BY: Marc Shapiro
There was the resounding click. Followed by flickering as the bulb fought to capture the spark. Then the light expanded, cone shaped, like what you would see in B movie interrogation rooms. The light caught Jo just right as she hunched over her broadcast set up, matter of factly taking in her essence as she stared into a blinking screen.
Dark Goth bob over pale, vampire skin. Perky tits pushing forward through the tattered remains of a Ramones T shirt. If the screen went any lower it would see that she was naked from the waist down, her body curled snake like around a squeaky revolving chair that had done more damage to her extremities than anything the CIA could dream up.
Jo smiled as she adjusted the dials and amped up the frequency. On most occasions men would find her eminently doable. But most men, or women for that matter, were not what her audience was all about which was why sex for her was anonymous hook ups in faraway places. She never gave her real name. They most likely did not give theirs. She had one rule. No cameras. No cell phones.
And yes she did frisk them.
Because distrust and disbelief was what Jo was all about.
Jo grabbed the monster of a microphone, something left over from the Cretaceous age of technology, and gave it a few love taps. The sound levels were spot on. She glanced up through the darkness to a far wall where the luminescent numbers on an old style industrial clock showed 11:59. Jo reached across her console, took a final drag on a smoldering cigarette and tamped it into an overflowing ashtray.
The clock went twelve midnight, straight up. It was show time.
Jo moved to within inches of the microphone. She whistled a raw erratic snippet of The Twilight Zone theme into it, then segued into a high pitched hum that reached its peak in a bloody banshee scream.
“Good evening my children,” she cooed into the radio either. “Welcome to The Land Beyond Beyond. The place where trust is a myth, conspiracy is the life blood and belief is what you make it because you know better than everybody else what is truly out there. I’m Jo. Or at least that’s who you think I am.”
Jo twisted another knob hard to the right, sending a squak and squal out along the airwaves. She slammed the dial down to the left as the static slammed to black. Jo’s mouth smoothly caressed the metal appendage.
“Talk to me my children,” her tone a breathless whisper. “Tell me your dreams, your wishes, your magic tales. Tell me what you believe and disbelieve. Don’t be shy my pets. We all dwell in dark places. We have nothing to fear.”
Jo was greeted by silence. Ten minutes into her show and there was nary a sound. She knew they were out there. But, she sighed, for a long time there had been nothing to say.
“Come on,” she softly admonished. “Give me something. A memory of the times. A theory that only a few of us understand. Is there anybody out there? Did the world suddenly end just before I came on the air? That’s it. It’s apocalypse now. Most of us are atomic ash. But I’m sure a few of you made it to the bunkers. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you hear. Tell me what you believe.”
Ten minutes later and still nothing.
Jo reached for the pack and another death stick. She lit up and dragged deep. She leaned back, her creaky chair emitting a raw death rattle amid the silence. Her body passed easily out of the light and into the dark. Jo took another drag…
…And remembered the time. When fantasy and reality were abroad in the land.
The Loch Ness Monster, UFO’s, Big Foot, The Kennedy Asassination. People gathered to speculate, to explain and, most importantly to believe and not believe. They believed in a conspiratorial way. They knew the truth as nobody else did. Area 51, Chupacabra, Bat Boy, the screams of hell heard coming from the center of the earth by a passing Russian trawler .
Their mantra was the possibilities that lurked in the darkest corners of night.
Their numbers grew. They were the isolated, the socially inept, the just plain psychotic and crazy. But they all found a common cause, refusing to believe and not believe what the status quo insisted was right, good and just plain not there.
Jo mentally marveled at how their numbers had grown to legions over the years. They came together at larger and larger unions. They seriously recounted how they had been abducted by aliens and nobody laughed. They listened intently as the rancher proudly proclaimed that he had a live dinosaur roaming his back forty. One woman claimed she had seen the bodies of the Roswell aliens. Another said her morning toast had an image of Elvis in it. There was the earnest, overweight and excessively sweating nerd who always dressed in a suit and who, through endless books and speaking engagements, had convinced his believers that the death of Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks were the work of rogue CIA operatives known simply as The Blacks.
Jo was one of them. The unexplainable had been her companion from an early age. It had been ingrained in her DNA to believe only in the fantastical possibilities. She was big on cryptozoology, even claimed to have seen a Big Foot during an outing in her teens. Reality did not get her through her day. The truly unbelievable did.
And so begot The Land Beyond Beyond.
The show began life as a microscopic watt on the far left side of the FM dial. The format was simple. Tell me your stories. I will not judge. I will believe. The format was so different from anything else on the dial that it soon picked up steam and the all-important ratings. As the guide, listener and sympathetic conduit to the unknown, Jo was a natural, her teasing, prompting and somewhat sultry tones were ideal for the late at night, for an audience that most perceived as emotionally marginalized from the workaday world.
Callers had found their savior. Their tales of encounters, sightings and personal beliefs about what the government was really adding to the water morphed into a campfire roundtable of the airwaves. Experts were not shunned but were rarely given more than cursory time to hawk their wares. It was what the people calling in from darkened rooms, trucks barreling through the night or dealing with age and loneliness by calling Jo and telling her what they knew that was important.
The Land Beyond Beyond soon went viral and became an internet sensation. It was not long before syndication came calling and Jo was able to quit her day job as a barmaid in a low rent strip mall dive and turn up the frequency on what was really important…
To her and to them.
And then something really strange happened.
The Loch Ness Monster flippered its way out of the depths and onto a loch side dune and basically sunned itself in front of more than fifty astonished tourists, all of whom had cameras, before casually turning and sliding easily back into the loch. Long story short…Yes it was a Pleisosaur.
Right in the middle of an overcast Washington D.C. morning, a UFO, doing its best The Day The Earth Stood Still imitation, settled down on The White House lawn and over an advanced sound system that reportedly reached around the world, it broadcast in perfect English ‘Take me to your leader’.
Big Foot made an unexpected entrance at a mountainside mom and pop store in the Pacific Northwest. Locals captured it and were astonished to find out that, through primitive sign language, they were eventually able to communicate with it. The creature, a very Neanderthal looking thing, was surprisingly cooperative, letting the human race know that they had been around since before the Ice Age and, to the shock of many, had become more human than human by mating with modern day women. The sound the world heard was that of a million anti evolutionists hitting the floor. But there they were, brothers and sisters under a hairy skin.
Jo took another languid drag and laughed softly into the night. The Philadelphia Experiment. Invisibility tests on big ships to aid the war effort. Nobody believed it… Until some yahoos with metal detectors scoping a stretch of land near the legendary naval base struck something very rough, metallic and invisible. A year later a researcher with sensitive fingers discovered it was a ship’s title plaque, etched with the words Eldridge. The jig was up.
The Kennedy Assasination. After nearly sixty years of fingering everybody from Castro to the CIA to the janitor who emptied Congress’ ashtrays turned up nothing but a billion words of speculation that indicated everybody on the planet really knew who blew JFK’s head off… Who would have thought the French and the Swedes were capable of such a thing. But a death bed confession took care of that one.
Within a couple of years all of the great mysteries that had eluded hard science for centuries and gave true believers a reason to get up in the morning had been proven. The world was in amazement, tying itself in and out of emotional, sociological and political knots. The people who listened to her show puffed out their collective chests.
Jo’s people had been right all along. Their withdrawn, desperate lives had been worth something after all. But their triumph was short lived…
Because soon there was nothing left to believe in.
More often than not The Land Beyond Beyond had evolved into an immature, bitch session with thinly veiled discourses on how letting all the true mysteries out of the bag had been the devil’s work or a plot by the Illuminatti to strike at the very fiber of humanity. But soon things changed. The calls into Jo turned into rambling, often psychotic and thinly disguised cries for help. The people whose questionable lives hinged on the drug of belief had suddenly had their drug taken away from them.
And most were not detoxing real well.
The calls were tinged with alcohol, coke and meth. Jo could tell. And any doubt that many in Jo’s listening audience had replaced pure belief with pure heroin was removed one night when one of her regulars, a gentle soul who claimed he was Jesus and that it was a heretofore unknown twin brother who actually died on the cross, called up and, in a mumbling monologue, described in detail how he had just scored some pure shit, was digging around in his arm with the spike to find a virgin vein and finally jammed the horse into an obliging line. Jo was just a touch freaked but listened intently as the caller described how the blood had surged up into the syringe before a moment of orgasmic relief and, finally, the sound of his body hitting the floor.
Jo was momentarily speechless but not without a sense of dark irony. “Ok. I give that a 7.5 for originality. If you can top an OD give me a call.”
And they did.
The woman with many alien abductions under her belt called in. The line crackled with crisp, thin static, a sign that the caller was outdoors. The caller was tearful. She sounded high or was it a final sigh of resignation that she now was dealing with a reality that did not include her ideas about UFO’s, sea monsters and Men In Black. As Jo listened, the woman jabbered incoherently about the aliens coming for her. They had instructed her to jump, high wide and far and that they would catch her in their interceptor beam and take her aboard the mother ship for a ride home. After a moment of silence, there was a low whisper “goodbye”.
The New York Tattler led with the story the next day. Woman Takes Suicide Solution In 20 Story Leap.
Jo sighed and smiled tightly as the silence in the night continued. As did the memories.
She recalled a fairly regular caller who called himself Rod who would regale her listeners with tales of how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was based on fact and that he had spent years of researching and fine tuning what he would one day unveil to the world as the first actual time machine. Two years after the ‘Time of big discovery’, with the calls coming fewer and further between and bordering on extreme nut job, Rod called in.
There was excitement in his voice. He had finally figured out what made time work, had put all the elements into the engine of a 1967 Mustang and was about to rocket out of the present and into the future. The revving of the engine shattered the airwaves. A screech of transmission and Rod was off. Those who still listened called in with enthusiastic encouragement. Rod reported in one more time. The speedometer had just hit 105. By his calculations another 20 miles and he would pass through space and time. Finally he reported that he had hit the magic number. He gave a manic cowboy ‘yeeha’…
As he rocketed through space and head on into the 9:25 express coming in from Oshkosh. There was not enough left in the wreckage to identify the remains. Jo would silently hope that Rod had truly made it and was somewhere in the time to come.
Jo was certain that the demise of those who suddenly had nothing left to believe in had not always been so dramatic. Most probably died alone in their rooms on the business end of a straight razor or a bottle of downers. Some were probably ‘cop assisted suicides’. She was certain a lot had become institutionalized. They were the lucky ones. She feared that the vast majority were still out there, walking the streets, searching in vain for something to believe in. And doing who knows what in the process.
She wished them luck.
Jo leaned back into the stagnant cone of light. She hunched over the microphone. The Land Beyond Beyond was going on 45 minutes without a sign of life. It was time to bring up the heavy artillery.
“So you have nothing to say?” she feigned in boring disgust. “Maybe this will loosen your tongues. From now until I sign off you will have to contend with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida ‘. The extra-long version on a never ending loop. The only thing that will save you is a call. Insult my ancestry. Talk about the shape shifters that are hiding in your flower bed. Give me something people. Here comes hell.”
The haunting keyboard intro and the fuzzed out guitar heralded the arrival of one of the most obnoxious songs ever created by man. Jo pulled a tattered roach out of her pocket and lit up. Then she leaned back into the darkness to enjoy the ride.
One hour and four and a half plays later. Then out of nowhere came a blip on the screen. It was brief, faint but persistent. Crank calls and hang ups usually did not register that kind of fingerprint. Jo knew the difference because she could remember how, before everything in the night was suddenly out in the open, she would have those kind of signs lined up around the block. Jo took a final drag and pressed some buttons.
“It’s Jo. You know the drill. Talk to me.”
“First off I hate In A Gadda Da Vida,” said a low sinister male voice. Jo smiled. “Yeah everybody’s a critic. It’s your dime.”
“The name’s Deep Throat. Yeah I know. But I’m the real Deep Throat.”
Jo stifled a laugh. Making fun of a caller was a no no in this business. “I’m listening.”
“I used to work for the space program. You know the Armstrong first man on the moon?”
Jo played along. This was the first live wire she’d had in almost six months.
Deep Throat hacked out an aged, rasping cough. “Well what the world does not know was that there were four astronauts on that mission. Three came back. Need I say more?”
Deep Throat clicked off. Jo relit the stub of her joint and inhaled. What a rush. She barely had time to exhale before another blip of a caller made its presence felt.
“I was diagnosed with terminal cancer 18 years ago. I’m still alive. The pharmaceutical industry is trying to shut me up because what I know would put them out of business. I can’t say much more at this time because my line is constantly tapped. Click.”
There was a flicker of hope in Jo’s blitzed expression. Was there a second wave of wacked out believers out there, waiting to make their move? Over the next hour, the calls began to once again take hold on the possibility and impossibility of it all.
A stereotypically scummy stock broker made a deal with the devil and claimed he had the whole transaction on video. A left wing nut literally screamed that he had proof that the head of the NRA had a criminal record a mile long. A right wing wacko balanced the ledger when he claimed that the scripture clearly outlined how liberal thinkers were the spawn of Satan. Jo was convinced that desperation and the futility of life for so many had brought her people back. Quite simply it was believe or perish.
The rest of the show raced by with waves of argumentative, rational and irrational ravings. It was like the time before the discoveries dampened the spirit. Everybody was right and everybody was wrong. Which is the way it should be.
“Okay my children,” Jo enthusiastically crooned out into the airwaves. It’s good to have you back. We’ve got time for one more call. Zelda welcome to The Land Beyond Beyond.”
“Oh am I on? I know you’re running out of time so I’ll make this quick. My name is Zelda and I come from the future. You are going to die in ten days. Just thought you’d like to know.”
Jo faded the show out in an abrupt shock of static. She leaned back in her chair and contemplated what might be a limited future. She could believe or dis believe. She was content to just let it play out. One thing was certain.
If Jo was around on day eleven it would be one hell of a show.
By: Veronica Baquedano
May 22, 2014 Louisiana: This is the first entry. I have been putting this off because I couldn’t decide what to write about. My life seems rather dull sometimes and the fact that I couldn’t think of one interesting thing that is currently going on in my life just made the thought of writing depressing but alas, here I am. I used to be a wonderful writer before I got married, everyone said so. Of course, now with two kids and a husband, I don’t really find the time or more importantly the inspiration to write. I bought this laptop about two months ago when I told myself that it did not matter what I wrote as long as I wrote. Well, technically my husband made the purchase but that’s beside the point. Today something made me finally pick it up after leaving it on the side for so long. You see, today something in my living room moved without anyone touching it.
I was making dinner alone in the house. My husband was still at work like always. My fifteen year old son was at a friend’s house playing violent video games and my eleven year old daughter was at gymnastics. I had placed the meatloaf in the oven and walked towards my living room. When I sat down on my couch, I noticed it. Something was off.
You see, when I got that couch I was still a hopeful newlywed. I imagined me and my husband sitting on that couch watching romantic movies, or me and the kids cuddling on that couch while I told them bedtime stories. None of that happened. In fact, no one really sat in this living room except me. When my family was actually home we only got together for dinner in the dining room. The rest of the time my children locked themselves away in their rooms and my husband was at his office taking ‘business calls’.
Anyway, this couch that I sat on while I waited for dinner to cook was always just the right distance from the coffee table so that the tips of my toes could reach it when I sat down. Today they did not reach. I know it’s something small. I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating but no one had been in that living room since last night and last night my toes reached. So unless I shrunk a few inches in the night, something had moved the couch.
Anyway, I have to go set the table now. Maybe something else will happen before I write next. Maybe I’ll discover the couch mover. Or at least maybe something interesting will happen.
Until next time,
June 1, 2014: Not much has happened since the couch, although, if I am being completely honest I have been hearing some weird creaks at night. I know it could definitely just be this old house groaning or maybe it’s the mice again, but there is a part of me that thinks what if it’s not? What if it’s something else? What if it’s something different? What if it’s some evil creature walking through my hallways in the night, or some malicious entity trying to get my children? Of course, my logical side knew I had to be imagining it. I love horror movies and I tend to make things up in my head. My mother always told me that I had an overactive imagination. And of course, the price of imagination is fear.
Until next time,
June 28, 2014: I decided to introduce my family in this entry. First, I suppose there is my husband, William. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary or peculiar about him except for the fact that when I met him he was in law school and had a full head of hair. We were both young. I thought I was deeply in love, the type of love that lasts a whole lifetime and only comes once. I was wrong. After a few years I think we both realized our mistake. By that point we already had two kids as well as a house we invested everything into, so we kept it all inside and ignored the fact that we never really spoke anymore. He’s a good dad though. I suppose that’s what matters.
There are also my two children. First, there is Theo, he’s a typical teen boy. He likes girls, video games, and not being home which I’m fine with because I feel like all I do when he is here is yell at him about his bad grades, or tell him to clean his room, or ask him why he smells like weed. Then there is Shannon. I know parents are not supposed to have favorites but I can’t help it. I feel guilty about it all the time. Shannon likes sports, she likes reading, she gets good grades, and has a wonderful group of friends. The teachers love her and the other parents do too. I don’t think I’ve ever had to nag her about anything. She reminds me so much of me, even my parents say it.
‘Oh Ilene, Shannon is like a younger version of you. When you were happy without a care,’ my mother would say.
Of course, I love both of my children the same but that does not mean I like them both the same.
That’s my family.
Until next time,
July 6, 2014: I stuck tape underneath the couch legs a few nights ago so I could see if there is even a centimeter of movement. It had not moved so far.
I’ve been hearing some more creaking noises at night. My husband insists that it’s rats and we should try to get rid of them but I think he’s wrong. I’ve been trying to tell myself that its rodents scurrying, or the old house shifting but it’s something else.
I also think I saw someone standing over my bed last night. I didn’t remember it until this morning so for all I know it might have been a dream. It did seem real though. Now that I think about it, I think it was a man. A man made of shadows and darkness. I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about it. I guess it freaked me out more than I thought it did.
I’ve been trying to get inspiration and new writing ideas but I can’t seem to come up with anything. I’m beginning to think that I don’t have it in me anymore, that all of my talent is gone now. Maybe I’m just not meant to write some best-selling novel. It was a far-fetched dream anyway.
Until next time,
July 13, 2014: It’s the middle of the night. I’ve locked myself in our bathroom. I couldn’t be in that bedroom anymore. I had a nightmare. It seemed so real though.
I was in a dark room. The only light came from a corner where there was a figure kneeling and hunched over. The closer I got the more I could identify it. It was bony and had a long face. It had no facial features except for a mouth filled with rows of razor sharp, bloody teeth. Its skin was veiny and gray. It seemed rough like sand paper.
As I got nearer, I was able to see its spine sticking out of its back. Its thin, long, pointy fingers were also bloody. It appeared to be mauling something. I couldn’t quite tell what yet. Its legs looked too long to be human and instead of feet it had hooves. It was making a horrible noise. It sounded like bones crunching and flesh ripping. The smell was like being in a butcher shop.
Then I finally noticed what it was holding. It was my daughter’s bloody severed head. Her eyes were wide in fear and her mouth still looked like it was trying to form words.
‘Help,’ my daughter’s decapitated head rasped out.
Finally, the creature looked up at me. Its horrible mouth dripping with my daughter’s flesh and blood.
‘GET OUT!’ it yelled. Its voice was deep and scratchy. I screamed and screamed until it all disappeared.
I couldn’t breathe when I woke up. I felt like all I needed was a big gulp of air but someone was strangling me. It felt like someone was on top of me, just staring. Enjoying my struggle and laughing at my fear. I tried to pray. I hadn’t prayed since I was a little girl so I didn’t remember much but I tried. It didn’t help, nothing helped. I felt like I was trapped in my own bed, in my own body forever.
Finally I was able to sit up and gasped. I held my throat trying to make the feeling of being choked go away. Then I looked at my husband. He was still sound asleep somehow, through everything. I couldn’t believe it. I tiptoed to Shannon’s room, I know it sounds ridiculous but I needed to make sure she was safe. Then I came here, to the bathroom. I felt like I was being followed and watched all the way. Like every tiny shadow across my house was staring at me. All I could hear was white noise.
The tiles that I’m sitting on are cold and the light is too bright but it’s helping me calm down. I can’t wake up William because tomorrow he’ll just be whining about how tired he is because I didn’t let him sleep. And anyways, he wouldn’t help. Maybe I’ll just wait a few hours until the sun comes back up and then try to go back to bed.
Until next time,
July 14, 2014: I felt like I was being followed all day. I kept questioning if things had moved: the couch, chairs, the cabinets opening. I’m even hearing things now. I noticed it after the horrible nightmare last night. It just sounded like static yesterday, but today they sound like whispers. At dinner I couldn’t take it anymore and I decided to tell my family. Of course, instead of sounding rational when I brought it up what I said was ‘I think we have a demon in the house.’ My husband choked on his drink (which was actually quite funny). Theo laughed and continued texting under the table. Shannon just stared at me. After I explained what had been happening and gave a brief explanation of the dream I had, without mentioning my daughter’s decapitated head, all three were staring.
William spoke first stating that I had probably been imagining it all. He thinks that I am just bored around the house. He says I should take up a new hobby. I wasn’t surprised he didn’t believe me. My husband is the type of man who doesn’t believe in anything. My son just snickered at my husband’s comments and my hands slowly clenched. Then, Shannon spoke out. She said ‘I believe you, mom.’ She looked at me with her big brown eyes and I could tell she was telling the truth. I gave her a smile and then my husband asked my son about some football game. Theo pretended to know what he was talking about and my topic was over.
Until next time,
July 16, 2014: I just dropped the kids off at school and my husband is at work. I’m alone again for the whole day and I must admit it’s driving me a little crazy. I keep hearing things moving and thinking it’s someone’s steps. Every shadow reminds me of that awful creature in my dream.
So, I decided to do a little ghost searching. I’ll write about it when I finish.
So first I went up to the attic. I’ve seen scary movies so I know that if there’s a ghost it’s probably hanging out in there. I didn’t actually find anything creepy but I did find mouse traps. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw them. After I explained to William what was happening, after I told him how I felt, he still thought we had stupid mice. Of course, I picked them all up, went back down to the kitchen and threw them out.
When I stepped back in the living room I finally saw something. Right on my couch, where it all started, was a shadow. At least I thought it was a shadow, but as I looked at it more I realized it was a man. He looked like the man who was standing over my bed weeks ago but he was clearer, more defined. The longer I stared at him the clearer he became. He had shaggy, brown hair and soulless black eyes.
He was there less than thirty seconds but right before he vanished he turned his neck in my direction and smiled like a Cheshire cat. At that moment, he almost appeared to change shape and morph into the creature from my dream. After that, he was gone. I didn’t even have enough time to be scared. I quickly ran to the backyard just to get out of the house and sat on one of the swings that we still had from the kids’ childhood.
I began swinging and the one next to me swung as well. There was no wind so I knew it was something else. I started hearing the whispers again. Then I heard a little giggle like a child laughing. I tried to ignore it all. It finally stopped minutes later.
I don’t think I’ll tell my family about what happened today. They won’t believe me anyway. I’m still outside in the yard. I’m too scared to be in that house by myself.
Until next time,
July 17, 2014: I thought of telling Shannon what happened. I know she would believe me. I don’t want to scare her though so I might keep it to myself for a while longer.
I decided to look into the house’s history but I still haven’t found anything. Only one family has lived here. They are all still alive and only had good things to say about this house.
There does not seem to be anything particular about this place. The oddest part is that we have lived here for over fifteen years. Why would paranormal things begin occurring now? I don’t know if I’ll ever have the answer to that.
Until next time,
July 19, 2014: Today was a horrible day. I decided to tell William about what’s been happening. I sat him down and just spilled everything. I really thought that if I explained he would believe me. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he didn’t. We ended up having a huge fight. We were both yelling at each other which we haven’t done in years. He told me I’m crazy and that I need help. I told him he’s sleeping on the haunted couch tonight. His face was so red when I said that it was almost worth it. He stormed out after that and slammed the door so hard that I thought the wood would crack.
I’ve been trying to sleep for a while now but I can’t. I’m hearing those whispers again. I couldn’t make them out before but they sound clearer now. Of course, I’m still not getting my husband. I don’t care what I hear or see.
It’s about an hour later. I was almost asleep when I felt something breathing on me. My eyes sprang open and I saw that horrible creature from my dream standing over my bed. Before I blinked twice it was gone. I bit my tongue trying to hold my scream until I could taste blood. I knew that if I yelled now my husband would just insist on taking me to see someone.
July 20, 2014: I fell asleep last night and forgot to end the entry properly, which I guess is a good thing. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming. I don’t remember what happened exactly but apparently William came upstairs and I was yelling about being set on fire and how my skin was melting off of my body. He tried to cover my mouth so I wouldn’t wake the kids up and I bit him. I didn’t believe that part until I saw the teeth marks on his hand. He says he’s not sure how long I was screaming for, but I think he does know he just doesn’t want to tell me. I heard him on the phone with some doctor when I woke up. He actually thinks I’m insane. I’m not imagining this! I’m not making up the whispers that I hear now more and more often. Their words just get clearer and louder. I didn’t realize until this morning that it’s not just insignificant whispers, its voices.
Until next time,
July 22, 2014: I convinced my husband to forget about the doctor for now. I told him I was probably just imagining everything, (even though I know I’m not). He said that if I have one more episode he will call the doctor and I have to go see him. I agreed. I also agreed to let him come back to our bed even though I honestly don’t want him around anymore.
The truth is the ghostly voices told me to lie to him. I don’t know why I listened to them. It’s almost as if I couldn’t help myself. I can understand them most of the time now. They’re always saying vile things about my husband like how horrible they think he is and all the ways they think he should die. They give me details about how I could slash his throat in a second or sneak some rat poison into one of his many meals that I prepare for him. They even say things about my children. How I could strap my son in his bed and set the house on fire or how I could push my daughter in the oven and let her burn. Sometimes the voices even sound like that creature in my dream.
Until next time,
July 25, 2014: I was sleep walking last night. I woke up sitting on my sofa clutching a butcher knife. My knuckles were white from my fist gripping the handle. I haven’t told anyone.
I can still hear the fucking voices. It’s like an itch that I can’t get rid of. My hair is starting to fall off and my skin is blistering. I have to wear sweaters and scarves in the summer to hide it. I don’t know if I’m possessed or what. I just don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s driving me insane. If I woke up clutching a knife this time what else could I do in my sleep?
Until next time,
July 29, 2014: I don’t want to be in this house anymore. I hear so many voices now. Some sound like cries full of sorrow and some are eerie children giggling. Others are screams filled with rage. Some, like my nightmare creature, tell me to do horrible things and it gets harder to ignore them every day but I can’t tell anyone. I have to keep it to myself, I can’t let my husband take me away. He can’t take care of the kids. I’m their mother. I have to take care of them.
I find myself zoning out often. Sometimes at dinner I’ll miss entire conversations or I’ll be watching a television show and by the time I come to it’s over. This morning was the worst one yet. I was driving my kids to school and I completely blacked out. First thing I remember is my kids screaming and my car almost getting hit because I ran a red light. Once I came back my kids were trying to ask what had happened but all I could hear were the voices telling me that I did a good job, that next time I have to make sure we get hit. They were filling my head, filling the entire space of the car. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t hearing them so I yelled as hard as I could and told them to shut up. It was completely silent and as I looked at my kids in the back seat they seemed afraid of me. I had never felt so helpless, so defeated.
I made them promise not to tell their dad about the incident because he would worry and it wasn’t a big deal, but I know it was.
Until next time,
Hi mom, you left your computer in the kitchen downstairs. I didn’t mean to read your journal but once I started I couldn’t stop. I’m writing this here because I don’t think talking to you will do anything at this point. I won’t show dad or Theo what I found but I’m not sure what you hear are ghosts mom. I love you so much. I just want you to be okay. I’m scared for you mom it’s scaring me how much you’re changing. We all love you. We miss you mom it’s like you’re not here anymore.
July 30, 2014: I know I crossed that out- that entry that my daughter wrote. No one else would have. I don’t remember doing it though and that terrifies me. It frightens me to my very core.
Until next time,
July 31, 2014: I only have a few minutes. My husband has called the police or the ambulance or something. I’ve locked myself in the bathroom. He’s banging on the door yelling. I think he thinks I’m going to hurt myself like I hurt Shannon.
I didn’t mean to, I swear I didn’t. I don’t even remember grabbing the gun. My husband, he keeps it locked in the safety box. Of course, I knew the passcode but I never even open it. This time I remember what I did. It was like someone else had control of my body. When I walked into my daughter’s room, she had her back to me. She was on her computer just watching videos. I took the safety off the gun and watching her freeze as she heard it made me smile. The fear that I felt coming off of her made me tremble with satisfaction. I didn’t mean to though. Why would I hurt my child? I love her.
I watched her turn around slowly and observed the shock that appeared on her face once she realized it was her mother holding a gun to her. Her eyes teared up and the fear that she felt made me feel so good. It wasn’t me though. I wasn’t holding a gun to my daughter, it was something inside my body doing it. She began screaming and my finger moved to the trigger slowly.
I didn’t even hear my husband run in but he tackled me to the floor and a shot was fired, hitting the window just a few inches away from Shannon. From the floor I looked back up at her and noticed one of the pieces of flying glass had cut her face. That made me snap back to reality. I had control of my own body again.
My daughter was crying and my husband was yelling. My son appeared by the door. He just looked at me like he had no idea who I was anymore. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying though. The voices were right there. Telling me I messed it up. Telling me to get William off of me and run for the gun. Telling me to try again, saying that now that all of my family was in the room I could end them all together.
I pushed William off of me and ran into the bathroom. Now here I am. I just want the voices to stop.
There probably won’t be a next time. I don’t even know who I am anymore.
Get out of my head get out of my head NONONONONONO GETOUTGETOUGETOUT
November 24, 2014 Louisiana: I’m back home. I’m doing much better. My family thinks I’m fine now. I’m glad to be home again. To be with them again.
Until next time,
Chad Downer felt the urge to look at his watch but denied it, knowing that seeing how many hours he had already wasted in front of the store would just piss him off more. For a moment he forgot the reason he’d come, his mind desperately searching for an image to grasp and make sense of.
Mr. Teddy. There he had it. That stupid talking teddy bear with built-in voice commands and could actually reach out and hug people. His son, Michael, had seen the commercial so many times he could practically recite it word for word.. It was a horrid production in which a small boy followed a life-size brown teddy bear into a magical world ripped straight out of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. The place was populated by nothing but the teddy bears themselves, and they all knew the boy’s name. In fact, that’s all they said, as if it was some bizarre incantation.
Admittedly the toys had some cool mechanics.
The problem was that the damn things were over one hundred dollars! Carol knew they couldn’t afford it, but when the ad on the shopper showed that the bear was being sold on black Friday for sixty-nine dollars, she caved to her son’s pleading eyes and seemingly supernatural charm. Michael had that effect on people. The little bugger was as cute as any six-year-old had a right to be, but he was also smart enough to know how to manipulate his mother.
Chad couldn’t feel the breeze anymore and pulled his coat tighter. This didn’t help any, but the action gave him something more to focus on than the other people in front of him. He wondered how each of them ended up here. Maybe their children were just like Michael? He tried to smile, but the wind was so cold and he was so numb he couldn’t manage to.
The store stood in front of him in a sort of hazy blur of metal and glass. He squinted but the image became darker and less defined. He reached to push his glasses up but his searching index finger found nothing. Now annoyed with the fact that he must have left them sitting on the kitchen table before he headed out—what time did he leave?–he shuffled his feet and yearned to be elsewhere.
All the others in front and in back of him must have surely felt the same way. He couldn’t see them clearly, but through the many blurry figures crowding around the side of the store, he could guess there had to be well over fifty or more.
All like him, wanting to be somewhere else.
His mind began to wander again, this time bringing up the image of Carol. It was a few days before Thanksgiving, and she was busy writing down a list at the kitchen table. Chad had agreed to go to the grocery store to pick up the items she needed for the turkey and all the other side dishes.
“I need you to focus,” she said, her eyes never leaving the paper her hand flew across with seemingly unceasing grace. She was looking extra cute in a long blue blouse with frilly ends on the sleeves. Her long brown hair was held in place by a single hair tie—even though he was constantly telling her she should just leave it down.
“Okay, I’m listening,” Chad said, struggling to buckle the black dress belt surrounding his slacks. “But in all honesty, I don’t see the point. You’re writing everything down aren’t you?”
Carol looked up from the paper. A slight grin had formed on her delicate face and her brown eyes seemed to give off a trace of commanding power, a trait all women seemed to share as far as Chad was concerned.
“Smart ass,” she said.
“I know, but you still love me.”
“Unfortunately, yes.” She raised the pencil and pointed it at him. “But you know, according to current data on married couples, that’s bound to change.”
“Using scientific data, eh?” Chad finished buckling his belt and focused on her. He was grinning more widely than she was. “Now whose being the smart ass?”
She laughed and kept scribbling on the notepad. Chad, in the meantime, pulled on his shoes and tied them. He then walked over to Carol and was about to lean down and fiddle with her cheek when Michael, his six-year-old son, appeared in the hallway.
He was dressed in classic batman pajamas and a Spiderman t-shirt. The kid loved superheroes. Couldn’t get enough of them really, so the fact that he wanted this new talking teddy bear came as a shock to Chad. He figured his son would want a talking batman or superman action figure, not some stuffed bear.
The boy was holding an empty bowl in his right hand, a spoon in the other. “We’re out of Count Chocula,” he said.
One thing the boy loved more than superheroes was his cereal. He ate it for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner sometimes. He held three brands in high-esteem. At the top of the ladder was Count Chocula, followed by Captain Crunch and then Fruit Loops. He wouldn’t try anything else.
Chad turned toward him and smiled. “Well, you’re in luck, sport.”
“Why is that?” Michael’s face held an expression of confusion.
“Because I’m just about to head to the store to pick some up, along with all sorts of other good stuff.”
“Don’t forget to pick up the newest shopper there,” Carol cut in. “You might find some great deals on some of those items.”
Chad turned back her. He suddenly admired her even more and felt a strong urge to take her back to the bedroom where Michael couldn’t see them. The woman was smart, and when it came to sniffing out any extra money for any situation, she was like a bloodhound with ten years of experience.
Carol suddenly stopped writing and looked at Michael. “Hey, Mikey, could you go to your room for a few moments? I need to tell dad a secret.”
Chad’s smile faded slightly.
“But why can’t you tell me?” Michael stood there, his eyes suddenly burning into hers. “I want to hear too.”
“Okay, fine, but if you stay, you won’t get what I was going to get you.”
“Aw, c’mon, mom that’s mean.”
Chad found himself chuckling. Michael may have been able to manipulate her most of the time, but when it came to something Carol wanted to do in secret, not even the cutest action or complaint changed her mind.
“Well, squirt,” Chad said, trying to keep from laughing. “Looks like mom wins this round.”
Looking hurt, Michael set his bowl and spoon on the counter before attempting one more time to convince his mom to let him stay. Chad had to give his son credit, he was a natural when it came to hustling.
Carol didn’t budge. “I said no.”
“Oh, okay, fine.” Michael sulked out into the living room, and Carol waited until she heard his bedroom door close before turning her attention back to Chad.
“I have one more favor to ask of you.”
“Uh, oh, I’m in trouble now.”
Carol frowned. “Stop joking around, this is serious.”
“What is it, then? Spit it out.”
She suddenly pulled an ad for the upcoming black Friday sales at TONY’S, a department store a few miles from their home. Most of the items looked boring and unimportant, except maybe their tablets and computers, but Carol had circled something in a black marker: a picture of the same teddy bear Chad had grown sick of seeing on the television commercials that always seemed to pop up when he watched his favorite sit-com.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I am.”
Chad shook his head and stepped away from the table. He felt they were heading for another verbal war about finances. Carol seemed obsessed with saving money, yet she seemed to always find a way to spend their savings on useless junk.
“You know we can’t afford one of those things.”
She got up and brought the ad with her. She forced it in front of his face again. “Oh, but we can–thanks to black Friday!”
Chad looked closer at the ad. Beside the picture of the teddy bear was a price tag: $69 along with a set of words that always sent normal people into fantastical rages as they clawed and fought through gobs and gobs of other people just to get their hands on some fabled item:
Doors open at 9PM on Thanksgiving!
“Carol that’s still too much. Especially for a damn teddy bear.”
Carol pulled the ad away, her eyes downcast. “I know it’s a lot, but Mikey really wants one—and I’ve been saving up—“
“Honey, when I was growing up we were lucky if our gifts weren’t second hand.”
“But that’s my point; don’t you think Mikey deserves better?”
Chad hated when she backed him into a corner and made it seem that he was one holding his son back. He didn’t think she wanted to make him feel bad, but that’s how it always happened.
“Okay, okay, you’ve made your point.” Chad grabbed the ad from her hand slightly faster than he had intended. “I guess that is a pretty good deal.”
Carol’s eyes lit up again, the smile returned, and she gave him a strong hug. “Yes, it is.”
So that’s why he was here now, his whole body so numb he had no feeling, his eyes trying to focus on the blur of a world left in front of him. A faint tinge of smoke filled the air—from where? Maybe another department store was currently burning up? That thought made him smile on the inside. The people in front of him remained static, a never-ending wall of arms and legs facing the store front, before the line snaked around past him and continued to the poor chumps along the side.
Surely they would open the doors any time now. Then a thought suddenly occurred, one which filled him with fear as well as anger: what if he got into the store and couldn’t see where the stupid bears were? What if forgetting his glasses caused him to miss the opportunity he’d been sent here to seize in the first place?
Then it would be Carol’s fault, he decided. Besides, she should have been the one waiting in this sea of random people. The sour air annoyed him, probably because no one else had bothered to put on deodorant or take a shower before coming up here to get in line.
He shuffled his feet and pulled his raggedy coat tighter, but the cold filling his being remained, and he was numb to the world, numb to his life, and suddenly wished he was back in his car, back where he could simply—
–turn on the heat.
Another thought caught his attention now, and took him away from the parking lot of TONY’S and put him back in his Sedan. The night stretched out before him and he pushed his glasses up before turning on the heater.
He smiled as warm air filled the car, his fingers finally getting some feeling back into them. Winter time around the area wasn’t this bad last year, but the temperature dropped drastically last night, and it had stayed just a hair above twenty-one since then.
Chad fumbled with the radio dial and found one of the classic rock and roll stations. Metallica came through the speakers, and soon he was learning how time marches on and for whom the bell tolls. He was still singing aloud and beating the drum solo on his steering wheel when something—
–forced him to slam on his breaks, sending him into the steering wheel because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
There was pain, and then there were other sounds, like something pounding on his window.
He thought he heard a voice but wasn’t sure.
Someone—probably a drunk—fell over a few feet in front of him, and he was back in that cold parking lot, his mind again fixated on the task Carol had given him. All he had to do was wait for the doors to open and get to one of those damn bears before this sea of humanity attempted to flatten him like a bug. He started forming a game plan but stopped upon remembering something else.
He’d had them on when he left home. He’d also been wearing them when he was in the sedan. Then the slamming on his brakes for—what?
Remembering the sensation of his face connecting with the steering wheel brought a temporary relief. It made sense now. His glasses broke due to the impact, but then he remembered the sound, the pounding on his window. Over and over again he heard it as the world swam in front of his eyes.
Another question occurred to him then: why hadn’t he gone to the hospital? If slamming into the steering wheel broke his glasses, it must have done some damage to his face, right? I mean, surely he hadn’t been crazy enough to drive to this store for the stupid bear with a fractured nose or jaw?
Maybe that’s why he couldn’t manage to smile now; because his jawbone was cracked in so many places like badly poured concrete on a really hot day.
No, that wasn’t it, was it?
Then he remembered the source of the pounding, the source of the voice—
–the woman. She had on a thick coat with a wide hood. Through the haze created by the loss of his glasses, Chad couldn’t see her face fully, but the panic in the way she pounded on his window, and the way her voice sounded filled him with concern.
The glass muffled her voice so trying to take in every word was impossible, but even though he was having trouble focusing due to the tremendous pain in his face, Chad reached over and pressed the button to drop his window.
The cold air rushing in had a somewhat sobering effect on him, and he could finally make out some of the features of his frightened new companion. The woman’s face was contorted with stress, causing the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth to cut deeper into her skin. She had to be in her late forties or fifties, but Chad couldn’t be sure without his glasses.
“Oh God, thank you!” She stopped pounding and dropped her hands. He noticed that her right sleeve was torn at the elbow.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” The woman suddenly turned and looked towards the front of the Sedan, her eyes scanning the ground carefully.
“What are you looking for?”
“Is he dead?”
“Who?” Now Chad was really confused, and felt his annoyance level rising.
“That man, the one you hit.”
Fear crept into him and reigned over all. The thought that he’d hit another human being, and not just hit, but killed caused his heart to do jumping jacks inside his chest. All thoughts of the teddy bear left him as he scrambled to exit the car; he pulled up the door handle with so much force that he bruised his knuckles on the frame surrounding it.
The woman jumped back and almost fell over. “Hey, what are you doing?”
Chad didn’t answer her until he had already slammed the door and was two steps towards the front of the car. “We have to check him.”
“No, don’t!” The woman’s panic was back in full force. She made a sudden motion like she was going to move forward, but didn’t. Instead she just stood there, frozen to the spot.
“Why, for God’s sake? He could still be alive!”
“He’s dangerous,” the woman said. “There’s something wrong with him.”
Chad had reached the front of the car by then. There, a short distance from where he stood, bathed in the soft glow of headlights, lay a somewhat large figure.
It wasn’t moving.
He hesitated before taking another step. Something about the woman’s reaction, her sense of terror caused him to question this action.
He could make out that the figure was a slightly obese man wearing a thick coat. He was lying on his side, so Chad couldn’t see his face. The pants he wore seemed to be covered in something dark and shiny, and there were rips and tears running along one side of his leg. There was also something very unsettling about the top of his coat. A very large tear ran along his exposed shoulder blade, and it was surrounded by red that appeared to reach out and find its way down his back.
“Don’t go near him!”
Chad turned back towards the woman. She was now standing alongside the driver’s side door. The wind was blowing several strands of her hair clear of the hood, and it proceeded to obscure her face.
“He’s some kind of lunatic!”
“How do you know?” Chad took a step toward her, and he grimaced as she backpedaled.
“The fucker attacked me while I was filling up at the gas station just over that hill over there.” She raised her right arm. Even though Chad couldn’t make out any definite details, he could certainly see the large tear on the elbow. “Bit a chunk out of me and chased me down to the road here!”
“Why didn’t you call the police?”
“I was holding my cell phone when he came at me. Damn thing struck the pavement, and he didn’t give me time to pick it back up.”
“I’m sorry,” Chad said. He could sense the woman’s growing annoyance with him.
“Don’t be. Hell, you saved my life by running the bastard over.”
“I still think we should call the police. Besides,” Chad touched his nose and his hand came away red and dripping, “I think I need a doctor.”
The woman nodded and started to walk in front of the car towards the passenger side. She almost made it past the second headlight but suddenly stopped, and didn’t so much fall but crumpled against the Sedan’s hood. She thrust out her right arm and pointed.
Chad turned and saw—
–what? The memory had gone fuzzy again. Now he could only think about the damn teddy bear again: Mr. Teddy to be exact. The one Carol had sent him out to get. He wondered what she was doing right now. He imagined her sitting up in bed wearing a revealing nightgown that did little to hide her plump breasts.
Damn it, he wanted the store to open already! Surely everyone else felt the same way? He looked around at all the people like him, those forced to wait for an eternity just to get some useless toy or computer game. Maybe a pair of dress socks or a new bed comforter. Sure they were marked down, but having to fight over a hundred people? Maybe more?
There was no point to it as far as he was concerned. He’d heard the stories before. People punching and shoving; hell, one or two had even been trampled to death in the process.
There was a sudden noise that drew his attention, along with everyone else who was standing in the line.
Out in the parking lot.
Its headlights cut through the light haze and its engine purred like one of those fat house cats one sees at some old lady’s house. The doors opened and two figures got out, each holding something long and dark.
Chad, along with every other person in the line, began to move toward them. There was no big hurry to get there, although a few of Chad’s companions managed to get a little further than the others. The figures in front of the car stood still for a few moments, but then let loose a volley of bright flashes that brought painful sounds with them. The few of Chad’s companions that had managed to get ahead of the rest of the pack stopped moving and fell straight down.
Two others, a woman and a young boy, moving on either side of Chad, gave forth a painful wail that rivaled that of the wind, and they reached out, their arms stiff and fingers grasping at air. There was another flash and the woman’s head disappeared in an orgy of blood, brain and bone.
She dropped down, her hands still reaching, and another one took her place. The young boy, in the meantime, had broken into a slight jog. His movements were awkward, and he waved back and forth as he tried to gain some distance.
Another series of flashes, and he fell backwards. Two others took his place, then four more. Chad moved with the rest of them. Women and children, as well as men. All of them seeking the same thing. The flashes began to taper off, then stopped all together. The figures darted back into their vehicle. Chad was close enough to see that it was a sports car with only two doors.
The engine suddenly stopped purring.
The figures on the inside made rapid movements and the car whined and whinnied, but failed to start back up.
Chad looked on as one of his companions reached the car. It was a heavier set man; he reared back a fist and slammed it into the passenger side window. The glass held. He turned back as if to beckon the rest of them for help.
When Chad saw his face, a familiar face—
–the man was already so close that he could taste his rancid breath. There was a large gash that started at the obese man’s forehead and sliced clean down into his upper jaw.
He grabbed Chad’s shoulders and carried him to ground as the woman in front of the Sedan began to scream. His milky white eyes stared into Chad’s for a brief moment before he opened his mouth and sank his teeth into the tender flesh on the side of Chad’s neck.
Then there was what? Nothing.
Then after that?
The stupid teddy bear.
It was the need for the teddy bear, Carol’s order, which drove him to the parking lot of TONY’S. Now however, another need had taken over. It was simple yet overwhelming, even if he didn’t know what to call it.
Chad reached the passenger side door and pounded on the glass. Eventually it gave with a sickening crash that was louder than the screams of the two young men trapped inside the car. He grabbed the first passenger by the leg, and pulled him out into the waiting hands of his companions. Dozens of sets of teeth tore into warm flesh as they carried him to the ground. He soon disappeared under a sea of clawing hands and hungry mouths.
The other one tried to get out on the driver’s side while the feast was going on, but a little girl with pigtails, her shredded face almost unrecognizable, reached out from underneath the car and tugged at his ankle. The man fell and screamed as she sank her teeth into him. Then another child, a little boy missing his nose and an ear took hold of his other leg and bit into the skin just above the knee. The man continued his screams for a few minutes more, but then stopped once his throat was no longer his own.
As soon as the feast ended, Chad remembered that he promised Carol to get that damn teddy bear. TONY’S department store wasn’t that far away, so he began to shuffle towards it, still holding a dripping piece in his right hand.
By Patrick Winters
Mrs. Wilson took a left down Gemma Lane, her seventy-four year old legs carrying her along at a strong pace. She gave a wave to Mr. Denbrough, rocking out on the porch of his corner home, as he was often to be found in these days of retirement. He gave her a wave right back and a scratchy “Hullo!” He watched her as she walked right on, and then went back to staring out at his lawn. She debated turning back, however, and for the umpteenth time, considered asking him to come by and have dinner with her some evening; like always, though, she decided to do otherwise, feeling too bashful at asking such a thing and keeping to her walk instead. Perhaps some other time.
She was starting to feel that knot of tension bunching up in her calves, the one that came from another good, daily walk around the neighborhood; most people would have taken it as a sign to slow down, let alone at her age, but it only inspired her to speed up—to burn those calories and get that blood pumping. The way she saw it, it was her little way of proving to God above that she had life left in her limbs. The thought of the Almighty watching her from the heavens—rooting her on as she exercised—made her smile. Her swinging arms picked up some more swing, and she started fancying the idea of taking an extra lap on this fine April weekend.
Her jolly demeanor fell a notch, though, as she walked along the sidewalk before the household of the Morrison family. From somewhere within the two-story, brown Cape Cod home, she could hear the shouts of Debbie and Mark Morrison through the walls and their half-opened windows. What they were arguing over, Mrs. Wilson couldn’t tell—it was just a load of loud and angry noise to her, as it often is to passersby who happen upon familial disputes. Whatever the matter was, it sounded like a heated one judging by the constant back-and-forth barrage of the couple’s high, frantic voices. But then it quite often sounded like that whenever the Morrisons had their spats. As their backdoor neighbor (her home being directly behind the Morrison’s on the opposing street, and with only a small yard and a big maple as a buffer between households), Mrs. Wilson knew plenty about how regularly and sharply the couple argued. They’d give an entirely different meaning to the “morning, noon, and night” that Big Joe Turner used to sing about in Mrs. Wilson’s better days.
She didn’t know how a couple could have that many disputes, and she tried her hardest not to give too much thought to it, lest she feel compelled to share her speculations with her friends, in the process becoming one of those gossiping crones that most people automatically assumed women of her age to be, anyways. Besides, the couple’s home-life just plain wasn’t any of her business or concern; if her years had taught her anything, it was that people lived how they lived, and you would live however you lived.
With that in mind, Mrs. Wilson kept right on with her walk, passing the Morrison’s’ and heading along down the street. A particularly harsh curse coming from Debbie Morrison, however, forced a flinch out of her and a turn of her head. As she looked about, she glimpsed their backyard, where a young girl sat with her back to the house and to the shouting, cross-legged in the grass and a couple of dolls in her hands. A hard jab of sadness took a sucker-punch straight to Mrs. Wilson’s heart to see it.
Nobody knew more about the Morrison’s constant troubles than little Abbie Anne, their seven year old daughter. Mrs. Wilson couldn’t imagine the many things the poor girl must have seen and heard from her parents, and she frankly didn’t want to imagine it. It was a true pity.
Looking away, Mrs. Wilson returned to her hard-paced walk, leaving behind the Morrison’s household, their shouting, and their sad girl . . .
. . . At the sound of her mommy’s loud, angry use of a bad word, Abbie Anne blinked in anxiousness. Her chin fell closer to her chest, which felt real funny—as it always did when her mommy and daddy yelled at each other. She didn’t like it at all—that feeling or the yelling. She tried her best to ignore both by playing more with her dolls, making them talk to one another.
“I really love that dress you have on,” Abbie Anne said in what she imagined My Friend Fanny’s voice to sound like, high and cheery. She brought the fashionable, brunette, Barbie-esque doll closer to her much older and less stylish, blonde-curled rag doll, Sophie. She positioned Fanny’s little plastic arm to where it pointed at Sophie’s simple, blue and white checkered dress.
“Oh, thank you!” Abbie Anne said for Sophie. “It’s really nothing special. I got it at –”
“I told you I’d be late!” came her daddy’s voice. The words were shouted from what sounded, to Abbie Anne’s ears, to be the kitchen. That was apparently confirmed when the sound of a plate scraping against the sink screeched out through the back window, and then her mommy shouted back, “But why were you late? That’s what I want to know!”
Abbie Anne gripped her dolls tighter and scooted her bottom along the grass, inching forward a bit and further away from the house. The blades of grass tickled her legs, but she didn’t laugh at the sensation. Her daddy had been saying for the past week that he meant to mow the lawn, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Part of her wished he would decide to do it now, if only to stop the fighting for a while. Maybe after he was done, he’d even play with her outside for a bit before mommy called them in for lunch. And then they’d eat and laugh and enjoy the rest of the day together and forget about whatever caused all the yelling and bad words.
“That’s not what I said!” Debbie Morrison hollered from inside the house. The hard bang of a cabinet being slammed shut came after. Then the noisy mix of both husband’s and wife’s voices rose up a notch.
Abbie Anne sighed out her sadness and pushed herself up to her feet. She adjusted her shorts and her tie-dye shirt as she carried her dolls across the yard, heading over to the big maple tree that grew between her family’s house and old Mrs. Wilson’s. Its leaves were a beautiful mix of green and red, with just a tinge of the latter, and its long, spreading branches cast scattered shadows along the ground as the sun beamed down from up above. In another month or so, the leaves would be a full, lush red, and soon after the little whirligigs that Abbie Anne loved so much would fall from their heights in the tree. For now, though, their pods were still soaking up the light of spring and the occasional rainfall—to grow, to blossom, and become. Abbie Anne sat herself down under the tree, leaning against its trunk. She could still hear her parents’ voices from this spot, but it wasn’t as bad.
She shifted herself a little, snuggling her shoulder against the tree’s bark, to where she could make her toys walk along a thick root creeping out of the ground. She imagined that Fanny and Sophie were adventuring through a magical forest, and that she was off with them in their grand time. She had them dive off the root and into the grass, which served as a lake of lovely, shimmering green water for her play. After a nice dip, she put them back up on the root and had the dolls start a search for a princess’ lost royal treasure. Just as they were on the verge of finding it and returning it to the royalty of Lolly Land, Abbie Anne heard someone saying her name.
“Hello, Abbie Anne!” the voice spoke up from behind her. It was a woman’s voice, sweet and grandmotherly, and Abbie Anne turned around expecting to see Mrs. Wilson coming out to talk to her. Mrs. Wilson wasn’t there, however, nor was there anybody else coming up from the other side of the tree. Both the Morrison and Wilson yards were empty, save for her. Abbie Anne’s nose crinkled like a rabbit’s, the way it did when she was confused. She thought she’d heard . . .
“Hello!” the voice said again. A quick little laugh followed, and Abbie Anne got to her feet, still holding her dolls. She looked all about, her hair swishing to and fro as she tried to find who it was that was talking. Still, she didn’t see anybody. Then, she turned her eyes to the tree and noticed something remarkable.
On the tree, just a foot or so above Abbie Anne’s head, was a gnarl that she had never noticed before. In fact, she would have sworn—crossed her heart and hoped to die, even—that it hadn’t been there before now. She wasn’t outside a whole lot as of late, what with school still going just before summer break, but she thought she’d been out back enough to have seen and remembered the gnarl by now. It was round, had a few odd bumps over it, and Abbie Anne thought it looked kind of like a person’s face. A line scratched along the bottom of it formed a kind of slanted mouth, a nub just above that looked along the lines of a pig’s nose, and two round, small bumps above that looked like googily bug-eyes. The more Abbie Anne looked at it, the more she made a face out of the growth, and she giggled a tad at the comparison. Then its eyes opened.
Abbie Anne gave a little jump backwards and gasped in astonishment as the eye-bumps peeped open. With a very quiet crack of wood against wood, they peeled back like eyelids to reveal two blinking eyes beneath, complete with irises and pupils and everything else that made up an eye—their distinctive shapes formed by the colors and patterns of the grain within the maple. The gnarl’s eyes looked down at Abbie Anne, who looked right back up at it with her own gawking ones. She stood there with her jaw open in wonderful shock as her grip on her toys slipped; they fell to her sneakered feet.
“H– Hi!” Abbie Anne forced out. She blinked a few times, wondering if this could really be happening. She instantly hoped that it was really happening, because she felt like a girl in a magical fairy tale, one who had discovered something special and unbelievable.
The gnarl’s mouth moved and creaked into a smile, the strange face beaming with joy at the little girl.
“How are you on this fine day?” the face asked, its smile widening as its eyes turned up towards the bright sky, its voice radiating with love of the day and pleasure to be talking with someone.
“I’m . . . I’m alright,” Abbie Anne said, reclaiming the step she had jumped back from. She took an even closer step towards the tree as its face looked back at her. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m wonderful!” the tree said. A smooth breeze set its branches and red-green leaves to dancing above, and the tree laughed again. “But, I must say, I’m doing all the better now that I’m talking with you, Abbie Anne!”
Abbie Anne’s nose did its confused crinkling again. “Uhm, how are you talking? And how do you know my name?”
The gnarl gave a chuckle, just as grandmothers will often do at the inquiries of their curious grandchildren. “All trees have voices, if you listen closely enough to what they have to say. And ears, too! That’s how I know your sweet little name is Abbie Anne. I listen . . .”
“But . . . I’ve never seen any other trees talk like you do. Or with faces.”
“Well, I really wanted to talk to you! And I’m something of a special tree, I suppose . . .”
“Oh,” Abbie Anne said, still a little uncertain, but not by much—she was talking to a tree, after all, and how amazing was that! Maybe she was the first person to ever talk to a tree like this! “Do you have a name?” she asked, wanting to be polite.
It was the gnarl’s turn to look curious, its wooden smile falling into a frown. “No, no, I’m afraid I don’t,” it said with seriousness. “But you can give me one, if you like!”
Abbie Anne smiled big and gave a quick laugh, happy to have such an honor. Naming a talking tree—wow! She thought about it a moment and said, “Well, how about Maple?”
The gnarl smiled again, content with the sound of it. “I like that; Maple it is!”
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Maple!”
“And I’m pleased to meet you, Abbie Anne! Very pleased.”
“So, what are . . . ?”
“Lunch is ready, sweetie!” Abbie Anne’s daddy called from the back porch, making her jump and spin around. She saw him give her a wave to come in, his face still noticeably red from his shouting and his anger. She turned back to Maple with an apologetic shrug.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, meaning it an awful lot, “but I have to go for now. Will you still . . . ?”
The gnarl gave another laugh. “Oh, yes, I’ll be here! Where else would I go? Come back anytime, dear!”
With that, Abbie Anne gave Maple a sad wave, saying “Bye!”, and she ran back to the house, going in for lunch and hoping desperately to talk to Maple again.
The gnarl, meanwhile, watched the girl run off, smiling as she disappeared into the house. As soon as the backdoor had closed, a squirrel came bounding across the lawn, stopping in front of the maple tree and measuring up how to best climb it. As it stood on its hind legs, one of the maple’s roots wrenched itself out of the ground and swatted the little animal aside, sending it flying with a pained chatter.
The root returned to its spot in the earth, and the gnarl smiled, still.
A week passed and a friend was made. Each and every day, Abbie Anne found a reason to go outside—aside from getting away from her mommy and daddy’s fighting, which they continued on with in usual fashion. But whether they were shouting at each other or not, their little girl took every chance she could to spend her time in the backyard, talking with Maple.
Her new wooden friend had remained Abbie Anne’s special secret; though she felt the urge to do so now and again—thinking she’d burst from the wonderfulness of it—she never blabbed about the talking tree to anyone else. She’d nearly told her mommy and daddy about it the first day she and Maple had talked, but she knew they wouldn’t believe her. They’d say it was just her imagination. And though she wanted to brag about it to Susie Andrews and Hannah Falk, her closest friends, she couldn’t bear to do it; she even thought about telling Danny King, who was a class ahead of them and always made fun of them for not being “cool,” just because they were girls. “Oh yeah, well, I’ve got a talking tree in my backyard!”—that’s what she wanted to say to him, and if that didn’t make her the coolest kid in school, what would? Then, she’d come so close to telling Max Palmer (her little crush) all about it, so she could invite him over and they could talk to the tree together and maybe they’d end up as boyfriend and girlfriend. Even then, though, she’d kept quiet, cherishing her secretive times with Maple on the weekends and the evenings that came after school days.
During these chats, Abbie Anne would tell the tree about her days, what was going on at school, what she thought about wearing to school the next day, her little child’s secrets, and all about her dreams. Maple would listen intently, saying, “Oh, isn’t that nice” or “My, isn’t that something?” or any number of things that inspired Abbie Anne to keep saying more. They laughed and joked, and on one very special evening, Abbie Anne had told Maple how much she loved the whirligigs that fell from her branches every year.
“Oh, do you?” Maple had said with a chuckle. Then, the tree had turned its gaze upwards to its branches, and before Abbie Anne’s very eyes, the seeds had grown in full—and in a matter of seconds! Then Maple gave a shake of her branches and they all came falling, twirling, and spinning down onto the yard, covering Abbie Anne in a magnificent hail of the winged seeds. She had laughed and laughed at that, and Maple laughed with her.
“It’s nice to see you happy,” Maple said through her chuckling. But then her wooden face fell and she started sounding down in the dumps. “You’re never that happy with your mother and father, are you?”
The question had caught Abbie Anne by surprise, and as she thought about it, she started feeling awfully down, too. “No,” she’d answered. “Not really. They’re always fighting over things . . .”
“And that makes you sad, doesn’t it?” Maple asked in concern. “They make you sad.”
“Yeah . . .”
The two friends fell silent for a moment, both thinking. Finally, Maple spoke up. “Abbie Anne, there’s something I haven’t told you yet. Something about me. Something that might just make you very, very happy.”
Abbie Anne’s nose crinkled. “What is it?” she wondered.
“Well, you know that I’m a special tree—but you still don’t know just how special I really am! I can take you to a magical place beneath your world.”
“Like . . . Alice? In Wonderland?” Abbie Anne asked, curious as to what this place could possibly be. She already liked the sound of it.
Maple hesitated, her wooden eyes blinking as she considered this. “Uhm . . . yes, just like that! With all sorts of castles and fairies and talking animals—just like in your dreams you’ve told me all about! Oh, Abbie Anne, it’s a delightful place to go. And I can take you there. And you can stay as long as you’d like to!”
Abbie Anne smiled and said, “Neat! But . . . how would you get me there . . . ?”
Maple grinned and said: “Watch!” Then, her trunk began to creak and her roots began to move through the earth in their wonderful way. As the tree shifted in the ground, a vertical crack formed in the wood and split in the base of it, spreading open like a mouth as the earth right under it fell away, revealing a hole that led down into the dark earth. It was just big enough for Abbie Anne to crawl into, if she wanted to, and make her way to this glorious kingdom Maple spoke of.
Abbie Anne stepped forward, but then suddenly stopped. She looked back to her house, thinking of how upset her mommy and daddy would be if they came out to get her soon and she were gone. As fantastic a place as this underground world sounded, and as much as Abbie Anne wanted to go there, she couldn’t risk making her parents any more troubled and bothered than they already were. She said as much to Maple.
“I want to, Maple, I really do—but I think I should go back inside now.”
Maple’s face went straight with disappointment. When she spoke again, her cherry tone was gone and she sounded rather hurt. “Well, then, perhaps some other time. All I want is to make you happy . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Abbie Anne repeated, turning away. She looked back and said, “See you later, Maple.” But the tree had already shut its eyes and closed its mouth and returned to its normal state, hiding its true nature from all.
Two evenings later, Abbie Anne lay in bed, crying her eyes out as her mommy and daddy fought into the night. She could hear them yelling in their room across the hall, worse than she’d ever heard before, and she jumped as something or other smacked a wall. The shouting rose all the more after that.
She tried to cover her ears with her little hands, and then her pillow, wishing and hoping they’d just stop. She didn’t want to hear it anymore; it was too much. She wanted her mommy and daddy to be happy and love each other like they used to, but she didn’t think they ever, ever could. She had tried to tell them that tonight at dinner, when the fight began all over again and they hurled their curses and claims and irritations at each other from across the table, and with her caught between it all. She’d tried. She’d sheepishly started to talk when the yelling came to a brief pause, before the tides of anger rose up again. She’d only said, “I don’t like it when you two fight. You . . .”
But then she was cut off by her daddy as he turned his stern glare to her—looking at her the way he did her mommy, when they fought. It had scared her. Had hurt her. She’d looked to her mommy for some support in her desperate plea, but her mommy had her head in her hand, giving her daughter a quick glance before looking down at the table and grinding her jaw in silent anger—just as she did when she was really mad with daddy. Abbie Anne had said no more and gone to her room as soon as she could.
Daddy’s look and mommy’s hard silence had made Abbie Anne come to believe something, since then—that they both hated her as much as they hated each other, now.
Though this wasn’t the case at all, Abbie Anne believed it with all her little broken heart, and she came to think that the arguing would only persist and get worse, and her parents’ hate for each other and for her would only increase. She didn’t want that. She didn’t want to see that, to be a part of it. She wanted to be away from all of this. And she wrestled with a decision that she finally gave in to, when her clock struck ten and her parents had begrudgingly gone to bed.
Abbie Anne got up and dumped her backpack full of folders and schoolbooks onto her bed. Then she filled it with some of her favorite toys and books and a bag of candy she kept on her nightstand. She didn’t bother changing out of her pajamas for her trip; she figured the wonderful people and creatures of Maple’s underworld kingdom could supply her with much nicer clothes, once she got there. Pretty dresses and fancy wardrobes.
Then, Abbie Anne snuck out of her room and made her way downstairs—in the dark, barefoot, and anxious. She got some juice-boxes out of the fridge and some cookies from the pantry for good measure, and put them in her backpack. Then she’d sneaked out the backdoor and into the yard. She ran up to Maple, who sat sleeping in the shadows of the night.
“Maple!” she said hurriedly, tears in her eyes. “Maple, please wake up!”
With a strange yawn, Maple did just that, her wooden eyes staring towards Abbie Anne through the dark. A smile slowly crept onto the tree’s face.
“Abbie Anne!” it said. “Why, child, it’s so late! What are you doing out of bed?”
“My mommy and daddy won’t stop fighting,” the little girl explained. “They don’t like me, either, any more!” Her tears fell freely now. “I want to go away! I want to go to your special place! Forever and ever!”
Maple’s smile grew in spite of the girl’s distress. “Oh, Abbie Anne, I’m sorry. But you’ll love it down there! It’s such a better place! You’ll be happy there, and I want you to be happy. Come now, let’s get you there.”
Maple shut her eyes in concentration, and then her trunk started to creak and crack as it had before. The earth beneath Abbie Anne’s feet shook a bit as the portal to the magical underworld kingdom opened up through Maple, the hole in the earth leading down into darkness. When Maple opened her eyes again, she looked to Abbie Anne with a show of love and concern.
“Here we are, dear. Now you go and be happy!”
Abbie Anne stepped closer to the portal. She looked to her wooden friend and said, “Thank you, Maple. I’ll miss you . . .”
The tree blinked and said, “Yes, I’ll miss you, too, dear. Now, hurry along. They’re waiting for you down there!”
After one more reassuring smile from Maple, Abbie Anne walked over to the hole in the earth and got down to her knees to enter it. She spared one look back to her house, wishing things could be so much different, that her stay in the magical kingdom didn’t have to be forever. But she knew it would be better this way, and she turned back to the portal. Crawling along, she stuck her head in, the cool, earthy air of the underground filling her little nose. Even though there was no light to see by and no way of knowing where the path to the underworld kingdom led, Abbie Anne crawled further in, until her bare feet were the last of her to go into the darkness. As she started off on her grand adventure through the earth, the portal closed behind her.
The night was silent save for the chirping of crickets in the yard. Maple gave a contented sigh, closed her eyes, and went to sleep, her little task done. She never opened her eyes again.
Years and years passed. Abbie Anne was reported missing by her mother and father, and after much investigation, officials determined she was a runaway. They put up fliers, made pleas on television for the girl to be found and returned safely, and kept up the search for her—for a time. But as years passed, hope dwindled, and guilt set further and further in, the searching ceased. Mark and Debbie Morrison divorced, neither one keeping their old home on Gemma Lane, and neither one expecting their little girl to find her way back to them. The only time they spoke was when sharing their desires to take back their years and do better with them.
After a time, the whole incident and disappearance faded from the forethoughts of the neighborhood, and then the whole town. All who had lived at the time of the incident passed with more time, giving way to another generation, and then another, until the day came that a new family moved in to the Morrison home.
Wanting to put a pool in the backyard, the family had the great old maple tree cut down and removed completely, from its leafy top down to its very roots. When the men they hired to dig out and haul off the remaining trunk had begun their work, though, it came to a sudden, shocking halt.
Their backhoe had unearthed something which sickened the men and saddened their hearts—for underneath the earth and beneath the tree, a little girl’s body had been buried, her tattered pajamas and a backpack still on her old bones.
Your Catholic Mouth
By: Snigdha Kanuparthy
The only stories we tell are in part, warnings.
He-who-stands-in-the-Southern-Sky and his brother lived (and died) long after the land no longer owned itself. They fought baptism and foreign gods and their laws and the old monsters. The traders gave them names that were not their own.
There is one monster in the north, a hunger contained in a human shell that stretches and deforms around it with a name too cursed to ever utter. It eats human flesh and preys on things in the night with glittering eyes, and screams your name back in your own voice. You can only kill it with iron, steel, or silver.
(The Fiddlers slayed the giants and the wendigo.)
Any signs of this sickness were sins of the flesh and trespass against the land. There is only one ending.
(The Fiddlers euthanized the dying. Do not blame them.)
But lying (even if it is only to yourself) is also the wendigo. And you can never slay what you have become.
“I swear to god, the thing was like…” he uses his hands to indicate a size approximately three-quarters of his size. “That big. It was all covered in seaweed and barnacles and shit from the bottom of the ocean.” He takes another swig from the bottle of rum at his feet and grins, staring directly at the campfire.
“C’mon, man,” someone from the opposite side of the circle says. “What happened to the rest of the body. Did you guys only find the foot?”
He laughs. “Yeah. No idea. Sightings of this thing went through the roof though.” The girl next to him makes a face, and he puts an arm around her, pulling her closer. “I’m not even that into horror.”
“You don’t have to be, to be good at storytelling,” she says pointedly.
“And you’re so much better, huh?” He kisses her, and brushes her hair away from her face.
“I think the guy smoking and wandering around on the other end of the beach can tell a better story.”
“Is that a bet?”
She stares at him. “I guess.”
“And what do I get if I win?”
The stranger has a scar across his face, running from just beyond the right eye to the left side of his mouth. His teeth are lopsided, and if he wasn’t in the habit of covering his mouth, you could see the canines and incisors dribble out on one side like a hungry dog. He looks out at the water, muttering about something you probably couldn’t understand.
“Hey, sorry to bother you but—“
He turns around, and crushes his cigarette underneath one of his boots. He’s at least ten years older than the oldest person at the campfire; and perhaps twenty over the youngest. (Strange couple.)
“We have this campfire going over there…” he gestures to something in the distance. “And uh. We’re telling horror stories, if you want to join us…”
The stranger raises an eyebrow. “Why me?”
“My girlfriend thinks I’m terrible at storytelling and you’re the lucky asshole she picked to prove her point.”
He smiles a crooked smile. “I think I have one of those.”
“All right!” And then he adds: “reading a Wikipedia article doesn’t count.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nah.” But neither are you. He looks at the stranger and smiles a little. “Atlantic City.”
That’s a lie, isn’t it?/It’s where my parents fucked each other senseless./That’s still not the truth. This seems to satisfy him, though. “I haven’t ever been there.”
“Not really a fan.” He laughs. “What about you? Where are you from?”
This is a story The Stranger was told, and now tells you:
In the North, there’s a city that’s just a single building and a building that keeps something old and ancient and huge within it. When they went West it was because the world was only partially made and there was space to do the making. The land there was untamable, coated in its own frozen armor. They gave it a name, but it’d resist even that if it could.
The town I grew up in had this old legend about a house up on the hill. Ghost at the third floor window with a piercing red gaze. (Red-Eyes the cheat, Red-Eyes the scoundrel.) Everyone in town had their own ideas about whose ghost it was, but the general consensus seemed to be that it used to be part of some guy who thought he could be king of this place, and killed the guy responsible for bringing money into the area. It used to be an old oil town, back before fracking and all that new shit, but results are still the same I guess, huh? Where was I? Right, so because the guy killed someone powerful and important and beloved and by some karmic twist of fate was stuck at the scene of the crime, he was generally considered bad luck.
I was kind of a pussy when I was younger, so I never really went up to check it out. Heard other people say things though. The ghost was hungry; it drank up the tar underneath the land, and stole the sun out of the sky. It had a name once, or two, but you were never supposed to call it by either one of those. Bad luck, bad luck. He’ll take your name if you’re not careful, so you’re never supposed to call for anybody near the hill. We had all these old superstitions that we kept to… you know?
The closest I got as a kid was the guy two doors down from me. He told me about this pendulum made of quartz that his mom had. It could tell you the answers to questions you hadn’t even thought up yet. Ouija wasn’t big yet, otherwise, you know someone would’ve used the window on the planchette to find the ghost. He took it up the hill and the thing swayed back and forth over and over again. No/no/no/no/no/yes. Showed me the length of chain and the crystal with a crack in it dangling off of the end. “I’ll sell it to you for a dollar. I bet there’s something you want to ask it.”
“So, that’s it?” He interrupts. “You’re not over this ghost story from your childhood?” He runs his hand across his girlfriend’s back, and brings it down to rest on her waist. He laughs.
I think my story was much better than that./It’s not quite finished yet.
“What are you most afraid of?” The storyteller asks, looking at the fire.
“Failure,” she says in response.
“Uncertainty.” He takes his hand off of her, and sets it down on the driftwood between them. “What about you? Now, I mean?”
It is a strange and curious sickness,
(For it gnaws at your bones.)
Eat/be free. Eat/become strong.
But this is witchcraft;
merely the shape it takes in the darkness.
This is where The Stranger’s story begins:
Kid brought the thing to school every day for a week, and the story got wilder each time. The crack on the side was from Red-Eyes gnarled claws, and each answer had a question that related intensely to your personal life. (She wouldn’t go with you to the school dance but you don’t really like her like that anyways, you’re never going to get out of this place, the thing you hate the most isn’t your parents.)
My twin brother ended up buying it from him. Held onto it for years and years.
People die, but cities don’t really, ever. Cartographers keep putting ‘em on maps as if it’ll convince people to move, and the ones that sit on either sides of rusty train-tracks thin at the edges until you’re left with the old soothsayer who brings you to her home and tells you about her own pitiful childhood in this pathetic town. Still on the map, but everything that was ever important to her is at the bottom of some lake.
The place we lived tried to prevent that by holding the future up with this flavorful sepia tint. They taught us about the oil boom, but nothing about the land itself. How the town was founded because of a dream someone had—God blessed us, which is why we were still able to live here years after the oil boom. Never mentioned the house on the hill or the ghost that lived in it. Not in a good way or a bad way. I mean, I get it even if you don’t really believe in the occult. Thing was kind of an eyesore. Old house from the eighteen-somethings, or maybe before, I don’t know. Someone bought it to build something grand, and stitched rooms together in an approximation of what they thought society would like, but never really thought about the exterior. All angles and corners.
Big man in the big house was originally from the East. A dishwasher or a shoemaker or something. Story changes every time; but it’s thoroughly American. He used to be small, but he climbed the ladder (because of faith.) He dreamed of bitumen underneath the snowdrifts, and as the legend goes, when he saw the spot, he knew, because he could make out where the angel Gabriel had been, the air was still twisted and contorted, he said.
It took a few years, but back in forty-four, big man on the big hill in the big mansion built with god knows whose money set up a refinery to drag the tar out from underneath the land. Called himself mayor because he had the biggest fence and the newest gun on his hip. All of it was back before my grandma was even born, so I couldn’t tell you whether or not he was good at the job he gave himself. People with money usually aren’t, though.
Three things happened that year the refinery was built: the coldest winter we ever had on record, the birth of these twins, and six sets of deer bones sticking up from out underneath the snow. The earth takes your bones and sometimes they end up tangled up in the roots of some great tree, or the dirt digests them until they turn into thick tar that other bastards suck dry.
A guy wearing a white coat said that the refinery was doomed because it was too cold in the North to break ground, the midwife said the boy was too small, so he’d never survive the winter, and someone with a badge said the dead deer would stop; something about migratory paths and food scarcity. (They were all wrong. You can read about it in an old issue of The Gazette or The Herald or something if you really want to know. Big man called it divine intervention; proof.)
Twins are an omen where I come from; and in those days, things were still half-made, so they were neither inherently ill or good. Deep snowdrifts for seven months out of the year, but the first signs of spring were so goddamn beautiful.
There’s an old legend told under bated breath and hushed whispers about two human children that they found when they were slicing open the stomach of a deer with a distended belly. (That’s the kind of thing that was supposed to cement their future—the consumed becomes the consumer and eats the thing it came from.)
The first two things, they taught us because it was supposed to be proof that this town was meant to be. But the summer I turned sixteen, the deer bones started happening all over again. It wasn’t particularly hot or anything—
The song and dance man
stepped out of a truck when you
He wore clothes you had
no words to describe.
“We have to perform a ritual.
The air and earth
You think of this now because it is too late.
There are things he tells her when he holds her hand (partially for that reason, among others.) When the storyteller pauses for a smoke break, and she moves her hand underneath his, he assumes the role for a moment.
He leans in close to her and whispers this in her ear: “I’m claustrophobic. Kind of a pussy about dark spaces, actually.”
She rests her torso on his shoulder in response.
He laughs, loud enough for the people on the other side of the fire to hear, and then lowers his voice again. “Once when I was ten or eleven…” Was I even alive then? “… my brother shoved me in this cabinet and propped something really heavy against the door. We didn’t live in a big house, or anything but no matter how hard I screamed and cried, nobody ever came for me. My knees were tucked into my stomach, and after a while, I couldn’t really tell where the wall ended and I began. My throat was hoarse and I felt like throwing up, but I could see like this. It was just a sliver of light from the halogen lamp in the living room or something, dunno, really. Anyways, when I’m about to pass out inside of this thing, I see the little slice of light getting bigger and bigger and I think this is it, but I see my dad’s face sticking out from the other side of the cabinet.”
“So, what happened to your brother?” She asks.
A person on the left passes him a joint, and he puts his arm around her so his hand rests on her shoulder. “My dad cussed him out and grounded him for a while.” He quirks an eyebrow and offers her the joint.
Where was I again? Right. My brother with the quartz crystal and the shitty plan. I think I’d still have a brother if I wasn’t a dick. (I’m sorry.)
He wanted to go up to the haunted room in the house on the hill to ask a series of questions and back before my mom had him on a leash, she would make me chaperone him. Brother read a lot, but I never did. I tried a bunch of things when I was younger. Server, cook, barista, cashier, clerk, whatever they call the guys running up and down the aisles at hardware stores. None of them really stuck; partially because I think I was restless, and partially because I’d get to this point where the rest of my life looked so fucking bleak. I guess I was a drifter then and I still am, now. For different reasons, though.
You guys have siblings like that? You’re dull copper but they’re gold or platinum or something. Fuck. I mean you love ‘em but it’s just—you know?
Anyways, on a warm summer night, I take a flashlight, a penknife and a bottle of water up to the hill, and I take my brother with me. He has this plan, to put an end to the myth or whatever. He wants to ask about the dead deer, and whether or not the land is cursed and shit like that. He loved the place we live in and I guess he wanted to save it or something. I talk about the stories they told us but, when I was younger I believed them. Fell in love with the place just like the rest of the goddamn locals, and like him. You see, mom and dad had some relatives in common. They weren’t first cousins, but everyone back home is like that. People don’t marry outsiders and you brag about the fraction of your blood that once belonged to an oil mogul. (1/28th.)
We go with a couple of my friends, because I’m still scared shitless, and at least one of them is the type of guy to vandalize old houses and throw eggs at buildings with living occupants—loved him, kind of a little. A lot actually, but I’ll get to that later. He was way smarter than me too.
Place is messed up, years of disuse and other shitty kids smoking and drinking and communing with spirits, I guess. Still scared shitless though. Hate how buildings and people look at night under low lighting, but I’m an adult now, so I have to hide it. Scared of really loud noises too. It wasn’t like what they said it’d be, but it was all the same.
Whatever. When you’re like me, you send your brother up because you think he can handle himself. Watch that stupid grin as he goes up to the third floor by himself, holding this length of rope in his hands, not knowing that god, or the universe or whatever, wants him to hang himself with it. I don’t really know what he did—don’t really remember what I did for that matter. He took fucking forever up there, and the guy I liked suggested we go check up on him after a while. I think it was just bravado or whatever, showing off, you know, but I convinced him to wait.
Still kind of wonder if I had gone up earlier, if anything different would have happened? Or maybe it was one of those things, one entrance one exit, and everything that happens between is the same no matter what way you slice it. Anyways, we found him in a pile of his own piss and vomit. He wouldn’t fucking say anything to us, but if we tried to move him he hissed and clawed.
“When my brother was born,” she says, “when my brother was born, they didn’t think he was going to make it. But, when he did, a priest told us he was going to be like Jesus Christ nailed to the cross.” She doesn’t look at him, or the fire.
“I thought your family wasn’t Christian.”
“We’re not. But I don’t think it matters? I think it’s all the same anyways.”
“Why tell me this now?”
“Because I hated him. I used to hate him and I still might. I hated him for the longest time and I didn’t know why.”
(“Are you sure you don’t want to be some kind of intoxicated for this?”)
He was never the same after he walked out of that house. Mom and dad took him to doctor after doctor, strapping him to the backseat in the van and driving to towns that we’d never been to before. Nobody could find out exactly what was wrong. We… we used to be kind of like a starfish, cleaved in half and each of the two parts regrew a whole, but the way he was then, the way he still is, I guess was nothing like me. He ate his own hair, and pulled it out in clumps from his own head. Wouldn’t let anyone get close, because he’d scream like a goddamn banshee and repeat shit you told him in your own fucking voice. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand seeing him, and seeing my own face like that. I never really had the courage (?) Or no, maybe it was the audacity (?) to drive a knife in when nobody was looking. It didn’t really help that mom still loved him, even though he chewed up the inside of his own cheek and screamed and clawed at her. He’d straighten out like a cobra, watching her, and maybe me while we slept.
The night you were born,
held your mother’s hand,
and gave her a name he had heard once on a hunt.
EXT. A CHEAP BAR SOMEWHERE. LOCATION UNIMPORTANT
EURYDICE is sitting on a barstool at a back counter, ORPHEUS has an elbow propped on it. He stares at her intently. Her finger skirts the rim of the glass.
Where does this end for you? Kids? Marriage?
I don’t know. Not yet, anyways.
That sounds kind of like something I would say.
It’s quiet for a moment. Orpheus turns something over in his palms and looks at her again. A MAN is shouting about something in the background.
It’s your turn to ask me a question, by the way.
(in deep thought)
What were you most afraid of as a child? Or… no.
Actually, what did you want to become as an adult.
When you were younger, I mean.
(startled, but laughs it off)
That’s pretty fucking grim, huh? Going straight
for the heavy stuff. Jesus.
(visibly intoxicated, shouting)
You think god ever got fucking smashed
when he made ostriches? Like. Just so
fucking drunk? Huh? Hey let’s take this dumb
motherfucker’s ability to fly away and give him
goddamn anxiety. Huh?
flinches, reaches for Eurydice instinctively)
Christ. Wonder what that’s about.
Eurydice seems to have dropped the question.
INT. THE CAMPFIRE
Orpheus has his fingers tangled in Eurydice’s hair. We hear waves crashing in the distance.
Everyone who means something leaves eventually. I mean, they come back because people from here don’t take well to the outside world. The world’s shaped like a sphere, because no matter how far you run, you’re always just a little closer to wherever you left from. When I was eighteen, the future was the same as it had been when I was sixteen, except, the guy I liked was leaving for college or something. I didn’t tell him, but it didn’t matter. What would I have done? Wash dishes in New York, or Sacramento or something? God. When I was eighteen I’d have done it. Come home every night to a shitty apartment or—aw fuck it.
You have to understand something about me; everything that happened—everything I did in my life between twenty and forty was out of love. I’m kind of a hopeless romantic, you know. But I stayed. Became a ranger, because that was the only thing I hadn’t tried. I was never really a doubter but kind of skimming the line of unbeliever. I loved the stories. I think I already said that. I loved the place in the stories. Kind of like an old relative whose wartime self, no matter how terrible, just makes you sit up a little straighter and taller in their lap. That was part of the reason I never left. You can’t really get that anywhere but the place you were born. Or maybe the place your parents were born.
Did I tell you guys all of them? About the angels and the deer and how the family just disappeared after a while? Yes? No? Which ones haven’t I told you about?
Oh no. That was shit we made up—urban legends, I mean. They circulate around because every few years someone says the land is bad, or that things aren’t going well, so… okay, yeah I had personal experience with the thing, and something happened, but the thing is, nobody knows if the family that lived in the house on the hill was actually murdered? Twins, mom and dad all just kind of mysteriously vanished one day. There were riots and shit afterwards, because without them, there was no work. Guy was supposedly a spiritual dowsing rod for the oil underneath the ground and without him, there wasn’t any more of it. Yeah I don’t fucking know what happened. I wasn’t there, it was like eighteen something or some shit. People get the riots confused with the guy disappearing and lo and behold, Red-Eyes.
There are much scarier things in the woods than that though.
What? No. Red-Eyes is part of this story because that’s how it started. Christ. Kids don’t have any patience nowadays.
My first love moved away, my brother’s chained to his own bed sometimes when holy men come into our house and douse him with holy piss warmed between hands that are just as worn as any other asshole’s and I get a job because it’s the only goddamn job I have any aptitude for.
I mean, that’s how it was until I saw this guy’s picture folded up in some old book somewhere. It’s weird loving someone who died before you were born, because you have to fold yourself up into this tiny pocket of time and space that the two of you could never inhabit at once. I think I loved him because he was a twin, and because his sister seemed like the bright one. I don’t know. I don’t fucking know. Sometimes all you need is to look at a person, and you know you love them. Yeah, I know there’s time and work, but that all comes later.
The picture explains better than I ever could, I guess. Black and white, maybe it was a daguerreotype. I don’t really know what the difference between that and an old photograph. Don’t really want any of you to explain it to me either. This guy had been missing for a long time—since around the time the railroad was built two towns away from ours, I guess. Dark eyes and dark hair, kind of moody and wistful. Everyone knew he was dead, but I kind of hoped he was dead the same way my brother was dead, or the way Red-Eyes was—
What? No. Fuck you. My brother died before he was born, maybe. Maybe it was all fucking decided for us, from the moment they poured the foundations in to make this shitty town and he died then. I didn’t kill him, but the thing in his body definitely isn’t him. Fuck off and let me finish. Yeah, you, especially.
You see, after the man with the prophetic dreams about the oil disappeared, money dried up and the only money ever up there was money that had been up there since the oil. Locals built shitty stores and sold their own shit or shit they made to everybody else for nothing.
Your father, the hunter
cleans the bones but never tosses them back.
He doesn’t follow the old ways.
The only visions he has
are of parking tickets.
Yeah, you put your arm around your girlfriend now, but what about in ten years? Twenty? You know how long—fuck. Fuck. Okay. Where was I? Right, the photograph, the two birds with a stone, and the woods.
Right. Castor, the mortal, the reason that we’re all half-dead and half-alive. Castor, the twin, the son of the king, but not the god. I loved him because I looked at his picture once. Do you know—no? Castor and Pollux don’t matter much. Twin stars now, or something like that. You know, it’s going to sound fucking stupid when I tell you, but if Red-Eyes existed, in one form or another, I hoped that this guy would too. But the North… snowdrifts in general aren’t like the ocean. Even if you let things go, they never quite come back. They never found him though. So he never belonged to the land. I told you—I told you how he was born right? Coldest winter, death all around.
Why did I love him? I couldn’t love anyone else. You’ve been there. You know you have. Fuck you, and the goddamn rulers of this world who get to decide who lives and who dies and who’s dead before they’re even born.
I wandered them a lot, by myself. Deer bones never really stopped. You know, okay, the thing was, the reason we fooled ourselves into believing in Red-Eyes was because, every so often, hikers would go missing, and if someone kept animals or something, they’d disappear. So yeah, a giant specter looming in the background makes an easy target. Whatever. Didn’t mean much to me.
Before they baptized the land, it had a name that none of you could pronounce, no matter how much you twist your tongues. Yeah? Not all of you are white, but that’s just the shape the devil takes here. Sometimes it’s that, and sometimes it’s a snake that winds around the land itself and divides it. I mean they’re the same thing, though. Yeah? No? Okay, well, the point is, they used to have these medicine men, or shamans, or whatever their original name was, who were kind of like pillars between the earthly and the spiritual. Red-Eyes was the imbalance. You see? Okay.
No matter how far you go into those woods, or how long you walk away from the line of train tracks that ran through the middle of the town at one point in time, you always get to a second set of train tracks, or a town, or something, somewhere. Another Red-Eyes. I never got to the other town, or the other railroad, but that’s not the point. It was just something to do, because it’s easier to fold yourself into anything you want to be out there. I can’t anymore, but, I knew the woods like I knew myself.
What’s the point of this?
When I turned forty, or damn close to it, the guy I loved once came back to town with a kid in tow. Hadn’t seen him in forever, but people from here always come back, I told you.
“When we first met, you told me you wanted to retire somewhere in the mountains.”
“Did I?” He frowns. “Why bring that up now?”
“What if I want to retire somewhere in the desert—or no, by the sea?”
“Then, I guess it doesn’t work out.”
“Are those two things really that irreconcilable?”
“You’re thinking way too hard about this.”
He went missing that fall. Not the guy, his kid. I don’t remember the reason he came back, but I remember feeling good about it. Yeah, the goddamn universe doesn’t let that last, huh? You ever wonder, if you spent—ah, forget it. It doesn’t matter now anyways. He forgot that kids who weren’t born here aren’t from here, because they don’t drink the water and breathe the air. Blood’s one part, but the more dilute it gets, the harder it is. If he was one-fifth, or one-tenth, I think it would have been fine.
Yeah? To pedigrees, then.
At first, we thought it was kind of like the stunts some of the other kids pulled, you know? Sleeping under piles of leaves and hiding from their parents in the woods. Yeah. I know, it was kind of stupid. I think he was ten or something. When things like that happen, nobody really wants to believe. At first we waited, but then the snow started to pile up, like it always does that time of year, and then he panicked. Told me that coming back was bad shit, and that I needed to help him find the kid, because it was half him and half somebody else who was important but not important enough to be here for one reason or another.
I figured the thing would get tossed to me sooner or later because of what I did, and, yeah I was still kind of into him, so I agreed. He wanted to come with me, and I’m really bad at saying no, or disagreeing, you know how it is, yeah? Packed up shit for a few days, tempted to check the old house on the hill, but, you know, that’s not really where a kid would go. Or, at least, not where I would go if I were a kid, and it’s probably all the same anyways. Yeah, I did feel a lot of that for not going up in time or whatever, but you can’t really repeat the same mistake twice. I mean, if the kid was really up there, knowing what happened the first time, it might have been better just to leave him alone.
Call me an asshole if you want, but waiting until spring probably would have yielded the same results.
Yeah, shapeshifting is a thing, and fuck you too.
Christ. Kids these days.
What was he wearing? I don’t remember. I mean, yes I do, but no I don’t. The shape of the thing is there, but the colors are gone. Yeah I know it’s important. Green and orange sweatshirt or sweater. Not a fashion guy. Call it what you want, picture it the way you want.
Nothing about this matters as much to you as it does to me.
“I had this dream once,” she says to him, before he lights the match. “I don’t really want to tell anyone else about it.”
He sits down on a piece of driftwood next to her. “Setting the atmosphere?” He asks, slinging an arm around her and pinching her side.
“Not that kind of dream.”
“Lame.” He leaves his hand on her waist. “What was it about?”
“Dead men’s teeth,” she says:
i can’t really remember how it started, because in the dream i had memories of things that happened before i ever stepped into the water. (”we’ll be waiting for you on the other shore”/“the water’s going to be warm, don’t worry.”)
it was pitch black and i couldn’t really tell where the horizon ended and the sea began. after a while i lost track of myself. (i could swim in the dream; i can’t swim when i’m awake.) i think i must have been a quarter of the way through the ocean– or maybe it was a lake, or something that kept expanding and contracting that we could have no name for but in a dream; but i was a quarter of the way through when i felt blood on my lips and tongue and a crunching in my mouth. i could see my own face then, and i thought that i had lost all my teeth. the saline and brine stripped them away from my gums. but here, in the middle of nowhere, there was no place to stop and check, so i sucked in a mouthful of water and kept going. i knew if i ate too many of them i’d drown. things made out of bone are bad luck in my culture because of the energy they have, and things between shores must be doubly so.
i don’t know what i was waiting for on the other shore, but when i got there, the ground was as black as the water had been, and the only structure i could make out was a building with many windows and a flickering tv set. a news report from a man i couldn’t recognize: “these are teeth of the drowned.” over and over again. every time it ended, it’d dissolve into static only to begin again.
i think i was alone on the far shore.
(i know i’ve had this dream before. but that’s the thing. you can’t really remember whether each instance of a dream is separate, or if you’ve dreamed within the dream, but in this case, it probably doesn’t matter. i’d never made it to the other shore before.)
The first night in the woods is always the worst, because you’re used to your bed. You’re not used to being out in the middle of nowhere, and the snow doesn’t make it any easier. Good insulation though. Remember that if you’re hiking somewhere. He had it worse than I did, the south softened his skin and he forgot what it was like up here.
Stars are really really beautiful up there though. When you’re out on your back, you can sort of imagine that way back when, people used to navigate by them. Yeah, fuck, yeah, the missing kid. I’m not as much of an asshole as you make me out to be and I’m definitely more of a dick than I present myself as. One more thing, if you’ll permit. Actually, you know what, forget it. You’ll figure it out one day, if you haven’t already.
The first night, we’re lying there, and he tells me all these things about his kid, because I hadn’t been in his life the last twenty or so years, and I think he was trying to make it less awkward, but there’s nothing you can really do that makes it any better. I’m not really going to say anything else about him, because he gave me something, and no matter what I do, I can’t ever really pay him back for it.
When Whiskeyjack remade the world
he did it in his image.
He is a trickster
Do you see the trick he played?
The snow comes down hard in those parts. You have to keep moving, otherwise you die. Sort of. It’s like the opposite of walking through a desert. Or maybe, it’s exactly the same. I don’t know what we were hoping to find. It’s not like the kid went out with a few weeks’ supply of whatever the fuck he needed to be out there.
No, I didn’t say anything.
You know, I kind of wanted to blame Red-Eyes for the entire thing, because, according to dad, he hadn’t been—okay, you remember my brother right. No? Jesus, it’s been what? Ten minutes, tops? An hour? He said he’d been eerily close to whatever that was. Not eating, not sleeping, screaming. He wasn’t like that in the city, apparently.
Yeah, my brother’s still alive.
I said he was dead?
Yeah I mean, he is dead. It’s the same thing really. I’ll get to it.
Red-Eyes the cheat, the coward, the bastard, who held on years and years after death and took from us. You want to know the real reason we lived in that fucking town for so long? It was because we’d always hoped it’d get better. Loved the place and—you know, when you love something that much, living is like this constant act of—god, I wanted to kill life and living because every day was like watching a string of precious rock being dangled in front of you, just out of your reach and being in stasis like that for years and years. Strangle death because he held his hands out with a temptation that you’d kneel for.
There was a storm the second night, bad enough to make us give up and try to turn back, only to find that at some point in time, between when we left and when we tried to get back, there was this huge tree obstructing the path. Radioed in to a couple of guys I worked with, but they weren’t going to be able to get anyone out for a while. In hindsight, I probably should have asked them for help. But, you know, the lone hero with the kid in his hand is always so much more appealing than anything else.
(We heard our names being called from a distance, mixed with the sounds of the wind through the branches of tall trees and snow falling on top of itself. Loving Castor, giving parts of yourself to Castor out there is a death sentence. Because, when he calls, you know you’ll end up with your ribs splayed out in the back of a cave.)
Neither of us wanted to sleep in the house on the hill, but I guess, some shitty roof was better than nothing at all.
Stoke the fire.
Fuck. Yeah, the snow came down pretty hard, and he broke his leg trying to climb up this steep pass. I keep forgetting that people aren’t like me. Half person and half woods. I mean, you get it, right, there is only one way this thing ends. And it’s probably the same way it began.
One night, a hundred years ago, before there was electricity, and before there were any roads—this is the bitch of being a rich asshole, by the way. Before all of that, this family that lived on this hill with their oil and their wealth notices the storm. They think it’ll blow over in a bit, because they’re Southerners the winters had been pretty mild since they got here.
We never found him by the way. Someone else did. Two springs later.
Yeah, that’s the root of it all, isn’t it?
You can pray all you want, but storms and hurricanes, and shit like that, you know what they call ‘em? An act of God. So God wants you to be in this house in a winter like the one we were having for an indefinite period of time. And it’s fine. It’s always fine for a while, because you never think about tomorrow or two days in advance, or far enough to realize that nothing ever, ever approaches your house, so your dad, your husband, your son, the hunter can’t load a cartridge in his rifle or his shotgun and blow it to pieces.
You eat the hides and the old hunting trophies at first, sucking the marrow from the bones and boiling them over and over again. Maybe if you’re superstitious, you cast them. Innocent/Innocent/Guilty.
Remember that you have a business partner, and start writing a letter to him. Please come help us. But nobody’s going to walk up that hill, not when the weather’s like that. Remember the old superstitions, if you ever hear your name called out in the woods at night, or in the winter, you’re dead. And it’s been long enough that you know what that ringing in your ears is, you can feel it underneath your skin. It’s out there, and it’s coming for you.
You eat yourself before you eat anybody else. That’s how it always starts. Your stomach boils itself from the inside out, and you eat your nails and hair and pick the skin off your hands because you’re just so fucking hungry. You’ve never been that hungry before. Eating dirt and snow and trash because nothing’s bad enough. The trees are bare and then you realize that you might be like this forever, and you pray, even if you’re lapsed but does that really fucking matter? No. (Maybe if your mom’s mom’s mom’s mom’s mom hadn’t knelt before the altar.)
But remember, his leg was broken, and the thing looked worse each day. I think we both knew. He told me to take whatever was left of him and bury it or burn it. With his son. I didn’t want to give up though. I don’t know. You’ve never been there, like that. I chewed up the inside of my own cheek first because I didn’t want to.
Grandma dies first, probably, and the ground is too frozen to bury her. It’s a sin, but at the same time, it’s not. I think we all kind of knew what happened; it was all there. And you know, it keeps going like that, the kids get hungry enough, and you find bones with grooves like teeth marks in them. I bet they’re still down there somewhere. If you look hard enough.
The only way through this thing is to finish it, which means that only one of you can make it out (maybe both, if you hadn’t been greedy in the first place.)
First it was his fingers, he gave those to me willingly. It didn’t really hurt he said. The pinkie and ring on his left hand. As long as I came back for the rest. And then the ears and eyes and throat. But only when spring never came, and the matches in my back pocket were too damp to light a fire. I didn’t like doing it, but I didn’t like eating dirt and garbage.
What’s that? Yeah. I ate the guts too. Everything.
No. Not that, though. I could never have his heart.
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