When I was a child there was nothing to eat. I was the eldest of five, so it was my job to make sure that I always let my brothers and sisters eat before me. War was inching inward from the coast, and as it marched closer, our food grew scarcer. Animals fled the area, or were slaughtered and consumed in panic by the other families in our village.
My father was a wise and cautious man and so we waited to slaughter our two chickens until the fall, when grass and tree bark had become too hard to find or inedible. The other families knew we had chickens and father stayed up all night, every night to watch over them. He had to kill at least one boy from a neighboring town who had gone mad with hunger and tried to burn down our small home with a burning branch.
When the chickens were naught but bones and the bones had grown brittle and porous from Mother’s many soups, my parents sent my two eldest siblings and I out to collect bugs and field mice for supper. We were hungry, but not quite starving until one morning we woke to the first frost and there was nothing alive left to eat. My parents began to discuss the inevitable – perhaps my father should go to the coast and sell his father’s pocket watch to one of the drunken, but well-paid soldiers. It was the only thing we had of value and the only family heirloom my father had to pass down to me.
I didn’t want him to go. I was afraid war would arrive while he was gone and I was too young and too weak to protect my mother and younger siblings. I begged him to stay, but he insisted it would be alright and promised to be back within two weeks. I was so scared that when he and Mother were outside preparing his satchel, I smashed the pocket watch under my foot and placed it back in my father’s half-rotted desk.
My mother cried for days. Father did his best to comfort her as I watched them peel the leather from my father’s boots and boil the hide for dinner. The next night, Mother found a dead rat and boiled away the disease with the new fallen snow from outside. The next evening, she filled our bellies with rat bones and more melted snow.
My little brother Albert kept everyone awake that night, crying over his hunger. He begged for all the things we’d eaten when we had a garden and animals – beef stew, white rolls, succulent corn, and spiced lamb. He made all of our stomachs moan and torture us, and I soon screamed at him to be quiet while my mother sobbed from her room.
Father stroked Albert’s hair for hours and then went back into his and mother’s bedroom, shutting the door behind him. Albert moaned until the thin light of dawn peeked through our threadbare curtains. I could hear Father in his room, tinkering with the watch. My hunger had long worn out my fear of soldiers and I silently prayed that he could repair it.
Father worked on the pocket watch all through the day and into the night. Selia had found dead crickets in the walls of the abandoned bakery, and as we ate them, Father emerged from his bedroom with Mother right behind. The smile on his face was one I had almost forgotten, as I’d not seen it since the day my youngest sister was born. He told us that he had repaired Grandfather’s watch and that he’d heard of a soldier encampment nearby. Three days, he promised us, three days and I will return with carrots, lamb, and rolls so big, they’ll fill our bellies for a year!
We clapped our hands in delight and ran around our small, dirt yard with a glee that seemed a foreign language to us. Father said that we were all to help mother find beautiful things with which to dress the table. The next morning, he gave us all a piece of rubber from the sole of Mother’s shoes to chew on and sent us out on our mission after kissing us goodbye and promising to be back before we’d remembered he had left.
We had such fun that day, gathering horseshoes and shards of broken glass. We threaded bits of twine through the horseshoes to hang above the table and tied the glass to the ends, hoping they would shimmer in the lamp light. We returned home as the sun set, happy with our day’s work and eager to return to it tomorrow.
We weren’t yet in sight of home when I first smelled it – onions, chicken broth, spiced lamb, even sweets! I ran as fast I could, dropping our table dressings carelessly along the way in my maddening pursuit for food. I burst through the door to find Mother at the stove, preparing our meal in a quiet reverence. I threw my arms around her and asked if Father was home already.
Yes, my love. He had the fortunate chance of meeting a wealthy mercenary on the road who was only too happy to buy your grandfather’s watch.
I hugged her even tighter and sat down at the table as my brothers and sisters came spilling through the doorway. They found their places quickly; hungry, expectant looks upon their faces. Father came out of the bedroom and took his seat at the end of the table as Mother brought over a steaming platter of spiced, boiled lamb. She nodded at us and we filled our hands with the rich meat, hardly bothering with our plates.
After dinner, we were sent to bed with full tummies, barely a word having been said by anyone since our food had been set on the table. We ate our fill the next night and then the next and the next. But as our food stocks started to dwindle, so did Mother’s health. Each day bled more out of her until we were left fighting over scraps of raw meat while our mother lay weak and wilting nearby.
The first night I went again without food was the night that the hazy, happy ether began to lift and my memories of the past few days became confusing.
I recalled that the spiced lamb I’d consumed with such ferocity had actually been sickly sweet and the accompaniments I had first smelled from afar had never been brought to the table.
I couldn’t remember Mother eating anything in all the days since Father had returned; instead she’d sat quietly next to us at the table, staring at the pile of gray meat we consumed with such fervor.
And Father; I couldn’t recall hearing his voice since the morning he had left for the soldier encampment. His chair had sat empty, night after night, and as the peripherals of my memory formed shape, I couldn’t be entirely sure he’d ever been there at all – at least not since the morning he had cut pieces of rubber from Mother’s shoes at the table.
Frightened and starved, I didn’t find sleep until the darkest hours of the night. The following morning when Mother emerged from her room, I asked where Father had gone. She told me he’d left to become a solider and sent us out to peel bark off of the bushes in the forest. Father never returned.
Perhaps the reason I didn’t realize what happened back then was because it was too awful to consider, and I was so very hungry. But Mother died a few days ago, and in death, she thrust the truth upon me. From her stock of meager possessions, I was bequeathed a small box that contained nothing more than a shiny, broken pocket watch.
Perhaps she wanted me to remember it all: the only hope of our survival that I’d smashed under my heel. My Father’s last, loving hug before he sent us to collect dressings for the feast. The overly seasoned gray meat. And the rancid smell that had begin wafting out from under Mother’s door, becoming more pungent each day.
My father sacrificed more for his family than most ever would. I used to lament that I had nothing to remember him by. No family heirloom to pass down to my own children.
But now I have his pocket watch, a thing I cannot give to my children. Not because the glass is shattered. Not because the gears are cracked.
I cannot part with the watch because it is a curse that I must bear… for the shiny, contorted metal has never lost the sickening smell of that sweet, silvery meat.
When someone asks you about your dream home, how do you respond? It might be an apartment in a big city, a big house on a farm, or (if you’re like me) a cozy house with a picket fence in the suburbs.
My husband and I moved into my dream home about 5 years ago. It’s located in a tiny town; one of those places where everyone knows everyone and no one locks their doors – about a 30 minute drive from the city. We thought we found the perfect place. We were SO very wrong.
You see, the thing about people is that you never really know them. It’s common in this kind of town (and everywhere really) to come across the type of people who seem to be the nicest and most normal human beings on the planet, but who are different monsters behind closed doors. Usually it’s nothing more than hidden alcoholism or drug use, a secret affair, or domestic abuse… but even Jeffrey Dahmer seemed like an okay guy, and we all know what skeletons were in his closet (and fridge).
The weirdness started a few months ago when our new neighbor moved in next door. He kept to himself. He didn’t talk to anyone except for the occasional visitors that came from out of town to see him. They were a catalyst for rumors. I’d heard that he was a drug dealer, that he had been in and out of prison, and that he was cut out of his family’s lives for touching his nephew or niece but not reported for it out of pity. He was quiet and a little creepy, but he seemed okay to me. Apparently, I’m an idiot.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister was leaving my house late at night when she noticed that the dome light on her car was on. Someone had just been in there, it seemed. She ran back inside and alerted my husband who then walked her back out and took a look around to see if he could find the intruder. They heard footsteps on my neighbor’s porch, but couldn’t actually see anyone. My husband called out but received no response. The next day, he spoke with another neighbor about the incident, to warn him to lock his car at night. That neighbor told my husband that he had spotted someone in the bushes across from his house two weeks prior and chased the person to the house next to mine before he lost the guy. A few days after the chase, someone broke an upstairs window trying to get into his house while he and his family slept. The whole neighborhood was freaked out, and we had our suspicions that the new guy was the culprit, but we had no proof. No one had been able to see his face when he was busted, no one could say whether he had been chased TO his house, or if the person running had simply hidden on his porch or in his yard. Local police agreed to increase patrols in our area, and things quieted down for a while. That was, until this past weekend.
It was late on Saturday, around midnight, when I heard what sounded like power tools running. There’s a house nearby that’s being renovated by the family that lives there, so I just assumed they were finishing a project before turning in or something. I didn’t really care until about 45 minutes later when I saw the flashing lights outside my window. I went outside to see three police cars, an ambulance, and a small crowd gathering in front of the house next door. No one seemed to know what the hell was going on for once. The only information that I could gather was that an old lady who lived a few doors down had called the police to file a noise complaint when the sound of the tools woke her up. I had been standing with the crowd for about five minutes before the officers came outside to move us away from the house and rope off the area with crime scene tape. The coroner’s van showed up a short while later. It wasn’t until the next day that we finally got the story.
Two officers had responded to the noise complaint. They could hear the tools running inside, but no one answered the door when they knocked. One of the officers looked into a window and noticed a pool of blood on the living room floor. They called for backup and entered the house. My next door neighbor had killed some woman, dragged her down to his basement, and was using a power saw to cut her up into pieces. When the police entered the basement, he panicked and used the saw to end his own life. Apparently, he almost completely decapitated himself. As gruesome as the details of this heinous act were, the murder-suicide wasn’t the thing that caused the most unrest in my little community. He had a large, hand-drawn map of the town hanging in his basement. Each house was drawn as an empty square, and each square had notes written inside: how many people lived in the house, whether or not they had dogs, and the best time and place to enter the home undetected. He also had a stack of photos on a table near the map. He had taken pictures of every house on our street, some at night and some during the day, some from the outside and some from within.
Two nights ago, I was home alone when Alexa laughed. I’d read about the software issue the devices had been having all over the world, so it wasn’t that big of a shock. Thank God for that, too, because I would’ve jumped out of my skin otherwise. Still, I was unsettled. It’s creepy to hear laughter when you think you’re alone.
“Alexa, shut up,” I instructed. The blue ring on top flashed, and the laughing stopped.
I went back to my book.
Twenty minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alexa’s blue ring illuminate – as if she’d received a command. I studied her for a few seconds and shrugged it off.
Thirty seconds later, her light came on again. This time, she said, “okay Peter, J.A. Henckels five piece stainless steel knife set is on its way. You should have it in a couple days.”
“Oh come on,” I complained. I put my book down and grabbed my laptop. I navigated to Amazon and checked my order page. It was empty. Then I checked my account information in the Alexa device, wondering if my Alexa had paired with someone else’s account. It hadn’t.
“Great,” I thought. “Free knives. Thanks Pete, wherever you are.”
I went back to my reading. It probably wasn’t the best subject matter to be consuming when I was already a little shaken. Far too many mushrooms and people peeling off their skin. Gross. As I reached the end of my chapter, Alexa laughed again. It sounded different than it had the first time. The first time, it was mechanical and emotionless, just like her voice. This time it was lower. Deeper. As if it had breath in it. The hairs on my arms stood on edge.
“Screw this,” I thought, and got up to shut her off. As I crossed the room, her lights flashed.
“Okay Peter, four units of Clorox bleach, 121 oz. bottles, is on its way. You should have it in a couple days.”
I stopped in my tracks and stared at the device.
“This is stupid,” I said to myself. “You’re freaked out because of that stupid book and you’re letting it make you superstitious. Don’t be an idiot.”
I turned around and checked the time. It was almost midnight. I needed to take a shower before bed. I sighed and headed for the bathroom.
After a quick shower, I was toweling off and thinking about what I had to do at work the next day when Alexa started to talk again. I couldn’t hear her very well through the bathroom door, but I recognized her voice. It didn’t sound like she was reciting another order. It almost sounded like conversation.
I cracked open the door and listened. The voice stopped. I could see her blue light reflecting off the wall.
“Alexa,” I called. “What are my active orders?”
“You have no active orders, Valerie,” she replied. “Is there something you’d like to get?”
“No,” I said. Her light went off.
I watched TV in bed for a little while, hoping I’d get tired enough to fall asleep. It wasn’t working. I couldn’t stop thinking about the stupid device. I wasn’t going to shut it down, though. I didn’t want to give in to my baseless fear. I’m an adult, damn it.
During my third Frasier rerun, I finally felt myself getting ready to sleep. I turned off the TV and closed my eyes.
“Okay Peter, Sunshades Depot 5’x7’ tarp is on its way. You should have it in a couple days.”
My eyes snapped open.
“Enough of this,” I muttered, and bolted out of bed. When my feet hit the floor, Alexa began to laugh again. It was loud this time, and just as deep as it had been the last time. She sounded like a large man cruelly laughing at an offensive joke.
The blue light was so bright in my eyes as I reached for the plug.
“Okay Peter, Osborne International wire brush is on….”
I tore the plug from the outlet and Alexa went silent. The light went out. I stormed back into my room and slammed the door. I think I slept for about an hour.
The next day, when I got home from work, I ran into my landlady. We’re friendly with one another; she’s only a few years older and we have drinks every so often. I invited her in, telling her I needed a few beers after what I’d dealt with the night before.
“What happened?” Toshi inquired, sitting down at the kitchen table and cracking open the beer I’d given her.
“You know that Amazon Alexa thing?” I asked, pointing in its direction.
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “My sister has one. Did you hear about how some people are reporting that it laughs?”
“That’s what mine does!” I exclaimed.
“No way!” Toshi said, laughing. “That must’ve scared the hell out of you.”
“…maybe,” I admitted. “It feels silly to be scared of something like that.”
“No way,” she insisted, and took a swig of her beer. “I would’ve thrown it out the window.”
I laughed. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. Especially with the other things she said.”
Toshi’s eyebrows perks up. “Other things? Like what?”
“Oh, nothing as creepy as the laugh,” I replied. “It was just announcing orders from someone else’s account. I think wires got crossed somewhere.”
“Wow, that’s crazy,” Toshi said. “Do you know whose account?”
“Some guy named Peter. He was ordering knives and brushes and stuff.”
Toshi paused mid-drink. She looked at me, her smile slipping from her face. “Peter?” she repeated.
“Yeah. Why, do you know him?”
Toshi stood up. The expression on her face was the polar opposite of what it had been only seconds ago. She looked frightened.
“Tosh, what’s going on?”
“Val, before you moved in, I rented this apartment to a guy named Peter.”
She stared into my eyes, almost like she didn’t want to say.
“I… it’s just… Val, he killed himself about six months before you signed your lease here.”
My blood went cold. “He killed himself here? In this apartment?”
“Why? What happened? Was he depressed?”
She shook her head. “No. Worse.”
“Tell me, Tosh!”
She paused and took a deep breath. I glared at her insistently. “He killed himself when the police found his pregnant girlfriend’s body in the swamp on the other side of town. She’d been stabbed to death and wrapped in a tarp. Later on, the investigation showed he drained all her blood in the bathtub and tried to clean it up with bleach.”
I felt myself getting dizzy. “Tarp?” I parroted. “Bleach?”
Toshi nodded and stared at the floor.
“I… I can’t stay here,” I whispered.
My landlady didn’t say anything. We stood in shocked silence for a minute or two. Toshi went to the fridge and got another beer. She popped the top and took a drink, then opened her mouth, as if she were about to speak. Before she could, though, a hideous, earsplitting laugh exploded through the apartment.
I should begin this entry by saying how truly sorry I am to anyone who read part 4. I had no idea that was going to happen. The agents have assured me that every trace of the story has been removed from the internet, and that there is nothing to worry about.
If you were unfortunate enough to have read part 4: I beg you, for your own sake, try to forget everything. If you experience nose bleeds, dizziness, migraines, or hallucinations, go immediately to the emergency room. If you have a recurring dream of an island made of song, under no circumstances should you approach or attempt to open the blue door with the painting of a crow on it.
If you did not read part 4: There was no part 4. It does not exist. Forget you ever heard of it.
By now, you probably already know that there is a shitty gas station at the edge of our small town, and that weird things have been happening there. The city council has personally asked me to stop talking about it, as there have been some astute readers that not only tracked down our small town from the brief descriptions I’ve given, but actually come and visited me at work. I heard that one of them has joined the Mathematists, and as far as I know the other two are still missing. Once again, I am sorry.
I’m not working right now. It’s the first legitimate break I’ve had since I first started writing my stories on receipt paper all that time ago. Time moves funny here. Flowing slow and fast all at once, like molasses out of a shotgun. It’s a good thing I’ve been keeping a journal. I’ve got a few moments before my laptop dies, and I think now would be the perfect time to transpose my journal entries, before the battery runs out or the blood loss gets me. Right now it’s a race to see what happens first.
Before any of you worry, I’ve already called Tom. He said he’s on his way here to give me a ride to the hospital, right after he picks up dinner for the Ledford orphans, John-Ben and Little Sister. Tom and the other deputies have been taking turns checking in on and bringing them food in an attempt to make the whole thing less tragic. They’ve been living on their own ever since the incident that totally did not happen (and anyone who says otherwise is a damned liar).
There I go again, off on another tangent. I guess I’ll get to it, and type up my journal entries while I still can.
So much has happened here since the Halloween incident that we aren’t allowed to talk about. I’ve been much busier than usual, dealing with the aftermath as well as the cult. The Mathmetists have been cleaning out our inventory on a daily basis, planning ahead for some kind of secret event that I only get to hear about in hushed mutterings and whispers.
Night is coming earlier, and the weather is getting colder.
The man in the trench coat is back. He’s standing just outside the gas station door, staring in. He’s been there for almost an hour now. On the bright side, I haven’t had a customer come in since he showed up. On the not-so-bright side, I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to put thoughts into my head. He won’t be able to, though. I’ve had way too much practice.
Kieffer came in earlier today, before the sun went down, and sat in a booth drinking coffee for a while. Eventually, Spencer Middleton showed up. Spencer had a word with Kieffer, then came storming up to my register, screaming at the top of his lungs. He grabbed the display of lotto scratch-offs and threw it across the room. It was obvious that something had upset him. That’s when I took the earplugs out.
“Everything ok?” I asked, stupidly. I knew damn well everything was never “OK”.
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Spencer asked.
I explained to him that I had taken to wearing earplugs in an effort to drown out the sounds of screaming that periodically radiate through the air vents. I guess the screams must have stopped a while ago, or maybe I had imagined them. Either way, I didn’t need the earplugs anymore.
At this point, Tom walked into the store. His white hair looking even whiter than normal.
Spencer, I could see, became instantly aware of the deputy’s presence. “Where is he?” He half-whispered half-growled, “Where is the other one?”
“Carlos?” I asked.
Spencer sighed. “Sure. Carlos.”
“He’s not due for another twenty minutes.”
“When he gets here, tell him we need to have a chat.” With that, Spencer Middleton let out a shrill whistle and left the store. Kieffer jumped out of his seat and followed close behind.
Tom helped me pick up the mess and put the lotto display back together without asking a single question. I wish more people could be like Tom.
When Carlos got to work, he told me that he had been having strange dreams. Dreams of something enormous, living, breathing, underground. The dreams always end the same way: with the gas station collapsed into a giant sinkhole. I told him that Spencer was looking for him. That’s when Carlos grew solemn and asked me if he could show me something.
In the freezer, behind a stack of boxes labled “Non aprire” (whatever the hell that means, they’ve been here as long as I’ve worked here), there is a moving blanket. And inside that blanket is another Kieffer.
My first question for Carlos was, “You stole the body back?”
He looked at the ground and shook his head sheepishly like a toddler that just got busted for cooking meth.
“You killed another one?” I asked.
Carlos explained: it was an accident. Again.
The man in the trench coat is finally gone. He left claw marks on the glass of the front door. I checked the security footage to confirm my suspicions. He always stays just outside the range of our cameras. Why can’t I remember what his face looked like?
Marlboro was the first “customer” in the store after the man in the trench coat left. I told him that I was surprised he was still alive. He mistook this for a compliment and said, “Thank you.” I asked him if he was ready for the big event, but then he just stared at me blankly. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about, so I filled him in on how I had put it all together. The unusual cultist activity, the whispers, the buying up all of our supplies. I could tell that something was about to happen.
Marlboro went pale in the face as I was talking, then ran out of the gas station before I could finish, the 99 cent frozen drink still in his hand. I know I should write up an inventory loss slip for the theft, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. As hard as it is to explain, there’s just something about Marlboro that makes me genuinely feel sorry for him.
I caught myself digging again. I don’t know how long I was out there, or who was running the store while I was gone. The hole is so deep now that I nearly couldn’t climb out on my own. I should maybe think about considering the possibility of one day asking a doctor if this is normal.
Marlboro is currently crying in the dry storage closet. Through his sobs I could barely make out the story. Marlboro was sent on some kind of “Vision Quest” for the last week and has no idea what the other cultists had been stocking up for. When he went back to the compound earlier tonight, he found the whole place completely deserted. Beds were left unmade. Some plates had food on them. A fire still burning in the fireplace. Everyone’s clothes were still in their personal milk crates next to their sleeping bags. But the people–all of the people–were simply gone.
Marlboro isn’t taking this very well, but I have a business to run, so I asked Carlos to help me carry him into the dry storage area. I figure he can work through some stuff in there and then maybe when he’s done he’ll just… I don’t know… go home?
The exterminators just left. They say they got all of the snakes this time, but I have my doubts.
Kieffer came into the store again today and made some thinly-veiled threats. He asked about Carlos, too, but I told him that I was tired of being the go-between and that if he had business with Carlos, he needed to take it up with Carlos. That’s when Kieffer started getting weird.
“You know this place is just a big experiment, and you’re the little mouse?”
I asked Kieffer to buy something or leave, so he bought a pack of toothpaste, then started to undress in the store and rub the toothpaste on his naked body.
“They tell me that something is wrong with your brain. Is that true?”
I tried to be polite and avert my eyes as I answered, “Yeah.”
“You have some kind of mental condition?”
I answered again, “Yeah.”
“That’s too bad.”
At this point, Kieffer was completely naked. He walked over to the frozen drink machine and filled a large cup with the sugary red concoction before turning it upside down on top of his head. Then he shook himself violently like a wet dog, flinging bits of cold, sticky debris across everything from the ceiling to the walls. Some of it even landing on my face, but I tried not to let him see my flinch. I knew this was all just an attempt to intimidate me, and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“What is it, exactly?” He asked as he crossed back to where his pile of clothes waited for him.
“What?” I asked.
“What is your condition? Schizophrenia? Protanopia? Meningitis? The gay?”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t sleep.”
“You don’t sleep?” He sounded genuinely interested. “Like, ever?”
“I can’t fall asleep. I haven’t slept a single day since high school. It’s a rare genetic condition with no cure and no treatment and one day, it will kill me. But until then, I handle the effects as best I can.”
Kieffer nodded. “That must be it. That must be why he can’t reach you.”
“Why who can’t reach me?”
Right then, Spencer came into the store. He threw a blanket around Kieffer and ushered him out to the waiting SUV. A moment later, he came back into the store and offered me a hundred dollars for the security tape from tonight.
I wonder what I’ll spend my hundred bucks on.
I was beginning to suspect something wasn’t quite right in the store. I’ve been finding empty candy bar wrappers strewn about, security tapes mysteriously deleted, strange noises coming through the walls in the middle of the night when I should be alone. At least, more strange noises than usual. At first, I assumed it was just the racoons.
But now I know the truth. Now I know that Marlboro has been living here for the last two days. He just walked out of the supply closet wearing a bathrobe, nodded to me as he grabbed a stick of meat jerky, and went into the bathroom. It had not even occurred to me that Marlboro never left.
It finally happened. I suppose it was only a matter of time. I know I should feel regret, or shame, or any of the other emotions that normal people feel after something like this happens, but all I feel is embarrassed.
I came to a couple hours ago with a shovel in my hand. I had been digging again, and this time I had made some serious progress. The hole was at least seven feet deep, the steep walls made of loose, red clay. It took me a while to realize that I was staring up into an inky black night peppered with uncountable stars. When some of the bigger celestials started to move, I realized that those stars were actually just the soulless red eyes of the mutant raccoons staring down at me over the edge of the hole. Probably looking for food, those shameless beggars.
I chucked the shovel out of the hole, and that’s when I heard it. Imagine the sound of a butcher’s knife hitting a watermelon. Like a solid, wet, thwack. Now imagine the watermelon gurgling and falling over like a sack of potatoes. Oh man, this metaphor has really gotten away from me…
When I climbed out of the hole, I saw the shovel standing upright: the business end firmly lodged inside the open chest wound of a still-twitching Kieffer.
The Kieffer was dead before I got to his side. In a final act of defiance, he had turned both of his middle fingers up to me. I felt just the slightest amount of respect for him before I went into a mental state that I can only describe as “subdued panic.” The first thing I wanted to do was find something to wrap the body in because, surely, Spencer Middleton would come for it soon.
When I went into the gas station, I was surprised to find that Marlboro had taken it upon himself to work the cash register while I was gone. He was ringing up one of our regulars, Charles, a great big fat man that always buys soap and boiled peanuts.
I nabbed a tarp off the shelf and took it outside. That’s when I learned something. Kieffer is heavy. Like, really heavy. I understand that a human body is basically just a meaty fleshy water balloon full of guts and excrement, but nothing could prepare me for how leaky and gross and heavy a dead man can be. It was only by some miracle that I managed to drag Kieffer through the back door and into the freezer without being seen. It took all of my strength to pull the mass behind the boxes and onto the stack with the other three. When I finally finished, I had worked up a sweat, and even the cold of the freezer wasn’t enough to keep me cool. As I stood there letting my breath come back and adrenaline wear off I took stock of my situation. That’s when it dawned on me. There were four Kieffers in that freezer with me. Four. Kieffers. Where the hell did the other two come from?
The freezer door opened and Marlboro entered, dragging a dead Kieffer by the legs. He stopped and made eye contact with me.
When he saw the Kieffers at my feet, I said the only thing I could think of.
“Well this is awkward.”
Marlboro and I decided to open a bottle of Strega Liquore and have a few drinks. He explained that he had accidently killed Kieffer a couple times. I totally understood. The guy was just so easy to kill. At one point, Carlos came into the freezer to grab a box of cookie dough. He didn’t even acknowledge all the Kieffers.
My laptop’s battery is currently at 2%. It’s obvious now that I won’t have time to transcribe the rest of my journals before it dies. I don’t have time to tell you how I ended up at the bottom of this hole underneath the store with a broken leg. But I can tell you that I hear someone moving around above me, which is good because I don’t think I’m alone down here.
If you’re reading this, it means I managed to upload my story. If you’re not reading this, then… I don’t know, what even are you?
Someone just called my name from the top of the precipice. I think it was Carlos. I wonder what happened to Tom. Why didn’t Tom ever show up?
Come to think of it, I seem to remember Tom didn’t survive the Halloween incident. Wait, who the hell have I been talking to this entire time?
I promise, that if I survive long enough to recharge my battery I will come back and tell the rest. Until then, I guess this story is to be continued.
It’s been a week since the program started. A program that I thought would be the easiest way to make fifty grand within a week, but things turned to shit on the third day of a project called The Second Coming.
Eighteen people were involved in the project. Eight of us were observers. I was one of the observers, and our role was simple. We were gathered together in one room where we were to watch dozens of monitors that displayed everything going on in a makeshift town; one created for the program. If there was anything noteworthy going on, we would all write a little note about it. At the end of the day, we would read our notes out loud. It’s funny how different our perspective of every event was.
Nine of the people were placed in the town as residents. Their role was simple as well. All they had to do was live like they normally do. Food, water, shelter, and entertainment was provided. The first couple of days, I was pretty jealous. Being an observer was downright boring most of the time. It seemed, at the time, that I had drawn the short end of the stick.
Last but certainly not least, we had our Jesus. His role was not simple. He was the only one that had a direct line of communication with the people running the project, and they would let him know when it was time for him to create another “miracle”.
The person they picked to take on the Jesus role was a wiry little guy. A bit shorter than average, with a body structure that matched that of a single chopstick. He had a squeaky voice and always looked to be dirty, even after bathing. His name was Chad and his appearance was far from impressive.
The residents did not know about this fake Jesus. Shit, they were even given a completely different name for the program. For all they knew, this whole thing could have been one giant sleep study or something of the like. It’s safe to say they weren’t prepared for the coming days.
The first three days were completely normal. The residents got to know each other – that night, a couple of them even paired up and went to sleep together. It doesn’t take a genius to know what they were doing. The second and third days were so boring that I found myself dozing off half the time, along with most of the other observers.
The fourth day started off normal enough, but around 3 in the afternoon, Chad performed his first miracle. It wasn’t really anything marvelous, just a simple parlor trick that shouldn’t have duped a bunch of adults on the first try, but I suppose the people chosen to be residents in this experiment weren’t the sharpest group of people.
They were all eating lunch when a woman started waving her arms frantically. Chad was face down in the middle of the swimming pool. When the other residents ran over, Chad stood up and walked on the surface of the water towards everyone. A couple of them fell on their knees while the others just stood in shock.
I don’t really know how to describe the events of the next four days any differently than how I recorded them in my notes, so I’ll just copy them down here:
Chad was talking with one of the male residents. Everything seemed fine until the resident suddenly collapsed. It didn’t take long for the others to run over to them. Chad stared at the ground for a moment before kneeling down and touching the man on the forehead. Almost immediately, the guy jumped to his feet, good as new.
Honestly, I don’t know how they did it. This is definitely a lot harder of a “miracle” to pull off than the one he performed the previous day.
We noticed a female resident standing atop a tall building. Neither me, nor the other observers, saw how she got up there. We watched in horror as she launched herself off of the building. Down below, a pool of blood oozed around her lifeless body as Chad and the other residents slowly walked over to the gory scene.
Chad knelt down next to her and whispered a couple of words into her ear. She opened her eyes, and with a dazed look on her face, sat up and looked around at the other residents. The observers and I were in utter disbelief. We have absolutely no idea how he could have possibly done that.
All of the residents gathered together early in the morning. They were talking amongst each other; Chad, however, was nowhere to be seen. They all looked to be frightened.
When Chad finally showed up, a couple of the residents grabbed him, while the rest tied him up so that he couldn’t move. They then took turns kicking, punching, stabbing, and spitting at him for what seemed like half a day. It took a while for Chad to die, but he didn’t struggle. Instead, he harbored a knowing smile on his face.
They buried his body later in the evening.
As soon as we turned on the screen, we instantly grew pale with shock. It looked like a massacre. Body parts were thrown around the entire town. Blood was smeared on almost every building, and on the middle screen, with the same smile on his face, was Chad. He was mouthing a phrase over and over again…
“I’ll be back for you.”
He vanished into thin air, and before any of us could react, the room became pitch black. I don’t know when I lost consciousness, but I woke up in my bedroom this morning. I eventually checked my bank account and saw that my payment for the experiment was deposited.
Still unsure of how I made it back home, I checked my room for inconsistencies. Everything was exactly how I left it, except for a note on my mirror, and a small bouquet of white roses at the edge of my bed…
Don’t worry. I’ll give you a couple of days to run as far away as you can.
We called it the Little Religion because there were only four members: Gina, the baker’s wife; homeless Owen; Pally, the chestnut farmer; and my brother Curt.
They held services in the town square at noon each day. They were quiet with their worship. The four of them would sit in a circle on the grass, talking in whispers and holding hands. It became a common sight to see them there. Other than that, they spent their time doing ordinary things. Gina would help her husband in the bakery. Owen would wander the town looking for odd jobs. Pally would be on his farm. Just typical, regular things. Curt was the only one who seemed to disappear for long stretches of time.
The only other odd part of the Little Religion was that they never slept inside. Whether it was warm or pouring rain, all four of them could be found sleeping under the stars.
The rest of us in town went to church every Sunday. Once, I saw Curt walking down the dusty path away from the church as we walked towards it. I raised my hand to wave to him, but mother quickly slapped it away. My parents didn’t like to acknowledge him at all since he stopped going to church. But Curt still smiled and waved anyway. His kind eyes fell on me and he said, “Many sunny nights, Justine.”
I warmed at the sound of my name in his voice. I had always loved Curt. He was the perfect big brother. When mother and father kicked him out of the house, I mourned as if he had been killed. Now I only saw him in passing. But every interaction was precious to me.
That day at church, the sermon was about otherness. It seemed to be a common theme as of late. I only half listened. Instead, I watched Gina’s husband, Rick. He sat in the front row, absorbing every word. I think he felt an added pressure to appear devout since his wife no longer attended services with him.
I can only guess that everyone was trying to stay as close to God as possible. The church had never been fuller since the Little Religion sprang up. And then there was the issue of the rumors.
“They worship Satan,” I heard mother whisper to father one night. “I heard they sleep outdoors so they can be closer to Lucifer.”
“Aye, the men at the shop were tellin me so as well. They say Pally has been killin off his goats and then fuckin ‘em before they even go cold.”
I tried to sleep, but I had horrible nightmares of dead goats. One of them rose up and gored Curt in half. I kept closing my eyes and seeing Curt bleeding out of two identical holes in his chest. Even still, he was smiling and telling me, “Many sunny nights, Justine.”
The rumors continued and got worse. My friends would murmur about Gina killing the baby rabbits in her garden and then carrying them around in her mouth. It was said that Owen snuck into people’s houses at night and left blood trails on the furniture. A grain farmer blamed Pally for his bad crops, accusing him of putting a curse on his family.
And then there was Curt. It was agreed that he was their leader. My teacher explained factually that Curt had sold his soul to the devil and his penis had grown two feet long. His carnal appetite was insatiable and he took young women into the woods for unholy relations.
I knew this wasn’t true, but I said nothing to any of it. I knew that if I spoke out of turn, the rumors might turn to me.
This is how it was for a time. The Little Religion continued its small rituals and cultivated a growing fear in the townsfolk. Rumors and accusations flew from every mouth. But it always ended at words. The practitioners were clearly not welcome, but nothing had physically changed.
That is, until Matilda joined the Little Religion.
Matilda had small eyes the same color as her mousy hair. She had nervous fingers that were constantly moving. She had a bad habit of cracking her knuckles during the quiet parts of church. She was twenty four and still living at home. Her social abilities lacked any sort of grace, but we put up with them. After all, she was the daughter of the minister.
When awkward, lonely Matilda sat down with the Little Religion at noon one day, the town erupted in disgust. The accusations had been confirmed. They had corrupted poor Matilda. They were trying to ruin the ministry and cast out God’s children. Suddenly we cared about the stocky daughter of our minister.
And I have to admit, something also changed in me. It wasn’t hatred or fear like the others – it was curiosity. That night, I snuck out of the window and walked along the edge of town. I walked by the bakery and saw Gina sleeping soundly on a bed of rocks. Her face was peaceful. I passed Owen swaying drunkenly on a bench. He sang nonsense words and sipped brown liquor out of a bag. I made my way to the church where Matilda was trying to get comfortable on the sweaty ground.
“Hello Matilda,” I called to her quietly.
She rolled over and smiled at me. For some reason she seemed less odd. Her face was softer and her demeanor less austere. Her voice carried on the windless night, “Hello, Justine. Out for a walk?”
“Aye. I can’t sleep.”
She sat up gracefully. “I used to have a hard time sleeping as well. Until I found the others.”
“The others?” I had stopped walking and now stood almost directly over her.
“Yes, Curt and ‘em all. I feel free for the first time.” She grinned. “You should try it, Justine. Just head to the cave past the fields on the north. You’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Images of dead goats and sex floated through my mind. “Aye, maybe I will. G’night, Matilda.”
“Many sunny nights, Justine.”
I wanted so badly to go back home into my bed. I knew what to expect there. In the far cave I knew nothing. If I trusted what the townsfolk told me, Lucifer himself could be there, waiting for me. But what if Curt was there…
My feet made the decision for me. I started my way across the fields. They were wet with the humidity. Summer’s woolen blanket had draped upon the town. Even this late at night, I began soaking through my dress. My stomach protruded and nearly burst the center buttons. The fields were wide and empty. They had once been home to a plethora of horses, but a break in the fence had been too tempting for any of them to stay. No one had moved any other livestock here. It just sat sullen and green. The nettles reached for my shins, but I carefully avoided their touch. I found myself at the mouth of the cave in no time.
There was a fire illuminating the stone walls. Men were speaking from deep within the cave. I hovered near the entrance. I recognized one of the voices as my brother’s, so I entered cautiously.
“And what did you want me to do?” Curt sounded annoyed. I moved with my hands along the walls to keep me upright.
“Tell her no! Tell her to go the fuck home.”
I didn’t immediately place the other man’s voice. I wondered if it was Pally, but I could have sworn I saw him snoozing on a hay bale outside his farm.
“I couldn’t say no, not in front of the others.” I heard movement from the men as if they were pacing.
“Now what, Curt? You’ve ruined it. You’re going to get her killed!”
“It’s not my fault you can’t control your people!” I had never heard Curt yell like that. My spine tingled uncomfortably. I shifted behind a boulder and the scene lit up before me.
Curt stood angrily opposed from a man who had his back to me. There was a scattering of food and other household items on the floor of the cave. The fire beckoned to me with flame licked fingers. I crouched down a bit more.
Curt put a hand to his head. “Look, I can fix this. I’ll drive her out.”
The man stood still. “I think it’s too late. The townsfolk are to the point of violence. They want you and yours gone.”
“Fine!” Curt extended an open palm. “Pay me what you owe me and I’ll leave.”
The man laughed. “You think I’m still paying you after you co-opted my daughter?” The minister turned and his face was plain to me. His features were twisted into something less than kind. I should have been shocked to see him, but instead, I felt a knot rising in my throat.
Curt stepped forward. “We had an agreement. I start this little cult, get the others to flock back to your church, and you give me enough gold to get Justine out of here.”
“You stupid boy.” The minister loomed over him. “Justine is practically popping. You think I’d ever let her leave with you? I know your secret, you-”
Curt decked him square in the jaw. The minister fell like a tree in a storm. I gasped, and Curt turned to see me. “Justine?”
I stepped forward slowly, my dress clinging to my abdomen. Curt rushed to my side. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” I looked down at the minister. His jaw was crushed. Blood pooled at his head. I turned back to Curt with tears in my eyes. “I thought you left because of me.”
“No, no. I would never leave you. I just knew we needed money to get out of here.” He came to my side and cautiously placed a hand on my belly. “I confessed to the minister the day after you told me. He gave me two options. Either be exposed, or do this little religion he had cooked up. He figured the town needed a common enemy to get ‘em back to God. But it was all for you, Justine. It always has been.”
I took his hand in mine. It felt good, strong. I bent down slowly, careful of my swollen belly, and plucked the keys from the minister’s belt.
“I know where he keeps the collection plate. That will be more than enough to get us off to the next village.” I looked into Curt’s eyes. My love’s eyes. “We will raise this baby like we always wanted to.”
His face softened and a tear fell. “We’ll get back to those sunny nights, Justine. When it was just us falling asleep beneath the stars.”
We walked out of the cave holding hands. It was still dark, but we had many miles more to walk until morning. As long as I had Curt beside me, I knew I could do it. I felt a small kick and knew God was beside us too.
My grandfather is 95 years old and doesn’t have long left in this world. There’s nothing but a mess of tubes and wires to tether him here with us. It’s difficult for him to speak, but each rasping whisper carries a severe weight that cannot be interrupted. My family doesn’t talk about things like death though, so whenever I visit with my dad, we tend to spend most of the time sitting in near-silence.
“What a news week, huh?” my dad might say.
“Mmmm,” Grandfather will grunt. “Crazy world.”
Then silence again. Small talk seems almost disrespectful to the gravity of the situation, but no-one wants to be the first to broach the irrevocable goodbye. When the silence gets too loud, my dad will start to fidget with his phone or pull out a book until one of us makes an excuse to leave. That’s how it went yesterday, with my father mumbling something about a dentist appointment and hurrying out the door almost as soon as we arrived.
“You’ll stay though, won’t you?” my grandfather asked when we were alone in the room together. “You’ll listen to an old man’s last secret?”
This was it then. The end of the road was in sight. “Would you like me to call Dad back?” I asked.
Grandfather shook his head as far as the oxygen tubes would allow it to turn. “I’d rather he didn’t know.”
I already knew some of the story he told me. It began when my grandfather was 20 years old living in Nazi Germany. He’d been working forced labor on a farm, but managed to smuggle my grandmother and infant father out of the country, hidden in a grain shipment. He’d been caught almost immediately and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald where he endured the next two years until he was liberated by allied forces.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened there if you don’t want to,” I told him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the gruesome details. He was unusually animated and persistent though, promising it was something that needed to be said.
He wouldn’t have survived the ordeal if it hadn’t been for a friend he’d met there. One of the Nazi officers, a Rottenführer squad leader, had taken a special interest in him because of their striking similarity in age and appearance. The two would sit on either side of a barbed wire fence and swap stories about their childhoods. My grandfather would talk about my grandmother, how beautiful she was and how he wouldn’t give up until he found her again.
The SS officer had gone straight from the Hitlerjugend (Hitler youth group) to the army and had never been intimate with a woman. He became enraptured in my grandfather’s tales of romance, and the two became close friends despite the circumstances. The officer twice spared my grandfather’s name from work assignments that meant certain death, and he’d often slip extra rations through the fence, which my grandfather would then distribute to other prisoners.
“It wasn’t a good life, but it was life,” Grandfather said.
Things changed as the war began drawing to a close. The Nazi officers became increasingly paranoid and desperate as the allied forces moved in. It became common practice for lower ranking officers to be held as scapegoats when impossible work orders were not met. Besides that, the rumor that the Rottenführer was protecting my grandfather put him in a dire position with his own officers.
Faced between protecting my grandfather and his own hide, the Rottenführer signed the order for my grandfather to be sent to a nearby armaments factory. Eighteen hour work days, starvation rations, no medical attention — the factory might as well have been a death sentence. The three month survival rate was less than 50%.
In the name of love, my grandfather pleaded to let him survive to find her again. She was waiting for him in America. The Rottenführer was moved, but his decision was final. His only compromise was to record the address of where she went and send her a letter to let her know what happened to him.
“So how did you survive?” I asked. “Did he change his mind? Were you rescued from the factory?”
“Shielded from the worst of the camp by the Rottenführer, the transition to the factory proved too difficult for the young farmer. He didn’t last the first week.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t last’? How’d you get out?”
The exertion of the long story was taking its toll on my grandfather. He coughed and wheezed, struggling to draw breath for several seconds before clearing his throat a final time.
“On April 11th, 1945, the Buchenwald camp was liberated. Many of the Nazi’s had already abandoned their position and fled into the country. Others decided to lock themselves inside, pretending to be prisoners themselves so the allied forces would have mercy on them. This was especially convincing for those who had taken the time to get to know the prisoners and could assume their identities. When the SS officer gave the information and address of his lost love, he was allowed to board the next transport ship returning to America to be reunited with her.”
The gears in my head were turning. Turning. And then stopped.
“Your grandmother was suspicious at first when I met her, but she accepted that the war had changed me. Besides, I knew so many stories about her that she couldn’t deny our shared history. I raised his boy as my own, and lived the life he dreamed of every night until his death. Do you think your real grandfather would forgive me if he knew?”
I didn’t have an answer for him then, and I didn’t get another chance. He died in his sleep that night after a long and happy life that wasn’t his.
*Click HERE to read Part 1 / Click HERE to read Part 2*
There are times when this world drifts so close to the fabric of reality that I can hear something calling me from beyond that veil. Sometimes when I get too close, I can feel that thing on the other side tugging at the corners of my mind.
I’m worried about Carlos. He doesn’t seem to be taking this so well.
When I returned to work after my post yesterday, I was delighted to find a stack of receipt papers sitting neatly on the register counter with notes written in my own shaky hand-writing. I don’t remember writing all of these notes, but then again, I don’t remember a lot of things. It is possible that I’m working too hard. Or maybe the fumes coming from beneath the gas station are playing tricks on me. Or perhaps it’s just another side effect of my condition. At any rate, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or any other animal in any other orifice, for that matter.
Admittedly, my handwriting isn’t the best. And at times, the scratches on the receipt paper become nearly illegible. So if anything herein seems unbelievable, it’s probably because I copied it wrong. With that in mind, this is my best effort at a transcription:
7:00 – It’s getting dark earlier these days.
7:30 – Farmer Junior came into the gas station tonight, asking about the hand plants. I told him that they weren’t there anymore. He left his phone number scribbled on the back of a coupon for fifteen-percent off bulk pig feed from an online retailer. I think he’s trying to send me a message.
9:00 – I think maybe some kids are playing a prank on me. I found a lawn gnome behind the pork rinds. I didn’t think much about it, and put him in a box behind the counter. But then I found another matching lawn gnome in the soda case. I added this one to the box as well. It wasn’t until I noticed the third and fourth lawn gnomes that I started to suspect something. I had taken out the garbage and found the gnomes perched atop the branch of a tree next to the dumpster, staring down at me like gargoyles. I used a chair and broom to knock them down, and I put them in the box with the other three. When I got back to my desk, I found a note on my chair written in red ink. It says simply, “I’m in the walls.” I don’t know who wrote it, but the paper smells like oranges and plumeria.
10:00 – There is a strange scratching noise coming from the tiles above the cash register. I fear Rocco and his brood may have infiltrated the building again.
11:00 – Farmer Junior called the store. He asked about the hand plants. I assured him that they weren’t there anymore and if they ever showed up again, I would call him. I think he’s beginning to suspect that I’m lying.
12:00 – One of the cultist recruits wandered in from the community in the woods. (They hate it when I call them cultists.) I know the recruits aren’t supposed to interact with the outside world, but from time to time they will sneak into town, never any further than this gas station, and buy cigarettes. They aren’t supposed to try and recruit new members until they graduate to the honorable senior cultist status, but this one isn’t a very good cultist. I know they aren’t supposed to have names, but I’m going to call this one Marlboro. I’ll let you guess why.
Marlboro stayed in the store for at least half an hour, trying to convince me to go back to the compound with him. (They hate it when I call their home a compound.) He tried to appeal to my logical side, but I let him know politely but firmly that I was not interested in logic. I can’t remember when he left.
2:00 – I found myself digging again. Sometimes, on slow nights, I let myself drift. My mind goes somewhere and when I come to, I wonder: where was I just now? Who was that controlling my body while I was gone?
My body did those things I’ve done so many times before that I guess it’s learned how to do them without me. My body restocked the cigarettes, my body rotated the frozen drink machine, my body scraped the mold off the bottoms of the ice buckets, my body emptied the rat traps, and somewhere along the way, my body found a shovel, went out back, and started digging a hole.
Actually, I shouldn’t say my body “started” digging. I have been, or rather “my body” has been digging this hole, off and on for the last few months. Usually, I come to after a few shovel-fulls. This time, I added another foot deep before I snapped out of it and asked myself, “what the hell am I doing?”
3:30 – I just noticed a door at the end of the hallway past the walk-in cooler. How long have I worked here and never noticed that door before? It seems disappointingly ordinary as far as doors go, except for the fact that it’s warm to the touch and feels like it’s vibrating. I tried the handle, but it’s locked.
When I got back to my register, I noticed a man in a trench coat standing outside beyond the gas pumps, just outside the reach of our lights, dangerously close to the road. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, or if he’s looking past the building at the woods on the other side. I wish he wouldn’t stand there like that, stoic and still, with his arms reaching down past his knees.
The scratching against the tiles in the ceiling over the counter is getting louder.
3:45 – A man came into the store, rolling a large white ice chest behind him. He had sunken blue eyes, wiry hair coming from his nose and ears, long boney fingers, and paper-thin skin revealing every blue and green vein beneath the translucent dermis. He wore a bowler cap and smelled like milk. I had definitely never seen him around before. He asked if we would be interested in partnering up with him. He sold ground meat at discount prices, but I told him that our store doesn’t do well with the “fresh foods” category, recommending he try his hand at making jerky. Before he left, he scooped about a pound or so of raw ground meat from the ice chest onto a piece of parchment paper and gave it to me as a “sample.” Once he had left, I took the meat into the cooler, where I found another lawn gnome waiting for me. I put the gnome into the box with the other seven.
4:00 – Carlos just told me something very strange about Kieffer.
4:30 – There was a kid named Spencer Middleton who went to the same high school as me and Kieffer. Spencer was just a year ahead of me, but looked much older and acted much younger. I live in a small town, and small towns get bored. For entertainment, some turn to gossip, some turn to more sinister pass times. The latter often fueled the former. There were rumors around town that Spencer liked to torture and kill animals. Rumors that Spencer’s parents and siblings always locked their bedroom doors when they went to sleep at night. The rumors didn’t slow down any after the fire at Spencer’s house, where Spencer was the only one to escape unscathed.
I once saw Spencer gleefully stomp on a lizard, throw his head back, and laugh.
Some short time after his house caught fire for the second time, Spencer left town. The story went that he had gone off and joined the army. I didn’t know what to think about that, so I simply didn’t think about that. I would have been perfectly happy to never think about that, but after all these years I’m forced to. Because Spencer Middleton just came into the store and bought a cup of coffee. He’s sitting in one of the booths, talking to Kieffer.
Marlboro, is back. He asked if I could spare him some time to talk about his fake religion. (They hate it when I call it a fake religion.) I told him he had to leave. He seemed upset.
4:45 – Spencer and Kieffer sat around for a while and didn’t buy anything but two cups of coffee. When they finally left, I let Carlos know. He had been hiding under a blanket in the walk-in cooler, although I can’t really understand why.
Carlos explained to me exactly what happened. He finished his shift a couple nights ago and had just left the gas station when he saw Kieffer’s SUV pulled over in a ditch at the bottom of the hill. Carlos, being the good guy he is, decided to check and see if Kieffer needed any help. He says that when he pulled up and got out of the car, he could hear what sounded like a loud crunching noise coming from just beyond the tree line.
Carlos went to investigate. That’s when he saw something. When I asked Carlos what he saw, he just started speaking Spanish in a fast, panicked sort of way. I don’t speak Spanish, but I nodded along empathetically. The only word I could pick up was “Strega,” which is the name of a liquor we carry.
Whatever it was that Carlos saw, it made him race back to his car as fast as he could and back out quickly, without looking. And that’s when he ran over Kieffer.
Carlos is a good guy. But here he was in a bad situation. He stopped long enough to get out, check on Kieffer, and confirm that he was definitely dead. There was nothing he could do that would change that fact. It was an accident. Carlos was on parole. There was that thing in the woods, and Carlos had to make a decision. So, he heaved the body into the trunk of his car and drove off.
Carlos took me to his car and showed me the body. I can confirm, one hundred percent, that it was Kieffer in the trunk of his car. Not just because of his unmistakable face, but also because of his phone and wallet that were in his pockets.
5:00 – I finally got tired of the scratching and pulled our ladder out of storage to see what the racoons were doing in the ceiling, but when I pushed back the tile, the only thing up there was another gnome. That makes one dozen so far.
6:00 – The man in the trench coat is still outside.
The cultist came back in, demanding an audience with me, insisting that if I would just listen to him I would see that his reasoning is superb and flawless, and that I would be a fool not to join him in the perfection of logic and nirvana that is his belief structure.
I agreed to listen to his pitch if he would agree to ask the man in the trench coat to leave. Our hasty verbal contract in place, I steeled myself to listen. Honestly, he did make a few good points, but I suppose that’s to be expected from a viral thought experiment strong enough to convince perfectly normal people to abandon their real lives and go live in a commune in the woods past the shitty gas station on the edge of town.
They call themselves “mathmetists.” They believe that humankind exists to fulfill two moral imperatives: to decrease suffering, and to increase happiness. A successful life increases happiness more than suffering. A decent life decreases suffering more than happiness. How good a person is can be determined by the spread between the happiness increased and the suffering decreased. Obviously, if the individual has a negative spread—that is, if they’ve increased happiness lessthan they’ve increased suffering, or if they’ve decreased suffering less than they’ve decreased happiness—then that means, very simply, that the individual is bad. Therefore, if an individual causes a tremendous amount of happiness and suffering, one can simply determine which was higher, and use this perfect rubric to determine whether that individual was good or bad. Simple, right?
The mathmetists believe that the world has been going about good and bad in the wrong way. For eons, we’ve been attempting to increase happiness, when instead we should have been focusing on decreasing suffering. As happiness is a fluid concept, and the more happiness you create, the harder it is to sustain, as happiness has a clear set of diminishing returns. Suffering, however, is consistent. Suffering results from happiness coming to an end. Suffering is pure, and eternal. For a mathmetist to be supremely good, they must simply end all suffering. That is why the mathmetists are working on a bomb to destroy the entire planet.
By ending all life on earth, they end an infinity of suffering into the future. With every life they avert, an entire lineage of people that would be born into a life of suffering will no longer. Every death is a preemptive mercy-killing. Every happy moment that will no longer occur pales in the face of all the sad moments that are likewise prevented.
And so, as Marlboro explained, their murder cult believes that killing is a kindness.
I told him that his ideas were stupid and he was stupid and that now he now had to go tell the man in the trench coat to go away.
6:30 – The phone rang.
This is strange for two reasons. First, because it was not the land line. It was the cell phone, even though we do not get cell phone service way out here. And second, because it was the cell phone. The one that I took off of Kieffer’s body.
I’ll admit, I was stuck in a bit of a moral quandary ever since Carlos confided in me. On the one hand, Carlos had killed someone. On the other, it was an accident and Carlos’s parole officer may not see it that way. I thought I would have more time to figure this out, but when the cell phone started ringing, I knew I had to make a decision.
I answered it.
I didn’t speak first. The voice on the other line was one I recognized.
“You have something that belongs to my boss.”
It was Spencer Middleton.
“His cell phone and his wallet,” I answered.
“What? No! We don’t care about that shit! We can buy more phones. We can get more wallets. You know what we want.”
He was right. I did.
“It was an accident,” I explained.
“We know. We want to make a deal. You give it back, and we pretend this whole thing didn’t happen.”
“Can we do that?”
7:30 – Carlos came in for his shift half an hour ago, and I explained the deal to him. He wasn’t thrilled, but as I laid it out very clearly, he didn’t have a choice.
We parked Carlos’s Camry behind the gas station near the growth of handplants and made a point to stand far enough away to not get our ankles grabbed. Kieffer’s SUV drove up a few minutes later. Spencer was driving. He and Kieffer got out without a word, sized us up, and opened the back of their vehicle.
Carlos popped his trunk.
Kieffer and I stared at each other, keeping eye-contact the whole time while Carlos and Spencer transferred the body from one vehicle to the other. Spencer had a tarp and blanket ready to wrap everything up. When it was over, Kieffer put a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “You done good.”
Then they left. Carlos started crying as I went back inside the store. It was almost day time, and that’s when the new part-timer was supposed to take over.
8:00 – The new part timer is late, and I’m overdue for a lunch break. I made the best of my extra time here by putting price stickers on all the lawn gnomes. We’re ringing them up as “miscellaneous grocery” for $9.99 each, and I’ve already sold a couple. I’m a really good employee.
8:30 – I went to the bathroom and saw a man standing there with his jeans at his ankles. He wore red and white checkered boxers and a cowboy hat. He smiled when he saw me and simply said, “Come on now. Come on with it.”
I took the opportunity to ask him something that has been burning at the back of my mind.
“Do you know, is everything going to be okay?”
The bathroom cowboy took a second to think, then he pulled up his pants, fastened his enormous belt buckle, and walked past me, spurs clinking against the bathroom tile. He stopped for a second when he was right next to me and said plainly, “I appreciate it.” Then he left.
I honestly have no idea what that means.
These are the entirety of the receipt paper notes, but I did make a point to continue keeping this journal. I think this will be a healthy way of chronicling the weird events at the gas station. Maybe this will even help with my condition, I don’t know. The next time something strange happens, maybe I’ll come back and write more. Until then, I guess this is to be continued…
Edits: Sorry, upon further inspection, I realized that some of the scribbles on the receipt paper may have been transcribed incorrectly. I also made some adjustments to the spelling and fixed some typos. While I was at it, I added another typo just for the observant reader. Lastly, upon the advice of some of my readers, I removed the part where I listed Farmer Junior’s social security number and address. Also, special thanks to the reader that pointed out that “Strega” isn’t even a Spanish word. I asked Carlos about it when he came in for his fourth shift today, but Carlos simply looked at me blankly and told me that he doesn’t speak Spanish.
I drew the pentagram and symbols on the hardwood floor, lit the candles, and recited the spell that was written in the ancient leather-bound book. Squaring my shoulders and setting my jaw might have made me look more confident, but I was nervous as hell. I doubt anyone would blame me. Summoning one’s first demon is more than slightly terrifying, but I needed to do it. I had tried everything else I could think of to set my crumbling life back on track, and supernatural intervention was my last resort.
Thick black smoke swirled within the circle of symbols as tortured screams filled the room. Just a few short minutes after I had spoken the last word of the spell, a giant creature stood before me.
It sniffed the air before locking it’s bulging orange eyes on me. I imagine it would have narrowed them in its expression of disgust, but it didn’t have any eyelids. It wrinkled it’s bulbous nose and brought its thick, chapped lips into a sneer around two thick fangs.
“HUMAN, WHY YOU BRING ME HERE?” Its voice boomed, like it was speaking through a microphone and my ear was right next to the speaker.
“I – I – uh..” I stammered, “I want to make a deal with you.”
Its rotund belly bounced as it laughed hysterically for a moment.
“I MAKE NO DEAL, DUMB HUMAN.”
“What?! Why not?!” I demanded. “The book said-”
“BOOK WRONG. HUMAN SOUL WORTH NOTHING, LIKE HUMAN.”
“No! I did not waste all this time and money for some idiot demon to tell me it was for nothing. You’re going to help me, or I’ll-”
I was interrupted by an angry roar. The demon clenched its clawed fingers into a fist and came at me, splintering the wood beneath its enormous hooves with each step.
I don’t know if the creature didn’t see the ceiling fan because the room was dark or because it was so furious that it wasn’t paying attention, but I was given the opportunity to run when its head smashed through the wooden blades and the globe around the bulb shattered.
The abandoned house where I had performed the ritual was unfamiliar to me, and I prayed that I was running toward the exit as the demon crashed through the door of the empty room I had chosen for my venture. It slammed into the wall and raced after me, stumbling over decaying furniture left behind by the long-gone inhabitants of the dwelling.
I let out a half-victorious, half-terrified yell as I found the stairs to the first level and began my hurried descent. Just as I reached the front door near the base of the steps, I heard a deafening yelp followed by a loud crash.
The demon had tripped at the top of the stairs and tumbled down them. Once it’s massive body hit the landing at the bottom, the floor collapsed and the monster fell to the basement below.
The sudden silence intrigued me, so I cautiously walked to the giant hole in the floor and peered through it.
The creature let out a groan and gingerly sat up while rubbing its head. It looked around the rotting basement before shifting its gaze up at me. The dazed look on its face was replaced by one of embarrassment, followed by one of fury.
It got on its feet and reached for the remnants of the floor above. When it realized that it couldn’t quite reach, it jumped. You would think that such a powerful creature would have no problem leaping the 2 feet it needed, but it wasn’t even close. When it landed, one of its hooves awkwardly hit some rubble, and the beast fell on its back. It growled in frustration, sat up, and glared at me intensely. I suddenly felt freezing cold and blazing hot at the same time, and decided that was the time to get out of dodge. I ran to my car and thanked God that I picked a place in the middle of nowhere. At least no one was in imminent danger if that thing ever escapes.
At least if it decides to attack you, you’ll hear it coming from a mile away.
I have a friend, Tomas, who works as a freelance artist creating booths and installations for event shows. He’s quite talented at designing interactive presentations for companies to showcase their products. The last time we got together, he told me that he had signed on to be part of “something big” that he wasn’t allowed to talk about due to an NDA. Then this past week, he included me as blind carbon copy in the following email.
As soon as I finished reading this, I gave Tomas a ring, but the call went straight to voicemail. I drove over to see him, but when I buzzed his apartment, there was no response. His truck is in the parking lot, so at this point I can’t tell if he’s just not answering or if he’s not there. I know I don’t have to wait to file a missing person report, but I’m going to give him a day to call me back and then I’m taking this to the police.
To: Charles Fetterman
Bcc: William Dalphin
From: Tomas Laurent
Subject: Beyond VantaBlack Project
My name is Tomas Laurent. I am one of the artists recruited by Mr. Gustav Sørensen for the Beyond VantaBlack (BVB) project for your company. I won’t beat around the bush here, sir… I am scared out of my wits. When I was first approached and offered the chance to work with “the next step in Vantablack”, it was like winning the lottery. VantaBlack’s nearly 100% absorption is a fantastic achievement. I assumed that the only possible next step was perfect 100% light absorption. But when I was shown how BVB not only absorbed all light, but even some of the scattered light of the surrounding area, I was astounded. The way it strips away the defined edges of an object like it’s enveloping the thing in a black fog is breathtaking.
I’m telling you this because I assume you’ve never actually seen BVB used before. If you had, you would not have approved the production of it. The color is unnatural, sir, it does not belong in this world. When we look up at the night’s sky, we think we are seeing the pure absence of light, but we aren’t. Light reflected off the atmosphere, light from the Earth and Moon and other stars, it protects us from the true emptiness of the void. BVB is the void, Mr. Fetterman. It extends beyond the boundaries we give it, and sucks away the light from everything around it.
I am writing to you today because something has happened. I, along with two other artists, Genevieve LaVer and Piotr Edartu, were asked to come up with three unique exhibits with which to show off the “glory” of Beyond VantaBlack, which we did. My own art installation remains down in your research department, unfinished, where it shall remain as I have no intention of working further on it.
Ms. LaVer’s idea was a room, the inside of which was completely painted with BVB, save one wall, which was installed with a full-length mirror from floor to ceiling. I’ve been inside the room, and it is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. Imagine stepping into absolute nothingness. Every step, you’re unable to determine if your foot is going to touch solid ground or not. To make matters worse, she had the floor installed at a slant, so as you try to walk toward the center, you’re going up an incline but can’t see the angle at which it goes. There is a single, white light in the center of the ceiling, for the matter of allowing whoever is inside to at least see themselves; otherwise it would be like not existing at all, just pure blackness. Because of the unique properties of BVB though, you cannot actually see the light in the ceiling, even when staring directly at it. Once the door is sealed, the occupant is trapped inside with only their reflection. The effect is unnerving.
Yesterday, after Ms. LaVer finished her project, she shut herself inside the room, I presume to see how it looked. I was busy in my own area, working on my project. Half an hour later I heard yelling. Hurrying down the hall to her room, I saw a crowd of people surrounding the area, and I was quickly ushered away before I could see what was going on. After things quieted down, I managed to ask one of your engineers what had happened. He told me that someone had gone to check on Ms. LaVer and found the poor woman sprawled in the center of her room, bloody and crying. She had clawed out her own eyes, Mr. Fetterman. Somehow, her experience in the room drove her to take her own sight. When I asked Mr. Sørensen about it, he told me that only that Genevieve had had an accident, but that she was taken to the hospital, and she would be okay.
As I mentioned, I’ve been in the room myself, having gone in later that day. Security had cordoned the room off, but nobody was monitoring the area, so it wasn’t difficult to get inside. The effect of the room’s design, with its BVB blackened interior and slanted floor, is almost instantaneous. Within seconds, I felt nauseated, and had to resort to crawling to reach the middle of the room, all the time watching as my hands disappeared into the black fog. As I went, my need for visual stimuli forced me to keep my eyes on the mirror across the room. In it I started to see things that couldn’t possibly exist: first the air seemed to fill with swirling tendrils of color, followed by sparks of light like the flashbulb of a camera, floating, and ghostly, disembodied eyes watching me.
Worst of all though was my reflection looking back at me. I don’t know how, maybe the floor was curved toward the mirrored wall or the lack of defined space messed with my sense of direction, all I know is I found myself crawling toward my reflection, rather than the center of the room. Or worse, my reflection was crawling toward me, staring at me, watching me approach, me watching it approach. I tried to change direction, but I swear to you, it kept crawling toward me no matter how I tried to orient myself. And the more I looked into the eyes of my own reflection, the less human it appeared. Every second, it was like watching my face smear like a painting, my eyes, cheeks, nose, and lips turning runny like melted wax.
But the one moment I will never forget, the image seared into my brain of the entire experience, was when I stopped in front of the mirror, staring at my reflection, it staring back at me, and then trying to stand up. As I raised my head, I found myself looking over the shoulder of my own reflection and seeing my face again, behind the reflection, also looking over it. In other words, the face I had come to accept as my own was not, there was someone else between me and the mirror, someone who even as the realization came rushing at me, stared up at me with the same horrified expression on its face, its features melting. It was too much. I was ready to follow Genevieve and claw my own eyes out. The only reason I’m here, able to tell you about it now is that I let go. I just let myself fall backward, striking my head on the floor in the process. I blacked out a bit, but I remember rolling down the slanted floor and then hitting the wall. The door must have been swung open from the force, because when I came to I could see out into the hallway, and I dragged myself out. I swear that before I got out and shut the door, I looked back and saw my reflection, only it was standing in the center of the room, watching me leave.
That room is cursed. BVB has turned it into a residence of something sinister and malevolent. But that’s not even half of it, Mr. Fetterman.
Piotr Edartu’s plan was the polar opposite of Ms. LaVer’s. Rather than a person in a room devoid of light, he had your team help him build a full coverage, cloth bodysuit using the BVB process. Now, everything upsetting about LaVer’s room one could explain away as tricks of the mind (ignoring the fact that she is currently missing). What happened to Piotr though, I assure you, cannot be explained.
His suit was finished a week before Ms. LaVer completed her room. I watched him be helped into the suit for the first time, the team struggling to find where his legs went, then his arms. Once he had all four limbs clothed, they still had to find the zipper and hood to completely seal him in. Upon donning the full body suit of BVB, the effect was truly astounding. Piotr became a foggy, black silhouette. You couldn’t tell if you were looking directly at him. He had his work room installed with almost two dozen large flood lamps, drowning out every angle with harsh lighting, and still the suit cast a shadow. Nobody else in the room had a shadow, but Piotr in his suit did. Even more amazing, when he moved, he left a trail of blackness, a sort of after image of where he had been. I’ve never seen anything like it.
He put the BVB suit on for short intervals every day, increasing the length he spent inside each time. He told me he enjoyed the way it unnerved the people around him. I asked him what it was like inside and he remarked, “I can see inside you. I can see your bones.” I’m not sure if he was joking or not. Piotr spent every work day setting up and taking photos of himself against various backdrops to see how the BVB of the suit affected the pictures. There was one I saw of him standing in a glass box filled with water. The water looked like ink. Piotr told me that the way water refracts light, it seemed to magnify the BVB’s absorption effect.
After LaVer’s incident but before I went into her room and experienced the horror of that emptiness firsthand, I rushed to Piotr’s dressing room to tell him what had happened. He had been wearing the suit since before I got to work, the longest amount of time he’d ever kept it on. He was sitting at his desk, clad completely in the BVB bodysuit. I told him of LaVer and he became understandably distraught, asking me to help him out of the suit so we could get to the hospital. At first, I couldn’t find the zipper; my hands would disappear in the foggy blackness of the suit’s effect. Eventually I found it and unzipped him.
There was nothing inside, Mr. Fetterman. The suit fell away as if draped on a frame of empty air, the hood deflating like a balloon and dropping to the floor along with the rest of the material. Stranger yet, Piotr still seemed to be inside the suit. It was pooled up on the floor in an undefinable pile, like a hole in the floor, but I could hear him from inside it. And whatever– wherever he was, he sounded terrified. I could hear him start to scream, echoing from out of the suit’s interior like he was falling through a great, endless void, his voice never fading off like it does as someone falls away. He was always right there, screaming, calling my name, begging me to get him out. I gathered up the material and tried shaking it, thinking maybe I could shake him out of the hole, but I had to drop it quickly because the way my hands disappeared inside it, I was afraid I would fall into the suit as well.
I immediately hurried to Mr. Sørensen’s office across the research area and told him about Piotr. He seemed more put out than concerned, made a quick phone call, then told me to stay put while he marched off to Piotr’s room with a group of men from your security. I sat around in his office for a couple hours before he finally returned with a gentleman named Mr. Klein from your legal department. They assured me that Piotr was alright, that what I had seen was simply the BVB playing tricks on my eyes. They fed me a bunch of hogwash about how my vision hadn’t fully adjusted to the bright lighting of the room, then instructed me to sign a form to waive my rights toward speaking about either of the incidents. It was after that, after they had someone escort me back to my own work area, that I ventured over to Genevieve’s room and experienced its horror myself.
That was yesterday, Mr. Fetterman. I called in sick this morning, with no intention of going in today, or any other day, out of fear for my own safety. Already my phone has rung at least twenty times this morning, from different unknown callers. Mr. Sørensen tried to reach me half an hour ago and left me a cryptic voicemail saying, “I hope that we don’t have to initiate a breach of contract clause”. I’ve looked over my contract with your company Demtronic, but I still have no idea what he meant by that. It sounds like a threat.
There is something evil in Beyond VantaBlack, Mr. Fetterman, something Mr. Sørensen does not want people to know about. Ms. LaVer is missing. Mr. Edartu is missing. I’m afraid that I may go missing as well. I hope that I’m not making a grave mistake by trusting you with this information. Please contact me via this email address or the number provided below.
Tomas Laurent, Artist for Hire