Estimated reading time — 18minutes“Halloa! Below there!”
When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.
From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and, raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.
“Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?”
He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question. Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down. When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.
I repeated my inquiry. After a pause, during which he seemed to regard me with fixed attention, he motioned with his rolled-up flag towards a point on my level, some two or three hundred yards distant. I called down to him, “All right!” and made for that point. There, by dint of looking closely about me, I found a rough zigzag descending path notched out, which I followed.
The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down. For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path.
When I came down low enough upon the zigzag descent to see him again, I saw that he was standing between the rails on the way by which the train had lately passed, in an attitude as if he were waiting for me to appear. He had his left hand at his chin, and that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast. His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it.
I resumed my downward way, and stepping out upon the level of the railroad, and drawing nearer to him, saw that he was a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.
Before he stirred, I was near enough to him to have touched him. Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step, and lifted his hand.
This was a lonesome post to occupy (I said), and it had riveted my attention when I looked down from up yonder. A visitor was a rarity, I should suppose; not an unwelcome rarity, I hoped? In me, he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works. To such purpose I spoke to him; but I am far from sure of the terms I used; for, besides that I am not happy in opening any conversation, there was something in the man that daunted me.
He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel’s mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked it me.
That light was part of his charge? Was it not?
He answered in a low voice — “Don’t you know it is?”
The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.
In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to flight.
“You look at me,” I said, forcing a smile, “as if you had a dread of me.”
“I was doubtful,” he returned, “whether I had seen you before.”
He pointed to the red light he had looked at.
“There?” I said.
Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), “Yes.”
“My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it may, I never was there, you may swear.”
“I think I may,” he rejoined. “Yes; I am sure I may.”
His manner cleared, like my own. He replied to my remarks with readiness, and in well-chosen words. Had he much to do there? Yes; that was to say, he had enough responsibility to bear; but exactness and watchfulness were what was required of him, and of actual work — manual labour — he had next to none. To change that signal, to trim those lights, and to turn this iron handle now and then, was all he had to do under that head. Regarding those many long and lonely hours of which I seemed to make so much, he could only say that the routine of his life had shaped itself into that form, and he had grown used to it. He had taught himself a language down here — if only to know it by sight, and to have formed his own crude ideas of its pronunciation, could be called learning it. He had also worked at fractions and decimals, and tried a little algebra; but he was, and had been as a boy, a poor hand at figures. Was it necessary for him when on duty always to remain in that channel of damp air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls? Why, that depended upon times and circumstances. Under some conditions there would be less upon the Line than under others, and the same held good as to certain hours of the day and night. In bright weather, he did choose occasions for getting a little above these lower shadows; but, being at all times liable to be called by his electric bell, and at such times listening for it with redoubled anxiety, the relief was less than I would suppose.
He took me into his box, where there was a fire, a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken. On my trusting that he would excuse the remark that he had been well educated, and (I hoped I might say without offence) perhaps educated above that station, he observed that instances of slight incongruity in such wise would rarely be found wanting among large bodies of men; that he had heard it was so in workhouses, in the police force, even in that last desperate resource, the army; and that he knew it was so, more or less, in any great railway staff. He had been, when young (if I could believe it, sitting in that hut — he scarcely could), a student of natural philosophy, and had attended lectures; but he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again. He had no complaint to offer about that. He had made his bed, and he lay upon it. It was far too late to make another.
All that I have here condensed he said in a quiet manner, with his grave dark regards divided between me and the fire. He threw in the word, “Sir,” from time to time, and especially when he referred to his youth — as though to request me to understand that he claimed to be nothing but what I found him. He was several times interrupted by the little bell, and had to read off messages, and send replies. Once he had to stand without the door, and display a flag as a train passed, and make some verbal communication to the driver. In the discharge of his duties, I observed him to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining silent until what he had to do was done.
In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
Said I, when I rose to leave him, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.”
(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)
“I believe I used to be so,” he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; “but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.”
He would have recalled the words if he could. He had said them, however, and I took them up quickly.
“With what? What is your trouble?”
“It is very difficult to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.”
“But I expressly intend to make you another visit. Say, when shall it be?”
“I go off early in the morning, and I shall be on again at ten to- morrow night, sir.”
“I will come at eleven.”
He thanked me, and went out at the door with me. “I’ll show my white light, sir,” he said, in his peculiar low voice, “till you have found the way up. When you have found it, don’t call out! And when you are at the top, don’t call out!”
His manner seemed to make the place strike colder to me, but I said no more than, “Very well.”
“And when you come down to-morrow night, don’t call out! Let me ask you a parting question. What made you cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ to-night?”
“Heaven knows,” said I. “I cried something to that effect —”
“Not to that effect, sir. Those were the very words. I know them well.”
“Admit those were the very words. I said them, no doubt, because I saw you below.”
“For no other reason?”
“What other reason could I possibly have?”
“You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?”
He wished me good-night, and held up his light. I walked by the side of the down Line of rails (with a very disagreeable sensation of a train coming behind me) until I found the path. It was easier to mount than to descend, and I got back to my inn without any adventure.
Punctual to my appointment, I placed my foot on the first notch of the zigzag next night, as the distant clocks were striking eleven. He was waiting for me at the bottom, with his white light on. “I have not called out,” I said, when we came close together; “may I speak now?” “By all means, sir.” “Good-night, then, and here’s my hand.” “Good-night, sir, and here’s mine.” With that we walked side by side to his box, entered it, closed the door, and sat down by the fire.
“I have made up my mind, sir,” he began, bending forward as soon as we were seated, and speaking in a tone but a little above a whisper, “that you shall not have to ask me twice what troubles me. I took you for some one else yesterday evening. That troubles me.”
“No. That some one else.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved — violently waved. This way.”
I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”
“One moonlight night,” said the man, “I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Some one else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then attain, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel. I advanced so close upon it that I wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone.”
“Into the tunnel?” said I.
“No. I ran on into the tunnel, five hundred yards. I stopped, and held my lamp above my head, and saw the figures of the measured distance, and saw the wet stains stealing down the walls and trickling through the arch. I ran out again faster than I had run in (for I had a mortal abhorrence of the place upon me), and I looked all round the red light with my own red light, and I went up the iron ladder to the gallery atop of it, and I came down again, and ran back here. I telegraphed both ways, ‘An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong?’ The answer came back, both ways, ‘All well.’”
Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. “As to an imaginary cry,” said I, “do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.”
That was all very well, he returned, after we had sat listening for a while, and he ought to know something of the wind and the wires — he who so often passed long winter nights there, alone and watching. But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.
I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my arm, —
“Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.”
A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it. It was not to be denied, I rejoined, that this was a remarkable coincidence, calculated deeply to impress his mind. But it was unquestionable that remarkable coincidences did continually occur, and they must be taken into account in dealing with such a subject. Though to be sure I must admit, I added (for I thought I saw that he was going to bring the objection to bear upon me), men of common sense did not allow much for coincidences in making the ordinary calculations of life.
He again begged to remark that he had not finished.
I again begged his pardon for being betrayed into interruptions.
“This,” he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, “was just a year ago. Six or seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again.” He stopped, with a fixed look at me.
“Did it cry out?”
“No. It was silent.”
“Did it wave its arm?”
“No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.”
Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.
“Did you go up to it?”
“I came in and sat down, partly to collect my thoughts, partly because it had turned me faint. When I went to the door again, daylight was above me, and the ghost was gone.”
“But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?”
He touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice giving a ghastly nod each time:-
“That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us.”
Involuntarily I pushed my chair back, as I looked from the boards at which he pointed to himself.
“True, sir. True. Precisely as it happened, so I tell it you.”
I could think of nothing to say, to any purpose, and my mouth was very dry. The wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail.
He resumed. “Now, sir, mark this, and judge how my mind is troubled. The spectre came back a week ago. Ever since, it has been there, now and again, by fits and starts.”
“At the light?”
“At the Danger-light.”
“What does it seem to do?”
He repeated, if possible with increased passion and vehemence, that former gesticulation of, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”
Then he went on. “I have no peace or rest for it. It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out!’ It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell —”
I caught at that. “Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?”
“Why, see,” said I, “how your imagination misleads you. My eyes were on the bell, and my ears were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did NOT ring at those times. No, nor at any other time, except when it was rung in the natural course of physical things by the station communicating with you.”
He shook his head. “I have never made a mistake as to that yet, sir. I have never confused the spectre’s ring with the man’s. The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.”
“And did the spectre seem to be there, when you looked out?”
“It WAS there.”’
He repeated firmly: “Both times.”
“Will you come to the door with me, and look for it now?”
He bit his under lip as though he were somewhat unwilling, but arose. I opened the door, and stood on the step, while he stood in the doorway. There was the Danger-light. There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the cutting. There were the stars above them.
“Do you see it?” I asked him, taking particular note of his face. His eyes were prominent and strained, but not very much more so, perhaps, than my own had been when I had directed them earnestly towards the same spot.
“No,” he answered. “It is not there.”
“Agreed,” said I.
We went in again, shut the door, and resumed our seats. I was thinking how best to improve this advantage, if it might be called one, when he took up the conversation in such a matter-of-course way, so assuming that there could be no serious question of fact between us, that I felt myself placed in the weakest of positions.
“By this time you will fully understand, sir,” he said, “that what troubles me so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?”
I was not sure, I told him, that I did fully understand.
“What is its warning against?” he said, ruminating, with his eyes on the fire, and only by times turning them on me. “What is the danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be doubted this third time, after what has gone before. But surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”
He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated forehead.
“If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it,” he went on, wiping the palms of his hands. “I should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was mad. This is the way it would work — Message: ‘Danger! Take care!’ Answer: ‘What Danger? Where?’ Message: ‘Don’t know. But, for God’s sake, take care!’ They would displace me. What else could they do?”
His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.
“When it first stood under the Danger-light,” he went on, putting his dark hair back from his head, and drawing his hands outward across and across his temples in an extremity of feverish distress, “why not tell me where that accident was to happen — if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted — if it could have been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not tell me, instead, ‘She is going to die. Let them keep her at home’? If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?”
When I saw him in this state, I saw that for the poor man’s sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind. Therefore, setting aside all question of reality or unreality between us, I represented to him that whoever thoroughly discharged his duty must do well, and that at least it was his comfort that he understood his duty, though he did not understand these confounding Appearances. In this effort I succeeded far better than in the attempt to reason him out of his conviction. He became calm; the occupations incidental to his post as the night advanced began to make larger demands on his attention: and I left him at two in the morning. I had offered to stay through the night, but he would not hear of it.
That I more than once looked back at the red light as I ascended the pathway, that I did not like the red light, and that I should have slept but poorly if my bed had been under it, I see no reason to conceal. Nor did I like the two sequences of the accident and the dead girl. I see no reason to conceal that either.
But what ran most in my thoughts was the consideration how ought I to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact; but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind? Though in a subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of his continuing to execute it with precision?
Unable to overcome a feeling that there would be something treacherous in my communicating what he had told me to his superiors in the Company, without first being plain with himself and proposing a middle course to him, I ultimately resolved to offer to accompany him (otherwise keeping his secret for the present) to the wisest medical practitioner we could hear of in those parts, and to take his opinion. A change in his time of duty would come round next night, he had apprised me, and he would be off an hour or two after sunrise, and on again soon after sunset. I had appointed to return accordingly.
Next evening was a lovely evening, and I walked out early to enjoy it. The sun was not yet quite down when I traversed the field-path near the top of the deep cutting. I would extend my walk for an hour, I said to myself, half an hour on and half an hour back, and it would then be time to go to my signal-man’s box.
Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically looked down, from the point from which I had first seen him. I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me, when, close at the mouth of the tunnel, I saw the appearance of a man, with his left sleeve across his eyes, passionately waving his right arm.
The nameless horror that oppressed me passed in a moment, for in a moment I saw that this appearance of a man was a man indeed, and that there was a little group of other men, standing at a short distance, to whom he seemed to be rehearsing the gesture he made. The Danger-light was not yet lighted. Against its shaft, a little low hut, entirely new to me, had been made of some wooden supports and tarpaulin. It looked no bigger than a bed.
With an irresistible sense that something was wrong — with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or correct what he did — I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.
“What is the matter?” I asked the men.
“Signal-man killed this morning, sir.”
“Not the man belonging to that box?”
“Not the man I know?”
“You will recognise him, sir, if you knew him,” said the man who spoke for the others, solemnly uncovering his own head, and raising an end of the tarpaulin, “for his face is quite composed.”
“O, how did this happen, how did this happen?” I asked, turning from one to another as the hut closed in again.
“He was cut down by an engine, sir. No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail. It was just at broad day. He had struck the light, and had the lamp in his hand. As the engine came out of the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and was showing how it happened. Show the gentleman, Tom.”
The man, who wore a rough dark dress, stepped back to his former place at the mouth of the tunnel.
“Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir,” he said, “I saw him at the end, like as if I saw him down a perspective-glass. There was no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. As he didn’t seem to take heed of the whistle, I shut it off when we were running down upon him, and called to him as loud as I could call.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!’”
“Ah! it was a dreadful time, sir. I never left off calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no use.”
Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious circumstances more than on any other, I may, in closing it, point out the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not only the words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself — not he — had attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated.
Estimated reading time — 56minutesMy name is Jim. I’ve been in and out of construction contracts for the last seventeen years. Between those contracts, I do what I can to make a few extra bucks, since you never really know when the next contract will show up and unemployment pays you just enough to lay awake hungry at night. Most of us have heard of Uber and Lyft. I figured it was the perfect way to sustain my take-out burrito habits until my next work order. However, my driving record isn’t exactly clean.
I owe a few thousand dollars in fines for my DUI from three years ago. Before anyone goes up in arms, no one was injured and I wasn’t in an accident. I was leaving the liquor store for the third time that afternoon and was busted by a cop, waiting in the parking lot for me to wobble back into my car. It’s pretty foolish considering the liquor store is in walking distance, but my drunk brain was more concerned with being mugged than being caught by police. Lesson learned, I’m sober now. Fatter from an oral fixation on Mexican food, but sober.
When I failed to meet the requirements on Uber, I went searching online for something similar to ride sharing or some sort of P2P, smartphone type work. I came across an app called Cerber. I was reading one of those “10 ways to make money without bleeding out” articles when I saw an advertisement for Cerber on the side of the article. Big, orange letters glowed against a black background with the phrase “hellish commutes made heavenly.” I found that to be cheesy marketing, but since I’ve never heard of this specific company before, I figured they were a startup and wouldn’t be too picky about participants. I went ahead with filling out a brief application, submitted and hoped for the best. This is where it started to get weird. Immediately after I hit “submit,” my phone rang.
It was 11:47 P.M. when I pissed myself to the phone ringing. I looked at my phone to see “UNKNOWN” illuminating the screen in my dimly lit bedroom. I don’t answer those calls during regular business hours, let alone during the late night. I decided to respect their privacy, ignore the call and not bother to find out who was calling me. I shoved another taquito in my face, and made my way towards my unmade bed. As soon as I dove into my flattened, stale pillows to begin my pity party, my phone rang again. It still said “UNKNOWN,” but it was now coming in as an emergency. Why?
I answered the phone to a woman’s voice veiled with a cheerful disposition that had to be fueled by caffeine and cocaine. “Hello! Is this James Atwell?” She chirped.
“Uh…yeah? Who is this?”
“Hi! This is Adeline with Cerber calling you back about the application you just submitted!”
“Oh, uh,” I was still tonguing chicken taquito out of my teeth “hi. That was awful fast, did I submit incorrectly?” I said with clear apprehension, but moderate enthusiasm. These folks were fast.
“No not at all!” I could hear her clicking her mouse as she spoke to me, “I just wanted to alert you that we have reviewed your application and would like to know when you could start!”
“Uh,” I struggled to get some pants on, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder. I finish buttoning my pants and say “now, I guess. Are people active this late?”
“Oh yes! Our most active hours are between 10 P.M. and 4:30 A.M.” she stops clicking her mouse “Please download the application onto your phone, quickly make a profile and you’ll be ready to receive requests! Do you have any questions?” I can hear her smiling, gross.
“Uh, no. I don’t think so.” I say as I finish zipping up my jacket.
“Wonderful! Thank you for choosing Cerber! Give them hell, Jimmy boy!” She hung up before I could respond. Give them hell? What the actual…okay, well no time to waste, I suppose.
I download the app, make my profile and mark myself as available. I drive a relatively new SUV so I’m not exactly convinced I’ll be first pick. Gas isn’t cheap and everyone wants to save money. This means I have some time to clean up the taco foils and cardboard boats out of my car. About twenty minutes into trying to alleviate my car of the turgid smell of jalapeño and old cheese, I got my first ring. It was a ride request for one person, a man named Ray, seeking a ride to San Francisco. The city is about an hour from where he’s requesting the ride, but a drive I am very familiar with. I tap on “accept,” throw the bag of trash in the garbage bin and start heading over to the pinned location.
To my surprise, I was directed to a neighborhood that was just a few blocks away from me. I parked outside of a post-80’s style suburban home, coated in sharp sparkle and salmon pink paint. From the door, I see Ray emerge from his pastel green door and immediately, I knew something was off.
Ray was obscenely tall. He had to be an easy seven-and-a-half feet, slouching. He shoved his pallid hands into the pockets of his gray jacket, hood pulled well over his head so that his face wouldn’t be seen. His long thin, legs, adorning blue jeans and clean, black dress shoes, carried his slender frame at a calm stride to my vehicle. As he came closer, I noticed he was wearing a tie and a formal jacket under his normal hoodie. Different strokes, I guess.
He approached my window, his head down and said “Jim?”
“Yeah, you’re Ray?” He sounds so normal. This man is anything but.
“Yeah. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to fold the first row of seats for me? Because, you know. . .” he gestures below his torso to his knees, all while still keeping his head down. He didn’t want me to see his face, but I didn’t feel threatened by him, so I just ignored his lack of eye contact.
“Yeah, sure. No problem at all.” He steps back so that I can open my door and access the back seat. I folded the first row of seats so that the third row was the only place left to sit.
Ray climbs in, takes his seat and buckles up, “Thanks, man.”
“Of course, bought this thing for comfort anyway, know what I mean?” I chuckled. He remained silent with his head facing out the window. Awkward.
The silence of the drive was excruciating. I did my best not to spend too much time glancing back at him. He hardly moved. Every few minutes he would uncross and re-cross his legs. My nervous tendencies finally got the best of me and I had to be “that dick.”
“Those are some serious stems,” I nervously chuckle, “you play basketball as a kid?”
Maintaining his gaze out the window he replies “That’s a serious gut, you eat a lot of food?”
I got immediately defensive, but I brought this on myself and kept my mouth shut.
“Doesn’t feel good, does it? Someone commenting on your size.” He said so calmly.
“No. It doesn’t. I apologize.” I say through gritted teeth. I was no longer inspired to conjure up anymore small talk for the duration of the ride.
About thirty minutes later, we arrive at his destination, which lead me to old Fort Miley. I never recalled this place having an actual address. While my gaze was fixed on the location, dumbfounding me as to why anyone would want to be here this late, he slowly got out of the car and closed the door. He kept his back to me and pulled out his phone as he started walking away.
I was still very much in a state of “what the hell” when I got a notification on my phone. He gave me five bat wings and a 20% tip, bringing the grand total to $1,279.37. My jaw about hit my lap at the astronomical amount. As I brought my face up to try and stop him and alert him of what had to be a mistake, he kept walking, put his hand up and gave a gentle wave. I watched him until he was far into the trees before I finally looked back down at my phone. He left a written review for other riders that read “Go easy on him. He’s new.”
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
I sped home as fast as I could without tipping off any highway patrol. I ran inside my house, darted to my computer and tried to make sense of what I just got myself into. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find a single thing on the internet about Cerber. Not even a website, beyond the application page they offered through the advertisement.
I sat back in my chair for a moment, my hands in my lap and continued to process everything. Who pays that kind of money for an hour ride? Who the hell was in my car? What the hell was in my car? I grabbed my phone and opened the app again. Maybe something was there that could provide some kind of answers. Well, I found my answer.
I clicked on the menu option that you would see for most applications and found a description option. It read as follows:
“Cerber is a dedicated ride-sharing company that ensures anonymity and safe transportation of the paranormal.”
It goes on to talk about rates, amenities and safety measures. I never had a chance to read the terms and agreements, no one does. I went back to check everything I signed and sure enough, it’s a transport service for ghosts and shit.
The rates applicable to me are too good to pass up. Two-thirds of what it cost to pay my mortgage was made in a matter of an hour. Maybe this is dangerous, maybe it’s absolutely insane, but I’m going to stick this out and see where it takes me.
* * * * * *
I WAS NOT READY!
Tonight has been insane. I got “waterproof” seat covers (let’s face it, water is not the concern here) and salt-free snacks. I had a hard time finding a way to get “finger foods,” so I just got unsalted nuts and dried fruit. I had no clue what paranormal entities ate, so I took a stab. I learned quickly that paranormal entities couldn’t care less about almonds and dehydrated nectarines. Can’t blame them.
I tried my best to get a good night’s rest after the strange evening I had. Part of me was too shaken to sleep, the other part was partial excitement on what my next rides would be like. I eventually gave up on sleep and went to a general store to pick up snacks, water bottles and seat covers. After coating my car in as much vinyl preventive measure as humanly possible, I treated myself to enchiladas and a cold Pepsi. After my meal, I felt accomplished enough to attempt sleep again. I was awaken by another “UNKNOWN” call again at 11:47 P.M. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who was calling me. I eagerly picked up the call, nearly dropping the phone, “I have questions!”
Adeline burst into a giggling hysteria and replied “Oh I’m sure you do, Jim. What would you like to know?”
“First off,” I held a finger in the air, ignoring that this was a phone call and not a physical confrontation, “why the hell are you calling me so late?”
“Last time we spoke, it was this exact time. You answered then and I figured if I called you at the same time, you would answer at that exact time.” She said calmly and slowly. Good point. I carry on with false confidence, trying to pretend that I don’t feel as stupid as I sound.
“Second, I want to know if the payment I received was a mistake.” I asked, chewing on my thumbnail.
“No, not at all. Was that not proper compensation? It appears that ray gave you a pretty generous tip. Would you like to file a dispute?” I could hear her clicking her mouse again.
“NO!” I yelled into the phone. Mostly because I wouldn’t want to see what’s in store for anyone that pisses Ray off. I clear my throat and continue, “no, sorry. I just feel like that was maybe too generous? Why was the fee so high for Ray?” I’m so afraid of the answer.
“Jim, I can assure you that the compensation was not an accident. Do you remember the part of the application that asked you if you had a spouse, relatives, children or friends?” My heart found its way to my colon. I knew where this was going.
“Yeah, I remember.” I practically croaked my answer, my throat felt so dry.
“Well, to put it as gently as I can,” she stops clicking her mouse, “the riders that you’re transporting are not typical beings like yourself. Most of them are harmless, but some. . .” insert long, unnecessary, pregnant pause, “. . . can be dangerous. If something were to happen to you, we would prefer not to worry about liability lawsuits. It’s not that you’re life bares little meaning, it’s just business Jim.” I sit back and recall my answer. I have no one. I answered “no” to that part of the application.
I let the answer sink in too long and hear Adeline chime in, “Are you still with us, Jim? Did you have more questions?”
“Uh,” I close my eyes and try to gather my thoughts, “Yeah. What sort of amenities and safety measures should I be worried about?” I ask, rubbing my very stressed out temple.
“We’ll start with the uncomfortable topic of safety measures, get the ugly out of the way,” she begins with a soft, yet sinister tone, “you should get yourself an air-tight container to hold sage and a lighter inside. Sometimes certain entities can leave behind an unseen residue and the moment you feel a heaviness after your passenger has exited, you’ll want to burn some of it in your vehicle until you can feel the tension has dispersed.” I scurry to find a pad and pen to write this down. She continues, “You’ll also want to invest in a raincoat or poncho.”
“A rainc- Adeline. . .” I ask in exasperation.
“Yes, Jim. A raincoat.” I roll my eyes and continue to make my list, “Make sure you invest in a facemask, protective eyewear and booties. You can never be too careful.” She finishes.
“Alright,” I complete the rest of the recommended items list, “Now what about the amenities?”
“That depends on how willing you are to get your hands dirty for your riders,” I could hear the smirk, “just how important is it to you to ensure your riders receive the highest quality experience?”
“Not very,” I say defensively. I’m sure the government is already tapped into my line by now, “I just want to drive and maybe not die. Extra steps sounds like it could tamper with that.”
She lets out a chortle “Is there anything else I can do for you, Jim?”
“Uh, no,” I feel no more confident now than I did before picking up the call, “thanks, Adeline.”
“No problem, Jimmy boy!” Her sickening disposition returns as if this is all so normal for her work nights, “Can we count on you to continue driving for us?”
I stare off into the bedroom wall, chewing on that question. Why shouldn’t I? The money is right, the work is interesting, and I make my own hours. I would be an absolute fool to turn this down. The worst that happens is I die and after discussing the pitiful state of my private life and the lack of people therein, it doesn’t seem so bad.
“Yes,” I say, switching the phone from one ear to the next, “Yeah. I’ll keep driving for Cerber.”
“Wonderful!” She exclaims, “Good luck! I’ll be in touch!”
“Thanks. Have a good night, Adel. . .” the line went dead before I could finish.
It was already after midnight, it’s time to get my ass into gear. I don’t have time to pick up the safety items, I survived without them last time and
I feel like I’ll get more ride requests on a Friday night, safety gear is going to have to wait.
I park at a local donut shop that remains open 24 hours. It’s not tacos, but I can get a churro there, close enough. My phone dings with a request from someone named Borg in a residential area just four minutes away. The final destination was a twelve minute ride to an old industrial building that I thought was shut down. I accept the request, dust the cinnamon-sugar off my shirt and start driving. I’m instantly relieved when I see that the request didn’t come from Ray. He was nice enough, but his potential is absolutely terrifying. I pull up to a very plain and vapid home. It was well kept with a brand new fence, it was just ordinary. So far, so good. Then Borg walked out.
Again with the tall! He was a mammoth of a man, standing at least seven feet tall, jaw slack, with a large set of tusks weighing down such massive jowls, dripping with saliva. Borg was dragging a very large hammer, wearing mild construction gear including a hard hat, tool belt and cement crusted boots. My eyes were wide, drawing in as much of this creature as my retinas could handle.
“JIM?!” He bellowed as if trying to call my attention from across four football fields.
My body still vibrating, I reply with, “BORG?!” I don’t know what compelled me to be so risky as to yell at him, but my body was going rogue at this point.
“YES, BORG!” Borg opens my door with shocking delicacy, climbs into the back seat, accidentally slamming his hammer on his own foot. He didn’t flinch, but I totally caught that.
Borg stares at the back of my headrest, breathing like a hog with bronchitis. He had breath bad enough to gag a maggot.
“Just getting off work?” I ask to try and stave off the wet snorting sounds from behind me.
“YES. BORG BUILD FENCE. BORG NEED BEER.” Oh buddy, I can relate.
“Jesus, Borg! Do you have a volume dial?! Tone it down and break the knob off, for the love of god!” I finally snapped. This is how I die.
To my surprise, Borg lets out a thunderous cackle so loud that I’m sure it gave me prostate cancer, “JIM FUNNY! BORG LIKE JIM!” I give him a weak smile and decide to just focus my attention on the road. We were rounding the last turn of the trip.
I pull up to the abandoned warehouse and it’s just as dilapidated as I remember. The metal walls and roof were coated in rust, the wooden beams poking out of place with dry rot and patches of unkempt weeds swallowed up any semblance of a driveway. I come to a complete stop and Borg plunks his massive boots onto the gravel. He gracefully closes my door and walks over to my window, “THANKS JIM! GO SLEEP! JIM LOOK BAD!” Are you fucking kidding me?
“GOODNIGHT BORG! GO SLEEP! BORG TOO LOUD!” I bark at him with a grin. He grins back and begins his short, seemingly painful walk to the front doors of the building. I caught myself half-smiling as the doors shut to his murky mansion, when it was violently interrupted by the realization that the smell Borg emitted had not followed him out of my car. Oh no. This is so bad.
I quickly drive to a nearby gas station to assess the damage. This giant, sticky man-fetus was making all that noise for a reason. He literally shit his own pants in my back seat and his internal matter leaked EVERYWHERE, leaving big, Borg butt cheek imprints.
My night was clearly shot. I bought some paper towels, bleach, air fresheners and a few taquitos from the gas station I was stopped at. It took me a full two hours to clean this hazardous waste out of my car, but I was still able to alleviate the blasphemous evidence from my back seat. It was around 3:52 A.M. when I finished. I remembered Adeline saying that the highest hours of operation ended around 4:30 A.M. so I went ahead and put out a ready signal to try and salvage my night. How I wish I would’ve gotten Ray instead, anything else would have been better than this traumatizing experience.
I got another ping almost instantly after putting out signal. At least I had another fat payout to look forward to. Then I noticed something strange. The request was coming from the very gas station I was already parked at from someone named Angela. Stranger still, there was no destination that followed. Albeit bizarre, I figured it was an app malfunction and I accepted the request anyway. Immediately after accepting, my back door opened and shut so quickly that it almost sounded like one fluid motion.
“Hi, James.” That voice. There’s no way. My blood instantly turns to ice and my body starts shaking violently. This isn’t happening. This can’t be real.
I turn my head slowly, shuddering at the woman who sat in the back seat. My horrified gaze met with her milky eyes, shattering my senses like glass. Of all the terror, sadness and despair I’ve ever encountered in my life, it’s incomparable to what I was feeling in this very moment. Tears involuntarily streamed down my face, my mouth hanging open, hands tensed into fists on my steering wheel, white-knuckling my grip as if I may be ripped right through the roof of my car. This isn’t real. It just can’t be real.
The request… came from my dead sister, Angela.
* * * * * *
Angela died at the age of 24, I was 28. My sister was a tiny, intelligent, nerdy and independent woman, who prided herself on her ability to quote every scripture in the Bible in a nondenominational way while also being able to recite every Greek god, their spouse, children and histories therein. She had a natural curiosity for stories, sincere compassion for the voiceless and loved her family deeply. Angela never missed a single Christmas dinner. She was working on her doctorate in international mythology before she died. You all thought that a philosophy degree was useless? Angela and I were very close. The four of us as a unit had very healthy relationships and could always rely on each other. We kept our circle small and tight.
Her body was found dumped on the side of highway 5 and it was in terrible condition. For those of you with weak bellies, I urge you to skip over this paragraph. Her body was severely sexually assaulted with instruments that involve slicing holiday ham. Her head was almost entirely severed from her shoulders, appendages were found in a black garbage bag placed right next to her corpse. Stranger still, her cause of death was not due to any of these fatal blows. She was hot-shotted with heroine and was dead before this massacre could have taken place. The reason they know this is because when a body dies, blood coagulates and takes on a viscous texture, causing blood to pass through veins and arteries at a much slower rate. Pair coagulation with a stopped heart, no longer able to circulate and pump blood, you get a very minimal mess and little blood spatter. Perhaps the most ominous and puzzling part, she was found wearing a necklace that no one in my family recognized. A small, silver bullet dangled from a delicate silver chain. It was like an anti-trophy, a clean break-away from the typical psychopath. This person was a sadistic showman that meant to confuse and bring an unreasonably high shock value to anyone who stumbled upon the knowledge of this crime. It worked. The case grew cold and hasn’t been reopened since. None of us ever got closure from her death. Just two years after we buried her, our parents committed suicide. They locked themselves in the garage, doused themselves in gasoline and lit themselves in fire. They were found still holding hands with no sign of struggle. The death of my parents didn’t affect me as bad as Angela’s death did. You expect your parents to expire. You don’t expect your baby sister to be slaughtered. No one is ever ready for a call like that.
My baby sister, the one who intentionally got a job at the bookstore to sneak books out simply to learn, was gone. Any hope and good that was left in me was buried along with her. I traded in the notions of starting my own family for the more tangible future in alcoholism. My baggage was exhausting enough for me, there’s no reason to subject that sort of madness any further. The gnawing pain eventually went numb and formed invisible mental scar tissue to cover up any residual damage from that impact. Yet here she was, staring at me with a vacant expression, from the backseat of my car.
I jumped into the back seat and hugged her tight, sobbing for several minutes, while she tried to hush me as though we were being watched.
“James, please,” she said trying to quell the inconsolable teenager I was in that moment “I need your help.”
I immediately shot back, grabbing her arms, “I thought I would never see you again, Angela. It’s been ten years.” I said, gathering my composure.
“I know,” she looked down in her lap trying to hide her own pain, “I’m sorry. I would have come sooner. . .”
I cut her off, resting my hands in my own lap and say “wait, why now?”
She looked back up at me and said “I would have come sooner, but you were self-destructing. Seeing ghosts would only amplify that sort of behavior, so I watched from afar.”
“Okay,” I nodded, looking past the milky desaturation of her eyes and into her now very present soul “I can understand that, but you are here now. What exactly do you need my help with?”
Her face became very stern, replying with “I messed up. You know how I was studying black masses, occultism and ritualistic spiritualism?” I nodded and she continued, “well, I was turning up empty handed in every path I traveled, so I dug deeper. . .” she became uncomfortable and shifted in her seat, “I decided to go through the dark web to find what I could on summoning entities. I eventually came into contact with a man who only referred to himself as Wade.” she turned her face to the back of my seat and shut her eyes as if she had to scrape to the bottom of her cerebellum to recall the next few steps, “he claimed that he could summon Baphomet and that he would perform such summons for me. However, I already knew that Baphomet could not be summoned. So he was either going to make a huge fool of himself or I was going to witness one of the most intelligent entities ever written about. Both results would have been fruitful for my research. I was so concerned with just wanting more experience, I never stopped to evaluate the risks.”
She let herself chew on that for a minute. She looked like she was truly checking out of the conversation, so I softly spoke “Angela?”
She shook her head, bringing herself back to the discussion, “I’m fine.” She pushed her hair back and that’s when I saw the giant, dark bruise with a tiny hole in the center of it, like an eerie halo. I chose to ignore it for now because I was growing impatient and wanted her to wrap it up.
“We met at a coffee shop close to where I lived and he drove us two hours out of the way to what looked like a barely standing building, lights still flickering inside. We walked in and he instructed me to take my shoes and coat off. When I was done taking my second shoe off, I blacked out. I’m not sure how long I was out for or what delivered me to being unconscious, but I woke up clearly drugged.”
“It was heroine,” I interrupted, “the cops told us you were hot-shotted. That’s how you died. They had told us you were not an addict since you didn’t have any other physical distress from active use.”
“Yeah,” she rubbed her neck, staring forward, “well, he didn’t kill me right away. He put an IV directly into my neck and delivered it slowly enough to keep me tranquilized first.” A clear expression of rage swept over her face, her voice still calm, “I woke up in what looked like a mortuary. I was on an old, metal gurney, sustained by leather straps. That wasn’t even necessary, I couldn’t even lift my head let alone escape. I knew I was going to die. I was just afraid it wasn’t going to be quick. He told me that I was stupid for seeking dark answers to dark questions and that my demise was entirely my fault. He wasn’t wrong. I put myself in that exact position, I felt foolish. I should’ve known that summoning Baphomet wasn’t possible and that should have been enough to raise some red flags.” I rolled my eyes at that last part. Nerd alert.
“He told me that my death was important regardless of how I had arrived to this situation,” she continued, her voice taking on a monotonous infliction, “he said that he wasn’t even part of any known religious sector. That he was a one-man worship and that it was because he was a true god among men.” Her mouth curled up into a slight smirk and she said, “I verbally retaliated though. My last words before he mainlined China right into my jugular were ‘I thought gods were perfect? You have mustard on your shirt and you reek of dollar store aftershave. You’re not a god, you just suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.’” She cackled at her own remark. I wanted to cry just watching her reflect any sort of positive feeling. I’ve missed her so much.
“Well that pissed him off enough to end it,” she said half-smiling, “I hope it brings you some sort of peace knowing that I didn’t suffer.”
I nodded and replied “it does, but what exactly do you need my help with?”
“Well, I want you to find him, I guess,” she shrugged, “I’m not his first and only victim. I’m not exactly sure what I want you to do once you find him, but I want him to stop this psychotic church-of-self agenda.”
“Do you have any sort of lead you can give me?” I ask eagerly. Maybe she wasn’t sure what to do after he was found, but I had a few ideas. I may even call Ray for help.
“It’s been ten years.” She said, looking directly into my eyes, “but I do remember where the location is. The funeral home that I died in.”
My hands start shaking, my breath trembling, “where was this exactly?” It was then I heard my Cerber notification chime. She finally added the destination to the ride she had requested. I look from my phone resting on the dash to her. She was smiling such a warm, lovely smile for being so dead.
“What do you say, James,” she lifted her finger, pointing at my phone, “shall we begin?”
My body fled with pinpricks of pure adrenaline, “Hell Yeah,” I jumped to my front seat, “I’ve been waiting ten years for this.” We started driving down I-5 south. We had a three hour journey ahead of us. The tip better be fat.
* * * * * *
Angela and I spent the ride in relative silence for the first hour. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. When telling me she wanted me to find him, my mind was too focused on the possibilities of torturing this crackhead that killed my sister, I almost missed that last part.
“Angela,” my inquisition sliced through the quiet hum of my tires and penetrated her gaze on the road.
“Yeah?” She was holding herself as if she was cold.
“There’s something that’s bugging me.” I say, tapping my thumb on the steering wheel.
“What’s up?” No sign of a guilty conscience and I’m not sure I felt so comforted by that notion.
“When you said ‘find him, I guess,’ what exactly does that mean? What do you mean, ‘you guess’?” I was trying to hide the accusatory tone, but I’ve always been terrible with composing myself.
“Well, I don’t really know. I feel like finding him and the resolve therein may allow me to leave this purgatory of just walking around the living. You know, unfinished ghost business.” She genuinely sounded theoretical.
“You mean, you don’t know?” Still sounding like I’m interrogating her. I can’t help it, I’ve seen some weird shit and since she’s my sister, I feel like I can ask away, no-bars-hold.
“Strange, isn’t it?” She says, cocking her head to the side, allowing her eyes to do what I assumed was a blank stare. Her peepers didn’t creep me out until then. “You would think that dying delivers a sense of clarity or answers some questions. That’s just not the case. Dying is like exiting scene one and walking into a different set, in a different costume and unrehearsed lines. It’s confusing. I’ve read a lot about souls being trapped because of unfinished business and I can’t help but think I’ll be closer to resting if I try every avenue, no matter how cliché it sounds.”
My heart crawled into my throat, choking me with sadness. I just got her back and she’s already trying to leave. I try to soften the mood and say “Well, why do you even want to go to heaven? There’s no affirmation in the Bible that says there will be tacos on the other side. Why chance it?”
“I don’t even know if heaven is real. I know this isn’t necessarily my eternity, but heaven could just be a fairy tale for all I know,” dammit, that backfired. Now I feel worse.
“So you’re saying that, what? Your soul just dissipates?” Still swallowing as much sorrow as I could.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she almost sounds annoyed. I’m not sure if my stupid questions are irritating her or if she’s irritated with her own lack of answers, “I’m saying I don’t know. I’m saying that I do know that I’m stuck and don’t know what the next step is or what arrives thereafter.” She stares out the window, concluding this discussion. I may suck at reading women, but I could tell I wore out the topic. I left well enough alone, grabbed another cold, gas station taquito and munched in silence. Sort of. So crunchy, even cold.
My phone dinged with another Cerber notification. I squinted at the request to share a ride with the current passenger. I guess even the supernatural care about the environment too. Makes sense, they’re typically immortal or live longer than humans anyway, being mindful of cutting back where you can is never a bad idea. They may also be just as cheap as my sister too, who knows.
“Hey Angela, someone wants to share your ride for about fifteen minutes, is that cool?” She nodded, still brooding in her own, nerdy and dramatic state of despair. I hit accept to someone named Siobhan.
I pulled up to a lake that was pinned in the request. Standing there was a gorgeous woman, long red hair, waxen skin and a black dress that only revealed her head, hands and shoes. She was a petite little thing, which I thought would be a relief. She looked WAY too normal.
Siobhan climbed into the back seat and said “Thank you, I didn’t think drivers were ever in this area.” She flashed a sweet smile and buckled her seatbelt. She looks like a human, but humans are definitely not allowed to use Cerber, so what is she? This wouldn’t typically bother me if she had a third eye or a protruding underbite of razor-sharp teeth, but she just looked like the average commuter and that was unsettling in this very specific circumstance.
“I can’t say that they are, I just happened to be in the area,” I said staring at her through my rear view window. Angela seemed to be fairly unfettered by the new passenger. She had nothing to contribute.
I pulled back onto the freeway, glancing every few seconds to see a smiling Siobhan, looking back at me. She’s likely under the impression that I’m thinking of a decent pick-up line. In actuality, I was trying to read the room a bit to see if it was appropriate to ask possibly the dumbest question I’ve ever verbally vomited.
“So uh, what are you?” I ask.
“W. . .what’s that supposed to mean?” She asked so defensively.
“I mean what kind of thing are you? You look way too normal to be using Cerber. So what are you?” It would take an expert team of surgeons from France to remove the foot I just shoved down my own throat. If you can believe it, I was entirely shameless in my questioning. My sister was clearly appalled, since she turned her head towards me, mouth agape in utter horror. If she didn’t look so dead, it would’ve been funny. However, she looked very dead and that caused my body to visibly shudder.
“What are you talking about?! I’m clearly a beautiful woman!” Siobhan all but screamed at me.
“Yeah, James. Shut all the way the fuck up.” My sister hissed through her freaky, postmortem teeth.
“What?” I ask, thinking my question was perfectly valid. I should’ve guessed that Angela knew something that I didn’t by her reaction. I should’ve stopped there, apologized, waited until Siobhan exited my car and asked Angela what the big deal was. But I didn’t. Oops. Big oops.
From the back seat, I could hear gurgling and panting. I look in the mirror to see that Siobhan was shaking violently and her skin was bubbling. It looked like black billiard balls were crawling violently under her epidermis. Her eyes took on a bright yellow, a rectangular iris forming like that of a goat or frog.
“Goddammit, James. Now you’ve done it.” Angela yells in a panic, wincing and huddling by the car door. It looked like she was trying to brace herself for a detonation. Well, I guess she technically was.
Siobhan’s face started to stretch, her face forming a long, horse-like muzzle. Her arms wiggled into a transition of black tentacles, writhing and rapidly becoming larger. Her long red hair morphed into wet, obsidian strands. She looked like a horse-octopus. Between glances of the road and my rear view mirror, her physical being became far more atrocious and I couldn’t help but autopilot my way down I-5 in the meantime. I could see her chest heaving and falling with every snort of hot breath. She went from being this tiny doll to being a massive mess of tendrils behind a set of glowing eyes. She quite literally filled most of my car.
“What…what the hell are you, lady?!” My voice cracked as if I was sixteen again. That sort of sight will suck the masculinity right out of you and make you a mouse in no time flat.
A sharp bray escaped her horse-like lips and caused me to lose hearing. I could see that Angela was trying to bark the answer at me, “what?” I ask, hearing my own heavily muffled reply.
“She’s a kelpie!” Angela screams, throwing her hands up.
“The fuck is a. . .” I couldn’t finish my question before one of Siobhan’s slimy tentacles plunged its way into my mouth. As if I hadn’t humiliated myself enough with my tone-deaf night of interrogations, I subjected myself to real life hentai on top of that. Super.
I take one hand off the wheel to try and yank the tentacle out of my throat, swerving at 75mph in a frenzied panic. Another appendage wrapped around my chest, my throat and my left leg. As if my stupidity wasn’t done controlling the events of this evening enough, I decided to let go of the steering wheel entirely to get a better grip. Bigger oops.
I was losing consciousness and strength quickly. I haven’t been able to breathe for a good two minutes now and with a surging adrenaline rush to try and stay alive, my legs involuntarily stiffened to find leverage. On the gas pedal, of course. Biggest oops.
I found myself speeding down an empty highway, wrestling with a pissed off pony-pus, trying desperately to stay alive and crashed my tank of an SUV into a ditch. Though it was extremely dangerous and entirely unintentional, totaling my vehicle is what saved my life.
I blacked out temporarily and woke up to an uncomfortable stillness that followed the car accident. I could hear Siobhan breathing quietly in the back seat and it sounded like that’s all she was doing. I slowly looked back, blood trickling into one eye and see that she’s still knocked out. After feeling relief wash over me, I was hit with an overwhelming amount of pain from the impact as well as overexertion from defending my airway. I crawled out of my car and dropped to the ground, directly onto my back, knocking the wind out of my already fragile chest. I gripped my shoulder and let out a man’s groan. I lay as flat as possible, looking up and trying to mind too much movement of my neck and back. Angela pokes her face into my vision directly above my body and I ask her to get my phone.
Angela hands my phone to me and I tap on the emergency number, bringing the phone up to my ear.
“Hi, Jim! It appears you’ve been in an accident,” it’s Adeline with her annoying, jovial voice, “I’m sending two drivers to your location, both equipped with Cerber employed physicians. I assume your sister will be joining you?”
That bitch. I’m agitated and grateful all at once. “Yeah. . .” I choke out to her, “have him pick up three tacos, a burrito with extra nacho cheese and a bottle of acetaminophen. You’re buying.” I drop my arm to my side and allow myself to pass out.
I wake up four hours later, suffering a very minor concussion, a shattered esophagus and some bruising on my bones. We were put up in a mediocre hotel room, stocked with an obscene amount of Mexican food and a tall bottle of heavy painkillers. I sit up, knock the painkillers off my nightstand and grab a burrito. Alcoholics shouldn’t touch opioids, I already knew that. I’ll pay myself on the back for the one responsible decision I made by stuffing my face with my favorite addiction.
I quietly ate my burrito in bed and glanced over at Angela. She was sitting in a dusty rose slipper chair, arms folded and staring at the ceiling with her legs crossed. I looked back down at my burrito and allowed myself to bathe in shame for my irresponsible lack of couth. The disheartening fact that I almost died in two different ways in a matter of five minutes was startling and blanketed me like a guilt quilt. I messed up so bad tonight and I’m due for a round of penance.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my mouth full of burrito innards, “I wasn’t thinking properly and put us into a dangerous situation-,” she raises her hand at me, gesturing for me to quit while I’m ahead. I listened this time, mostly because my mouth was full.
“I’m already dead, doofus,” she calmly reminded me as she continued to stare at the ceiling, “I wasn’t in any danger at all. There’s seriously no need to apologize.”
“Alright,” I say, emotionally wounded, “where’s my car?”
“You totaled it, James. We’re gonna be stuck here for a few days until Cerber can iron out the details with your insurance. Adeline called me and filled me in on the process and said she’s going to take care of it. There’s nothing that can be done for at least two days, so focus on healing. We waited ten years, we can wait two more days.” Her disposition softened, trying to soothe me.
“Okay.” I continue eating my burrito, reflecting on the antics for the evening, “Angela?”
“What?” She asked as if she was prepared for another blow of foolhardy questions.
“What the fuck is a kelpie?!”
* * * * * *
I was a complete ass to Siobhan and apologized to her. I added $1,000 of my own cash to her Cerber account. Sadly, that only gets her as far as four blocks. She was gracious about it. Siobhan apologized for power-fisting my throat, I told her she had no reason to be sorry and we ended our call on a good note. She gave me four bat wings and a review that read “He’s cute, for a Neanderthal. I’d ride him again.” Which was beyond kind of her, but now I’m not sure if she was pissed or flirting. Both, maybe? I will continue to do my best at keeping my mouth closed. My social ineptitude is staggering, but I’m learning a very valuable lesson in humility.
Not much transpired in the first day. I didn’t have insurance through Cerber and the agents that handle my claims specifically are human. Adeline is having a wicked hard time finding an “in” with the company that I’m insured with. She says that if it takes more than a week, they’ll just replace my car altogether and terminate the claims. Why they don’t just do that anyway, who knows. Maybe it’s her way of insuring that I stay in one place and heal as best as I can. She could just be putting it off to practice a little damage control. Something tells me it’s the latter.
Cerber put us up with some pretty awesome accommodations. Angela has been balls-deep in books for days now, trying to figure out what that silver bullet could possibly mean. She thinks that if we find its meaning, then we can find the origin of Wade’s beliefs. We find the origin, we can combat them properly. Not sure how useful I can be in this situation, but even if I just get a front row seat to watch her haul off on Wade, I’ll be satisfied.
Accommodations also include an unhealthy enablement of my Mexican food obsession as well as a personal nurse and doctor. They’re both black-eyed people, which I’m not entirely sure what that is, but they’re nice enough. Probably the tamest entities I’ve ever been around. Fun fact; paranormal medicine is a thing and it’s incredible. My esophagus, concussion and superficial injuries have completely healed. Get this- they were able to inject a rapid healing medication that was taken from a strain of werewolf flu! I look and feel like I may stand a chance talking shit to a kelpie again. Kidding. Sort of.
I spent a lot of my time talking to Borg on the phone. I guess he caught wind of the accident and was disheartened by it. Ironically, he sent over an iron nail. It was delivered to me in a tiny, green box with a note that read “Borg sorry Jim got mouth violated. Borg send iron nail. Good for fence, good for kelpie.” What started as a gratitude phone call, turned into construction shop-talk on a few occasions. Borg like Jim. Jim like Borg.
On the second day in, I woke up at 2 A.M. to Angela’s face about an inch away from mine. I flew up onto my bed like a weird sheet surfer, screaming nothing intelligible with hands above my head, spider monkey style. I plunked down on the bed, gripping my chest and said “What, Angela?”
“You talk a lot of shit for someone who startles so easy,” she says slightly amused, “I have found plenty on the silver bullet, but not anything that makes sense.” She walks over to one of many books she has littering the floor of our room.
“Alright,” I swing my legs over the side of the bed, placing my hands in my lap. “So what have you found, then? Can we use it against Wade in any way?”
“Not that I can tell, no,” she says, looking down at her book, “I’m only finding ways to defeat evil entities with silver bullets. Nothing that says they’re used to aid them. This is assuming, of course, that Wade is evil.”
“Excuse me, if?” I ask, completely bewildered.
“Yes, if. Just because he killed me, does not mean he is evil.” She said so confidently.
“Okay, I’m lost. What part of murder is not evil?” I ask, my head spinning.
“Murder to you, sacrifice to the other, martyrdom to another, death isn’t always meant to be sinister. Just because I didn’t want to die, doesn’t make his objective evil. We may have been going about this the wrong way the whole time.” Angela sat on the floor with her legs crossed, putting her head into her cupped hands.
“So, you’re thinking this is some sort of protection doodad?” I ask.
“I guess,” she folds her arms tight against her chest, “I’m still not entirely sure. We may have to just fly into this blind. I would suggest contacting a priest, but given your line of work, it could tarnish anything you have left of your credibility among the paranormal.”
I throw both fists up, give her the double-bird special, “Oooookay. On that note, I’m going back to sleep.”
As soon as my head hits the pillow, the hotel line rings. I throw a bit of a flailing tantrum before picking up the phone. On the other end, I can only hear a faint rustling of what sounded like wind, “uh. . . hello?” I ask, looking at my sister with one eyebrow raised.
“Hi, James.” It’s a man who sounds like a cat that ate the canary.
That’s when I notice that Angela is violently shaking, cowering against the corner of the room, eyes welling up.
“Who is this?” I ask the man with a hint of concern to my disposition.
“I hear that you’re looking for me,” he says in his smooth as cream voice, “I’m Wade.”
“YOU SON OF A BITCH! You bet your sorry ass I’m looking for you!” I scream into the receiver. Pure rage surged its way through every nerve in my body like I was electrocuted with blind madness.
“Calm yourself, child,” now he definitely sounds condescending, “you’ll get your chance. I’m in need of a ride. Do you happen to have time for a request?”
“Oh, are little bitches considered paranormal now? That’s news to me. I thought cowards like you had a super cool fan club that congregates in the basement for pre-murder, circle-jerks. Does that come before or after fucking your mom?” Sorry, folks. I tried. But let’s face it, he had that coming and I’m sure a lot of you would be disappointed in me for not properly tearing this dick-wart to shreds.
He laughed in an unsettling manner, “oh child, you know not the dire situation you’ve stumbled into,” I clench my teeth, blood boiling so hot that I can feel myself sweat as he continues, “that’s fine. In due time, I suppose. In the meantime, please respond to my request. I’ll be waiting.” The line goes dead.
I waste no time and call Adeline immediately. She picks up the phone and starts with “James-“ panic shrouding her voice.
“I don’t want to hear it, Adeline,” I get dressed, putting the iron nail in my pocket, “get me a car. Now. I don’t give a damn what it is, get a car out front.”
“James, I’m not above begging, please don’t-”
“Car! Now!” I scream at her and hang up.
“Angela, we’re going for-“ I stop and come to the startling realization that Angela isn’t in the room anymore.
I frantically race to my phone, ignoring the Cerber notifications, and try calling her. My calls went straight to voicemail. I could feel my torso caving in, anxiety rushing over my body. He must have her. I don’t know how, but my intuition is telling me that he somehow has her.
I run down to the front desk of the hotel, finding a silver plate holding a set of keys and a note from Adeline that reads, “please, in the name of all things holy, don’t do this.” I swipe the keys and rush out to find a standard, black luxury sedan waiting for me. I all but fly into the front seat, turn the ignition and mount my phone on the dash. I tap the Cerber app and buckle up as it loads. My sister is gone, I am armed with absolutely no useful information, nor any weapons. I can’t just let this opportunity slip, especially with my sister being held hostage. I’m rushing into a situation with my presence and good intentions only. This is how he wanted it, though. I had no time to waste.
Cerber booted up to the request home page with one notification already three minutes old. I tap on accept. “Gotcha, asshole.” I say as I accept a request from Archangel Michael.
* * * * * *
Before we get into this next installment, I wanted to dedicate this episode to the memory Keith Flint and the thousands of others who have lost their fight with depression. This one also goes out to those currently fighting your way through it, you’re not alone and help is more local than you know. Thank you, Keith, for bringing an edge to electronic music and for trying your best to fight your demons. You will be greatly missed in both the music industry and the hearts of all your fans. The candle in the window tonight is for you, brother.
Now, on with tonight’s installment.
The location to picking up Michael was a shanty little bar that looked like it allowed indoor smoking and turned a blind eye to quaaludes. Michael was dressed in cowboy boots with an adorable matching hat, a pastel orange, western-style shirt and very neat blue jeans. He resembled either a cop or someone who was trying to be cowboy for the very first time. Kinda like those Scandinavian folks who are obsessed with westerns and intentionally go to the Alamo without a field trip slip. Westerns are boring and I’m not sorry for saying it.
He almost anxiously got to the front passenger seat of my car. His apprehensive nature completely negates what I heard on the phone. Goody, more weird shit that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m just too simple, who knows. He gets into my car and I look at him like I’m expecting the first swing. Up close, he looks exhausted and in the middle of existential crisis. I did NOT want to relate to this weirdo.
“Are you the asshole?” I ask, completely ready to die. It’s inevitable in this line of work.
“Are you the intellectual? Oh, right, you’re the dumbass that is about as well-mannered as a toddler riled up on Red Bull.” Oh my god, he is me. I think I’m in love.
“Who are you?” I ask, completely befuddled. I wanted to kill this guy just two minutes ago, very slowly. Now I kinda want to take this inside for a beer.
“Now you can’t read either? How did they even let you have a license? In fact, how are you even still ALIVE?” He gave me this crazy, wide-eyed expression, leaning his face entirely too close to mine. Oh, and yes. He did sound like a genuine cowboy.
“Are you just going to keep asking me unhelpful questions or are you going to play ball and tell me what in tarnation is going on?” Yeah, I mocked him. We’re in love now, it’s okay.
“Alright. I’m not Wade, I’m Michael. The archangel. I’m not going to waste anymore of your time, we have shit to do, son.” He said pointing to my mounted phone. On the screen was a destination in a residential area. A nice neighborhood. That doesn’t settle me in anyway, rich people are creeps worse than my passengers. Self-made monsters. Terrific.
“While we make our way there, you mind telling me why you decided to intercept my very well-earned date with death and dismay?” I ask, less pushy. Despite enjoying this back-and-forth banter, I figured it was a bad idea to piss off an angel responsible for assembling victorious, ethereal armies. I may be sassy, but I promise I’m not as stupid as I look. I don’t care about dying, but no one is actually trying to earn a fast track to hell.
“Divination, son, what’s it look like?” He asks putting a poorly, handmade cigarette in his mouth, “you’re about to go marching to your death and you have the balls to think you’ve got the balls for it.”
“Uh…what…” I ignored the fact that he lit up a cigarette in my car, which is typically a no-no, since this is technically a company car and I’m still pissed at Adeline. I was just traveling down an even deeper rabbit hole of confusion, “Alright, I need to re-examine the facts. You’re an angel, right? As in one of THE angels?”
“Yeah,” he took a long, heroic drag of his cigarette and continued, “And I’m here to save your sorry ass. You’re about to tangle with a lone skinwalker.” He raises his eyebrows at me.
“The Native American myth?” Guess I shouldn’t call it a myth at this juncture.
“That’s right. What’s dangerous about a lone skinwalker is they’ve been cast out of their tribe. He’s only 150 years old, very young.”
“Yeah, he’s basically a fetus.” I say rolling my eyes.
“No, you would be a fetus in this situation. There are skinwalkers that are nearly as old as me.” I immediately wanted to ask how old he was, but I thought better of it. “The reason he is so dangerous is he’s lawless. Not bound to any tribal rules, though skinwalkers have little of those to begin with.”
I impatiently tap my thumb on the steering wheel, now slightly excited to land at our next stop. I think I know what’s coming.
“Since you’re too bullheaded to back down and too stupid to handle this alone, I decided to help you out.” He grins, showing a couple gold-capped teeth and radiating confidence. In turn, I also felt confident.
“Thanks. Now where are we?” I ask, putting my car in park and killing the ignition.
“I have a guy who keeps everything you need right here in his home. Can’t exactly run a store front with this type of material on account of licensing being a necessity in this state. Some folks just need to handle an advanced problem just one time.” He unbuckles his seatbelt and climbs out of the car.
Michael doesn’t bother knocking and enters the home. Every room was unburdened by furniture as well as a lack of lighting. We head down to the basement which was lit with a light violet, bathing the room in an emotional shade of calm. Littered about the room, which I can only describe as an organized mess of different types of weapons, stood a drag queen. Yep. Very clearly a drag queen. The only reason I could even guess this was the cartoon inspired makeup and a wig that looked like it could be a living creature, piled high on his head. From the neck down, he was dressed in a skintight tracksuit, exposing his well-kept physique. I know, keep your mouth shut, Jim.
“Azazel, I’ve brought the kid with the mouth on him,” Michael says, pointing behind himself and at me.
In the most flamboyant voice imaginable, Azazel replies, “hey, honey. You’re dancing with a skinwalker?” Azazel does a mild salsa dance behind his work bench.
“So I’m told,” I’m trying to remain professional because not only am I standing in the presence of an archangel, the drag queen standing before me is a demon. I know what Azazel is.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a 9 millimeter handgun, two 11-round magazines of pure silver, a Molotov cocktail and a lighter. Now, you can’t kill a skinwalker with silver, it’ll only slow it down. Do your best to aim for his legs and arms. When a skinwalker dumps its human form, it’ll have freakishly quick abilities in both arms and legs, so don’t skip any limbs.” By the time Azazel was finished giving me these directions, he had piled everything into a backpack.
“I’m sorry, I have to ask,” both Michael and Azazel were looking at me as though I was burdening them, “Angels and demons work together?”
“Fallen, asshole. I’m a fallen.” Azazel crosses his arms, glaring at me.
“Right. You guys actually work together?” I ask.
“Yes,” Michael replies, “fallen were angels once too. Not all demons have bad intentions. Some like humans quite a lot and want to maintain a sort of balance.”
“Alright,” I grabbed the backpack, completely done with religious topics, “You mind fixing the interception, Michael? I would really like to finish this.”
“Sure, kid.” he waves at Azazel and we begin our ascent from the basement.
“One more thing, Jim,” says Azazel, waving, “don’t miss. You can’t afford to miss.”
I nod with a smile and say “Thanks, Azazel.” He smiles and turns around to finish his original project.
As we’re walking back to the car, I rehearse my plan in my mind. I’ve never actually shot a firearm before, so this was going to be interesting. I’ve also never had to huck a Molotov before. I may actually die trying to kill this thing.
Michael and I get back into the car and I ask him, “Alright, I have to know, why is Azazel a drag queen?”
Michael let out a single chuckle and said “Well, Azazel was cast out of heaven for teaching humans how to build weapons and put war makeup on. He’s always enjoyed cosmetics, so he decided to make it a hobby.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said, with a genuine nod, “so what does Wade want?” Obviously, Michael has answers, I’m not going to be shy about asking. Not that I ever had that problem to begin with.
Michael pulls out another shanty stoge, lights up and gets comfortable, “Do you remember what it was like losing Angela? How you felt lost and empty, and your life just had less flavor?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Well, when some folks lose their sense of home in their people, they begin grieving in one of two common ways. Some become hollow, much like you. Some become angry and develop an insidious agenda. They hurt others to gain control of their own pain.” Michael says, never breaking eye contact.
“So why Angela?” I ask.
“Victim of circumstance, son. She’s special, but not that special.” He replied.
“Any idea as to why there was a silver bullet hanging from her body? What about the insanity parade he conducted on her corpse?” I’m angry now. Not at Michael, I haven’t had a taco in several hours.
“I put the bullet there. I was hoping that someone would have caught onto that clue. Of course, that was bust,” He takes another drag of his cigarette, “the mutilation was pure rage. He’s lost and upset. That’s why he killed Angela before he had his fun with her-“
“Watch it, Michael,” I said swiftly, “my sister isn’t a sideshow attraction.”
“Easy, son,” He said calmly. I was actually hoping to piss him off, “point being is he didn’t have a reason. The whole point of all of this is he’s just doing vile things out of rage.”
I was entirely unsatisfied with that answer. It’s one thing to murder someone with intent, but to entirely disregard all life over a temper tantrum is a whole other level of evil.
“Do you know where Angela is?” I asked.
“She’s home, kid,” he said, pointing upward, “her time here was served. She brought you to where you needed to be. So it was time for her to return.”
The oxygen in every fiber of my being was sucked right out of my body, “oh. . .”
“Sorry, kid,” he puts one hand on my shoulder and squeezed, “but we all go home at some point. That’s just how it is.”
“Yeah.” I croaked. What was the point of even going after this thing now? The only reason I got involved was to help Angela cross over. She’s done that now.
“Listen, I know you’re probably thinking of quitting. Would you honestly want this to happen to another young lady? A child?” He asked me, gently.
“You put way too much faith in my integrity,” I shook my head, scoffing, “but no. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I’m going to finish this.”
“Good.” Michael said patting me on the shoulder.
We spent the rest of the ride in silence while Michael chain smoked. I continued to rehearse my plan and I was losing confidence with every repetition. Maim and set it on fire. Maim and set it on fire. Maim and set it on fire.
I pull up in front of the bar I had originally picked Michael up from. Since Michael was not a danger to me in the slightest, his ride ended up being free. That’s fine, I was in no position to pout about finances after the free gear to roast my sister’s killer.
Michael gets out of the car and rounds his way to my window, “You gotta lay off the Mexican food, son. It’ll kill ya.” He half-smiled and walked away.
“Thanks, Michael.” I replied, watching him walk into the bar.
I decided that this job was far too much for me. I couldn’t possibly do this. Well, not alone. I exit the Cerber app and decide to make a phone call.
“JIM?!” Borg barks into the phone.
“BORG!” I replied, attempting to match his gusto.
“HI JIM! FEELING BETTER?!” I can hear his tusks scraping the phone as he spoke.
“Yeah, Thanks Borg,” I put the backpack of arsenal in my back seat, “you feel like taking down a skinwalker with me tonight?”
“BORG HATE SKINWALKER. BORG HELP. JIM HAVE RIGHT PROTECTION? JIM STUPID, BORG HAVE TO ASK.” That gelatinous, jovial dick.
“Yes Borg,” I say, trying to remember his honesty isn’t personal, “I have silver bullets and a Molotov.”
“OKAY, JIM. ONLY FIRE KILL SKINWALKER. BORG WRESTLE FOR JIM.” I could hear whatever poor recliner he was ascending from cry out as he stood.
“Thanks, Borg. Oh and one more thing,” I add.
“YES, JIM?” Borg replies.
“Take a shit before you get into the car, please.”
* * * * * *
After I finished my call to Borg, I spent the drive steeping in my own thoughts. My heart found a new way to break as I sat in silence, knowing I likely won’t be seeing Angela again. I never questioned if she was dead or not, but I had become so subconsciously numb that I completely forgot what it was like to hurt. I was actually grateful for the pain. With every tick that increased the number on the odometer, so did my wrath. I didn’t even have the urge to stop and get taquitos. I spent ten years waiting for some sort of closure and even though I was robbed of an opportunity to say goodbye for a second time, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of completion. I know who killed Angela and I was on my way to give him a Borg beatdown, there’s no better closure. I may not be able to say “goodbye” to Angela, but I take great comfort knowing that I’ll be able to say “hello” again instead. For now, I will allow myself to hurt. It helps chip away at any fears that I may have left.
I pull up to Borg’s dilapidated ruins. Borg is outside carrying what looks like a large sword as he waddles his way up to the car. Shit, is he going to fit in the car?
“Borg, what in the holy hell do you have in your hand?” I ask as he packs himself into the front passenger seat.
“BORG BRING FALCHION SWORD. GOOD FOR MURDER SPORT!” Borg says with an infectious amount of excitement.
“You don’t think it’s overkill? I have a gun, you know.” I reply.
“JIM HAVE PITIFUL BOOM STICK. BORG HAVE REAL WEAPON. JIM JUST JEALOUS.” Borg says, hauling the ridiculous blade over his shoulder and into the back seat. I dropped the topic.
“Borg?” I swallow loudly as I continue, “You wouldn’t eat me. . .would you?”
“BORG LIKE JIM. BORG NO EAT JIM. EATING JIM WOULD BE LIKE JIM EAT DOG.” Borg says, matter-of-factly.
“You sassy bastard,” I laughed, “alright, well I’m glad that you find me too adorable to eat.” I fire back.
Letting out his booming laughter, he replies, “JIM NO CUTE. JIM JUST HELPLESS.” He laughs harder, clutching his gelatinous gut.
“Alright!” I chortle, “Are you ready to help me end this?”
“YA, JIM. BORG AND JIM GO PARTY NOW.” Borg smiles. Jesus, this is how orcs party? Ogres? I shudder to think of what a Borg bachelor party would be like.
We spent most of the ride talking about our plan and construction hacks, all while Borg sharpens his sword. I don’t think scraping this thing on a rock actually improved anything. However, I grinned at the idea of Wade suffering at the will of a dull blade.
“In five miles, take exit for Fink Road.” The GPS chimes.
Borg semi-silently lifts his head, looks at the phone, then looks at me, “NOW WE GET SERIOUS JIM.” He was trying his best to keep his voice down, but still failed.
“I know, Borg.” I said, throttling the gas.
“In a half mile, take exit for Fink Road.” The GPS continues.
I come off the freeway and start my way down Fink Road. The road is barely paved and unlit. I flip my high beams on and continue speeding my way through thick darkness. Looking behind me, I can only see a faint glow of my brake lights reflecting off of the clouds of dust kicked up behind me.
“In twenty-five miles, your destination will be on the right.”
Borg must have sensed tension and says, “JIM, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PLAN.”
“Uh-huh.” I say, keeping my eyes on the road.
“WHEN BORG SEE SKINWALKER, BORG ATTACK. BORG STAB SKINWALKER AND PIN HIM TO GROUND. JIM SHOOT SKINWALKER KNEES, ELBOWS AND EYES, IF JIM CAN AIM.” Borg says, as gently as an orc can.
“Yep, got it. Then what?” I ask, still keeping my gaze focused.
“JIM LIGHT MOLOTOV AND SMASH ON SKINWALKER HEAD. SKINWALKER WILL IGNITE. VERY FLAMMABLE.” Borg replies.
“Flammable?” I ask, puzzled.
“YES. SKINWALKER AFRAID OF FIRE, BECAUSE SKINWALKER CATCH FIRE EASY. BORG LIKE TO WATCH.” Borg lets out a creepy, thick giggle.
“That’s sick, Borg.” I nervously laugh along with him.
“In seven and a half miles, your destination will be on the right.”
I feel my knuckles whiten, death-gripping the steering wheel. I accelerate to seventy miles an hour. I am so ready for this and truly looking forward to my next burrito. If I can manage to make it out alive.
We pull up to a vacant mortuary. No one appeared to be standing outside, no lights were on and the atmosphere was entirely silent as if we were standing at zero gravity.
Borg reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a pair of glasses, taking great care not to scratch the lenses.
“Great,” I say, “I’m armed with weapons I’ve never used and my backup is a handicapped Ogre.”
“BORG NOT OGRE! BORG ORC! JIM HAVE HANDICAP MOUTH!” He barked at me.
“Alright, I’m sorry. I’m just nervous, I guess.” I reply.
“IS OKAY, JIM. PLEASE FOCUS.” Borg replies with sincerity and confidence.
I keep my headlights on and stare at the front door of the mortuary, waiting for this thing to emerge. I almost missed Wade walking out from behind the left-hand side of the building. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit, slicked jet black hair, bronzed complexion and a fairly young face. Michael said he was around 150 years old, but he looked like he was in his early twenties. He stood grinning at me, locking my gaze. Borg and I look at each other, nod and get out of the car. I swing the backpack over my shoulder and Borg does the same with his falchion sword. We begin towards Wade at a cautious pace as he glides towards us, entirely unfettered by our preparedness.
We all stop walking once we’re about ten feet away from each other and I say, “Wade?” My voice was about as smooth as gravel.
Wade opens his arms as if to embrace, “Jim!” Both Borg and I put one leg back, bending our knees to receive an attack. Wade puts his hands up and lowers his head slightly, “Alright, you don’t trust me. That’s probably wise on your part.”
“I learned a little bit about you.” I start in with my infamous false confidence, “That you’re a skinwalker and not even your own tribe wants anything to do with you. Did you get caught strangling the family pets?” I finish, satisfied with that low blow, which I could see ticked him off.
“No, not for strangling family pets,” he started pacing, circling. I didn’t see Borg flinch, so I tried to relax as much as possible. I trust that Borg will lead when it’s time to move, “I can see that you’re not entirely certain what a skinwalker is, or you wouldn’t be asking me such a foolish question. That’s your first mistake.”
“Trust me pal, I’ve made many mistakes before this one. Pretty sure a kelpie popped that cherry for me.” I reply with cool ease.
“Right,” he rolls his eyes, “well, a skinwalker is essentially a Navajo medicine man that’s succumbed to dark magic.”
He looks up at us, as if expecting some weird withdraw or newfound fear. I’ve met quite a few beings who could decimate this freak.
When Wade doesn’t receive his desired reaction, he continues, keeping his hands behind his back and standing up straight, “Medicine men have been known to live far beyond the normal expiration of a human. However, medicine men who insist on using dark magic to assert themselves in war? That is greatly frowned upon. My tribe couldn’t handle my ideologies, so I was cast out and you know what? It’s been the most liberating experience I could have been gifted. I roam as I please, I live as I please and I kill as I please.”
“Gross.” I reply, my blood boiling. Borg remains stoic and silent, fixated on our target. He looks so damn cool right now.
Wade gets impatient, “Child, you will either worship me or fear me. The only other option is death.” He sneers, his voice starting to gurgle. I’m guessing this is his rendition of wolfing out.
“I didn’t come here with silver bullets and an orc to join your shit show religion, Wade.” I yell at him. Years of frustration, pain and despair have led me to being absolutely fearless and angry. “I came here to annihilate you for your crimes against humanity, particularly against my sister. I have literally ghost-toted legendary entities that would serve you up on a slice of toast before a morning run. You’re just a well-preserved human with magic tricks.” I reply with searing vitriol.
This does him in, I finally touched the nerve.
“You will respect me!” He screams in his watery voice. It sounds like something is bubbling up from his throat. His skin begins to turn bright red. I don’t mean his cheeks, every exposed portion of his skin is turning red. I can see Borg bracing for something. In turn, I do the same.
“Looks like the tea is on. Come at me, bitch.” If those would have been my last words, that would’ve been epic.
The skin and clothing begins to melt from Wade’s exterior, revealing a dark shade of espresso. I could hear his bones crack and his limbs disjoint until he drops onto all fours with his head down. His roar could only be described as a puma’s with the bass cranked all the way up. Once Wade was finished transforming, he slowly lifted his head and that’s when I finally felt dread in his presence. Half of his face was occupied with a lipless mouth adorning large, pointed teeth. He had small, black eyes fitted just above his shapeless nose and long black hair that went down to his waist. I watched his chest heave and fall with every breath as he stared straight at me.
Borg snaps into action and darts after Wade, raising his falchion, accidentally smacking me in the face with it. I hit the ground and yelp out like a wounded coyote, holding my face in efforts to quell the ringing in my ears.
Borg turns around, still holding his sword up high, “JIM?!” In a flash, Wade tackles Borg right into the car with enough force to cave the driver side door in. Broken glass rained on top of them as they struggled. Wade sunk his massive teeth into Borg’s shoulder, causing Borg to scream and release his grip to favor his new wound. As I squint in their direction, I notice Borg trying to get on his feet while Wade starts speed-crawling towards me. I panic and start scurrying backwards, trying not to look away from this horrifying psycho, spider sprinting in my direction. In my sad attempt to back away, I realize that I’m nowhere near my weapons. Fucking oops.
I hear Borg stumbling his way towards us, falling to his knees every so often, undoubtedly from the pain. I just had to stall this thing for a few seconds to allow Borg to catch up. Wade jumps on top of me, sitting on my stomach and squeezing my throat with both hands. He laughs in a very moist, deep and devious manner while I try clawing at his arms for release. It simply wasn’t working. I could hear Borg getting closer, breathing heavy and clearly struggling. I have to do something.
That’s when I remembered grabbing the iron nail that Borg had gifted me. I quickly shove my hand into my pocket, feeling the cold, rough surface of the nail. I yank it out of my pocket and slam it right into Wade’s neck, causing him to release his grip and reach for the nail. In that split second, I wiggle from underneath him. Borg grabs Wade by the hair and slams him onto the ground. Borg treated Wade like a ragdoll and kept swinging him around until Wade could no longer move, entirely immobilized and worn out. Borg slammed Wade into the dirt, shoving his falchion through his chest and burrowing the other end into the ground beneath him, pinning him in place.
“JIM, GET MOLOTOV.” Borg says with exhaustion.
I fumble my way to the backpack, pulling out the anarchist’s grenade, and run over to Wade’s body. What’s really creepy is he was still breathing even with the blade buried deep into his chest. He didn’t bleed either, like some sort of sentient corn husk doll.
I stand over Wade’s body and light the Molotov, watching him look up at the sky. He had nothing to say and no fight left to offer. I very nearly felt sorry for him. I raise the Molotov above my head and slam it right into his stomach. His whole body engulfed in a matter of seconds in soft chartreuse flames. Borg and I both dropped and sat in silence, panting from expulsion of adrenaline and newly acquired pain.
“Are you alright?” I ask Borg through breaths.
“BORG FINE.” He replies, shifting his weight.
“Thank you, Borg. I couldn’t have done this without you.” I try really hard not to tear up, but since Borg and I have already crossed the threshold of leaking bodily fluids a long time ago, I allowed myself to sob.
“IS OKAY , JIM,” Borg says, gingerly hugging me about as gently as a rusty bear trap, “WADE GONE. NOW JIM CAN HEAL INSIDE.” He finishes, patting me on the back.
I limp over to the car to retrieve my phone and realize I have thirteen missed calls from Adeline. Here we go. I call her back and she picks up in the middle of the first ring, “Jim?! Are you alright?!”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks to Borg, of course.” I reply.
Adeline lets out a sigh of relief and says, “Thank goodness. Is Borg okay?”
“Yeah, we need a ride though.”
“What happened to the company car you had for a grand total of six hours?” She’s furious. So much for being worried about my safety.
“Well, the driver side got crushed in the middle of our dispute.” I reply, wincing at my own words.
She lets out a snort and says, “Alright, I’m sending a car after you two.”
“Thanks, Adeline,” I reply. “After this, you won’t be hearing from me anymore. I don’t think I can work for Cerber any longer.”
“Think again, Jim,” she says with a maniacal tone, “You now owe me a car. I’ve already ironed out the kinks with your own car, but you’re going to stay on with Cerber and regain enough funds to cover the damage of the one you borrowed. Once you repay me for this car, only then will we talk about releasing you from Cerber. Do you understand me?” She huffs.
“I guess,” I reply with defeat.
“Good. I’ll allow you one week to recover, but then I expect you to be accepting rides immediately after. Oh, and watch your mouth. I’m getting complaints about your attitude from the clients.” She finishes.
“Yeah, okay. Sorry, Adeline,” I say, rolling my eyes.
“Wonderful!” She replies in her signature, bubbly tone, “Get well soon, Jimmy boy! Thank you for being a loyal employee at Cerber!” The line clicks and dies.
Estimated reading time — 6minutesThere’s a small village out in Alabama called Saint’s Glen. You won’t find it on any map, at least not since 1965. But you can still find the remnants of the town. If you follow the river southwest of Thomasville, you’ll find it, somewhere in the woods between Jackson and the state line. The highways never ran through this town, and most of the wood from the buildings came from the nearby trees. It was a small commune for a Christian sect – or cult, as most people would call it – led by a firebrand preacher called Pastor Norton, though most of his following simply called him “the Pastor.”
Most of the buildings have long since been destroyed by the forest’s rapid regeneration, but there’s one building that remains almost completely untouched, and that’s the Pastor’s church. Most of the people who used to live in Saint’s Glen have either died or been committed to psychiatric institutions. I was able to find one woman, who was only a little girl at the time, to tell me what happened the day the town fell apart. Her name is Mary, and she is a middle-aged woman now, in relatively good mental health, but who, sadly, is not long for this world. She does not appear bothered by my inquiries; in fact, she seems to welcome it. She says that she must tell me her story – before it is lost forever.
It was on a foggy Sunday, she begins, in the middle of June, 1964. The congregation had gathered together inside the church. She starts to describe the church to me, but I stop her and show her the photographs I have of the place. She gasps at the sight of them and refuses to look, except to confirm that I have the right building. In the pictures, two lined rows of pews fill the hallway, and on an elevated platform are a podium and an old metal washtub used to perform baptisms. Behind the podium stand a wooden cross and two large stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.
Mary refuses to continue until I put the photographs away, so I slide them into my briefcase and she resumes her story.
Pastor Norton had filled the tub for a baptism, but no baptism was due. Every member of the community had already been baptized – except for Mary. The Pastor smiled and said that she would be baptized at the end of the sermon and their “family” would be complete.
Just then the Pastor noticed a man sitting in the back row on the left side, only a few pews behind Mary. He was wearing a suit, but it was torn and dirty. His hair was matted and beaten and there appeared to be dirt running all through it. His face and hands were equally filthy. The Pastor looked down on this man and shouted.
“You do not belong in here until you wash that filth from your body and dress appropriately in the eyes of our Lord!”
The man said nothing in return, but stood up and walked out of the chapel. The pastor continued his sermon, but made sure to throw in a comment about how our bodies are temples and that we must treat them as such, especially when entering a house of the Lord.
The congregants sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and then the Pastor continued onto his next lecture, this time speaking about the decadence of society and how the knowledge of man was foolishness unto God.
And then the man appeared again, same battered suit, same dirty face and hair. This time he was sitting about halfway up the left side pew, directly behind Mary. She could smell the dirt and detritus, and when she looked into his eyes, she noticed they were somehow empty, as though all the color and life had drained from them. He did not look at her, but kept staring intently up at the Pastor.
The Pastor again took notice of the man, and stopped his sermon once more.
“Did I not tell you to clean yourself up? This is a church, child! A house of God!”
Again the man said nothing, but turned away and left the chapel. The congregation sang Nothing but the Blood and gathered for communion. Mary smelt that stench of the earth again, and noticed that standing a few pews in front of her was the same man. He had still not cleaned himself, and when the Pastor stopped by his pew to deliver the wine, he erupted in anger.
“Have you a need to cleanse yourself, sinner!?” the Pastor screamed. “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, and this I say you have forgotten!”
The man said nothing, but he did not move this time.
“Are you deaf, son? Mute? Did you not understand that we are a gathering of the Lord’s people?”
The man said nothing and remained seated.
“What is it then? Do you want to be baptized?”
The man nodded.
“Very well then,” the Pastor sighed. “We will baptize young Mary first. Then we’ll baptize you.”
The man put his hand on the Pastor’s wrist and shook his head. The Pastor grew increasingly nervous as the man raised his free hand and pointed to the steel tub.
“V-very well. We’ll start with you,” the Pastor said, lifting the man up. They both walked to the edge of the tub.
The congregation began to sing Amazing Grace as the tub was filled with water from a garden hose. The man stepped into the tub and took the Pastor’s hand.
“Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” the Pastor shouted.
The man nodded.
“Do you accept his commandments?” the Pastor shouted.
The man nodded.
“Do you feel the weight of your sin?” the Pastor shouted.
And then, the man spoke in a raspy, hollow voice. “Do you?”
In a swift motion, he grabbed the Pastor by the neck and dragged him down into the tub. A few members rushed up to help their leader, but when they reached the platform and looked down into the tub, all that remained inside was the water.
* * * * * *
At this point in her story, Mary pauses and looks around the room nervously. She explains that after the man came to visit that Sunday, some of the congregants broke into the Pastor’s house. They found a pair of his boots and a coat that were still covered in the same dirt that had covered the man, as well as a recently used shovel. They also noticed that the bumper of the man’s car was dented and covered in blood, though it appeared that he’d tried to scrub most of it off and had hidden his car under a tarp.
It didn’t take long to figure out what must have happened. On one of his trips into the city to buy some supplies, the Pastor must have hit a traveler on the road. Rather than get the police involved, he simply took it upon himself to bury the man out in the woods, and he tried to pretend as though nothing had happened. Given the physical evidence, the incident must have occurred just a few days prior.
At that point the people had no choice but to call the police. They found the man’s body after a few days of searching. He was wearing the same suit and had the same hollow, lifeless eyes as the man who’d come to visit them that Sunday…but his body was soaking wet.
After that event the town started to fall apart, and all the members of the Pastor’s church began to disappear one by one. A few died during their move, and others were found out in the woods a few weeks later. Those that did survive were now mad, with the exception of Mary. She is convinced that because she was not baptized, she was spared from the curse.
We conclude our visit. I reach for the photographs again to study them further and Mary hastily flees from the room. I study the picture of the wash tub used for the baptism, and something catches my eye. There is a slight distortion in the picture near the right side of the basin. I pull out the negative that I have of the image and hold it up against the light. The cause of the distortion is a bit clearer in the negative itself.
I burned both the photograph and the negative, and I will not print them in the book I intend to publish.
Believe me, though, when I say that I saw what gave Mary such a cause for alarm at the photographs. Hanging onto the edge of the basin were two pale hands, clawing to get out of the tub.
“They say the tree bleeds when you peel off the bark.”
Liz’s eyes flickered in the orange light. Her lips curled into a small smile, as if she enjoyed that particular detail.
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way a tree could bleed,” Tucker said, yanking his burning marshmallow from the fire.
“There are photos, though. I’ve seen them all over Instagram. Bright red blood, oozing from the bark.”
“It’s supposed to be the blood of Monstruo’s victims,” I added. “The legend goes, the tree absorbed all the blood spilled at its roots. Now instead of sap, human blood pumps through its veins.”
Tucker let out a peal of laughter. “Absolutely not! That’s ridiculous. Come on, you guys were in my Biology class. You know there’s no way human blood is pumping through the xylem and phloem –”
“It’s true,” Liz said, shooting him a glare.
“You know what? I bet the whole thing is a myth. I bet Monstruo himself didn’t even exist.”
I glanced at the tree. It stood in the shadows, several yards behind us. Blackened bark. Leafless branches. A sore thumb in the forest.
The Hanging Tree. Or el árbol del ahorcado, as some of the locals called it.
“It’s nothing more than a tourist trap,” Tucker continued.
“A tourist trap only the locals know about? Doesn’t make much sense to me,” I said.
Tucker sighed. “You know what I mean.” His marshmallow fell into the fire with an unceremonious plop. “It’s an urban legend to tell around campfires like this one. A spooky haunted tree. The legend of a perverted, cannibalistic killer. It sounds like the plot to a Stephen King novel. I guarantee you — Monstruo wasn’t real.”
“He was real. Every single person in this town who’s old enough to have seen it, says it happened.” I glanced over at him. “And this tree is where he hung his victims’ bodies.”
Tucker laughed. The sound echoed off the trees, making it sound like a chorus was laughing with him. “Yeah, and those same locals just call him ‘Monstruo.’ The Spanish word for ‘monster.’ If he’s real, why don’t they call him by name?”
“Because they don’t want to give him the dignity.”
It was Liz speaking, now. The smile had faded from her face. She scooted closer to the fire; the black shadows faded from her face. “He did such terrible things. Referring to him by name would only glorify that.”
“That’s a clever lie. But it doesn’t fool me.”
I shifted closer to Tucker, who was plucking another marshmallow from the bag. “Come on, Tucker. Ever notice how this part of town is basically abandoned? And no one ever builds on the empty lot a few feet over, even though it’s dirt cheap?” I laughed. “The things Monstruo did are so terrible, even money won’t get anyone near it.”
“So terrible. So, so terrible. That’s what I keep hearing. Yet, funny how I’ve never heard any details or facts.”
“You want facts? I’ll give you facts. He killed 17 men, women, and children. And you do a hell of a lot of disrespect to those people, when you claim he didn’t exist.”
Liz nodded, her dark eyes glancing at Tucker.
“Look, I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I just –”
“I’m not done.” My voice cut through the cold air like a knife. Tucker jumped. “He didn’t just abduct and kill those people. It was a lot worse than that.”
Tucker’s marshmallow burned and crackled. Liz shuffled her feet across the dry leaves.
“He led each victim, blindfolded, to the tree.” I glanced down from their faces, and into the blinding flames. “Then he killed them, and strung their bodies up in the tree as if they were trophies to show off.”
Liz’s eyes shone brightly in the orange glow. She wiped her sleeve across them.
“And then he eviscerated them.”
“Oh,” Tucker said, softly.
“Then he took them back to his house. But not before he removed their right shoes — and added them to his creepy-ass memento box. And then… do I have to say it?” I asked. The pillar of smoke billowed up between us, shrouding Liz and Tucker in a gray veil.
“He ate them,” Liz whispered to him.
“Oh, come on! What a load of nonsense.” Tucker stood up and rolled his eyes. “I can guarantee you, there is not a shred of truth in that story. No Monstruo, no cursed tree. Someone probably just made it up on the internet.”
“You just think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
He laughed, blowing on the blackened marshmallow. “Yeah, you bet I do.”
“Then how about this? The day after Monstruo died, the tree died. Then all the foliage, within a few feet of it. Nothing grows there to this day.” I gestured to the tree, barely visible from our spot near the campfire. “You can’t deny that, Tucker. You can get your lazy ass up and see it for yourself.”
Tucker didn’t reply.
“Go on. Look at it,” Liz said. Her smile was back. “Or are you too scared?”
Tucker grumbled and turned around. “I can see it from here. And you’re right — but, obviously, the tree died because everyone peeled off its bark.”
“Okay, so that’s why the tree’s dead, maybe. But what about the fact that nothing grows around it?”
“The tree’s roots probably choke everything out. Or the soil’s too compacted, from all the teenagers visiting and stomping it down.”
“Right. Let’s talk about those teenagers.” I smiled, leaning closer to the fire. My face grew uncomfortably warm. “They climb it, decorate it, make out under it –”
“Hang effigies from it,” Liz added. Even now, a stray piece of rope hung from the lowest branch, swaying in the wind. I tried not to look at it.
“Yeah. And do you know what happened to those teenagers?”
“Adrian Keller climbed it to take a selfie. A month later, he was committed to a mental hospital because he violently attacked his mother.”
“Okay, so? He was probably crazy before he even saw the tree.”
“I’m not done yet,” I snapped. “On a fine Wednesday afternoon, Greg Patel skipped school to hook up with Aria Stewart underneath the tree. She got pregnant — and, months later, miscarried something so terribly deformed, the doctors refused to call it a fetus.”
Tucker didn’t have a snarky reply for that one.
“And Sidney Taylor. Let’s talk about her. After hanging an effigy from the tree, she started sleepwalking. At first, she’d wake up under the tree. Then she’d wake up in neighbors’ lawns. Finally she woke up in one of their houses — surrounded by a pool of blood and two corpses.”
“That’s enough,” Liz muttered. “He gets the point, you don’t need to repeat it –”
“She’d taken off the right shoe of each corpse and stripped them naked. And each one… each one was missing large chunks of flesh. When doctors pumped her stomach, they found –”
“John, okay! You’ve made your point!” Liz snapped.
A thick silence fell over the three of us.
Finally, Tucker said: “I still don’t believe it.”
“So touch the tree, then,” Liz shot back. “We’ll write you at the sanitarium, we promise. Right, John?”
I raised my eyebrow at her.
“Fine. I will.” Tucker heaved himself up off the ground. With heavy footsteps, he started into the darkness.
“Shoot. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. Wait! Tucker!”
I followed them through the trees. Soon enough, the three of us were standing before the Hanging Tree.
Swaths of bark were peeled off, and a thick sap — almost blood-like — oozed from the wounds. The bits of rope swayed in the wind. Initials and hearts were carved all over the bark that was still intact. I noticed a faint marking that read Greg+Aria, near the roots, and my heart dropped.
“Tucker, please, don’t do it.”
Tucker stood on the border of the dead circle — where the weeds and shrubs dwindled into sticks, leaves, and rotten mud. His arm was stretched out, fingers inches from the trunk.
“Tucker. I was just joking. Don’t do it.” Liz tugged at his sleeve.
“Relax, Liz. It’s just a tree.”
Of course, Tucker was going to do it, now. He’d always had a crush on her. No way he’d pass up this chance to impress her and be some sort of macho man.
“Tucker, please, don’t.” Liz looked at me expectantly, as if she expected me to dissuade him. I was silent. “Come on, let’s just go to sleep. This whole idea was dumb.”
“I want to touch the tree, Liz.” Tucker took a step forward. “I want to prove to you I’m right. That this whole thing is an elaborate hoax.”
He took another step forward, arm outstretched.
Liz grabbed his shoulders.
But it was too late.
His fingers pressed into the bark. When he pulled them back, rust-red sap covered them.
Liz stepped forward, eyes brimming with tears. “No. This is all my fault. Now you’re going to go crazy and kill people and –”
“Get a hold of yourself, Liz,” Tucker said. “It’s just a tree. And a dead one at that.”
The three of us walked back to the tent in silence. Tucker handled the fire; I cleaned up a bit around the campsite. By the time I got inside, Liz was already asleep — only her messy hair poked out from the sleeping bag.
I opened my own sleeping bag, snuggled in, and closed my eyes.
* * * * * *
I jolted awake.
For a second, I couldn’t place where I was. It was cold, colder than I’d remembered it being that evening. I fumbled through the darkness for my cell phone.
The light from my phone lit the inside of the tent. I saw Liz, sleeping peacefully in her bag. Her mouth hung slightly open, a wet spot of drool on her pillow.
The other sleeping bag was empty.
“Tucker?” I said. Softly, at first.
“Hey! Tucker!” I called. Liz stirred next to me.
I slowly stood up, careful not to rustle the sleeping bag too loudly. With one hand, I peeled back the entrance of the tent.
Everything was pitch black.
I pressed the flashlight button on my phone. It lit the clearing in a bright, white glow. The charred remains of our campfire; depressions in the dirt, where we’d left our folding chairs.
And in the distance — a silhouette. Standing right under the tree, facing away from me.
“Tucker?” I shouted, running towards him. I stopped a few feet away; he didn’t turn around. “Tucker, are you okay?”
Silence — save for a schlick, schlick sound.
I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tucker, what –”
The entire tree was covered in carvings. Hundreds of them. All in Tucker’s handwriting, all of the same word:
“Tucker! Hey! Are you okay?”
As if waking from a deep sleep, Tucker jolted and glanced around. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.” He glanced at the trees. “Why am I out here?”
“Doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s get you back to the tent.”
I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.
* * * * * *
Liz and I were incredibly worried about Tucker. But days, and then weeks, passed without incident. We began to believe that the Hanging Tree really was just a tree, and he was right all along.
Until that fateful Saturday night.
I was sitting in my house, eating a late dinner alone, when someone knocked on the door.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
I jolted upright. “Who’s there?” I yelled, glancing at the deadbolt. Locked.
“It’s me! Liz! Open up!” Her voice warbled with emotion.
My heart sank. Something was terribly wrong. “Liz, are you okay?” I called, as I hurried to the door.
“I’m okay. Just open the door, John. I need to tell you something.”
I grabbed the doorknob. Yanked it open.
Tucker stood next to Liz on my porch, smiling. The barrel of a gun poked against her skull; he slowly turned it, so that it pointed at me.
“I’m so sorry,” Liz said to me, starting to sob. “I didn’t want to. But he said he’d shoot me if I didn’t. I panicked… I’m so, so sorry.”
Tucker motioned for me to step forward. “Come on, John. Or are you scared?”
“Okay. Okay. Calm down, I’m coming.” I held up my hands and stepped into the cold. Tucker grinned.
“In the car,” he said. “Backseat. Both of you.”
I climbed into the backseat. Liz cried against my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she kept repeating, over and over.
I felt numb. Like I was watching a terrible movie, watching s scene unfolding in front of me, utterly powerless to stop it.
The car tore through the night. My shoulder hit the door, hard, as we made turn after turn. “Where are you taking us?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible.
He didn’t reply.
But I didn’t have to wonder long. Soon enough, I saw the empty lot approaching. The forest rose up behind it, shrouded in shadow.
“You’re taking us to the Hanging Tree, aren’t you?”
Silence, save for Liz’s soft sobs.
He drove right across the empty lot, through the weeds and shrubs. We skidded to a halt at the forest’s edge. “Out,” Tucker grunted, as he swung the door open.
We trudged through the forest in silence. My feet rhythmically crunched the dry leaves and sticks with each step. Like a clock, ticking down to the moment of our death.
We stopped in front of the blackened tree. Its branches twisted and crossed the indigo sky. A cold wind blew; the shreds of rope swayed.
“Stand over there,” he commanded Liz.
“Why are you doing this?” she cried.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing, Liz. He’s sleepwalking.”
“I’m not sleepwalking.” Tucker snapped towards me, his blue eyes wild and dark. “I’m not doing this because some cursed tree infected me. I’m doing it because two of my friends betrayed me.”
“What are you talking about?” Liz shouted.
“Oh, come on. What do you think I am? Some kind of an idiot?” He reached into his bag and pulled out a length of thick rope.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t act so innocent!” he spat. “You and Liz have been hooking up behind my back for weeks, when you knew I was in love with her!”
“That’s not true,” Liz said, softly.
“Oh, don’t deny it. And then you take me for some kind of idiot just because I don’t believe in a cursed tree! What kind of friend does that?”
He grabbed me roughly by the waist. In one swift, strong motion, he looped the rope around my shoulders. “A fitting punishment for a fitting crime, don’t you think?”
I tried to wriggle free. I thrashed and kicked and shouted. But Tucker, standing six inches taller, had all the leverage. I didn’t have a chance.
After fumbling with a knot, he looped the rope over the lowest branch and tugged. My feet left the ground. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I was hoisted up the tree. The blackened, leafless branches came closer into view.
And then I noticed the scratches.
Hundreds of them. White like scars, covering the bark. Desperate. Anguished. Human.
“Monstruo didn’t hang dead bodies from this tree,” I muttered. Liz looked up at me, eyes wide.
“He hung them alive.”
I tore my eyes away from the bark. Below me, Tucker was looping the rope around Liz. She wasn’t crying anymore; instead, she was thrashing. Kicking. Fighting.
But she wasn’t strong enough. Moments later, she was hanging next to me.
Tucker dragged his bag over the ground. With a zip, he pulled it open and reached inside. A steel knife glinted in the moonlight. Then he walked over to us.
First he gently pulled off my right sneaker.
Then he pulled off Liz’s boot.
“Please. Tucker, don’t do this!” Liz pleaded, one last time.
I remained silent. Instead, I wriggled against the rope. Jumped. Thrashed. Tried everything in my strength to get free.
The rope began to loosen.
Liz met my eyes. I tried my best to make a face at her, to signal what I was doing. Catching my drift, she put our plan into action. “Tucker, listen. I’ve only ever liked you. Not him.” She forced a smile. “Look at me, Tucker. I’m telling you the truth.”
He took a step towards Liz, and, finally, tilted his head up to look at her.
I fell to the ground, charged, and tackled him. After getting in a few good punches, I leapt up and pulled down Liz’s rope.
“We need to call the police,” Liz said, latched onto my arm. “We need to –”
Tucker collided with her.
The scene played out before my eyes as if in slow-motion. Tucker grabbed her by the wrists. He dragged her across the mud. In one frenzied motion, he pressed her hands against the tree trunk.
I leapt at them. But it was too late. Liz was shrieking, looking at her hands. They were covered in sticky red sap.
“I touched it! Oh, my god, I touched it!” she cried out in disbelief.
“Come on, let’s go!” I cried, grabbing Liz’s wrist and yanking her towards the lot. “We need to go!” Tucker was already reaching for the knife, his face twisted in an expression of anger.
“Liz! Come on!”
We ran through the forest, through the empty lot, and into the night.
* * * * * *
That night, Tucker was arrested for assault. The following morning, they found his cellmate dead, on the floor, lying n a pool of blood. Missing chunks of flesh.
Liz started sleepwalking a week after the events. She committed herself to a mental institution the next day. We exchange letters sometimes, but I don’t think she’s ever going to leave that place.
So that’s my experience with the Hanging Tree. And, listen — I’m not telling you this tale to scare you. I’m telling you because I need your help.
A week ago, builders broke ground on the empty lot. As we speak, they’re cutting down bits of the forest — including the Hanging Tree.
To build a daycare center.
Toddlers and caregivers will be on that cursed ground. Learning, playing, growing. Utterly unaware of the darkness that once stood in its place.
Maybe everything will be fine. But if Tucker and Liz are any indication, it won’t.
I’ve called everyone on the city council; I’ve spoken to the mayor. I’ve tried getting through to the daycare company. I’ve even tried protesting in the streets.
Nothing helped, and no one believed me.
So now I’m telling you.
If you live near El Bosque, Texas, do everything in your power to put a stop to it. If enough people complain, maybe they’ll get discouraged and give up.
If not… well, I won’t be here to see it. I’ve done my part, and I’ve got enough blood on my hands already. I’m leaving town tomorrow.
Estimated reading time — 15minutes“Damn, Valentine shit already?” I asked my friend Gabriel as we were walking inside a Wal-Mart post Christmas.
“Yeah, bro, and it’s still December. It’s like they’re completely ignoring the months in between the other months that have major holidays.”
“True, true, annoys the shit out of me though, you know?” My friend nodded and we walked curiously around the isles filled with red hearts, very large stuffed animals and boxes of chocolates and candies saying the cliché messages “I Love You,” “Be Mine,” and the like.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday; I just wish they’d just start selling all of this stuff like in late January. At least a month, you know, at least a month of planning is all you need to plan for the epic Valentine’s Day, and that’s just for the people that are going to go all out. Me? I’ve wanted to do something not just for me, but for my best friend and his girl, and honestly anyone seeking for love on that special day, but I just never knew what to do, until just recently.
Let me catch you up to speed. Have you heard of the Valentine House? It’s known to be one of those well-hidden B&B’s in the middle of nowhere, where couples go to spend their romantic company together. Unfortunately, it’s been said that crazy shit happened there, and the owner died of a heart attack as a result. I guess he couldn’t handle the stress and the accusations placed on him. Anyway, after that point, it was considered abandoned, and unfit to be placed as the number one hotel for lovers, until just recently. The name of the place has been brought back by some rumors, which the place was back in business and for those that have a longing for love, that they’d be able to find it. I told Gabriel about it, and he just shrugged, thought it was complete bullshit.
“So, when are you going over there?” Gabriel asked me at the checkout line, as he was buying his girl a white and red teddy bear saying the words “I Love You Beary Much” on its chest with a chocolate rose sewn onto his paw.
“Probably within a month, the sooner I can get it over with, the better.”
“But why that place, though? Couldn’t you just rent out any other lot but that one? What if that place doesn’t even fucking exist?”
Skeptical, I raised an eyebrow and asked, “What do you mean?”
He exclaimed, “Like, even if the place is real, don’t you think anyone would want to go to a place that people would disappear or die, especially on Valentine’s Day? I just don’t want you to go missing is all, bro.”
I’m not one to believe in crazy rumors like that; how can you believe such a bizarre thing unless you find out from the source?
“I don’t know, but this place seems too good to be true, I have to at least check the place out to see if it’s real or not.”
He shrugged, “Hey, it’s your funeral, man.” We soon left the store and went our separate ways; he was heading back to his house, and for me, my apartment.
I had to prepare myself for the trip, so I decided to look for more info. Apparently it was so old or so vague that no official information was given for the Valentine House. I was about to consider giving up, until I saw a Valentine’s Day card slip under my front door. It was a couple weeks before February at the time, so it was a little too soon. I thought it was odd at first, but when I had opened it, it revealed what I needed to know. It was cryptic, but gave enough direction to understand. Fueled with anticipation, I gathered my things to start my trip, and drove to the flat lands, for I now had a date with a house, and its name was Valentine.
I lost track of time on how I’d imagine this place would look like that I didn’t realize the sun was nearly up. What welcomed me in the new morning were the flat grey land and the long black road before me. By the time I was about to crash due to exhaustion catching up to me, I saw a wooden sign, showing some letters and numbers. With nothing around to stop me, I parked near the sign to take a closer look. It was obviously rotten with age, and was also vandalized. Upon closer look, it showed the following: V, L, E, N, I, E, H, U, E, 15, M, E, and S, with someone vandalizing the sign with red saying the words “TURN BACK.”
It clicked that I was on the right track, and by unknown reason it gave me the extra adrenaline rush to keep going. As time flew by, the sky changed, and the landscape had turned from flatlands into hills, and before I knew it, I saw the one building that could be known as the Valentine House. It looked so out of place, like a pristine white mansion was smack dabbed into the middle of nowhere; busted, rusted vehicles of all types littered the front of it. The closer I got to it, the more excited I got, and it was almost to the point that I almost lost my focus on the road. I soon reached the supposed parking lot of the house, and from first glance, it seemed like about twenty cars were parked before this monument at least. I got out of my mini cooper, and prepared myself for the worst. I even held a handgun close to me if any funny business were to arise.
I reached to the door, and before I laid my knuckles to the wood, it suddenly opened before me. “Welcome to the infamous Valentine House,” a cheery old man said to me. Catching me off guard, I stammered, “Uh, hello, my name is—”
“Let me show you around,” the man said, interrupting my introduction. I nodded, and followed the man into the seemingly popular home that was both beautiful, but also mysterious.
The foyer was like the usual design and style of any typical mansion, but with Valentine fashion: heart and ‘”love” themed knick-knacks, light red walls, bouquets of roses, in shades of deep red to almost the color of blood were scattered throughout the room, but what caught my eye were the various sized frames with random couples placed throughout. I walked to a picture hanging on the wall; the frame was a bit dated, with a country themed design with red hearts on the corners, the picture being in complete black and white.
“Who’re the people in these pictures?” I asked.
The old man turned with a grin that showed he was almost too happy. “We at the Valentine House keep photos of the people who spent the day of love and romance in our rooms; each one a memoir, a souvenir, even a memento; we display them like badges of honor in this house.”
“This house seems dedicated to honoring Valentine’s Day,” I thought to myself.
“Sir?” the man asked me, breaking my train of thought. “If you would, please, follow me.” He disregarded his overjoyed demeanor as he walked slowly down the hall. I followed him, and soon, we reached to the first door of the house, revealing a golden heart on it; the number one in the center. “This room is known to be ‘The Rose Room.’”
He opened the door to reveal a hybrid room, a master bedroom with the aesthetics of a sun room. What was inside was breathtaking: the beautiful fresh, earthy smell of colored roses was overgrowing the room. The roses’ vines were spread throughout the room, attached to the walls and floor like veins and arteries to the human body; their thorns uncommonly larger than usual. What I didn’t realize, however, were two bodies in bed, constricted by the very plant that signified love; having said that, next to the heart shaped bed that laid the couple showed the most beautiful bed of roses; the dew from the sunlight that peeked through glistened, though I couldn’t tell if it was water, or something else.
“I hope you don’t mind the mess. As you can see, some of our couples tend to stay much, much longer, and we’re no people if we’re to rush love from this place.”
I wanted to press questions to him, but he already closed the door, and asked me to follow. Annoyed, but reluctantly, I shrugged, and pressed on. We soon stopped once again to another door, revealing another heart; in the middle was the number two.
“We call this ‘The Secret Admirer’s Room,’” he said, and once again, he opened the door to me, revealing what I could describe as ones desperate attempt to proclaim their love for someone. In one corner of the room, clothed skeletal remains were slumped on the floor; an open box with a shriveled organic object in one hand, a large blade of what I had to assume was glass with blood so old and dried it was flaking away from the shard in the other. By the door was another skeleton, also clothed, in the position that it was trying to escape from the grisly sight, but was unable to. “Love can be cruel to some people; for one can show the most heartfelt feelings to someone, only to be simply denied.” I wanted to look more into the room, but he closed the door, and ordered me to press on.
For each room we passed followed another abstract scene, followed by a few words of back-story from the old man, and as much as I was stunned, it kept me curious about the next room. Some of the other rooms involved a room regarding young love, showing two young children frozen in time. Another room was for lovers’ quarrel, showing a mannequin with a missing arm, with purple and red marks throughout the figure, and a paper heart pinned in its chest with a knife. Longing, Fantasy, Sweet obsessions, and even a room that was nothing but hearts; both real and artificial; as much as I wanted to go into each room, the old man prevented me from entering, so I had to look from the doors opening before he closed it.
After what seemed like hours, and looking in so many rooms, it wasn’t long before we reached the supposed final room of the tour, revealing two black doors with a much bigger heart, but instead of a number, revealed a crown shaped in red. The old man was eerily quiet when we reached to this room, but instead of asking each and every room we saw, I had to ask, “What room is this?”
“…This is the ‘Red Honeymoon Suite,’ he croaked, as he took out a key with a heart at the end to unlock the double doors before us. After the sound of a loud “click,” the doors opened themselves, revealing nothing but darkness and a smell that was a mixture of things: sterile, but also rotten; metallic, but also sweet. “Would you like to come in, and see the inside of this room?”
Out of all the rooms I couldn’t go in to, this happened to be the only one I can. Without missing a beat, I quickly walked into the dark room, where the mixture of smells grew more potent with each step I took.
I was soon enveloped in pure darkness, with the only source of light coming from the doors opening. “Close your eyes. You don’t want to be blinded by the lights,” he said. Without saying anything I did what he said, preparing for what grisly fate awaited me in this house of supposed love and death. Before I knew it, the lights came on, and what was shown had got to be the most grotesque room of all. It had the layout of a studio apartment, with the walls decorated with viscera, intestines, and skin to appear as ribbons or even wall décor. The chandelier above me had its artificial lights splattered in dried blood, with its rusted metal strands wrapped in more guts, shriveled from age. On the floor, was broken wine bottles, syringes, and dried rose petals, piled like leaves from the autumn season. Finally, before me was the exact visual of a Valentine nightmare. Dead bodies, skeletons, cadavers were nearly everywhere, clothed, unclothed, skinned and dried; some were in the California king bed, and some on the floor, some chained and attached to slings; all in sexual positions…like a macabre orgy frozen in time. It was so overwhelming, that I had to steps back, only to bump into the old man.
“The ‘Red Honeymoon Suite’ is a room specifically for those in true love; a miniature world to explore their inner, most sinful desires for one another and others.” He glared at me as if I found out about a dark secret, and he’d had to keep me quiet, but despite his look, he continued. “This room is very popular for more than just two people; in fact—”
“I’ll take it!” I didn’t mean to interrupt, but after seeing all of this, all of the sickly sweet facades of any term related to Valentine’s Day, that this was what I wanted. I wanted the entire home for not just myself, but for the future people that I bring here. This house is so sickly devoted to such a holiday, that – funnily and oddly enough – I simply love it too much to have it for just one day.
“Excuse me?” he questioned me, raising an eyebrow.
“Let me rephrase: I wish to buy this house.”
He cleared his throat. “Allow me to repeat what you’re proposing: You, sir, wish to ‘buy’ this place? You’re not here to reserve a room…?”
I shook my head. “I’m what you’d call an entrepreneur, and this place has so much history built into it. Allow me to take the reins and make this place into the best hotel, motel… hell, even a B&B, that there is.”
The man fell silent, and slowly gave a slight chuckle and then sighed, “I’m quite happy that you like this place, but I must tell you that this place isn’t for sale. The residents still reside in these halls. I’ll admit, this business hasn’t been pleasant as of late, but the people that reside here, they are what keeps this place alive. Their hearts, their emotions, their memories…”
“…Their ‘mementos?’” I asked.
“Yes, yes, you’re right; even their mementos.”
I walked around the room, my eyes scanning the hellish scene before me still, my stomach turning, my sanity dwindling away; I turned to the man once more. “Tell me, would you say that you love your job?”
The man smiled. “Why, yes, I’d still work here in this mausoleum of love, even in death. Even if there wasn’t any business here, I’d still treat this place as a world of love.”
“And you’re sure I can’t persuade you into selling this place to me?”
He frowned. “No. This place can’t be bought, and you can’t force me to sell it to you.”
I looked away from him, and I suddenly felt hot. I felt not like myself, and as I was noticing my sudden changes, the man gave me a scowl. “If you’re not here to reserve a room, then I suggest it would be best if you left.”
It was then that I had revealed my gun to him, showing the same wide grin he had shown me when I first got here. “It’s such a shame, that you’re so blinded by this damn holiday that it can make even the queen of hearts sick.” I laughed at him manically as he stepped away from me.
“Please, sir, you don’t know what you’re doing—”
I shot the old bastard in the heart as he pleaded, his body gave a loud thump as he bled out on the engraved heart on the floor.
I stared at my gun in my hand, seeing my hand tremble with adrenaline, the sudden silence started to ring in my ears, as I blew the subtle smoke from my gun. I looked at the spot where the man had died by my hand, only to see that he was gone. Not just him, but everybody that was propped was also gone, and only the remnants of rose petals and dust was there surrounding me.
“Pleasure having business with you,” I said, as I instinctively walked out of the room. I blew a kiss to the sudden emptiness of the room before closing its double doors behind me. With the old man gone, I was finally able to look in each room, only to find that each room was like the Red Honeymoon Suite: rotten, abandoned, and no bodies in any shape or form, except for the mannequin in the Lover’s Quarrel room. Each room I was able to revisit felt empty, and for each room I went into, the heavier my chest got.
I started to even question if all the things I saw was real and that I was losing my mind, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that I stumbled upon something that should’ve been exploited a long time ago, and in the end, I got my wish by stumbling upon a building that was once known as the Valentine House. I eventually made it to the foyer, and seeing the once red walls to be a gloomy grey. The knick-knacks gone or broken beyond recognition, the roses blackened and dry, and the mementos…they were all real. I saw the pictures of the unfortunate, seeing their smiling faces, from various years dating from 1938 up to 1996. I couldn’t help but feel their pain, at which I ended up sobbing on the spot. I was soon starting to debate to placing the gun I had to my head and ending it, but a heard a loud thud, bringing me back to reality, if not momentarily. It was a red book, with a white lace job. I picked it up, and I saw what had to be a registry. Flipping through the pages, I saw a folded piece of paper. I opened it, and read the contents.
“To whom it may concern: This paper shows proof of ownership of the Valentine House. Under the house name, you shall allow anyone with a broken heart to come and stay until they feel loved enough to leave at their leisure. That is the Valentine way. I should hope that my legacy will live on to be a sanctuary for those that seek love, celebrate it, cherish it, and the like. My only wish is to make people happy, as I have with my loving wife and family. ~Robert “Cupid” Valentine February 14th, 1928”
After reading what seemed to be the ownership title of the house, I felt a cold chill run down my spine. Feeling like I was being watched, I quickly grabbed my bearings, book included, and rushed to my car. Seeing the other rusted cars had also vanished, I quickly drove away from the building; it soon crumbled before my eyes. It’s as if the people that were stuck there had wished to be free by tearing the house from within. “May God wish you safe travels,” I said to myself, as I laid my eyes to the red book beside me, thinking of the souls that were dormant in that damned house.
I soon made it back to my hometown, and drove all the way to my friends’ house. Gabriel was surprised to see me so pale, and brought me inside, his girlfriend in the kitchen making cocoa. I wanted to tell him what I saw, that the house was real, and I managed to escape the devoted hell before it crumbled onto me. As soon as I sat on his couch, however, I suddenly crashed, only to wake up in the middle of the night.
I felt relieved that I was still at Gabriel’s house, and I stretched in relief. I stumbled in the dark home to find him, so I could thank him and his girlfriend for letting mmeme rest. I soon realized the house seemed quiet…too quiet.
“Gabriel?” I shouted. No answer. I reached to his room, only to find the door locked. “Hey, man, you up?” I said, banging his door.
I was starting to worry, so I shouted even more, more than loud enough to wake someone from a deep sleep,
“Gabriel, this isn’t fun—”
My heart stopped as I looked at the sudden, odd reflection in front of me. I stepped back, looked up, and to my horror, revealed a metallic heart, with the number 214 in the center. I was frantic, and banged on the door until it finally gave, only to see darkness. I flipped the switch, and I saw carnage. The fresh smell of blood came from two unidentifiable piles of flesh in the corner, and on the carpet, written in viscera, a message read: “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
In the center of that message was a teddy bear. The same teddy bear that Gabriel had bought back in December, with splatters of blood on its chest, paws, and face.
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.”
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Now when I say that it’s a small town, I mean other people from my state have never even heard of it. That being said, for such a small town it actually has a pretty dark history.
In 1927, my home town was a small village with a population of just over 300 people. The largest employer in the area, the MacMillan Textile Factory, had been built in 1922. The location was ideal because of all the available land and the town’s close proximity to the state Capital. By 1927 the factory employed 314 people from the surrounding area. May 25th 1927 started early just like every other day and the workers looked forward to the start of a productive summer, but at 8:45 am the North wing of the building exploded.
Shortly after the explosion, a man named Arthur Rentschler, a disgruntled former employee, arrived on scene. He had loaded down his pickup with dynamite and scrap pieces of metal from his farm. Eyewitnesses said he stepped out of the truck holding a rifle. When the floor manager approached him, he fired into the bed of the truck which caused the dynamite to detonate. The explosion of the truck killed Rentschler, the manager and a few other bystanders.
The fire department found another 500 pounds of un-exploded dynamite rigged up in the basement of the building and discovered that Rentschler had killed his wife and burned down his home. Investigators also discovered a sign on the property that read “Criminals are made, not born.” In the following weeks of investigation, witnesses came forward making claims that Rentschler had been complaining about a recent tax spike in order to pay for the new area school, and it was further discovered that his farm was in foreclosure. Investigators speculate that the combination of him losing his job and the tax increase may have been the catalyst for the bombing.
When all was said and done 44 people lost their lives. The news covered the bombing heavily and, in the weekend following the attack some 50,000 people drove through the town just trying to catch a peak of the carnage. Unfortunately, the story rapidly fell to the wayside due to Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight that took place 2 days later. As quickly as it happened, the tragedy, and its victims were forgotten.
But they don’t want to be forgotten, they want us all to remember, and on a balmy summer night in 2008 I learned not to forget.
It was the summer before my Senior year and I had been staying at my friend Mike’s house for the better part of a week. One night after what felt like our 1000th match of Halo 3, I was video-gamed out. I took off my headset, set the controller down, and looked at Mike. He was furiously rubbing his eyes, which, if they felt anything like mine, were on fire. “Do… do you wanna go outside for a little bit?” I asked.
“Dude, I thought you’d never ask,” Mike replied with a grin. “It’s like 2 AM, though. Where are we gonna go?”
“I really don’t care, I just can’t look at the TV anymore right now.”
We decided to take a walk through town, neither of us planned on doing anything nefarious but we both agreed that we needed some fresh air. As we walked down the dirt road Mike lived on we laughed and talked about girls, cars, the rapidly approaching football season, and all the types of things you’d expect from 2 high school seniors.
We walked past the high school, the town’s only gas station, and then down main street. As we walked in front of our small town’s only bar a few girls that had graduated our freshman year stumbled out into the street. Mike and I tried our hardest to talk a big game and impress these girls, but just as you’d imagine, neither of them could have cared any less.
Sure that we’d just ruined our only chance of any entertainment for the night, we decided to head back to his house. Our return route had us walking past the site of the old MacMillan factory and then eventually would put us in front of the town’s small cemetery. As we walked in front of the old factory grounds that had since been converted to a small park, Mike spoke.
“Why do you think he did it?” Mike asked, suddenly breaking the silence.
I turned to look at him. “Why who did what?”
“Rentschler. Why do you think he blew up the factory?”
“You know the story just as well as I do. He was pissed about losing his job and his farm, pretty straightforward, dude.”
“No way. There had to be more to it than that, people lose their jobs every day. If I had to guess, it was demonic possession, or maybe he was just insane,” Mike said matter-of-factly.
I didn’t really believe that demons had a hand in the disaster, but I felt a chill run down my back anyway. I looked ahead, saw that we were quickly approaching the town’s small cemetery, and felt that chill intensify. Most of the victims had been buried in that cemetery before their families packed up and left town and with the way our conversation had turned, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible.
“Let’s cut through the cemetery,” Mike said. “It’ll cut our walk in half if we go through it.”
I turned quickly to look at Mike. “Are you insane? I’m not walking through a grave yard at 3 in the morning.”
That’s when Mike said it, the one sentence that will convince a 17-year-old boy to do just about anything. “Don’t be such a pussy, dude!”
I groaned and said “Dammit, okay, let’s do this.”
Mike grinned at me before taking a large exaggerated step off the main road and into the cemetery. I quickly followed suit and soon we found ourselves deep in the cemetery. The cemetery itself is laid out like a giant sideways H and as such is near impossible to get lost in. Or, so I thought.
As we walked, I began to notice that the area was completely devoid of sound, save for our feet scraping on concrete. Our ears should have been being assaulted by the sound of crickets and spring peepers but instead we were completely engulfed in silence. I turned back to look at the main road we had entered from. It looked impossibly far away, much further than it should have. I turned back to Mike. “Hey, shouldn’t we have hit the turn yet?”
“I thought so. Maybe the dark is just throwing us off. Let’s keep going. We’ll either find the turn or hit the wood line.
We walked for another few minutes when I thought I saw a light moving ahead of us. I strained my eyes in the dark trying to figure out what I was seeing. “Do you see that light up there?” I asked in a hushed whisper.
Mike stopped and looked ahead. “I think so. It kinda looks like a flashlight?”
“Yea, that’s it. Is someone really out there in the woods?”
“It’s probably a ghost light,” Mike said with a shrug. “Just stay on the path and we’ll be fine.”
“What the shit? A ghost light? What are you talking about?” I asked. I stopped and waited for Mike to face me. “What the hell is a ghost light?”
Mike stopped and turned to face me, he now stood between me and the tree line and I could only make out the light if I leaned left or right.
“There’s a few different versions of the story, but the one I’ve heard the most is that the lights show up as a way to lead you off the trail or pathway in a cemetery. Once you’ve stepped off the trail, you’re in their domain,” he said as he gestured to the tombstones on either side of us. “Sometimes the lights lead you to bodies, sometimes to some kind of treasure, and other times the lights will lead you to your death.”
I shivered and swallowed hard. I leaned a little to the right and saw that the light looked closer, or at least bigger. I looked back at Mike. “Let’s get the hell out of here. It looks like that light is getting closer.”
Mike turned to look at the light. We both gasped when we realized that not only was the light closer than when we originally saw it, but it was moving straight towards us and picking up speed. I tried to run but I felt like I was cemented to the ground. The light moved in a straight line. It didn’t bounce or move like someone carrying a flashlight; it just shot straight at us. Mike grabbed my arm and snapped me out of my trance as he ran by. “Fucking run!”
I turned and started to run and soon realized that I had stepped off the path and was now sprinting parallel to the road between the tombstones. I looked to my left and saw that Mike was running in the same direction a few rows of tombstones from me.
“Mike! Run to the road!” I screamed out. Mike acknowledged me by changing direction mid-stride but suddenly he dropped. “Mike!” I yelled as I changed direction and charged towards my friend. As I approached where he had gone down, I saw him holding the right side of his face and frantically scrambling to his feet.
“Leave me dude, just go!” he panted.
“No way, come on!” I yelled as a bright light was beginning to fall all around us. I threw his arm over my shoulder and half-ran, half-carried him a few more yards before my foot caught the corner of a low headstone. Mike grunted loudly as we crashed into the damp grass. I frantically rolled over and covered my face. The light had become so blindingly bright I could no longer keep my eyes open. I felt my body tense up as the light washed over us and then… nothing. I felt nothing.
I had yet to open my eyes, but I could feel my feet planted firmly on the ground. I slowly opened my eyes and looked around. To my right Mike was doing the same. “Umm, what the fuck was that?” Mike asked.
I scanned around and realized that we were back at the front of the cemetery. I looked over at Mike who was no longer bleeding from his face, before looking down at my watch. It read 5:30 AM. Somehow two and a half hours had passed from when we had originally entered the cemetery.
“I… I don’t know, man, I think we just got chased by a ghost. I mean, I didn’t make that up… right?”
Mike shook his head. “No, that definitely just hap–”
I followed Mike’s gaze and gasped when I noticed a man in denim coveralls standing next to the closest tombstone. The man had an almost disgusted look on his face. What felt like an eternity passed as we stared at one another. Finally, the man spoke. “Why have you forgotten us? Why has everyone forgotten us?” Behind the man I saw silhouettes materializing and moving closer to us. “Please, tell our story, don’t let them forget,” the man said as he began to fade from view. One by one the silhouettes behind him faded as well, and before long Mike and I were left standing there, mouths agape.
Mike, clearly the braver of the two of us, walked back into the cemetery and looked down at the tombstone the man had been standing next too. “Robert Ames, Born September 9th, 1897. Died May 25th 19… 27,” Mike read slowly, before looking up at me. Even in the dark I could see that the color had drained from his face, and he quickly rejoined me on the road.
Neither of us spoke of the incident for months. Both of us avoided the cemetery like the plague. That is, until community day. The week before homecoming the football team “adopted” the cemetery for community day and we were expected to go as a team to clean up head stones and pick up trash. There was no real way to get out of it, so Mike and I begrudgingly went. The day went surprisingly smoothly, and I had nearly forgotten about the ghost lights and apparitions until I moved near where Mr. Ames was buried. I didn’t see anything or anyone, but I swear I heard a voice whisper, “Remember us.”
It’s been almost a decade since we saw the ghost lights, but everywhere I go I make sure to tell the story of the MacMillan Textile Factory. A tragedy like that should never be forgotten, and neither should the innocent people that lost their lives.
Reading Time: 9minutes
In a sparsely-populated German settlement, the Becker family earned their living raising and slaughtering cattle. At that time, those who called the hilly, oak and maple-dotted valley home found quality meat hard to come by. But Markus Becker and his wife Lena, along with their three sons – Lukas, Steffen, and Robert – never disappointed their customers. Year after year their fertile, rolling hills produced the largest cattle for miles around. Their delicious beef was the talk of the town each week following the Sunday farmer’s markets. The Beckers had been self-sufficient since Markus first set a plow to his many acres. One September evening in the late 1950s, however, all of that changed.
That night, the autumn air seemed thicker and cooler than usual. As the Becker children finished tending the cattle in their fields, an unseasonably cold breeze drifted over the red and yellow foliage that bordered their vast pastures. A fog rolled in with it that made the boys shudder. They instinctively crossed and rubbed their arms. The sudden drop in temperature made the cattle restless as well, so the children attempted to calm them. Moments later, Lukas, the oldest of the Becker boys, expectedly put a hand to his forehead and fell to his knees.
“Oh,” Lukas groaned, rubbing his eyes. “I’ve got the most terrible headache, just now.”
“Oh, come now, Lukas,” Steffen chided him. “We cannot finish our work without you. Now get to it.”
Lukas groaned again. He stumbled back to his feet and set himself to settling the cattle. He had just begun to help warm a few of the cattle when severe nausea overtook him. He felt his surroundings spin, and fell prostrate to the ground.
“All right, that’s enough!” Steffen said. He pulled his older brother to his feet with a jerk and shook him thusly. “What is the matter with you, Lukas?”
Lukas’s head rolled listlessly from side to side. His eyes rolled back as one long dead. Concerned, Robert stepped over and raised his older brother’s face to his own.
“Speak to me, Lukas,” Robert said. “What has come over you?”
Another gust of unpleasantly cold air swept over the trees and through the valley. Steffen and Robert trembled. At that time, Lukas’s senses returned momentarily, and he looked Robert in the eye. Then, suddenly, he fell into convulsions. The two younger brothers were terrified. They had not the slightest idea what to do.
“Steffen!” Robert shouted. “Do something!” The youngest boy prayed for relief. He could not bear the sight of his oldest brother in such a condition.
Thinking quickly, Steffen lifted Lukas into their hay wagon. He and Robert got aboard and spurred their horses home. They thought that if they rode quickly, there may be time enough to call for a doctor. Or maybe father will know what to do, Steffen imagined. Maybe he has seen this before.Robert prayed and prayed.
By the time they had reached their quaint, red-brick farmhouse, the sun had set, and Lukas was pale. The oldest boy was no longer having convulsions, but his condition had not improved. He felt cold to the touch. Beads of unnaturally frigid sweat ran from his brow to his lips before settling on his chattering teeth. Swiftly, Steffen and Robert ran to fetch their father. As swiftly as possible, they told him their tale. In a moment Markus and Lena were at Lukas’s side.
“My lord!” Markus cried when he saw the extent of his first born son’s condition. “There’s no time to fetch a doctor! Get him to bed this instant! To bed! To bed!”
Lukas and his family shared very tight living quarters. His mother and father shared a bed against the far wall of their diminutive bedroom. The children occupied a three-level bunk bed to its right. The oldest son – as was the tradition in their family – occupied the uppermost bunk. This, of course, was Lukas. Someday, when he married and set out on his own, Lukas would give up his bunk to Steffen. But tonight, since it was the easiest to reach, Lena tucked Lukas into Robert’s bed instead. Robert, of course, was not pleased.
“What if I catch what Lukas has?” Robert cried.
“This is no time to be selfish, boy!” his father replied. “Now fetch us some cool water to help with your brother’s fever!”
Robert was troubled, but always did what his father asked. So off he went.
“Steffen!” Markus cried. He pointed to an old, yellowing chair in the far corner of the bedroom. “Bring me that chair so that I might sit beside your brother. Then go to bed. There is nothing you can do now.” Steffen nodded and returned with the chair in hand. Setting it beside the bottom bunk, Markus took a seat and held his son’s hand.
As the night wore on, Markus and Lena took their turn in the decrepit old chair beside their ailing son. With each hour, Lukas’s temperature rose. His convulsions came on stronger than before. Then he began to complain of intense stomach pains. Markus and Lena held him and prayed. They wet his towel and changed his pillows. Nothing helped. Steffen and Robert, meanwhile, lay awake in the upper two bunks. They stared wide-eyed and clenched their teeth as Lukas cried and shrieked in agony.
Lukas died just before dawn. By mid-morning, Markus and his sons finished his burial. Markus then insisted that no one speak of the previous night again, and get on with their work. Steffen and Robert were still mourning when they went out to bring the cows back from the pasture that evening.
That night, the air again seemed unusually cool and thick, and as before, almost at the moment the sun sunk down over the distant hills, a chill gust swept into the valley. The cows again grew restless. They swished their tails as if doing so might fend off the sudden cold. Steffen and Robert clutched their arms and shivered. The work that night had been hard enough without their brother Lukas, and the wind had not made it any easier. Yet as they finished reining in the last of the cattle, they were comforted in knowing that they would soon be warm in their beds.
As the boys finished loading their supplies into their wagon, however, Steffen collapsed. Within moments he began shaking wildly. Robert staggered back in shock.
“Steffen!” he screamed. “Answer me!”
Steffen struggled to breathe. He appeared to be choking. Robert put a hand to his brother’s head. Steffen was burning up.
“Steffen!” he screamed again. No answer; just gasping, ragged breaths. Then their eyes met. Robert saw a look of utter confusion and horror on Steffen’s face. Robert shook his head and sobbed.
“Steffen!” he said again. “Please, answer me!”
Steffen slowly raised his gaze to meet Robert’s eyes. Then, as a breeze puts out a match, Steffen was gone. Robert was incredulous. The entire incident took place in less than two minutes. Robert watched as Steffen’s body relaxed and his expressions softened. His older brother’s unseeing eyes stared widely to the sky; his hands remained around his throat. Robert looked up from the corpse and screamed.
When Robert finally returned to the farmhouse with Steffen’s body, the hour was late. He found his parents outside anxiously awaiting their return. At first Markus and Lena were thrilled to see their sons return. Then they noticed Robert was alone. As he approached they saw his tear-streaked face – and a sheet-wrapped corpse in the rear of the wagon. Their hearts sank. For a moment, Lena thoughtfully put her hand to her mouth. Then she burst into tears.
The next morning, the remaining three members of the Becker family buried Steffen beside his brother. Robert pitched a final shovel-full of soil onto Steffen’s grave and looked to Markus.
“Father,” he asked. “What is happening to us? How will the farm survive?”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“We will do the best we can,” Markus said. “Tonight I will help rein in the cattle. Perhaps tomorrow we will hire some help.”
That night, true to his word, Markus rode out to the pastures with his remaining son and helped corral the cattle. The work was arduous, but father and son finished before dusk. They rode home and stabled the horses. But something was amiss – Lena did not meet them at the door. She’s fixing supper, no doubt, Markus thought.
The two stepped inside – and found the house silent. There was no dinner cooking. Robert and Markus did not see Lena anywhere. Robert was concerned.
“Mother!” he shouted. For a moment, there was no reply. Then, someone called from the bedroom.
“Roooooobert….” it called slowly. “Maaaaaaaaarkus…”
Robert shivered. “Mother?” he shouted again.
Again, the voice called.
“Rooooooooobert…” it moaned. “Maaaaaaaaaaaarkus…”
Robert thought it sounded like his mother, but the way it said their names scared him. Something was wrong. He knew it.
Robert and Markus darted to the bedroom. On their way, the voice called again.
“Roooooooooooobert…” it cried, drawing out their names. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaarkus…”
When they arrived in the bedroom, Markus and Robert did not see anyone at first. Then, they noticed a pale, limp arm protruding from under the covers in the bottom bunk. As they approached, it quivered.
“Mother?” Robert asked. “Is that you?”
There was no reply. Slowly, Markus pulled back the covers – and both father and son cried out. It was indeed Lena under the covers, but she looked nothing like when they had left.
The woman before them was skeletal and pale. Sweat matted her hair; her eyes were dark and sunken. Markus put a hand to his wife’s forehead – and pulled it back immediately! Her skin was so hot it threatened to burn him. He looked down at her. As she gasped to breathe, she held out a crucifix necklace. They immediately recognized it as Steffen’s.
“Mother, where did you get this?” Robert asked.
“From the bed,” she rasped. “I lay here…to pray for him.”
She coughed into her hand. When she pulled it back, she found it coated in blood. Then she too, like her sons before her, went into convulsions.
Markus clutched her hands and wept. “My wife! My wife!” he cried.
All night long, Markus and Robert sat up, taking turns sitting in the dilapidated, rusty chair beside the bottom bunk. They brought Lena food and water, raised her feet, and fanned her – but she would not drink and could not eat. With each hour, Robert and Markus watched her health deteriorate. They heard her moan and gasp for air; heard her gurgle and choke as she struggled to swallow. The whole time, they sat in the yellowing chair, listening helplessly to the horrid, horrid sounds. Then, in the early morning hours, Lena died as her sons did before her.
Markus refused to speak from that moment on. After he and Robert buried Lena, he laid in bed for days, gripping one of his wife’s dresses and muttering nonsense. On many occasions, Robert pleaded with his father to rise and help with the cattle. Markus ignored him.
“We should burn their clothing and the sheets!” Robert begged his father. “What if we become sick from touching their things?” Markus ignored him.
In a matter of days, the work on the farm became too much for Robert to handle. He was not as strong as Lukas or as clever as Steffen. He could not cook like his mother or bridle horses like his father. So Robert asked his father for some money, so that he might ride to town to hire some help. Markus ignored him. He just lay still, clenching Lena’s green sundress in his fists, mumbling and gibbering.
The next morning, Robert, concerned for his father, set out to town on his own. While there, he purchased supplies and sought a doctor. He found one man willing to ride the twenty miles to the farm that evening to examine Markus. The doctor also told Robert he was fit and healthy, news he was glad to hear. He thanked the man for his help, tipped his hat, and rode back to the farm.
Robert prepared supper the best he could and offered some to his father. As usual, Markus ignored him. So Robert bathed and ate alone. When he was finished eating, he returned to the bedroom and sat on the old chair again. He implored his father to speak to him.
“A doctor is coming, father,” he said. “Everything is going to be all right.” Hours passed. In that time, Robert somehow managed to fall asleep, uncomfortable as the chair was.
Later that night – just after dark – the doctor arrived. He was later than expected on account of his getting lost on the way. The ride to the farm was long, and as darkness set in, he could not tell one fork in the road from another. But he was there now, that was all that mattered.
The doctor strode to the front door of the farmhouse and knocked. There was no answer. Peeking through a window, he could see an oil lamp aglow in the back of the home. He knocked a second time. Again, no one answered. He tried the door. Finding it unlocked, he opened it and stepped inside.
“Is anyone home?” he called. His voice echoed in the empty kitchen. Silence. He slowly made his way back to the bedroom. As he went, he felt a mounting sense of dread. The oil lamp in the bedroom, visible from the hall, flickered suddenly, as if from a gust of wind. He took another step. The lamp flickered again – and its flame went out. In a moment the doctor could not see a thing. In fact, he did not see the bunk beds even as he walked into them. The impact startled him.
Then, he felt something brush his leg. Something cold and clammy. He stumbled back. Nervously, he clutched the pocket of his overcoat and reached within. Finding a pipe and a light, he struck a match.
A large man was sprawled across the bed, on his back, clutching a green sundress. His hair was wild; his mouth was agape and contorted as if he screamed while he died.
The doctor stumbled back and bumped again into something else, also dreadfully cold. He turned around, and he screamed.
Seated in the rusty, yellow chair beside the bed, was a young man. His body arched over the back of the chair as if in agony. His mouth was wide open. On the floor beside his left arm, which hung lifelessly at his side, was a crucifix necklace.
The doctor trembled with fear.
Then, suddenly, he felt a chill in the room. His pipe flickered, as if from a gust of wind. He took a step back. The pipe flickered again – and it went out.
Reading Time: 6minutes“911. What’s your emergency?” I said as I answered the phone.
“There’s a bat in my house.” A loud scream came over the speaker. “Send someone to come and get it. “
“Alright ma’am, I will send animal control over as soon as possible.” The caller thanked me and said she will be outside waiting. I pressed the button to dispatch the nearest unit.
I sat in my cubicle, doodling with my ballpoint pen on a piece of blank white paper. Being a dispatcher isn’t always easy. Especially in the middle of nowhere Montana with a population of 500. We get random calls about bobcats, bison, and bears coming in the front yards, teenagers prank calling because they are bored, and of course, the regular hunting emergencies. But all of this is few and far between, sometimes we can go hours without getting a call. Which makes it hard when you work the night shift alone.
“Kara?” I heard my straight-laced boss say as he came down the hallway.
“I’m here!” I yelled back, still doodling on the white paper. I could hear his staggered footsteps coming my direction.
“Oh, hey,” he said, popping his head around the corner. “I’m leaving. Do you need anything before I go?”
“I think I’m good.” I held up my now cold coffee.
“I’ll turn off the rest of the lights then. Have a great night.”
I heard the sound of the lights turning off down the hallway. It’s those florescent lights that make a buzzing sound whenever you’re under them. I hate when they get turned off, everything gets so silent. Being in this building at night all by yourself, the imagination can get the best of you.
I sat at my desk looking at the seven computer screens. On one screen, I could see exactly where the emergency responders are located at any given moment. I started memorizing the street names that in our designated area. At this time nothing was going on. It had been a very quiet night.
Taking a sip of my cold coffee, I started jotting down my grocery list for the next day. At this point the coffee was only doing so much to keep me awake at 1am. “What do I need,” I asked out loud. I wrote down that I needed chicken, vegetables, toilet paper, wine… multiple bottles of wine. I finished making my list, folding it into my jeans’ pocket.
A beeping sound started coming through my headphones meaning someone was calling in. I looked up as a name and number flashed on the screen in front of me.
“911, what’s your emergency?” I said clearly to the person on the other line.
“I need help,” a child’s voice said.
“What’s your name? What can I help you with?” I said back to the frightened young girl.
“I need help,” she said again.
I replied, “I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s wrong,” and then the phone line went dead.
Immediately dialing the number back, I waited for it to ring. But there was no dial tone and it wouldn’t reconnect. I decided to call one of the responding officers to check it out.
“Jenkins, I need you to respond to 5689 Hickory Valley Road. There could be a possible VIC. I tried calling her back but I got no answer,” I said into my headphones.
“Thanks, Kara. Hope you are having a good night all by your lonesome.” He started laughing. “What are you going to do all by yourself in that little cubicle of yours?”
“You’re an asshole. As a matter of fact, I am having a great night by myself. Keep me updated,” I said back.
I sat back in my chair looking at the right hand screen. A red dot started moving slowly towards the area where the young girl called from. Watching as it got closer and closer, I wondered if she was okay. Then the dot just stopped. This usually means the responding officer got to the location or close to it. Our map shows streets, but it doesn’t pin point the exact spot.
Waiting for Jenkins to call me back, I took another sip of coffee. I watched the clock as it slowly passed- second by second, minute by minute. I was about to ring him back when the computers lit up.
“911 dispatch, what’s the exact location of your emergency?” I looked up as the name and phone number flashed on the screen. This time I said the name out loud: Olivia Taylor.
“I tried calling you back but we couldn’t get an answer. A responding officer should be there shortly,” I said hurriedly, but in a stern manner.
“Why won’t you help me?” she whimpered. I heard her crying on the other line.
“We are trying to help you, Olivia. Someone should be there any second, I promise you. Can you stay on the line with me?” I asked while trying to get my shit together.
“Closet,” she replied. “You can find us in the closet.” I could hear another distant whimpering that wasn’t coming from the VIC on the line.
“Olivia, is there someone else there with you?” My heart felt like it was going to fall out of my chest.
“I have to go! He’ll hear me!” she cried out.
“Who will hear you, Olivia?” I managed to ask, a moment before the phone went dead again.
I looked on the map and noticed Jenkins’ spot had not moved. Growing concerned, I called him back. The phone rang and rang. Finally he answered.
“Jenkins,” he said with authority.
“Oh, thank God!” I took a second to catch my breath. My heart was pounding a mile per minute.
“What, Kara, you can’t handle being in that place by yourself? You have to call me all the time?” He tried to make a joke, but soon realized I wasn’t playing around. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I got another call from the VIC. What is your ETA?” I closed my eyes and tried to stay calm. This is part of the job requirement.
“Waiting for backup. This place is out in the middle of nowhere. The only entrance is a path through the woods too narrow for the cruiser to fit through. We have to go on foot. Should only be another couple of minutes.”
I took a look at my screen. I could see two dots moving closer to Jenkins. “Call me once you get to the property. She is hiding in the closet. I believe there is someone else with her,” I informed him.
“Thanks for the update. I’ll call you once I reach the site.” And he hung up.
I had to take a moment to decompress. I walked down the long hallway to the bathroom. As I turned on the light, it flickered to the sound of my heart beat. The familiar buzzing sound calmed me as I splashed cold water on my face. Looking in the mirror, I could tell that my color changed. The normal tan hue was now pale white and my pupils were dilated. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay, I reassured my reflection.
As I walked out of the restroom, I could hear a beeping sound coming from my headphones again. I ran to my cubicle thinking it was Jenkins giving me an update. But as I saw the name on the screen, my stomach immediately dropped.
“Olivia, I know this is you. Are you okay?” I looked at the screen with the map. “The officers are on their way. They should be there in less than a minute.” There was no response. “Are you there? Can you hear me, Olivia?”
A whimper came over the other line. “It’s too late,” she finally said. “He’s in the room. He heard me.”
“Who is in the room with you?” I asked. “Please tell me so I can let the officers know.” I took a deep breath, determined to stay calm.
“He has a gun.” I heard a door open as a loud scream came over the line. I could hear two loud rounds of popping. Then silence.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I screamed out loud, tears started rolling down my face. I knew what this meant. Just then the screen started lighting up again. This time, the name said Carlos Jenkins. I took a deep breath as I answered it.
“The VIC just called again,” I yelled into the phone. “Could have a DOA, Jenkins. You took too much fucking time.”
“How has anyone been calling you, Kara?” he asked, confused.
“Don’t play this game with me right now. Have you reached the destination or not?” I Looked at the screen in front of me.
“We reached the cabin. About a mile off the main road. I hate to tell you this, but everyone is gone.” There was silence on his end.
“Shit,” I responded, rubbing my face. The skin began to get hot from anger.
“But I don’t understand how anybody could have called you tonight,” Jenkins said. I looked up from my desk confused.”
“What do you mean?”
“We found three sets of skeletal remains. One was a male adult, presumed to be the father, and two young girls. The remains have to be at least twelve months old.” My chest grew tight and the room started spinning. I was about to pass out.
“The weird thing is,” Jenkins continued, “we found the two female skeletons in the closet. But one had a cordless phone in their hand. Trying to get help, I guess.”
Reading Time: 7minutes“So… what are we doing here?”
“We’re uh… appreciating art.”
“How do you appreciate art?”
“I think you just stand there and look at it.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Danny we’re staring at a nine foot painting of a triangle. No offense, but even your hipster girlfriend knew this was bullshit. Which is why she crapped out of going and you dragged me along.”
I blew air at my bangs from the bottom of my mouth.
“Alright,” I said. “Fuck it, let’s go get drunk.”
Jason grinned, and we started walking towards the exit.
“That’s more like it. You know that beard makes you look like a douchebag?”
“I think it looks manly. And Karen likes it.”
“Manly? Danny you look like the kind of guy who owns a special little comb for picking semen out of his beard.”
“How long did it take you to come up with that one?”
“About at long as it took you to…whoa, hold on. Look at this one.”
Jason had stopped in front of a small painting of a face.
The painting was of the bust of a woman, and looked like something out of the Renaissance. It was strangely out of place in the modernist gallery around us.
“Look at her eyes, Danny. Holy shit, I’m doing it. I’m appreciating art.”
The woman’s eyes were sky blue, and they bore a sort of dreamy expression which only seemed to enhance the strangeness of her beauty.
“It gives me the creeps.” I said.
“It looks like she’s naked. Do you think they’ve got a painting of the rest of her?”
“Seriously, it’s creeping me out. Let’s go.”
But as we turned around to go we were approached by a woman with wire rimmed glasses and hair pulled back so tight that her forehead was reflecting the gallery lights.
“Do you like this one?” She asked.
“I, uh. Yeah, my friend likes it.”
Jason was too busy ogling the painting to respond.
“Who painted it?” I asked.
“An unknown Renaissance artist. It was donated to the gallery and we display it here to demonstrate the contrast between modern and traditional forms of art.”
“Is it for sale?” Jason asked.
“You seem really taken with it.” the gallery owner smiled. “Go on and take it. Maybe it can inspire a love of art in you.”
“Wait, are you serious?” I asked.
Jason shrugged and lifted the painting off the wall.
“Come on, sexy. You’re coming with me.”
“I can’t believe you brought a painting to a bar.”
“It’s called peacocking, Danny.”
“It’s when you bring something flashy to a bar to attract the attention of women.”
“Sounds like a good idea. You want the girls to think you’re some kind of psycho, right?”
“Shit, that could work. Maybe I can hook up with one of those girls that writes letters to serial killers in prison. Besides, I wanted to look at it some more. I’ve always had a thing for green eyes.”
“Are you drunk already? She’s got blue eyes, dipshit.”
“Dude get your vision checked. This must be why you’re such a shitty driver. You think all the traffic lights are blue.”
I was about to tell Jason what a dumbass he was when a girl walked up to us and interrupted.
“Cool painting.” She said.
“It’s mine.” Jason puffed out his chest, perhaps taking the word ‘peacocking’ a little too literally.
“I really like the expression in her eyes.” The girl went on.
“So vulnerable, it’s like she’s really baring her soul.”
“Yeah,” Jason eagerly agreed. “But there’s something more, like a fierceness. It’s beautiful.”
The girl looked at the painting quizzically.
“I don’t see it.” She said.
Jason and the girl went on talking while I drained my whisky and started texting Karen that Jason had met a girl and was ignoring me again. He was always like this around pretty girls. He said he fell in love at least twice a day. Eventually they went off to her apartment and I went home to the dorm.
I woke up on the couch the next morning with a splitting headache. Jason must have gotten home last night some time after I passed out, because his coat was on the rack. As I became more aware of my surroundings I noticed a powerful burning smell. I jumped up and saw smoke billowing out from the oven.
“Jason, you fucking idiot.” I grumbled.
This wasn’t the first time he’d stuck a pizza in the oven and then passed out before it was done. I switched off the oven and went to pound on Jason’s door.
“Hey, wake up numbnuts. You nearly burned us alive again last night.”
“What a lazy fucker.”
I turned the knob and saw that he was still in bed, but obviously awake.
“Hey idiot,” I said.
“Get up and clean the-” but the words died in my throat.
As I got closer I saw the black pool of blood that had spilled from his mouth. His eyes were wide open and still.
I ran over and shook him, but he was already ice cold. When the ambulance got their they took him away in a bag. They asked me if I knew what had happened but I couldn’t answer. I just kept going over the same thing in my mind. Jason had brown eyes, I was sure of it. But when I found him lying there, in a pool of his own blood, his eyes had been green.
The next week was a blur for me. I numbly floated through the days. People’s consolations and pitying looks were just mundane platitudes that could not reach me. The university held a memorial service for Jason. They printed out a big version of the picture from his student ID and placed it next to the arts building so people could come and pay their respects. I went the long way around the building to avoid seeing it. I didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened. But I couldn’t hide from it forever- after class on Friday there was an urgent knock on my door, and when I opened it Karen was standing there looking upset.
“I tried calling you.” she said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m surviving I guess.”
“Have you…” Karen seemed nervous about something. “been by the arts building?”
“Not recently, why?”
“I, uh… I don’t want to upset you. But I figured it had best come from me.”
“What are you talking about?”
Karen pulled up a picture on her phone and handed it to me.
“What the fuck?”
It was Jason’s picture by the arts building. But someone had gouged out the eyes and spray painted a big red X over his face.
“Who the fuck would do something like this?” I asked.
“I don’t know. The university police are looking into it.”
I saw red. A thought had been nagging at the back of my mind for days now. I grabbed my keys off the hook and marched out to the parking lot.
“Where are you going?” I heard Karen calling after me.
“I’m going back to that fucking art gallery.”
I’m not sure what I expected to find. An answer, I guess. Some sort of closure. But I definitely didn’t expect to find what I did. Hanging right there in the very same spot was the painting of the blue-eyed woman. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just stood there staring at it.
“Do you like this one?”
I heard a voice from behind me, and I turned to see the gallery owner.
“Oh.” she said. “You’re back.”
“Where did you get this?” I sputtered out.
The gallery owner stroked the painting’s cheek.
“She always seems to find her way back. I think she misses her spot on the wall.”
I felt something in me break; my emotional numbness was replaced by a flood of anger. I grabbed the woman’s collar and yanked her towards me.
“I know it was you.” I said, shaking her. “I know what you did.”
“Are you going to hurt me?” She asked. Her eyes moved over to the painting, and I followed them. The painting’s eyes were know a brilliant shade of green. I gasped and let go of her collar, and watched as the eyes slowly changed back to blue. The gallery owner straightened her shirt.
“I don’t decide who she goes home with.” She said softly.
I started to back away slowly, and the gallery owner watched me. I could have sworn the painting was watching me too as I turned around and ran.
When I got home Karen was waiting for me, worry written all over her face.
“Danny what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” I said breathlessly. “But I know who killed Jason.”
“It was the gallery owner.” I said. “The place we went last week.”
“The gallery owner? Why would the gallery owner kill Jason?”
“Because she’s crazy. She’s some kind of witch, Karen.”
“Are you feeling ok?” She asked. “Jason died in bed, Danny. Why do you think he was murdered?”
“I just…” I was breathing heavily. “You didn’t see it… The painting…”. I trailed off. Even I could hear how crazy the words sounded as they came out of my mouth. I knew what I’d saw, but I knew no one else would believe me.
“Nothing.” I said. “Sorry, I’m just a little upset. Nevermind.”
“Let’s just relax for awhile. Do you wanna watch a movie?”
I agreed more for Karen’s sake than my own. After all, I was sure I’d just frightened her. We set up the movie and Karen went off to the bathroom like she always did at the start of movies. While she was inside I saw a text message from her friend Brittany pop up on her phone. Karen didn’t mind when I read her messages, so grabbed the phone and swiped it open. All the message said was: “have u told him about jason yet?”
I heard the toilet flush and the faucet go on and then Karen walked back and plopped down next to me.
“What is this?” I held the phone up to her face.
“It’s nothing, Danny. Why don’t we talk about it when you’re feeling better?”
“No. Something is going on and I want to know what the fuck it is.”
“Alright,” she said.
“After they put Jason’s picture up, there were some rumors that started going around.”
“Rumors? What rumors?”
“Some girls said some things about Jason assaulting them. And then more girls started to come forward. The police looked into it, Danny. They’re saying…”
“They’re saying what?”
“They’re saying his DNA ties back to open rape cases a couple years back.”
“I’m sorry, Danny. I know he was your friend.”
It felt like all the air had rushed out of the room. There was no way it could be true. Jason had always been a bit of a chauvinist, but he was no rapist. Was he?
A few weeks later the dust had settled and the truth had come out about Jason. It felt like he had died a second time. All of my good memories of him were now replaced by some sick feeling I couldn’t even begin to untangle. Seventeen women. And those were just the ones who’d come forward. The school took down the picture and got rid of the flowers people had left. Some people were saying they were glad he was dead. Those were the same people that gave me dirty looks when I passed them in the hallways. Whatever. It didn’t matter. I didn’t know what had really happened with the painting, but I decided to just let sleeping dogs lie. Thinking about it hurt, anyway. I eventually went back to the gallery owner to apologize for my outburst. She smiled and told me I had a good heart. As I was leaving I could hear the faint sounds of her talking with someone.
“You seem to really like it.” she said. “Why don’t you take it home with you?”
Credit: David Maloney
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