The night was young. In our world at least. 2:14 AM, and me and my husband Ricky were standing out in the open shed behind The Post Searchlight. Stanwyck, Georgia’s local newspaper. Like nocturnal detectives, Ricky and I were wired for the graveyard shift. You had to be when you did a paper route.
Every night, me and Ricky made the rounds. There were about two-hundred newspapers for home deliveries… and another two-hundred for all the newspaper stands. Like a truck driver’s grueling route, we cruised the city from 3-7 AM.
This wasn’t an idyllic vision of newspaper routes. There was no cute teenage boy riding his bike around while tossing papers. No Americana romanticism. Not in today’s world. The job sucked. The pay sucked. The hours sucked. Most of our subscribers were elderly, bitchy assholes. Ricky and me were basically working vampires, only The Post Searchlight was the one sucking our blood… and souls.
But at 44, this was our living. It’s not like we had many options either. We’d held the Stanwyck paper carrier crown for well over ten years now… our Woronov family monopoly. We were Elizabeth and Ricky Woronov, Post Searchlight Paper Carriers.
Ricky and I did enjoy each other’s company. In fact, bonding on this job was one of the reasons our marriage was still so strong after twenty years. That and we’ve both aged pretty well… I guess lifting all those boxes and stacks of newspapers would keep anyone in good shape. Not to mention Ricky always had that blue-collar Tony Todd look to him (Yes, Candyman is sexy!). Tall and toned and with that body… shit, my heart pumped like a cartoon character’s anytime his deep voice would tell me I looked just like Angela Bassett with braids. Honestly, I had to try to match his sexiness. But I guess my long legs and better fashion sense helped.
During those long drives, we kept each other sane. But the job grew tougher once the holidays hit. From a week before Black Friday to the day after Christmas, our routes typically intensified more than Santa’s workshop. And the papers got thicker. All of them fattened by advertisers cramming all their flyers in during the zenith of Christmas shopping. Man, we hated that shit.
At least, the papers were on time tonight. And they weren’t as bulky as they had been either.
The bundles all came in around 2 AM And now, in the early hours of December 21st, Ricky and me got to work wrapping all the home deliveries in plastic sleeves. A dim hanging bulb our only light.
The unrelenting wind sent chills down our spines. Our jackets and gloves no match for the harsh cold.
Playful, Ricky held up the newspaper’s front headline. “Well, this is nice for the holidays,” he quipped.
Screaming bold font greeted me: LOCAL MURDERS BAFFLE STANWYCK POLICE. MURDERS POSSIBLY RELATED.
Like yearbook photos, pictures of the four victims ran under the headline. Two middle-aged couples.
With a weary grin, I knocked the paper out of Ricky’s hands. “You’re awful!”
Ricky chuckled. “What? They’re the ones pushing it near Christmas.”
I grabbed my clipboard off the table. “They act like no one ever gets killed around here.” As a Stanwyck native, I never felt threatened. Maybe that’s why Ricky and me were brave (stupid?) enough to do this gig… regardless of Stanwyck’s morbid history.
Amused, Ricky got to work wrapping another newspaper. “Well, usually not around Christmas.”
“True,” I said with a laugh. Holding the clipboard, I checked through our list of subscribers. Just like Santa Claus…
Ricky carried a box of newspapers outside to our 2010 Corolla.
“No shit,” I replied. Scrolling through the list, I cringed. There were now two-hundred-and-one home addresses. A nice Christmas surprise…
1972 Abel Road. Our latest Post Searchlight customer.
Annoyed, I circled the address. “Hey, we got a new one, Ricky.”
Like a tortured office drone, Ricky staggered back inside the shed. “Goddamn, really?”
Grinning, I slapped his round ass. His days as an athlete were still paying off with that donk. “It’s just one more.”
Ricky grabbed some more newspapers. “Where is it anyway?”
Back to business, I checked the list. “1972 Abel Road.”
“Well, where the hell’s that?”
I faced him. “You know, right by our house. Out past O’Neal Lake.”
Holding a stack of Post Searchlights, Ricky stopped in front of me. “They better not have us looking all night.”
I ran my hand along Ricky’s muscular arm, reassuring him. “Hey, we’ll find it, babe.”
“Those assholes didn’t even give us directions, did they?”
Smiling, I leaned in toward his face. “They never do!”
“They got us out here with murderers running around, looking for a Goddamn mystery house,” Ricky scoffed. “Reason number one thousand why-“
“This job sucks,” I finished. Gentle, I caressed his handsome face. He didn’t even flinch from my cold touch. “I know, babe. We’ll just do it last.”
Finally releasing that sexy smile, Ricky moved in closer. Inches away from my lips. “Are we still on for New Year’s?”
“Duh!” Like an aggressive sergeant, I moved in for the attack. I planted a passionate kiss right on Ricky’s lips.
He looked at me, stunned yet pleased.
My smile fueled by our love, I caressed his face once more. “We’ll have the whole weekend to ourselves.”
“Now that’s how I like to ring in 2019.”
“Ditto.” With that, we shared another kiss. Shared another one of our magical Christmas moments out here in the cold. Carefree and playful like we were 20-something lovebirds again.
We had a routine morning. Nothing exciting, nothing memorable. Our Corolla powered through the frigid night. The heater did its best against the invading wind every time we rolled down the windows.
Ricky was behind the wheel, I was in the passenger’s seat. The newspapers overran the backseat.
As Ricky would say, most of our job was “brainless.” We’d either sticks papers in the the yellow Post Searchlight mailboxes (tubes) or toss them in the subscribers’ yards. The only time we ever really had to face the December cold was when we had to re-fill the stands.
On the route, Christmas was inescapable. We had it outside in the form of all the decorations and lights. And we also had it inside with the barrage of holiday hits playing on the radio. Not that I was complaining about the Yuletide escape. At least, the atmosphere kept us from getting too bored.
No one was out in town. Just me, Ricky, and the Christmas decorations. I figured this close to Christmas, maybe people were out of town to visit family. Everyone except for us and our elderly clientele.
I gotta say tonight was going well too. Like a Bonnie and Clyde joyride, me and Ricky were having fun. We were all alone on the road and had Stanwyck to ourselves. During the drive, we talked and laughed the better part of the night. Our chemistry kept us warmer than the jackets or heater ever could.
The Ronettes’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” livened the mood like we were at a prime-time Christmas party rather than on the tail-end of this arduous journey.
All we had left was our neck of the woods. Towman’s gas station and a few houses near our rural neighborhood.
Soon, the glowing illustrious Christmas lights of the city gave way to a country highway. All darkness save for the occasional home’s modest reindeer display.
I saw a faded sign up ahead on the right. And an ugly building to go with it. Towman’s was on the edge of town where it belonged. A hideous last-chance gas station every small town had.
Grinning, I faced Ricky. “Almost done.”
Behind restless eyes, Ricky kept glancing up at the rearview mirror. “Yeah, sounds great…”
“We might get home before the sun comes up.”
Ricky didn’t respond. Like a nervous criminal, he kept checking that mirror.
Confused, I followed his gaze. But I saw nothing behind us. No sirens, no headlights. Just the long line of darkness that was Bainbridge Road.
Smirking, I looked over at Ricky. “Do you want me to drive?”
Like a tennis spectator gawking back-and-forth, Ricky stole a glance at the mirror before facing the highway. “No, I’m fine. Just thought I saw something…”
We pulled into Towman’s. With all the cobwebs and darkness, the store’s front area looked like an entrance to a crypt. Beer signs were plastered over the windows. Plain Christmas lights scattered across the roof the only sign of Towman’s holiday spirit.
The winter breeze blew all the trash, debris, and stray newspapers through the empty parking lot.
And right by the front doors was our beauty. A newspaper stand that belonged in a museum rather than a storefront. The thing looked even older than our subscribers. Spiderwebs swirled all around its coin slot like Gothic cotton candy.
Outside, I opened the stand. I shook the cobwebs off my fingers in disgust. Then grabbed the six quarters.
A bright beam blinded me. Brighter than the Corolla’s headlights… Hell, brighter than a fucking spaceship.
Startled, I turned to see two cars in the parking lot. And I only recognized one of them.
Like a stealthy monster, a silver SUV lurked just a few feet behind the Corolla. The SUV was a hulking beast. Its headlights like big wolves’ eyes. The bright lights appropriate for hunting humans rather than deer.
Terrified, I shielded my eyes. I couldn’t see shit through the SUV’s tinted windshield… and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“Elizabeth, come on!” a familiar voice called out.
I looked over and saw Ricky leaning out of the car.
Fear replacing his grumpiness, he waved me in like a third base coach. “Hurry!’
I took off for the passenger’s seat. Like a desperate criminal, I heard my meager coins hit the ground but I wasn’t stopping for Goddamn change. Not now.
Adrenaline made me sweat through my jacket. Even in the freezing cold.
Before hopping inside the Corolla, I stole a glance back at the beast behind us.
All I could make out were two people sitting in the SUV’s front seat. I didn’t see any features, but I could feel their eyes lock on me like the stern gazes of hungry predators.
I got in the passenger’s seat and slammed the door behind me. “Go!” I yelled to Ricky.
Like a NASCAR driver, Ricky hopped in behind the wheel. “I think they’ve been following us.”
The heater didn’t comfort me. And neither did Otis Redding’s “White Christmas.”
With scared eyes, I whirled around. The SUV was gone.
A harsh honk made me and Ricky both jump. We turned to our right.
“Oh, fuck!” Ricky yelled in fright.
As if it had effortless wings, the behemoth creature had glided right beside us. And now we had a clear view of who lurked inside.
A woman sat in the driver’s seat, a man right beside her. Both of them tall and angular. They stared at us with nothing in their eyes. No emotion, no compassion. As if they were Ricky and I’s soulless counterparts.
The couple wore casual suits. A slick red raincoat draped over the woman’s outfit, the raincoat’s hood pulled in tight over her long black hair. Their faces were disguised by comic strip masks… colorful plastic ones. The woman with an expressionless Little Orphan Annie mask. The man in an Archie mask featuring the character’s mischievous grin. Sunday Funnies gone evil.
I felt my gut twist into sickened knots. Those organs on Otis’s Christmas classic may as well have been church organs for me and Ricky’s funerals.
Then the woman held up a long hunting knife. Towman’s Christmas lights reflected off the sharp blade, making it glisten like an ominous star.
“What the fuck…” I muttered.
At a deliberate pace, the woman traced the weapon all along her mask. A sadistic taunt made even scarier by the fact her exposed eyes never once blinked much less looked away from me. And all to the tune of “White Christmas.” As if she were performing a killer’s ballet.
The crazy bitch stopped the blade at the mask’s chin. And she left it there. Like a morbid statue, she stayed still. Her eyes glued to my horrified face.
If it weren’t for the cold air emanating from my lips, I would’ve thought I stopped breathing. Fear rather than the December weather had me petrified.
“Fuck this!” Ricky yelled.
Like a vicious bully, the woman revved the SUV. Its engine roared with delight.
I confronted Ricky. “Go, Goddammit!”
And with that, we took off through the night. Far away from Towman’s. But not far enough from the monster chasing us.
All down Bainbridge Highway, the SUV stayed just a few feet behind our Corolla. Like the beast was just toying with us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ricky gun it well past seventy miles per hour.
Like a compulsion, he traded glances back-and-forth between the dark road and the ferocious lights behind us. “Goddammit, what are they doing!”
At this speed, all the Christmas lights became a bright blur. Neither me nor Ricky were cold… not with the heater and our nerves working overtime.
Frightened, I turned back. The headlights honed in on us like spotlights. Like a shield, they kept me from seeing the horrible masks lurking in the car.
“They’re getting closer,” I said, worried.
“Fuck!” Ricky yelled.
Somehow, the couple’s headlights went up a notch. Their brights got even brighter.
I shielded my eyes. “What the Hell!” I cried. Our Corolla’s interior was lit up as if it were already daylight… at 4:30 fucking A.M.
The immense light distracting him, Ricky struggled to stay focused on the highway. “Hold on!” he cried.
In a frenetic turn, Ricky swerved the wheel onto a dirt road. Powers Landing. The Corolla made us feel every bump the shitty road had to offer.
Ricky struggled to control the wheel. Our speed plummeted down into the forties.
With Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie” playing, I looked out at our rural surroundings. At the rows and rows of woods. We were closer to home at least. But there was still no comfort when the beast’s bright eyes were still upon us.
“Goddammit!” Ricky yelled in panicked horror. “What the Hell’s their problem!”
Uneasy, I turned toward those glowering brights. They highlighted our tumultuous sweat for all the world to see.
If anything, the SUV was only closer. And gaining ground.
Like a ferocious roar, the SUV’s engine echoed through the night. “Just keep going, baby!” I pleaded to Ricky.
“I am!” he replied, flustered.
Helpless, all I could do was watch the SUV lunge forward. “Watch out!” I cried.
With the force of a shark ramming into a boat, the SUV slammed into our back bumper. Me and Ricky jumped out of our seats.
“Shit!” Ricky yelled.
They hit us just hard enough to give us a scare, I realized. These fucks were getting a Christmas thrill out of our torment.
Right as “Christmas In Dixie” hit its emphatic chorus, the SUV drifted back as if it were pulling back for another punch. The vehicle’s engine was louder than ever. Its lights blinding as always.
“Keep going!” I commanded Ricky.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his sweaty hands sticking to the wheel. His eyes were focused on the road… more focused than they’d ever been on the paper route.
Alabama’s drawn-out chorus kept haunting us. What was once pleasant now sounded like an all-encompassing chant. The sound a cult makes as they prepare a sacrifice.
With the brights staring me down, the SUV’s engine reached its horrific peak. And then the beast came charging forward.
Cringing, I braced for the fatal blow. “Fuck…”
“Oh, God!” Ricky yelled.
But then right before it could pounce, the monstrous SUV swerved beside us and bolted down the road. Dust and dirt sprayed across our windshield like snow.
In a matter of seconds, the SUV had flown off into the night. Straight out of sight.
Now there was only me, Ricky, and Alabama on Powers Landing. We were alone. We were safe. We’d survived.
I chuckled like a maniac. Over and over on a manic loop.
Amused, Ricky joined in. He hit the steering wheel with glee. “Those fuckers!”
“I know right!” I said. Still laughing, I leaned back in my seat. “Fuck them…”
Ricky released his foot on the pedal. At a normal speed, the dirt road wasn’t so bad. Not to mention the further we got, the more houses and Christmas lights we saw. We were back in a Winter Wonderland.
Feelings of relief swarmed over us. Our sweat disappeared. Combined with The Crystals’s “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the secluded houses’ Christmas decorations gave us cheerful holiday vibes.
Without the adrenaline overheating us, the winter cold now made us shiver. But right now, I didn’t care. The chills felt like Christmas rather than being trapped in a ferocious blizzard. We were so close to home. And less than thirty minutes away from daylight.
“How many more we got?” Ricky asked, his sardonic grumpiness returning.
Smirking, I looked over at Ricky’s beaming smile.
“Just wondering,” he added.
A collection of colorful lights distracted me. I looked up toward a large house on the left. Like a Christmas shrine, the huge yard was lined up with glowing Santa and Frosty figurines. A true holiday house. “Maybe two more.”
Up ahead, I saw a tall green sign. Its vivid white paint caught my eye: Abel Road.
Excited, I hit Ricky’s arm. “Hey, that’s it!” I pointed toward the sign. “That’s where the new one’s at!”
Like the pro paper carrier he was, Ricky made the swift turn. “Great!”
We were on another dirt road. This one not as bumpy as Powers Landing. I could tell Abel was a real road less traveled.
Nothing but woods was out here. No sign of life aside from whatever lurked in this forest.
With the focused intensity of detectives, we both stared out the windshield.
“What’s the number?” Ricky asked.
“1972,” I answered.
Then like a beacon off in the distance, we saw a mailbox. A fresh yellow Post Searchlight mailbox. Clean and pristine.
“There it is!” I said.
Eager, Ricky eased the Corolla up toward the yellow tube. “Fuck yeah.” He rolled the window down.
The cold air snuck in like a vandal. I pulled my jacket in closer. After all the terrifying excitement of the night, the bitter wind caught me off-guard.
We stopped at the yellow tube. A skeletal metal mailbox stood right next to it, its rusted age the polar opposite of the Post Searchlight mailbox.
Ricky shined his iPhone’s light on the metal. 1972 was scribbled on the lid in big black font.
Through the dim headlights, I couldn’t see much of the yard. Just tall weeds and even taller trees. The outline of a large dilapidated house. Looks like our new subscribers hadn’t even moved in yet. No wonder that ugly mailbox was still there…
With a victorious laugh, Ricky high-fived me. “We got it!”
I forced a chuckle. “Yeah, finally.”
Ricky held out his hand. “What a night…”
Grinning, I handed him a wrapped paper. “Just one more after this.”
“Gotcha.” Gripping the newspaper, Ricky leaned out the window.
“We can still get home by five-“
Bright lights cut on from the house’s driveway. Bright, blinding lights. The eyes of the beast.
Startled, Ricky dropped the paper. “Oh shit!”
Both me and him looked on in horror.
Like a monster resting in its lair, there was the hulking SUV. Right there on the grass driveway. Right by its cave of a derelict house. A house conquered by broken windows and monstrous ivy. 1972 Abel Road looked about as cozy as a haunted castle.
“What the fuck!” I yelled. Terrified, I grabbed Ricky to pull him back. “Ricky, come on!” My eyes stayed on the SUV.And in a sickening epiphany, I realized I could only make out one mask in that car.
“Fuck this!” I heard Ricky cry.
Through the vivid headlights, I saw a quick flash of red run toward the mailbox. A glimmer of silver reflected off the light and hit me square in the eyes… a familiar and horrifying sight.
Motivated by fear, I tried to pull Ricky in through that window. Like a frantic child trying to save their father. “Get in here!” I yelled.
Ricky turned and gave me an uneasy look.
Then the hunting knife jammed straight into his cheek.
I let out a blood-curdling scream.
Even more force pushed the blade through like a hammered railroad spike. A bloodied tip protruded through Ricky’s other cheek like an arrow had struck him. Blood poured all around the wound. So much blood it would’ve drowned out Ricky’s voice even if he could move his mouth.
Like thick snowdrops, drops of blood fell all over the car. All over the seats. The air vents. Even the radio. Right over The Crystals’s holiday jam.
An avalanche of tears poured from my eyes.
Leaning toward me, Ricky’s mouth contorted. As if the blade controlled him like a ventriloquist controlled a dummy.
In the cold, the crimson streams stuck to his flesh. Almost frozen from the wind. My tears felt the same.
Screaming, I looked on at the fleeting life in Ricky’s eyes. The emotion was there. The compassion. But it was fading fast.
I squeezed tighter on to his arm… as if I could squeeze the life back in him. “No, baby!” I yelled. “Ricky!”
His dying grasp grabbed my shoulder. I could see Ricky attempt to talk, but the blade blocked his words. As did the abundance of blood.
Weeping, I touched his face. The cold blood stuck to my fingertips, but I didn’t care. Not when this was our last embrace. “I love you, baby!” I said with conviction. “I love you, Ricky.”
Like an invasive advertisement, Andy Williams’s “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” interrupted our intimacy. Along with the horror before me, the song’s jarring vocals overwhelmed me into a crumbing, crying mess.
Persevering, I kept my heartfelt eyes on Ricky. “I love you.”
Right before Ricky went still, a black gloved hand snatched the blade out of his face in one vicious tug.
Blood sprayed across me and my tears. I cried out as Ricky’s corpse fell into my arms. Literal dead weight that was once my beautiful husband. The thick blood smeared across me like a spilled red Icee.
I saw the woman crouch down in front of the window. Her Little Orphan Annie mask taunted me… as did the killer’s cold gaze. Like the excited eyes a hunter gave cornered prey.
“Fuck you!” I barked at her. “You crazy bitch!”
Then the psycho raised her gloved hands. The knife coated by my husband’s blood was in one hand, the unwrapped newspaper in the other.
Like a playful teacher, the woman pointed her blade right at the screaming headline. The exploitative headline:
LOCAL MURDERS BAFFLE STANWYCK POLICE. MURDERS POSSIBLY RELATED.
With a flourish, she pointed the knife back at herself.
Behind the mask, I could tell the bitch was cracking a smile. She didn’t need to talk or show it either… like a psychotic mime.
I looked down at Ricky’s mangled face. The gaping, bleeding holes on both his cheeks resembled grisly craters. His open eyes stared at me. As if he was communicating beyond the grave.
Disturbed, I couldn’t fight the tears back any longer. Not with my soulmate dead in my arms.
Moving methodically, the woman reached in to unlock the door on the driver’s side.
I glowered at her. Still feeling my husband’s cold blood leaking onto me, a fiery sensation built up in my soul. The adrenaline came roaring back.
The stupid bitch wasn’t even paying attention to me. Her eyes concentrated on the locked door.
Making my move, I brought my leg back and kicked the shit out of that Goddamn mask.
The bitch never knew what hit her. She went flying back as if Santa’s sleigh had smashed her.
The SUV’s stage-appropriate headlights showed her hunting knife go flying through the air.
I had a chance… Respecting Ricky’s corpse as much as I could, I laid his body out on the passenger’s seat. Then I jumped in behind the wheel.
Outside, I heard the woman stagger to her feet. In the cold, her red coat resembled the house’s lone Christmas decoration.
Still weeping, I put the car in drive. I stole a look over at Rick’s pale face. “I love you, baby,” I told him.
Channeling Ricky’s aggression, I took off down the dirt road. The bumps made me hop like a jackrabbit, but I stayed focused. Through the tears, I stared on at Abel Road. All while I passed nothing but wilderness.
I never once turned to look back. I feared the SUV would follow me… but those illustrious beams never struck me. Nor did I ever hear the beast’s roaring engine. All I heard was Christmas songs. Endless Christmas music.
And soon enough, I recognized my own neighborhood. All the glowing Christmas lights and decorated lawns welcomed me back to civilization.
Once I made it home, sunlight was already emerging. Frantic, I dialed 911. But I knew it was too late… all I could do was cradle Ricky in my arms. And there amidst the gradual warmth of the rising sun, we waited. My nerves calm but my tears steady.
The police never found Ricky’s killers. They found out the house was never even bought or rented. Just a fake name The Post Searchlight accepted for quick cash. Typical media protocol… And to this day, I still don’t know why that man and woman chose paper carriers for their Christmas slay.
I quit the route soon afterward. I’m currently in the middle of suing the shithole Searchlight as well. My lawyers told me I got a good case considering the fatal wild-goose chase that the paper’s lack of vetting put me and Ricky through.
And after Ricky’s death, all those connected murders disappeared from Stanwyck. Along with the rest of 2017.
I still stayed around town. After all, Stanwyck was my home. And the community was more than supportive. But I’m still tempted to make a move… particularly with Christmas now right around the corner. The festive season is now nothing more than a season of mourning for me. And I suspect that’s how Christmas always will be.
The first time I saw Bret, I was nineteen. I’d found a job working security at Dave’s Storage Unit. My duties included keeping vagrants and thieves from disturbing the 40 rental units that were laid out in five neat rows in the middle of downtown Atlanta and helping customers with lost combinations for their locks. It wasn’t the safest part of town to be working night shift, but it seemed to be easy work and the hours meshed nicely with my class schedule at the community college. I trained two shifts on days, and then showed up that Thursday at 10 p.m. for my first shift alone. Or so I thought.
I arrived ten minutes early. A guy in a Fall Out Boy t-shirt sat at one desk playing Solitaire and a girl with long blond hair had her feet propped on the other, with a ball cap pulled down covering her face.
“Hi,” I said, when he looked up. “I’m Jason. New guy.”
“I’m Tom, ” he said, and started shoving stuff into a backpack. “Quiet day so far. Good luck. The crazies come out at night.”
The girl lowered her hat and stared at me. She was the kind of beautiful that just stops a guy in his tracks. Big green eyes, full lips, flawless skin … I realized I was staring and mumbled a ‘Hi,’ in her direction. Her eyes widened and she tipped her head in greeting.
Tom looked up at me, eyebrows raised. “Yeah…so, all the keys are in the top drawer of that filing cabinet, along with a master list of the combination locks. Don’t give anyone access unless they show two forms of I.D. and you make a copy of it. They’ll fire your ass if you’re not a stickler about that. And it has to be the person with their name on the contract, not a girlfriend, not a wifey. Some guy almost got canned because he let a wife in and she left with his whole stamp collection in the middle of a divorce.”
“It was him,” the girl said, and pointed at Tom. He ignored her, already heading toward the door.
“See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” he said. “Night shift sucks.”
The girl flipped him a bird and I laughed. Tom shot me a look I couldn’t decipher, but then he gave a half-hearted wave and shut the door behind him.
I looked at the row of monitors and then back at the girl. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me and I felt awkward and flushed under her gaze.
“I’m Jason,” I said again, and immediately felt like an idiot.
“Bret,” she said, and leaned back in the chair. “Nice to have someone to talk to in this joint.”
“What about Tom?” I asked, sitting in the seat he’d vacated. She shook her head. “He’s a tool.”
“So… are you second shift or third? I thought I was working alone.”
She shrugged. “Wherever they need me.”
I guessed they called her in to keep an eye on the new guy, and she didn’t want to say she was supposed to babysit me. It was funny, because she seemed standoffish at first, but she was a talker and I loved to listen to her. By four a.m. it felt like I had known her forever, just one of those instant clicks and maybe even more so by the types of conversation people tend to have at those hours. We talked everything from childhood to politics. I think I was already falling a little in love with her.
She saw me stretch and said, “You want to go outside? We can do a walk around.”
A cool breeze blew, but she didn’t seem to notice. I couldn’t stop sneaking glances at her as we walked. Faded jeans, scuffed boots, black t-shirt and a camo jacket. I probably had close to the same outfit in my closet, but on her, even the ordinary seemed beautiful.
We walked the length of the first row and started down the second when she stopped and touched a bright yellow dandelion sprouting up through a crack in the sidewalk with the toe of her boot. “Those are my favorite flowers.”
I laughed. “Those are weeds.”
She smiled. “Those aren’t weeds. They’re wishes. Haven’t you ever blown on one and made a wish? And even when they’re yellow–that’s my favorite color. They’re such happy, hopeful little things.”
That made me smile, too. I’d never thought of them in that way. So many girls I knew seemed hung up on materialistic things, and Bret could find beauty in even this small flower. I was captivated.
When we made it to the fourth row, she stopped. Her face pinched into a grim expression as she said, “I don’t walk down this row.”
“Why?” I asked, taken aback by the look in her eyes.
“Number 27. It gives me the creeps.”
It was the third bay door, and it looked exactly like the first two. I didn’t understand, but I wanted her to smile again. “Then we skip this row.”
We finished walking the last row. A drink machine stood at the end of it and I asked her if she wanted one. She shook her head as I fed quarters into the slot.
A payphone I hadn’t noticed rang shrilly, making me jump. I laughed at myself and glanced at her. Bret’s expression wiped away my smile. She looked terrified.
“Don’t answer it!” she shouted. “Don’t ever answer it!”
I gaped at her, not understanding. “I don’t–I won’t–what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer. She started walking briskly back toward the office. I chased after her, my change and soft drink forgotten.
“That phone rings every morning at 4:17,” she said, as I opened the door for her. “When you answer it sounds like dead air, or there’s some sort of hissing noise. It gives me the creeps.”
“Probably some automated thing. Wrong number or something, but it’s set on an auto-program.”
She looked at me and said, “Do you believe in ghosts, Jason?”
“You think a ghost is calling?”
“Don’t make fun of me!’” she snapped.
“I’m sorry.” I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I haven’t ever seen one–”
She made a scoffing noise, and I said, “–but I won’t rule them out. My grandmother believed in ghosts. She said she had ‘the sight’ and swore that some people in our family could see them. Some had the gift of precognition, too. She was a very smart, reasonable lady.”
Mollified, Bret sat at the desk. “So, do you think everyone becomes a ghost when they die? Or do some move on to someplace else? Why would people be stuck here?”
I shrugged. “Unfinished business? Violent death? I don’t know. What do you think?”
She took a moment before responding. “Maybe the unfinished business. Maybe…maybe there just is nothing else.”
The easy vibe of our earlier conversation disappeared. She seemed anxious. Stressed. No matter what I tried to talk about, she seemed distracted. When Abe, the old guy on first shift appeared to relieve us, she walked out the door without saying goodbye. I bid a hasty good morning to him and ran to catch up.
I almost lost her, but I spied her head as she got on the train. It’d been a long time since I had a MARTA pass, so I had to dig for the $2.50 fare. She frowned when I sat next to her in the back, and I realized I probably looked like creepy stalker guy. Too late now, but I didn’t want her to be upset with me. I really liked this girl.
“What are you doing?” she asked, and I wanted to run, but the train lurched forward.
“I feel like I upset you and I’m sorry.”
She looked at an elderly lady in the next row, who was staring at us. Bret shook her head, like it was okay, but the lady got up and moved toward the front.
“It’s not you,” Bret said. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Let’s talk about dandelions then,” I said. “They’re my new favorite flower. Like you, pretty and magical.”
As corny as that was, she laughed, and our conversation slipped back into the same easiness it had before that payphone rang last night. At least, until the next stop.
A lumbering bald man with beady dark eyes got on and took a seat a couple of rows in front of us. I saw Bret stiffen, though he didn’t pay much attention to us at all. His gaze fixed on a pretty Latina who sat in the middle, playing on her smartphone.
The rest of the ride, Bret never took her eyes off the man. He wasn’t pleasant to look at, but I didn’t understand her terror.
“This is my stop,” she said, and stood. The dark-haired girl also stood.
“Bret,” I said. “Uh, where are we? I need to get back to my motorcycle.”
She laughed then, the tension evaporating from her face. “You crazy boy. It will circle back around in about 6 more stops. I’ll see you tonight.”
She waved and walked forward, giving the man a wide berth. For a moment, he looked like he was about to get behind them, and I was prepared to do so as well, so she’d feel safe, but he just sat there.
Bret was already there when I arrived that night. She laughed when she saw the small bouquet of dandelions in my hand. Tom’s eyebrows shot up. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He left in record time.
“I don’t think that guy likes me,” I said.
She waved her hand dismissively as I put the dandelions in water. “He doesn’t like anyone. And thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.”
So are you, I thought, but I didn’t have the courage to say it yet.
I wasn’t about to bring up the guy on the train. I hated that tense, scared look she’d worn this morning. But to my surprise, she did.
“That man is evil,” she said. “Please don’t ask me to explain how I know. I’m afraid he means to hurt that girl and I don’t know how to stop him.”
My stomach dropped. “Bret…did he hurt you? We need to call the cops.”
She hesitated long enough to make me think he had, but she said, “No. I don’t know. I can’t remember things, and I’m scared to remember things. The phone makes me think of something but I push it back. Anyway, it’s not about me now. It’s about that girl.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about it later. I don’t want to think about it right now.”
“I looked up dandelions between classes today,” I said. “People in the 1800s used to blow on them after they went to seed. If all the seeds blew away, the object of your affection shared your feelings.” I shook my head and gave her a pointed look. “You may not know it yet, but I think you’re in love with me.”
She laughed, long and hard and I grinned, pleased to see her happy again. Then her face got sad. “I wish I’d met you before, Jason.”
“What’s wrong with now?” I asked, with uncharacteristic bravery. “You’re not married, are you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’m not what you think I am. There are a lot of bad things, Jason. I don’t want to explain, because I really like you.”
“You’re a beautiful girl with a weird taste in flowers. Think of all the money I’d save on Valentine’s Day if you were my girlfriend.”
She laughed again. “Just keep talking to me. I hardly talk to anyone anymore, and you’re so funny. Tell me about the motorcycle. I’m glad you made it back to it.”
“I actually didn’t come back to it this morning,” I admitted with a laugh. “I got off the train and took an Uber to my place, then hitched a ride to school. Took the train back to work tonight. I was kinda hoping I’d see you.” I had seen the creepy guy, but I didn’t tell her that. “Come outside and I’ll show it to you.”
She walked around it, trailing her fingers on the gleaming blue paint. “It’s pretty,” she said, “but I don’t like these things. They’ll get you killed.”
“I was hoping I could take you on a ride on it some time.”
She gave me a glance that looked like a definite ‘no’, but said, “We’ll see.”
Everything was fine until the phone began to ring at 4:17 a.m. I watched her face get that same terrified look and wondered what in the world had happened to her, and if it connected somehow to the creepy guy.
Around time for the day shift guy to come on, she mentioned the guy on the train again. “I don’t know why, but I have the feeling he’s going to do something to her, soon. I hate to ask, because I know you need sleep and go to class, but … would you ride the train with me again?”
“Of course,” I said.
Abe appeared at six on the dot. “Good morning, Sunshine!” he said, dropping his backpack onto a chair.
“Good morning, Abe,” Bret said. To me, she said, “I love that old guy.”
I chatted with him for a moment. Bret moved to the door and I said goodbye to Abe, intent on following her, when he called out, “Hey!”
His old face was pale when I glanced back. He pointed a shaky finger at the Styrofoam cup filled with dandelions. “Where did these come from?”
The look on his face spooked me. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“I–I picked them for Bret.”
The old man face went slack with shock. “You know Bret? You’ve seen her?”
“Wha–” I whirled to look at her. She held out her hands in supplication. Tears streamed down her face. For the first time, I noticed she had on the same outfit as she had yesterday.
“I’m sorry, Jason. I didn’t–I didn’t know what to say.” “Jason?” Abe asked, louder. “I said, have you seen Bret?”
I couldn’t tear my gaze from her.
“Apparently, your grandma wasn’t the only one who had the gift,” she said, and walked through the door. When I say, walked through the door, I mean right through it. A freaking solid metal, closed door. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
Finally, I half-fell onto one of the chairs. I heard Abe talking, but it was like he was speaking through a tunnel. It seemed like forever before I could focus on him.
There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound insane, so I didn’t bother to sugarcoat. I said, “You didn’t see her, just now, when you came in here?”
He shook his head, his rheumy eyes huge.
I told him about working with her, about some of the things she’d said. Even about the weird ringing phone. When I finished, he just stared at me.
“To be honest, I don’t know whether to believe you right now, or to call the cops,” he said.
I nodded. It was a fair statement. I don’t know what I’d think, in his shoes. “She said you used to be a cop, before your wife got sick.” I looked up at him. “She said you’re the reason she loves dandelions. You told her about how your wife loved them, and how you decorated her hospital room with them before she died. Bret said it was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard.”
Abe sat heavily in the chair. “I did tell her that. Can I ask you to describe her for me?”
I did, down to her scuffed boots, and he nodded. Then he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a picture of her. It was Bret, alright, but on a MISSING poster. The clothing described as the last outfit she was seen wearing was what I’d seen her in.
“She went missing from her shift here, six months ago. I showed up and this place was wide open. There was a great deal of blood out by that payphone. The police never had any leads.”
I gestured at the row of monitors. One showed the drink machine and phone. “What about the cameras?”
“Installed after the fact. Because of her. Too little, too damn late.” He leaned forward, giving me a hard stare. “I loved that little girl. She was like a daughter to me. I’ve brought her dandelions myself. I have never believed in ghosts, but I saw your face this morning. I believe that you saw her, or you’re some kind of nut and think you saw her. But I don’t know how you know some of the things you know if that were the case. Bret and I worked together some, before we lost personnel and she got bumped to nights. I think she would’ve mentioned you, and I only told her the dandelion story right before she went missing. You could be the nut who took her, but I don’t think so. I can’t imagine why she’d share something like that with a person who would hurt her. If you see her again, ask her how much a mail order bride costs.”
“What?” I felt like I’d fallen back down the rabbit hole again. Nothing made sense. I wondered if I was dreaming.
“Just do it,” Abe said. “Now go home. You look like shit.”
Only when I stumbled to the parking lot did I remember my promise to ride the train with her. I thought about Bret and the Latina girl. In fact, I skipped class and lay in my bed and thought about them all day.
When I got to work that night, Tom was the only one there. Even though I still felt punch drunk and scared, I had hoped Bret would be sitting there. Abe apparently hadn’t told Tom about any of it, because he treated me with the same dismissiveness as always. It was weird to look back and realize he and Bret had never really spoken or interacted at all. I hadn’t had a clue.
By 4 a.m. I was getting a little stir crazy, so I jumped up to walk around the storage buildings. I turned the corner of the last one and walked straight through Bret.
I screamed like a little girl. She giggled a little, and clamped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. Jason–”
“Are you real?” I demanded. “Am I crazy?”
“I think I’m real,” she said. “At least, I was. I know it sounds like I’m lying, but I don’t remember much.” She nodded at the payphone. “I remember this phone and it ringing. I think he used that to catch me off-guard. I answered it and he hit me with something. I think–” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think he’s about to kill that girl on the train. Maybe I’m supposed to help her.”
Abruptly, she swung her fist at my arm and it passed right through. I yelped.
“Stop doing that!”
Despite everything, she laughed. “I was just checking. I don’t know how I’m supposed to stop him when he can’t see me and I can’t touch him.” She winked. “On the bright side, I bet you look crazy as hell on the security cameras right now.”
I scowled at her, then something occurred to me. I glanced at my phone. 4:20 a.m. “Hey, the phone didn’t ring.”
She shot it a scared look. “What does that mean? Are we on the right track, or are we running out of time?”
I had no answer.
The next morning when Abe came in, he gave me a wary look and said, “Is she here now?”
I nodded and pointed at the chair she was sitting on. “Bret, how much does a mail order bride cost?”
She laughed. “Tell him I said, ‘Ask Ernie.’”
I told him and his dark eyes teared up.
“Bret, what happened to you?” he asked.
“She doesn’t remember but we are trying to figure it out,” I said.
“Tell him Maggie still visits him. I’ve seen her around him. She’s got a little girl she calls Bumblebee with her.”
I told him and he burst into tears. When he could finally speak, his voice was a gasp. “There’s not a soul alive who knows that. Bumblebee was our daughter. She died back in 1974. I’ve never talked about her since.”
“Jason, the train,” she said, and I told Abe we had to go.
“Godspeed, son,” he said.
When we got on the train, the girl was already there. The bald man got on the same stop he had previously. His attention was once again fixed on her, but hers was once again fixed on her phone.
I had no weapon and this guy was twice my size, but when I thought about him hurting Bret, or this stranger, I think I could’ve taken him down with pure adrenaline. We were about to find out, anyway, because this time when she stood, he stood too.
It was still early, not a lot of folks out yet. We followed him, following her, trying to stay ducked out of sight.
She paused outside a storefront and fumbled in her purse for her keys. That was the distraction he was waiting on. He charged her like a bull.
It was terrifying, how quickly he seized her and dragged her into an alleyway. I ran blindly into the alley behind them. He had her pinned against the wall, his meaty hand around her throat.
“Hey!” I screamed. “Hey! Let her go!”
She still had her keys in her hand. While he gaped at me, she swung at his head with a vicious arc. She missed his eye, but the key dug into his cheek. The girl gave it a savage yank, opening up his face.
With a bellow of pure rage, he dropped her and grabbed his ruined cheek. Blood spurted between his fingers and he ran straight at me. I made a desperate lunge for his legs, but he barreled past me–straight into the pathway of a Meko’s Milk truck.
I’d hear the sound of that impact in my head for the rest of my life. A thudding, cracking, squelching sound. But I was glad. He’d never hurt another girl again.
Bret was gone. I missed her terribly and hoped every day she’d reappear. I realized that was selfish and then I just hoped she was at peace. There was no grave to visit, so sometimes I’d gather little bouquets of dandelions and place them at the office, or at my apartment. Such happy, hopeful little things …
Four months after the incident with Edward Culpepper (that was his name–I’d followed the story avidly in the papers), I was getting a little overtime, helping Abe go through the stack of delinquent customers.
“Looks like we’ll be cleaning out units #27 and #38,” he said. “Non-payment of rental fees.” He tossed the copies of their agreements on the desk in front of me and I froze. Edward Culpepper’s face stared up at me from the photocopy of his driver’s license. Renter of unit #27.
Abe noticed my face and said, “Jason? Are you okay?”
“That’s him,” I said. “That’s the guy who killed Bret.”
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before then. Her strange fear of that unit. Now it made sense. I told Abe and that old man moved faster than I did as we grabbed the combination for that lock.
It took us awhile, because the until was completely filled with old furniture and boxes of junk, but towards the back, we found a metal barrel. On the ground beside it lay Bret’s army jacket.
Abe grabbed my arm. “We are not opening that. We are calling the cops right now, do you understand me?”
I let him pull me outside, because I didn’t want to see her like that, either.
Bret’s body was finally laid to rest. With her mother’s permission (and notice to the caretaker so he wouldn’t try to kill them), Abe and I did some gardening work on her grave that next spring. Yellow dandelions covered it, looking as beautiful and sunny as the girl they memorialized. I think she would be pleased.
Five or six years passed. I graduated college, got a real job, fell in and out of love a couple of times, but I never really stopped thinking of her. Every time I saw a white dandelion, I picked it and made a wish. When I was in the area, I visited her grave and made sure she still had her cheery little offerings.
One day, I was riding my motorcycle up near Nashville, enjoying a sunny summer day. I guess the driver of the Camaro didn’t see me when he swerved around a semi to change lanes.
I flew through the air and fell back down, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring thud. I lay there, conscious of sounds and light, but I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t feel anything either, except for the heat of the sun on my face.
I was disoriented, but I guessed I was in the median. Lying on grass, for sure, because there was a round, white dandelion inches from my nose. Blackness seeped at the edges of my peripheral vision. I couldn’t blow on it, but I made a wish anyway, then passed out.
When I came to, I still couldn’t move, but I felt a little more. Specifically, I felt someone nudging my side. I looked up to see Bret prodding me with the toe of her boot.
“You gonna lie there all day?” she asked, and extended her hand.
Surprisingly, my hand rose to grab hers and didn’t pass through. She felt solid. Real. I wondered if I was in the hospital and this was some anesthesia-induced delirium. But the sun felt real enough. I even smelled burned rubber. I let her help me up, and I stood there for a moment, swaying. I saw my bike some yards away, crushed.
“Ugh,” I said. “Maybe I shouldn’t move too much before the paramedics get here.”
She winced. “Yeah, about that…” She pointed to the ground beside me.
It was surreal to see my broken body lying there, staring sightlessly up at the sky.
“Oh,” I said. “Ouch.”
She shook her head. “I told you those things would kill you.”
“So … now what?” I asked. “Is there a bright light we walk towards or what?”
“You’re so calm. I like that about you.” She shrugged. “If there’s something we’re supposed to be walking toward, I haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s just me and you.”
“Maybe it’s my wish,” I said, and she raised an eyebrow.
“I made a wish right before I passed out—died, whatever.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Oh, yeah? Is that why I’m here? What was the wish?”
“Just one I’ve wished a thousand times now. You’re really bad about responding to your ghost messages.”
I took her hands and made her face me. “Sorry. Still getting the hang of this business.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Such a rookie. But tell me, what was your wish?”
“What I always wish–that I could see you again someday, and do this,” I said, and kissed her.
I’m not sure how long we stood like that, kissing and holding each other while sirens screamed and traffic whizzed by on the other side of the median.
Eventually, we started walking. I didn’t know where we were going. Didn’t care. All I knew was that I was with her.
“So,” I said. “Who’s Ernie and what’s this about a mail order bride?”
Before she could tell me, a terrible cramp seized my body and I felt myself being tugged backwards. Brett frowned, her green eyes suddenly sad.
“It’s not your time,” she said. “Stop fighting it.”
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to stay with her.
But the tugging became a vacuum until I had no choice I went hurtling backwards.
I blinked and saw an ambulance worker standing over me.
“There you are,” he said as he popped up the stretcher I was somehow on.
They loaded me onto the helicopter. I saw Brett standing over his shoulder. She held a dandelion in her hand.
“It’s okay, Jason,” she said. “Some things are worth waiting for.”
This is only happening because of what we did. I regret it, but not because of the consequences. I regret it because I could have been good; I should have been kind. I think we deserve this.
Think of it like Carrie — you remember that movie? Except not. Not at all. We weren’t the popular kids trying to humiliate Gilbert in front of everybody. What we were doing was a coping mechanism — everyone does it, but that’s never made it okay. Why things ended up working out differently for us than the way they work out for everyone else, I don’t really know. We never expected things to go the way they did, and I never expected to feel this way about it. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it.
* * * * * *
Gilbert was a tragedy. Tragically unpopular, tragically acne-scarred and tragically named. It was almost like his parents went out of their way to ensure he’d be an outcast. You can tell yourself that, if you think it justifies it. Convince yourself that when they make it so easy to be cruel, it’s rude not to oblige. You can tell yourself they deserve it, but what they deserve is kindness and you’ll figure that bit out, except it happens a day late. High school is Darwinism is high school is Darwinism ad nauseam; we’ve convinced ourselves that popularity is all about kill or be killed. That’s a fallacy. It isn’t real. The popular football jock, he thinks he’s going to the NFL. He thinks he’s going to be rich and famous. He doesn’t know it yet, but he isn’t going anywhere. Don’t let the fact that he scored four touchdowns in a single game distract you: he’s going to grow up to manage a gas station or become a clerk in a women’s shoe store — not the glamorous bullshit his ego’s been feeding him. Popularity doesn’t matter after high school. Popularity doesn’t matter if you’re dead. Just ask Kevin or Richie — except you can’t. Not anymore.
The worst part is, we all bought into it, me, Kevin and Richie. We weren’t popular. We weren’t going to become popular because we did it; we were just deflecting some of our own torment onto a kid that was weaker than we were because he was an easy target. We could have just kept our heads down and ignored dickbags like Deen and his brown-nose, buttfuck goons … but transference was easier than the alternative… The first law of thermodynamics says that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it simply changes form. We learned it in physics. It applies to things other than matter too, when you think about it. The worst part was, even though the logic of it checked out, it didn’t make the three of us carry any smaller targets. The Deensquad would always find us and make life hell. We could have made a morose painting or wrote depressing poetry into journals or even talked to someone about it, but transmuting the negativity in that way was making productive use of it, so why bother? It couldn’t be destroyed so instead of harnessing it, we passed it along, gave it to Gilbert. Don’t pretend like you never did anything like it; you’re no better than me. If anything, we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter anymore; I figured it all out too late.
The easiest targets are always the insecure ones. The introverted kids with a lot of flaws. I could make a list of Gilbert’s but it wouldn’t be as long as the one that I try to keep hidden of my own … he was a quiet kid; buck-toothed and overweight and smelled like cat piss … his parents were poor. He wore the same three outfits over and over until they thinned and began to unravel entirely. Richie was the one who pointed that out. He saw the loose thread on Gilbert’s shirt. Six inches of loose stitching just beneath the right arm of the long-sleeved shirt, the one he always wore. The one with the horizontal stripes. He noticed it a week ago when Gilbert raised his hand in class. That’s when Kevin made the plan — it was the end of the day and not enough of the other kids would see. We had to be seen. We just waited until he wore the shirt again. Wednesday.
We rushed Gilbert in the hall. He walked alone with quick, quiet steps; his arms laden with books. I knocked them out of his hands. That was my job in this. He looked at me with eyes full of “whys?” When he leaned down to pick them up Richie grabbed his arms high over his head. Kevin yanked the thread until it opened up a hole in the armpit of the shirt. He stuck his finger in the hole and pulled. It only took a moment. I’ll never forget the way time seemed to stretch as the hole did as Gilbert stared up at us; struggling to comprehend our motives. Disappointed, sad shock commingled with my grinning reflection in the shadow that fell across his eyes. I watched it happen with eager excitement; the transference. Deen gave us the negativity, and we didn’t deserve it, so we payed it backwards. As Kevin pulled Gilbert’s shirt apart, we gave it away again. I began to laugh; I remember it like a bad dream, that laughter — my laughter.
Gilbert tried desperately to cover himself, to hold it together — tried to keep it from happening — but the tattered pieces of his shirt fell away revealing Gilbert’s doughy shame. “Look!” I said. My laughter echoes still in the dark places of my mind. Places that should be quiet. Places where I’ve been trying to shut it away. But every time I remember the sound of it, it grows louder and more cruel. “Gilbert has moobs!” The words echo forever and the laughter plays on loop like a sitcom.
We made Gilbert cry and it only took a moment. Just a moment and we’d ruined him. I understand that now. I wish that we hadn’t done it at all, but not so much because of the consequences we faced. I realize, horribly, that we’d reduced a person to his smaller parts … to the molecules … and scattered them to the wind.
* * * * * *
The second law of thermodynamics says that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. We gave Gilbert the hate and the hate tore him apart. Once something flies apart, that thing is done and it can’t be undone. I wish that wasn’t true.
We found out what happened to him the next day. What we did. You could try to pin it on Deen and the Buttfucks, or Deen’s alcoholic dad, or his alcoholic dad’s alcoholic dad, but that’s just more deflection.
We did this.
We transferred that to him we could try to pass the blame all we wanted, but it made no difference. Every action has an equal and opposing reaction and the reaction to ours left a lonely kid dead.
We heard the rumors about how he killed himself, downing a nearly full bottle of his mother’s Xanax while his parents slept in the next room. I didn’t ask whether it was true. Somebody said there was a note in sloppy handwriting. Somebody said it was completely illegible at the end. They said it started out alright, and slowly devolved, probably as he drifted off. By the end, the only thing they could make sense of in the whole thing were the last two words: “Sweet dreams.”
I didn’t ask whether that was true either. There are a lot of things I didn’t ask. I only felt the guilt of destroying him permanently. I didn’t hear anything anyone said to me at school on Thursday. I was too busy remembering geometry and physics and equations and waiting for my body to collapse into oblivion; waiting to fold into myself until there was only an event horizon remaining; a pinhole where I should have had a heart, growing ever smaller into nothingness, but never quite becoming that. A human asymptote. The third law of thermodynamics says something about the temperature of closed systems and equilibrium, but I can’t remember what it means. It’s irrelevant, because the entropy isn’t gone. Everything is blurry. Everything is in constant motion; moving away. I’m too tired and afraid of what will happen next. I can only focus on one bit of information at a time, and for some reason only one thing sticks in my mind. I read somewhere that Saint Catherine of Siena says “the devil never sleeps” and tonight that’s the only knowledge that stays no matter where else I try to focus.
The devil never sleeps and he sees everything: sees alcoholism make bullies make me and Richie and Kevin make Gilbert make the devil real.
I told my mom I was sick and stayed home from school on Friday. It wasn’t a lie. I was disgusted by my part in this, to the point that my stomach was in knots. I spent the morning hovering over the toilet, emptying myself of everything but the guilt I felt. You couldn’t convince me that there wasn’t blood on my hands.
Richie called me that afternoon after school. He said Kevin looked like a ghost. He said his eyes were dark circles, he kept nodding off in class and waking up screaming. They sent him to the nurse, who sent him home. Richie said that Kevin was losing it. He kept talking about a dream. Richie told me his eyes looked like glass, wide and dark with a distant vacancy reflecting within. Richie said Kevin was looking right through him. “He was there,” Kevin said, “only it wasn’t him at all…it looked like Gilbert, but it wasn’t. It was something else … something much worse … and it was real.”
“He was completely naked, covering his tits like he did,” Kevin told Richie who in turn told me, “but he was chasing me instead of cowering. His eyes were bright balls of red light and all of his teeth were razor blades. Actual razor blades. He wanted to punish me.”
Apparently Kevin said he was afraid to sleep the night before because he knew something bad was going to happen if Gilbert ever caught up. Every time he fell asleep, the dream began again where it left off. Apparently the exhaustion had been impossible to avoid as the day went on.
Kevin was gone first because Kevin pulled the thread. They found him dead on Saturday morning, he was clutching one of Gilbert’s new teeth in his hand. A razor blade he’d used to saw open several veins and leave his sheets blood-logged, soaked and sticky.
Richie told me he’d begun having the same dreams the night before and the next night I began to have them as well.
* * * * * *
I’m in an empty place. There’s no light and as I run, I can hear Gilbert’s uncoordinated footfalls slapping the darkened ground behind me. His eyes are glowing with red revenge and as he gnashes his razored teeth, rubies spill out from his lips. The blood from them cascades down his chin as he closes in on me. I can feel his fingers rake across my flank like sharpened skewers as he grabs me and I awake.
A set of marks, red and irritated, remained on my side. Four long lines that traced their way to my back, puffy and raw. I hvaen’t slept since.
* * * * * *
They found Richie dead this morning, in the same apparent state as Kevin. My two best friends since elementary school, dead because the darkness we’d passed along had been passed right back. My mom asked me if I knew why they’d both done it; why they’d killed themselves. But I knew they hadn’t. I knew it was Gilbert. I couldn’t bear to lie, so I simply didn’t reply. I just stared right through her in that thousand yard way and hoped to disappear from the fear and the shame.
I don’t want to have those dreams. I’ve been drinking energy drinks all day. I took everything I’d been saving from my allowance and spent it all on Zappy Brand caffeine pills and as many Red Bulls as I could get, but $67 worth won’t be enuogh to keep my eyelids from falling forever. I started writing this thinking it might atone for the mistake. I started writing this to keep myself awake.
Actually, I know I said it was like Carrie, but it isn’t. It’s more like Nightmare on Elm Street — you remember that one, right? Only not. Not at all. In this scenario, the kids — us — we deserved what we’d get. It’s funny how matter is neither created nor destroyed but simply changes as you exchange it.
Apparently they fuond the same type of note at both of the scenes, mostly illegible and only two words by the end that anyone could raed. Word travels fast. I don’t know how or why. The devil never sleeps and I’m the gleam in his eye. The shadows may whisper their lullabies but I refsue to become praying prey and die. I should be okay because I haven’t seen myself write anything illegible yet, and taht’s a good sign.
Eveyrthing shuold be alright as long as I stay awake, but I dno’t think I can remian in this state indefimetely. I shuold probbly post this now jsut in csae. I think I can feel evrey part of me vibtrating and oscilltanig aruond and aruond in cirlces. The entorpy is waht I need to aviod thniking abuot … or perhpas I shuold accpet it: embarce it. Dno’t we desreve tihs atfer all? I’m jsut arfaid to do taht bceause of waht taht maens. I thnik I shuold be alirght as lnog as I aviod akcnoewledginh the shaodws at the croners of the lghit amd avdoi the temptaition to tpye the wrods: ‘sweet dreams.’
Check out two stories from author Scott Savino (plus many more) in Monstronomicon, a collection of 100 short horror stories from 70 authors, now available on Amazon.com.
Please support the author’s latest project on Kickstarter as well. Black Rainbow is an anthology collection of LGBTQIA horror stories, with tales written by LGBTQIA authors and allies, and featuring LGBTQIA themes. To pledge your support to the project, visit it on Kickstarter now.
All my friends are dead. Don’t take that the wrong way though. I can’t say I knew any of them when they were still alive. Well, at least most of them anyway.
I guess I’m what you could call a psychic. I’ve never liked that word though. I can’t read anyone’s mind, see in to the future, or make things levitate. All I can do is see ghosts.
I have had the ability for as long as I can remember. I didn’t know exactly what it was when I was younger. I just knew that I could see people that others couldn’t.
I don’t think my parents ever really believed me. I was pulled out of public schools in kindergarten because of “focusing” issues. The truth is I was a bit distracted, but it was because of the kids that no one else could see. They wanted someone to play with too. They had been there a while, and I was the first person that could see them.
After that incident, my parents decided to homeschool me. My parents were somewhat wealthy, so they were able to hire a teacher to come to our home since they were busy at work during the day.
Mrs. Thornwell was the worst. She was wrinkled and had patchy white hair. Of course she carried that typical old person smell with her. To be fair she was a good teacher, but she was incredibly strict. There was no fun to be had with Mrs. Thornwell. She wasn’t dead either, at least not yet.
I lived quite a sheltered life growing up. My parents almost never let me leave the house. I was given almost every toy or item I could ever want, but it meant nothing since I had no friends. They thought that something was wrong with me. Probably due to the fact that everywhere I went I was like the kid from the 6th sense, because “I see dead people.”
That came to a halt when I was 17. My parents were in a brutal car crash with no survivors on either side. They didn’t stay behind either. It was a bittersweet realization knowing my parents had passed on to whatever afterlife instead of staying as ghosts. Maybe they didn’t believe me, and they had over-protected me my whole life, but I never doubted that they loved me.
Since I was 17 I was caught in a bit of an odd situation. I wasn’t quite an adult yet, but I wasn’t really a kid anymore either. Luckily my parents had some connections when they were alive, and I was given emancipation almost immediately.
I was given my parent’s savings. I won’t say how much it was, but it was quite a decent sum. After some calculations, I realized that if I managed my money right I could easily live off the money for the rest of my life.
Just to be safe I decided to sell of my family’s estate. It was a much bigger home than I would ever need. If anything the upkeep would be more than it was worth to me. It would also boost my emergency funds to sell it, so I did.
I bought an older home on the edge of my city. It was incredibly cheap, so I knew there were probably issues with the home, but I didn’t really care.
It was a 2 story home, and it had a basement. Still more room than I needed, but the price had been cheaper than essentially everything else I looked at. From the outside it looked like the house had lived through a war or two. The inside wasn’t terrible though. Nothing seemed to be breaking down. Water and electricity worked with no issues everywhere. Well, everywhere except the basement. I chose not to go down there. I got an ominous feel from it.
It took less than a day of living in my new home to realize I wasn’t alone.
I was reading a book on my couch in the living room. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, so I looked up. Directly next to me was seated a man. He looked to be about 20 years old, and he was dressed in an older style of clothing.
“Hello?” I said questioningly.
This seemed to catch him off-guard. He even jumped back a bit in surprise.
“Oh, you can see me!?” He said.
“Why wouldn’t I be able to see you? You were practically hanging over my shoulder while I was trying to read.”
“Uh…Sorry about that. You’re alive though, and I’m kinda not. Living people can never see me.”
“Yeah I guess I’m a little special. Looks like we’re going to be housemates from now on, so get used to it. I’m Devin, and you?” I said this as I extended my hand.
After a moment of staring at my hand he seemed to finally remember what he was supposed to do. He grabbed my hand with a giant smile and began to shake it.
“Name’s Sam, pleasure to meet you!” He replied.
Sam was the first, but not the only guest I would discover in my home. Sam was the most curious though, and probably still the most human. He had died of a brain aneurysm. He wasn’t quite ready to move on yet though, so he stayed behind. There had been so much life that he had been robbed of, and he couldn’t accept moving on.
Sam and I became quick friends. We had both been somewhat sheltered growing up, and neither of us had really had a chance to explore the world. We talked about our dreams, and things we wanted to do. I suppose there is still a chance for me to do the things I want, but Sam isn’t quite as lucky.
After the first couple days of being in the house I almost assumed that Sam was the only ghost living with me, but you know what they say about people who assume.
I was lying in bed late one night, and just as I was about to fall asleep I heard something. It sounded like running water. I hopped out of bed and made my way towards the source of the noise. It was coming from the kitchen.
“Sam?” I called out.
As I got closer I noticed that there was someone washing dishes in the sink, but it wasn’t Sam. It was a somewhat stocky woman. She was short, and looked to be in her 40’s. She turned to me as I drew nearer.
“If you’re going to live here you need to clean up after yourself. This is unacceptable!” She said pointing towards the pile of dishes in the sink.
“Sorry, I didn’t think it would be an issue.”
“Didn’t think it would be an issue? You aren’t the only person in this household. Please try to be considerate of the mess you are leaving behind for others!” She scolded me. She turned back around and continued to wash my dirty dishes.
I was about to apologize more sincerely when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Sam.
“Don’t worry about her, that’s Emilia. She only shows up when someone makes a mess. As long as you pick up after yourself it won’t be a problem. You do not want to see her bad side though.” He said this with a bit of a chuckle at the end.
Now that I thought about it, the house had been incredibly clean when I moved in. There had been no dust or cobwebs anywhere for a house that was this old. I guess I had just thought that the realtor was doing the upkeep.
I made a mental note to not make any messes, and went back to bed.
I woke up the next morning to find my dishes were all clean, and Emilia was nowhere to be found. Sam was waiting for me on my couch. I sat next to him and we began to have one of our daily casual conversations.
Midway through our conversation I began to hear noises coming from below. It was obviously coming from the basement. Sam noticed my discomfort.
“There’s something I should tell you about the basement. I’m sure you could sense it, but there’s something down there. It’s not like me or Emilia though.” He said.
“What is it then?” I asked.
“I’m not entirely sure. It was here before I was, and I’ve been here a while. As long as you keep it fed it will stay down there.”
“Keep it fed? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well you aren’t going to like this, but it feeds on animals. They have to be alive, or freshly dead. It’s best if you can find roadkill shortly after it happens, then you don’t have to feel bad about it.”
“You’re joking right?”
“I wish I was. It’s actually kind of a good thing you moved in. It’s been a while since it has fed, and if it doesn’t get fed it will begin to look for something on its own.”
“So it’s my job to keep whatever is done there fed?”
“Yeah…Sorry for not telling you about it sooner. It had been so long since I had been around a living person I almost forgot. If you can’t find any roadkill around here I’d suggest you go buy some mice at a pet store. They don’t scream as loud.”
I was in disbelief. I had sensed there was something terrible in my basement, but I had hoped I could just ignore it. I guess that wasn’t an option.
I could have packed my bags and left then, but that would have meant leaving whatever was in the basement to potentially roam free. Not to mention I enjoyed being around my new friend Sam, even if he wasn’t alive.
I frantically began to scour the neighborhood for any signs of roadkill. I found an unfortunate cat that hat met its end, but it looked to be a few days old. According to Sam that wouldn’t be fresh enough. I would need something alive, or something that had been dead less than 4 hours.
I gave up and took Sam’s advice. I bought some live field mice from a pet store. They eyed me with their beady black eyes the whole way home. If only they knew their fate.
When I returned home the sounds emanating from the basement were even louder, and more frequent. There was what sounded like a deep grunting, and things being thrown around.
Sam was waiting for me at the front door. He eyed the mice I was holding and nodded.
“Good, you should probably hurry. I recommend keeping your eyes down when you go down there. The less you see the better.”
His words didn’t exactly reassure me. Nonetheless, I began to make my way towards the basement. The sounds only grew louder as I approached the door leading downwards.
When I opened the door, the noises seemed to stop. The path down was pitch black. I could just barely make out each step with the aid of help from the hallway light, and I couldn’t see any switch or string to turn on light. Perhaps it was better this way.
I slowly began to descend one step at a time. Every step creaked, making me want throw the container of mice and run back upwards. Somehow I made it to the end though. I almost wondered if the thing in the basement had just left, because there had been no noise whatsoever other than the creaking and the mice occasionally squealing.
I set the container of mice on the floor of the basement and took a step back up. In an instant an enormous black hand extended out of the darkness and ripped the container out of sight. I heard a large crack, and then I heard the mice begin to squeal even louder.
I sprinted back up the stairs, but before I reached the top I heard a loud crunch as the squealing ceased. I slammed the door shut and looked up to see Sam once again waiting for me.
“What the fuck is that thing?” I demanded.
“I told you, I’m not entirely sure. That should keep it satisfied for at least a week or two though.”
“Are there any other things I should know about this house?” I asked hoping for him to say no.
Sam frowned at this question.
“You should stay clear of the attic.”
“What’s in the attic?” I asked Sam. To be completely honest I didn’t even know there had been an attic. I hadn’t been upstairs at all other than to have a quick look.
“I can’t tell you, for personal reasons. As long as you don’t go up there you won’t have to worry about it though. You don’t have to feed it like our basement dweller.” He replied.
“Why can’t you tell me? Are you hiding something?”
“We all have our secrets, and this is one you do not want to know about. Just trust me on this one.”
Before I had a chance to respond Sam had disappeared in to thin air. Must be nice to be able to escape from an argument like that. Vanish in to thin air when things start to get heated. To be fair he did have to die to obtain that power.
Sam hadn’t really led me astray so far, but he did take his time mentioning what was in the basement. He seemed much more cautious about the attic. After only seeing part of what was in the basement, it made me wonder what kind of monster could be in the attic. It was my house now though; don’t I have the right to know?
I spent all day pondering whether or not I should heed Sam’s advice. He hadn’t shown back up, so I assume he was giving me time to cool down after my basement experience. I still wasn’t even sure where the entrance to the attic was. A little exploration couldn’t hurt, could it?
I ventured upstairs. The entrance to the attic wasn’t in the hallway, so it must have been in one of the two bedrooms.
Sure enough, I found the ladder leading upwards in one of the closets of the bedrooms. I gazed up at the entrance. My heart began to beat much faster than normal. Maybe I really shouldn’t go up there. The curiosity was killing me though. I gripped the ladder while continuing to weigh out my options. Before I could decide I heard a voice from behind me.
“You’re not supposed to go up there.”
I turned around to see a small girl in front of me. She had long black hair and bright blue eyes. She looked to be about 8 or so. I felt a quick wave of sorrow, because I knew this young girl in front of me was dead.
I knelt down in front of her.
“And who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Elizabeth, but you can call me Lizzy!” She said with a giggle.
“Well Lizzy, why am I not supposed to go in the attic?”
“Because Sam would be mad if you did. No one is allowed in the attic.”
“Do you know what’s in the attic?”
“No. Sam told me no one is allowed up there because it’s scary. I don’t like scary things.” As she said this she began to look down and cover her eyes as if she was remembering something scary. If I wasn’t so caught up in what was in the attic I would have thought it was cute.
I patted Lizzy on the head in an attempt to calm her down.
“Well this is my house now Lizzy. I need to find out what’s so scary about the attic. You wait here. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
Lizzy didn’t seem entirely certain about my idea, but she couldn’t exactly stop me either. I had made up my mind. Sam was hiding something in the attic, and I needed to find out what it was.
I turned back around and headed back towards the ladder. I was surprised that Sam hadn’t shown up himself to try and stop me. He had told me not to go up to the attic, so it made me wonder why he wasn’t here now.
I shrugged off the thought and began to climb the ladder. Once I was almost to the top of the ladder I was able to peek my head in to the attic.
There was a light attached to a string in the center of the room. This would have struck me as normal, except that the light was already on. I had never been to the attic before, and there’s no telling how long it had been since anyone had been up here. So how the hell was there a light still burning?
Other than the light, the attic seemed empty. Not only was it empty, but unlike the rest of the house it was dirty. There were cobwebs in the corners, and dust almost everywhere. It seems even Emilia wasn’t allowed up here.
I was really confused when I finally made it completely in to the attic, because it really was empty. I had expected some sort of ferocious beast to jump out and maul me, but that hadn’t happened. I decided to take a quick walk around the attic before heading back down.
As I was crossing the floor it hit me. I was struck with the most intense headache of my entire life. It was so strong that I feel to my knees in pain. My head felt like it was going to explode. I was so caught up in my pain that it took me a few seconds to realize there was someone in front of me now.
It was a middle-aged woman. I didn’t pay close attention to her face, because I was busy staring at the giant gash on her neck. It looked as if it was still bleeding. Blood slowly dripping down her body.
She began to reach out towards me, and I flung myself backwards. As I did this two more figures seemed to have emerged from nowhere and began to approach me. They were drenched in blood. The pounding in my head only seemed to intensify, but I needed to get out.
I began to put all my effort in to crawling back to the attic ladder. The bloody ghosts continued to follow me across the room, but despite the massive headache, they didn’t seem exactly hostile.
I didn’t care whether they were hostile or not. I wanted nothing to do with them. Once I reached the ladder I flung myself down head first. I was able to grab on to one of the rungs to absorb some of the momentum from my fall, but I wasn’t able to hang on for long. I fell down the rest of the ladder and landed on my back. It was extremely painful, but it was nothing compared to the headache I had had up there. Speaking of the headache, that had stopped.
I took one last glance at the hole in the attic. I saw the woman I had first seen, who had her throat slit. She mouthed one word to me before disappearing. I’m not entirely sure what it was, but I think she said “Help.”
I rolled over on to my stomach. The pain in my back from the fall was starting to sting now. It didn’t seem too bad, but it stung like hell. After a few minutes of recovering I was able to get back up on my feet.
When I exited the closet I found that someone was waiting for me, but it wasn’t Lizzy. No, it was Sam. He didn’t look happy either. He was stood there with his arms crossed like a parent about to give a lecture.
“I told you not to go up there.” He said.
“Yeah well I guess I forgot. Kinda like how you forgot to tell me what was in the basement. Did you have something to do with what was up there?”
He took a deep sigh.
“No, I was already dead when that happened. I watched it happen though.”
“And what exactly happened?”
“He…Well, he killed them. If that wasn’t obvious. He was a middle-aged man, quite attractive too. He would lure them back to the house, then he would drug them. Even he sensed the basement was off limits, so he operated in the attic. He wasn’t in the home long, but he sure was busy. It was gruesome.”
It took a moment for this all to sink in. So, apparently there had been a serial killer in my home. Not to mention the monster in the basement. Not only had people died in this home, some were murdered.
“Well, is he dead now? He’s not one of the ghosts here is he?” I questioned.
“No, I imagine he’s still alive. Unless he was in some kind of accident somewhere else. He did his business here, and he left.”
That didn’t exactly reassure me. A psychopath that had lived in my home was still on the loose out there. I suppose he could have been arrested, but the ghosts in my attic seemed to think otherwise.
“I’ll ask you one more time Sam, is there anything else I should know about this house?”
“Well as far as the threatening guests of this house I think that’s it. There are a few others of us that you haven’t met yet, but none of them are violent.”
As he finished saying this we both turned as we heard a noise.
It was a knock coming from my front door.
I went to answer my front door, because that’s what normal people do when someone knocks. It had startled me a bit at first, but it was most likely just a neighbor or something. My closest neighbor was about half a block away. Perhaps they decided to finally make the journey to come meet the person who moved in to the creepy old home on the block.
However, when I opened the door I was a bit surprised. I was surprised because I recognized the person on the other side. It was Mrs. Thornwell, my homeschool teacher. Before I had a chance to say anything she pushed her way past me in to my home.
“So this is where you’ve been living. I was a bit surprised when I heard you sold your parent’s home and moved in to this dump. I suppose the inside isn’t so bad. Much cleaner than I expected from you.” She said.
“Uhhh, what are you doing here Mrs. Thornwell? I’m already finished with school.”
“I came to check on you of course. I heard the terrible news about your parents, and I came to see how my old pupil was doing.”
“Well as you can see I’m doing fine. I was kind of in the middle of something if…” I didn’t get the chance to finish my sentence because Mrs. Thornwell had already taken off in to exploring my home. What’s the deal with old people always criticizing younger generations for manners, but yet feeling like they are entitled to everything?
She explored the rooms on the first floor despite my opposition. Then she attempted to open the door leading to the basement, but I pushed it back and held it. Preventing her from opening the door.
“You can’t go down there.” I said.
“Why not, are you hiding something down there? Is it drugs? I always knew you would grow in to an addict. Let me see so I can help you.”
Her words caught me a bit off guard. She thought I would become an addict? Perhaps I had been a bit weird growing up because of my ability, but I was not a druggie. I was actually a bit offended. So, I removed my hand from the door. I had just recently fed the thing in the basement, so perhaps it wouldn’t take her anyway.
“Fine, take a look for yourself.” I said.
She made a satisfied grunt, and began her descent in to the basement.
She turned on her phone flashlight to guide her. Once she made it to the bottom she began to look around.
“Now where is the light switch down here. Oh my, what is th-” She didn’t even have time to finish what she was about to say before it grabbed her. Her screams only lasted a second as it quickly put her out of her misery. Even after I shut the door I could still hear the sound of bones crunching. For selfish reason I hoped she wouldn’t come back as a ghost, at least not in my house.
“Well on the bright side you won’t have to feed it for a while. That should probably keep it satisfied at least a couple months, maybe more.” Sam commented from behind me.
It was fucked up given the situation, but I couldn’t help but let out a short chuckle. I’m sure there are thousands if not millions of kids who would like to feed their teacher to a monster, but I had actually done it. Curiosity killed the cat after all. I wonder if she still thinks I’ll be an addict in the afterlife.
“So…What now?” I asked Sam.
“What do you mean? I think everything is pretty well sorted out now. You know to keep the thing in the basement fed, and stay out of the attic. Things can go back to normal now.” He replied.
“Back to normal? There is a monster in my basement, and there are dead girls trapped in my attic because their murderer is still on the loose. Not to mention the only people I interact with are all dead. How is any of this normal?”
Sam raised his finger as if he was about to respond, but instead he just disappeared again. Of course he did. Gotta love when your best friend is a ghost.
I decided to peek out my front window to see if anyone had been alarmed by the short scream from my basement. There was no one out there, but Mrs. Thornwell’s car was parked out front. Great, how does one dispose of a car?
I put on some old clothes and gloves. I took the car a decent distance away from my home, and parked it somewhere that didn’t appear to have any cameras. I walked for a while to put some distance between myself and the car, and then I called for an Uber. Once I got back home I immediately burned the clothing I had on. I knew I had seen on crime shows that people always were getting caught by carpet fibers, so I wasn’t taking any risks. I just had to hope she hadn’t told anyone that she was coming to see me.
When I got home I decided to start some research. I felt almost obligated to help the girls in my attic. No one else could see them. It was possible that I might be the only person who could help them. That meant trying to track down a serial killer on my own though.
After spending several hours looking through online articles, I was finally able to find what I was looking for. Three girls who had all gone missing within 3 months. All were single middle-aged women. I recognized the one in the first picture as the one who had her throat slit. I’m sure the other two girls were the other ones in my attic, but I hadn’t really had a good look at their faces since I had been desperately trying to escape.
I put my head in my hands. Well, I had confirmed who was in my attic, but how was I supposed to track their killer? There was no telling where he could be.
“I can tell you who he is you know. You just can’t go to the police. He didn’t leave behind any evidence, so they would just think you were crazy.” Sam said this, magically appearing next to me on my couch.
“You know who the killer is?”
“Of course, he would leave his wallet out while he operated. I couldn’t exactly tell anyone about him either though. I can tell you his name if you really want to know, but I’m not sure you know what you are getting yourself in to.”
“You’re probably right, but I’m too invested to back out now. Even if this ends poorly, I have to at least try. Tell me his name.”
Sam then proceeded to tell me the serial killer’s name, and he was right. I really had no clue what I was getting myself in to.
Sam told me the name of the serial killer. I had expected to hear the name of someone I had never known, but I was wrong. No, the name I heard was quite familiar. That’s because the name he said was that of my fathers.
That couldn’t be right though. My father couldn’t be a serial killer. On top of that, he was already dead. I had attended his funeral. I had seen him in his casket. He was very much dead. So then why was Sam trying to tell me the man who had killed the girls in my attic was my father.
“Is this some sort of sick joke?” I asked a bit angrily.
“What do you mean? You wanted to know his name. That was the name on the license in his wallet.” Same replied a bit puzzled at my sudden temper.
“That’s impossible. The name you said is my dad’s name, and he’s already dead.”
Sam didn’t seem too surprised my response at all. He simply began to scratch his cheek while he responded.
“I guess he did kind of look like you now that I think about it. I told you he was living when he left here. I wasn’t absolutely certain he was still alive.”
“If my dad was the killer, then why would the ghosts in the attic still be so pissed off?”
“Why do you expect me to understand them? I’m not the same as them. Perhaps they don’t know. They can’t exactly watch the news.”
“So what am I supposed to do? Go up there and tell them that I’m sorry my father murdered them, but he’s dead now?”
“I’m not sure, that’s for you to figure out.” Sam said this while shrugging.
As much as I hated it, Sam was right. This was my problem. I still wasn’t convinced that my father was the killer though. I needed some direct evidence. I thought it would be worth a shot to visit my father’s grave.
I’m not sure how many people can relate, but for those of us who can see the dead, a graveyard is the last place you want to go. I still remember during my parent’s funeral that there were far too many uninvited guests looking on. I still hadn’t been back to my parent’s graves since that day.
This was a necessary trip though. Even if I gained nothing. I still needed to try. I decided to make the trip at night. I do think there is some merit to the theory that ghosts are more active in the dark. Plus, if my father was a serial killer, I didn’t want anyone to overhear the conversation I would be having with him should he appear.
I pulled in to the parking lot just after midnight. There didn’t seem to be any other cars there. I exited my car and made my way to the entrance. Just standing at the front gate I could tell there were dozens of eyes fixed on me. I did my best to ignore them and pushed forward.
I kept my eyes down on my journey to my parent’s graves. I didn’t hear anyone attempt to follow me, but I could feel the eyes staring holes through me. It’s true I had been living in a home with who knows how many ghosts, but being in a graveyard was a different feeling entirely. It was almost overwhelming, but I had to keep pushing forward.
After a grueling walk that seemed to last forever, I finally reached the two graves side by side that contained my parents. I stood in front of the one containing my father, and I knelt down.
“Hey Dad, it’s been a little while. Maybe you know why I’m here. Did you do it? Did you kill those girls?” I said this to the grave. I didn’t really expect anything, but I guess I was hoping for some response of some kind. I didn’t get one though, at least not from him anyway.
“He’s not going to respond kid. He didn’t stay behind. Guess he didn’t feel like answering anyone’s questions.” A voice said.
I shot my eyes up immediately to look at where the voice had come from. A couple rows back sitting on top of a grave was a man. He looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He seemed to be grinning from ear to ear.
“Who are you, did you know my father?” I asked.
“Well I guess you could say I’m family, in a way. So of course I knew your father. It seems you didn’t really know him that well though huh.” He responded.
“What are you trying to say?”
“Isn’t it obvious? You came here for answers. I’m just trying to help you understand.”
“So my father did kill those girls?”
“Yes, and not just them. There were others too. Your father was quite the diligent worker. He really had to be. It was part of the deal after all.”
“What are you talking about? What deal?”
“Where do you think your wealth came from? Your father was a dead-end wage worker before he met me. When your mother became pregnant he was desperate for a change. I offered him that change, for a price of course. All he had to do was kill someone for me every so often. He decided he wanted out though, so I gave him an early retirement.” The man said all this so nonchalantly that it was chilling. I wasn’t sure what to think. I felt numb. Was he telling the truth? Was this man the Devil?
“Why are you telling me all this?” I finally managed to stutter out.
“Well you see, as much as I appreciated your father’s hard work, our contract is still unfulfilled. You inherited his wealth, and as a result, you also inherited the rest of his contract.” The man said with an even bigger grin than before.
“I don’t know what kind of deal you made with my father, and I don’t care. Kill me if you want, but I won’t accept your contract.” I said this as I turned and began walking out of the graveyard.
I expected the man to pursue me, or at least say something, but he didn’t. I made it out of the graveyard without seeing him again. I couldn’t imagine he was done with me though.
That assumption was correct. When I made it home and walked in my front door it wasn’t Sam who was waiting for me on my couch. It was the man.
“Nice place you have here. Quite a few freeloaders. Maybe you should make them start paying rent.” He said as he laughed at his own joke.
“How do I make you go away?” I said bluntly.
“Well if you don’t want to continue your father’s contract, there is another way out.”
“And that is?”
“You die. If you die there is no one left to take on the contract since you have no children. Other than that you are stuck with me.”
I considered this for a second.
“Can you give me a day to consider my options?” I said.
“Certainly. I will give you 24 hours. Once I return I’ll expect to see your corpse, or the promise that you will deliver me someone else’s corpse.” He once again smiled after his statement, and then he disappeared before me.
I had already made up my mind, but I wanted him to leave. I had no intentions of being the puppet of some demon. Despite letting my teacher get devoured, I wouldn’t consider myself a killer. My life has never held much value anyway. No one will miss me.
I plan on visiting the girls in my attic, and telling them the truth. If they want my life they can have it in place of my father. If they don’t, then I think I will finally make a trip to see what’s in the basement.
Newton, Georgia is a small town near the Alabama border. Less than an hour away from Stanwyck, my husband Robert’s hometown. Newton’s your typical one Wal-Mart, one high school town. People are friendly. And every November, the weather starts getting a little cooler.
But there’s also quite a bit of history in Newton as well. Some of it ugly, some interesting. But recently, we’ve started getting some new history in this small town. A dark notoriety. You see, Newton was a quiet All-American town. Well before it became home to The Day Stalker.
The police and press don’t know anything about the killer. For all we know, the Stalker could’ve been male, female, whatever. It didn’t matter. There were no clues. Just a bizarre M.O.: a victim that always went missing in the daytime.
All of the victims were suspected to have been taken during the day… morning, afternoon, evening. It didn’t matter to the Stalker. And then like clockwork, the bodies were found a little less than twenty-four hours later. Always in a remote location. Always in the daytime. It turns out the Stalker was a pure sunrise-sundown serial killer.
The murders had been piling up for about a year now. A year of panic and turmoil. And yes, the media went fucking nuts. We had national and local affiliates patrolling the town like a swarm of buzzards. All of them rude as fuck.
I dealt with the chaos for awhile. After all, I was one of the local beat writers for The Rockdale Citizen, our bi-weekly paper. Well, I should say I was a writer for them. The intrusive invasion of all these other pretentious “reporters” killed my action. All anyone ever wrote about was The Day Stalker… and these national writers all had a Hell of a lot more resources than I did. More ways to bullshit the lack of information at least. And since I didn’t cover sports or local history, I was among the first of the Rockdale casualties.
So I was laid off a few weeks ago. I guess Rockdale figured they’d let the big boys cover The Day Stalker. I was expendable. Well, whatever. Fuck them. I didn’t need that shit paper. I had a degree, Robert made good money on the police force. Me and him would still live in the heart of Newton suburbia. Only now I’d have more time to write. Yeah, that’s right. Local Newton reporter Michelle Lenz was now gonna become a world famous novelist. Or at least, I was gonna make my umpteenth attempt at it. Most importantly though, I now had more time with my son Billy.
Billy was eight and scared shitless by the Stalker coverage. I couldn’t blame him considering the fear that swept over the community like a thick fog. And like in a thick fog, we couldn’t see who the killer was. We didn’t know who’d be next. And even in the daytime, we had no idea when the Stalker would strike again. Regardless of all the press, us Newtonites felt totally isolated. Nothing more than helpless pawns for this exploitative news story.
During the long layoff, I spent more time with Billy. I think having me around comforted him. Gone were those long work nights spent at the office or covering local elections. Shit, I could even pick Billy up from school on time without having him wait around over an hour like an embarrassed orphan. Now Billy and I were closer than ever.
While Robert was stressed and overworked with the other officers, I became like both a mother and father for Billy. Both the nurturing mama and devoted daddy. We’d even play catch together in those cool autumn evenings.
From what I saw, my constant unemployment gave Billy constant reassurance. Constant safety from the plague of unease brought upon us by both the Stalker and the stifling media.
Everything in Newton was so tumultuous nowadays. A feeding frenzy of news cameras and asshole anchors. They made it tough to do anything in our little town. Traffic got congested, crowds conquered the city. And of course, putting Billy to sleep was harder than ever.
With Robert gone most nights, I was always there at Billy’s bedside. A lot of nights I even fell asleep lying right next to him. A Scooby-Doo book usually on my chest.
And tonight was no different. There we were lying on his bed. In Billy’s bomb shelter of a bedroom. There were the shelves of action figures. The Scooby-Doo dolls. And the countless comic books. Billy was interested in the scary stuff… just not old enough to handle the real disturbing stuff.
In his room, Billy cowered beneath his Superman blankets like a terrified soldier hiding in the trenches. I could sense his unease. His trembling timidity. Billy’s nerves yet another victim of the Day Stalker.
But I was there by his side. I held Billy close, my arm draped around him like a shield. All while reading him the latest adventures of Scooby-Doo. The illustrated monsters provided us a safe spookiness from the all-too-real horror conquering our small town.
As I finished the last page, I looked over and saw Billy’s eyes glued to the window. Perpetual worry on his young face.
I squeezed his shoulder. “Hey,” I said in a soft tone.
Startled, Billy looked at me with quivering eyes.
“It’s okay, Billy,” I comforted him.
“But what if he’s out there?” Billy asked in a low voice. His nervous gaze drifted back to the window. To our back yard.
The lighting outside illuminated the small yard. A perfect lawn I’d kept pristine due to all my free time. Even the shed out back looked nice… the opposite of the dilapidated eyesores that most of our neighbors had allowed theirs to turn into.
I closed the book and laid it on the nightstand. I could see it was gonna take more than Scooby-Doo to ease my baby’s fears.
“He’s not, Billy,” I told him. Ever the caring mother, I leaned in closer. “I promise.”
Billy faced me. He could see the confidence radiate off my warm smile.
“He won’t get you at night,” I said to him. I rubbed Billy’s shoulder. “The Day Stalker only comes out in the daytime, remember.”
“Yeah…” Billy said, his voice still full of trepidation.
I kissed his forehead. Like a Lifetime mom’s kiss. Only mine was sincere. “You’re safe at night, sweetie. I promise you, you are.”
Silent, Billy just looked at me with his big bright eyes.
“Ain’t no one gonna get you,” I continued. I pinched Billy’s cheek. “Not as long as I’m here.”
“But what about the daytime?” Billy asked in a tremble.
“What about it?”
Like a paranoid scout, Billy stole another glance out the window. “What if he gets me in the daytime?”
Grinning, I pulled him in closer. “Sweetie, you’ll be in school!” I followed his gaze out the window. Out at our lovely lawn. “And when you’re not, I’m with you. Okay. Mommy’s gonna be here a lot now. I’m gonna take you to school and take you back home.”
My playful hands threatened to tickle Billy.
He couldn’t help but laugh as he leaned in toward me. The chuckling alleviated Billy’s scared state. Music to my desperate ears.
“Mommy’s never leaving you, baby,” I reassured him. “I’m always with you, remember that.”
“I know…” His lingering smile relieved me. Even a weak smile was better than seeing your eight-year-old son so dominated by unease.
“And daddy’ll protect us too. You know he’s tough!”
With the confidence of Wonder Woman, I strengthened my hold on Billy, showing off my physical and emotional strength. “You got that right!”
Right before I could give him another kiss, Billy’s small hand blocked me. “But mom.”
“What about Jodie?” he said, his voice a mere whimper. Like he was asking a question he wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to. Like he didn’t want the answer.
“Jodie?” I asked, keeping my smile. “That girl from school?”
“Yeah…” He peeked out the window. “I’m worried about her…” He faced me. “Is she gonna be safe too?”
Supportive, I cradled Billy in my arms. “Yes!” And this time, I did tickle him. “I promise you Jodie’ll be fine!”
Billy giggled like a grade school maniac. So much so he almost fell of the bed.
Grinning, I held him steady in my arms. “Jodie’s safe, okay. Both of y’all are!”
Still laughing, Billy wrapped an arm around my neck. “Okay!”
Like a victorious mama, I planted a kiss on Billy’s soft cheek. Full of joy, we looked on at each other’s smiling faces. My job here was done in this arena of toys and superheroes.
But deep down, I knew I’d lied. One of the few lies I’d ever tell my son…
Less than thirty minutes later, Billy was sound asleep. He slept heavy too. I could go berserk in that room, but he’d never wake up. The cartoons I’d left on his flatscreen were more effective than a sleeping pill.
Billy didn’t even budge when I stepped off the bed. I’d left him some juice and cookies on the nightstand… a little something extra in the grape juice just in case Billy were to wake up in those next few hours.
I turned off the lights in the backyard. Like I always did for these late-night rituals. Dressed in my hoodie and jeans, I walked alone toward the shed. The November coldness did nothing against the warm excitement I felt within.
You see, I hadn’t told Billy a complete lie. He was safe. And he would always be safe. Unfortunately, I just had to lie about Jodie. When she skipped school today, the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. Like when the naive fly just happens to land on that vicious trap.
The little girl should’ve known better. After all, Newton isn’t the town for skipping class. Not when The Day Stalker lurks about in those mornings and afternoons.
I stepped inside my shed. Trembling with never-ending excitement, my hand managed to lock the door behind me.
The hanging small light bulb broadcast little Jodie Marks lying on a table in the back. She was out cold. Naked. Bound-and-gagged in duct tape with tight precision. Like a patient awaiting surgery. Only there was gonna be no drugs to ease the pain. I’d awaken her soon enough. I always woke them up before I got started.
Behind her awaited all my tools. Items on the pegboard and shelves. Knives, spades, hammers. All sorts of vicious weapons. All at my disposal.
My exhilaration warming me from the shed’s coldness, I walked up to the arsenal of weapons. My eager eyes scanned each and every one of them. My touch caressed them. There were so many choices…
Throughout my pre-game ritual, I realized no one in the media would ever know that forcing me out of Rockdale had only increased my reign of terror. Back when I was working, I had a tough time with the schedule. Balancing being a mother, wife, reporter, and killer was tough! But now… well, I had all the free time in the world. While Billy was in school, I had all day to do what I wanted to do. To indulge in my sick pleasures.
And tomorrow after dropping Billy off, the police would discover what was left of Jodie’s body. Like a musician releasing a surprise album, I’d dump her corpse somewhere to continue this circus. My world tour of slaughter. And everyone would still fear me. They’d still be terrified of The Day Stalker.
And through it all, Billy would always be safe. That much was true. Our relationship would never suffer. I may hurt others, but I’d never dare hurt him. I love Billy. While he may forever live in fear of the Stalker, he’ll forever love me.
Finally, I settled on my sharpest garden spade. In the blade’s reflection all I saw was my wide smile. My Day Stalker face. Like a demented child at Christmas. Only I was gonna have much more fun…
Holding the weapon, I looked over at Jodie. In just a few moments, I’d wake her. Then her helpless eyes would watch me make that first vicious wound. Her screams suppressed. Her body trapped.
Sure, I was The Day Stalker. I collected my victims during those long afternoons. And I’d dispose of their bodies early in the morning. But the real work… the real fun part always happened at night.
Have you ever heard of the seven gates of hell? Its a hugely popular paranormal site in rural Pennsylvania, surrounded by urban legend and horror stories. I always took it for granted how popular that site was, growing up only 15 miles down the road, but apparently its a nation wide phenomenon that some people travel hundreds of miles to visit. Now I’ve never been one to believe in the paranormal, and not just ghosts and the like, anything that didn’t have concrete evidence that I could see or feel was hard for me. I was just a logically based person, I’m sure you know the type.
My friends however, were all in that phase of young adulthood that involved needing to find proof of some kind of ghost, demon, or otherworldly entity. We were all sophomores in high school, and our evenings consisted of all sorts of ghost hunting adventures such as going out into the woods behind Madi’s house and using a pendulum to try to speak with a spirit, using a Ouija board, and even trying to create a makeshift summoning portal out of kitchen supplies. None of it ever really worked, sure the pendulum swung but it was windy, and everyone knows that Ouija boards are just controlled by whoever is touching it wanting to make a spooky scene. I was always there, playing along and having fun, but never truly believing anything.
That is why when Kenny brought up going to the seven gates of hell I was all for it. Aside from the fact that the thing was dripping in paranormal lore, there was an actual story behind it as well. In the early 1800s there was an Asylum in Hellam, Pennsylvania, this was back in the days where those that were admitted were not… treated great. I don’t need to tell you the things that happened to those admitted into asylums before 1900. One evening, that asylum caught fire and started a blaze for the centuries. Due to its location in the middle of the woods, it took fire response teams well over 20 minutes to get to the scene, and by that point, well, there was no point. Most of the occupants of Hellam Asylum were burnt alive, and while a few escaped into the forest, many were found dead later in the surrounding area due to smoke inhalation, starvation, or ripped apart by animals. All quite gruesome deaths. I wanted to see the remnants of the asylum that were allegedly still there past the sixth gate.
It was a Friday night when we went, leaving our home at 10 PM, so that we could try to be at the asylum by 3 AM, the witching hour. There were five of us, Kenny, Madi, Andrew, Lauren, and myself. All piled in to Kenny’s single-row pickup truck.
“So what are you guys hoping to find out there” I ask, I know there were supposedly the ghosts of the asylum inmates, but other then that I didn’t know too much about the lore.
“You know, the usual. Ghosts, demons, whatever wants to show itself to us” Kenny state matter-of-factly. At first, Madi and Lauren actually seemed a little tense, which was strange. This was the kind of thing we did all the time. It was Lauren that spoke next,
“Well, it depends on how deep into the woods we get. I heard Anders and Lawrence went by themselves last week and couldn’t even get past the third gate. Said that they started hearing voices and seeing eyes in the woods. Spooked ’em real good.”
I suppressed a laugh, Anders and Lawrence were basically the class clowns of our high school, and taking anything they said seriously was almost as much of a joke as whatever it was they had said.
“Yeah, and I’ve heard that if you can make it past the seventh gate then you get sent directly to hell, never to return.” Madi said, her eyes scanning the woods to our right.
“Assuming that hell is real, that is.” I chime in, achieving a punch to the arm from Andrew. After about a 45 minute drive we arrive at the broken down street sign that says Toad Road, the alleged beacon of where the gates are to start.
“Okay everyone shut up, you all have your flashlights, and knives?” Kenny asked. We had been instructed to bring flashlights for obvious reasons, and knives I guess to feel more safe from the ghosts? I know I brought one in case of a coyote which were more popular in the area then I would like to remember. An actual threat. We all nodded in his direction signaling our two items.
“Great. So about an eighth of a mile in the forest here, should be a rusted gate. That is the first gate, and once we cross it we will be in the devils territory.” Kenny said with a smirk on his face. “I hope he’s ready.”
I rolled my eyes and shot a smile at Madi who was looking a little bit nervous still. I put my arm around her and whispered to her that everything was going to be alright, and maybe they would finally find something of substance so we can put this dumb paranormal stuff behind us and move on to the next fad.
Kenny would soon turn around and lead us into the woods. It took us about 5 minutes to reach the gate that he had spoken of. I honestly didn’t see what the big deal was, it was a little bit strange for the rusted iron gate to be sitting in the middle of the woods, not attached to anything and being overgrown with vines and weeds, but scrap metal is found everywhere, there wasn’t a huge significance. The others seemed a mixture of elated and nervous at the same time.
“So what is supposed to happen after we cross?” I ask, preparing myself for the made-up shenanigans I will be experiencing soon.
“The first gate isn’t much. According to legend since we are the furthest away from the asylum, there are the least amount of spirits here. They will likely try to push you around so you may feel a bit of pressure but that’s about it. Oh also, our phones will probably go out here. Electronics don’t work in the gates. So please stay close, and if you get separated from the group just go back to the car so you don’t get hopelessly lost. I left it unlocked since we are in the middle of nowhere.” Kenny banged his flashlight twice on the metal bars of the gate, causing bits of rust to spark into the air around it, then with a theatrical performance he stepped to the other side of the gate.
I was next to follow, and then the rest of the group, and unsurprisingly, I felt no different. We walked for a few more minutes and I went to check my phone. It had shut off, which was strange because the battery life had been at almost 80% when we left the car. I guess cell service just doesn’t work this far out in the country.
“So all of your phones are actually off, then?” I ask, making sure I’m not the only one. One by one they check, and one by one they agree with me. I’m more concerned about us getting pulled apart from each other then the fact that maybe this could be a paranormal interaction. Madi is particularly freaked out by this.
“Guys I don’t know, this feels a little bit too real for me.” Madi said nervously, looking back towards the way we came, probably judging whether the social repercussions of going and waiting in the car and being called a baby inevitably by the rest of the group was worth it.
“Oh, stop, it’s fine. Worst comes to worst we all die in a poltergeist extravaganza!” Kenny said, not helping.
We continued walking. The next gate was about a mile deeper, and we weren’t moving super quickly.
“So Kenny, what is supposed to happ- OUCH!” Andrew stopped himself mid-sentence and glanced down at his leg. He pulled up his jeans to mid calf and revealed a large cut spanning about four inches of the back side of his lower leg.
“What happened?” I asked, looking around with the flashlight, attempting to find any thorn bushes or other culprit. I felt a light tapping on my shoulder, and turned around to see who it was, only to find no one was there. Madi, Lauren and Kenny were all standing next to Andrew, and I was alone where I stood. Okay. Weird. I’ll admit.
“I don’t know, I was just walking and it.. hurt.. then this,” Andrew said, motioning towards his leg. “I mean it’s not that bad, just unexpected is all.. lets keep going.”
We made it to the next gate a few minutes later. Only Madi complaining of feeling like she was getting shoved to the side, she compared it to when you’re walking next to someone who is leaning in to you. She was scared though, and placebo is a strong thing, especially in the paranormal, so I chose to ignore that.
“Alright, gate two is right here. On the other side of this gate, according to legend, you start feeling as if you are being followed, the pushing continues, only stronger, oh and there is a cult that guards the third gate at the end. So ya know, watch out for them.” Kenny, who had apparently not felt any presences during the first gate and was obviously feeling a little more lighthearted then the rest of the group pressed on without question.
It was about halfway through the second gate that we encountered out first problem. Madi’s flashlight died. She swore up and down that she had fresh batteries in it, but none the less, we were short one. Madi huddled close to me and used the light from mine as we continued down the imaginary path that Kenny was leading for us.
About a quarter of a mile past the second gate we heard a scream. I whipped around and saw Lauren on the ground, a wild look in her eyes as she looked back and forth so quickly I was afraid she might break her neck. We all looked at her inquisitively.
“I… I don’t know what happened, it felt like someone just speared me!” Lauren shouted, panic growing in her voice. I walked over to her and offered her a hand to get up. “I’m serious guys! It felt like I got tackled! I didn’t just dive onto the ground and scream for no reason!” Lauren shook off my hand and pushed herself up rejoining us, shock in her face, and Andrews. Kenny clearly didn’t believe her, and Madi looked like she was on the verge of tears.
As we walked, I got the increasing sensation that I was being stalked. I began looking around for the signs of a coyote, attributing the sensation to that, but I couldn’t see anything that would alert me to the presence of wildlife. In fact, now that I was thinking about it, there was a surprising lack of wildlife all together.
“Guys, hold up for a second, be quiet.” I asked everyone, and they all were happy to oblige, not that anyone was really talking that much anyway. As everyone stopped, I felt a pit in my stomach start to grow. There wasn’t a single noise being made. No crickets, no wind, no leafs cracking in the distance. Complete silence. “That’s strange, isn’t it? The lack of sound?” I stated my concerns aloud.
“I really think we should turn back. That feeling of being shoved down? That was enough for me. I.. I don’t want to mess with this stuff anymore, I’m serious.” Lauren shivered as she spoke, despite the relatively warm night.
“Honestly, I’m down to turn around too, it’s getting pretty late.” Andrew spoke next. His eyes, not necessarily frightened, but definitely on edge.
“Are you all being serious right now? Come on, we drove all the way here we are not turning back now,” Kenny said, his voice dejected. He threw his hands in the air in a fit.
“No I think we should keep going, I just thought it was weird is all,” I threw back. I felt it again, after I said that. The tapping on my shoulder, as if someone was trying to get my attention but didn’t want to speak. I turned my head, knowing there would be nothing there, and not being surprised when there wasn’t. “How much further to the third gate?”
“It should be right around here, lets go.” Kenny swung his flashlight around and started walking again, not giving anyone else the chance to disagree.
After another two or three minutes we landed back on a road that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. There was no sound of traffic, obviously, and there was no paint on the road, it just seemed like concrete in the wilderness. The feeling of being watched was almost overwhelming now, and I have to admit, it has started freaking my out a little bit at this point.
I could see in the distance another gate sitting at the end of the road. This one felt different though, maybe it was because it was decidedly less rusted and antique looking or maybe it was because it was in a place that actually made sense for a gate to go instead of being in the middle of the forest. Somehow it just felt.. strange.
When we were about 10 yards away from the gate, I heard Madi start to sob. I turned to ask her what was wrong and I saw utter terror in her eyes. I will never forget that look. I asked what was wrong, and she couldn’t even speak. She just pointed to the sides of the roads.
In the darkness where the road dropped off into more grass and trees, sitting just along the edge of our vision were bright green eyes. Hundreds of them.
It took all of five seconds for the rest of our small group to see what Madi did. Those green eyes, unnaturally bright in the darkness of the forest surrounding them. Lauren let out a shriek, and Andrew just about jumped out of his skin despite not actually making a scream. I swear Kenny actually smiled, as if he was happy to finally have something to talk about. His smile doesn’t last, I know he wants to see something metaphysical more then any of the rest of us, but even for him, this felt like more then we bargained for.
One by one, what felt like thousands of men stepped out of the shrubbery on either side of the road, each holding some sort of weapon. My heart dropped. Madi is clinging on to me, her face shoved into my chest, sobbing. Andrew looks distant, like his brain wouldn’t allow him to process the situation. Lauren was also crying silent tears, and Kenny had an awful grimace that came from trying to look like he wasn’t scared to preserve his social status, and actually shitting his pants.
The figures were silent as they approach, they were humanoid in shape, but something about them was distinctly wrong. Maybe it was the way they appeared darker then they should have, even as they got closer and our flashlights could reach them. Maybe it was the way they seemed to float instead of walk as they moved, or maybe it was the noise that emitted from them. It was subtle, a small static like white noise, but its amazing how loud things sound when you haven’t heard noise at all in the last 45 minutes.
Three of the figures maneuvered themselves between us and the third gate, their gaze never breaking from our own. One stepped forward, his hands wrapped around what appeared to be a shotgun, the other two clutching giant clubs made of wood and scrap metal.
“You will turn around. Now.” The voice didn’t come from the man with the shotgun, but rather boomed through the air, as if the world itself were speaking to us.
Of course, my initial reaction was to turn around and get right the fuck out of there, as was everyone that was sane in our group. Kenny, however, stared forward with more purpose and drive then I’ve ever seen. He had finally done it, he had contacted and seen with his own two eyes something from another world. We all had. However unlike the rest of us, it hadn’t frightened Kenny, it had made him want to know more.
“No, no we are going to keep going. This is public land, you can’t stop us. I don’t believe that you will pull that trigger.” Kenny spoke back to the creatures with a calm precision. He really meant what he was saying, and I couldn’t understand how. I fought every urge in my body to turn around and bolt, and I walked forward to put my hand on Kennys shoulder.
“We need to go, man. I don’t think these guys are fucking around. We need to go.” I put emphasis at the end of the sentence, hoping that my good friend was just in some kind of shock induced state of overconfidence. I turned him around to look at the rest of us, instead of them. “Look at Madi, and Lauren,” I pointed at the two girls, the former’s head in her hands trying to avoid her surroundings, and the latter sitting down next to Madi, trying to put on a tough face and hardly succeeding.
“What, do you want to chicken out, just like Anders? This is all just meant to scare us okay, Daniel? Nothing is going to happ-“
A crack once again pierced the night, and I knew instantly that the shotgun had been fired. I didn’t even have time to scream before Kenny was gone. I don’t mean gone, as in dead, I mean gone. Ceased to be around. There was no trace of him, one moment he was talking to me, and the next my hand was no longer on the shoulder of my childhood best friend, but rather floating through the air back to my side. The figures were gone too.
“Kenny? Kenny!” I shouted into the nothingness. The sound was gone again, along with the creatures, so my voice felt like it would travel miles, but nothing came back. I turned back to everyone else, and they looked as petrified as I was.
“Where is he, Daniel? He was just right there! You had your damn hand on his shoulder, Daniel! Where is he!” Andrew was now in front of me, jabbing his finger into my chest as if somehow I was the one that caused this.
“I don’t..” I started
“That is bullshit!” Andrew shoved me hard enough that I stumbled backwards and almost fell over. “People don’t just disappear!” His rage quickly dissipated into worry as he walked over to where Kenny was just a few moments before and dropped to his knees. “We have to leave now, tell the police what happened, I don’t know.”
“We can’t just abandon him out here Andrew, we have to keep going.” It was Lauren that spoke this. The steely look on her face much different then the one she was wearing only a minute ago.
She was right. If we left right now, Kenny might as well be dead. He still might be dead, but if we keep going, maybe we can find those creatures again and try to strike a deal. There was nothing I wanted more then to leave this forest and never come back, but at this point, we didn’t have a choice.
Madi looked up for the first time since the dark men arrived, her entire face red, and tears staining her cheeks. When she spoke, her voice cracked and she sniffed to try to stop her nose from running to no avail.
“I don’t want to, I just want to go home.” She was defeated, and I didn’t blame her, however unless she wanted to walk back through the woods alone, she was going to have to get through it. Kenny needed us.
“I’m sorry, Madi, I know you’re scared. We all are. But we have to do this right now, we have to. We have to.” I repeated it twice, once for Madi, and once for myself. She looked back at me like a little kid being told she was going to be spanked, but she nodded her head, and let out another burst of tears before eventually standing on her own.
Without giving myself anymore time to think about it, I walked up to the third gate, put my hand on it, and walked around to the other side. The others followed me, if hesitantly.
The road that we had been walking on disappeared directly on the other side of the third gate, strangely enough, so we were back to walking through wooded terrain and keeping out eyes out to whatever may lurk in the trees. I had taken point in Kenny’s absence, Madi staying constantly at my side, followed by Andrew and Lauren. We walked in a tight square forward.
It was odd, but for some reason I just knew where to go. It was as if I was being guided, but by a force that was unseen or unfelt. I found myself making turns around certain trees, and crossing over a small stream at one point that would have been much easier to just walk along side. The tapping that I had been feeling on my shoulder previously was also getting stronger, and harder to ignore. It was persistent now, and the taps were becoming harder and more painful.
I could tell that the others were feeling something similar. Even though nothing was being said between them, all three of my companions would occasionally grimace, and hold a section of their body, or spin their head to look in a direction that had no calling to it. To their credit, especially poor Madi, no one said a word.
We ventured in silence for about 15 more minutes before we heard a scream. It was off in the distance, maybe fifty yards away I would guess. But with the lack of other sound, it was really hard to tell. Andrew and Lauren started running towards the sound call for help, and I was soon to follow. They were slightly ahead of us, and when we passed into a clearing the two in front of us stopped on a dime, nearly causing Madi and I to run straight into their backs. Andrews hand clapped over his mouth and Lauren turned away to vomit. I looked passed them, and saw my own mother being stabbed repeatedly by what I can only describe as a monster. It was pitch black like a shadow, with curled blades for hands and lanky canine looking legs, bent in directions that didn’t make any sense.
“Mom!” I screamed, mine almost as bloodcurdling as hers. I rushed forward and tried to tackle the creature attacking my mother, but right as I was about to lay into it, it too disappeared right in front of my eyes. I turned to find my mother, but she had been replaced with the face of another. An old man, with blood running down his lips, looking at me with a devilish smile. He licked his lips as he stared at me, and then vanished himself.
It took me a minute before I could move again. I had no idea what was real. Was this all a hallucination? It couldn’t be, because clearly everyone else saw the same thing as I did. I had no answers, nor any semblance of a clue what to make of the events that had happened. I fought back the urge to scream and vomit and walked back to our group.
“What are we even going to do, ya know, if we find him.” Andrew said, his eyes still trained on the ground where we had just seen two more beings disappear.
“We are going to fucking kill whoever took him.” Lauren spoke up, everything about her turned to ice. It almost made me more uncomfortable seeing the sweet, pretty girl who enjoyed watching makeup tutorials on YouTube and flirting with boys on Twitter look as hardened and shut off emotionally then it did seeing the spirits. Almost.
With a new sense of pace, we started back on the trail. My flashlight flicking back and forth between the trail in front of me and the trees beside me even more often now, and it wasn’t long before we reached the fourth gate. Or at least I think it was the fourth gate. There actually wasn’t a gate at all, but only a prominent mark in the ground, like someone had run their finger through wet concrete and molded it that way. I just knew that it was, however. I knew we were getting deeper into the game, closer to hell, I suppose.
I didn’t even bother to stop, I just kept walking. The moment I stepped past the ‘gate’ I knew I was correct. It felt like it dropped twenty degrees instantly. I also heard sound again, but it wasn’t the average forest sounds, it was distant wails, that could have been mistaken for a gust of wind in a different situation, but not this one. When Madi stepped over the line, her face froze and she looked at me. I did my best to smile for reassurance, but I’m sure it wasn’t worth much. She put her head back down and pulled her jacket closer around her.
“Are we going to talk about how we made it here? To the fourth gate? With no fucking directions?” Andrew was looking at me, and then pointed back down at the line in the dirt. “I mean, of all the turns we could have taken, all the different routes we could have gone down. This ‘gate’ is hardly six feet long in a forest that’s how big? And! And! How in the did we even know this was supposed to be a gate? I can’t be the only one that just knew?” Andrew was ranting, something he did to cope with things. Normally it was when a guy pissed him off at school by talking to a girl he was interested in, or how his favorite football team lost and it was all on the referees, this time it was about ghosts that kidnapped and possibly killed our best friend.
“I don’t.. I don’t have an answer.. lets just keep moving okay, I don’t want to stand in one place for too long.” I replied.
“Fuck this.” Andrew crossed his arms and let out a shiver from the newfound cold, but continued to walk ahead of me. Lauren simply walked by his side and looked straight ahead, focused on an unknown point and mind set only on completing her objective.
The further we got into the land of the fourth gate, the harder it was to ignore the background sound to our trek. It was clearly screaming, and it was clearly in the direction we were heading. Then again, I guess we had given up rational thought the moment we decided to continue further into this damned hell forest instead of turning around and cutting our losses at one of us. I know that may sound fucked up to say, but I’m afraid that even if we make it out of here, our lives will never be the same again. I know mine won’t be.
I don’t really remember when, but at some point images started flashing through my head. Ones that were not my own. I saw ash and monsters, endless miles of snow, spiders by the millions crawling along the ground. They were terrifying, and would flash in front of my conscience every couple of minutes for a brief moment. It was distracting, I wanted them to stop and after awhile started cringing every time I knew I was due for another. As we grew deeper, the visions grew longer.
Eventually it became all I could do to focus on walking straight. My gut instinct was to sit down, and close my eyes to try to make it stop. I knew that wouldn’t help, but I had the strongest urge to do it anyway. I persisted. I kept moving. I trained my eyes on the back of Andrews head, and grounded myself there.
It was in the middle of one of these visions, one where I was flying but my wings were on fire, and I knew that soon I would fall to my death, that I heard Madi scream again. I snapped back to reality and looked to my right, where she had been stationed all evening. She was gone, but not in the way that Kenny had been gone, this time there was a trail of blood. I don’t think that makes it better.
“P…please… help..” I followed the voice up a tree and saw Madi pinned to the trunk, a thick branch penetrating through her stomach. I crossed the distance between us in moments and looked up. She was out of my reach, and her eyes were closing quickly.
“Madi! Please, stay with us. We can help!” I yelled up to her, desperately wracking my brain for any solution. I whipped around to find Lauren climbing a dogwood next to the one Madi was impaled on. Andrew and I looked on helplessly.
“I got you Madi, I got you.” Lauren’s voice was reassuring as she worked her way a good fifteen feet off the ground to a crossing point between the two trees. I had forgotten how much of a climber Lauren had been in elementary school. It felt like ages ago, but it sure as hell was useful now.
Lauren reached over and made the jump. Madi followed her lazily, a drunken haze settling over her whole body. Lauren began to slowly climb down the the level our friend was at, and cradled her head. She then looked back down at us and shook her head. There was nothing we could do.
“You have to try, Lauren. Please get her down.” I begged, I couldn’t handle another loss. Lauren grimaced, and did the only thing that could possible save her. She broke the branch as close to Madi’s body as she could and she pulled her off. I’m not sure actually, if she managed to pull her the whole way off the tree branch. It wasn’t long after Lauren touched her,
Madi disappeared into thin air.
I sat down on my knees and cried. With Kenny, we could force ourselves into thinking he was still alive somewhere, just kidnapped by some mysterious force, waiting for us to save him. Madi was dead. I don’t know where her body went, but I could see the life drain from her eyes when she was up on that tree. I don’t think I will ever get the image out of my head. Can you imagine? Seeing your best friend, one who begged you to leave and that you forced to keep going, impaled on a tree limb, screaming for her life? Knowing you couldn’t save her?
There wasn’t much time for grieving, however. Whatever resided in this forest didn’t care about feelings. I only had about a minute of freedom before the visions started again. Piles of bones, my home being swallowed by an earthquake, creatures of indescribable horror chasing after me. The pressure that I felt pushing me forward didn’t stop either. I could feel it pick me up from below my armpits, literally, mind you, and shove me forward.
Lauren made her way down from the spot she had been trying to rescue Madi, no expression on her face, and walked right past me in the direction that I had been shoved. Clearly she was getting directions too. Andrew put his head down, and walked behind her, leaving me as the last to follow. I took one last glance back, and continued on. There was nothing else I could do.
The fifth gate didn’t exist, at least physically. No one had spoken a word for the mile walk after Madi’s death until eventually Lauren spoke.
“We just passed the fifth gate.”
Of course, I felt it too. Instead of feeling hands tapping or shoving, it now felt like a constant pressure. Like when you were five years old and your 6’8 uncle gave you a bear hug. Only then you knew it would eventually end. The visions have gotten increasingly worse, but I’m starting to become numb to them. They are just a part of me now, I’ve accepted that.
I hadn’t noticed it, but the terrain around us was changing as well. Things around us were just.. dead.. now. The trees were growing more and more brown, leaves becoming more scarce as we continued on. Plants with blooming flowers were replaced with thickets of thorn brush. Animal carcasses littered the distance. It seemed unlikely that we were even still in an earthly plane anymore, the more I thought about it. Something like this would have garnered the attention of the local government in an attempt to stop whatever was causing the death, and as far as I could remember when we were looking at Google Maps of the area, there was no such large lifeless area.
It wasn’t long until we saw the eyes again. It felt less eerie this time around, and more sinister. As if the surrounding forest wasn’t enough, as soon as I saw the bright green glow around us I felt the death of the place. It weighed on me like a thousand pounds. I glanced at my friends. Andrew was darting his head back and forth in all directions, while Lauren kept her focus straight ahead, ignoring her surroundings completely as she had been for what seemed like years.
“You have one last chance.” The same voice as before at the third gate boomed through the air like a tornado. None of us listened.
Moments later, the dark figures appeared again, weapons in hand. They were more grizzly this time, however. No longer shrouded in dark capes, but rather flaunting their unnatural bodies to us. Their limbs were too long, bodies too thick, and worst of all, their skin was pulled so taut against their bones that it looked like a demon summoned from a sacrificial ritual. I guess, in a way, they were.
They had only appeared for a moment before they rushed at us. Unlike the previous encounter, where they had stood still and simply waited, this time they came at us from all sides, sprinting. I immediately sprung into a sprint forward of my own, Lauren and Andrew doing the same.
“We need to find a way through!” I shouted, even though I was only a foot or two behind, the white noise emitting from the creatures was deafening.
“Split… that… can’t reach.. all” I could only heard bits and pieces of what Lauren was saying, but her message was clear. She wanted us to split up, each running in a different direction, so that hopefully they would chase one, and leave the others. I couldn’t have disagreed more.
“Someone will die, Lauren! We have to stay together!” I screamed back. Like hell was I going to lose another person to this damn forest.
“One.. us.. all” I overheard. She thought it was going to either be one of us or all of us. She was probably right, but that didn’t make it okay. I just ran as hard as I could behind her. The creatures were closing in, and I had just managed to sneak by one of the incoming demons in front of us as he swung his club at me by dodging to the left. It wasn’t going to last though, I was running out of steam, and fast. That, along with the fact that I had no idea how long we would have to outrun these things, or if we even could, made me want to give up. Maybe it would be easier to just give in. Let this nightmare be over.
The thought of Madi and Kenny was enough to pull me through. I pictured Madi’s face as she breathed her last breath, and the look of determination in Kenny’s eyes as he stared down these dark men the first time. I had to keep going.
Suddenly, Andrew stopped. It nearly knocked me over as I tried to pull him with me, but he didn’t budge.
“Andrew, what are you doing. Come on! We have to move!” I shook him, and he just shook his head at me.
“I can’t do it, Daniel. I give up.” A single tear fell from his right eye, and he sat on the ground. The demons were nearly on us from the back now. I grabbed my friends arm and pulled harder, trying to force his hand, but he was dead weight.
“Go on. Lauren needs to. Save them. I’m sorry.” Andrew turned around and ran towards the creatures that were coming from the back, and threw his body into them. I hadn’t even noticed that the ones in front of us had reached me as well, but they just ran straight past, all converging on Andrew, tearing his body apart limb from limb until there was nothing left. I couldn’t watch, so I spun around, and sprinted forward again. I took one last glance behind me as I caught up to Lauren, only to see what was left of Andrew disappear, just as the others had, along with the dark men.
“How do we do this, Lauren?” I asked, stopping momentarily to catch my breath.
“We are dead already, Daniel. Don’t you get that.” It wasn’t a question. I saw no sympathy for our mutual friend in her face, no remorse. Then, without another word, she walked again. Onward towards the next gate. One step closer to hell. If you didn’t count what we were in as hell already, that is.
The sixth gate came and passed. I didn’t say a word, neither did she. I don’t think either of us really know what we are going on for at this point. I’ve given up on saving them. I guess I only move forward because it seems a waste to go back. The visions have completely taken over my sight. I only see horrors now, and my legs walk on their own. The silence of the forest has been completely replaced by screams of agony and anguish. I look down at my arms, during a brief moment of clarity, to find them covered in bone deep gashes, and bruises that are dark, and large. I chuckle to myself, despite everything. I didn’t even feel these injuries. At least if I die, it will be painless.
We traveled for hours, and eventually that little presence that had been guiding us the whole time went away too. We wandered aimlessly, with no way of knowing where the seventh gate would be. The final gate. I tried for a moment to think about it logically, but it was hard to do anything besides concentrate on not going insane.
Finally, it came to me. Each gate had some sort of trial, an attempt by the forest to get us to leave. Gate one was our phones going off. Enough to dissuade some, but not us. Gate two was the first presence of the supernatural, when we all knew this wasn’t normal. Gate three, the first appearance of the dark men, and the loss of Kenny. Four, Madi. Five, Andrew. The thought popped into my mind at the same time as it did to Lauren. Undoubtedly from whatever devil source has been guiding us this whole time.
Only one can go on.
I tried to ignore it. Lauren didn’t. She spun around only a moment after the voice rattled through our heads and clocked me straight in the jaw. She was a small girl, but it was enough force to send me to my knees.
“What are you doing! We can-” Another punch to the temple. This time my vision blacked out, and I curled up into a ball on the ground.
“No. The forest has rules. You play by them, or you die. How haven’t you learned.” She shouted, before sending a kick to my exposed back. I began to cry. Another kick, then another. Finally, she turned me over and knelt over top of me, resting her thumbs against my eyes.
“You were always weak, Daniel.” Lauren spoke, and then began jamming her thumbs into my eye sockets. I can’t begin to describe the pain. It’s unimaginable, even with the torment I have experienced in the last eight hours. My body responded, rolling to the side and throwing Lauren off balanced enough for me to push her away. I grabbed my head and tried to think. I didn’t have long before she was on top of me again, her arms around my neck this time, trying to choke me.
I threw her off again, begging her to stop and think, figure out a logical solution. She was having none of it. She came back again, and again. Each time I threw her away, using my size and strength to my own advantage. I could tell she was tiring. Her attempts were getting weaker and weaker.
She came at me again, and I threw her again. This time, she didn’t get up. I walked over to her, my hands still massaging my eyes, trying to get feeling back to them. When she turned around, the ice in her eyes had melted back to the warm ocean blue that I remembered so fondly.
“Daniel.. what’s.. whats going on.. I can’t… I can’t feel my legs.” She whimpered. I looked down, and immediately realized the problem. The last time I had thrown her away, she had landed on a large rock. That rock had cut open the back of her neck, and bone was sticking through the skin. I had broken her neck.
“It’s going to be okay, Lauren. I’m right here. We’re gonna make it.” I tried to soothe her, but the fear in her eyes broke my heart. I knew it was all a lie. I cradled her in my arms, and did my best to keep her company. After a minute, she was gone. Disappeared, just like the others. Suddenly, I was alone.
When I looked back up, the seventh gate was directly in front of me, a grand sight. It reminded me of Wayne Manor in the Batman comic books, Victorian in style, elegant, and flawless.. Behind it, was the fabled asylum. It didn’t appear to have any fire damage, as was suggested, but rather looked pristine, like it had been build yesterday. Initially, I questioned it, but it was fleeting. I knew I just had to get there.
As I walked up to it, the gate opened in front of me. I stepped through, and suddenly all the noise, voices, pressure, everything was all gone. It felt normal, like I was just walking through the forest again. All of my cuts and bruises were mended, and my mind was my own. I walked to the front door of the asylum, and rested my hand upon the handle. With a deep breath, I swung it open.
Standing in front of me were Kenny, Madi, Lauren, and Andrew. I wanted to be relieved, but the sight of them made it hard. All four were battered, bloody, and crying. I tried to run to them, but an invisible force kept me from entering the asylum that held them captive. One of the dark men came from out of the shadows of the room to the right, and slashed through Kenny. He let out a guttural scream, followed by a cry for help. I pounded on the invisible wall, and screamed, but they could not hear me.
“Save them all, or save yourself.” The familiar boom of the dark men echo’d through the air, and I spun around to see the creature directly behind me. Hot breath scorching my face. For once, the presence no longer seemed menacing, but inquisitive. I tried to hit it, but my hand went right through it.
“What do you mean!” I shouted,
“Save them all, or save yourself.” It just repeated itself. Its bright green eyes staring into my soul.
I guess I should be thankful. I had given up any hope of saving my friends, and now I had the opportunity to. I wish I could come back with them, but the dark men have made it clear that, that isn’t a possibility. They did let me write a note though. I know you won’t remember this, but I hope that you can take me seriously when I say: Don’t attempt the seven gates of hell. It isn’t worth it.
Signed, Daniel Huntington
* * * * * *
My name is Lauren Lopez, and this letter was delivered to my house earlier today. I don’t know, it probably isn’t real, but just in case I wanted to share it with you all. I don’t know anyone by the name of Daniel Huntington, but the whole thing does feel kind of familiar. I have a feeling it’s one of Kenny’s tricks to try to get us to do something he doesn’t think we will all want to do. If that was his plan though, it worked.
I had never heard of the seven gates of hell, but the four of us are going tonight.
One moment his head was there, and the next it was gone.
All of it.
Sprayed all over the air.
Covering the entire sky.
He was right.
* * * * * *
Working in a cubicle isn’t for everyone.
It is everything to me.
The job is easy. I simply type in letters and numbers.
Doesn’t everything revolve around letters and numbers?
I press the keys on my keyboard, and just like that my work is done.
It’s easy. It’s normal.
I have carefully selected my group of co-workers with whom I interact with the most.
Peggy – the chubby girl who lusts after me. She is a revolting little thing, but knowing I could just snap my fingers and have her do my every bidding arouses me more than she ever could. I like that.
Susan – the most intelligent and attractive woman on the floor. I like how professional she looks, how clever she sounds. I like the tone of her voice. I like how she takes the job seriously. She will likely rise to the top one day. Unless she dies. Unless she gets cancer. I hope she gets cancer. Peggy hates her guts because she thinks I have a thing for her. I don’t, but I like seeing Peggy try to outdo herself for nothing. It is entertaining.
Tom – new blood. Young kid. Ambitious. Looks up to me like I’m some sort of role-model. Flattering. Sickening. Feels nice.
Bob – thinks he’s better than me. Wishes he could be me. Wants to be me. Wants me dead. He’s worthless, yet he’s also like a piece of shit stuck on my shoe; I know I can grind his face on the pavement whenever I want. Knowing this gives me great pleasure.
They serve their purpose.
Others have tried to insert themselves into our little group but I tell them we cannot have that.
I cannot have that.
Peggy, Susan, Tom, Bob and I make five.
“Five’s a handful” I tell them.
I do not need more than a handful.
I do not want more than a handful.
You should always keep a free hand.
We don’t talk much about the job. No.
We talk about death. Yes.
Everyone does. Everyone smiles.
Wake up. Turn on the news. See children’s blown up limbs at a concert venue.
Drive to work. Accident ahead. Mangled body. Take a picture.
Bathroom break. Read obituaries. Have a wank.
We no longer pretend we care.
Death concerns only the dying.
Death is the new normal.
This is normal.
I am normal.
* * * * * *
Every day after work we get together for our daily show and tell right before we leave.
Peggy has a picture of a corpse found marinating in a tub for a couple of years. Good quality. You can almost smell the remains. Not very original.
Tom shows us a video on his phone. Says he bought it on the darkweb. POV footage. Foreign language. Kindergarten. Woman going around stabbing toddlers during nap time. I nod approvingly. At least he’s trying.
Bob brings us another execution line-up from overseas conflicts. Nothing we haven’t seen before. Unimaginative. I feel insulted.
Susan brings up her tablet. Video is titled babyjump098_wmv. The camera is placed on a white marbled floor. Kitchen, most likely. There is a naked newborn on the ground, stomach up. A ladder is prepped up near it. It’s crying. No audio, but we can tell. 20 seconds of this, followed by half a second of someone jumping on it with a pair of heavy boots. We only see the aftermath for about a second before the video immediately loops back to the beginning. No matter. We watch again.
Again. Again. Again. Again.
Susan easily wins the round. I applaud her. Peggy is upset.
Susan blushes, says I haven’t even shown mine.
“No need” I tell her.
“Because it’s shit, ain’t it?”
“Shut up, Bob” said Peggy.
I look at Bob. I smile back at him.
“You would know, considering you reek of shit yourself.”
Susan giggles before covering her mouth.
“Oh he got you there!” said Peggy.
I cringe whenever she opens her mouth.
Bob gives us a half-hearted laugh.
“Haha, careful now! You know I keep my baseball bat in the trunk, don’t you? One of these days I’ll-“.
“Every day is one of these days to you. That’s why you’ll never amount to anything. That’s why you are one miserable, smelly piece of dog excrement. Take your shot whenever you want. I’d like to see you try.”
“Oh… snap” Peggy mumbled.
I can tell that got her wet.
I throw up a little in my mouth.
Bob forces another haha before leaving the office.
* * * * * *
Work is over.
I head down to the parking lot in the basement.
I do not take the elevator.
I never take the elevator.
I hate the elevator.
Hate riding with others. Can’t stand their smell, their touch, their mouth words.
I take the stairs.
I always do.
Almost no one ever does.
I like to walk. Like to stretch my legs.
I can move at my own pace. No interruptions.
I can hear my footsteps. I can smell myself.
I like the sound of me. I like the smell of me.
Sometimes I think the stairs were made just for me.
Gripping the railing always gives me a hard-on.
“I’m so hard I could fuck these walls back to the Stone Age”, is what I think.
I reach the last flight of stairs.
Someone stands between me and the door to the parking lot.
No. Not standing.
Sprawled out on the steps. Briefcase wide open. Personal objects scattered about.
It’s Paul from two floors up.
Paul has made a mockery of my stairs.
Paul has made a mockery of me.
I walk down the steps, careful not to touch any of his filthy things.
Paul looks at me with wide eyes. He tries to speak. He is a sweaty, disgusting mess. His head is bleeding. Must have tripped. I look at my watch. I am 2 minutes ahead of schedule. I sigh.
“What’s the matter, Paul”
He is breathing heavily. Hand holding his chest. He tries to get up, but can’t. Tries to reach me but I walk down a further step.
“What is it, Paul”
He shakes his hand as he points to something on the ground. The sight of his mundane belongings is nearly enough to get me sick and lie down on the steps as well, but I would rather die.
I see the insulin pen and understand. I laugh.
“Right. I remember. Then again I had completely forgotten about your existence until just now.”
Paul motions me to get it for him. I laugh again.
“I’m sorry Paul. I already washed my hands, and-“
I look at my watch.
“-yes, that’s all the time I have. Nice not knowing you.”
I exit through the door and proceed to the parking lot.
* * * * * *
As I walk to my car, my senses are raped by a very familiar stench.
I stop. Crack a smile.
“I can smell you from here, Bob.”
I stand completely still.
This isn’t a problem.
This is Bob.
“Come to take your shot, have you?”
To even consider that Bob could ever pose a threat to me in any way is beyond nauseating.
I don’t even turn around to face him.
He is nothing.
Nothing to worry about.
“I haven’t got all day, Bob. I have places to be. The back of my skull is right here.”
I tap on my skull with my index finger and leave it there.
In case Bob needs directions.
“First one’s free, Bob. But if I’m still standing afterwards you know that’s it for you.”
Then, sounds of quick footsteps leaving the scene.
“See you on Monday, Bob.”
* * * * * *
I like to drive around for an hour or two after work.
I don’t like heading home right away.
Night time is the right time.
I’m alright, so I drive.
I turn on the radio.
Turn up the volume.
Sing along to the hits.
Punch myself in the face whenever I stop at a red light.
Hard enough to feel. Hard enough to bleed.
The driver in front of me is being carjacked.
A woman is pulled out of the car from the driver’s seat.
Louder bang bangs.
They take her car and disappear into the night.
They leave her in the middle of the road.
They leave a problem for me in the middle of the road.
Problems require solving.
I exit my car and approach her.
She’s losing blood.
She looks stunning.
“Where did you get that dress?” I ask her.
“I see. Can you move to the side of the road?”
She doesn’t seem willing to facilitate things for me.
I go back to my car and resume my drive.
Hit a small bump on the road.
No big deal. Got a new dress.
I reach my destination after a while.
Got distracted by the music.
Lots of familiar hits.
I reach for the radio to turn it off.
There’s nothing there.
Night time is the right time.
* * * * * *
I get home.
The children are glued to the tv.
They’re watching The Lion King.
They’re singing along to the “Hakuna Matata” song.
“It means no worries for the rest of your days
It’s our problem-free philosophy-“
I am momentarily entranced by the movie.
Its shapes, sounds and those other things. What are they called again?
I forget that they’re a thing sometimes.
Sometimes I forget about things, but it’s ok.
“Those two words will solve all your problems-“
“Hakuna Matata!” I say.
The children turn to face me.
They are not my children.
Do I even have children?
I look at my hands. No ring. No worries.
I grab the remote and turn up the volume.
“Hakuna Matata!” I repeat.
Sometimes I forget how children can be so full of color as well.
“Hey! Pumba! Not in front of the kids-”
You can even paint entire walls with them.
* * * * * *
Back in my car. Back on the road.
I pick up a hooker. I try.
She says I look like hell.
I can’t help but smile.
“But honey-“, I begin, as I show her the money, well over what she makes in a month, “-I feel like heaven!”
She gets in. Tells me not to pull some “psycho shit” or else.
“Or else what?” I ask.
She shows me a butterfly knife. Does fancy tricks.
I laugh again.
Slam my fist against the dashboard.
She jumps in her seat.
The glove compartment opens up.
“You can hold on to that” I tell her.
She’s confused. Picks up the six-shooter.
Checks for ammo. Fully loaded.
Puts it back. Starts to undress.
“None of that” I say.
I give her the money. All of it.
“I just want to talk.”
She’s weary, but doesn’t say a word.
We stop someplace else. Old bridge. No traffic there.
We step out of the car. Light them smokes.
I tell her about my father.
I tell her how we can’t say we’ve lived until we’re dead.
Her turn to laugh. Doesn’t get it.
“To live is to die. You can’t live without dying. Only death can confirm life. Only through death can we say we have actually, really lived. Can’t say you’ve lived until you’re dead.”
“That makes no sense at all” said the hooker.
She doesn’t get it.
“Wait-“, she continues.
She walks over to the car.
Comes back with the six-shooter.
“So you can only say you’ve had a life if I were to shoot you? Right now, like this?”
Well, at least the real me is. You see, this body I’m using to write this isn’t mine. I stole it.
Don’t worry, I won’t be using him for too long. Once I’m done writing this all out, I’ll give it back to him. He won’t even know that anything happened. I’ll even be sure to tuck him back in to bed once I’m done.
So, let me begin when I was still alive.
I was your average 24-year-old guy. I wasn’t in to witchcraft or anything, in fact quite the opposite, before I died I didn’t even believe in the supernatural.
Now that I think about it, the way I died really was quite embarrassing. I was cleaning a gun when…Wait wait wait, that wasn’t my original body. It’s been so long I almost forgot. No, I remember now. I was just about to have a bubble bath. The last time I had had one I was probably about 4 years old. I was admittedly a bit excited. So excited that I managed to trip on my way to the now full tub. My head landed square on the edge of the tub, knocking me out instantly. My unconscious body managed to slide in to the water, and I drowned.
Next thing I knew I was in limbo. I suppose I probably went unclaimed by whatever happens in the afterlife, and so I was placed in the waiting room while the higher ups sorted me out. It actually appeared as if I was in a literal waiting room. The kind you see at every doctor’s office. There was no one else in the room though. Just me and some terrible elevator-type music coming from overhead. Now that I think about it, maybe this was hell.
After what seemed like an eternity the music stopped. I heard a ding, and a voice came from overhead.
“Thank you for waiting. Please make your way to the door on your right, and step through.”
Well, I didn’t really have any other options, so I obliged. I made my way to the door and stepped through. There was a man waiting for me on the other side.
“Welcome! Please take a seat wherever you feel comfortable.” He said this gesturing at the many different seats in the room. It looked like a therapy room. There were couches and a few regular chairs.
I took a seat in one of the chairs, and I tried to study the man. Even now I couldn’t explain him if I tried. It was as if his face was constantly shifting. He certainly had some aura about him. I’m pretty sure he was a god of some sort, or at least some type of higher being.
“Where am I then?” I finally asked.
“I suppose most humans would call this purgatory, or maybe limbo. In short, we weren’t quite sure what to with you.”
“What do you mean? Can’t you just send me to heaven or hell, or whatever?”
“That was certainly on the table. We decided to play rock-papers-scissors for you, and I was the big winner. So, I’ve decided I’m going to give you a second shot at life!”
“So I’m going to be reborn?” I asked. I chose to ignore the fact that apparently these Gods had decided my fate by a game of rock-paper-scissors.
“Not exactly. Oh you’ll figure it out soon enough.” This was the last thing he said. He then snapped his fingers. I was back in my bathroom staring at my lifeless corpse.
Was I a ghost? Is this what he meant by a second shot at life? That doesn’t seem quite right. I looked down at myself, and I appeared to be normal. I would have thought I was still alive if my corpse wasn’t lying across the room.
I waited by my body. Somebody would have to come for me eventually. It took 2 days before a police officer finally made his way in to my bathroom, and found my corpse. I had confirmed my theory of being some sort of ghost before he ever got there though. In those 2 days of waiting I had never gotten tired, hungry, or thirsty. It was just added confirmation when the officer sprinted past me, and pulled my lifeless body out of the bathtub.
I had tried moving objects during my wait, but I was unable to do anything but look. I hadn’t gotten the chance to try and touch another person though. I approached the officer as he called for paramedics. I placed my hand on his shoulder and…
The next thing I knew I was blinking, and breathing. I hadn’t thought about it, but I hadn’t done either of these two things in the past two days. It had been unnecessary before. I looked around the room before spotting my mirror. I was no longer a ghost. I was now the officer. I had taken control of his body.
I was a bit clumsy at first in my new body, but after a few minutes it seemed like I had full control. Just as I got the hang of things my head, or rather the officer’s head, began to pound intensely. After a few seconds of agonizing head pain, I found myself once again staring at the officer from the outside.
I had been kicked out of his body. The officer was holding his head while hunched over.
“What the hell just happened?” He said
He didn’t seem to understand that his body had just been briefly hijacked. I approached him and attempted to touch him again, but nothing happened this time. I wasn’t able to retake his body.
I didn’t know at the time, but there are certain rules for my body snatching abilities. One of which is when I’m kicked out, I can’t get back in. I’ve gotten much better at using my abilities since then.
After a while paramedics came to collect my body. There two who came in to the bathroom. One man, and one woman. I knew I was going to try and do what I had done with the cop, but which one should I choose?
I highly considered the woman just for the experience, but I wasn’t quite ready at the time to take control of a female body. I touched the man’s shoulder. Once again I found myself in control.
This time the transition seemed much smoother though. I continued to help the woman with collecting my corpse as to not seem suspicious. Several minutes passed and the headache didn’t come this time. With the help of the other paramedic we placed my original body in a bag and wheeled it back to the ambulance.
I began to make my way to the passenger seat when the woman stopped me.
“Where are you going? You always drive.”
“Uhhh yeah, sorry. I’m actually not feeling so good right now, do you mind driving?” I said back to her.
“Fine, but you are buying my dinner.”
I began to realize that taking this body may have been a mistake. I didn’t know the first thing about being an EMT. If I stayed in this body, I may end up costing other people their lives. There was one problem though. I had no clue how to separate myself from the body. I had been kicked out of the cop’s body, but this one didn’t seem to be putting up much resistance. I needed to find a way out on my own.
I put everything I had in trying to will myself out of the body. It was a fruitless effort though. How was I supposed to do this? Getting in had been so easy. Shouldn’t getting out be the easy part?
I bit down on the man’s thumb. It’s a habit I’ve always had when I get frustrated. I bit hard enough to draw blood. I stared down at the small wound, once again wishing I could just leave this body. As I thought this, the headache returned, and a few moments later I was outside the paramedic’s body.
What had triggered it? Had it been the wound? Possibly a combination of my desire to leave and the wound? I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but I was happy to be out again.
I followed the paramedics all the way back to the hospital. After they wheeled my body inside I decided it would be best if I just left. I wouldn’t be getting back in my own body.
I began to seek out someone new. I realized I should really study someone before I tried taking them. If I wanted to take them long-term that is. I would need to know all the basics. Their relationships, their job, their hobbies, mannerisms, etc. I couldn’t expect to take over someone’s life without knowing anything about them. I could use other bodies for short periods of time like I am doing now, but that would only be for specific purposes. There are over 7 billion people on Earth though, so I’m not too worried about running out of equity.
I also didn’t fully understand my abilities though. I would need to practice using my body-stealing powers more, and I really needed to find the correct way to leave a body I didn’t want to stay in.
I have much more to tell, but this all I have time for right now. I can’t stay too long in this body or they will find me. I’ll be back soon with a new body to write more. For now, it’s time to put this guy back to bed.
I’ve found a suitable replacement. This body should last me a few days before they find me. I’ll explain who they are in due time, but for now let’s pick up where I left off.
After I finally said goodbye to my original body, I began to practice my body stealing powers. Entering a body was the easy part. However, I discovered many things about my capabilities.
I could enter any body I wanted. All I had to do was touch the person. How long I could stay was another thing. Those with a strong mental fortitude like the police officer could kick me out almost instantly. Those people were rare though. Most people were easy to overpower, and I could take control for as long as I wanted.
Exiting the body was a little bit trickier. For those with weaker willpower, I had to force them to want their body back in order to get out. Physical pain was usually enough to do it. I had to want out as well though. I could damage a weaker person’s body as much as I wanted, but if I didn’t want out, then they wouldn’t get their body back. It would be risky to take the body of someone who doesn’t value their life, because I may have to kill them in order to exit the body.
For those wondering if I can take over the body of an animal, I certainly tried. Most animals avoid me like the plague though. Birds don’t seem to mind me, but anything else runs at first sight. I was able to pet a dog who trapped itself in its dog house, but I wasn’t given control of his body. I think it must be a compatibility thing.
The whole time I was learning to use my abilities, I found something a bit odd. Not once did I ever run in to another dead person. If I’m a ghost, shouldn’t I be able to see other ghosts? Maybe it doesn’t work like that though. I couldn’t possibly be the only person like this though, could I?
Regardless, once I began to get the hang of my abilities I began to seek a proper host. I could have searched for someone younger with an undeveloped personality, but I really did not want to go through the younger years of life again.
I wanted someone basically like me. A loner. They needed to have a decent job though, and if they were a little more attractive than my original body then who would I be to complain? It took a while, but eventually I found the perfect body.
He was about the same age as I had been when I died. Despite his young age he had climbed his way up to a managerial position at a factory. Behind the scenes he was quite lonely though. He had poured everything in to his job. I never saw him talk to any family, and he never had friends over to his home. As far as looks go he was no Brad Pitt, but I don’t think he would have problems attracting the opposite sex.
I watched him for a while before taking over. It was important for me to at least learn how to properly do his job. I had never been a manager before. He was a business-only sort of person at work, so I wouldn’t have to worry too much about his work relations.
After I felt I had learned enough, I stole his body. It really was a perfect match. When I was in his body it was like it was my own again. He didn’t try to fight to push me out either.
I decided I wasn’t going to waste this life doing nothing like I had the last one. I kept his job of course, but I started becoming more social. I went to bars, clubs, and other social events. I even managed to bring a few girls back to my new home from time to time.
Before I knew it, I had been in my new body for an entire year. I had almost forgotten that I even had a previous life. Everything seemed to be going perfect, but of course good things can’t last forever can they?
I noticed someone had begun to follow me. It was a black car with heavily tinted windows. Wherever I went, that car always seemed to be there. I tried to get its license plate, but it never seemed to get close enough for me to see it. I tried reporting it to the police, but they said they couldn’t do anything unless I had evidence that I was being stalked. They sent a patrol car through my neighborhood, but that was all. The car was obviously gone by the time the police showed up though.
As quickly as it began, it ended just as quickly. After about two weeks of the car stalking me, it just disappeared. Perhaps I just been overly paranoid after all. I resumed my new life as if nothing had ever happened.
That was a mistake.
I woke up a few nights later to find myself surrounded by at least 5 hooded figures. Before I had time to react a knife was plunged in to my chest. Blood began to spew from chest as I felt the life fading from me. I was able to eject myself from the body just before my host took his last breath.
After I left the body, the figures turned to face my ghost self. Could they see me? The one who had plunged the knife in to me approached me. Once he was close to me he began to kneel, and then he held out his hand.
I wasn’t sure what to do. So I ran.
For whatever reason they didn’t seem to chase after me. I ran for several miles before I even thought of stopping though. I found an old run-down house, and I let myself in.
I sat down on the floor, and tried to process what had just happened. Before I got the chance a voice spoke.
“Rough night huh?” In front of me was the God who had given me my powers.
“Rough night? I was just killed, again.” I said angrily.
“Well it wasn’t really you. It was the body you stole. I probably should have told you about them though.”
“Them? You know who they are?”
“Well yeah. I know who everyone is. Those people are special though. They are part of a cult that worships me. It’s kind of funny. They think YOU are their savior.”
“What about this is funny? If they think I’m their savior, then why the hell did they put a knife in my chest?”
“It’s simple really. They don’t think that was the right body for you. They are a bit crazy, but they have always been loyal to me. So I rewarded them by helping find you.”
“Why would you do that? I don’t want to be a part of this.” I shouted.
“Because this is the most fun I’ve had in years. I mean come on, doesn’t being the savior of a cult sound a little cool?”
“I DON’T WANT TO BE IN A CULT. I just wanted to live a normal life again.”
“I promised you a new life, I didn’t promise you a normal one. If you don’t want to be in a cult you should really start moving. They are almost here.”
As he finished saying this I noticed headlights coming up the street. I didn’t give it a second thought. I ran again.
I managed to make it to a busy stoplight. I took over a driver, and drove as far as I possibly could. I swapped from body to body on my trip. I didn’t want to take anyone too far away from their life since I wouldn’t be keeping any of these bodies.
I’m currently in a small town on the east coast, I think I may try to catch a flight to another country soon. I think they will find me eventually no matter what, but it could at least buy me some time to figure out what I should do.
I’ve become part of a game for a God, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t think he’s going to let me in to any sort of afterlife any time soon.
So it seems I have two options:
Become the “Savior” of a cult
Who would have known my life after death would be so much more interesting?
It’s been a few days since my last update, and these days have been the craziest of my life, or afterlife I suppose.
I had been body hopping around trying to put as much distance between myself and the cult chasing me. I hadn’t seen any sign of them, but I also have no clue how big and how much power they have. Not to mention they have a God helping them.
I decided I would take a plane to somewhere in Europe. Eventually I decided upon Germany. I’m pretty sure I had some German heritage in me, and I wasn’t exactly sure where else I would go. So I picked it when I saw there would be a plane departing soon. I helped myself to a body that was seated in first class, and I attempted to relax.
My relaxation attempt was cut short however.
Since I had taken a body in first class I had boarded first. I was sat isolated from the main section of the plane. There was no way for me to know that no one else had entered the plane. It took me a few minutes to notice that I was completely alone if first class.
I stood up a bit anxious and began to make my way to where I had entered the plane. As I approached the entrance I saw a few large men in suits, and they began to walk towards me. I knew I was trapped, but I still attempted to turn around and run to the back of plane. Before I could however I felt a quick pain in my neck, and I fell unconscious.
When I woke up I noticed I was still in the body of the wealthy stranger I had taken. However, I was in a straitjacket now. Not only that, but there was some sort of mouthpiece holding my teeth down. This prevented me from moving my mouth whatsoever. I looked up to see there was a young man sitting next to me. He was probably early 20’s, he had dark brown hair, and bright green eyes. He had strong facial features, and almost seemed to be glowing.
“I’m sorry about the restraints. They are only temporary. We didn’t want to have to chase you again.” He spoke. He almost seemed to be waiting for a response, but then he must have remembered I was incapable of giving one, so he continued on his own.
“You have nothing to fear. Our God has gifted us with you, and you shall lead us. I have been given the honor to become one with you. Soon we will share a body as we lead the world to new heights.”
His voice was almost hypnotic. I found myself entranced by his words. I had no clue what this cult had planned, but his body certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to call home.
While I was replaying what he said in my head, I didn’t notice that he had begun to move closer. Before I knew it he was right in front of me. He expertly pulled out a blade and slit the throat of the body I was in. I was ejected from the body as it went limp. Before I could react the man grabbed my hand.
I found myself in the cultist’s body. Even though I had full control, something felt different. This body just felt right. Even better than the one I had spent over a year in. It was as if this body was truly the one I was meant to be in. Maybe this cult knew a few things after all.
After a few moments I heard a door behind me open. A few people in robes entered the room. They were of various ages and appearance, but they all shared one characteristic. Green eyes. Once about ten of them had entered the room they began to kneel. One of the older ones in front began to speak.
“We have been blessed by your awakening. Hopefully the body we chose for you is suitable for now. You may replace it in the future if you wish.”
“What do you want from me?” I replied.
“We already have our plans prepared. We simply wish for you to guide us in the new world. Will you?”
“Yes.” I had said it without hesitation, but why? I didn’t even know what this cult’s plan was. Why did I say yes so quickly? Then I remembered whose body I was in. Did he still have influence over me? He hadn’t tried to kick me out. Well, he had actually forced me inside. It was unlike any other times I had taken a body. I thought I was in full control, but could it be possible the cultist still had some power over his body?
After my agreement all of the cultists that had already been kneeling began to press their heads to the ground as if in prayer. The older one that had been speaking to me stood up however.
“We knew you wouldn’t fail us. Please follow me, I have much to show you master.” He said.
He showed me everything. The cult is much larger than even I expected. There are thousands of followers, and many of them in places of power. As I’m sure you can already guess, all of them have green eyes.
Their grand plan is something incredibly sinister. They have been ingrained in positions of power for centuries, but they had never made any real moves. With my existence however, they are ready to act. They believe my rebirth calls for a rebirth of the planet. They have the firepower to do it too.
I could probably stop them, but I don’t know that I want to anymore. Once most of the world’s population is gone, I will be the one to rule over those who are left. Perhaps it is this body that has made me think this way, but I’m not sure anymore.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s mostly because I can. There’s nothing you can do to stop what is coming, but if you have green eyes perhaps I can save you. For the rest of you, try to enjoy the time you have left.
The day that I married Marjorie, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. She was smart and beautiful, and ever since I had met her six months earlier, not a day had gone by that I didn’t wonder what she was doing with a guy like me. It wasn’t that I’m a loser—I think I’m a good guy and look well-enough, and the only real ding in my eligibility as a good boyfriend or husband was that I lost my job recently due to layoffs. But even that was turning around, as I’m supposed to be starting the process of getting a U.S. Customs job at the Savannah docks at the end of the month. If it all worked out, it would mean better pay and benefits, plus great retirement.
It was just that Marjorie seemed close to perfect. She didn’t have any family aside from an older brother she was close with, and she was the type to have tons of casual friends but few close ones. Everyone loved her, and I could tell when we went out all the guys (and a few of the girls) were jealous that I was the one with her. When she proposed to me three weeks ago, I was taken by surprise, but I’m not overly traditional. It never occurred to me to say no or put off us getting married.
Some of my friends asked me about it of course, wanting to make sure I wasn’t moving too fast. That I knew her well enough to know that she was the right one and this was the right time. But I just laughed at that, joking more than once that not only was I sure, but I needed to hurry up and marry her before she realized what she was getting herself into.
Initially, we hadn’t planned on taking a honeymoon for awhile so I could start this new job and we could both save up money, but the day of the wedding, Marjorie’s brother Pete surprised us with an invitation to take an impromptu trip west with him for a few days. He was a very successful long-haul trucker and had just bought a brand-new semi that he claimed could comfortably hold six people, much less three, and he was heading out to California in a few days.
I had misgivings at first. It sounded like a long and potentially uncomfortable trip, particularly for a honeymoon. But Pete explained that he had a “hot site” lined up out there and he would love for us to go.
“Hot site” was the lingo he used for places that were supposed to be legitimate locations of documented paranormal activity. Ghost hunter type stuff, though it wasn’t limited to ghosts. He had told us tons of stories the few times we had hung out, ranging from looking for bigfoot up in Canada to exploring a deserted high school for a ghost in the Midwest. He was passionate about the stuff, and while I didn’t believe in ghosts and goblins myself, I could tell that Marjorie did. And Pete was a fun guy in my limited experience, full of interesting tales and funny jokes. I had always felt comfortable around him. Accepted. And that meant a lot.
Still…the idea was to drive to California over four days, spend a week out there having fun, and then four days back. That was a long time to be traveling with a new bride and a brother-in-law I didn’t know that well. Plus, there was the financial side of it. We didn’t magically have a lot of money just because he was offering a trip.
But Pete had answers for that too. His company, which he was partners in, would cover the room and the travel expenses, including a rental car for the week when we got to California. Same went for food. When I started to object to him paying for everything, he shook his head and patted my shoulder. He said it was his wedding gift to us, and it was not a big deal. He’d write off the expenses on his taxes and appreciate the company.
And naturally, he said with a wry grin, he knew that we would want our privacy. We’d have our own room on the road every night and he knew a great hotel for us to stay at once we arrived in California. The owner was a friend of his and had already said he’d comp us two rooms for the week we were there.
It all sounded great. If I’m honest, it all sounded too good to be true. I suddenly had images from half a dozen movies I’d seen where people end up being arrested as drug mules or dissected in warehouses run by sadists or organ thieves. I was probably being overly dramatic and letting my pride get in the way of a great opportunity, but I just felt uneasy about the whole thing.
But then I saw Marjorie out of the corner of my eye. I could feel her gaze on me, and as I turned to look at her more fully, I saw the hope and worry in her face. She wanted to go–wanted a honeymoon with me and time with a brother she didn’t see as often as she’d like. I knew she’d accept it if I said I didn’t want to do it, but how could I deny her something so simple and harmless? A few days with the people she loved most, having fun and relaxing. I knew, if I was lucky, I would be stretched thin by the new job for the next few months. This might be the last chance we had to get away and do something cool for some time.
So, I said yes. She had let out a squeal and hugged my neck, and I let my misgivings and pride slip away as I held onto her tightly. We left the following Tuesday with two suitcases, a laptop, and enough folding money to cover souvenirs and emergencies.
The first day was uneventful but fun. Pete’s truck cab was truly amazing. Between its flip down seats and bed, mini fridge and television, it felt more like a small hotel room than the interior of a transfer truck. Looking out through its massive front windows as Pete drove down the interstate headed west, it was surreal seeing everything from so much higher than I was used to when driving. It was neat, but I couldn’t help but think that driving the truck must be terrifying given how easy it would be to hit something and not even realize it until it was too late.
But it didn’t seem to bother Pete. He chatted with us some and let Marjorie control the radio, and by late afternoon we were pulling into a small but nice chain hotel off the interstate for the night. Pete checked us in and gave us our key cards, telling us he was going to go get some sleep, but he’d see us in the morning for breakfast. We were excited to finally have some time to ourselves, so we didn’t leave our own room except to pay the pizza delivery guy later in the evening.
The next morning we went to meet my new brother-in-law at the restaurant across the road, and once inside we saw he was already set up at a booth near the back, two accordion folders sharing his side of the table. Marjorie rolled her eyes and groaned when she saw the stacks of papers Pete was going through, burying her face in my shoulder.
“Oh no. It’s started. My ghost hunting nerd of a brother is on the case.”
Pete looked up and gave us a smile. “Yeah, yeah. Make fun. This is good intel, and I thought I could bring you both up to speed before we start making miles today.”
Marjorie gave a light snort as she raised her eyebrow. “Good intel, huh? I didn’t realize this was a military op. Are we going to have code names when we visit the ‘hot site’?” She did air quotes on the last bit, and it was clear from her tone and expression that she was making fun of him.
This was all very odd. Marjorie idolized her brother, and short of him taking a shit on the table, I doubted she’d find fault in pretty much anything he did. And they would joke around from time to time, but not like this. She seemed mad about something, or at the very least mean-spirited in her joking. Pete just gave her a smirk and went back to looking at the papers he had, but I decided to go ahead and try to head off any further comments.
“I think it’s a pretty cool hobby, Marjorie, and if we’re going all this way, it’s good he’s done his research.” Pete grinned at me and nodded. Emboldened, I went on. “And Pete has always told us good stories about this kind of stuff before, so let’s see what he has to say.”
Marjorie shot me a dark look and flopped down in the booth. “I guess. Let’s get some food ordered first though, I’m starving.”
Ten minutes later, our order was placed and Pete had gotten his presentation organized, which really just amounted to him pulling out a few pictures to show us during his account of Wizard’s Folly. Carefully stowing away the rest of the papers and securing the covers on the accordion files, Pete began his tale.
* * * * * *
Wizard’s Folly was an amusement park that opened up in 1947. Initially it was a haunted house more than anything, as the original attraction consisted solely of the large, abandoned mansion at the center of forty acres nestled in the outskirts of the small north California town of Firenze. The town itself had been established back in 1894 by Frank Pazzi who had immigrated to New York from Florence, Italy a decade earlier before making his way west. Pazzi was extremely wealthy, and though no one knew how he had gained his fortune, he found little complaint when he poured nearly three million dollars into the town itself and another half a million into building his own nearby estate.
Firenze was small and somewhat cloistered in the expanse of wilderness Pazzi had purchased, and for a time it seemed to be the perfect community. Everyone had work, a nice house, and plenty to eat, and if Pazzi was a bit eccentric, who really cared? It was expected that such a man, with foreign ways and rarified tastes, would seem somewhat strange to the working folk who had come to the area. Once his house was finished, he only allowed a handful of people into his home as servants, and they largely lived on his grounds in one of three guest houses he’d had constructed. The only person who still lived in town was his head housekeeper, who went by the name Susanna Templeton. People said that after just a few weeks of going into that house, Templeton had changed dramatically, becoming withdrawn and quick to anger. For a time, vague gossip such as this was all the acknowledgement you would find from the townsfolk that something might be wrong. It wasn’t until around 1912 that the town started talking about the missing people.
Fifty miles from Firenze there was a small clinic called Greenheart Home that catered to all kinds of cases that were too sensitive for normal hospitals and institutions. More to the point, it was a place where wealthy families would stick family members that they had decided were too much a burden or embarrassment to keep at home or send elsewhere.
The insane, the addicted, the pregnant woman out of wedlock or the deviant man, these were just a few of the menagerie that could be found housed inside its walls. From the outside, the clinic maintained a facade of genteel civility and gentle care. But the staff cared little about the comfort of their patients, and they knew the checks would keep coming so long as their charges remained quiet. Over the years it became a black pit of cruelty and abuse where people were thrown to be forgotten. Small wonder then, that it took some time before anyone noticed that every year a number of its “clients” went missing.
During the early years, when someone in Firenze saw the white truck from Greenheart Home trundling through town toward the Pazzi estate, they would just shrug and raise a questioning eyebrow. Over time this evolved into a knowing look and a furtive whisper if you were bold. But those that spread gossip and rumors about what Pazzi was doing up there were careful to do so discreetly. It was too good a town, too good a life, to risk angering the head of their little forest kingdom.
In late 1911, there was a massive fire at Greenheart Home. Thirty-seven people died, and those that survived were sent back home or to other institutions in other parts of the country. For a time afterward, everything was quiet and nothing changed in the town of Firenze. But then people from the town started disappearing.
In the 1910 U.S. Census, Firenze was reported to have 958 citizens. By the 1920 Census, that number was down to less than 500. Now most of that wasn’t missing people of course. Those with better sense or more resources left the town before it got really bad, and that accounted for several hundred people over the course of several years. But in the ten years after Greenheart Home caught fire, there were an estimated 65 or more people that just disappeared.
Now listen closely to this next part, because it’s important. The records are spotty from back then, particularly in an isolated town like Firenze, but for the most part the journals and newspaper articles agree with the handful of eyewitness accounts that were collected by ambitious authors and reporters scavenging the area after it was all over.
When I say these people disappeared, I mean just that. Not that they were abducted from their homes by Pazzi’s henchmen in the middle of the night. Not that they were snatched off the street by mysterious figures. These were wives in the middle of a conversation with their husband and he’s suddenly not there. Children playing in a swing one moment, and gone without a trace the next. There were over a dozen accounts of different people literally disappearing in front of people’s eyes, to say nothing of the scores of other people that went missing when no one was around.
After a few months of this, the leaders of the town had gone to Pazzi, hats in hand, trying to probe him for information, help, or some clear sign that he was involved. Pazzi listened to their concern with all the attention of a disinterested king before clucking his tongue with concern and patting them on the head. He promised to offer rewards for any and all of the missing, and the next week there were several flybills up around town proclaiming $1000 for the return of any of those that had gotten lost.
Because that’s how the townsfolk that stayed in Firenze started to refer to them. “Oh, Bill Gunderson? Yeah, he got lost last spring. His wife Polly is still running the store though, and isn’t she doing a good job?” There was an unspoken consensus in the town that while concern and action would be given lip service, no one was really going to rock the boat. The flybills would be torn down until the next season of disappearances, when they would go up again for a few days. In between, people were growing tenser and more frightened, but they largely kept it to themselves.
Then Annabelle Perkins got lost. Her husband, Rudolph Perkins, had moved them to Firenze two years earlier, and while by all accounts they were well-liked and respected, it was known that Rudolph and Annabelle were both more vocal in their concerns about the periodic rash of disappearances that seemed to plague their town. Their friends and neighbors tried to mollify them, of course, and for a time that seemed to help. But when Annabelle went missing while in the middle of taking a bath one night in December of 1921, Rudolph was beyond persuasion.
He gave voice to what so many in the town knew. Frank Pazzi was the one behind the disappearances somehow. And whatever he was doing to those people, they were never seen again. It took only a couple of hours to talking to his friends to gather up a large crowd that had grown tired of living in fear and dread. Like a scene out of an old monster movie, they stormed the estate and began searching for Pazzi to demand answers.
Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found. What they did find…well, there’s not a lot that’s clear from that night. I know that fifteen people went to the house, and several of them died inside, but it’s unclear how or why that happened. They tried to question his house staff, but they were all gone as well, and when they went to the head housekeeper’s home, Susanna Templeton was dead, having hung herself from a clothesline in the back yard.
One of the survivors of that night wrote a brief account of what they found in the house. Much of it was garbled and hard to make sense of, but one thing was clear. At some point they went into the lower levels of that house and found hidden chambers no one knew even existed. Pazzi had recruited some of his builders from somewhere else, and it must have been those men that had dug out the subterranean rooms and installed all of the cages and apparatus.
To call it a torture chamber or a dungeon is inaccurate. More accurately, it was a black shrine to some form of occult worship. There were strange symbols etched into every surface, and one of the spaces included a large pit filled with the refuse from nearly two decades of human sacrifice. It was here that the account gets especially hard to follow, as it seems to be talking about the mound of bones and flesh moving or rising up against them while also talking about Rudolph finding his beloved Annabelle even as he joined the other men in a terrible scream…it’s very weird, raw stuff. The guy who wrote it died only a few weeks later, so there was never a chance for anyone to find out what he really meant. In any case, that was the deathblow for Firenze, and by 1923 it was a ghost town.
It might have just faded away forever, slowly getting consumed by the forest at its edge, if it hadn’t all been bought by a man named Wilson Tattersall. The owner of a large security firm in the east that was slowly taking business away from the Pinkerton Agency, Tattersall knew the value of grabbing up land in the West with his newfound fortune. By 1932, Pazzi had gone from having been declared missing to being declared dead. With no will or heirs, the estate and the city itself reverted to the state of California, who was more than happy to sell it cheaply to the man from Virginia who was already buying up large swaths of land around the state.
It lay fallow for several more years before Tattersall began to develop it. In 1945, he announced plans to turn it into an amusement park of sorts. Keep in mind that this was ten years before Disneyland opened, so the idea of an amusement park in the mid-forties was typically confined to state fairs or a few bigger places like Coney Island or White City. The parks had rides, even rollercoasters, but between the Depression and World War Two, a lot of them had shut down. The idea of building a brand new one, particularly in the middle of nowhere, and especially at the scene of so much horror, seemed insane to me when I first read about it.
But then I realized that no one really knew what had happened in Firenze. Aside from a few articles at the time and the journals that were found by authors and researchers in the years since, it was just never widely known or talked about. And Tattersall, for all his money and ambition, started small when he rebuilt the town. He renovated the house and estate to play up the preexisting gothic architecture, remodeling here and there to suit its new purpose as a haunted house by adding secret hallways and staff areas as well as many nasty surprises for guests. The lower levels were supposed to be off-limits, however. Whether that meant that he sealed them off or had preserved them in their original state, no one knew.
When the park opened in 1947, it was called Wizard’s Folly. This played into the new legends that Tattersall had been strategically inserting into the rumor mills of towns in the surrounding counties. Instead of dozens of dead and missing, there were only a couple of girls and a little boy that were victims of the cruel Francesco Pazzi, a vile man who considered himself a wizard and alchemist of sorts. He had allegedly taken the victims’ blood as part of some insane ritual to make a Philosopher’s Stone, which he hoped to use to convert various substances into precious metals. Instead, the ritual went awry and he wound up burning to death in the bowels of his strange home. It is said that he and his “guests” still haunt those very halls…
Or so the ads said. A bunch of bullshit, but it spread like wildfire. Most people were tight on money back then, but they were also hungry for some time away from the realities of daily life. At a penny per person, carloads of people were making the trek and standing in line to get in from the first week it was open. By the time word had spread about how terrifying the house was, how you really did need to try it for yourself, the wait to get in was over four hours.
In the following six months, the park not only grew in popularity but in size as well. This was, for all intents and purposes, an adult theme park, but the estate could only hold so many visitors at a time if it was going to be an effective haunted house. So they added a go-kart track and a tilt-a-whirl, followed by a hot dog stand that served beer. Next was a handful of booths where guys could try to win cheap toys for their dates along with a “curiosities” show that was essentially a freak show on the front end and a peep show on the back. By October of ’47, they had started building a real, honest-to-God wooden rollercoaster too.
It was toward the end of that month, just a few days before Halloween, when it all fell apart. They called it a “toxic infection caused by mold”, and it was traced back to dozens of people that had visited Wizard’s Folly. But based on some things I’ve found, that was just a cover story. Over three hundred people scattered across six states reported seeing and hearing things, vomiting, and feeling an oppressive sense of being watched. This was covered up because of the two things that they all had in common. The first was that they had all visited Wizard’s Folly at some point in the six months it had been open. The second was that all of them started experiencing symptoms at exactly the same time: 9:23 p.m. pacific time on October 27, 1947.
Whatever happened that night in October at Wizard’s Folly, it was covered up. And the park was closed permanently the next day. Since that time, it’s been abandoned and forgotten–the Tattersall company, now called Tattersall Global–still owns the place, but it’s just a relic. They have a couple of guards patrolling it, and it’s become a bit of a holy grail in some corners of the internet paranormal community because no one has ever managed to get in more than a few yards before they are caught and turned away.
Then two months ago a guy started posting on a forum I frequent. Claimed that he and a buddy of his worked as guards for Tattersall at the old Wizard’s Folly park. People immediately called bullshit, but the next day he posted several pictures online of him at the park, and it looked legit. He said that for $5,000.00, him and his buddy would “take off” a couple of hours at an appointed time, leaving the gate open for the buyer and whoever he wanted to bring. The only rules were that they didn’t break or take anything and they were out again before the two hours was up.
I wound up in a brief bidding war with a lady from Seattle, but I managed to get it for $8,000.00. Marge, don’t look like that. I’ve got the money to spend, and this is a once in a lifetime chance. But anyway…that wraps up my presentation for now. There’s more to show you, but we’ll get to that later.
* * * * * *
A look passed between Pete and Marjorie, but I couldn’t read its significance. I was kind of blown away by everything I had just heard and that it had all come from Pete. When I told him so, he smirked at me as he forked in a mouthful of cold eggs.
“Oh, because I drive a truck you think I can’t be smart? Can’t read?”
I felt my face flushing crimson. “No, no. That’s not what I meant at all. It’s just…all that information. It’s impressive is all. It must have taken you a long time to pull all that together.”
He laughed and Marjorie joined in now, her earlier anger seemingly forgotten. “I’m just fucking with you, Phil. But yeah, it took a long time, even with the internet. This shit is obscure, and some of the people you run across in these circles don’t like to turn aloose of the little nuggets they’ve found along the way. It was fun though, and I think it’ll be worth it. This one is really something. I can feel it.
I gave them both a relieved smile and nodded. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to be stuck on an awkward trip for two weeks either, so seeing them both joking and in good spirits again eased my worries. I realized I had never looked at the pictures he had pulled out at the start of his story, so I picked them up now. Two of them were old and faded black and white photos of Wizard’s Folly back in its heyday, steady streams of people headed this way and that through what looked like a cross between a carnival and a strange garden party. The last one was obviously far more recent, and it showed a chubby, balding man in a security uniform smiling uncomfortably in front of the looming face of a gothic mansion, its dark stone a stormy gray in the overexposed picture. I felt an unexpected shudder looking at that last picture, and I set them all down quickly.
Pete looked at me silently for several moments and then glanced out the window. “It’s getting late. We need to get a move on. Miles to go before we sleep.”
We were off the interstate for the most part now, Pete taking us back routes that he said would be both quicker and more scenic. And he was right. We wound our way further west across the Mississippi and into Missouri, and by eight o’clock we were pulling into our stayover for the night, an older but nice motel on the outskirts of Kansas City.
I was inexplicably tired that night, and after we grabbed a quick burger at the restaurant attached to the motel, I quickly fell asleep watching t.v. with Marjorie in our room. When I awoke, I had a moment of disorientation in the darkness of the unfamiliar room, and after fumbling my phone onto the floor, I finally woke up enough to grab it and see it was just past midnight. I reached back to Marjorie’s side of the bed, but it was empty.
My first thought was that she was in the bathroom, but when I looked, nothing. I tried texting her, but a moment later I heard a buzz from where her phone had been left on the far nightstand. The beginnings of real worry and fear woke me up the rest of the way and I pulled back on my pants, absently grabbing a key card off the table on my way out the door.
The air was cold so late at night, and I hadn’t taken time to grab my jacket, but I didn’t care. Looking around in the gravel parking lot, I saw no signs of other people, which was understandable given the hour. We were in room 103 and I knew Pete was in 108, so I headed that way to see if he knew where she was.
Something made me hesitate as I reached the door. It was only for a couple of seconds, but long enough that I heard a woman’s giggle from inside Pete’s room. My first thought was that Pete had hooked up with some local after we had went to our room, and I debated whether I should disturb them before I looked around a bit more. Then I heard the giggle again, and I recognized it this time. It was Marjorie.
I knocked hard on the door, an unpleasant mix of fear, uncertainty, and anger surging into my chest. I waited, counting to ten internally before knocking loudly a second time. There had been no further sounds from the room, and another ten count was nearly done before the door cracked open and I saw Marjorie’s face poking out of the dimly lit murk within.
“Hey, what’s up, honey? Something wrong?” Her expression was one of surprise and mild concern, but I wasn’t sure if I trusted it. It was hard to tell in the blue-tinged light of the parking lot security lamps, but she looked…flushed. Flushed in a way I was familiar with, but that shouldn’t be happening with another man.
But no. Pete was her brother, for fuck’s sake. And not that people didn’t ever lie or do fucked up things, but I had known him for months and I didn’t think they were lying about being brother and sister. And I didn’t think they were…I didn’t think they were doing anything unnatural. I pushed the thought away and forced out a hollow laugh.
“I was just looking for you. I woke up and you were gone, and when I saw you left your phone behind, I got worried.”
She smiled. “Nah, I’m fine. I just wasn’t ready to go to bed yet and I didn’t want to wake you up, so I came down to hang out with Pete for awhile. I’ll be back down in just a few minutes. Love you, hun.” I was weighing whether I should push the issue and make my way into the room, but she had already shut the door back before I could respond. Hating myself, I pressed my ear against the door and listened for further sounds or voices. I did hear something that might have been muffled whispers followed by a stifled snort of laughter, but it might have been my imagination as well. It might all have been my imagination, after all.
I went back down to 103 and sat on the bed thinking for several minutes before undressing and getting back into bed. As I was dozing off, I heard the door open. Marjorie slipped quietly into bed and gave me a hug before quickly falling asleep.
* * * * * *
The morning light made the night before seem like some kind of strange dream. I went through a mental inventory of all the interactions I had ever seen between Marjorie and her brother, looking for any sign of anything inappropriate, but there was nothing. They would joke around and hug each other occasionally, but it was just normal brother-sister stuff not much different than I had done with my own brother before he died. And as for her being in his room…Well, she wanted some quality time with a brother she didn’t get to see very often. Nothing wrong with her laughing and having a good time, and anything weird was just me projecting my own insecurities or making something out of nothing.
Satisfied, I tried to act normal through breakfast and the morning drive, and by the afternoon it wasn’t an act. Part of this was because they weren’t acting weird themselves. My fear was that they would suddenly be awkward with each other or me, or Marjorie would suddenly make a point of only paying me attention, all of which would only reignite my twisted fears. But there was none of that. Just normal talk and hanging out as the roads unspooled before us.
By late that afternoon we had made it to a small town called Brimley. It was the last planned stop before we pushed on into the heart of Utah. As we pulled into the large truck stop there, I saw it had a store that looked like a massive log cabin. After the last few days of dirty chain gas stations, something a little better cared for and homey was a welcome surprise. Pete was fueling the truck and Marjorie had ran off immediately for the bathroom, so I decided to go explore the store for a bit and stretch my legs.
The air was definitely turning cooler with each day as fall set in. We were traveling at a fast enough rate that it was actually hard to judge how much of the difference was due to the change of seasons versus the change of locale, but the feel of the crisp air as I walked to the store reminded me of autumns growing up in Virginia. The thought made me smile and glance around at the town surrounding the truck stop.
It was odd. Though it was almost five in the afternoon on a Thursday, there was next to no one else around. A couple of other customers getting gas at the pumps looked back at me disinterestedly, but the only other real sign of life was an old man frantically mowing his grass with a lawn mower several houses down a side street. A small black and white dog stood yapping happily at the man from the street, though whether it was cheering him on or heckling him, it was hard to say.
The signs of normal life, of the energetic dog, of the world outside of the truck and Marjorie and Pete—these things should have cheered me more than they did. Yet I still felt a thin thread of unease running up my spine as I entered what a sign next to the door proclaimed was “Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium”.
* * * * * *
The store seemed to be an odd mix of items you would expect to find in a truck stop, those you’d find in a grocery store, and those you’d find in some kind of souvenir gift shop. At first, I gravitated towards the souvenirs, thinking it might be funny to get a random Midwest t-shirt or shot glass, or a hat that proclaimed the greatness of Brimley. Then I realized that the souvenirs were all wrong.
They weren’t from around the area for the most part, yet they were oddly specific. Have you ever been in a store that has I love N.Y. stickers or California shirts, even though the store is thousands of miles from either? That I would have understood. But this was stuff like “I visited Tallulah Gorge. The first step was a doozy!” Or “Providence, Rhode Island. Home of Marco’s Original Pepperoni Grinder!” Weirdly specific stuff that dealt with obscure places that would have no significance to most people passing through this little town.
The next thing was that there wasn’t more than one or two of any given item. I’m not saying the store had only a few souvenirs for sale. I mean that out of literally thousands of clothes, hats, knick-knacks, cups, signs, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac, there were a few twins or triplets, but that was it. Which made the next thing a bit easier to notice.
I think all the souvenirs were used.
I don’t mean they were dirty. Aside from a thin layer of dust here and there, they were perfectly clean. But a lot of them looked worn, especially the clothes. It was almost like they had everyone that came through donate a souvenir and then the store turned around and sold it like it was new. The thought struck me as funny until I thought about the horror movie I had seen where waylaid victims’ belongings were stockpiled by the killers. As I decided I needed to move to the snack area and out of this weirdness, I ran headfirst into Marjorie.
“Ow! Man, you’re in a hurry,” she laughed, poking a finger in my chest. “You still looking around or you ready to go?”
“Sorry, baby.” I saw an extremely tall figure moving around on the far side of the food section. I couldn’t see their face or body, but the top of his head was a platinum blonde, and the way the head moved, it looked as though they were moving down the aisle with a discordant and ungainly gait. Shivering slightly, I looked down at Marjorie and shook my head. “No, no. I’m good to go. Let’s get out of here.”
* * * * * *
I had asked Pete about Brimley when we were back on the road, and he had told me this was his first time stopping there. He said he’d had to alter his route after the truck stop he used a few towns over had burned down, but the prices were actually better at Hattie’s, so maybe that was a good thing. He asked why I wanted to know about Brimley and I shrugged, saying it just seemed like a weird little town.
He laughed and nodded. “No doubt. A lot of these isolated little places are. Worlds unto themselves, I guess you could say.” He slapped me on the arm. “But no worries, brother. We’ll be in California soon enough, and after I drop off this load, it’s on to the Folly.”
The rest of that day and the next were uneventful, with no more quirky stores in weird towns or strange ideas from me about my wife and brother-in-law. I started having fun again, and by the time we had settled in at the Alpine Estates hotel an hour south from Firenze, I was actually looking forward to our trip the following day to Wizard’s Folly.
I was expecting Wizard’s Folly to be a dilapidated ruin. Tall grass and encroaching woods peppered with vine-covered skeletons that had once been buildings and stands. I half expected that we wouldn’t be able to get in at all, or if we did, we would poke around for half an hour before leaving dejected because the reality of the park fell so far into the shadow of what Pete’s story had built up in our minds.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. As incredible as his story had been, the appearance and condition of the amusement park was even more awe inspiring. We entered easily through the front gate at precisely ten in the morning, all three of us looking around for signs of security in case the plan had somehow gone awry on the guards’ end. Within moments any thought of being caught had fled however, as we were all gasping at what we were seeing.
Everything was in nearly perfect condition. The grass was cut, the buildings looked recently painted, and there was none of the expected signs of disuse or ill-repair. We had taken a rural road up to the edge of Firenze, but our route turned us left towards Wizard’s Folly instead of right towards the ghost town. Because of that, I had only a slight idea of how the town compared to this place, but the glimpse I’d had of an old gas station at the edge of town had made sense. It looked long-abandoned, with rusty, old-fashioned pumps out front and morning sunlight glowing dimly through the caved-in roof of what looked like a small attached garage.
By contrast, if I had been told this park was open just an hour earlier, I would have believed it. We walked further up the main road, passing by a hot dog stand and a small building that appeared to contain public bathrooms. Up ahead, there were more buildings and the looming shadow of a massive wooden rollercoaster off to the right.
“What the fuck…” Pete’s expression matched my own feelings. “What is this? Are they reopening this place?”
Marjorie looked over at her brother. “Are you sure it’s okay for us to be here? This place does not look abandoned. And there’s a lot more here than what you described.”
She was right. We had already passed a gift shop, a small sit-down restaurant, and five different stands housing what looked like carnival games. All of them pristine and with lights blazing. Pete stopped and turned back to us.
“I mean…we’re trespassing either way, right? But so long as we don’t hurt anything, it shouldn’t be too much hassle even if we were caught, which we shouldn’t be. But…none of this makes sense. Why would the lights be on in these places? Why would everything be so…well, not new exactly, but intact?”
I knew what he meant. None of it had the feel of things that had been recently built, but rather just maintained very well. I pointed to one of the carnival game stands where you tried to pop balloons with darts. “Look at that shit! The balloons!” My description wasn’t overly articulate, but it didn’t have to be. Once you looked at the stand, it was obvious what was wrong. There were probably fifty balloons on a large corkboard at the back of the stand, and all of them were fully inflated.
Pete shook his head. “What…those balloons had to have been put there yesterday at the latest.” He looked around, his expression growing paranoid. “I don’t know what this is, but I think they’re either reopening it or something is way different than what I was told. Either way, if ya’ll want to go, I’m fine with it.” He was looking at Marjorie, but I was the one that spoke up.
“No, let’s keep going.”
* * * * * *
We rounded a curve and saw that the park opened up before us, with multiple paths leading off toward rides and shrouded thoroughfares that wound deeper into the property. This was also our first good look at the mansion, albeit from a distance. It was strange and imposing even far away, with dark stone and black shingles swooping this way and that like the contours of a giant gargoyle just waiting for us to get closer. A large hedge maze acted as a barrier between us and the house, and when I went to enter it, Marjorie tugged on my arm.
“No, Phillip. Let’s not and say we did. I do not want to get stuck in that thing, okay?” When I nodded, she went on, gesturing towards a path off to our right. “Let’s try this way. We can see more of the park and find a way around to the house if we’re lucky.”
Pete chimed in. “Yeah, Phil. I think she’s right. We’re on a clock here, so we’re better off taking in as much as we can rather than taking time for the maze.”
“Sure, yeah. Makes sense.” I started walking with them down a brick path that led closer to the massive rollercoaster, a familiar sense of strangeness coming back to me. Why were they deferring to me so much now? Acting as though they need to persuade me or as though I was in charge? I had just been going along with whatever, which was fine, but why now did they ask my opinion? Was this some of the weirdness I was worried about? I was snapped out of my reverie by the fear and wonder in Marjorie’s voice.
“My God. I smell popcorn. I smell popcorn and cotton candy.”
I realized I smelled it too. Fear crawled up my back as I looked around, but I saw nowhere it could be coming from. My eyes met Pete’s and he shrugged. “I don’t know, Phil. I smell it too, but no clue how or why.”
My roving gaze fell on the rollercoaster again. We were probably fifty yards from the entry for the ride, which a large and brightly lit sign proclaimed as “The Hunter’s Blind”. It seemed a strange name for any ride, much less a rollercoaster, but the thought left me as I realized something.
“Pete, didn’t you say they only partially built the rollercoaster?”
He nodded. “Yeah. And you saw it in the picture too, remember? The park shut down when they were only about halfway done.”
I pointed ahead of us. “Do you see any part that’s unfinished on that thing? I’ve been looking at it, looking for a break in the track or some sign that something isn’t in place yet, but I can’t find it. It looks like the rest of the place—ready for business.”
Pete swallowed. “You’re right.” He rubbed his cheek and glanced at his watch. “Okay, we’ve got a little over an hour left. Shit, I didn’t realize that much time had passed. Anyway, what do you guys want to do? This place is weird and creepy as fuck, but obviously they have to be renovating it, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation, and this is from the guy that believes in all kinds of fucked up shit.”
Marjorie laughed nervously. “Yeah, I bet that’s it. Has to be.” She turned to me. “Phil baby, are you good with us going now? They may have more security if they’re getting ready to do something with this place, and I really don’t want to go to jail on our honeymoon.”
I grinned at her, but it was forced. I really wanted to keep going, felt driven to explore further into the park and reach the house. But I also didn’t want to disappoint her or Pete, and I could tell they were both anxious to leave.
Her brother chimed in, “It’s your call, Phil. We’ll do what you decide. But if you’re ready to head out, we are too.” Again that strange deference, that odd tension and expectation that I had never noticed before. Something about it made me want to stay in the park even more, but when I glanced back at Marjorie I pushed it down.
“Nah, it’s cool. We’ve seen plenty, and we probably shouldn’t risk it.”
The relief from both of them was palpable, but I tried to ignore it. I was teetering on just telling them to go wait in the car for me, but then Marjorie took my hand and I let myself be led back to the front gate and beyond it. Within a few minutes we were back on the road in the rental car Pete had procured earlier in the morning. I found myself looking back at the park with an odd wistfulness until its dark silhouette had slipped from view.
That night I had terrible dreams that I didn’t remember upon waking except for an acid taste on my tongue and the uncomfortable sensation of something gripping my thudding heart. Marjorie stirred restlessly beside me, but when I lay back down in the cool dampness of the sweaty sheets, she slipped back into a deeper sleep. I stayed awake, my mind adrift in a shadow sea of unfamiliar thoughts and feelings as I stared up at the ceiling I couldn’t really see. As gray dawn began crawling through our balcony window, I gave up on getting back to sleep. The rooms really were very nice, and the hotel itself was massive and far more expensive than anywhere I had ever stayed before, but I felt trapped in there. Trying to be quiet, I got dressed and slipped out of the room.
I headed downstairs with the idea that I would just walk around a bit. The area we were in was lushly forested, and between the hotel’s golf course and the series of walking paths through the woods on the resort grounds, I had plenty of options for an early morning constitutional. I’ve never been much for exercise, but I needed to clear my head, to be away from the two of them for awhile. So for the next couple of hours, I walked.
As I went, the thing I kept coming back to was that I felt we’d made a mistake not going on to the house. Or at least I had made a mistake. It seemed like one of those ephemeral moments in life where picking right or left will have major ramifications somehow. You can’t say why it’s so important, but you can feel the weight of…what, fate?…bearing down on the decision you’re making. If you make the right one, you feel a sense of harmony and well-being. If you make the wrong one, you feel utterly discordant and lost.
I felt lost. I couldn’t explain it, but I somehow knew I had chosen wrong, and the further I walked, the more I mulled it over, the more certain I became that I had to go back there. Then suddenly Marjorie was running up to me, telling me that we had to get back to the room and pack. That there had been some kind of major accident back at Pete’s trucking company and he needed to start heading back now.
She was tugging on my arm, but I resisted with a frown. “Why do we have to go back now? Can’t he just leave us and go back?”
Marjorie scowled at me. “No, idiot. We have no way of getting back then, and no money to spend on a flight or even a bus.” She put her fingertips to the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Pete’s just freaked out and so am I. Apparently there was some kind of chemical spill and three of his people are at the hospital. ICU bad. He’s worried about them, worried about getting sued and losing his insurance…he’s worried.” She reached out and touched my arm. “But that was still shitty of me to say it like that. But can we just go? He’s in no shape to drive the next several days back by himself, and he doesn’t want to risk leaving the semi here.”
I nodded, ignoring the voice inside screaming for me to stop. “Sure, honey. I get it. Let’s go get our stuff.”
* * * * * *
When we met Pete in the lobby twenty minutes later, he looked haggard and red-eyed. He apologized for cutting the trip so short and helped us quickly load our things before we were on the road and headed back the way we had came. I felt a growing sense of restless unease as we traveled east, but I kept quiet. Whatever weirdness I was going through, Pete had enough on his plate as it was. I felt bad for him—I knew he had worked hard building that business up, and it was easy to see how stressed out he was from fear he might lose it all.
The thing was…as we traveled throughout the morning and early afternoon, his worries seemed to slip away. Not that I expected him to stay in a state of high agitation and fear for hours on end, but I’d have expected some noticeable level of distress to hang around for at least the rest of the day, if not until he was at his company and had a better handle on what was happening. Instead, him and Marjorie were back to joking around, singing along with the radio, and generally acting like they were still on vacation. For the hundredth time, I found myself questioning my perceptions of things, wondering if I was just being an asshole.
When we had settled in at the same motor lodge we’d stayed at just two nights earlier, I suggested we all get dinner together, my treat. I could tell they were both resistant, but I pushed on with cheery determination until they gave in. I wanted to watch them out of the truck and see how they acted. See if Pete acted carefree or concerned. See if any quick, secret glances passed between them.
The meal was uneventful until the end. They were both acting abnormally normal, but that is such a subjective thing that I quickly began doubting myself again. It was only as I was leaving the waitress a tip that I glanced up at Pete’s face. Marjorie must have seen it a moment before I did, because she was already up and moving, pulling Pete from the booth the same moment my eyes met his and my tongue went numb.
His face was sliding off. Or at least drooping. It looked as though he was wearing a latex mask that had gotten too hot and started to melt, the eyes and nostrils and mouth drooping low and revealing something red and wet underneath. I let out a startled grunt and put my palms against the edge of the table. I shoved the table towards him, but he was already out of the seat with Marjorie’s help, so the far edge just bumped against the back of the booth he was sitting in. I went to stop Marjorie, to make her understand that something was terribly wrong, that he was a monster or dying or something, but she was already leading him away. She turned back briefly to give me distressed look.
“He’s sick, Phil. I’ve seen this before. Go back to our room and I’ll be there soon.”
Before I could protest, she had turned the corner with him, heading towards the back of the restaurant and presumably the bathroom. I considered following them, but when I saw the few other customers in the place staring at me over the commotion, I reconsidered. I wasn’t going back to the room, but I would wait right here instead.
I know what I saw. His fucking face was falling off. And now I want some goddamn answers.
“What? You’re saying what I saw was Bell’s Palsy?” I knew what it was—I’d had a dentist who had it once. But it made one side of his face droop, not look like it was falling off.
Marjorie nodded. “Yeah. Stress can trigger it, and his version of it is pretty severe and scary, but it happened once when we were teenagers. Last time it cleared up overnight, so we’ll see. He’s resting in his room now.”
I gripped my hands together so tightly that the knuckles were white. “Look, there’s been a lot of weirdness the entire trip, and I…”
Marjorie came and sat next to me, reaching over to put her hands on top of mine. “I know it. I’ve been focused on him too much, and I’m sorry. I just know we have the rest of our lives together and I don’t get to spend much time with him. And now…he’s just so upset about all this right now.”
I pulled my hands away and leaned back. “You could have fooled me.”
She frowned at me, her eyes growing harder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that he’s been acting jolly as can be all afternoon, and then all of a sudden it’s like I’m sitting across from a horror movie that you’re telling me is Bell’s Palsy and is caused by his extreme stress? I’m not trying to be a dick, but none of that makes sense.”
She stood up, tears welling up in her eyes. “Well, it’s the truth. I need you on my side on this. Do you think this is how I wanted our honeymoon to be? Stuck in a semi and going to some crappy old park? Not having any time to ourselves? But I was trying to make him and you both happy. I saw it as a way to spend time with him and to give you a trip we otherwise couldn’t afford. I’m sorry that it…”
I stood up and hugged her. “It’s okay. We’re all just stressed and tired. If you say it’s Bell’s Palsy, that’s what it is. Let’s get some rest and see how he’s doing in the morning.”
* * * * * *
The next morning, Pete looked normal aside from the sunglasses he was wearing. He said that his eyes were still weird looking but seemed to be improving. I thought about asking more questions, but decided to just leave it alone. All I wanted was to be done with this trip as soon as possible, and if I still felt a yearning to return to Wizard’s Folly, there was nothing to be done about it now.
That evening we stopped again at Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium in Brimley, and again I felt the same sense of disquiet being in the small town. I went in with the intention to just use the bathroom and then head right back to the truck, but when I made it into the stall, I stopped cold at what I found there. There was a notepad and two pictures sitting on the back of the toilet. I would have just left them alone, but I recognized them. They were from Pete’s file on Wizard’s Folly.
But how could that be? As far as I knew, Pete had never even gone inside the store last time we were here, and I knew he hadn’t beat me in here this time. And why would he leave parts of his prized file in a gas station bathroom anyway?
Forgetting my need to pee, I grabbed up the pad and pictures before leaving the stall. I almost went out to ask Pete about it, but something made me reconsider. I was tired of getting all my information through them. Not that I didn’t trust them, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to the store owners and see if they knew anything about how that stuff came to be in their bathroom or how long it had been there.
The cashier’s desk was a heavily carved oak monstrosity that curved into a long “L” with two cash registers on opposite ends. Behind the counter were two elderly women that might have been twins, their long white hair tied back in matching bushy ponytails. Putting on a smile, I approached and held up the notepad and pictures.
“Hey ya’ll. Me and family are just passing through, and I just found something in your bathroom that I think belongs to my brother-in-law.” I pointed out in the direction of the truck fuel pumps. “He’s the guy out there fueling up. Anyway, I was just in the bathroom stall and I found some papers and pictures that belong to him, but I don’t know how or when he could have left them. So I know it sounds weird, but I was just wondering if you had seen someone carry them in or if you knew how long they might have been in there without being noticed?”
The two women glanced at each other with small smiles, and the one on the left was about to answer when their eyes lifted above me and the words died in their throat. I turned around to stare into the drooping breasts of the tallest person I’ve ever seen. The woman was of normal proportions, and her face, though a bit narrow, was actually that of an attractive woman in her early fifties. But she had to be over seven feet tall, and when she looked down at me and smiled with her long, shining grin, I couldn’t help but take a step back, bumping into the counter.
“You said you had a wife, did you?” Her voice was deep but still feminine, and it possessed a tonal quality that sounded like it came from the bottom of an old stone well. The woman made a pouty expression for a moment. “That’s always such a shame to hear. Always a shame when such a handsome young man is already taken.” The women behind me murmured their agreement, but I was unable and unwilling to look away from this giant in front of me. I was transfixed—on the one hand, I was fearful of her for some reason beyond her surprising size, and on the other, I found her voice and words calming like a soothing balm. Not sure of what to do, I mirrored the smile that had returned to her face and nodded.
“Yes, I’m taken I’m afraid.” By this point, any questions about what I had found in the bathroom had gone by the wayside. I just wanted to get out of there. But then suddenly I was swept up in a tight hug, my face being buried in her cleavage as I breathed in some combination of flowery perfume and baby powder and…something else. There was something else beneath those smells. Something earthy and raw and caustic that felt like a corkscrew going up into my nostrils. I pulled back with a gasp and found my face being gently held by her large hands as she looked at me closely with dark, wide eyes.
“You are the one, aren’t you? You are, I can see it. I can feel it.”
I tugged my head backward but it didn’t budge in her grip. “Ma’am, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. But please let me go. I don’t like any of this.”
Her face grew sad and she gave a slow nod. “Of course you don’t. How could you? Lost and incomplete for so long, our Vesper, our Venus, our evening—” I unhinged my knees and let my body weight rip my head free from her grasp, scooting around her and sprinting towards the door. She screamed behind me, but it was not an angry yell. It was more of a mournful wail.
“Make them take you back, Vesper! Make them do their duty! For us all!”
If she said more, I didn’t hear it. I ran off the front porch of the store and headed to where the truck had been parked, but it was gone. New panic spread across my chest as I looked around the parking lot and adjoining streets. No sign of the truck or either of them. Throwing the notepad and photos to the ground, I dug into my pocket for my cellphone. Neither of them answered after two tries each.
It was all too much. I finally went and sat down at a concrete picnic table sitting in the small triangle of grass as the edge of the gas station’s parking lot. I needed a few minutes of quiet, a few minutes of peace to gather my thoughts and then…
I looked around to see a pair of boys, one about eleven, the other maybe thirteen, staring at me. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but I was grateful for their relative normalcy so I tried to be friendly. “Hey guys. How’re ya’ll doing?”
The younger boy giggled. “You talk funny, Mister.”
I nodded and smiled. “I’m from the South, so I probably have a weird accent to you, huh?” They both nodded back and sat down across the picnic table from me. Inwardly groaning, I turned to glance at the road again. “Hey, did y’all happen to see a big black semi around here? Just in the last few minutes?”
The younger boy went to speak but the older one poked him in the ribs before talking himself. “I did, Mister. It drove off just a little bit ago.” When I asked which direction, the boys both shrugged. “I’m not sure, Mister. But they were going pretty fast.”
I pulled out my phone again and sent Marjorie a text: WHERE ARE YOU? Though I hated it, I was already starting to make plans in the back of my mind for how I’d get back home on my own. But surely it wouldn’t come to that, right?
I looked past the boys and down the street where, just a few days ago, I had seen the small dog harassing the man in his yard. There was no sign of life down that way now. As evening continued to set in, the shadows were pooling out their stations at the bottom of trees and cars, trashcans and garages, and the air was growing thicker with the blue haze of deepening twilight. It was a lonely road, and sitting at this decaying picnic table with these odd little boys, I had never felt more alone.
Then, at the far end of the street, I saw Pete’s truck go by.
It may have been that they were heading back in my direction, but I didn’t wait to find out. I leapt up and started down the road at a full run without a farewell or backwards glance. I knew logically I couldn’t just chase down the truck, but my hope was that they were somehow looking for me, or that at the least, the big truck would have to slow down in the more narrow straits of a neighborhood. Yet when I reached the far end of the road, breath puffing out and hands on my knees, there was no sign of them. I stood back up slowly, my brain buzzing and off-balance. They had abandoned me. I saw no other answer.
I turned around with the idea of going back to the store on the off-chance they returned—fat chance I thought to myself—and to sit at the table while I called a taxi to carry me to the nearest bus stop. But I came up short when I saw that the two boys were standing right behind me. They weren’t out of breath, and honestly I had neither seen nor heard any sign of them following me. But there they were. I felt a small thrill of fear and tried to just give them a nod and move past quickly. Instead of going on their way, they fell in beside me, their footfalls loud on either side of me as we made our way back toward the lights of the Emporium.
“Hey Mister. You sure can run fast.” It was the younger one from my left, and I just smiled and gave him a nod, quickening my pace.
“It’s probably because of his nice shoes. Where’d you get such nice shoes, Mister?” This was the older on my right, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was wearing a pair of cheap sneakers I’d had for three years, not something fancy or expensive. I decided to just ignore them and keep walking toward the lit parking lot.
“Mister doesn’t want us to know, I guess. That doesn’t seem right.” Younger one again, his voice coming closer to my elbow now.
“Well, maybe he just wants us to have these shoes so we don’t have to go looking for some. What about it, Mister? Want to give us those nice shoes?” This was the older one again, and the thread of menace underlying his words was unmistakable. I found myself afraid and angry and ashamed of both emotions. I was being bullied by a pair of children. Children that were in their own way, trying to rob me apparently. What was going on with this place? With me?
I stopped and stepped backwards, simultaneously shoving both of them forward and further away from me. “All right, you little shits. I’m tired of this. All of this. Especially you. So get the fuck out of here before I stomp your fucking ass.” I didn’t recognize the words coming out of my mouth, but they felt good. A look of uncertain fear passed between the two boys, and I felt myself preparing to attack the older boy when I saw Pete’s truck pulling into the parking lot again. Feeling a surge of relief, I pushed past the boys and ran to it.
Marjorie opened the door and gave me a shaky smile. “Hey, Phil, come on in.”
I climbed in and slammed the door behind me. As Pete began to pull away, he dropped a greasy paper sack into my lap. Looking down, I saw it was from a chain fast food restaurant. I shoved it off my lap onto the floor. “What the fuck is that supposed to be?”
Marjorie’s smile thinned as her face went red. “We went and got us all some food to save time. I sent you a text. Did it not go through?”
Glaring at her, I gave a short and bitter laugh. “No, it didn’t go through. And that’s bullshit. I’ve been calling and texting. And ya’ll were gone for nearly thirty minutes. I’m tired of all this weird fucking shit. This town, the park, ya’ll…” I pointed towards Pete, who was driving silently with his jaw clenched. “This motherfucker is still wearing sunglasses when it’s practically nighttime. Is it so I don’t see his face falling off, because I know it’s not goddamn Bell’s Pa…”
“Fuck!” Pete was coming to a fast stop, the air brakes on the truck letting out a squealing hiss as he did so. At first I thought he was going to fight back, and I relished the thought. But he wasn’t looking at me. Neither of them were. They were looking outside. Pete let out a tired sigh. “The fuckers have blocked this way too. Even with him in here.”
I didn’t understand everything he was talking about, but the “fuckers” blocking was self-evident. Spread across the road was a line of twenty or so people, young and old, small and big, all looking at the truck and waiting. Most of them had weapons of the homemade variety, though there was the occasional gun as well. And all of them bore the same look of grim determination that stated very clearly that we would not pass that way.
Marjorie slammed her fist into the back of Pete’s seat. “Just run them over then. Fuck all of this. They can’t stop this thing.”
As if in response to a challenge, there was a loud crack followed by a louder bang and a plume of smoke from under the hood. Pete cursed again as the truck’s engine warbled unevenly to silence. “Someone just shot the engine out. We’re fucked.”
I was looking back and forth between the two of them. “What’s going on? Who are these people?”
Marjorie sneered at me, an angry contempt filling her gaze. “They’re your fan club, idiot. They’re here to get your autograph.”
“And our asses,” Pete added in glumly as he opened the door to step out.
What they were saying made no sense, but I decided to follow suit and leave the truck too. As I stepped out, I saw the twin women from the store. In the shadows of a nearby sycamore tree, I saw the looming form of the woman that had hugged me and called me…
“Vesper!” The crowd cried. “Evening Star!” The mob didn’t sound angry at all, but were instead rapturously happy. “He who will save us! He who will return us to our rightful home!” It was clear that they were talking to me, and I suppressed the urge to run as they surged forward to surround me, stroking my arms and hugging my neck. Once I was in their midst, I was oddly calm, and it was only with mild and detached interest that I heard Pete and Marjorie yelling as they were pulled away from the truck and out of view.
The twin women from Hattie’s stepped forward. “What name do you go by?”, they asked in unison.
“Phillip. Phil. I go by Phil.”
The women beamed identical smiles at me. “Well, Phil, you are very important. You have a very important destiny. Those people,” they cast a glance in the general direction that Pete and Marjorie had been taken, “were meant to help you find your path, but instead they tried to keep you from it.” The women’s faces grew hard at this, but relaxed as they looked back to me. “But you are stronger than that. You may even be ready this time.”
“Ready for what?” I blurted out. “I keep having weird shit happen and no one will tell me what’s going on. And this is all starting to really freak me out.” I gestured around at the crowd, the damaged truck, the town…fuck, my entire life of late, and as I did so, I found that the tall woman had stepped forward as well. The crowd parted for her and she reached down to take my hand.
“I understand, Phil. We can come on too strong. It’s only because we are so proud of you. We love you so much and are excited to see you.”
Frowning, I shook my head. “But why? I don’t know any of you people. I don’t even know if I really know the people that brought me here.”
The tall woman glowered as she gave a nod. “They have done you a great disservice. They knew you were the one and yet I bet they tried to dissuade you from entering the house, didn’t they?
My heart started thudding faster in my chest. “What house?” When I saw the knowing smile on her face, I stopped and nodded. “Yes. They didn’t force me not to, but they worked to dissuade me without telling me no.”
The woman nodded again, and I noticed several more nods and murmurs in the crowd around us. “Yes, they couldn’t refuse you directly, not in that place, but they could trick you into leaving. If you had just gone inside, all of this would be over. You would understand and know who you truly are.” She looked sad momentarily before brightening. “But there is still time. Do you still want to go inside the house at Wizard’s Folly?”
I surprised myself by nodding again. “If it can make things better, or at least where I can understand what’s going on, yes I do.”
The woman gave me another awkward hug, though it was quicker this time and I didn’t have to free myself from her grasp when it was over. “That’s wonderful! We will start heading for it right away. By tomorrow evening we should be there.”
We travelled in a large shuttle bus of the kind I had always associated with class reunions and senior citizen field trips to see musicals. The seats were comfortable and there was food and a bathroom, but it was still hard to ride for so long after having been on the road so many days. We stopped every few hours to stretch our legs, and I saw that Pete and Marjorie were in a second identical bus traveling behind us. They looked okay physically, but neither of them would speak to me or meet my eyes when I tried to call out to them. Whether it was out of fear or resignation, they both bore the air of condemned prisoners, and after they ignored me the first couple of times, I gave up trying.
I was mildly surprised that I wasn’t scared or worried about myself or them, but as time went on and the road unspooled before us, I felt the last remnants of my old self-doubt and fear falling away. It reminded me of watching a butterfly or moth shaking off the detritus of the cocoon before taking flight. I didn’t know if a moth remembered life before the cocoon, but if it did, I imagined it grew dimmer with each passing night.
The people on the bus with me were friendly enough, but they left me alone other than to occasionally ask if I needed anything. I only drank and ate a little, and when I slept, it was only for a half hour or so at a time. Still, I didn’t feel sleepy or especially tired. Just tired of riding and waiting, waiting and riding. I was ready to reach Wizard’s Folly and the gargoyle that lay at its heart.
By dusk the following night we were there. I had held off asking any more questions during the trip, and I found myself regretting it now. I had no real idea what I was walking into. For all I knew, these people were part of some dangerous cult and were going to torture and kill all of us. It seemed I wasn’t past all fear or all doubts after all.
But they paled next to my drive to see for myself. My desire to enter the house and get rid of this terrible longing that had taken over my heart in the last few days. So I left the bus with the rest of them. We had been driven right up to the front door of the house by some route we hadn’t seen during our prior visit, and when the expectant crowd parted the way for me, I stepped forward and opened the door.
Inside was dark and cool, but not pitch black. There were electric lamps and candles at various spots, perforating the shadows enough to give a rough geography of the hall I was entering and its adjoining rooms. I felt no need to explore or wander once I was inside. The house was clean and well-furnished, as well as impressively decorated in a strange gothic style, but none of that was why I had come.
I came to meet my father.
The thought had occurred to me as I traveled past the sweeping staircase going up into the upper floors and around the corner to a smaller hallway that led to a small black door at its terminus. I opened the door and began my journey down the winding stone steps into the basement and sub-basement beyond. All of this was done without hesitation, because as with so many things now, I just knew the truth of them as they came to me.
I reached the primary ritual room, the centerpiece of which was the large pit that had once contained so much death and decay. It was empty now, but I could still feel the energy radiating from it. This pit had been my womb, and I felt some connection to it. I looked around the room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Sitting in the corner was a small, hunched man, or something that resembled a man. I wasn’t afraid, but I still approached cautiously, as I could feel great power coming from him as well.
“Father?” I didn’t know why I said the word except that it was right and true.
The figure stirred from some kind of slumber, grey rheumy eyes studying me for a moment before gleaming with recognition. “Vesper? Is that you?”
I nodded slowly, almost gingerly, as I sat down near him. “I think so. My name is Phil, but I think it’s also Vesper.”
The man smiled, the crisscross of age lines making the expression seem more like a wound across old leather. “Phil is just your name this time. The name of your outward self. Before you were Dora. You were Stephen. And perhaps more I never knew.” His eyes narrowed. “I thought I dreamed of you coming here before. Did you come here before?”
“Yes…me and my wife, Marjorie. Her brother, Pete. They brought me, but we didn’t come inside the house. I never came down here. I didn’t remember enough.” I felt a slight shame at admitting the last, but the old man patted my shoulder.
“No shame in that. They are old and crafty. I suspect they knew just what to say to confuse you, get you back away from here without me waking up.”
I jerked back at that. “Old and crafty? Marjorie? I don’t understand.”
The man sighed. “I know, and I hate it had to be this way for so long. Let me explain.”
* * * * * *
Hell is a real place. As real as this one…or more real I suppose. It is one of the chief Realms that encircle this world and an infinite number like them. There was a time that Hell was ruled by Lucifer and his fallen. It was a terrible place, but it was orderly and it served many purposes. A key cog in the machinery of Creation, if you will.
But then Lucifer was destroyed and Hell began to change. The fallen angels and other infernal demons that were left no longer controlled things, and they found themselves hunted to the edge of extinction, for the new ruler of Hell, the Hunter, was all but immune to their infernal magics and diabolical snares. With no way of fighting back, they ran.
The weaker ones hid in the shadows of the new Hell, eking out a meager existence while waiting for their turn to come as the Hunter’s prey. The stronger ones fled to other realms and worlds like this one. Over the years, some formed communities like the one you visited in Brimley. And while many appreciated the respite, and some even came to enjoy their lives on Earth, most were ill-suited for it. They felt a yearning to return to Hell not that different than what pulled you to the very place you sit right now.
So they began to work and scheme. They enlisted the aid of numerous human agents and practitioners of the black arts, and over several centuries they devised a plan. The start of that plan was put into motion when a man named Francesco Pazzi came to America and founded the town Firenze. He was skilled in black magic and had been entrusted with this plan, this last hope of Hell’s orphans.
And he succeeded. Year after year, ritual after ritual, sacrifice after sacrifice, he layered the blood and the pain and the power needed to craft a very special spell. It required not only human sacrifice, but demonic sacrifice as well, and over two dozen fallen angels were rendered in the process, as well as a tiny relic from the Hunter itself. A single strand of hair that had fallen from its head during its brief battle with Lucifer.
In many ways, this was the most important part. If something was going to be able to face the strange magic of the Hunter, it needed to possess a bit of that magic itself, as well as the magic of infernals and humans both. These three magics were never meant to be together, never meant to co-exist, so it was only through great skill and will and power that this was done. Only by all of this effort and sacrifice were you born.
The night you were born, men from the town stormed this house. Most were killed and others were taken. They have served various uses in the years since then, but one pair, one special couple, has lasted longer than the rest. Rudolph and Annabelle Perkins. Star-crossed lovers, you might say. Or rather, as you might say, your wife Marjorie and her “brother” Pete.
I know even now that comes as a shock to you. You still retain your life as Phil, and some of those old feelings are still there. But I have been sending them out to find you for decades, and I know them better than they know themselves.
When I came to America as Frank Pazzi, I had hoped my rituals would be complete by 1920. That I would gain vast power in this world and, when I eventually was forced into Hell, I would be lauded as a hero and given a place of privilege in the new infernal court. Then that fucking whore Annabelle and her stuck-up husband came to town. I had hoped that taking her would send him packing, but instead he riled the townsfolk up when you were fresh to life–and I was weak from your creation.
In the chaos of that night, you somehow slipped away. I had taken them as prizes, but I had to disappear for a time while I searched for you. By the time I found you a few years later, you were living as a young girl named Dora Wilcher outside of Omaha, Nebraska. From what I could learn, you had just shown up in town as a young woman and started living life like everything was normal. No memory of what you really were or that you hadn’t existed five years earlier.
My first instinct had been to try to force you to remember, try to make you come with me. Then I realized how foolish and arrogant I was being. I was dealing with something new, something I didn’t understand. That no one understood. So I decided to trust you and let you find your own way, develop the human side of your nature and grow in strength until you were ready.
For years I watched you while cultivating more money and power as Wilson Tattersall. I rebought my own house, my own property, and I waited. I had a feeling we would need this place of power again, and I was right. When Dora was in her forties, she started getting sick. I kept close tabs on you at all times back then, and I knew that the doctors you had seen had no idea what was wrong. Desperate, I sent two of my servants out to push you in this direction, hoping I could help you without disturbing your development.
Those servants were Marjorie and Pete. Except they didn’t call themselves that, or Annabelle and Rudolph. Back then they were Tess and Johnny, a married couple that buttered up to you and your husband for months before springing a surprise trip on you. A surprise trip to an exclusive new amusement park that had just opened up in California.
I had waited for months for your arrival, making use of the guests we had in my own small ways, but all with the end goal of seeing you walk through those gates. Because without you, all of it was for naught. I had started to lose hope—I felt that my bindings on “Tess and Johnny” were strong enough that they couldn’t betray me, but I also felt sure by that point that you needed to come of your own free will for any of this to truly work.
Then, on the evening of October 27, 1947, I saw you standing in line for the house. I have never been a romantic or even a sexual man, but you were a vision that night. I had only seen you in pictures and from a distance a handful of times over the years, but nothing could have prepared me for the excitement I felt seeing you so close to fulfilling your destiny. When you entered the house, you did remember more of yourself and your nature, but something was still wrong. You lashed out, killing several people and making others sick or insane. All of which I was happy with at the time, as you seemed to grow stronger as others fell around you. I even felt pride for my hand in it, for I had tainted many visitors in the preceding months, letting this place and you feed off them indirectly during your rampage. I thought you were finally being made whole. But then, just as quickly you were gone, vanishing into thin air.
I didn’t despair as long this time, but set others to the task of finding you again. The problem is that to most people you would just look like a normal person. People I have claimed—my touch gives them unnatural life, but it also gives them a certain sensitivity. They can find you where others cannot. Over the years, without regular influxes of power, my ability to create new servants of that sort has waned.
Annabelle and Rudolph found you as Stephen Keller in the 1970s and eventually led you back here. That time, you only wanted to talk to me, largely about my life and whether my goals were noble or worthy, and then you disappeared again. I didn’t find you again until now.
That damned couple—they have to do my bidding, but they enjoy their life outside far too much and have devised ways over the years to avoid finding you, to thwart the spirit of my commands if not the letter of them. When they ran across you, they had no choice but to come or the magic that preserves them would start to fail. But if they brought you and manipulated you into leaving before you could remember, their hope was they could claim ignorance and buy themselves another few decades of “searching”. Alas, the magic is smarter than they are, as are my demonic companions.
I set up Brimley as a waystation years ago. A place they would have to travel through if they were bringing you to me. An independent check, if you will, to help keep them honest or stop them if they decided they didn’t want the ride to end. It served its purpose in the end, and they’ll be dealt with for their treachery, if you can call their disloyalty to me treason in the first place. I did abduct and magically subjugate them, but they had a lot of good years as a result, so I can’t help but feel somewhat unappreciated.
But I digress. My age is catching up with me I’m afraid. Wait until you’re 170 years old and see how you do.
The real question is are you ready? Do you feel whole yet? I’m not trying to pressure you, and I trust you to know when this cycle of…whatever it is…is complete, but I’m running out of time. And Hell, while vast, grows closer to being wholly under the Hunter’s control every day. I’ve even heard stories of the Hunter appearing in this world, albeit very briefly, a few months ago and slaughtering quite a few notable occultists. No one on my level, of course, but still…it gives one pause.
I named you Vesper after the old meaning of the word. Evening star. The morning star has died and his Hell has been lost, but I believe you can champion a new era. With you to lead us, I think Hell can be retaken and made whole again. So what do…
* * * * * *
He gurgled slightly as I punched into his ribcage with both hands, separating his torso like a rotten head of lettuce and letting the wet halves splatter-drip onto the old stone floor. This rotting monster, this decrepit sadist, thought that I would help him? That I would help any of them?
I remembered everything now. I recalled the bloody and horrible origins of my birth. I could see my husband when I was Dora. My parents when I was Stephen. Marjorie the day I married her. And yes, I had been lied to and tricked. Manipulated and moved around like a pawn. Or I suppose more like a nuclear warhead being ferried from place to place.
But I didn’t feel anger or sadness. I felt joy and love for all the lives I had lived and the world I had lived them in. Unlike when Dora lost control and hurt people out of confusion and fear, I was past that now. The only negative emotion I was really feeling at this point was disgust. Disgust at this little mummy that wanted me to be a good dog. Disgust at the horde of foul things masquerading as humans outside.
I walked back upstairs, and even before I reached the doors, I could feel their anticipation, their corruption, flowing through the cracks like waves of heat. I think my father was right. It was time that I helped these demons find a way home.
I opened the doors wide and smiled at the expectant crowd. They weren’t stupid, and it only took moments of seeing me now for their expressions to change, for their flesh and bones to start shifting in unnatural ways in anticipation of what was coming. That was all right. It wouldn’t matter in the end.
Closing the doors behind me, I walked out into the crowd, watching with slight amusement as they shuffled back at my approach. The fear and hate in the air were palpable, and I breathed it in deeply. Scanning the crowd, I looked for any sign of Marjorie and Pete but saw none. No matter. I’d find them later. For now, it was time to show these things just what all their murder and horror had brought them. I leaned forward slightly, my voice barely above a whisper, but still resonant in the silence of the cool evening air.
The moment I had signed the sales contract for the old farmhouse I’d been happier than I was in years.
You see, in life, I did everything right. I headed the advice of my teachers and parents. After I’d finished school, I went on to university and got my degree in business. I graduated with honors and started working at a fancy company. After a decade and a half, I’d climbed high enough on the corporate ladder to be head of the sale department. It meant quite the salary, but also more responsibility and more hours on the job.
During these years I moved into a newer, fancier place every couple of years, bought more luxuries, but spent less and less time home enjoying it all.
With each passing year, I grew to hate my life a bit more. I hated my job, my apartment and even the overcrowded city I lived in. I was yearning for a break and for some quiet and solitude.
When my uncle Dennis died, I was surprised to be named the sole benefactor. Apparently, he had no other relatives but me. Selling most of his property I left me with a substantial sum. With the savings I already had, I decided it was time for a change.
I had long dabbled with the idea of moving to a rural area. Growing my own vegetables, get a few chickens and live a self-sustaining lifestyle far away from the big city sounded nice.
It had always been something I was interested in, a sort of fantasy. Reality was different. There were always deadlines to make, projects to finish and contracts to discuss and sing. Time moved along, and year after year I did nothing.
Now though, enough was enough. I didn’t want to end up like the people who’d finally made it to retirement only to realize that they were now too old and feeble to follow their dreams.
When I quit my job, my boss was surprised and flabbergasted. Of course, I still had my termination period of four weeks, but most of that time was spent to make adjustments.
While my boss was busy finding a replacement for me, I started to look around for a promising property. After a week of searching, I found it. It was an old farmhouse with quite a few plots around. It was located in a small village near a mountainous area. Until two years ago it had been owned by a woman, but after she’d died her son had put it up for sale.
When I visited the place, I saw that it was old and not just a bit run down, but I was sure all this could be fixed.
My last day of work arrived quickly.
It was a few weeks later that I finally signed the sales contract and started to move what few belongings I wanted to keep to the old farmhouse. Once I’d put together some sort of temporary living quarters, I decided it was time to move in.
I tried my hands at remodeling the old house myself, but I was soon reminded that I never had any talent using my hands. In the end, I gave up in frustration and contracted a company for it.
It took another couple of weeks, but once they were done the place looked nice, cozy and modern.
After the repairs on the chicken crop were finished, I bought half a dozen chickens and a roaster.
Being woken up by him in the morning reminded me of those childhood days I spent at my grandparent’s farm. The nostalgia flooded over me in pleasant waves as I drank my morning coffee.
By now I decided it was time to visit what few neighbors I had. To the north of me, quite a bit away lived an older lady and next to her a middle-aged couple whose kids went to middle school. After my initial introductions, I didn’t have much to do with them.
To the south lived an older couple, the Richters. They lived in a huge old farmhouse. They used to be farmers themselves when they were younger but had since retired. They were nice and assured me they’d help me out if I ever had any problems.
After that, there was only one person left, the old man living to the farm east of me. It was an old farmer who I guessed was in his late fifties or early sixties. He owned the fields adjacent mine. Only a small dirt road divided our properties. I’d seen him from afar a few times, but whenever I’d greeted him, he’d ignore me. His face was hard as if carved from stone, his lips were always pressed together, and he had a perpetually angry expression.
The moment I walked over towards his farm, he tried his best to ignore me yet again. When he saw that I walked towards him, he turned to me. His face showed that he’d rather do anything else, but talk to me.
“Hello, I’m Daniel Langscheidt, I bought the-“
“Know damn well who you are. You’re the guy who bought Lisbeth’s old house and made it all fancy and what not.”
“Eh, yeah, nice to meet you.”
With that, I held out my hand for a greeting. He didn’t budge or even look at the hand I was awkwardly holding out in the empty air between us.
“Why’d you move here?”
“Oh, I was going to try my luck at farming. I always wanted to grow my own,” I broke up as the old man burst into laughter.
“You? Farming? Your hands are as soft as a girl’s! This land is tough! I tell you right away that you won’t grow a damned thing here. We don’t need to city folks like out here! Pah!”
With that, he spat on the ground in front of me and without another word made his way towards his shack.
For a while I stood there, looking after the old guy. I was nothing short of surprised and dumbfounded. Why’d he thrown so much hate at me? What the hell was his problem?
More than a bit mad I want back home. What had I done to get this type of reaction? In the end, I told myself that he was most likely a miserable old fool, who hated himself and people in general. Not my problem.
From that point onward I tried my best to get the farm going. My knowledge was limited though, minimal. The internet with its endless information is fantastic, but it was all second-hand knowledge. I soon realized that if I ever wanted to learn how to do anything, I’d to get my own hands dirty.
I started with the old ladies small garden and planted a variety of different vegetables. The month after that I got the old greenhouse running again.
I soon had to learn that real life was no Harvest Moon. Running a farm and growing vegetable was tough. Needless to say, things didn’t grow well at all.
It was at a later meeting with Hans Richter and his wife that I learned that the ground here wasn’t the best anymore. They didn’t know what it was, but almost everyone had trouble getting things to grow here. You’d need a lot of care and fertilizer if you wanted to succeed.
A decade ago a few small time farmers were still living here. As things got harder, most of them abandoned the trade. Some turned to raise livestock, others changed to different professions.
There was only one, single person whose fields were still flourishing, Old Werner’s.
It turned out that Old Werner was no other than my next door neighbor. When I told the Richters how my introduction with him went, they both started to laugh. Werner was a bitter old man. He didn’t like people and had lived alone most of his life. He was a very solitary man. When I asked if something happened to him, they both said no. It was just how he was. I’d be best for me to ignore him. That’s what everyone else did anyway.
As I’d said, I took things slow, worked the garden, studied different types of seeds, how to take care of crops and many other topics. It was early summer by then, so much too late to actually sow anything on the fields. So I let them lay fallow for the year.
As summer moved along though I was surprised to see how the old man’s fields were bursting with rip grain and vegetables. Sure, they told me the old man was doing alright, but what I saw was more than that. No, he seemed to be doing pretty damn well. I could barely get a couple of tomato plants to bear fruit in the greenhouse, yet he had fields of them!
Harvest came and went. I was frustrated at my own inability to grown anything but also impressed at how well he was doing. I didn’t like it one bit.
As summer turned to autumn, there was one thing I found a bit strange. I often caught the old guy driving out in the middle of the night and returning back home a few hours later.
I’d noticed it by accident when I was out one night. I’d decided to take a walk in the mild autumn air and to gaze at the stars. I was on my way to the local viewing platform when a car approached me from behind. Its headlights were off, and it sped past me, yet I was sure I’d seen old Werner.
I didn’t think anything of it, yet I wondered why he drove around without his headlights on. My first thought was that he forgot them or hell, he might just be an asshole who liked to scare people.
In time I learned that the old man was making these ominous trips frequently. Always in the middle of the night and still without his headlights on. There was no other explanation, he was trying not to get noticed.
Well, to be honest, it was none of my business, and I told myself to ignore him and his weird antics. Yet, I couldn’t help but find it unnerving. I started to wonder what reason he had for this strange nightly trips. I didn’t help that he kept it up all autumn and continued well into early winter. It was a sheer mystery to me.
Once the new year began and spring came around I started to do the same as all other farmers: I started working my fields. I got quite a few stares and scoffs from old Werner. Many snide remarks were directed at me, or I’d see him laugh his ass off when things didn’t work out for me. To tell you the truth, I tried my very best to stay above this petite behavior. Every once in a while though I couldn’t help but yell back something similar.
I’d had a few very long talks with Hans Richter, and he’d been paying me the occasional visit. He helped me to get things going, advised me on when to sew what, what fertilizer to use and so many other important things. I have no clue what I’d have done without him. He was a godsend.
Still, it didn’t matter all too much. Things just didn’t grow. Each day I walked the fields looking at rows upon rows of barren earth. Only here and there a few lonely plants were growing. Old Werner’s fields, on the other hand, were thriving, and of course, the old man wasn’t shy rubbing it in.
“You city folks just don’t have it in you, that’s what it is,” he’d shout over at me and start laughing.
At other times he was a condescending asshole, pitying me. “That’s as far as you’ll get. If I were you, I’d give up while I still could. No reason to keep trying.”
I hated that damned old man.
One day, after I’d watered the few lonely plants that were growing, he came over to pull another one of his nasty jokes.
“Shouldn’t water them too much, don’t want these few plants you accidentally got to grow to go to waste, do you?”
“How the hell do you do it?” I asked instead of reacting to his remark.
He just stared at me.
“How come your crops are growing so well when no one else can do it? And don’t give me this city folk bullshit, everyone else tells me they’ve got trouble as well.”
The old man’s face started to distort into a knowing grin, yet he said nothing.
At that moment I remembered how often I’d seen him walk the fields with these unnamed bags of fertilizer.
“Is it that fertilizer of yours?”
“Heh, not as dumb as you look,” he answered.
“So what sort of fertilizer is it? Do you make it yourself? What do you put into it?”
The old man burst out laughing.
“You think I’m going to tell you a damn thing about it? Oh, I don’t think so!” he said spitting on the ground. “This is my very own, special formula. You’ve no idea what I’m going through to make it, to perfect it! Before I’d tell anyone, especially you, I’d rather have the devil take me away!”
Without another word, he turned around and stormed back to his farm.
As the weeks went on, most of my fields should stay barren. The old man’s were covered in lush green like they’d been the year before. What the hell was in that fertilizer of his, I wondered.
It was sometime later when I visited the Richters that I saw the local newspaper on the kitchen table. I halfheartedly opened it, and an article caught my eye.
“Middle-aged woman still missing since last autumn.”
The article was about a woman, a mother of two, who’d gone missing on a hiking trip in the nearby area, last year. When I started reading, Susan, Hans’ wife came over.
“Such a sad story… I wonder why it keeps happening.”
“Hold on, what do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s those hiking paths near the mountains. Each year people vanish there. The authorities say its slippery slopes and people aren’t careful enough. Why they don’t close it off?!”
“It really is something,” her husband said,” they always warn hikers and climbers, but people won’t listen. A mother of two, what was she even thinking?”
I listened to them and learned that more than a dozen people had gone missing near the mountain range. Last year it hadn’t only been the woman, but an older man as well. They said it was almost inevitable that people went missing there. Of course, people talked to the local council, but they didn’t listen. The normal hiking paths and climbing locations were safe and secure, and there were enough warnings about straying from them.
As I listened to them, there was something in the back of my mind. Something I couldn’t quite grasp.
Only when I returned home and saw Old Werner, stalking around his fields, did I remember what it was. The woman had gone missing in autumn. Wasn’t that the time when he went on all those trips?
I realized what my brain was trying to put together. The more I thought about it, the more everything did fit together. He drove out in the middle of the night, headlights off, to an unknown location. And there was this special fertilizer of his.
For a moment I couldn’t help but imagine Old Werner out on the hiking paths at night searching for lonely wanderers to turn them into fertilizer.
What was I thinking? I almost burst out laughing at my own ridiculous idea. This was not a movie, this was real life!
Somehow though I couldn’t completely get rid of the idea. I don’t know why I did it, but I started to spy on the old man. It might have been my frustration. It might have been boredom. It might have been the resentment I felt towards him. I’ not sure.
It was not that I believed in my idea. It was way too far-fetched. I told myself that all I wanted was to figure out how he grew his crops and what sort of fertilizer he used. I knew I was only lying to myself though. Now, I thought there was more about this old fool, his strange behavior and that fertilizer of his.
The more I thought about it, the more I was able to convince myself.
Whenever I saw him out in the fields, applying his fertilizer, my thoughts went back to the same topic. I told myself to stop and leave it alone, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t long before my curiosity turned into an obsession and I started to take tabs on him. I took notes on how often he went out, when he got up in the morning, how long he stayed up in the evening and many other things. It wasn’t like I had much else to do anyway. Most of my fields resembled a barren wasteland anyways.
After a couple of weeks, I had his whole routine written down. I knew pretty much everything that went on at his farm.
So I was more than a bit surprised when I saw him drive out with his car in the middle of the night on Saturday. He hadn’t done that in the past five weeks. It was by sheer coincidence that I’d even noticed it. It was already early morning when he returned.
I saw him get out of his car, but instead of going back inside, he went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. I the dark of the night, hunched behind my window, I pressed my binoculars against my head so hard, it hurt. My whole body tensed up, and I didn’t dare move or breath. In horror, I watched how Old Werner dragged something out of the trunk. It was long, big, and covered in a thick blanket. I watched as he heaved it over his shoulder.
As he took a first step towards his hack, I saw something long and thin dangle from the pack.
Oh, Jesus Christ, I thought. Don’t tell me… Was that what I thought it was? Had I really seen it? No, I must be wrong. I was seeing things. Maybe I’d imagined it. But what I’d seen dangling… It couldn’t be. I thought back to the woman in the newspaper article. Was this another one? Another victim? Another ingredient for his fertilizer?
I had to go there and find out more. I should take a look at the shack. The moment I saw how Old Werner returned from his shack, all thoughts about going there left my mind.
It was dark, but in the moonlight, I could clearly see that his hands and lower arms were covered in something. I saw his dark, angry expression as he made his way back to his house. My whole body was filled with fear. For the first time in my entire life I was honestly and utterly terrified.
I couldn’t help the urge to hide as soon as he’d walked back to his house. I knew there was no reason for it. The old guy couldn’t possibly see me. I had the lights off, and I was way too far away from him to notice anything at the windows.
Once he’d vanished inside, I started to calm down, at least a bit. My mind was still a crazed whirlwind of contradicting ideas. One part of it said I was stupid and nothing was going on. The other part told me that Old Werner was a crazed serial killer. Even in bed I couldn’t calm down and took me a long time till I actually fell asleep.
When the rooster awoke me in the morning, I was thankful that the few hours of sleep I’d had were undisturbed and free from dreams about bloodied old men.
While I was drinking my morning coffee, I watched his house as I’d done every morning for the past weeks. As if nothing had happened last night, the old man went out to take care of his fields.
Had this guy really murdered someone last night and dragged the body into his shack? As I sat there, I was almost shaking with curiosity. I had to find out, I had to.
I knew that every week, on Sunday evening, he spent an hour or two at his shack. During that time he most likely mixed up his fertilizer. Once he was done, he went back to his house and most likely straight to bed. This might be the best chance to see what he’s up to in there.
The whole day I was antsy and couldn’t sit still. I made plans what I’d do, how I’d approach and how I’d find a bloodied body lying on the floor of the shack.
When the day finally turned to night, I turned off the lights in my house to give him the impression I went to bed early. He’d believe it, I was sure. Us city folks don’t work as hard as he did, was what he most likely thought in his arrogance. All the while I sat at my window watching him with my binoculars.
My cue was when the lights of the shack turned off, and the old man went back into his house.
I dressed in all but black, and after waiting for another half an hour, I made my way outside.
With low and quiet steps I made my way over to his place. For the first time, I wasn’t mad at how well his corn had grown. It allowed me to get near his house without having to hide much.
Once I was closer, I checked out his farm from between the corn. The lights were off. There were no sounds, and nothing was moving. It was clear that the old man must have gone to bed. To be on the save side, I still waited for another ten minutes.
When they’d passed, I rushed to his shack. My heart was beating heavily when I’d made it, and everything stayed quiet.
I wasn’t too surprised to find the door locked by a padlock. Even I knew that there was no way that I’d be able to open it. I hadn’t imagined that I’d be lucky enough to find the door unlocked anyways.
No, I went for the window of the shack that I was able to see from my house. I knew it would be locked too, but it was one of these old wooden windows. It consisted of two shutters and was only held shut by a metal bolt in the center. I might be able to pry it open wide enough to loosen the bolt and open it.
I pried away the two shutters from one another until I could fit my finger in-between. At that point, I knew where the shutter was. I’d to be careful. If I broke the window, the old man would hear me without a doubt. After a nerve-wracking minute of toying around with a couple of tools, I finally loosened the bolt, and the window opened.
I scanned the window frame and the area below. Once I saw that there was nothing I could topple over, I climbed inside.
The shack was larger than I imagined. For now, all I saw were shelves filled with tools and various other things. Step by step I made my way through the place, scanning it. In the end, I took out a small flashlight I’d brought, to give things a closer look.
There was a sort of mixing station at the end of the shack. To be honest, it was nothing but an old workbench, but on it was an assortment of things. There were containers of various chemicals and fertilizers, a sack of bone meal and a few bags of his complete fertilizer mixture.
As I looked on, I noticed something next to the workbench. It was a sort of metal composter as well as a freezer united cramped into the corner next to it. The composter was quite modern. It was most likely one of those that helped to quickly compost organic material. I’d read about them.
My skin started to crawl as I stared at it. I took a deep breath, and after toying with it for a bit, I figured how to open it. The instant it opened I almost vomited. The smell alone was enough to make me retch.
When I looked inside, I saw bloody guts and a few pieces of half-rotten meat.
“Fucking hell,” I cursed and stumbled back in shock and disgust. I crashed straight into the assortment of containers on the workbench. A number of them clattered to the ground in an ear-shattering noise.
My eyes grew wide. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. You goddamn idiot, what the hell did you just do!? I turned off the flashlight and waited. Oh god please, I hoped. Please make him stay asleep.
I waited for almost half a minute, praying that Old Werner would stay asleep. My prayers weren’t answered. My heart almost stopped when I heard the front door of his house open.
“Goddammit, what’s going on out there? If it’s you damned kids again…”
He said nothing else. Oh shit, did he see the window? I tried to think, tried to remember if I’d closed it after me, but I couldn’t. For all I knew, the two window shutters might still be wide open.
“Is someone there?” I heard his voice. Then his footsteps came closer.
“I dare you, whoever the devil you are, show yourself!”
I didn’t move. I hoped against all certainty that he’d go back to his house, but only a moment later I heard him from the side of the shack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
He must’ve seen the open window. I could already hear him rummage with the padlock!
Now or never I thought. There was no way I could explain this to him. I was back at the window, tried to get up, but before I could do any more than to put my foot on the window frame the door opened. In one swift motion, he hit the light switch and saw me standing there, dressed in all black, trying to flee the scene.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN MY SHACK!?”
Then the smell hit him and his anger turned to pure rage.
“YOU. YOU. YOU GODDAMN…” but in his rage he couldn’t even finish his sentence anymore. In his blind rage he picked the first tool he could, a rake, and came swinging after me. There was no way I’d make it out in time. I barely ducked away and fled to the back of the shack.
“No, don’t! I swear I saw nothing! I only,” but I didn’t get the chance to finish as I had to dodge another hit of the rake.
Finally, he saw the open composter and the disturbance on the workbench.
“You just had to know, did you? You couldn’t let it be. Do you have any idea what I went through to finish this? One decade, one whole decade… and now you’re trying to steal it?!”
What the hell? Had he just admitted to what I thought he had?”
“That’s it! You’re the last person to ever barge in here, I swear it!”
And with that, he threw the rack to the ground and came at me himself. He almost jumped me and only now did I realize that Old Werner might have been an old man, but damn was he strong. A life of farming had made his body stout and hardened his muscles. All I was able to do was to struggle against him and keep him from overpowering me. I clung to sheer desperation, as I was pushed back against the workbench.
His eyes were wide open, and a moment later he raised one of his hands and hit me square in the face, once, twice. When I stumbled, he closed his hands around my neck.
I couldn’t breathe. Only at this moment did I realize that he was really going to kill me. I was going to die. Stars appeared in front of my eyes, but there was nothing I could do. I twitched in his iron-hard grip, grasped blindly around for something, anything. My hands closed around something hard and cold. With all the power I could muster I swung it into the direction of Old Werner. There was a nasty sound, and the old man screamed up.
Only when I swung it a second time did I see what I was already holding. It was an old mallet. For a moment I saw the surprise in his eyes, and his grip loosened, only to close once more even harder. In his fury, he wasn’t just trying to strangle me anymore, no he was going to break my neck by sheer force. Again and again, I hit him with the mallet. After three more hits, his grip finally loosened and he slumped down and fell to the ground.
As I looked down at his head, I saw a nasty inward bump at the top where I’d hit him. What I was most surprised though was all the blood that still kept gushing forward.
Time stood still. As if in a trance I watched the blood flow from his unmoving body. It must have been only seconds before I realized what I’d done, but to me, it felt like an eternity.
The bloody mallet clattered to the floor, and I pushed old Werner’s body away from me.
I started shaking, almost screamed up. I’d killed him. I’d murdered someone.
I had done the right thing though, hadn’t I? He’d have killed me. He killed others! The guts, the meat, the freezer! There was no doubt! And I’d done it in self-defense!
When I opened the freezer, my world crumbled apart. What I found inside wasn’t a corpse. Neither was it body parts. It was a dead animal. In the freezer were the remains of a deer. Part of its lower half was missing, and his innards were carved out. The blood and the guts I’d seen!
What about the arm I’d seen last night though? It must have been… but then I saw the legs of the deer. What I’d seen had been a long, thin, body part. Only the dark of the night and my imagination had transferred it into the arm of a person.
Dear god, what had I done? Had this old guy really done nothing more than to create some sort of complicated organic fertilizer?
Right at this moment, my instincts activated and I turned to run. I’d already made it to the door of the shack when my mind started to work again. What the hell was I doing!?
Should I call the police? What would I tell them? That I broke into his place because I thought he was a serial killer? That he attacked me after that and I killed him in self-defense? Would they even believe me? In that outfit?
No, it was much more likely that they thought I’d broke into his shack, he found me stealing his stuff, and I killed him. Or hell, that I came in here and killed him. I’d made it no secret that I hated him.
Shit. Shit. Shit. What the fuck should I do?
First I turned off the light in the shack. Was there anyone nearby? There’d been so much noise! As I watched and listened, I remembered that no one else lived near enough to have heard anything. The only person who’d heard anything would’ve been no other than me.
I went back inside, closed the door of the shack and then the window. I checked the wood splintering on the window and tried my best to get rid of it and make it sound as natural as possible.
After that, I put everything back that the old guy had pushed off the shelves in his onslaught.
Finally, there was the old guy himself. Was he really dead? I awkwardly touched his neck to see if there was any pulse. Then I looked at his head again and wondered what the hell I was even doing.
For a while, I wondered what to do, but then I saw his huge fertilizer bags. Old Werner might have been strong, but he was still a scrawny old man. The irony was not missed on me when the old man’s body was almost a perfect fit for it.
I pushed the body bag to the front of the shack and then started to meticulously clean up the blood. First I wiped up the floor and the workbench. Then I checked every notch and cranny and used one of his many chemicals to get rid of any blood spatters. I checked the whole place multiple times over. I had to make sure there were no blood splatters left anywhere. Only then did I open the door again.
Once again I checked the area. Sure, it was dark and not even thirty meters to the cornfield. Yet, I knew if anyone should see me carrying a bag of fertilizer through his yard the night before he went missing… I couldn’t risk it.
When I was sure that I was completely alone, I sprint to the edge of the cornfield with the heavy bag over my shoulder. Once I’d made it, I stumbled forward for a few more meters, but luckily avoided to crash to the ground.
For a moment my head was spinning, and I almost passed out from the sheer exhaustion.
I rested the bag between the cornstalks and ran back to the shack. The whole place smelled of the chemicals I’d used. Once more I went through it, using water to clear away the residue of the chemicals.
I also closed off the composter and the freezing box. Before I did that though, I got part of the animal meat, cut it to pieces and ground it up with the mallet.
I added the ground up meat to the composter. I made sure to leave the bloodied and dirtied tool on the workbench. I had to make it look as if it was the last thing the old guy had done.
At this moment I noticed something else. A notebook was stashed away in a small shelve above the workbench. When I opened it, I found that it contained the old guy’s notes on how to create his special type of fertilizer. It was pages upon pages of ingredients with detailed instructions.
I skimmed one of the pages, and it specified how certain ingredients had to be gathered. On the next one, he clarified that deer meat was best during their mating season, in autumn or early winter.
That must’ve been the reason for his secret trips. He was getting deer meat for his fertilizer. All he’d been doing was trying to keep his formula a secret.
Once I was outside again, I closed the padlock, careful not to leave any fingerprints on it.
Carrying Old Werner’s body over to my house took quite a while. Every ten meters or so I had to take a break. Once I’d made it, I hid the body down in my basement.
After that I went back to the cornfield, to make sure there were no tracks or blood splatters anywhere.
It was an hour or so before dawn when I was finally done with everything. I was utterly exhausted and pretty much fell into my bed.
The next day was a blurry mess for me. I spent most of it in bed, curled up under my blanket. Murder is not something from which you move on with your life. You just can’t.
It was only in the evening that I remembered his little notebook. Reading through his notes was the only thing helped me to turn my thoughts away from what I’d done. It’s not an understatement that the topic of fertilizer saved my sanity that day.
I carefully went over every page. I knew damned well that I’d not be able to turn my harvest around. I might try my luck in the greenhouse though, and if that would be a success, I could prepare for next year.
During the next days, I procured quite a few things: a composter different fertilizers, chemicals, bone meal and a variety of other ingredients.
One thing I was missing though and that I wasn’t sure how to get was deer meat, but I knew I had a substitute for it in my basement. It was still quite fresh, and most importantly, I had to get rid of it.
It was a nasty piece of work as you can imagine. I almost vomited every couple of minutes. Due to the heat, Old Werner’s body had been rapidly decomposing. I almost vomited the moment I saw his bloated, squishy corpse.
Eventually, though I got used to it. I grew numb, or I was already. There is one thing though, I told myself over and over again. This was not a person. This was a hunk of meat, nothing more. Once I cut it up though, it became pieces. The blood, the flesh, the bones, it all became things. And that way it got easier. I didn’t mind anymore. Grinding Old Werner up had become nothing but work in the end. Gruesome work, sure, but still only work.
It took me the better part of two days, but after that, I’d ground up the old guy’s remains. Finally, I added them to the other ingredients in the composter.
It was about a week or so later that the police arrived at my doorstep. I’d never seen an officer like that. Old, tired, and most of all, utterly disinterested in what was going on. He asked me a few questions. The typical ‘when have you last seen him’ and other similar ones. I answered them truthfully, and the guy said he’d be back if he needed more information.
He checked the old guy’s property, the shack, the house. The only thing he noticed was that Old Werner must have gone out in the middle of the night.
It was clear that this officer didn’t give a shit. He didn’t care what happened here in this small village. He concluded that Old Werner must’ve walked off and vanished in the middle of the night. They put together a search party, but it was only a few people, and they never found out a thing. Old Werner became just another name added to the list.
After this, his house was put up for sale, but no one seemed to show any interest.
It’s now late in the year, and the fertilizer I’ve created has developed nicely.
Six weeks ago, I upgraded the greenhouse for winter farming. Since then things have grown well, really well. The tomatoes are big, ripe and almost bursting with flavor. The old man had indeed created a splendid recipe.
What’s more interesting though, is that I can’t help but notice how fast and strong the plants have grown. They look even healthier than Old Werner’s. It might be the unique conditions in the greenhouse. To be honest, though, it might be due to my own little addition to the fertilizer.
As I’m typing this out, I can’t help but laugh at the grim irony of the situation. The one way the old man was able to improve his fertilizer even further was by becoming part of it himself.