worked at an animal clinic for years as an administrative assistant-cum-unofficial intern both before I started school and while I worked on my doctorate in veterinary medicine.
Fourteen years trudging through paperwork and feces, all things said and done. I had always counted on going back there for my residency. I had never questioned it.
But I fucked up. And now I wait tables in a bubblemint pink skirt and black polo shirt with a stripy stained apron to protect me from being rained on with breakfast food. And I had just hit the one year anniversary of accepting the prestigious position last Sunday, which threw me in a tailspin of self-immolation and depression.
Which left me sweaty, sticky, and covered in artificially flavored corn syrup advertised and sold as maple syrup, in my junker of a car, literally stewing in my own filth as I putted through traffic. My body ached as a reminder of the last nine hours on my feet, my car echoing the protests of my joints. It was 16 years old and held together with duct tape and dreams, at this point. I was doing most of the repairs myself, from YouTube videos and the occasional desperate plea to my girlfriend, who managed her uncle’s auto body shop. I hated having to call her up after a ten hour shift and have her come over to fix yet another car, but I was pretty much out of options, so far in debt that I had been living off toast I pocketed at the end of my shifts and the one discounted meal I got a day at work.
Small blessing, my car was definitely not happy but was holding up in the broiling heat. I wiped my face to clear away the oily feel of melting eyeliner and pulled my shirt away from my chest, trying to get a little relief from the overwhelming temperature. The AC had gone before I even bought the car. I shook my hair out of its ponytail and put it back up again in a tighter bun, then stuck my head out of the open window to try to catch a precious breath of the weak breeze. I burned my fingertips on the metal of the door; I must have made a face, the teen boys in the car next to me laughed. I flipped them off and rolled up the window, heat be damned. I was done with people for the day.
I was halfway home and half asleep, struggling to keep my eyes open despite the bright sun and the noise of the cars around me. I turned the music up louder, feeling the reverberations shake the car like a vibrating bed, oddly soothing despite the painfully loud decibel. The song was something from a local college station, it was old, foreign, jazzy, upbeat. I liked it, even though I couldn’t figure out what language it was in. I was stopped at a light so I closed my eyes for a second to focus on the lyrics.
Everything went silent. Like life was winding down.
Not just the car, but the whole world. I couldn’t hear the cars outside. I couldn’t hear the music. I opened my eyes, my pulse racing but everything else seeming to move in slow motion. There was a build up that reminded me of the slow whine of a boiling teakettle, then a pop that shook the car like a minor earthquake. I instinctively slammed on the brakes, trying to figure out the source of the problem through the heady rush of adrenaline. Either the car just exploded a little bit or I had just had a full-blown stress-induced seizure. The driver of the car behind me leaned on their horn like they were trying to give it CPR, swerving quickly to drive around. I glanced over through gasping breath and swimming vision, greeted with a hairy, tattooed fist flipping me the bird and a pair of accusing brown eyes set back in a wizened face.
Click. A little jab my car threw at me; an insult to injury.
I pulled over to the curb, fingers trembling as I fumbled for my phone. Cars flew by, unconcerned with my spastic breakdown. I threw open the door and walked to the thin strip of grass lining the side of the highway. I sat down heavily, my tailbone sharply aching from the violence of it. No answer. I lay back, breathing in the warring scents of fresh grass and diesel fumes. Seconds or minutes later, my phone started vibrating.
I waited before answering, picturing her on the other end. I thought about her mouth, wide and fertile, blowing lazy nicotine-laced mint bubbles and snapping them…Her opaque lipstick over slightly chapped lips curving into a smudged smile; the way that smile felt against my skin. I thought about the way she must look right now, lips sinking into a frown, wondering why I called her at work, the beauty mark at the corner rising and dipping over her carefully chosen sentences like one of the dots in those old Disney sing-a-long videos. She would be leaning against the brick in the back of the building, her long hair sticking painfully in the divots, a detail that always slipped her mind unless I was there to buffer.
“What’s up, doc?” Her throaty greeting, the pet name that used to make me smile. I pulled some blades of grass and twined them together, instantly soothed by her voice. Like my own personal ‘50s movie actress, the unctuous femme fatale from a film noir. Sophie.
“The Lemon’s gone extra sour today, Soph.” She snaps her gum a couple of times and sighs. Click.
“What’s it this time?”
“Took a nap in traffic.” She chokes a little bit. I smile to myself, guiltily pleased at getting a rise out of her.
“Fucking you or the fucking car?” I considered that for a second.
“How mad would you be if I said I wasn’t sure?” I braided the grass together into my apron strings. The cars whizz by, soothing, like white noise. My car was still seething, a few plaintive clicks as the engine reluctantly winds down. I heard her sigh. No snapping, she must have spit out her gum.
“I’m not mad.” The implied ‘just disappointed’ hung in the air with an annoyingly maternal ring.
Anger started bubbling up in my stomach. Irrational and blind, unwarranted, stupid. I sat up, suddenly aware of being drenched in clammy sweat and the ache in my lower back. The silence on the other end stretched but I didn’t trust myself to speak. She cracked first.
“When did it start?” I described it, taking the now mutilated grass blades and rubbing them across my eyebrows, along my lips. I imagined I tasted pesticide. Or actually tasted pesticide.
“It sounds like it’s probably just the radio, maybe the speakers. But you should bring it in just to be sure.” Sophie was fairly good with diagnostics, borderline House-ian, after so many years at the shop. She would makes jokes about it over dinner; the helpless mundanity of it all, the housewives stumbling over themselves to mimic the noises spouting from their engines. She had this great impression of a casually overdressed Fortune 500 guy on his day off, waltzing in with a puffed-out chest and a false bravado, eventually succumbing to his lack of knowledge and monkeying a charade the same way the housewives did. I wondered if she pictured me like that right now.
“I’m not sure what I can do this week. Mike’s on a ride and won’t be back until next week and Butch is here till Saturday.” Mike was her brother- usually when the car really started acting up I would bring it into the shop for him to work on, he would just charge me for parts; occasionally he would just do the simple stuff outside of the apartment they shared. Butch was their uncle who owned the shop, fond of pinching pennies and willfully blind to his niece’s gayness. The few times I’d met him he’d alternated between ignoring me and being disgustingly flirty. Hearing his name made me think of stale cigar smoke and a hand too low on my back. Sophie was livid each time, trembling and fuming behind the receptionist’s desk. Once, after he left, she pulled me into the greasy garage bathroom and fingered me almost painfully hard. She hated it there almost as much as I hated waiting tables, but she was working on her degree in IT and spent the bulk of the day doing homework and taking apart and repairing the computer.
Click. My car chimed in. I jumped a little, shaken away from my daydream.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I sat up a little straighter, starting to prepare myself to get back in the shit-mobile. “A Michael Bay-esque explosion that jettisons me out of the driver’s seat and into battle with a group of ninjas?” I mime karate chops that she can’t see. “I’m up on my krav maga.”
She laughs. I continued ninja shadow-boxing, my mood lifting. I untied the apron strings and curled it into a ball, happy to have the extra layer off of me. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier?
“Rex was so stupid this morning, with his doofy cone and his lion cut. He got his ball wedged in between his face and the plastic. You would have peed your pants.” Rex was her 3-year-old St. Bernard mix. He had just been in for grooming and booster shots at my old clinic. I giggled.
“I miss that giant bucket of fuzz. I’ll come over and check him out soon, see if the cone can come off-”
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.” She interrupted. Abruptly. Maybe a little nervously. Fearfully. I felt tears welling up in my eyes; quickly squashed the feeling and stood upright too quickly. My vision darkened around the edges as all the blood rushed to my head. I shook my head, trying to clear my vision and my mind’s eye.
“Well, obviously you would know better than me, with my nine years of veterinary medicine and whatnot.” I half-run towards the car.
“That’s not what I meant!” I jam the keys in the ignition, slam the door behind me.
“No. You know fucking better than I do. You’ve got this.” Annoying little flashes of emotions and memories ran through my head. I tried to fry it all with anger.
“Click.” My car chastised.
“I DIDN’T MEAN IT LIKE THAT!” That was even worse, if she didn’t mean it passive-aggressively. That it just happened naturally, as a defensive response to protect poor dear Rex. I flipped on my turn signal and dove back into traffic, ignoring the beeps of the righteously indignant cars behind me. Click. Tick tick tick.
“WELL I DON’T MEAN THIS LIKE THAT EITHER, THEN.” I hung up, throwing my phone so hard on the passenger seat it bounced off onto the floor. I was so lost in thought I didn’t realize I drove all the way home, white-knuckled on the steering wheel, heart and head pounding. Click.
I put the car in park and sat for a second, trying to calm myself down. My phone buzzed on the floor, spinning itself in tiny pirouettes. Sophie would have to wait. I had never been so done with humanity before.
My car shuddered a little as it cooled down. I left my phone dancing by itself, slammed my door and headed inside with the sole purpose of alcohol. Immediately. I looked back as I was heading inside, considering bringing my phone for entertainment’s sake. I saw a ghost town of tired-looking cottages, an overturned brick perpetually falling out of the stairs, peeling paint like a waterfall frozen in time, cascading down the front of the house in rivulets and then faded blue confetti on the browning grass. What a party, I thought bitingly to myself. I turned away from the chaos, unable to think about tackling the mess in front of me, towards the cool silence of my shanty.
I stripped my uniform at the door, walking to the kitchen in bra, panties and sneakers. I flicked on the light switch and fan, stared at the air conditioner for a mournful moment. There was no way I would be able to justify turning it on, not with my student loan due in a few days and the rest of my bills at the end of the week. I stood in front of my fridge, eyeing the spread. A styrofoam box with syrup-saturated pancakes from my shift yesterday. Mustard with a congealed shell on the cap. Half a gallon of Sunny-D. A cheap screw-top bottle of white wine. And the coup de grace in the freezer- an ice cube tray and 2 frozen packages of vegetables that technically belonged to Sophie.
I grabbed out the ice cube tray, white wine and bastard orange juice and set about making myself a giant modified brass monkey. I chugged back the first, started on my second, topped it off and decided I was buzzed enough to deal with the next task ahead of me. I went to the bathroom and started running myself a bath. I started to turn the hot water on, thought the better of it and switched it to a lukewarm-borderline-cold. A fun fact from a psychology class a million years ago floated in the back of my mind- cold showers were good for depression.
And in that same vein, other things that were good for depression- sedatives. Like the 3 tiny pills hanging out in my medicine cabinet, waiting for a rainy day, or in this case, blistering hot, hopeless day. I opened the cabinet up, catching my sweaty face in the mirror, surprised at how young I looked. And how haggard. I wrestled with myself on that on a daily basis. How could I only be 29 when I ran around town with a chip of failure off both shoulders and the wilted, slumping facade of a washed out 50-something diner waitress?
I shook the bottle in my hand like a lonely mariachi singer. Sophie’s brother’s name was written across the label in accusing capital letters. The last time I had slipped him cash it wasn’t just for car repairs. I started pulling at the corner, ripping off the label in tiny peels. I popped out one of the pills, split it in 2, leaving me with garbage in one hand, a crescent moon pill and booze concoction in the other. I stood over the garbage can, debating for a second on whether I should trash both, listening to the soothing sounds of the bath filling up. Almost without realizing it I made my decision, popping the pill with a gulp of brass-ish monkey, letting the little sticker pieces fall in a mess in and out of the can.
I stripped and slipped into the water; drugs and thermodynamics mellowed my nerve endings into delicious lukewarm bliss. I let my thoughts unwind and dissolve, letting go of the pain one amorphous word at a time. Depression, late fees, regret, pancakes, exhaustion- dripping down my arms and legs in little rivulets. I grew annoyed with the tepid water; cranked up the heat and felt curls of delicious warmth rising up from the tap. A few phrases idled as I let my head sink and blew bubbles…I need to do laundry…call my aged parents to borrow money for rent, for groceries, for…
* * * * * *
Then I was in the kitchen at work. It was the usual hustle and bustle, the sounds of grease sizzling and pans clashing together like they were in battle with the stovetop. It was cramped and sweaty as usual; a fire-hazardous amount of people. I felt the weight of the pen behind my ear; my notepad in my apron, the clammy dampness of sweat dripping down the back of my neck and soaking my shirt. There were plates lined up in the window under the heat lamp, looking like stock photos from a food magazine; almost pornographic, glossy globs of scrambled eggs and plasticized dripping bacon. Faceless, hungry patrons loomed in the background like carrion eaters standing over the corpses of a thousand unborn chickens and sacrificed pigs.
Sophie sat on the edge of the industrial dishwasher, the calm point in the storm, vibrating slightly and smiling that come-hither smile she gets when she wants to fool around. She was wearing old jeans and a white t-shirt, no shoes, no bra. Part of me realized this was a dream, another part of me didn’t care because the last thing I wanted to do was cater to the pissy, annoying, gentrified masses when I could have raunchy public sex with my hot, horny girlfriend. I walked up to her and put my hands behind her head and on the small of her back, feeling the warmth of her skin, the small hairs that made her feel like holding a gigantic ripe peach.
We kissed, she tasted like mint and cigarettes.
“You’ve been smoking again?” She smiled serenely and leaned to whisper in my ear.
“It doesn’t matter. You forgot to take out the trash. You’re ruining my life and you’re killing me.” She lightly bit on the back of my neck, took my hand and moved it down the front of her jeans. I was getting foggy-headed with arousal, it took me a second to process what she said.
“What?” Even my dream-self was confused. She arched against my hand, let her head fall so that I was supporting her weight with the other. She sighed.
“Why did you do that?” Her voice was an angry soft sob, thick with tears. I held her to me while she moved against me. There was a warm wetness against my neck, syrupy tears gluing her blonde hair to my neck. I pulled back, looked at her red-rimmed, sad eyes. They rolled back a little, she moaned in the back of her throat, almost a growl, followed by a clipped, clicking hiccupy noise as she cried. She leaned backwards onto the stainless steel, I moved with her to support her so she couldn’t fall.
“Why did you do that?!” This time, it was barked like a shocked order. I looked down at Sophie in surprise, her face in profile, covered in hair. But she hadn’t spoken, she looked almost asleep. I looked around me to see what NPC dream character had decided to chime in.
We weren’t in the kitchen anymore. We were in the clinic. My nostrils flooded with the smell of wet dog, piss, the heady pheromonal smell of animal fear. The acting veterinarian, Dr. Morris, face crumpled in confusion, striding quickly across the room to me. I lifted my arms back from Sophie in defense, something falling to the floor in tiny clicks- a scalpel. Something dripped down my wrist; I looked up, wildly embarrassed to have gotten caught having sex, even in a fantasy. It wasn’t the fun sort of glaze I was expecting.
Coagulated blood, thick, black and old. I looked back down again. A dog with golden brown fur stared vacantly to the side, pupils dilated from blood loss. It had a huge, uneven gash in its neck. Dr. Morris shoved her aged hands over the wound, knocking the IV as she elbowed me away, trying to keep it closed. I backed away, slowly, my legs heavy in the way they only can be in nightmares. Her gloved fingers slipped, unable to hold it together.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” I took another impossibly heavy step back.
“I…My hand slipped…I was just trying to pull this off.” I put my hand in front of me, palm open, displaying my handiwork like a child. A tick, fat and round with blood. It hobbled to its legs comically, waddled up my arm. Dr. Morris looked at me in disbelief.
“I don’t see anything…A-are you high?” She was utterly incredulous. It left a little blood footprint trail as it made its way up to my neck. I thought about it. Was I? I had been taking so many pills to make it through exams. Uppers, downers, in-betweeners. The tick defied gravity with its corpulent little body, crawling into my ear. I put my hands to my face without thinking, spreading the warmth and rot across my cheeks, trying to dig it out before it made its way into my brain. I gagged at the smell.
And I gagged in real life. I had fallen asleep with the water running. It had just made its way to my nose and ears. I shot upright, sloshing water out of the tub. I quickly shut off the water, my nervous system wracked with adrenaline, my heart was pumping so hard it was skipping beats, pounding in my ears, making me feel like I was still choking. I grabbed a towel and sat on the edge of the tub, trying to get my bearings on reality again.
A minute later I realized the pounding wasn’t entirely composed of heartbeats. Someone was at the door. I looked at the window- it was still pitch black outside; it must have been the small hours of the morning. A brief, addled thought that it might be Dr. Morris to continue her tirade, even though that was dead and buried. I hoped against hope it was Sophie for a late night apology fuck, even though I knew she was probably at home, cuddled up with her dog, dreaming of far more pleasant things than me. Circuit boards and cotton candy and white picket fences.
I stand up, quickly realizing that I have both low blood pressure from my cramped position in the tub and a mild hangover from shooting wine and Sunny-D spritzers. I pulled the towel tighter, and debated going to the bedroom to put on something more substantial. The pounding intensified, almost as if the entity at the door could hear my thoughts. I resigned myself for immodesty, reasoning to myself: why the fuck not?
I padded wetly to the door like a confused swamp creature.
And then there was…no one. Just the Lemon, who greeted me with a boisterous:
Click ticktick click.
I stared into my empty yard, suddenly, instantly furious with a white-hot anger that crackled like my stupid fucking car. I slammed the door, hands shaking, trying to figure out how to wait out the homicidal rage that was spewing through my veins like poison.
I had done everything right. My whole life, I had tried to do everything right.
I pounded towards the bedroom, reaching into drawers for a tank top and shorts, not bothering with any frivolities like underwear or shoes. I glanced towards the cat clock, a graduation present from my parents. hanging playfully in the hallway. 4 am. In another reality, I could sleep another 3 hours before I needed to be in for the Sunday brunch shift. I felt tears well up in my eyes despite myself.
I had decided I wanted to help animals when I was 5 years old. I had worked hard, gotten good grades, spent hours and hours devoted to careful financial planning. I had parents that loved and accepted me when I came out of the closet. I was the motherfucking valedictorian of my graduating class.
A shattering bellow from my car interrupted my angry self-loathing tirade. I could hear Barry, faintly, coming up with a colorful array of swears from his bedroom, a few feet away from mine, separated by paper thin drywall. I felt something snap inside of me. Something tenuous, something that had been wearing away for a long time- ticking away in me like a bomb with fuses winding around my veins and arteries. My face flushed with heat and my hands went numb and started shaking. Dimly I thought- this is fight or flight at its finest. If I were an animal I would have pissed myself and ran off into the sunset. Or ripped the face off of something.
I made it to the kitchen. Everything in my peripheral seemed to shimmer like water. I had no clear memory of my feet touching the floor- just the subconscious feeling of movement, almost like I was floating. Then, the sudden clarity and weight of my kitchen shears in my hand.
I had clarity of purpose. I had a car problem. A simple bum radio. And I had a way of fixing it.
I walked out to the car, enjoying the feeling of cool grass under my feet, the sharp tingling of gravel. I opened the driver’s side door, sat down and shoved the scissors into the edging of the radio. I heaved my weight down onto it, heard it separate with a satisfying shattering rrrrrrrrrrrip. I pulled the panel towards me, straining, adjusting my grip so I didn’t sever my fingers off.
I held the bulk of it in my lap, cradling it like a baby, then wound the wires in the back into a bundle between my fingers. Each one came clean with a tiny satisfying click, finally releasing the demon box heavily into my arms and then promptly dropped onto the driveway. I felt a smile cross my lips, let it grow and set. I walked back into the house, serene, already thinking about the 2 solid sleep cycles that I would have, warm and cozy in my bed. As opposed to passed out in a bathtub.
Now, you’ll have to bear with me for this last bit. I’m not sure which parts are actual memories, versus what was relayed to me by the emergency responders and witnesses.
I know I woke up feeling more refreshed than I had in awhile. I slathered on makeup with fingers still wrinkly from the bathwater, I put on a mostly clean uniform, finished off the Sunny-D in the fridge, felt the pleasant rush of too-much sugar. I went out to my car, and went to put in a My Morning Jacket CD- I laughed to myself when I realized I no longer had a radio, rescued my phone from the floor and used YouTube to put it on instead.
I had a bunch of missed calls and texts from Sophie, I started to type out an apology while I was stopped at a light. The next thing I remember is being dragged out of the Lemon, the car in pieces and leaking fluids like the tiny fragments chipped off in lemonade.
Then, people screaming at me; at each other, at the world in general. At God.
One of the witnesses said I wasn’t paying attention and I rolled through a red light. She was in the car behind me, she noticed I was texting, she said something to that effect to her daughter in the front seat. That same daughter lost a hand- maybe more- in the ensuing crash; I watched her splayed form, her tear-soaked face as she was brought into the ambulance.
Another swears up and down that my car lifted off the ground of its own volition. That was an older man in opposing traffic. He slammed on his brakes when he saw, scared that I might have run over someone, or that there was an earthquake. His dog was in the back, obviously sans seatbelt. He had gone careening through the windshield, into another car, and now lay in the middle of the road in a mound of furry pulp.
A pedestrian walking by said my car was already smoking, flames dancing along the hood, when the accident happened. He claims that it was shrapnel, not me, that hit the family of four on the crosswalk. He says I couldn’t have seen the baby carriage.
The father of that family of four says I looked him right in the eye and hit the gas.
There was so much traffic on the road, so many people itching to get to the beach.
I’m not far away from where I was sitting yesterday. This time, I’m covered in blood instead of syrup. I’m surrounded by smoke and carnage. I’m fairly certain I need to get to the hospital, but I’m fairly certain I’m last on the list of priorities.
I have pieces of windshield in my hair, clinking around in my apron pocket. The paramedic who was just standing over me has just power-walked away to another victim in need of more immediate attention, a writhing mess half-covered by a sheet peppered with blood and hair. It’s an inconceivable amount of bloodshed. Part of me wonders if I’m still dreaming. Part of me hopes that I am. Prays to whatever higher power there is that turned it’s back on me.
A police officer asked me a few questions, I caught a few words here and there despite my shock. “Fault”…”drug test”…”emergency contact”… A small flashlight in my eyes, dilating my pupils to check for brain damage. “No signs of severe trauma.” The glint of the handcuffs on his belt.
Sophie’s just gotten here, she immediately pulled me into an embrace, tucking my head in her neck. Her smell cut through the chaos, minty and feminine, soothing, like the old school concept of smelling salts. She’s been whispering in my ear, cooing calming things to me.
I can’t think of anything to say. I can’t really hear her. I haven’t really been able to hear much of anything, to be honest.
Griffin and I were both 25. We hadn’t seen each other since college but kept in close contact. I was working at a cybersecurity firm, and I really wasn’t sure what he had been doing. He always told me he was “just working on something.”
I took a few vacation days from work to go and see him. We went camping for a night. When we woke up the following morning, he told me about The Machine.
“Wow-wee, sure is beautiful,” I said stepping out of my tent.
“Damn right it is,” Griffin responded. He was a silhouette in front of the red light of dawn creeping over the mountain behind him. “Come here.” He was fixing a pot of coffee.
“It’s serious. Come here.”
I sat beside him on a large log we’d rolled over the night before to sit on around the fire. “What’s up?”
“I want to tell you,” he said.
“Tell me what?”
“What I’ve been working on.”
“But hear me loud and clear, you can’t tell anybody. It’s a secret between you, me, and God.”
“I won’t. I swear to—”
“No, no. I don’t need any promises or swears. I just need your word. Say it again. You won’t tell anybody.”
“I won’t tell anybody, Griff.”
“Okay, then,” he sipped from his thermos and muttered, “a man’s only as good as his word. Someone famous said that, I think.”
“I think that’s from the Bible, dude.”
“Ha! That’s funny, considering what I’m about to tell you. Makes me wonder if there is a God…” he trailed, looking off in the distance.
That uneased me, for some reason. “Go on, tell.”
“Let me start off by saying this: I know how it’s going to sound—crazy. I know. You’re gonna think good ol’ Griff has lost his mind. But bear with me, now. I have proof. I have it with me.”
“You have what with you?”
“The Machine. That’s what I call it.”
“What does it do?”
“It can—well, let me show you.” He ran to his tent, unzipped something, and came back with a laptop, of sorts. But it was heavily modified, and connected to it by wires was a small, black box. He put the laptop in his lap and put the box next to him on the ground.
“You carried all that on a hike? You could’ve showed me all this stuff back at your place.”
“I could’ve, yes, but didn’t want to. What I have here is a game-changer, man. If the government is tapping our phones and TV’s, I don’t want them to know about this.” He pressed a couple buttons and The Machine made a whirring startup sound. “It takes a minute to get going.”
“What does it do?” I asked again.
“It can create, destroy, and transport matter.” He said it bluntly then sighed long and hard. I could tell he’d been waiting to tell someone about it.
I didn’t have an answer to what he said. I was silent. I didn’t believe him, but at the same time I believed he was about to show me something—something I’d never forget. Dread began to boil up inside of me.
“You don’t believe me.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t believe me either, but let me show you once this gets working.” He patted his hand on the box like a man would pat his dog’s head.
“You’re really telling me that thing can, just, what? Create something out of nothing?”
His smile never thinned. “Yes. And delete something in to nothing. And it can move matter in a millisecond—faster even!”
“So, your box breaks every law of physics?”
“It’s not ‘my box.’ It is The Machine.” A couple of beeps came from the modified laptop. He typed a couple things frantically, then looked in my eyes, his smile had been replaced with a stern, determined grimace. “Hold out your hand,” he said.
I obeyed, and held my hand out, palm towards the sky.
“Ready?” he said.
I nodded wordlessly, my tongue stuck in my throat.
He pressed a button, and I felt a weight in my hand instantly. Faster, even. My jaw dropped slightly and all my concentration, all my senses, and all my sanity was working overtime trying to comprehend what had just happened.
In my hand was a nice, shiny, red apple. It came from nowhere. There was no sound, no wind, no WOOSH or KAPOW. It did not exist a second before, but there it was, sitting in my hand.
“Hold out your other hand,” he said. I was not looking at him, but I knew he still had his serious face on. I complied, and held out my other hand, almost hypnotically. My eyes were still transfixed on the apple.
That is, until it wasn’t there. It had moved to my other hand—if you could even call it moving. It transported. It teleported. It shifted through time and space like it was no big deal. And then a couple seconds later, it vanished. Gone. He deleted it. Never to be seen again.
Astounded. Excited. Terrified. Those three emotions battled out in my head. I took in a deep draw of air, realizing I had stopped breathing somewhere in those 20 seconds or so.
“How…” that was all I could manage to say.
“Later,” he told me, “later, I’ll tell you how everything works. Quit your job. Work with me.”
“I… I just…”
“I know. It’s mind-boggling. Come work with me on it. It can be improved. There’s so much to do.”
“But… I need a paycheck and—”
“No, you don’t. When I said this was a game-changer, I meant it. What do you need money for? Food? We can create all the food you need. You want a new house? We can build one with this. But how are you going to keep the lights on? We hook it up to a battery-run generator, and we simply create and replace the battery with a fresh one every day. Car? Gas? Water? I haven’t had a bank account for a full year, man, and I’ll never need another cent again.”
My hands were still stretched out, my body felt like it was in shock. “Okay.”
“Okay?” His smile reappeared.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
He closed the laptop and put it to his side. He cracked a beer open, even though it was 8:30 AM, and he looked to the sunrise. I turned and watched it too.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said.
“So, you’ve tested it a lot, I’m assuming.”
“Yep. A whole lot.”
I don’t know why my mind went to this, but it did. “Have you ever, eh, done it to a human?”
He side-eyed me. “Done what?”
“Well, you know. Have you ever deleted someone? Or moved someone? Or, created?”
He seemed to think on it before responding. “I’m not sure if I can create a human. I don’t know the intricacies that go into building a living being. But I’ve moved myself—teleported—whatever you wanna call it. Not far, just to a different room in my house. It’s a weird feeling. But it works.”
I waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. So, I asked, “and… deleted?”
“No.” he took a swig from his bottle. “I’ve deleted an insect, though. A spider. He was just gone. Like the apple. Never done it to a human.”
I was relieved he hadn’t murdered someone, but then I thought, well it wouldn’t be murder would it? They wouldn’t be dead. They’d just, not exist anymore. Every atom of them would be gone from the universe—any consciousness or awareness they once held would be vaporized in to absolutely nothing. Maybe it’d be more peaceful than death, or maybe it’d be a fate much worse.
But then I thought of how this could change everything. This machine could feed the hungry forever. It could erase tumors and cancerous cells. It could provide shelter and clothing for everyone. It could eliminate the need for any transportation. It could clean the atmosphere. It could transport people to other planets instantly. Humans could expand all across the galaxy—the entire universe, maybe.
“We are going to change the world,” I said.
“We are going to run the world,” he responded.
And as his words died in the morning air, my worries came to life. The Machine can destroy anything, idiot, I thought to myself. It can and will destroy. Sure, your goodie little two-shoes wants to help humanity. But imagine what would happen if a terrorist organization had it. They could wipe out an entire city at the snap of their fingers. A hostile country could delete an entire continent if they like. Hell! All it’d take is one evil son of a bitch with the key to that thing to destroy the entire Earth! Or the Solar System! Or the Universe!
These thoughts clashed in my head.
I sipped my coffee. Griffin sipped his beer. We watched the sunrise.
Whatever was to come, I couldn’t stop it now.
I spent the next couple months living with Griffin. In that time, he spent almost every day explaining to me how The Machine worked. It was very complex, but I finally understood. I will not be explaining to you how it operates. And I hope you’ll forgive me for that, and hope you understand why I refuse to share that knowledge.
After learning all there was to learn about it, I posed the question to him.
“Do you think you could make another?” I asked him.
“Sure, it’d take me a couple weeks but—”
“No, I mean, do you think we can create another Machine using this Machine?”
He cocked his head back. “Wow, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that.”
So, we worked for a few days, programming every detail of The Machine in to The (original) Machine, and by day five, the code was complete and ready to go. I pressed enter, and there it appeared. A second Machine, right next to its partner. Its creator. Its father. Its God. Yet they were equal.
“Now we each have one, I guess,” he said.
“Thank you.” I told him.
“Thank me? It was your idea.”
“No, not for the machine. For letting me know. For teaching me about it.”
“You’re my closest—really my only, friend. I didn’t want to go about this alone.” He put his hand on my shoulder.
“So, what’s the actual plan? What are we going to do with these? Where do we start?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Do we tell anyone?”
“Hell no. Like I said before, this is a secret between you, me, and God.”
“Okay, but, think about it. Think about all the things we’ve talked about doing the past couple months. Cleaning the air, deleting all plastic from the ocean, feeding the hungry, and traveling to Mars and beyond! Those are things that we can’t do unnoticed. It’s going to get out.”
He let that rattle around in his head before he replied. “That’s just talk, though. You know how dangerous this is. I know we’ve been beating around the bush and not talking about that aspect of this. This can’t be public knowledge. This goes beyond danger. If this technology falls in to the wrong hands, it’s over.”
“Are you saying we don’t do anything?” I grunted. “So, what do we do? Sit here with a thumb in our ass looking at the greatest invention of human history and never use it for good? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying.” There was a long silence before he spoke again. “I just—I don’t know. We can’t not do anything with it, you’re right.”
“You’ve known about this much longer than I have. What have you been thinking about? What’s the endgame in this?”
“Honestly?” he asked.
“Honestly. Tell me all your thoughts.” I said.
“Well. Okay then. I’ll tell you. My entire thought processes. The good, the bad, and the horrific. I’ve thought about all the good stuff, like you have. Helping the hungry, the poor, all that. But to tell you the truth, I’m afraid of that too.”
“Let’s say we feed and shelter every human. Let’s add to that too, why not? Let’s give out free generators to every home and building in the world, like our houses have. And once a day the batteries are replaced with new ones. So, we have free food and water, free shelter, and free energy.”
“Well, then no one will want to work anymore. Why should they? What do they need money for? All their basic needs will have been met. That’s millions, if not billions of people quitting their jobs because they don’t need to work.”
“That kind of sounds nice, actually. Everyone would be relaxed.”
“Sure, at first. But you know who else stops working? EMTs. Police Officers. Firemen. Those people that work long hours and save lives every day no longer have a reason to go in. Doctors, who study for years and step in to six-figure debt willingly? They won’t want to practice medicine anymore. And school? Why go? What’s making anyone want to go? On top of that, who would teach? There’d be a billion dummies by the next decade who don’t know how to read or write. So, if we give it to the public, we’re screwed. The whole world is screwed.”
I hadn’t considered any of this. I was stunned. And he wasn’t done talking.
“I’ve also thought about using it for other things, though. Let’s say we keep this private. What would we do with it? We could use it for other purposes.”
My eyes had widened. I knew what he meant. But I still asked. “Like what?”
“Any way we like. Let’s go right to the extremes, shall we? Imagine a politician, live on TV, making some big announcement to the nation…”
“…and all of a sudden, he drops dead. All we had to do was shift his brain stem an inch to the left. OR! OR! Let’s get even more graphic! We just delete the fucker’s head right on national TV! A clean cut, right across the neck. We delete every atom in his head and BOOM! Gone. Dead. No one knows why. Or we delete his entire brain. The autopsy comes back and no one knows what to make of it. Biggest news story of the century! We could create a new genocide. We could create a new virus every day and spread it world-wide. We could create a fucking asteroid and send it straight into Earth!”
I couldn’t believe the things he was saying now, things I didn’t know a regular person could think. He kept on, his face was reddening, and eyes were bulging.
“OR! Let’s think EVEN BIGGER! We could change the entire atmosphere on Mars. Make it just like Earth’s. Nice and stable. Then, we teleport ourselves and The Machines there. We can bring a couple ladies and start a whole new town. A whole new PLANET! And we can look to the pale blue dot in the sky that we once called home—look at everything we knew, everything we loved, every ounce of human history, and burn the bitch to the ground. And when the fire goes out, we delete it, like it never existed in the first place.”
My mouth was slightly open from shock. I was at a loss for words, yes, but found my footing and spoke. “But—but you don’t actually want to do those things? Right?”
He panted a little. He was out of breath. His face slowly came back to its original color. “No. God, no. I wouldn’t do any of that. But you asked what I’ve been thinking about. And you asked me to be honest.”
“Yeah, I guess. I’ve thought about some of that too. Maybe not quite as… detailed, I guess.”
“You asked for honesty. And whether you like it or not, the human brain has its dark places. I’d never act on it. They’re just thoughts. And I was sharing them.”
“I know, Griff. I know. Just thoughts.”
Just thoughts, I supposed. Yeah, like gunning down a bunch of high schoolers. Or flying a plane in to a building. Those are just intrusive thoughts that people have sometimes. Maybe a lot of people. But it only takes one person crazy enough to act on those thoughts.
“So, we can’t take it public, and we aren’t going to be killing anyone or destroying the planet. What do we do?”
He shrugged. “We have fun, I guess.”
* * * * * *
We did have fun, for a while. We lived in nice houses we designed ourselves. We drove nice cars we created (not as hard as it sounds, surprisingly). We drank and ate in excess. And we never paid for any of it. When we wanted to go out to bars, clubs, or restaurants and pay for things, that wasn’t a problem either. Once we figured out how to create legitimate $100 bills, we could pay for anything. No one would ever be able to tell the difference, because there wasn’t a single atom out of place.
Then, Griff found heroin. I do not want this to become a story of addiction. No, a story of addiction would be about a man, struggling to survive, battling out his demons, losing money, and finding a balance between substance and family. No, once Griffin found heroin, nothing else existed for him. Heroin and The Machine was all he needed.
He never had to pay for it, either. When he wanted a fix, he simply typed the command in The Machine, and there it was, ready in a nice, clean needle waiting to be stuck in his vein. He never left the house after that. Why would he? He needed nothing outside his bedroom, as long as The Machine was there.
That was one possibility we didn’t even consider. Something so simple that we both overlooked. I would do anything to go back to that day we were camping, and make an oath that we’d never touch any drugs again. What a mistake.
Griffin died of an overdose on December 24th, 2018. I found him the next day. He never got to open his present.
How? How could a man with all the power in the universe—more power than any man had held before—fall so feebly to something so plain. He was a God walking among men and was taken down by an ounce of liquid in a syringe. He had an endless path of wonder and possibilities in front of him, and he chose not to go. He chose to stand still.
I chose not to stand still.
I was about to get busy, very busy.
I was alone. Me and my two Machines. The universe was my playground. Griffin was gone, but his knowledge was not. I had that.
Yes, I had that.
A secret between me and God.
And no one else.
It wasn’t easy getting over Griffin’s death, but I’ll spare you the details of my mourning and coping.
When Griff died, I had—I don’t know—an epiphany of sorts? An awakening? I realized—I’m only human. And so was he. But we were acting like we were Gods. We thought we had everything. We broke the laws that the universe had set, and we gave the middle finger to the cosmos.
“We are the outlaws of the universe, the writers of the rules, with no police in sight,” Griff used to say.
But we weren’t. We were two humans, mortal and easily-wounded. We would die-off eventually and be a useless sack of bone and flesh just like everyone else. We just found a little loophole in the universe—something that God forgot to patch up. But with The Machine came power, there was no denying that. I was human, yes, but I wielded a weapon no one else had. It would be like bringing a nuclear bomb to a sword fight. That’s what I thought. A weapon no one else had. A tool that no one else had.
In those couple months that passed after his death, I thought of destroying The Machine. But of course, I didn’t. I didn’t want to go back to my old life. I didn’t want to work all day. I wanted to have a good time, and I wanted to change the world.
I didn’t have a “good time” though. I was an absolute shut-in. I worked day and night for months on the solution. Let me tell you how I was going to try to help humanity. Here’s what I programmed in to The Machine (roughly, in layman’s terms):
Copy Earth in to The Machine.
Remove human beings, animals, and any sentient life from copy.
Remove atmospheric pollution from copy.
Remove man-made everything from the copy—infrastructure, roads, waste, etc.
Replace man-made infrastructure with roughly the same terrain from surrounding environment.
I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it took a long, long time to get that all programmed correctly.
And I know, there are some issues with this, but compared to other solutions I had thought of, the drawbacks were minimal. My plan was to place this edited copy of Earth on the other side of the Sun. Do you get it? There’d be a second Earth, the same distance from the sun, but on the other side of it, revolving around the same direction and speed that Earth is. Then, after I would place it there, scientists would find out quickly of its existence, and we could travel to it and start anew.
A whole new, clean planet for mankind. It was a temporary solution, but nonetheless, a solution—a step in the right direction. I was about two days out from executing the commands and placing “New Earth” in to existence.
Unfortunately, something happened before I could do that.
I was sitting on my bed, staring at The Machines, just thinking. I can’t remember what about, exactly. But all of a sudden, one of them disappeared. It happened right in front of my eyes. Deleted. Erased. Vanished. Or taken, I wondered for a split-second.
But it wasn’t just gone, in its place, a note laid on the ground.
I walked over to it. It was a single sheet of yellow paper torn off a legal pad. It had coordinates written on them, and then beneath, it said: Let’s talk here.
Dread flowed through my veins and filled my brain, but I managed to stay calm. I googled the coordinates, making sure I wasn’t about to transport myself to the middle of the ocean, or some volcano. I wasn’t. The coordinates were set for somewhere in Utah, USA. There was nothing around for miles. I guess that was the safest place to talk.
Like when Griffin told me about The Machine in the mountains, I recalled.
I put the coordinates in The Machine, and set it for me (and The Machine, so I had a way to get back) to be transported there. I hit enter.
And just like that, faster than I could blink, I was standing in a corn field in the middle of Utah. The Machine laid next to me on the dirt.
I heard the corn stalks jostle around in front of me—and emerging from the noise was a figure, slowly approaching. He was wearing jeans, a white t-shirt, and cowboy boots. His hair was white and matched the scruff on his face.
“Hello,” he said in a deep, flat voice.
“Hi,” I said, simply.
We stood unmoving, just staring at each other. Sizing each other up, maybe?
“I assume you know why I asked you to come here.”
“Yes, if that’s what you want to call it.”
“You have one too, huh?”
He laughed at this. He laughed for a long time. “No boy, no. My Machine is right up here.” He tapped his finger on his forehead.
“How—” but before I could finish, he took the same finger from his head and pointed it at The Machine lying next to me. It disappeared immediately.
“You see?” he said, “I don’t need a hunk of metal like you do.”
I was dumbfounded. “What are you?”
He walked a little closer to me. “If you’re religious you’d call me God, or perhaps the Devil.”
“And what would you call yourself?”
“Hm, maybe a little bit of both? There’s no use for names where I come from.”
“And where is that? Where do you come from?”
“Utah.” He said that with a straight face. I furrowed my brow. It was silent. Then he busted out laughing again, harder this time. “Oh, man, oh! I almost had you, didn’t I? Utah! Ha! Me! From Utah!” He kept laughing.
“What is wrong with you! What do you want?”
He calmed down some. “I wanted to let you know that it’s over. This whole universe thing.”
“Wh—what? What do you mean?”
“Well the whole reason your machine-thingy works at all is because this universe is broken. I’m going to start all over.”
“Yes. Start over. Delete and then ‘let there be light’ again and all that jazz.”
“So, you created all this? You really are, like, a God?”
He shrugged. “I created it, yes.”
“Why not just fix this one? You don’t have to delete a whole universe because one guy figured out a mistake in it.”
“Maybe I’d fix it if this happened earlier. Like, in the 1200’s or so, I would’ve fixed it. All the good stuff came after that, the things I didn’t wanna miss—Black Plague, slavery, the most exciting wars, genocide, etc. etc.”
“What! The good stuff? What the hell are you talking about?!”
“Oh, don’t act so surprised. You think I created an entire universe so I could watch people hold hands and sing happy songs? No, no. That’s no fun. You know what is fun? Huh? Do you wanna know what IS FUN?”
His voice was growing maniacal, more wicked-sounding. I didn’t answer. I knew he would continue anyway.
He smiled wide. “What’s fun is watching your stupid little monkey brains develop over hundreds of thousands of years. One day, one of you rubs two sticks together and creates fire. You ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over the pretty bright lights, but then you discover it’s hot so ‘ouch!’ don’t touch! And then you beat all odds against you and somehow start communicating and developing language. Building relationships. Trust. Then your stupid little monkey brains stumble upon the idea of putting food in the ground to grow. Farming! Ding! Ding! Ding! And you build little cities around those farms. You start marking whose property is whose. You begin to trade with other little stupid monkey brain communities. You do this for a long time and some battles take place, but then real civilization comes next. Rome is built! Education is more wide spread, and your stupid little monkey brains are getting smarter. Empires rise and fall. Countries are resurrected and borders are drawn. Wars are fought. Your brains are now smart, you think. You build transportation—boats turn into trains, and trains turn into cars, and cars turn in to planes. Your first weapons were sticks and fire—now you have weapons so powerful everyone is too scared to use them. But what never stops is the fighting, oh, how great it is to watch. You fight over invisible lines you call borders, skin color and birth location, and whose God is the right one. That’s my favorite. A fight as old as humans—which God is the real one—all the while, I sit there and laugh at you all. Me! I laugh. I’m your master. I’m your God. I’m your devil.”
I stood frozen, hesitant to move or talk—unsure if I even could.
“You see, now?” He said. “All the fun stuff is in the past now, the credits are about to roll. The climax is over and done with. In a decade or two this world will have ended by nuclear bombs and the nuclear winter that follows. Or a little later down the line the pollution would be so bad you’d suffocate yourselves. That’s not fun to watch. That’s boring. You see now, yes? I don’t care to stick around for that. That’s watching the credits roll. The show is over.”
I still hadn’t moved but gained some composure. I tried to ignore everything he’d said, but I still asked, “Is it just us… in this universe? Is there not life anywhere else? No other planet to keep you entertained?”
He crossed his arms. “Think of Earth as a nutrient. You eat dinner. You absorb the nutrient. You shit out everything else the next day.”
“You see, Earth is that tiny bit of nutrients that’s important. The rest…” he gestured towards the sky, “…is waste. Cosmic waste—just a by-product of creating this planet. ‘Earth’ is the only thing that matters.”
I’d never felt so small in my entire life until he spoke those words. All that space in the universe, with nothing inhabiting it. It’s just us, all alone on a floating rock. I was stunned, angry, and upset. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because deleting an entire universe takes time. It’s fragile. Very fragile. I can’t have things being created, destroyed, or moving during the process.”
“Yeah? Well what if I go home and build another Machine? I could delete you!”
He laughed again, only slightly. “You think you could do that? Sure, this form I take now is made of atoms and molecules, but I am not. I’m something your simple brain can’t even fathom. I exist beyond this universe. You can’t destroy me even if you tried.”
I felt like I was about to cry. “Why can’t you just leave this universe alone?”
“There’s only room for one at a time. Don’t take it personally, kid. You’ll still be around for a couple months, maybe a year. Try to enjoy it. Like I said, it takes time.”
I had nothing else to say, and for the first time, neither did he.
He simply pointed at me, and all at once, I was back in my bedroom. Alone.
I sat still for a couple of hours, hoping it was all a fever dream of sorts, but I knew it wasn’t.
Now, I tell you all this only to say: do not blame me. Do not shoot the messenger. Without Griffin’s discovery of The Machine, we wouldn’t even have any warning at all.
So, spend time with your loved ones, do what makes you happy, be good to others, and live a good life—while you can.
“Cassilda’s Song” opens The King in Yellow, setting the tone for the anthology, and giving us our most liberal taste of what the eponymous play would read like, the nature of its prose and plot, and the atmosphere, mood, tone, and setting. We learn of Carcosa – a blighted planet, city, realm, region, dimension, or state of mind which is wrapped in quiet desperation and morbid decadence.
It is a planet dominated by disturbing contradictions: it haunted Lake of Hali is composed of cloud waves (are they cloudy waters or watery clouds?), its stars are black (stars symbolize the spirit, spiritual power, or a spiritual guide – religion, family, duty, etc. – and in Carcosa that energy is inverted towards evil and decadence) and set in a blindingly bright night sky, it has two suns (symbolic of the duplicity of human nature and the lack of a clear moral foundation) which – like the dripping moon described in a later story – are implied to literally sink into Hali, as well as multiple moons (often symbolic of human weaknesses and temptations: on Carcosa there is more than one source of vulgar enticement), and it is recognized by the Hyades constellation (implying either that the literal stars worship Carcosa, or the alien civilizations therein). Finally we learn of the worshipful potentate who is dressed in tatters: a king who revels in campy opulence, in shredded dignity, in disfigured elegance.
Like the King of Fools – a beggar made king for a day on Mardi Gras – his existence and supremacy serve as a mockery and refutation of human ideals and civilized values. This is the realm of the King in Yellow, where souls weary and quiver, where hopes are dashed, where life is degenerate and hollow – and Chambers beckons you in with a crooked smile.
Here is the poem in full:
“ Along the shore the cloud waves break, The twin suns sink beneath the lake, The shadows lengthen In Carcosa. “ Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies But stranger still is Lost Carcosa. “ Songs that the Hyades shall sing, Where flap the tatters of the King, Must die unheard in Dim Carcosa. “ Song of my soul, my voice is dead; Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed Shall dry and die in Lost Carcosa.”
— Cassilda’s Song in The King in Yellow, Act i, Scene 2.
You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Chambers’ best weird fiction HERE!
You know those stories where a woman walks into the bar, meets a stunning man and gets pregnant, then finds out she’s bearing the offspring of Lucifer? Well, this is not one of those.
My mother had me at a young age so, by the time I was 16, she was 38 and recently married. I never met my good-for-nothing father and her husband was totally okay. I mean, he was a savorless person, but mom loved him dearly and he never was anything but respectful to me, so it’s all good.
He gave us the best thing of our lives: Little Tom.
Little Tom was born when I was 18. I decided to go to college in the same city, so I could still live with my mom and help raise him. By the moment I met Little Tom, I was crazy about him. He was a sweet boy with big, beautiful eyes. You know how some babies are born all wrinkled and weird? He didn’t. He was perfect from the start.
During my college years, we spent almost all my free time together. I felt like he was my own son, but only with the good parts, what made me love him even more.
At age 23, my life was great. I got an amazing job in my field right out of college and was able to live in my own apartment. Mom and Little Tom would come over at least three times a week, and I’d buy him all the toys, cute clothes and Chicken McNuggets he wanted. Spoiling my precious boy was the thing that made me happier in the world.
Ever since Little Tom was born, I had never left the city because I couldn’t stand the idea of spending more than three days without seeing my baby brother. But, not long after I got my dream job, they asked me to attend a conference in another state for five days.
I told mom and she said I was being silly and Little Tom would be just fine without me. In five days I would only miss one visit. She said he could sleep at my place the next time so we would watch cartoons together for hours and make up for the lost time.
I went on my business trip and tried not to suffer much. He was like a rainbow, bringing joy and light for just being there. But I could handle mere five days without my sunshine in a rainy day.
I was back by Saturday morning and, just two hours after, mom and Little Tom were at my place. While she cooked for us, Little Tom and I watched TV on the couch. He looked a little apathetic and pale.
I put my hand over his forehead and found out he was feverish. “Baby, you’re feeling good?”, I asked, feeling invisible hands squeezing my heart.
“My head is tired and heavy, sis,” he replied, sluggishly. He seemed weak and slow-motioned.
Mom heard us talking and came from the kitchen. “It’s okay, Christie. He’s a little under the weather. I think it’s a light cold.”
“I’ll take him to the hospital just in case, mom,” I replied, already grabbing my car keys. I had a great health insurance and paid extra to include him in my coverage.
She laughed. “It’s cute that you worry so much, Chris. But it happens a lot with little kids. You had the flu all the time when you were younger. It’s just a matter of resting a lot and eating something warm and nutritious.”
“Well, better safe than sorry.” I said, and picked Little Tom up, carrying him in my arms. “Let’s go, baby. I’ll buy you that Lego set you wanted when we’re back if you’re a good boy.”
I didn’t have to say it as a form of manipulation, because Little Tom was always a good boy. I just wanted to reward him for having to see a doctor and make exams with such short notice.
I’ve never seen my baby brother sick, so I was terribly worried.
Turns out I was right to be.
After a few hours, a doctor went talk to me. “We are investigating what his problem is, Miss. But the results of his blood analysis were bad. We will need to keep your brother here, under observation”.
If I think I was devastated in that moment, I should wait to see how I felt when week after week my baby brother lost weight and had more and more tubes on him. At first he could feebly talk, then he lost consciousness.
This beautiful kid, with a whole future ahead of him, was fading. Devastated doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I started to make mistakes at my work, and was really lucky to have a very understanding manager, who was mother of two, one of which was born with a rare congenital disease. I think anyone else would have had fired me.
The doctors still couldn’t figure out what he had. This mysterious disease made Little Tom weak and feverish – which are symptoms to literally every disease ever – but to an unbelievable extent.
One night, my best friend Simone decided to treat me to dinner in a little Italian place, my favorite cuisine. I tried to decline her sweet offer, but my mother insisted there was nothing I could do and I had to distract myself from the sadness and despair; she couldn’t take having me sick too.
With this compelling argument, I went out to have dinner. The antipasti were delicious, but I was still quite the nervous wreck, so I excused myself to smoke outside. It was a habit that I’ve picked up since Little Tom was admitted to the hospital.
Terrible habit. It was snowing outside and it was extremely rude to my best (and honestly only) friend, but I couldn’t help it.
I tried three times to light my cigarette, but the lighter just wouldn’t work. Defeated, I was almost heading back inside, when I saw it was lit. By my side, stood an older, respectable-looking man; looks are deceiving as hell, aren’t they?
He was dressed in a totally normal way, wrapped up in a common long black coat, normal pants and shoes, and wearing a gray wool cap. “Oh, thank you.” I glanced him real quickly and then my gaze wandered again, not paying attention to him at all.
“Your baby brother is sick and you think he’s dying soon, right?” Despite the interrogative tone, he was 100% sure of this; he didn’t need confirmation. I immediately knew he wasn’t someone that knew me from the hospital, or a nice father who would recommend me a good doctor.
The Devil appeared to me as a man in his mid-50s, with penetrating blue eyes; he was good looking, but in a paternal way. His face was a little chubby and his smile warm.
I don’t know how I knew how he was. But his presence was unbearably strong, in a weirdly peaceful way. It’s like I knew he would solve my problems before he even spoke.
When I finally looked at him with all my attention, I noticed he had a velvety burgundy blanked in his arms, and held it like you hold a baby.
“Yes, Christie. It’s a baby,” he said, very matter-of-factly, showing me a tiny girl that couldn’t be more than a few weeks old.
I just looked at him expectantly.
“I see you already know who I am, so here’s the deal. I can bring your brother back to perfect health. No tricks or obscurities here. He will be totally cured from any disease or whatever he has, will live a long and great life and nothing’s gonna harm him. You really got a sale today, lady. The only thing you’ll need to do in exchange for your deepest desire is take care of my daughter here”.
He was polite and insanely charismatic. I couldn’t even think or talk out of turn. I just wanted to listen to him. And he proceeded:
“See, this woman made a terrible mistake. She thought she found a breach on our contract. That she could only bear and birth my child, then abandon her to die on a snowy night. And after all the payment in advance I gave her…” He looked almost tired. “Anyway, I’m nothing but reasonable. I retrieved my daughter from the street, got her a blanket and paid her mother a visit. The woman still refused to take my child back, so I had to kill her. Now you can be really happy just because I think prolonged exposure to babies is a pain in the ass. So, Christie Abrams, will you save your brother and raise my daughter?”
* * * * * *
The whole interaction lasted less than 3 minutes. I finished my cigarette (he told me to, as I almost threw it away in the middle), and took the baby in my arms. He said “I’ll be watching you”, turned his back, started walking, and disappeared after two seconds.
I entered the restaurant screaming that I’ve found a baby and really wanted to keep it. Simone told me we had to tell the police and have the baby checked, and the rest of the night was a blur. I may or may not have eaten pasta and drunken wine afterwards.
All I know is, by the next day, the baby was declared totally healthy and I started the process of adoption. The Devil had killed the mother in a way that looked like suicide, and even wrote a note about leaving her baby in the snow to die. It didn’t take long for the police to connect the baby to the woman and, since she didn’t have any family, it was easy for me.
I had a great job, no mental issues, no criminal record and perfect personal background; the baby had no family, so it was easy to get the provisional guardianship, and then the definitive just a while after.
I named her Lucy, in honor to her father Lucifer.
Little Tom’s health miraculously improved. In the same day I adopted Lucy, he was awake again. My precious brother was released from the hospital with a clean bill of health mere 6 days after that.
For the first years, my life was joyful. I would never love anyone or anything nearly half as much as I loved Little Tom, but I learned to love my daughter Lucy in the blink of an eye. She was a smart, beautiful and healthy baby, and I couldn’t ask for more. The fact that Satan was her father was just a detail; he was very gentle to me, so I did my best to raise his girl to be gentle as well.
I thought I was doing fine until her kindergarten school caught fire out of the blue and half the kids there died.
And she was laughing. She laughed the whole way back home.
I had a glimmer of hope that somehow the arson was unrelated to her, and she was laughing because she was only 4 and too young to understand what just happened. But the next day, her father showed up at my workplace.
This time, the Devil appeared to me as a handsome, very well-dressed young man. All my co-workers were impressed. He politely asked my manager if he could steal me 15 minutes earlier to have lunch with him, and, like everyone else, she was hypnotized. She told us to take all the time we need.
As we walked down the street, he said “Well, you’re welcome for me making you look good.”
I laughed. He wasn’t sexually appealing to me, but damn, he was incredibly charming. I found my mouth thanking him wholeheartedly before I could even think.
As we sat in a fancy restaurant, he was straightforward: “Yes, it was Lucy that killed all the people. Yes, you still have to keep her. No, she will never ever touch your brother.”
I was horrified, but relieved for Little Tom. Since I work and my mom is a stay-at-home-mother, they spend the most time of weekdays together.
* * * * * *
I’ve honestly lost track of how many people Lucy had killed. I’ve become cold and insensitive. Other people’s lives don’t matter much to me anymore. I would never personally kill someone, but I have covered my daughter’s tracks time after time. I have tampered with crime scenes. Hell, I have even lured some of their victims to their death.
And today, she’s only 13. She still has a long way of evil deeds and murders to go.
I’m sorry about that, but Little Tom’s life is worth more than anything to me. Having to raise a literal devil and let her kill every random person she wants is a price I’m willing to pay for him.
That’s why I know you all gonna understand what will happen next.
You see, today the Devil showed up again. This time, he looked like a stunning woman, and was laughing with a gusto I’ve never seen anyone before.
“Christie, Christie… you’re raising my daughter so well I even felt guilty about my little prank.”
“You see… I just really wanted someone to keep my child. Your brother wasn’t dying, because he can’t. He is my son, too.”
“He… what? Little Tom is…? But how…?”
“No, Christie, I’m not your stepfather. The Devil has too many faces. One of them happened to be a nurse who exchanged the babies. And your mother knew. She promised to raise a child of mine when I cured you a long time ago. If you’re wondering, your illness was the real deal.”
That’s why Little Tom was so captivating. So charismatic. Like the Devil. Oh my god.
“The fever and weakness is the awakening of their powers. He hasn’t used them much since that day, but as we speak Tom and Lucy are sacrificing your mother to increase their strength. Don’t worry, she has accepted it. She thinks it’s atonement.” He laughed again. I was in shock, with big tears streaming down my face.
Everything was my fault. I couldn’t speak, and he knew it. He wasn’t even mocking me, he just thinks humans self-destructing is really funny. He savored the moment. It was nothing personal.
“Come on, Christie. At least I was true to my words; Lucy would never hurt your brother. I just forgot to mention that it was because he is one of us.”
All my life is based on a lie. Literally everyone I love is a demon child or an accomplice. I have never married or had a personal life other than having a single friend because I was taking care of Little Tom and Lucy. I have nothing. My prospect of future is having even more innocent blood on my hands.
I just want to let you know that, no matter how tempted you are, and no matter how good is the offer, you should never make a deal with the devil. Will you promise me? If you do, I will at least feel some relief when I hang myself alone in my apartment tonight.
I like to go urban spelunking, “ruin diving” my friends call it. We find a place out in the middle of the nowhere that people have forgotten and we break in to see what treasures they might have left behind. On one of our trips we decided to check out some places in upstate New York. This was my friend Paul’s idea and while I was sure he had only mentioned it because he was sweet on a girl who lived up there, he promised me and the rest of us that he had a hot tip on an amazing spot.
We got to the location just after six in the afternoon and twilight was already setting in. Paul’s place however sure was something and I was willing to break our rule of no diving after dark. It looked to be a massive research compound. We saw signs for something called Fairchild Research Group but it was completely abandoned. No security, no cars, no nothing but when whoever had been here pulled out it must have been in a hurry.
We found food still in warm fridges, there were desks with family photos tacked on the wall and even half of a mummified birthday cake in one buildings lounge. There were other things that seemed off as well that were a little more sinister. Slime covered prints along the walls, weird tracks in the dust on the floor and this awful smell. It reminded me of my old high school biology lab around the time we had to dissect fetal pigs. It was the same harsh formaldehyde smell.
It was only when we went to the lower levels that things got out of hand. We all swore we heard a woman sobbing and the sounds of animals but nothing we could identify, I found a USB drive sticking out of a tower in the last room we visited and I decided to snag it. What I found on there shocked me and the group. Whoever had had the USB before must have been trying to download what happened the last time time the facility had been running. It was full of security camera footage, project notes, audio recordings. I’m posting what I pieced together and drew from the files here.
They say that nature is flawless, beautiful. People write about the perfection of a sunset or the faith affirming qualities of a rushing sea but man should never be so foolish. There is no great sun that doesn’t cast a shadow and nature’s shadow is teaming with monstrosities. Doctor Braum knows that simple fact and makes his living off of it. He is a tall man with long thin fingers. His wife would tell you, if she knew he couldn’t hear, that she never found him handsome. Not that his face wasn’t pleasing but that it was cold, glacial, like looking into the face of a statue.
That statue only cracked when a new specimen was brought into his lab for study and the emotion that always adorned it was wonder. Where others would recoil at the horrors that lined his walls in dim jars, he gazed at them fondly. Mutations of flesh, abnormalities of bone, even almost human growths in bark or foliage, held his curiosity in a siren’s song.
He would lose himself for hours among the rows and rows of mother natures failed children. He had bodies in every stage of development with extra arms, bulbous growths, features so warped and distorted no one would have dared to think they were human. Inside the office there was one of his favorite specimens. Behind his desk, floating in a specially made cylinder, was the body of a woman.
She had the bloated look of a drowning victim and that added to her impressive girth. Her pendulous breasts were streaked by angry red veins and bobbed slowly in the amber liquid. All in all her corpse was unremarkable until her stomach. It bulged sickeningly,the skin pulled tight over a dozen malformed skulls. Small hands jutted out, almost touching the glass. A rare fusion of mother and child, siblings merged into a ball of calcified organs, the doctor had taken to calling the display “A happy family”. The boys in the staff called her “The Brood Mother” but only behind Braum’s back, he didn’t tolerate much tomfoolery and had a quick temper for disrespect.
Today Braum was full of excitement. It was the end of his three month waiting period for new subjects and his man had promised him not only a greater draw from the financial levies but double his allotment for equipment if he could get back to them in a month with new results.
He was sure he would finish his research on genetic mutations that went against Darwin’s laws of selection. He knew that this batch would give him the proof he needed to finally show the world that what had brought those weaker minds such revulsion was, in fact, evolution before their very eyes. while he waited the good doctor decided to visit Tommy, his first real breakthrough.
Moving from his private office to the storage area, he walked briskly through the rows of shelves on a familiar path. Deeper into the lab the canisters and containers grew larger and their occupants more fearsome. Braum could remember many of them from his younger days. When this operation was first started he didn’t have even close to half the resources he has now and was forced to go on many of the “Buys” himself. Tommy came from one of them, he still remembered how unimpressed he was that warm August in Vietnam when he bought Tommy from the back of a pickup truck. He had no idea then that his life and research would be changed forever by what had been in that little vial.
Finding a terminal he punched in his code and set the processes working. This part of the laboratory was so old that it still ran on software from ten years ago, so he was in for a wait. Braum mopped at his bald head as the computer groaned, for some reason the temperature felt far to high all of a sudden. He decided to check up on some other valued members of his collection instead of just standing around in the heat. He wondered a few rows over, running his hands along the glass of several vats.
Inside many of them were the bodies of cows, sometimes three deep. Each carcass had some level of abnormal growth. Tumors grew in cauliflower clumps across some, a few had long tentacle like protrusions along their sides as well as extra legs dangling from their necks. He stopped in front of the largest tank in the row. Inside floated something pulled from the nightmares of a sick mind.
It looked like a hybrid of goat and trout. A goats upper body with one curved horn on the left and a small stump on the right, merged with a massive fin to make up it’s lower half. On the top of the tank, written on a fade label in Doctor Braum’s neat handwriting, was “TEST SUBJECT 2002: SERIES 3: TRIAL 56: SUCESS.” His first viable creation, all thanks to Tommy. Braum remembered the swelling of love he had felt when his abomination drew it’s first pained breath.
The loud clatter of metal doors opening and the buzzing of circuits pulled him from his revere and into the newly opened holding chamber. The room was massive, the largest single room in the lab in fact, and contained a three story tall tank of double thick glass filled with over 150,000 gallons of preservation fluid. There, lit only by a dim light from the base, floated Tommy. Braum gazed breathlessly up at him with a look of awe only rivaled by the first Apostles to see Christ reborn.
Tommy looked for all the world like a massive child, a giant toddler with bloated and bulging eyes. They were blue and lifeless, his pudgy rolls of skin were the kind the gray color of flesh that had never known the flow of blood. As near as Braum could tell the body had never known life but it had continued to grow. From just a microscopic embryo in a dirty vial, Tommy had grown into a monstrously sized baby seemingly in its third trimester of development. Tommy looked down at him with those giant eyes, twin maggots that had eaten their fill.
Was there a hint of contempt in them today? he wondered. Did he see for a second there, a flash of hatred and hunger? Braum began to feel uneasy in the room that held his greatest triumph. Tommy’s blood had been the key to his breakthrough and was the linchpin to his entire research.
While to those lesser eyes it had looked dead and foul, his eyes had seen the almost parasitic movement in the cells and through extensive testing unlocked their potential to create life where there was none. The blood also acted as a bridge of sorts, allowing him to create creatures that should never have drawn breath. There were others like SUBJECT 2002, many, many others. Braum first heard the slight dripping when he looked through the logs of growth. He would have to order new construction and a larger tank soon if those projections were right.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
It was so quite but so steady, like a heartbeat. First he checked the drainage tubes, nothing wrong there but when looking at the fluid levels he noticed a small decrease. He walked around to the back and nearly slipped.
A small puddle had formed from a slight crack along the seal at the bottom. Braum cursed and caught himself before he could fully fall into the liquid. He immediately pulled his radio from its holster and switched to maintenance’s channel. They would have to be called away from their work on the south end hall but the thought of even the slightest damage to Tommy had Braum nearly frantic. His fingers stayed on the dial however, they were coated in a different colored fluid than what filled the tank.
Braum knew that color. He had gazed at it through microscopes, watched it coagulate and thin inside beakers and vials; it was the grayish white of Tommy’s blood. Inspecting the puddle closer he felt all of his own color drain from his face. He watched as it moved through the preservative in thick clumps, like seamen stirred in a bathtub. He saw thin lines of it running off from the puddle, following the checker board edges of the tiles.
The blood lines seemed to move along the groves with a purpose. His normally sharp mind was uncomprehending as he followed the trail back out the doorway where it flowed through a space between the door and the locking mechanism no bigger than the tip of a pin.
On the other side he watched as it curved itself around a drain and up one of the central shelving units. There it feed itself up to the large fluid reservoir. Braum felt an overpowering urge to turn around then, like a thousand eyes boring into his back. Tommy was staring at him, really staring and this time there was no mistaking the look of hate in his dead eyes.
How long had the leak been going on, how had no one seen it? Braum’s rational mind screamed at him but he was frozen in place by his curiosity. Tommy was alive, at least in some way and he had extended himself beyond his tank but why? This thought burned him and spawned a thousand other questions but they all died at the first sound of cracking glass. It wasn’t coming from Tommy in front of him but from the ones behind him.
If nature could be considered their mother, then Braum had always fancied himself their father. Maybe that is why when he turned to face the horrors that he had created, the monsters he had cobbled together, it wasn’t a look of fear on his face but a smile of love.
The sound of the car engine coughing and sputtering made my heart sink and my stomach knot. I always had a bad feeling about driving something that was twenty-three years of age. Even though it only had a hundred-thousand miles on it and had gotten me many places, I always had an uneasy feeling about it. And now, as I gazed past the steering wheel at the pitch dark and empty countryside, I knew my gut had been telling me something.
I looked to my right to see my friend Julie staring cockeyed at the glove compartment with a slight wince about her face.
“Amy, what was that sound?” asked Julie, in denial.
“It was the fucking engine,” I said. “I hate this car!” I slammed my hand down on the steering wheel, accidentally honking the horn.
“Well, let’s take a look at it, then,” said Julie.
“You know anything about engines?” I asked. Silence ensued. Julie pulled her cellphone out and started typing away.
“All I have out here is ‘extended’,” she said. “I got no bars.”
“Try to call somebody,” I said.
“Who should I call?”
“Oh, I know who.” Julie scrolled through her contacts and clicked one and then pressed her phone to her ear.
“Who are you calling?” I asked.
“Triple A,” she said.
Julie had her phone pressed to her ear for quite some time. The ringing kept going and going in an eternal loop.
“Oh, god,” she said.
“Is the line busy?”
“I don’t think the call’s going through.”
“Hang up and try again.”
Julie hung up and redialed. Pressed the phone to her ear. Waited. Nothing. My heart thumped. I hadn’t seen a car in half an hour. I took backroads whenever possible. I hated driving on the highway. Hated the danger, the road rage, the intensity of it. Julie and I had been on our way to a party in the mountains. Some preppy guy she liked was throwing it in his parents’ McMansion and had invited us, probably in the hopes that Julie would sleep with him. He was a frat guy and I wasn’t the biggest fan of his. Struck me as a douchebag.
Julie tried Triple A’s number a couple more times. It became apparent this wasn’t going to work. Fifteen more minutes went by and we still hadn’t seen a car.
“Call 9-1-1,” I said.
Julie immediately dialed the three digits. She pressed the phone to her ear. It rang once and someone picked up. Our faces both lit up.
“Nine-one-one,” said the operator, “what’s your emergency?”
“Hi!” said Julie. “My friend and I have broken down and are stuck out on –
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Hi, yes, I’m here. My friend and I are –
“Hello? Is someone there?”
My heart sank.
Julie kept at it for quite some time. Five minutes passed and the operator still couldn’t hear. Julie hung up and called back, but the same thing happened.
“Goddammit, we’re stuck!” said Julie, nearing a state of panic but not yet fully there.
“We’ll be okay,” I said as I tried to stay calm. “It’s not like we’re on a desert island, or something.”
Ignoring my words, Julie opened the car door and stepped out and began huffing and puffing wildly. She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled at the top of her lungs.
“Help! Somebody help us!”
“Julie!” I said as I climbed out of the car. “Julie, calm down.” I approached her and caressed her shoulders. Her breathing grew shakier and shallower. I worried she was having a panic attack.
“Calm down, Julie. Calm down. It’s all right. They probably have our location. They’ll be out here. They can track our location. They’ll be here.”
“You don’t know that, Amy.” Her voice was sob-filled and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
I stepped out into the cold winter air and popped the hood and fruitlessly examined the engine. I wasn’t sure if I was actually looking for something or if I was just trying to calm Julie. I waved my phone’s flashlight around which illuminated the various complicated car parts. Something was leaking, that I could see.
My right eyelid fluttered as my peripheral was struck by a ray of light. I turned to see blinding high-beams coming toward us. They were so bright that I couldn’t even see the vehicle they belonged to.
Julie immediately shot out of the passenger seat and leapt over to the middle of the road and hopped up and down like a jackrabbit. She waved her arms around and yelled “Hey! Hey! Over here!” repeatedly.
The vehicle—an ice white Cadillac Escalade with windows tinted well beyond the legal range—came to a halt in the middle of the road. We couldn’t see inside. The cadillac just sat there for a moment. Julie placed her hands just above her knees as she huffed and puffed, and I was pretty sure I heard her mumble “thank god” under her breath.
Another moment passed and then the driver side door opened. The car’s interior light turned on and revealed three guys around our age inside. As I scrutinized, I realized I recognized them from school.
The driver was Keaton, frat guy. Julie had liked him at one point. Tonight he wore a blue fleece and chubbies shorts (even though it was freezing outside) and tall white socks. He was a thin preppy guy with a pronounced jawline that made him look like a movie star. He constantly wore a backward facing good ol’ boys cap, so often that it seemed to be a part of his head. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen him without it. He was a cocky sort of guy and always had a wealth of animated and flippant facial expressions at his disposal, unfailingly with a flare of his nostrils, which looked like you could fit grapes in them.
Riding shotgun was Billy. He was short and rode the line between chubby and normal weight. He had blonde locks and one of those boyish faces, but boyish of the kind that chucks cherry bombs into the toilet because he wants to see what happens.
In the back was Peter and he wore a blazer and khaki pants. It took me a second to recollect his name. He always looked like a deer in the headlights and mostly kept to himself. Only his friends knew him, and he often served as their verbal punching bag.
Keaton stood up in the car and leaned out with his arms resting atop the driver side door. He peered at us.
“Yooooo!” he said as he chewed gum obnoxiously. “Is that Julie?”
“Yeah,” said Julie, a repressed sob almost escaping from her giggle. She was calming down now, smiling through her glazed eyes.
“What happened?” asked Keaton. “You guys pop a flat?”
“Car just broke down,” I said. “Don’t know why.”
“Well, that sucks,” said Keaton with a twitch of his head. He chewed faster now.
“Y’all on your way to the rager?” asked Billy.
“Yeah,” said Julie. “We were, until this…stupid shit happened.” She was acting all shy and flirty, now.
“We got plenty of room,” said Keaton. “Ya’ll can just cop a ride with us.”
“For real?” asked Julie.
“Sweet. Hell yeah.”
I hated how fake she’d act around these preps. She wasn’t a party girl and she knew it. Neither was I but I owned it.
Julie and I hopped in the backseat, and Billy told Peter to sit up front. Billy got in the back with us and that made me uncomfortable. Like he thought he was gonna score with us.
“Glad we could be your knights in shining armor,” said Keaton.
“Me too,” Julie replied. “You guys ready to get fucked up at this party?
“Hell yes. I’ve been looking forward to this all week long. Y’all ever seen his house, before?”
“Well, it’s dope. I’m trying to cop a third floor room to crash in.”
Keaton rummaged around in the cupholders on his door for a moment.
“Shine a light,” Keaton mumbled to Peter.
“Okay,” Peter replied. He shined his phone light and popped the glovebox and rummaged around inside. As he did this, something in the glovebox fell to the floor and hit the adjustment handles under the seat. Peter cursed and bent down to search for it.
“What is it?” asked Keaton.
“Uh…that multitool that you keep,” said Peter. “I think it went under the seat, I can’t find it…”
“Dude, forget the fuckin’ multitool. Just get the flask.”
Peter abandoned his search and continued to rummage around.
“To the left,” said Keaton, and then he repeated it a little more forcefully. Peter grabbed a small flask and shut the glovebox. Keaton snatched it out of his hands and popped the cap and took a big swig from it. He then held it out to me.
“Y’all want some?”
“Yeah, totally,” said Julie as she snatched it from him. So fake, I thought. Julie took a minuscule little sip and coughed. Keaton chuckled and shook his head. Julie passed me the flask and I immediately passed it to Billy, who looked taken aback.
“You don’t want any?” he asked.
“Nope, I’m good,” I said.
“Come on, have some.”
Billy shrugged and took a big gulp. As he did, I felt a tickling sensation on my right leg that I thought was nothing at first. Then I felt it again and I looked down to see Billy’s fingertips steadily stroking the side of my leg. He did this as he drank from the flask, as if him not looking would make it less obvious. I ignored it for a second, but he persisted even after passing the flask to Peter.
I casually brushed his fingers away as I pretended to itch my leg, but that didn’t stop him. He simply traversed my leg and found a new spot. And this time, his caressing was more deliberate.
“Can you please stop that?” I blurted.
The whole car went silent. Billy pulled his hand away and looked at me with a confused face. Keaton and Peter both cranked their necks and looked at me. Julie was looking, too.
“Stop what?” asked Keaton. “Who you talking to?”
“I’m…” my voice trailed off. I looked at Billy and took a deep breath. “I’m talking to you.”
“What’d I do?” Billy asked dumbly.
“You were…tickling my leg.” I used the word tickling to sound less accusatory. After all, I still wanted a ride out of here.
“I was?” asked Billy.
“I…I don’t think…” Billy trailed off and then chuckled, smirking at Keaton and Peter with a wtf look on his face.
“Okay?” Billy continued. “I’ll stop…tickling your leg.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Billy shook his head and snorted out a befuddled laugh. Keaton looked at him with a snide smirk.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Billy, still snickering. “Nothing, I just didn’t mean to tickle your leg.”
“Didn’t mean to?”
“Hey, come on,” Julie piped up.
“I brushed your hand away,” I continued, “and you came back and kept touching me.”
Billy snickered loudly and shook his head, scrunching his eyebrows and shrugging like someone who’s guilty and knows it. Keaton still sneered and stared intently at both of us, seemingly entertained by the increasingly escalating situation. He giggled and playfully slapped Billy’s knee.
“You dirty dog,” said Keaton. “Control yourself.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Billy chortled. “I’m serious.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Let’s just forget about it. It’s fine.”
“Now, hang on,” said Keaton. “Hold up.” He paused to blow a bubble. The bubble popped and he licked the excess gum off of his lips.
“If we’re gonna all ride in the car together,” he continued, “we can’t just be all awkward, and shit. I mean, it’ll be kind of a…what do you call it?”
“Elephant in the room?” Peter mumbled. He now sat with his head slumped forward and stared down at his crotch.
“Yes!” said Keaton as he snapped his fingers. “An elephant in the room. Thank you, Peter. Yeah, we can’t just sit here all quiet and awkward ‘n shit. Ya know? Like, we gotta just be straight up with each other. Conflict resolution, ya know?”
I looked at Julie and she glanced at me, confused. Fake as she acted around this guy, even she had to admit this was getting bizarre.
“Look,” I said, “it’s fine. Let’s just forget about it.”
“Well you don’t look like you’ve forgotten it,” said Keaton. “Billy? Have you forgotten?”
Billy sat still for a moment and then shook his head no. Keaton looked back at me and shrugged matter of factly.
“It’s just gonna be an awkward car ride if we don’t resolve it, you know?” said Keaton.
“Well, how do we resolve this, then?” I asked, losing patience.
“I don’t know, I’m just the mediator.”
I stared at Keaton in disbelief for a moment, before uttering a disgusted ugh noise and shaking my head. Keaton huffed and grew suddenly impatient.
“We’re not gonna get anywhere, like this,” he said. He sounded like a disappointed schoolteacher.
“What do you want me to say?” I asked. I pointed at Billy. “Shouldn’t he be the one resolving the conflict? Maybe he should apologize, or something.”
“Apologize?” said Billy. “For what? I didn’t do anything.”
“Well, we’re just gonna go in circles, then,” I said. “Forget it. Can you please just drive?”
Keaton stared at me for a moment with a look of surprise on his face. “Well, there’s a start. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“What?” I asked.
“You said ‘please’. Now we’re on a path to conflict resolution.”
I stared back at Keaton with a look of shock on my face. I could not believe how far he had drawn this out. I glanced at Julie. She stared awkwardly out the window, probably just waiting for the situation to taper down. But it didn’t seem like Keaton was going to let it. Keaton snatched the flask out of Peter’s hand and took a big swig and then let out a satisfied ahh when he was done.
“Okay,” said Keaton. “Let’s start from the beginning. Amy…you felt Billy’s hand tickling your leg, right?”
“Right,” I sighed, irritated.
“And you’re insisting he was doing it on purpose, right?”
“I…I guess. I don’t know.”
“Yes or no?”
“I don’t know. Sure.”
“Yes. Okay. But Billy…he says he didn’t do it on purpose. Right, Billy?”
“So…” Keaton continued. He blew another bubble. “…are you calling Billy a liar?”
“Oh my god,” I said. I was fed up. I reached past Julie and opened the door and climbed out of the car.
At the same time, Keaton swiftly opened his door and stepped out. I attempted to sidestep him but he strode right in front of me. He gently touched my shoulder. I yanked my arm away and threw up my hands.
“Hey, hey, hey…” he said in a hushed tone.
“Don’t touch me,” I said. “Do not touch me. Get out of my way.”
“Hey, calm down, calm down. We’re just talking.”
“No we’re not.”
“Yes, we are.”
“No. We’re not. Get out of my way.” My anger level was reaching maximum threshold. At this point, Keaton was like a bratty little child that you just wanted to trip or knock over, accidentally-on-purpose. He still had a snide sneer on his face that made him look like a sleazy conman or a lying politician. Those stupid nostrils flared and his obnoxious chewing rang in my ears like rippling mosquito wings. I clenched my fist.
“Just…listen to me, Amy,” he said with a chuckle. “Everything’s chill, let’s just calm down. Just go back in the car and we can –
I let out an irate grunt as my fist shot forward and slammed right into Keaton’s mouth. His head snapped back as he let out a loud oof! He staggered back a single step and clutched his lip. I heard Billy utter “oh, shit!” from the car.
I walked past Keaton in a huff and approached my car. I figured I could at least take refuge inside it, lock it if I needed to. I took long and purposeful strides across the asphalt. I thought of Julie and how she should be joining me in the car. This situation was getting dangerous. But I had to focus on getting there myself. Then I could motion to her, encourage her to make the right decision. I hoped that these guys were just all talk, maybe having a bad night.
I suddenly felt a jolt of sharp pain fire up my leg as my knee buckled. Keaton’s foot had slammed into the back of my knee. I fell to one knee and before I could get up, I felt Keaton’s arm slip around my throat as he put me in a sleeper hold. He dragged me backward as I coughed and gagged. I could hear Julie screaming and yelping from the cadillac.
“You fuckin’ serious, right now?” Keaton shouted in my ear. I felt little drops of his spittle hit my earlobe.
I hadn’t drawn a breath in at least ten seconds, now. I felt my pulse pound in my throat, rapidly increasing in pace by the second. My eyes watered which caused my vision to blur. Keaton dragged me all the way to the cadillac and threw me up against the side, just below the gas tank. From there, I could see Julie kick and scream in the car as Billy wrangled her. She had no chance. Billy was stocky and played football and he had her in a viselike grip, his arms wrapped firmly around her midsection, just under her chest.
I panted like a dog as I took deep breaths of the cold air and clutched my throbbing throat. I gazed up at Keaton, who now looked like some malevolent phantom in the pale moonlight, clouds of his cold breath exiting his mouth and nostrils. He motioned impatiently at Peter.
“Peter, can you help me out here?”
Peter got out of the car and approached Keaton like an obedient child. He looked real skittish and had permanent puppy dog eyes that said whatever you say, just don’t hurt me. Keaton caught his breath and pointed at me.
“Help me with her,” he said. He and Peter reached down and each grabbed me by the armpits.
I thrashed and kicked. Keaton and Peter backed away. Keaton stepped forward and roughly placed his foot up against my shoulder and forced me against the car.
“Stop that,” he said, spoken like a parent to their 3-year-old. “Stop it, now. This is ridiculous. You are out of control.”
I spat defiantly at Keaton. The ejected saliva landed somewhere on his fleece. He looked down at it with disgust and rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“That’s nasty. Aren’t you supposed to be a lady?” Keaton giggled and followed with “Oh, wait. What do you identify as? Do you identify as white trash? ‘Cause that’s what you’re acting like, right now.” He stood and sneered at me for quite some time. I thought about trying to kick his kneecap, but I was fairly sure I would miss, and that would just piss him off more.
“Okay, listen up,” he said.
“Fuck you,” I replied.
“Don’t talk! Listen!” he screamed with sudden vigor which made Peter jump. He paused for a moment to find his words and to chew his gum. “I have a survival knife in my back pocket. If you kick like that again, there is a very severe possibility that you’re gonna get hurt. Do you understand?”
I stayed silent and that irritated him.
“Tell me you understand what I’ve said,” he insisted.
“So say it.”
“Awesome!” Keaton’s mood flipped like a switch, and he was smiling and giddy once again. He and Peter bent down and grabbed me by the armpits, and this time I did not fight. They lifted me and shoved me into the backseat, where Julie had now gone mostly still but trembled as Billy held her in a tight bearhug and cupped his hand over her mouth. Her eyes met with mine and the look we shared was one of dread.
I laid there in the backseat, crowded and uncomfortable. My feet faced Keaton and Peter, who still stood outside the car. I had a direct shot at Keaton’s face, and I knew if I took it, I could break his jaw and probably knock him out. But I didn’t take it. If I missed, I might not get another chance. I had to bide my time.
Keaton looked at me with snide disappointment. “Was that punch in the face really necessary? Hmm? Alls I wanted to do was talk. That how your parents raised you?”
“Take the wheel, Peter,” said Keaton. “I wanna get shitfaced and I don’t wanna hit a damn tree, or somethin’.”
Peter nodded obediently and hopped into the driver seat. Keaton rounded the car and got in the passenger seat.
“Let’s collect phones,” said Keaton.
Billy reached into my pocket and snatched my cellphone out. He did the same with Julie. He handed them to Keaton, and Keaton stashed them in the glovebox.
Keaton took his flask and gulped down copious amounts of the fluid inside. Peter turned on the car and started driving, and Keaton grabbed a bottle of whiskey out of the glovebox and refilled his flask. Peter drove like he was taking the road test. Both hands on the wheel and facing forward and going five miles below the speed limit.
A flash of light suddenly hit my peripheral vision. It was yellowish light. Headlights. I turned my head and was filled with hope. Not just any car, but a police car drove down the road and was coming up behind us. Our 9-1-1 call went through!
“Fuck, what is that?” said Keaton. “Is that a cop?” He looked at Peter and then Billy. “Just be cool.” Peter had the fear of god in his eyes.
I sprang up from my seat and reached for the door handle. Almost immediately, I felt Keaton’s tight grip on my wrist. Fuck. He clutched it with both his hands and then he released one hand and reached for my head. I desperately yanked away from him but he caught the ends of my hair and tugged hard and wrenched my head down toward the floor.
“Help!” I screamed, as if the cop would hear me. I could hear Julie’s screams which were muffled by Billy’s meaty hand.
“He’s gonna pass,” said Keaton. “Here, let ‘em pass. Pullover, pullover, pullover.”
I could feel the weight of the car shift as Peter pulled over to the side of the road. The next sound I heard was one of the worst I’d ever heard; the sound of the cop car passing us. The disappointment and the hopelessness I felt in that moment…indescribable. I realized that police car was more than likely a random patrol car, unrelated to our fruitless emergency call.
Keaton held my head down to the floor for several more moments. My spine ached from the awkward position I was in. Peter sighed with relief. Keaton and Billy both snickered.
“Fuck twelve,” said Keaton.
“Fuck twelve!” Billy echoed.
“Start driving, again. Let’s go to the shack.”
Peter obeyed. Once the car was moving, Keaton released my head. I leaned back up against the seat. Keaton kept his head turned and leered at me for quite some time. I stared out the window and avoided his gaze, but I could feel it burning into my outer vision. All I could think about were his last words. Let’s go to the shack. What was the shack? Probably one of their little hangout spots where they’d drink and roll up grass and bring girls to. And they were bringing a couple of girls there right now…
After a few miles, Peter veered onto some dirt road that snaked into the woods. The woods were pitch dark and the trees looked ghastly due to being stripped of their leaves by the January cold. Every time I thought the woods couldn’t get any deeper, I was proven wrong as the car continued to roll on down the path. We must have drove through that forest for at least five minutes. I wanted to open the car door and hop out and make a run for it, but they had child lock on the door.
“No better place to roll some bud than this,” Keaton said as we pulled into a clearing in the woods.
In the middle of the clearing was a rundown barn that must have been a hundred years old. It looked so sinister as the car’s high beams cast the grisly shadows of barren trees upon it.
“Peter, turn up the heat,” said Keaton. “I’m freezing my fuckin’ ass off.”
As Peter turned the knob, I could see that his hand was trembling uncontrollably. I thought maybe we could bring him over to our side. Then it’d be three-on-two and we could get out of this and –
“Okay!” Keaton yipped, snapping everyone out of their thoughts. “Uh, Billy you can let go of her mouth, no one’s gonna hear her scream.”
Billy released his hand from Julie’s mouth and she immediately started to wail, futilely calling for help that would never come. Not out here.
Keaton looked pissed. He took in a deep breath and screamed at the top of his lungs. “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Julie quieted down a bit but still sobbed under her breath. Keaton huffed and caught his breath and shook his head.
“For Christ’s sake,” he said. “What a greek drama.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a large pocketknife and folded out the shining survival knife he’d mentioned before. “Okay, so here’s what we’re gonna do.”
“Please, just let us go,” Julie sobbed.
Keaton looked at her and shrugged. “Let you go? You’re free to go at any time. No one’s stopping you. Right, Billy?”
“You’re free to go,” Keaton repeated.
Julie immediately pulled on the door handle. It was locked, of course. The lock pin was the kind that retracted all the way down and so it was impossible to pull it up.
“What’s wrong?” Keaton asked rhetorically.
“It’s locked,” said Julie.
“So, unlock it.”
“Hmm…well, like I said, you’re free to go anytime you wish. In the meantime, let’s play a game to pass the time. Billy, what should we play?”
Billy simpered as he pondered for a moment. “Truth or dare?” he asked.
“Bingo, Ringo!” said Keaton as his face lit up demonically. He turned on the radio and flipped through stations and landed on one that played the song ‘Get Up’ by James Brown. Keaton bobbed his head up and down to the groovy beat, his eyes wide and crazed.
“Man, perfect song right here,” said Keaton. “So…funky. Okay, let’s let Amy start. Amy, truth or dare?”
I remained silent. Keaton’s grin started to slowly fade in the direction of a frown, which, I can’t lie, intimidated me. So I spoke up.
“Truth,” I said. Has to be better than dare.
“Dare, it is,” said Keaton.
“I said ‘truth’.”
“Amy, I dare you to make out with Billy for thirty seconds.”
Keaton shook his head at me and smirked and waved the knife around. “Uh-uh, uh-uh, it’s a dare,” he said.
“Well I’m not doing it. Forget it.”
Keaton nodded and pondered for a moment. He glanced at Billy. “Hey Billy,” he said. “Hand that little piglet over to me.”
Billy hoisted Julie off of him and pushed her toward Keaton. Keaton snaked his arm around Julie’s throat and put her in a headlock, but he didn’t choke her. Just gripped her. He then peeled part of her coat off so that her shoulder was exposed. He placed the sharp edge of the knife to the skin on her shoulder. Julie wiggled around a little bit but Keaton had a firm hold of her.
“Now we’re ready,” said Keaton. “Amy, make out with Billy. Thirty seconds, that’s it. Promise.”
I didn’t budge. I glanced to the side to see Billy sitting there with a wide-eyed grin plastered to his face. No way I was gonna kiss him. No way.
My thoughts were fragmented by Julie’s sudden cries. Keaton slid the blade across the skin on her shoulder and blood ran down her upper arm. I sat up to do something but Billy stiff-armed me. Keaton continued to excruciatingly drag the blade across Julie’s shoulder as her bloodcurdling screams filled the car.
“Okay, okay!” I shouted. “Stop!”
Keaton stopped straightaway. Julie sobbed as trails of blood ran down her arm and dripped from her elbow.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Keaton asked me. “Give the boy a kiss. Look at that face. Who wouldn’t wanna kiss that?” Keaton and Billy snickered.
I took a deep breath and winced with disgust. I didn’t want to even go near him, but I couldn’t watch Julie go through such pain any longer. I sat up and puckered reluctantly. But Billy did not move. He seemed to wait for me to come to him.
“Lean in,” said Billy, confirming my suspicion.
I stared at him with disgust. I just could not bring myself to do it.
“Y’all might wanna cover your ears for this one,” said Keaton. Without warning he cupped his hand over Julie’s mouth and jammed the knife into her upper arm. She shrieked and squirmed as Keaton twisted the knife into her shoulder. I was pretty sure he was cutting bone.
“All right! Stop!”
Again, Keaton stopped without hesitation. He pulled the knife out of her shoulder, and that made a sickening squelch. He kept his hand cupped on Julie’s mouth to suppress her agonized sobs. “See?” said Keaton. “You play nice, I play nice.”
I took a deep breath and puckered up and closed my eyes and leaned forward. I felt Billy’s lips touch mine and he began slobbering all over my lips and sticking his tongue in my mouth. The taste was a strong mix of alcohol and cigarettes. It was a painful thirty seconds. Keaton sat by and giggled under his breath the entire time.
“All right, that’s thirty seconds,” said Keaton.
I pulled away from Billy but Billy persisted, leaning in every time I leaned out. Keaton reached over and slapped Billy atop the head.
“That’s enough, Billy,” he said. “Come on, it’s Peter’s turn.”
Billy snickered and wiped the saliva off his revolting kisser. I felt sick and I retched from the taste that still lingered in my mouth and probably would for a week. That is, if I survived this. Perhaps I’d be lucky to be tasting anything in a week’s time.
“All right, Peter,” said Keaton, “your turn. Truth or dare?”
“Uh…” Peter nervously racked his brain for what seemed like a very long time. He blinked rapidly and frequently and his eyes darted and zipped like hummingbirds. I couldn’t tell if he was extremely nervous or deranged or both.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Keaton asked with impatience.
“Uh, truth,” Peter stuttered.
“Pussy. ‘Kay, truth. Truth, truth, truth… uh… have you ever had sex before?” Keaton and Billy both exchanged a knowing glance and snickered as Keaton asked this.
“Come on, guys,” said Peter. He looked mortified.
“Peter, relax,” said Keaton. “We got everything we need. We got two girls in the car, right now.”
My heart sank. I knew where this was going, even though I didn’t want to believe it. I begged and pleaded with whatever higher power may (or may not) have been looking down on us. Pleaded for it not to go this way.
“Nah, Keaton,” said Peter, shaking his head and fidgeting with his fingers. “Come on, man.”
“What?” Keaton asked in disbelief. “Peter…”
“Nah, man. You’re going too far.”
“Come on, Peter. Think with your peter.” Keaton and Billy got a kick out of this one, and Peter seemed to fight off a laugh, as well.
Julie’s eyelids were heavy and her arms and legs were limp. She may have been passing out from the pain. And things were only getting more dangerous. I had to figure out a way to escape this car. To make a mad dash for the woods. Scary as that dark forest looked, it seemed like child’s play compared to our current predicament.
“Peter, I think it’s time,” said Keaton. “What do you think, Billy?”
“Yeah, Peter,” said Billy, “you’re 20 years old. This is embarrassing.”
“Which one should he get?”
“Which one’s hotter?”
“Hmm…” Keaton glanced back and forth, at me and then at Julie and then at me again. His eyes settled on Julie.
“I think this one’s better,” he said. “Besides, she won’t put up a fight.” He leaned toward Julie’s ear. “You agree?”
Julie didn’t respond.
“She agrees,” he said. “All right, Peter. Time to put some hair on your balls.”
Keaton opened the car door and dragged Julie’s limp and helpless body toward the open doorway. I looked into Julie’s half-opened and pain-filled eyes and I just couldn’t take it. This was my best friend. I could not let this happen.
Keaton climbed back into the car and reached for Julie’s legs. Now was my chance. I sprung forward and kicked like a mule. My foot made sweet contact with the side of Keaton’s face. His head bucked to the side and then snapped back to where it was before I’d kicked. His face crumpled up into a pained wince.
“FUCK!” he shouted.
Evidently, I hadn’t kicked him hard enough, because he sprang up from his seat and lurched furiously toward me. In the midst of the commotion, Julie rolled out of the car and fell to the ground. As Keaton clambered and clawed at me, Julie got to her feet and darted into the woods.
“Run, Julie!” I yelled. “Ru –
My words shifted into a gagging sound as Keaton slammed the palm of his hand up against my throat and squeezed.
“I’m gonna smack the fuck outta you!” he snarled. “Billy, grab her!”
Billy grabbed my ankles and I started to kick, but it was too late. He wrapped his arms around my ankles and locked them in a tight embrace. I couldn’t kick my legs, not even an inch. Keaton, meanwhile, choked the hell out of me and got right up in my face. His foul, alcoholic breath clouded my nose as droplets of his spit shot into my eyes.
“I would advise you to stop kicking,” he said. He stayed with his face right up to mine for a while. He removed his hand from my throat and backed away and climbed out of the car.
Keaton opened the glovebox and rummaged. He pulled out a roll of gorilla tape and tossed it to Billy.
“If she kicks, break her legs,” said Keaton.
Billy taped the corner of the roll to my ankle and then wrapped the roll around my heals at least seven or eight times. Shit, I thought. I’m really in trouble, now.
“Be back in a jiff,” said Keaton. “Peter, feel free to have your way with her. She ain’t kicking, anymore.” Keaton jogged off into the woods in the direction Julie had gone. As I saw him running, I compared it to the way I saw Julie run into the woods. She was hurt, but Keaton strode like a healthy buck. He would surely catch her. Keaton disappeared into the darkness just past the tree line.
The car was silent. Billy sat in the backseat and caught his breath. He popped a cigarette into his mouth and lit it and took a deep puff. Peter sat in the front seat and stared at the steering wheel with those doe eyes.
“Do you think h-he’ll…he’ll catch her?” asked Peter.
“Prolly,” said Billy as he inhaled a drag. “I wouldn’t sweat it. She’s hurt pretty bad and she’s delirious, too. He’ll get her.”
“What are we gonna do after that?”
“Prolly do her, too. After this one sittin’ next to me. Just gotta finish this cig.”
“But what about after that? W-won’t they, like, tell?”
“They ain’t tellin’ nobody.”
“H-how do you…how do you know?”
Billy motioned out the window. “You remember that pond back there? We went to it one time.”
Peter squinted. “I think so,” he said.
“We’ll chuck ‘em in there. No one’ll find ‘em.”
“Are you…are you sure?”
“Yes, Peter. Chill, goddammit.”
Billy finished his cigarette with slow and deep puffs. He was so calm as he did it. You’d think he’d done this before. Tortured women, I mean. He wrapped up his smoke and doused the butt in the ashtray. And then he turned his attention to me.
“All right, Peter,” he said. “Let’s get this slut propped up.”
“I don’t know, Billy,” said Peter.
“You don’t know what, Peter? This is why you’re still a virgin, bruh. You ain’t taking opportunities.”
“You guess? That is why. You wanna do ‘er up in the barn? I guess that’s better than a cramped car.”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
“Aight. Turn off the engine. Shut the lights off so the car’ll start.”
Peter took the key out of the ignition and shut off the headlights and hopped out. I patiently waited for him to open the passenger door. When he did, I immediately lurched forward and thumbed the bastard right in the eye. I felt Billy attempt to grab me but I was too fast. I scooted out of the car and hopped toward the woods. But my bounding was too slow. So I crouched down and used my free hands to try and peel away the tape. Easier said than done, and Billy was already sprinting toward me. I pinched the edge of the tape and tugged at it. It started to peel.
Billy slammed into me like a freight train. I let out a grunt as the wind left my lungs. I fell to the ground with Billy on top of me, one half of my face smushed into the dirt and the dry leaves.
“Why the fuck would you do that?” Billy asked. “You’re just making it worse for yourself, you little bitch.”
Billy got up and yanked my face off of the ground and dragged me toward the barn. Peter followed, still clutching his eye where I’d poked him. He wasn’t angry. He still looked like a frightened fawn.
The barn was musty and smelled like hay and had the grimness of a tomb. The floor creaked when you walked on it. Billy dragged me over to the wooden steps and then he and Peter carried me up the stairs like furniture. At the top of the barn, there was an open doorway—a balcony of sorts—that looked out at the forest. I thought of Julie and wondered if she’d been caught.
“Let’s get her pants off,” said Billy.
“How?” asked Peter.
“Her ankles are tied up.”
“Yeah, we’re not gonna pull ‘em all the way off. Just down to, like, the knees. Not even that far, honestly. Come on.” Billy circled around me and knelt down in front of my feet. His back faced the balcony.
“You hold her arms down,” said Billy, “so she doesn’t start thrashing.”
“What if she pokes me, again?” Peter stammered.
“Just cover your face. Punch her in hers. I don’t know, do something, Peter. Something besides scrambling around like a baby deer.”
Peter knelt down and reached for my wrists. I thrashed around and tried to hit him in the face again, but he was ready this time.
“Please, stop,” said Peter. “Stop struggling, please.”
“Peter, stop negotiating with her,” said Billy. “She’s a little monkey, just wrangle her. You don’t see a zookeeper trying to reason with the monkeys, do you?”
Peter caught both my wrists and then pinned them to the floor. He looked up and nodded to Billy. Billy crawled forward and grabbed at my waistband. And then I remembered I still had my legs. Billy crouched right near the wide-open balcony. It clicked in my head, and as Billy unbuttoned my pants, it was like an eclipse where the Earth and the moon and the sun all line up perfectly. I inhaled and tensed up and kicked harder than I’d ever kicked before.
It was beautiful. The way Billy bucked backward and flailed his arms as gravity established its dominance over him. He let out a frightened little squeal as he rolled back over the edge of the balcony and disappeared from sight and not a half-second later there was a wonderful thump and snap and then that was followed by Billy’s agonized squawks.
“Gah-ha-ha-ho!” Billy screamed. And he kept on screaming.
Peter got up and rushed over to the balcony and peered out. “Billy? Are you okay?”
I now had a shot at this idiot, too. I kicked hard but he must have saw it coming one second prior because he ducked and sidestepped it and rushed over to the stairs. Peter clambered down the stairs and I heard him rush out and start tending to Billy.
“Oh, god,” said Peter. “Oh, god. Oh, shit. What are we gonna do? Fuck!”
“I’m not fucking kidding, dude,” Billy groaned. “I think I’m paralyzed.”
As I peeled the tape off my ankles, I got a sort of sick satisfaction from hearing Billy’s agony. I only wished I could see him all injured and contorted right now. But there was no time to peek. Peeling away that tape was no easy task. Billy had wrapped me up good. I peeled and rounded my ankles about five times, and then the tape’s grasp was loosened. I yanked my ankles apart—which was a relief in itself—and tore the tape. I got up and headed toward the stairs.
“What the hell is going on?”
I recognized that voice. It was Keaton, back from his little hunting trip. I listened closely. I had to know what went down.
“Jesus, Billy,” Keaton said. “What the hell happened?”
“She…she kicked him,” Peter stammered. “She k-kicked him hard.”
“Kicked him? What the fuck happened?”
“She kicked him and h-h-he…he fell off the barn.”
“Christ alive. We tape her legs up and you still can’t handle her? You guys are a bunch of assclowns. Where is she?”
“She’s…she’s up in the barn, still.”
I winced as I heard crunching leaves and then creaking noises downstairs as Keaton entered the barn. He began whistling at me like a dog owner.
“Amy?” he taunted. “Amy, darling? It’s Keaton, your boyfriend. You still upstairs?”
I held my breath so he wouldn’t hear my panting. I kept silent and hunkered in the corner by the stairs. I didn’t dare move a muscle. Even a slight shift of weight would cause one of the floorboards to shriek.
“Amy? I’m coming up, okay?”
I cupped my hands over my mouth. My peepers felt the size of softballs. And then I very nearly leapt from my skin as I heard the bottom step let out a shrill whine. There was silence for a moment. Then the second step squealed. Keaton’s ascension of the stairs became a slow but steady rhythm like the swaying of a rocking chair.
I had to come up with a plan and had very little time to do so. I remembered the stairs. How many steps were there? Twenty? Twenty-four, maybe? Keaton had covered about five. I wished I had something to whack him over the head with and send him plummeting down those stairs.
Creak… Creak… Creak…
He was at step number eight, now. Maybe nine. I had to think on my feet. I’ll throw myself at him. I could shoulder check him real hard and knock him off balance. The stairs were steep. More so than your average staircase. If you tilted back there’d be no catching yourself, no railing to grab onto. Nowhere to go but down.
Creak… Creak… Creak…
I kept count. I reckoned it was twelve steps. He was certainly on the second flight by now, on an upward trajectory to the second floor.
Creak… Creak… Creak…
I’d surely be seeing that good ol’ boys hat pop up at any moment. I clenched my teeth and got ready to barrel into this psycho.
And then the silence came. Pure silence. Deafening silence. He had come to a halt. Why did you stop? He must have been assessing the second floor from his vantage point. If he could see most of the second floor, he could see that I wasn’t there. And if he could see that I wasn’t there, he likely knew I was hunkered in the corner.
More time passed and the silence continued and my ears rang and I thought I might go nuts. I listened closely and I was fairly sure I could hear his breathing. It was steady and very calm. Inhumanly calm.
My ears picked up a small shuffling sound and my eyes caught a brief fluttering movement, but it happened so fast that, before I knew it, Keaton’s hand was reaching up from the staircase and had a firm grasp of my ankle. I screamed as his other hand emerged from below, the knife in its grasp.
“Oh, Amy!” he yelled. “You are my kinda girl! Hard to get, hard to get!” He laughed like some crazed clown as he thrust the knife forward. The blade came within an inch of my ribs and I felt the dull edge graze my side. That was as close as close could get. I bucked and kicked and tried to crawl away, but his grasp was tight.
“I thought we were bonding, Amy!”
He thrust down with the knife and this time it sliced the back of my hand. I knew it had happened but it was like I barely felt it. The adrenaline surged through me and told me I hadn’t the time for pain. Fine, I thought. If I can’t pull away, I’ll go toward you.
I felt Keaton tug on my leg and this time I went with the current, so to speak. I used his strength against him and thrust my foot forward. My foot made contact with his shoulder. The combined effort of my kick and his own tug was enough to send him falling back. He released his grip and tripped down several stairs and let out a low groan.
I leapt to my feet and without pause I shot toward the balcony. I didn’t think of whether or not I’d make the jump because I had no choice. I ran to the edge and took the leap of faith and felt the wind comb my ears as I plummeted to the ground.
I landed on my feet and sharp pain shot up through both ankles. I stumbled forward and fell to my hands and knees but quickly got back up. I glanced back long enough to see Billy lying there on the ground silent. His spine was twisted and mangled and his wrists were bent like a praying mantis. I was no expert but Billy was going to be relieving himself into a bag for the rest of his life.
And in all this time I had forgotten Peter. Before I knew it I ran straight into him. He caught me by both wrists. We were now face-to-face and I could see that doglike expression still lingered in his eyes.
“Just stop!” he shouted. His voice was like a beggar. “I don’t wanna hurt you!”
I wrenched my right wrist from his grasp.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Just sit down and we can –
His words morphed into shrill squeals as I jammed my thumb right in his eye and this time I didn’t let up. I reckoned it was the same eye that I’d poked moments earlier. I pushed and twisted and leveraged my thumb around and I was pretty sure I felt his socket. The only thing that made me stop were Keaton’s footfalls behind me. Time to go.
I yanked my thumb—now moist with eyeball juice—from Peter’s eye and shot toward the woods. Keaton’s footfalls were now crunches so I knew that he’d exited the barn.
My legs became a separate function from the rest of me. That’s the only way I can describe it. They were like the wheels of a car that carried me where I needed to go, and fast too. I ran with my fingers pointed upward and slicing the air. The way Tom Cruise runs. My eyes had adjusted to the dark by now. They’d adjusted well. It was almost like daytime. I had the moon to thank for that, too.
After a while I realized that Keaton was no longer behind me. Granted, I was stuck out in this forest alone in the dark but I still felt relief. That maniac wasn’t there anymore. And then I grew concerned as I thought of Julie. Wondered what had happened to her. If she’d gotten away or if Keaton had captured her or…done worse.
I kept on the move and steered clear of the path we’d used to drive into the woods. Time passed and my ears felt like they’d crack off from the cold. I must have been close to the road by now. I figured I’d flag down a car and get some help. At the very least I’d remain in hiding in the forest. But that wouldn’t help Julie, now would it…
I suddenly heard the rumbling of a car engine behind me and saw the tree trunks around me grow slightly illuminated. I dropped to the ground and rolled behind a tree. I glanced back to see high beams making their way through the forest. It was them, alright. And then that damned cadillac did the worst thing it could possibly do. It stopped. I lowered my face to the ground and shut my eyes tight and prayed for the best.
I heard two car doors open and shut, and then I heard Keaton say “I just saw her. Swear to god, I did.”
“Really?” asked Peter.
“Yes, really. She’s over there, in that direction. She’s hiding.” Keaton spoke in such a mischievous tone. This really was just a game to him.
“I know you’re out there,” said Keaton. “Oh, hold up. I think I see her. Look, look, look. You see her head peeping out, over there?”
Shit. I tensed up and lay there so still that I felt paralyzed. Took extra care not to twitch even a muscle for fear that it would cause a few dead leaves to crackle. I heard two separate pairs of feet crunching through the leaves and the crunching got louder and closer.
“Yeah, there she is,” said Keaton. And then he raised his voice a tad. “Hey, Amy? I know that’s you.”
Time to go. I sprang up and bolted into the darkness of the forest and I immediately heard my pursuers break into a run. I felt pain shoot up through my ankles, probably from my eccentric leap an hour before. Not now, I told myself. I commanded my heels to stop with the pain and they obeyed momentarily. But those crunching footfalls behind me were getting close. I made the mistake of glancing over my shoulder and when I did I saw Keaton moving like a roadrunner, his scrawny frame almost aerodynamic. It was dark now and the faint rays from those high beams outlined Keaton’s grisly silhouette. When I turned my head forward again I saw a dark void—a pit—in the ground and then immediately felt a great shift in weight as gravity yanked me downward.
I fell into what must have been a dried up pond, maybe seven feet deep. Eight perhaps. However deep this pit was, it was enough to knock the wind from my lungs when I hit the ground. I groaned as I lay there in the soggy leaves. One of my ribs throbbed and I was certain it’d popped out. Though my ears rang I could hear Keaton’s sinister snicker just above me.
“Whoa, took a little tumble, eh?” he said. “That’s what happens when ya run in the dark. What a klutz. What a damn klutz.”
I rolled on my back and looked up to see Keaton and Peter stand at the edge of the pond and look down at me. Keaton giggled and pretended to try and shove Peter off the edge. I was so tired and in such pain and so fed up with all this that I wanted to die in that moment. I pushed and pushed to try and speak but my lungs would not allow it. I heaved but wasn’t granted the ability to inhale. This happened twice more and then I could breathe again and I could utter words that came out in weak grunts.
“P-P-Please,” I uttered. “P-Please just…just k-kill me.”
“Come on, Amy,” Keaton replied. “Don’t take the coward’s way out. You’re better than that. Besides, we still got more to do. Peter, let’s get her outta there.”
I sat in the backseat of the cadillac with my ankles and wrists duct taped. Before I knew it I was seeing that sinister shack once again, along with those tree shadows that casted themselves upon it. The only thing that was different from last time was that Billy no longer wriggled in agony on the ground. He was nowhere in sight.
“We’re ba-aack,” Keaton said as he smirked at me and bounced his eyebrows maniacally. He frowned and turned to Peter. “Turn the engine off.”
The two dragged me to the shack and when we entered I could hear faint grunting noises coming from the corner. Female grunting noises. It was Julie. She was hogtied with duct tape and her mouth was taped, too. I sobbed a bit when I saw her like this, treated like an animal.
“That’s sweet,” said Keaton. “Here. Go sit next to your friend.” He shoved me to the floor so that I lay next to Julie. I placed my head on her shoulder to try and comfort her and she nuzzled me to reciprocate.
Keaton walked to the back of the barn and took out his lighter and lit a single candle and set the candle on the floor in the center of the room. The candle’s flickering made his shadow dance on the walls and ceiling of the shack. He plopped down with his legs crisscrossed and let out an exhausted sigh.
“Whoo, man,” he said, “glad we got that outta the way. Got a little sketchy there, for a minute, but we’re back on track. Peter, get your ass over here.”
Peter stood sheepishly in the corner but obeyed Keaton and came and sat down next to him.
Keaton clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Okay, now we can start. So, Truth or Dare was a mild success. What should we play, now?”
Silence filled the room. Peter stared off into space as he nibbled on the tops of his fingers. Then Keaton patted the side of his face to get his attention.
“Hey, talking to you. What’s another game we can play?”
“I don’t know any,” Peter replied.
“Christ alive.” Keaton pondered for a moment and then snapped his fingers. “I got it. Look at us, the way we’re sitting.” He looked at Peter and Julie and I like we were supposed to respond. Then he gave up. “Spin the bottle! Let’s play spin the bottle!”
“Yeah,” said Peter. “Th-Th-That…that’s…yeah, we can play that.”
“Okay. I’ll use my knife as the bottle.”
Peter immediately perked. “Are you sure that’s a good i –
“Shut the fuck up, Peter. They’re tied like a couple of oinkers.” Keaton pulled out his knife and placed it in the middle of our little four-way. “Alrighty, who wants to spin?” He looked at Julie and I in a rhetorical fashion. “Guess you gals’ll sit this one out. I’ll spin the bottle since you are…encumbered.” Keaton placed his fingers on the middle of the knife and spun it.
The knife whirled like an airplane propeller and then slowed and stopped. The blade was pointed at Peter and the handle pointed to Julie.
“Alrighty,” said Keaton. “Peter and Julie, you lovebirds are up.”
Peter stared blankly. “F-For…for what?”
“Don’t you wanna pop that cherry?”
“I’m not really…feeling like that.”
Keaton rolled his eyes. “Well…then pop another cherry.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, stick something else in her.” Keaton motioned to the knife. “Peter, you gotta break some new ground, tonight. Ain’t this the whole reason you and me and Billy came out tonight? To have a time, to try new shit, to step outta your comfort zone. Right?”
“So what are you waiting for? Pick up the fuckin’ knife, Peter. Do something.”
Peter gazed at the knife for quite some time. Julie started to grunt and groan and weep. Peter reached for the knife and placed his hand on it and then scrutinized it with doe eyes for a little bit longer. Then he picked up the knife and crawled to Julie. Keaton casually popped a cigarette into his mouth and lit it and took a deep puff. He didn’t pay too much attention to Peter.
Julie’s grunts and groans got louder and more frantic as Peter slowly raised the knife. It wiggled in his trembling hand.
“Now?” asked Peter.
“Yes, now,” said Keaton as he stared off into space.
I rolled onto my side to look away. Just as I did, I heard a sickening stabbing sound. Julie’s muffled wails followed. I had no idea where she was stabbed. It was too horrible to look. I shut my eyes and listened to her suppressed screams and her frantic but useless thrashing.
I heard Keaton blow a puff of smoke and then say “Hit her again. In the chest.”
The sounds I heard next came in a horrifying sequence; Peter removing the knife, then silence, then another stabbing sound…and then deathlike silence. No more screams, no more stabs. Total emptiness.
Keaton did a slow clap. “Bravo. That was great, Peter.”
Morning’s very first pale light began to peek up from behind the horizon. I lay in the back of the cadillac with the unbearable knowledge that Julie’s corpse was in the trunk. Peter drove along a gravel path even deeper in the woods than the shack, and Keaton sat smoking cigarettes in the passenger seat and said something about dumping us into a pond. The one Billy had mentioned earlier.
As I lay there I thought of everything. I thought of Julie and how she’d gone so young and how her mother and father would handle her passing. I thought of my mom and what the news of my own death would do to her. I wondered if she’d ever get over it. Probably not. I laid my head back and sighed and gradually came to a sort of peace as I looked back on my life and decided I’d lived it to the fullest of my ability. It was short, but it was well-spent.
And then I caught something glistening in the corner of my eye. It was under the passenger seat and the end of it was visible. I scrutinized for a moment to try and figure out what it was. And then it hit me. It was the multitool that Peter had dropped—followed by Keaton saying forget the fucking multitool—earlier in the evening.
I was suddenly no longer at peace. I had a chance! A chance to live! I slowly and quietly (but still purposefully) pivoted my hips and reached out with my bound feet. I placed my heels down onto the multitool and dragged. The multitool didn’t budge. I placed my heels down again and pressed harder and this time, when I dragged, the multitool was moved by my feet. Yes. Please, god, please! I pulled the tool closer and closer until it was parallel with my shoulders. Now came the hard part; actually getting the tool into my hands without alerting the lunatics up front.
I wormed a bit closer to the edge of the seat. This would take some flexibility and I thought I may even have to dislocate a shoulder to reach it. I hoped not. My bound hands now hung off the edge of the backseat. I bit my bottom lip and stretched both arms and wiggled my fingers toward the multitool. The tip of my middle finger just grazed the top of it. I was maddeningly close.
My heart ceased a moment as Keaton glanced at Peter. Surely I was in his peripheral vision. If he glanced back at me, he’d certainly put the pieces together and his suspicion would grow and he would eventually scrutinize long enough to unveil my scheme. I slowly retracted my hands back up to the seat. No sudden movements. I didn’t want to alert him.
Keaton did glance back and smirk at me. I held my breath as he did this, tried to look as frightened and hopeless as possible. Please turn back around. Turn back around and light up another cig. After a few unbearable moments, he did turn back around and he did light up another smoke. This was the best chance I was going to get.
I wriggled closer to the edge of the seat so that half my body hung off the seat. I stretched with more intensity than I’d ever stretched before. My fingers tapped the edge of the multitool and even moved it a bit. Don’t push it further away, you imbecile, I told myself.
I stretched farther and harder. The fabric of my muscles felt like they’d rip at any given moment. My fingers danced around the multitool as they desperately attempted to grasp it. I was so close and for a moment I thought I might scream out with uncontrollable frustration. Hold it together, this is your one shot. Don’t wanna end up in a ditch, do you?
My eyes went wide as I felt the multitool flimsily positioned between my index and middle fingers. I was not going to let go. No force on this earth was going to get my fingers to loosen their grip, weak as it was.
I rotated the multitool and my fingertips searched for the knife that was surely folded within. I found the little ridge that one uses to grip and unfold the blade from its resting place, and I wedged my fingernail into the ridge and pulled. I was careful to prevent the knife from making a click once it fully unfolded.
The knife was out. Now to cut myself loose. I gripped the knife and sawed away at the first layer of tape. This gorilla tape was firm. But I was more determined than it was. Though the muscles and ligaments in my fingers and wrists burned like furnaces, I kept cutting away. My fear and my determination gave me superpowers. My mind already laughed maniacally at the thought of my imminent escape. The tape was now halfway gone.
“The hell’s that sound?” Keaton blurted.
My heart sank. Keaton glanced around the car like a bloodhound that had caught the scent of a deer. I wasn’t sure if I should speed up my cutting or stop completely. I chose to speed it up. If he looked down, he would see the knife, and my escape would be put to an end.
Keaton followed the sound of my cutting and his eyes drew downward and rested on the sight of my hands sawing away at the tape.
“The fuck’s going…” Keaton trailed off as his eyes adjusted in the darkness. “Fuck!” He reached for the multitool…
…just as I cut free from the tape. I sprang up as if back from the dead and raised the knife and plunged it down into the side of Keaton’s neck and pushed the blade deep and then twisted. A scream erupted from his throat and then transitioned into a gargling noise.
I felt the car jerk and then swerve as Peter panicked in the front seat. “What? What? What’s going on? What’s happening?!”
As I twisted the knife deeper into Keaton’s neck, hot blood sprayed out onto my face and in the other direction onto Peter’s face. The car’s swerving grew wilder and then it swerved off the path and hit a bump and hopped off the ground for a second and then crashed into a boulder. Peter’s head shot forward and slammed into the airbag. Keaton, the knife still stuck in his neck, flew forward and hit the dashboard. I hit the back of the passenger seat and that rang my bell. I faded out for thirty seconds or so. Maybe a minute.
I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was Keaton lying against the center console with the knife still sticking out of his neck and streams of blood flowing from both corners of his mouth. Peter was out of sight and the driver side door was open and when I peeked outside I could see him crawling along the ground at a turtle’s pace.
Keaton’s left eye was beet red, completely filled with blood. His hat had been knocked off his head and I realized this was the only time I’d ever seen him without it. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or if he was staring at me, and then he blinked slowly. His mouth turned upward into a wicked grin. When he spoke, his voice was low and raspy and distorted—something I assume was down to his vocal cords being sliced—and it sounded satanic. Strange noises would emerge from his throat when he spoke and his warped voice would double and triple.
“Amy, you dirty girl,” he hissed. “I gotta hand it to ya.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Shut the hell up, right now. You’re gonna burn in hell.”
“I’ve always been there, Amy. I’ve been there since the day I was born. I don’t walk the earth like you do. I walk the spirit world, Amy. The spirit wo –
A cough emerged from his throat and interrupted him and when it came out so did little wads of dark blood. He took a deep breath and looked me right in the eyes. “Be seeing you…Amy.” His head dropped back and his jaw fell open and I saw that he was dead. Forget the fucking multitool. Those words ended up being the most ill-judged he’d ever spoken.
I climbed out of the car and almost tripped as I realized I had yet to cut the tape from my ankles. I did so and then I looked to the forest to see Peter still crawling through piles of dead leaves. I approached him and when I got to him I could hear his sniffles and whimpers and agonized groans.
“Sucks, doesn’t it?” I asked him.
“I c-can’t feel my legs, Amy,” he replied. “I-I think w-we hit…hit a rock, or something.”
“Yes, yes we did.”
“I n-need m-m-medical attention. I n-need an ambulance.”
“Yes, yes you do.” I paused for a moment and savored the weasel’s suffering. “Goodbye, Peter.”
I walked off through the woods and toward the road, following the path that the morning sun now kindly lit for me.
Weird Fiction developed early in the Nineteenth Century with the bizarre supernatural annals of Hoffmann, Poe, and O’Brien, but the peak of its philosophy began percolating in the grotesqueries of Arthur Machen(“The White People”), Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow Sign”), and Ambrose Bierce (“The Damned Thing”), but it can arguably be said to first express its unique worldview in the following tale.
Before Lovecraft penned “The Call of Cthulhu” and William Hope Hodgson published “The House on the Borderland,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” expressed the chief tenants of Lovecraftian weird fiction: a malignant universe either indifferent to or indignant towards humanity; a supernaturalism that defies human mythology, expectations, or tropes; a philosophy that highlights human insignificance; a universe where reality is in doubt, where logic is made worthless, and where fear is primal and vestigial – eclipsing the petty concerns of modern man in the times when the dimensions of humankind intersect those of the outer terrors.
“The Willows” is infamous for its powerful atmosphere and its brooding, boiling crescendo of predatory terror. Lovecraft called it the finest supernatural tale in the language. While it lacks the grisly detail of slasher films, its command of psychological menace is virtually unparalleled, and its ability to access un-romanticized realistic dread is truly unique.
One of the first great camping horror stories, it is the revered ancestor of The Blair Witch Project, Deliverance, and The Evil Dead – [not] to be read by the light of a sparking campfire.
Our narrator is canoeing down the Danube on a sightseeing tour with his friend, Swede, and the two are just leaving Bratislava, Slovakia, when they enter a strange and deserted stretch of wetland dominated by sandy shoals and sliver-leaved willow bushes. He solemnly notes that it is “a region of singular loneliness and desolation where [the Danube’s] waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.”
The currents shift mercurially, cutting channels one day where there were none, making or destroying sandy islands without notice, and making the navigation of such a fluid place tremendously treacherous. Seasoned adventurers, the narrator and the Swede dismiss warnings they get in Bratislava about the curious, misanthropic nature of the marshlands and press on in their Canadian canoe.
But the narrator thinks there may be something to the locals’ anxieties: “The sense of remoteness from the world of human kind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic—a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.”
After a long day of paddling, they land on a sandy island (although it’s a good acre in size, they note that the slushing waters are already dissolving its borders) covered with willow bushes. Something about their movement and omnipresence disturbs the narrator’s imagination, but his friend is utterly practical and seems to feel nothing but relief at stretching out on the sand.
As twilight falls, they search the island for firewood, and in the gloom over the marsh, they notice something odd in the water: it looks like a man’s body – turning over playfully (or helplessly) in the current, with yellow, glowing eyes. Shocked at first, they later realize that it is only (or appears to be only) an otter, and they laugh it off.
But as they do, a real man passes their island in a boat, shouting inarticulately to them in Hungarian, and making frantic gestures. Before he drifts out of sight, he makes the sign of the cross, leaving the narrator deeply disturbed, although the Swede assures him that the man must have taken them for ghosts.
As night falls, the wind stirs up from the marsh, rustling the willow branches for miles around, creating a strange, unholy humming noise that the narrator imagines to be “the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving through space.” There is something abnormal about these bristling, nodding willow shrubs, but who could be afraid of a sea of bushes?
Nonetheless, he senses that the sound is melting into a sort of common “note,” and that it has a message: “the note of this willow-camp now became unmistakably plain to me; we were interlopers, trespassers; we were not welcomed. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me as I stood there watching. We touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented.”
Late that night, the narrator is woken up by his intuition and stumbles outside to look at the sky. To his horror, he discerns a flowing column of grotesque, luminescent elementals flowing into the heavens, parading madly in the air above the island. He associates them with the old gods before the Romans who have claimed this desolate territory as their retreat from modern man – wild elementals of Nature who have more in common with the black cosmos beyond than anything on earth.
He hopes that it is a dream, but he knows that he is awake. When the vision disappears, he returns to the tent, but is frightened by the sound of “patterings” on the sand outside: as if a host of strange creatures were sneaking around them.
That morning the Swede’s mood is dark and serious: the bottom of the canoe has been slit open, one paddle is missing, and another seems to have been sanded down “beautifully” to a thin pane of wood that will snap in the water. The Swede grimly claims that this is “an attempt to prepare the victim for the sacrifice.”
They sense that it is an intentional sabotage, and that the nets are closing in on them. On edge, they proceed to patch the canoe, but are revolted by a strange new phenomenon: conical pock marks covering the sand around them – the bizarre, telltale markings of the Willows, the narrator suspects.
As the island continues to shrink around them, the two men discover that some of their food is missing. The practical Swede is forced to acknowledge what is happening and proffers his own interpretation: they have wandered into a window zone where a fourth dimension makes contact with the physical world, allowing extraterrestrial forces to peek in on human activity. He fears that anyone who tarries too long in this frontier between the two worlds will become a sacrifice to the Elder Gods, being transformed into something entirely abhuman.
Apparently the Swede isn’t so unimaginative after all, because he admits that he has been sensitive to these liminal zones his entire life – spaces occupied by “immense and terrible personalities” which dwarf human concerns and make every day cares seem like dust. He recommends that they try to keep their wits about them and “keep their minds quiet” to prevent the elementals from “feeling” their thoughts.
He supposes that they could be spared if another sacrifice could be found, but doubts that this is possible in so uninhabited a place, and warns the narrator not to think, “for what you think happens!”
As night deepens around them, they hear the atonal music of the Willows and discern something inhuman and otherworldly moving towards them in the darkness. Terrified, they violently stumble into one another – the Swede is knocked unconscious and the narrator is rocked with pain. But this seems to have inadvertently saved them: the mental distraction of the pain has caused the humming to cease. However, when the narrator looks up, he notices that the tent has been knocked over, and that the sand around it is utterly peppered with conical divots.
Sleep is difficult for them, and the narrator awakens to hear the telltale patterings of the Willow Things outside, along with a wild “torrent” of atonal humming rising up from the marshes. He notices that the Swede is missing and catches his friend standing by the rushing waters, prepared to hurl himself in.
The two men struggle in the sand, with the Swede begging the narrator to let him take “the way of the water and the wind.” But before he can slip out of the narrator’s grip, something changes in the atmosphere: the humming stops, the patterings stop, and the Swede’s reason returns to him. Relieved, but disturbed, he mutters that the Willow Things must have found another victim to take their place.
In the morning, the Swede searches their surroundings, certain that he will find the “sacrifice” nearby — and he does: he discovers the drowned corpse of a stranger tangled in the willow roots on the border of the island. The men are shocked to find the body riddled with “beautifully formed” conical impressions, which the Swede laconically points to as “their awful mark.”
They decide that they must “give it a decent burial,” but as soon as they touch the corpse the humming noise rises angrily — possessively — from the marshlands. The two men cling to each other in terror, and before their eyes the water rises around the pock-marked body, washing it away into the river: “the body had been swept away into mid-stream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.”
Their identity is not necessary to convey the supreme malignity of their nature: the Willow Things – whether carnivorous extraterrestrials, resentful eldritch gods, or predatory elementals – are misanthropic forces too unimpressed to destroy humanity but too supercilious to tolerate trespassers without demanding human blood to satisfy the indignation. Blackwood strives to create a thick, billowing atmosphere of shifting reality, certain disaster, and chilling realizations of terrestrial insignificance; and he succeeds brilliantly: the story permeates with the surging proliferation of the Unknown.
“The Willows” stands out as an uncommon study in human helplessness in the face of unfamiliar forces (comparable only to the fantasias of William Hope Hodgson and the dreamscapes of Lovecraft) set in a mundane, almost placid environment (there are no crumbling castles, dark streets, or ominous mansions) which is nonetheless utterly redolent with misanthropic wrath and hateful otherworldliness.
Removed from the distractions of daily life, Blackwood’s unfortunate heroes encounter a hidden cosmic secret: reality as it has been understood is false, and (given the opportunity) the entirety of mankind could be sucked into a hellish dimension – and it would be were it not so dully insignificant. A mainstay of classic horror anthologies, “The Willows” has continued to be successful not because of its gore, not because of its horror, but because of its sickening psychological terror – a stunningly successful impression of mankind’s frailty, and his indivisible dependence upon knowledge, reason, and reality to thrive and survive. Without these intellectual safety valves, even the willow bushes blowing in the breeze would cease to escape our suspicion.