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Update on Ratings System 2/17

February 17, 2017 at 2:52 PM

Hi! I wanted to let everyone know what has been going on wrt the ratings issue.

My web host and I have been working on trying to figure out the issue with the ratings plugin. I think we finally figured out what was separating the people who could rate from the masses who couldn’t, though figuring out WHY this problem was happening was something that neither of us could understand. Basically, it has something to do with the CDN we use – we think. Figuring out why just this ONE plugin is unable to play nice with the CDN while all others can function properly would be the next step in solving the issue, unfortunately…

The plugin dev released an upgrade to the plugin this week. I wanted to try this out and see if it helped our situation at all, but instead now the plugin breaks the entire website and sends us into a 500 error where NO PART of the site is accessible. I’ve tried re-installing it from scratch, but as soon as the plugin exists once again on the server – not even active, just present on the server – it takes the site offline.

I think you all can agree that for now, it’s best to just keep it off the server entirely for now.

I will be submitting a ticket and asking the dev if he can figure out why this is happening. But to be frank with you guys, after looking at the tone of responses on his support forum (of course, not visible until after you pay for the plugin – sigh), I do not have much faith, especially as I can’t even have the plugin on the server to test things for him right now. My web host also seems to be at the end of the rope for support they are capable/willing to offer on this specific issue.

So if he is no help and the plugin continues to just brick the site whenever I try to re-install it, the worst case situation is that we will have to start the ratings over from scratch. I really didn’t want to do that, but we were between a rock and a hard place: the old ratings plugin was SO bloated that it was making the site run like shit and would sometimes manage to knock the site offline if we had heavy traffic. I was having to restart services daily because of the ratings plugin, specifically, overloading. So I paid for a license of the “new” and “pro” (read: more import functions and, ostensibly, support) version of that plugin, which was also the only ratings plugin that I could find that would allow us to import 8 years of ratings data from the old plugin.

Since this new plugin seems to be a massive failure, in that it doesn’t actually allow anyone but 3-4 people to see the ratings block no and now it can’t even be present on the server without causing 500 errors, we may unfortunately be faced with the fact that A) I wasted a bunch of money trying to preserve the old ratings and B) we will have to reset ratings from scratch with an entirely new ratings plugin.

I just wanted to let you guys know what was going on and give a warning that, at this point, I am completely at a loss and unless the plugin dev can come up with a magical save that both makes his plugin stop nuking the site AND makes the ratings block actually display for more than 1% of the site’s userbase, we are going to be starting from square one with regards to ratings.

This isn’t the end that I wanted for the ratings plugin, but I’m sorry to say that I think it’s just what we’re going to have to deal with as the endgame. I know that many of you already think I’m a useless, lazy piece of shit for taking this long (yeah, thanks for those messages by the way – I really appreciate how so many of you had the time to message me and tell me to kill myself or that it’s been “too long” but those same people NEVER provided any helpful information about the bug themselves), so I’m sure that this will just confirm that for you. Perhaps you’re all right, but unfortunately, at this point I’m all there is and I have no clue how to fix this problem. I’m sorry.

My priority is that by the end of the week, either we will magically have the ratings system fixed, or (looking much more likely at this point), we will be using an entirely new ratings system and the community will have to help rebuild the ratings data that we lost.

Winter 2016/2017 Open Submission Period

November 25, 2016 at 9:06 PM

I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Submissions have been re-opened, and will remain open until February 20th, 2017.

This means that all submissions from the prior open period have been processed. If you did not receive a response, you may safely consider your submission rejected. Please visit the FAQ if you find this statement confusing.

The submission form is located right here, but please make sure that you read the FAQ and read the submission form guidelines (they’re right above the form, with red text and everything!) before attempting to send in your story.

Thanks, and I look forward to reading the new batch of stories!

The “Dark Afternoon” Tape – Real or Hoax?

February 25, 2017 at 12:00 AM


Not sure if this is the right place to post this story, but it’s way to creepy not to share it.

A friend of mine was at my house browsing the Dark Web with TOR (don’t ask what he was doing there) when he came across a site that supposedly showcased banned content from the regular web, like gruesome crime scene photos and such. Anyway, he searched around for a while when he came across a story with an audio clip that he thought looked cool. So he started listening, figuring it would be nothing special – until he heard it. The more he listened, the more upset he became. Suddenly, he stood up, took off the headphones and threw them on the desk. He looked really shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He said, “That ******* audio file!” So, now, of course I wanted to hear it myself. But he quickly deleted the sound file and closed TOR. I asked what was so bad about it and he said it was like hearing a real-life “snuff tape” only this was an entire group of people – including young kids! I said it was fake and he yelled back, “No! This **** is totally real!”

He quickly left, but forgot he saved the story. So I sat down and read it. This is the actual text, copied and pasted exactly as is. A real Creepy Pasta! I’m still to afraid to listen to the audio myself – if I could ever find it.

I did find a short movie based on the tape that shows a police photo of the real tape and it even plays a tiny piece of the actual audio at the end. It gives the town a fake name and changes some other stuff too, but doesn’t matter, it still sends shivers down my spine every time I watch it. Supposedly the actual tape is much more disturbing.


Editorial by **** ******
Associated Press: For Immediate Release

“As a journalist, I’ve investigated everything from political corruption to celebrity scandals to international cybercrime. But never have I come across something so bizarre and deeply disturbing as a simple audio tape.

I received it at work from my late aunt’s estate who possessions were divided amongst remaining family members after her death. Of everything she had, only one item was personally requested to go a specific family member, me.

It was a small box containing a tape labeled, “The Dark Afternoon”. I could not understand why she had wanted me to have the tape and no one else. Underneath it, I saw a note scribbled in her handwriting. My aunt wrote that the tape was an actual emergency recording made from the dispatch unit at the small town police station she once worked at in the early 1970s. The last sentence made the point that she personally knew a few of the callers on the tape. I thought, “So what.” I soon found out.

Curious, I played it.

An hour later, I was shaking, literally. It was without a doubt the single most disturbing thing I have ever heard. It’s something that gets under your skin in a way I cannot describe and I’ve seen plenty of gruesome things during my career. I’ve covered wars, crimes, you name it. Much is hard to stomach, but this was different. Maybe it’s the more intimate way you listen to it. Or the loud, in your ear, blood-curdling screams. I don’t know.

It begins with harsh static which is broken by a call from a citizen of the tiny town (which I will not name here) to report a dark, featureless form was outside their house. Standing there. Watching. Unmoving. The dispatcher tells the caller that it’s most likely some kid playing a prank, when a knock sounds on the callers front door. Here, the line goes dead. Creepy, but nothing extraordinary.

Then it happens. Call after call pours in. People all over town report the same dark forms have appeared everywhere. When the dispatcher tried to reassure them it was nothing to be alarmed about, the callers insist there’s something ominous going on and request an officer come by as soon as possible. But with only one officer in town there wasn’t much that could be done.

The callers report the figures were no longer standing there but closing in on them. You hear pounding on doors, windows shattering, sinister laughter, et. You also hear sheer panic and terror in the callers voices as this was happening. It’s very disturbing.

Then gruesome, bizarre things happen to each one. Things I don’t wish to recount.

Finally… there’s static until the tape runs out. All you’re left with is a mental picture of what you think might have happened. Your own imagination is always worse than any photo or video.

I told myself it must be a hoax, just a spooky “ghost tape” made to scare unsuspecting listeners. As a journalist I know there’s no way a town in Twentieth Century America besieged by ominous ‘things’ resulting in numerous deaths would not make the news.

Then, a thought occurred to me, could it be real? Maybe my aunt wanted me to hear it, to investigate it and expose everything on the tape in order to prove it did happen. And that’s what I did.

After checking, it turns out this small town did in fact experience an ‘industrial accident’ that unfortunately took several lives one afternoon during the early 1970s. Friends and family were told by authorities that the bodies of the victims were contaminated and not able to be claimed for burial. And they were right. They could not be claimed. Not because of contamination, but because none of the victims were ever found. No town, state or Federal records reveal that any bodies were ever removed from the town. They just vanished.

A deeper question now arose: Did the number, gender and ages of the people killed in the so-called ‘accident’ correspond in any way to the callers heard on the tape? Every. Last. One. This was no hoax or accident. It was something else, and my aunt knew it.

Needless to say, when I presented the recording and my findings to my press editors, they were more than a little skeptical. However, they were even more worried about the legal ramifications that might result from the town and state’s present authorities if they ever knew what I uncovered. I knew then and there they would never let me publish it.

But that doesn’t mean no one could hear it.

That’s what the Dark Web is for. Containing some of the most twisted things the human mind can come up with: Red Rooms, Murder-Cams, the Dark Web is also a place of anonymity. A place where both users and the sites they visit can remain hidden.

So it was here that I uploaded the audio in hopes that someone somewhere can finally shed light on what really happened on that Dark Afternoon. Do I really want to know?”

Credit: Brimar

Scorpion River

February 24, 2017 at 12:00 AM

I’d always been afraid of Scorpion River. Ever since I was eight, I’d gone with my aunt, uncle, and older cousin into the wilderness of southern Arizona where we’d spend two nights in their rickety, blue, camper. We weren’t alone. Around ten other families joined us for that December weekend. The adults sat around the fire, swapping stories of better days, back when the economy was stable and kids respected their elders. The seven or so of us children quickly grew bored of the talk and went exploring.
To call Scorpion River a river was an overstatement. Water only ran there once or twice a year. The rest of the time it was just an expanse of sand. Our campsite was close to the river, yet the sandy cliffs meant that one had to fight through half a mile of cat claws and ancient mesquite trees to get to it.
Yet every day without fail we’d make the trip. It was worth it to play games of tag in the flat sand or to make forts below the huge cottonwoods which lined that part of the river. Every time an adult would come with us, much to our annoyance. They made sure we kept to the stretch of cottonwoods. The only time we were allowed to leave that was when the group of adults decided to hike to what we called the Funnel.
The Funnel was a natural rock formation, a vertical tunnel cut up through the cliffs on the other side of the river. It was beautiful; a pipe of smooth, reddish stone which seemed to lead up into the sky itself. It was easily my favorite part of the trip. The only thing I didn’t like was getting there.
To reach the Funnel, we had to pass through what I called Raven Forest. Here the trees were close together, the bark blackened by some ancient fire. Every time we went through, the screeching of ravens would fill the air. The light played tricks on your eyes, making it seem as if there were figures standing in the shadows.
As I grew older, the feeling of unease grew too. I began to hear whispering in the trees, voices always too low to be understood, but distinctly unfriendly. I spoke about it to my cousin, Jade, but she dismissed it, telling me it was my imagination. Every year, more and more strange things would happen, explainable, but just strange enough to put me on edge.
Nothing stayed where we put it. Camper doors would open and close of their own accord. The campfire would sometimes flare without warning. My aunt and uncle once brought their German Shepherd, thinking he would have a fun time running with the kids. For the entire trip, he stayed close to camp, whimpering whenever we attempted to get him to come down to the river with us.
As strange as things got, nothing downright out of the ordinary happened. Not until one year, the year Jade and I turned 18, when my 16 year old cousin, Mason, decided to come camping with us. He was a tall youth, big for his age, a football player with something to prove. As there were three of us and we were older now, my aunt and uncle decided we could go out by ourselves. Every chance we got we went down to the river to explore, no longer hindered by the younger children.
Jade and Mason often got annoyed with me, as I always refused to enter Raven Forest. Jade wanted to climb the trees, as she was going through a gymnastics phase, while Mason wanted to prove he wasn’t afraid of an old, spooky forest. One evening, the two couldn’t stand it anymore and told me they were going in whether I came with them or not. I declined and the two disappeared into the woods, leaving me alone at the edge of the river.
I sat down on the little cliff and waited as the sun began to sink below the tree line. I gradually became aware of a horrible smell coming from a nearby stand of bushes. I grew curious and went over to investigate. The bushes were low and thorny, forcing me to crawl to get through.
I crawled on hands and knees over the uneven ground, finally stopping when my fingers touched something soft. I took out my phone flashlight and shone it on the ground.
Instantly I was moving backward, ignoring the thorns which tore at my hair. For, lying on the ground, was a pile of dead songbirds, heads missing, surrounded by blood and ants. I pulled myself to the edge of the river and stayed there, breathing hard, trying not to throw up.
Several minutes later my cousins returned, talking and laughing. They stopped when they saw me sitting on the cold ground, shivering.
“What happened?” Jade asked.
I numbly pointed towards the stand of trees. The two of them went over to look, returning a moment later, faces grave.
“What would do that?” I asked.
“Some kind of predator?” Jade suggested, “You know, like a fox, a coyote, something…”
“Why would it just pile them up like that? There must be fifty of them, all lined up in a circle like-”
“Let’s leave.” Mason interrupted. “It’s almost dark.”
We started towards the other side of the river, walking at first, then running.
“I really think we’re overreacting,” Jade said when we reached the other side and paused to catch our breath. “There must be some logical explanation. Maybe they just happened to be there and weren’t arranged like it seemed. Did any of us look very hard?”
“The heads were missing,” Mason said. “Explain that.”
“They might have rotted away.”
The longer we talked, the more reasonable the birds seemed. After around ten minutes of proposing theories, we were calm. Mason decided to try climbing the cliff to get to camp instead of going through the river bed, which was muddy from a recent rain. He’d just gotten a new pair of red converse and didn’t want them ruined. Jade and I, knowing how many thorn bushes were between us and camp, decided to go down the river before going up the cliff.
We split up. Once we were about halfway up the path, we heard rustling in the bushes. Thinking it was a deer, we ignored it and continued. Jade stopped to tie her shoe.
“We should go up to the funnel.” She said, bending down.
“By ourselves?” I asked, scared yet a little excited.
“That’d be-” I stopped.
Behind her, in the thorn bushes, was a dark shape. It was hunched, humanoid, though in the growing darkness it was hard to make out details. I glanced at Jade, and when I looked back it was gone.
“What is it?” Jade asked.
I pointed. “There was…something there.”
“It was probably Mason.” She stood up. “Hey! Mason! Get out here and stop trying to scare us.”
“Aw, come on.” He called.
I was relieved until he stepped out of the woods on the other side of the trail. There was no way he could have moved that fast and that quietly. I tried to explain what I’d seen to the two of them, but they just laughed it off.
We spent the night around the campfire, listening to my uncle play guitar. That night nothing strange happened and we all awoke early, eager to go on our trip.
We left just after the sun rose over the cliffs. In the daylight, the forest was decidedly less creepy. We went around half a mile down the river before climbing the cliff. This was the first time we’d done it alone, but we were confident we knew the way.
At first, everything went pretty well. We found a little trail and started towards the cliff ahead. But pretty soon I began to notice that this part of the forest wasn’t familiar. The trees were even closer together than usual, and even though the sun was by now high in the sky, it seemed dark.
Then the coyotes began howling. Though I knew they weren’t dangerous to humans, it was still eerie hearing them in the distance.
“Maybe we should go back,” I suggested.
“Nah,” Jade said. “We can still find the funnel. Let’s just get off this path. It should be like a mile west of here.”
“I’ll go first,” Mason said. “I’ve got a leather jacket and you don’t.”
When we left the path, I thought I heard the whispering, though it was hard to hear over the racket my cousin was making by breaking a path through the trees for us.
Finally, we reached a small stream bed, long since dried up yet not overgrown. A minute or two later we reached a funnel. We all knew instantly it wasn’t the one we were used to. It was smaller yet went further into the cliff face, more of a canyon than a tunnel. As we entered it I noticed something far up near the top, around two hundred feet above us. It was too far away to make out what it was, so I decided to climb a little way up the side of the other side of the canyon.
Meanwhile, Jade and Mason went farther into the canyon. I could hear them talking as I climbed as far up the wall as I could get. As I still couldn’t see what it was, I decided to take a picture with my phone. I pointed it and snapped the picture, deciding to see if my uncle, who was into photography, could somehow enhance it.
I started to climb down and tripped. I landed hard on the floor of the funnel, glad for my thick coat. I heard rustling in the bushes to my left and waited to hear the others laughing at my clumsiness. Yet no sound came.
“Guys?” I called.
“We’re up ahead,” Jade replied faintly.
I started to go after them, having to squeeze between the trees and under the bushes which clung stubbornly to the dirt floor of the funnel. Suddenly I had the feeling of being watched.
Again branches cracked. I wanted to turn and tell whoever it was to cut it out, but my body wouldn’t respond. I froze as the sounds grew closer and closer. The whispering increased in volume.
Then the spell was broken as Mason called my name. The frozen feeling disappeared and I turned, ready to confront whatever it was.
Nothing was there.
I hurried to join my cousins, who stood below the object on the funnel wall. From here it was apparent that it was a bit bigger than I was. Something dripped from it, leaving trails of dark liquid on the pale wall. Around it circled several ravens.
“Think that’s a nest?” Jade asked before I could tell them what had happened.
“Maybe,” Mason replied, shading his eyes.
We stayed there for a few moments, trying to make out what it was before growing bored.
“Race you to the entrance!” Mason called.
He ran off through the trees, ignoring the thorny bushes. Jade and I followed more slowly, knowing we couldn’t beat him.
Then, above the sound of our own footsteps, I became aware of a distant voice, rising and falling in some sort of haunting song. It sounded female, but there was something unnatural about it as if we were hearing a recording played backward.
“Do you hear that?” Jade asked.
I nodded.
We ran to the entrance of the funnel, where we met Mason.
“Did you hear singing?” I asked.
“No.” He replied. “What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear anything?”
She shook her head. “No. We should head back.”
We were then confronted by a problem. We didn’t know exactly how to get back to the river without having to push our way through thorn bushes. Finally, we had no choice but to start moving. Mason led the way, pushing through thorns and bushes without a care. Jade and I followed more slowly, carefully avoiding the worst of the thorns.
After a few minutes, the two of us were separated from him. We found ourselves in a circle of thorn bushes with no easy way out.
“Mason!” I called.
He didn’t respond though he couldn’t have gotten more than ten feet ahead. We sat down, deciding he’d come back eventually. My feeling of unease began to grow.
Finally Jade spoke, voice small and quavering.
“I don’t think we’re alone.” She said.
I nodded, feeling my muscles begin to lock with fear. From the direction of the funnel came the sound of something pushing through the trees. Jade’s eyes met mine and I knew she could hear it too.
“We need to get out of here,” I said, eyeing the thorns which surrounded us.
For some reason, I had no idea how we’d gotten inside the little clearing.
The sounds were growing louder, along with the whispering. All at once I realized something. The voices had never been threatening me. They’d been trying to warn me.
I got to my feet and pulled Jade up.
“We’re leaving,” I said.
I pushed through the bushes, ignoring the stinging of the cuts the thorns left on my arms and face. Jade followed and we ran through the forest. At one point I tripped and Jade pulled me to my feet. Behind us, the sounds were growing closer and more urgent. The voices weren’t whispering anymore, they were screaming.
For what seemed like a thousand years we ran through the forest. Though it was only a mile, it felt like a hundred.
Finally, we ran out into the river, nearly knocking over Mason. The voices stopped, along with the crashing of whatever was pursuing us.
“Where were you?” He asked as we tried to catch our breath. “I’ve been calling for you for hours.”
“Hours?” I asked. “We weren’t apart for more than twenty minutes.”
He shook his head. “I was just about to go get help.”
I noticed that the sun, directly overhead when we’d left the funnel, was beginning to set.
Jade laughed, the sound a little too high.
“We must have looked dumb.” She said. “Running from nothing like that.”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“We must have just imagined it.”
“Really, Jade?”
“It was probably just some animal.”
We started walking back to camp, and soon I began to believe we’d imagined whatever had happened too. I heard the sound of the singing and ignored it, deciding I was imagining it again.
Then I noticed that the other two were looking at me in horror. They could hear it too.
We began running, not stopping until we reached the camp. When we told our story, the adults just laughed, blaming it on overactive imaginations. My uncle, who had been visiting the area since he was a child, claimed there was no second funnel.
We soon packed up and drove home. As it was late by the time we reached our hometown, I decided to spend the night with Jade and go to my house the following morning. While we were there, I remembered the picture I’d taken of the thing in the funnel. I asked my uncle to enhance it and he agreed.
“It’ll probably be a nest.” He said as he worked. “You probably disturbed the ravens, who decided to chase you off.”
I didn’t agree, though I didn’t say so.
“Oh, kids.” He continued with a smile. “I used to be like you. One time I remember thinking-”
He stopped, the smile disappearing instantly. He got up and backed away from the computer. Then he turned and ran for the phone.
Jade and I looked at the now enhanced picture. The thing was not a nest.
In fact, it was a body, headless like the birds we’d seen in the tree grove. Though the picture was still blurry, the jacket the figure wore was unmistakably black leather. On his feet was a pair of bright red converse.
Just then the doorbell rang.
“Girls!” My aunt called. “Mason is here!”

Credit: Roxanne Wilds

A Scarecrow For God

February 23, 2017 at 12:00 AM

“Can I take your picture?” Larissa sat a few feet away from me on the grey velvet sofa as I aimed my iPhone towards her. I stared at the screen intently for a moment before shifting my focus, looking over the brim of the phone at her defeated, hopeless state portrayed by bloodshot eyes.
“What for? I don’t think it would be a very good one.” She found it difficult to speak above a tone of depressing mumble. “I’m not exactly prepared for a photo shoot right now.”
“Stop it. You look beautiful.” The chipper tone in my voice was a deceiving attempt to bring some semblance of elation to the bleak reality we had learned of our existence.
“It’s not insecurity. You know that.” Her looks were always something Larissa was confident in. That certainly wasn’t the source of her discontent. Normally we take pictures of happy times that we want to look back on and reminisce over. But neither of us were happy at that moment. Her face was a cemented lump of apathy that wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. “Why do you want a picture of me like this?”
“Because I want to remember what you look like.”

She would be gone soon. And there was nothing I could do to stop it. I really can’t say I blame her. Life had no purpose or meaning anymore. I was finding it difficult not to leave this world myself.

The eye in the sky destroyed it all.

Some said it was God. Technically they’re right, although their interpretation of “God” is a bit skewed and thus incorrect. They’re just making excuses. I don’t exactly blame them for their attempts to make sense of the eye. In a way I sort of envy their ignorance. I wish I could live in bliss like that.

Enlightenment is punishment.

Larissa and I were coworkers at Caltech. I was head of the astronomy and physics department there, a position I held for the last eight years where I was lucky enough to fuel and satisfy my fascination with celestial objects for a living. Since I was a young boy I looked at the sky in awe and dreamed of a weightless, floating journey through the stars. At night I’d sit on my porch with my knees pulled against my chest and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hand looking at the moonlight shining on trees and the sparkling fireworks hovering above the earth.

A career in astronomy was all I ever wanted.

Larissa came on board a little less than a year ago. For the past six months we’d been something a little more than coworkers. Romantic interests…I guess? When you reach a certain age you sort of stop putting labels on things. I suppose you could call her my girlfriend. It sounds so childish saying that at my age.

Whatever you want to call it, Larissa had become another perk of my job. At 43 years old I had never married; never really had a serious relationship since my twenties. Routine, order and the stars were all the gratification I needed. It wasn’t until I saw Larissa that I realized how lonely my life had become. She was 8 years younger than I and had the same thirst for the stars as I did. It was all we ever talked about, and with me being somewhat more experienced in the field she clung to my every word, eating them up like she was putting sunshine in her veins.

One night I invited her back to my quaint home in Simi Valley. We sat side by side on the grass next to the large oak tree in my backyard with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches pointing out our favorite constellations. She rested her head on my shoulder and I knew I had found the person that I could share every part of my life with.

I loved her. Even though I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

Everything was right in the world. It all came together in harmonious delight when Larissa took over my heart. She filled a void I didn’t know I had and quickly became my satellite, going wherever I went and running circles around me.

All that changed two weeks ago when Keck Observatory contacted me for a consultation regarding an unusual discovery. The observatory, located at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, was managed by Caltech and the California Association for Research in Astronomy. The site housed the two most renowned and scientifically productive telescopes in the world, capable of reaching the outermost areas of space. Each telescope sat mounted on Mauna Kea as two large spheres 33 feet in diameter. Just after I had come on board in 2008 the telescopes at Keck captured the first images of exoplanets within an exosolar system 129 light years away from earth. The main star was named HR 8799. The visuals took over one hundred years to reach our planet, and we took pictures of it like a group of excited tourists.

“What did you find?” I asked Norah, the Director of Advancement at Keck, when she called.
Her voice trembled on the other end. “I don’t know…it’s…I’m sending you a picture. You won’t believe me if I told you.”
“Sweetheart, just tell me.”
I heard a deep breath flow into the receiver. “It’s…an eye.”
“You mean the helix nebula?” I asked, instantly reminded of the formation that looked eerily similar to an eyeball, resulting in the nickname the ‘Eye of god’. “No, but similar…only much larger. And it’s moving.”
“Moving? Like orbiting around something?”
“More like looking around at things. The pupil is moving.”
My face contorted from confusion. “What??”

It didn’t make any sense to me when I first heard it. Now, looking back, I wish I just ignored that call and went about my life. But I suppose that’s the nature of humanity, isn’t it? We’re all curious and desperate for answers.

Norah sent me two pictures of what was observed through the telescope shortly after we hung up. The first picture appeared to show ionized gas surrounding an interstellar medium creating the illusion of an eye. It was unique, although it was certainly nothing never seen before. But the second picture showed the medium moved slightly to the left as though it were a pupil looking around and studying the universe.

I wasted no time and booked myself and Larissa a flight to Hawaii. Part of my rush there was anticipation of studying the odd formation and try to determine why it was moving. Larissa could help decipher its origins. Plus, it was a nice excuse to take a trip to Hawaii together on company money. The next day after we landed, Larissa and I drove up the access road in a car I rented up to the summit. At the top, we were just above the clouds. Mauna Kea is the highest point in all of Hawaii and it’s considered the best location in the world for massive telescopes like these. There’s no obstruction blocking the view. I had visited the site a few times since I took over the astronomy department. Each visit was breathtaking.

Norah greeted us as we parked and led us through the observatory directly into the control room where a monitor was displaying the eye in the sky. In front of the monitor sat a couple of young men I had never met before operating the controls.

The pupil had moved further to the left since the last picture was taken.

“How much time passed between the two pictures you sent me?” I asked Norah.
“Couple of days. It’s moving very slowly.”
“Possibly. It could also be moving incredibly fast, we’re just observing a different gravitational time dilation through the telescope. How far away is this constellation?”
Norah took a deep breath and exhaled, maintaining her steady eyes fixed on mine. “Forty five billion light-years.”
“Huh? That’s inconceivable! The farthest object ever recorded is galaxy MACS0647-JD at 13.3 billion light-years away. And that was with the Hubble telescope! Keck doesn’t have that functionality!”
“Well, it does now. We enhanced its mirrors two months ago to increase magnification capabilities.”
My eyebrows uncontrollably shot into the middle of my forehead. “I don’t recall hearing the board of directors approve such a thing!”
“They didn’t. This was a privately funded experiment…one that worked.”
“Who funded this?” Larissa chimed in.
“I’m sorry, that’s classified information.”

I looked up at the thick metal beams and pipes of pressurized hydraulic fluids over our heads that held the massive telescope in place with indignant jealousy. The furthest reaching telescope ever created was partially owned by the company I held a relatively high position with. It was within my fingertips, yet I hadn’t even the slightest knowledge of it. Optical instruments like this were invented to expand humanity’s knowledge and answer some of the most complex and mysterious questions about the origins of everything in existence. And they were keeping the wonders of the universe a secret.

“So basically you have the most powerful scientific invention ever created by humanity here and didn’t think it was necessary to tell anyone?”
“It was an experiment. The funding was enough to cover the upgrade and reversion if it didn’t work. Part of the agreement was secrecy. We only started using it last week. We wanted to be sure it worked before making any kind of announcement.”
“This is not some rich kids Tonka truck, Norah. You should have gotten approval. Or at least mentioned it to someone.”
“There’s something I haven’t told you about this eye,” Norah continued, ignoring my discontent. “We saw something else.”
My intrigue felt like a rush of adrenaline. “What?”
One of the young men turned in his swivel chair and locked his wide eyes with me. “God.”

I instantly rolled my eyes. Throughout history when mankind has encountered something unexplainable it’s attributed to some sort of God or supernatural force only to be given a logical scientific explanation many years later. Why would this be any different?

“We don’t know that, Tim,” Norah shot at him.
“What the hell is he talking about?!” Larissa questioned.
I supported her demand. “Indeed! What nonsense is this young man referring to?”
Norah resigned momentarily, then turned her head sideways to address Tim. “Turn on the infrared.”

Tim flicked a switch on the control panel and about thirty seconds later the outline of a face surrounded the eye. Shades of red and orange overlapped each other, clearly displaying a nose, a mouth, and a second eye that was covered by a winking eyelid.

And just beyond the eye I could faintly make out more, smaller infrared outlines.

My world had crumbled at the site. One of my worst fears was a reality. “Turn that monitor off right now…” I ordered in a low growl. Tim sat motionless in his chair, frozen in perplexity. “NOW!”
He jumped at my outburst and fumbled to find the switch.
“What’s gotten into you?” Norah demanded, squinting at me.
“Who else knows about this?”
“The five of us in this room and ten other people. They all said it was God too.”
“Keep it that way. Tell no one. Tell that piggy bank of yours the modifications didn’t work and revert the telescope back to its original state.”
“Why? What is it?!”
I looked at Norah with a stern eye. “Humanity will tear itself apart over this.”
“Is it…God?” Tim’s hopeful expression was like that of a child. I couldn’t take that away.


It wasn’t giant aliens, if that’s what you’re all thinking. An alien is a creature from outer space. These figures showing up on the infrared display weren’t in outer space. They were beyond it.

Norah and her team had built a telescope that had the capability of reaching the end of our universe. Forty five billion light years. That’s where everything ends. What’s beyond that has been a complete mystery. Until now.

It’s something I was frightened of when I first conceived the thought in 2004 after reading an article by Jim Holt proposing the idea of universe creation. Three years later, Lancaster University successfully created an entire universe in a test tube, simulating the big bang with low-energy whirlpools of helium. The result was a functioning universe no larger than a marble.

I had feared that our universe was created this way. And that day in Keck Observatory confirmed my fears. I saw our creators. Everything we’ve ever known to exist is all just a mediocre science experiment. At any minute they could pull the plug on us and wipe it all away.

We’re all living at their will inside a test tube somewhere.

We left Keck and returned to our hotel shortly after I pushed the telescope away from the eye and hoped it would never be found again. Larissa pestered me all night in our hotel room, doing all she could to force an explanation from me. I caved eventually, telling her about Lancaster’s test tube and how its origin is the same as ours. She wept the rest of the night.

All we know…all we believe…everything is a lie. The greatest lie ever told.

“I can’t live in a world without meaning…” She sat on my couch crying a few days after we returned from Hawaii. “I don’t want to wake up every day and think ‘Is this it? Is today the day they end their experiment and kill us all?’ That’s not a life I want to live.”
“Don’t let the stars die earlier than they’re intended to,” I urged. “Let me show you the sky…just one more time.”
Her bottom lip quivered as a tear ran down her cheek. “Even though you’re with me now, I’m light-years away from you.”

That night, while I was asleep, Larissa snuck outside and tied a noose to a thick branch of the large oak tree in my backyard and hanged herself. Her side of the bed was empty and cold in the morning. When I extended my arm to her side and found it vacated I already knew…she had taken her own life.

Each night since I sit on my back porch with her picture displayed on my phone, staring at both the stars and the shadows they create over my backyard. One shadow in particular dominates my focus. Deep down I know it’s unlikely the eye will see her, but personal conviction is a powerful prospect that shields truth. So I leave her there, oscillating in the wind. A dismal plea of desperation…the ominous scarecrow for our creators.

Credit: survivalprocedure

The Carnival of Lights

February 22, 2017 at 12:00 AM

It has been years since I left my hometown, and I don’t think I’ll ever return.

I do miss the timeless idyll of the country, the sultry, gently undulating hills and the cool, quiet sanctuary of the woods. I can still picture the night sky in my mind’s eye—the endless black canvas speckled with glittering stars, so vivid and clear they seemed within easy reach of your hand. Even now, the remembrance of the lonesome, poignant howls that would sometimes emerge at night from within the darkened grove stirs within me a deep desire to return.

But I have sworn never to step foot within that cursed town again. Not after what happened.

Travelling circuses or carnivals are a common sight if you live in a town like mine—too small to warrant a permanent establishment of its own, but too big to pass up as a business opportunity, especially in the summer months. Large, colorful banners in the town center, usually put up weeks in advance, would herald the coming of a new attraction; smaller black-and-white posters, sometimes so poorly photocopied that you could barely make out the words, much less the images, festooned the streets, a constant reminder that FUN and LAUGHTER would soon grace the prosaic place we called home.

To be honest, I think the adults were often just as excited as the kids. Living in a small town has its perks, but having interesting preoccupations isn’t usually one of them. Most of the townsfolk were poorly educated farmers fortunate enough to inherit a piece of fertile farmland (or a healthy herd of cattle) from their forebears. Life was a constant drudgery of chores and backbreaking labor with little in the way of entertainment. The television had only a handful channels (assuming you had a TV set to begin with), and the one social event that happened with any regularity was church on Sunday. The pub enjoyed a booming business though.

And so we all rubbed our hands in glee when one late spring morning we awoke to see workmen putting up a giant cloth banner that screamed, in crimson letters, “THE CARNIVAL OF LIGHTS AWAITS YOU”. My family owned a small shop in the town center selling provisions and we lived in the quarters directly above, so we were among the first to witness the thrilling sight. Word spread, and soon some of the workmen were accosted by eager teenagers wanting to find out more about the carnival. You see, the roving funfairs that had visited us in the past were well known operators. Not the big-timers perhaps, but their names were not unfamiliar. But no one had heard of the Carnival of Lights. What the workers could tell us was that they had been contracted by some company in a nearby city, a company they themselves were working with for the first time. And no, they weren’t told when exactly the carnival would be setting up in our town.

The air of mystery about the whole affair only heightened our anticipation. We told ourselves that it had to be a new entrant to the carnival scene, a hitherto-unheard player making its debut. Possibly from the continent, a few of the older folks ventured, nodding sagely. The words “debut” and “the continent” were incomprehensible to us kids, but the exoticism they connoted and promised were not lost on us. There were a few quiet utterances of skepticism among the adults as to why any newcomer would choose, of all places, this humble backwater, but they were soon shushed with indignant admonitions not to rain on the town’s parade.

The days lengthened and summer drifted in like a warm breeze, bringing with it the joyous cries of children freed from the shackles of school. Impatient for the carnival to arrive, my friends and I would sprint, every morning, to the open field near the outskirts where any funfair, circus or carnival would customarily set up shop. Disappointment met us each day, until one morning a marvelous scene greeted us.

They must have started during the night, for the frames of the rides could already be seen peeking through the scaffolding that enveloped them. The whole place was a hive of activity, and before our awe-struck eyes we saw the carnival slowly take form. There was a roller-coaster, the biggest we had ever seen, and in our hearts we immediately knew where we’d be making our first stop once the gates opened.

As we ran, madly whooping at the top of our lungs, back into town, a different banner awaited our goggling eyes. “OPEN TONIGHT!” it triumphantly declared, and we high-fived one another, drunk with happiness. The rest of the day seemed to drag on interminably, so much so that by late afternoon we were each unceremoniously booted from our homes on account of our incessant whining, our pockets jingling with coins that our harried parents had gladly parted with in order to buy some peace and quiet.

We reached our destination well before dusk had fallen, but already a thick, bustling crowd was thronging the unopened entrance. “Oh, man!” complained my friend Henry, a tall, spindly boy whom puberty had caught early, and rather awkwardly. “Well, perhaps they’ll have VIP tickets for sale,” he said, jiggling his bulging pockets, which were clearly fuller than any of ours. His father owned the pub, which meant he was always the one with the new bike or shoes, but not the modesty to refrain from rubbing it in our faces. Still, he was not ungenerous when it came to sharing, possibly the sole reason we grudgingly accepted him as one of the gang, though there were many times I felt like kicking him in the shin.

Of the three, I considered Gregory my best friend. He was a rather quiet boy, unwilling to proffer any view unless pressed, though often his remarks turned out to be the most intelligent of the lot. Having never fully shed his baby fat from his face and body, he was a frequent target of snide remarks from the rest of the class. No one ever laid a finger on him though. James, the brash leader of our little quartet with outsized arms, saw to that.

As twilight fell, it soon became apparent why the carnival was so named. Lanterns, hundreds and hundreds of them, each giving off a lurid red, came to life with the dying of the day. The scarlet spots of light did little to brighten up the area, instead casting a bloody sheen on every angle they caught.

“Fantastic!” cried Henry appreciatively, clapping his knee enthusiastically. A murmur of approval rustled through the crowd, which had fallen silent at the arresting sight.

“It looks kinda creepy,” squeaked Greg as he sidled up to me, trying not to let Henry hear him. “I didn’t know it was supposed to be horror-themed.”

“I didn’t either.” A certain repulsion had risen within me, driving out all the earlier excitement. If it had been just Greg and I, we surely would have turned around and left, but some of Henry’s enthusiasm seemed to have spilt over to James.

“Come on, you guys.” I felt his strong arms pushing me into the surging crowd. The gates had opened. “If we don’t hurry, there’ll be a line at the roller coaster for sure.”

Herded in like a pair of clueless calves, Greg and I glanced around wildly at our surroundings. Loud music, somewhat cheerfully discordant, blared from speakers. It was difficult to see where we were going, for the shadows clung on stubbornly to every corner like cobwebs. It was a horror theme park all right. The staff all wore white, expressionless masks, the kind that evokes a visceral, unexplainable discomfort from the pits of your psyche. Blood splattered signs promised horrifying experiences: the Boat Ride to Nowhere, the Silent Hall of Mirrors, etc. All the clichéd stuff.

“There! The Guillotine Coaster!” Henry jabbed a finger excitedly at a sign composed of letters with wickedly jagged edges. Without turning to see if we were following, he dashed off in the direction the sign pointed. We stumbled behind him reluctantly, practically being pulled along by an eager James, who had an iron grip on our wrists.

As expected, there was already a long queue ahead of us. Mr Moneybags craned his neck to see if there was an express line for those willing to pay for a VIP ticket, only to settle back down with a crestfallen frown on his face. As the queue crawled along, the two ebullient boys each expertly gave his prediction on how stomach-churning the ride was going to be, based on what they could observe of the tracks from where we stood. My buddy and I could only exchange glum glances as the air was punctuated by screams every now and then, screams that sounded way more terrified than exhilarated. We both loved rollercoaster rides, but the eerie atmosphere of the park had diminished our appetite.

As our turn drew closer, a safety warning came into view.

ATTENTION: You must be this tall—to ride DIE!

A red, bloody gash on the sign marked the minimum height required to take the ride. We stared at it, mouths agape. None of us had ever seen such a sign before. You must remember that this took place decades ago, back when common sense was thought to be a lot more common, and safety regulations existed only for the most dangerous of activities.

I was suddenly aware of the looks my friends were giving me. I had always known myself to be the shortest among my friends, and even when I took rollercoaster rides previously my head barely poked through the harness; but never had I thought it to be a problem. I ran towards the sign, refusing to believe it. The closer I came, the further the blood-red line floated up defiantly. At last the truth was staring me in the face—I was too short to ride.

It’s strange, how human psychology works. The moment something is off limits, it instantly becomes desirable. All the dread and reluctance I had harbored towards the ride vanished the moment I realized I wouldn’t be allowed to ride it.

“Hide me,” I begged my friends, elbowing my way into the middle of the group. Greg stared at me in surprise.

“Y-y-ou know, I can stay here with you if you don’t want to wait alone.” His plump face shone at me hopefully.

I shook my head vigorously. “No way. I’m coming along.” Ignoring his obvious chagrin, I shuffled my feet to maintain my inconspicuous—or so I hoped—position between my friends as the queue hustled forward. The rollercoaster was back, its seats empty.

“What?” cried Henry in surprise. “Where’re the passengers?”

The employee at the turnstile turned towards us, his eyes looking oddly alive behind the stiff white mask. “You alight on the other side,” he informed us gruffly, pointing to the further end of the ride, where the tracks disappeared ominously into a dark cavern.

I wanted to kick the big-mouth, hard. He just had to draw attention to us—no, me. Keeping my head down and fingers crossed, I tried to scurry through the turnstile as unsuspiciously as possible. With my back foot nearly clearing the threshold, the hallelujahs were already on the tip of my tongue—

“HOLD IT.” I nearly jumped out of my skin as the behemoth of a voice struck my ears like a sledgehammer. Mr Gruff White Mask had my shoulder in a painful, vice-like grip. “You’re too short to go on this ride, pal,” he growled, sounding anything but pally.

“Oh come on, mister,” I pleaded, “I’ve sat on other rollercoasters before. I’ll be okay, I tell you.” I met his flinty gaze beseechingly, hoping his hard brown eyes would soften.

“Out.” The verdict announced, the unsympathetic carnival-goers behind me began prodding me aside with sharp elbows, heedless of the gross injustice that had befallen me.

Dejected, I looked on sadly as my friends scrambled for the best seats—well, Henry and James did, anyway. Greg wandered around like a lost child before reluctantly sitting down beside a fat, sweaty dude who was alone. As the machinery hummed and creaked and the cars began to inch forward, he threw me a look of desolation, tinged with fear, as if he were a ghost fresh on his way to Hades.

As it turned out, that was the last time I ever saw them alive.

The rollercoaster disappeared with a loud whoosh, and remembering what the turnstile employee had said about the ride ending on the other side, I left the boarding platform and trudged alongside the tracks across the grassy field. Strident screaming followed by the low rumble of wheels on tracks would greet my ears every time before the screeching train of terror and its captive passengers hurtled past me for yet another round. Torn between relief and petulant anger at being left out, I kicked up divots of dirt as I made my way towards the gaping cavern at the far end.

Something about the large, maw-like opening stirred up a deep sense of unease within me, though, especially the way it seemed to swallow up the screaming humans each time they plummeted helplessly into its inky void. Nearing my destination, I stopped to observe the rollercoaster looming towards me, seemingly slowing, as it began to make that steep ascent that preceded the plunge into the waiting jaws of the man-made grotto. The hullaballoo had somewhat subsided, no doubt because the hoarse throats on board were taking a much needed rest.

I gasped. As the first car crested the peak, the hollow of the cavern came alit with a red, hungry glow. The riders must have seen it too, for the hollering—almost appreciative—returned in a sharp crescendo. I felt a desperate, despairing horror grip my heart—something felt distinctly wrong. Without knowing why, I started sprinting. The train, nearing full throttle by now, was streaking further and further away. That was when I heard it: the screams turned up several pitches, now possessing a tenor of genuine fear—

Silence. A deep, empty silence.

My lungs nearly bursting, I raced into the cave, which was still awash in that eerie red glow I will never forget for as long as I live. Bedazzled by my sudden dive into the light, I squinted around in confusion. The passengers were sitting stock-still in their seats, mute and frozen. The ground was strewn with balloons, or so I thought. What a weird way to end the ride, was the only thought my dazed mind could sputter out.

A sudden movement behind the stationary rollercoaster caught my eye. A plank of some sort was being lifted up towards the roof. I rubbed my eyes, urging the stars in my eyes to go away. No, not a plank—far thinner, and sharper. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the light, a sickening realization ripped through my shuddering body. It was a blade, a monstrous three-yard-long blade.

That had passed through each sobbing, throbbing throat like a hot knife through butter…

I turned and ran. And ran. All sense had been shot clean from my head, leaving only a primal fear that powered my legs beyond endurance, and consciousness. One moment I was dashing blindly through the darkness, the very next I was out like a light.

They had assumed I was dead, one of the many to have been senselessly slaughtered in the accursed carnival, until they found me in the bordering woods. I was told it was the work of some demented cult, seeking to sacrifice as many as they could before they did themselves in. I never got round to hearing the details, though, mainly because my mouth would widen into a scream anytime someone spoke of it.

It’s been years and years since, and I’ve been through countless therapists, to little effect. Even now, I hardly make it through a night without recalling the blood-red scene in the cavern, and worst of all, the abominable sign that had, ironically, saved my life.

ATTENTION: You must be this tall—to ride DIE!

Credit: prolix

The Sunday Special

February 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Dan was sick of rural America. He wanted nothing more than to be back in Chicago, far away from anything resembling a cornfield. Instead, he was driving through an Iowa winter with huge, white fields stretching into the distance on every side. Every five minutes a lonely farmhouse would appear off in the distance, a long, snow-paved driveway between it and the highway. The road felt like it was cut off from the rest of humanity, a single dark line through an otherwise pale, lonely world. It had been half an hour since he’d seen another car. Then there was the cold. Even with the car heater on full blast, the bitter cold seeped in through the windows.

Dan looked into his rear view mirror and saw a large, dark mass of clouds rolling across the sky behind him. He couldn’t tell which direction they were heading, but he hoped it was away from his destination. Looking back in front of him, Dan saw a road sign to the right. He only caught a glimpse as he went by, hoping to see that the town he was heading for was nearby. Unfortunately, ice and snow clung to the front of the sign, preventing him from seeing anything other than a C or an O. Dan was looking for a town that started with an O. As the turn approached, Dan decided that he needed a break from driving on the god-forsaken highway for a bit anyways. Even if it wasn’t the town he was looking for, maybe he could get something to eat and at least talk to someone. Eight hours of icy roads had taken its toll. Dan turned right down the smaller, but thankfully plowed and salted, country road.

Five minutes down the road, Dan saw a large sign saying “Welcome to Campsong”. He had never heard of the place and it definitely was not where he wanted to be. Checking his watch, he saw that it was nearly 7 o’ clock. He had time to get some food and still make it before midnight.

As the first streetlights from Campsong came into view, a building appeared along the left side of the road. There was something off about it that made Dan want to take a closer look. Slowing down the car, he could see the structure illuminated by a single streetlight that seemed to be placed there just for it. It was an old, abandoned shop with a large, battered sign that read ‘Mallock’s Meats’ in faded letters. Most of the windows were shattered. Dan assumed kids had thrown rocks at them. There was the usually spattering of graffiti, some of it half artistic. And then there was something else painted on the front of the store, much larger than the other graffiti. It took Dan a few moments to realize that it was a skeletal eagle. The artwork was rough, but not bad. The skeleton’s head was rolled back, screeching up into the sky. Ragged patches of shadowy feathers hung beneath the arm bones. Dan stared at the painting for almost a minute before realizing that he had brought the car to a full stop in the middle of the highway. He took one last glance at Mallock’s Meats and drove on into Campsong.
More village than town, Campsong appeared to be about thirty buildings in the middle of nowhere. As Dan rolled to a stop at an intersection in the middle of town, an old pickup puttered through the road in front of him and pulled into a parking lot filled with two cars, three pickups, and a tow truck. Dan assumed that that must be the place to go in this town. Turning into the lot, Dan saw a sign above the door that read “M’s Tavern” in red, blocky letters. Dan parked the car in one of the few empty spots. Before getting out of the car, he pulled the zipper on his coat up to his throat. He’d paid a couple hundred dollars for the insulated coat and on that night it was worth every penny. He hopped out of the car onto the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. Making his way towards the rough, wooden door, Dan had to swerve around a pile of cigarette butts in the middle of the lot. A small paper sign hung on the outside of the door reading ‘Saturday Special: Tenderloin Sandwich’. Dan didn’t think that sounded too bad as he swung open the door, hoping he didn’t get a splinter off of it.

As soon as Dan entered, the smell of tobacco smoke hit him. Apparently the law against smoking in bars was taken as a suggestion here. The hazy interior looked almost exactly as Dan had pictured it. The walls were all fake wood panels with random sports teams’ logos plastered to them. Several cheap looking tables were surrounded by at least two different styles of chairs. Four patrons circled a pool table in the back. They appeared to be the source of most of the smoke in the building. The bar itself was to his left. It ran the length of the building and looked as though it might fall apart at any time. Four men sat at the right end of the bar, occasionally yelling at a TV showing a football game. Dan took a seat in the middle of the bar, not wanting to sit next to the other customers, but not wanting to make it look like he didn’t. He didn’t care about the football game. Dan was more of a baseball fan.

Almost as soon as he sat down, a man came in from the back of the room and slipped behind the bar. After making sure the men in front of the TV were okay, he walked down to where Dan was sitting.

“M, I presume?” asked Dan. The bartender chuckled. He was a nice looking guy that Dan assumed was in his mid-30’s.

“The name’s Mike,” the man said in a calm, measured voice. “But yes, this is my place. Just getting into town?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Dan. “Can I get a rum and coke and one of those tenderloins?”

“The cook just left for the night, actually,” said Mike, grabbing a bottle of rum and a glass. “But I can get you that drink.” Dan was annoyed that he couldn’t get his sandwich, but he wasn’t keen on making a scene in the middle of a dive bar. “Stopping here or going to Arbormill like everyone else?”

“Um…neither,” said Dan. “I’m heading to Odela.”

“Ah,” said Mike. “Then you came down the wrong road.” He sat the finished drink down in front of Dan. “Nothing this way but Campsong and Arbormill.”

“What kind of a name is Campsong?” asked Dan, taking a sip.

“Well, it used to be something French,” said Mike. “Then they changed it.”


“To make it less French,” said Mike, walking back down the bar to grab a few of the guys some more beers out of the cooler.

“What’s in Arbormill?” asked Dan as Mike walked over to the cash register in front of him.

“You haven’t heard?” asked Mike as he rang up the drinks. “Arbormill is the new ghost capitol of the world.” He finished ringing them up and turned back around to Dan. “All sorts of stories started coming out of there a few months back and now every ghost hunter and their sister wants to go there.”

“And you’re making bank off the tourists?” asked Dan, taking a larger swig of his drink.

“Let’s just say I’m getting plenty out of it,” said Mike. “So what’s a city boy like you doing in Odela?”

“That obvious?” asked Dan. Mike just shrugged. Dan figured there was no harm in telling the bartender his business. He didn’t plan to be back in Campsong ever again. “My great aunt just died. I’m heading to the funeral.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mike.

“Don’t be,” said Dan. “We weren’t what you’d call close. And I’m pretty sure she moved back to the old family home in the middle of nowhere just so people would have to drive all the way out here.” There was more than a hint of spite in Dan’s voice that he was sure was not lost on the bartender. The customer closest to Dan had his head tilted just enough that Dan suspected he was listening in as well.

“Not a family man, eh?” asked Mike. Dan laughed a bit too loudly. He sucked down the last of his drink before answering. He could feel the alcohol barely starting to hit him.

“My family has a tradition when someone dies,” said Dan. “They get there as soon as possible, pretend to be sad, and then loot everything they can.”

“Sounds fun,” said Mike. “I’m sure your family reunions are a blast.” Dan sighed and glanced over at the group in front of the TV. A couple of them quickly looked away. It seemed like the out-of-towner was entertainment for the night. When he turned back to Mike, he found a fresh drink sitting in front of him.

“Thanks,” said Dan, not asking how he got that out so quickly. He took a sip from the new drink and then went back to talking. “The last time there was a family cash grab, the old lady grabbed something that was one hundred percent mine out of my parents’ house. I’ll be damned if anyone else is going to get it.”

“Well, good luck,” said Mike, avoiding the obvious question of what the item was. “And watch out in Odela.”

“Why’s that?”

“Arbormill has ghosts and Odela has monsters,” said Mike, half grinning. “Most of them are in the state prison there, though.”

“And what does Campsong have?” asked Dan, making a note to vacate the county as quickly as he could.

“We have a dive bar,” said Mike, breaking into a loud laugh. Dan heard a chortle from the group at the end of the bar.

“And apparently a quality butcher shop,” muttered Dan. Something changed in the room as soon as the words left his mouth. Everything suddenly got quieter. Even the men playing pool in the back had one eye firmly on Dan. Dan had already felt awkward, but for the first time that night, he felt a twinge of fear go down his spine. Mike leaned onto the bar towards Mike and looked him in the eye.

“Yeah, Mallock’s,” said Mike, his voice lowering. “That’s an interesting story.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Dan, checking his watch. The numbers were slightly blurry. Mike must have been making the things strong. Mike stood back up and looked around the bar with slight trepidation. Dan assumed he was just adding suspense, but there was something about the change in the other customers that gave him a sliver of doubt.

“It was back in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. A man called Walton Mallock came to Campsong and opened his butcher shop,” began Mike. His voice took on a strange edge as he told the story. It sounded like how someone would tell a ghost story around a campfire. “He came from Arbormill back when people didn’t trust anyone that came from there all that easily. There and Odela were the last couple of towns that had Malcaw blood left in them.”

“Malcaw?” asked Dan.

“Old Native tribe that used to live around here in Eldona County.”

“And people around here weren’t particularly fond of Indians?” asked Dan. Mike gave him a look that had the tiniest bit of anger in it. Dan shut up and took another drink.

“The Malcaw were a really old tribe that believed in really old ways,” said Mike. “Every other tribe around here was terrified of them. They used to say that dark gods walked in Malcaw villages. They said bone eagles flew overhead.” Dan thought back to the unnerving image painted onto the side of Mallock’s Meats. Looking around, he saw that everyone else in the bar was listening to the bartender. They’d probably heard it a hundred times, but they still had to listen to the obviously well practiced story. “So no, they didn’t like the Malcaw. And most of them had what they called the Malcaw eyes; pale blue. Mallock had them too. So he was on the outs already with most of the town; until he actually started selling meat.”

“Then they liked him fine,” asked Dan, taking another swig of his drink.

“Oh yes, they did,” said Mike. “Cheapest meat in the state, courtesy of his brother’s farm back in Odela. And every Sunday he’d put up a sign for the Sunday Special. People would come here from miles around for the barbeque pork on Sundays.” Dan thought he knew where the story was heading. “And so everyone in Campsong was happy. Then, one day, a guy goes to see his sister in Odela. As he’s leaving, he decides he wants to go see Mallock’s brother and thank him for giving him the meat so cheap.”

“Let me guess,” said Dan. “There was no Mallock farm?” Mike scoffed as if he had planned on him asking that.

“Oh no, there was a farm all right,” said Mike. “And the man tells Mallock’s brother that the cows and chickens are all well and good, but where were the pigs for the Sunday Special? The brother tells him that he hasn’t had pigs in years. So he asks if there’s another Mallock farm in Arbormill. His brother says no, the only other Mallock in Odela is his other brother, the sheriff in at the jail.”

“And there it is,” said Dan, slurring his words slightly. “So he was sending him prisoners to cook?”

“Saw that coming, did you?” asked Mike, looking Dan straight in the eye.

“Kind of hard not to,” said Dan. Mike grinned, not looking as pissed as Dan thought he might for blowing the big finale. As Dan went to take another drink, he noticed that the group at the end of the bar was still watching Mike intently.

“That’s not the end,” said Mike. “After the man got back to Campsong, he riled up a mob and they headed out to Mallock’s to bring him to justice.”

“To lynch him, in other words,” said Dan.

“More or less,” said Mike. “So they drag Mallock out of his shop and he stands there in front of the mob and asks them ‘Is this how you treat me after I’ve fed you all for a year? You all still have money in your pockets because I saw a different way. We can still go back to that way if we stop this right now and nobody outside Campsong ever has to know.” Mike paused.

“What happened then?” asked Dan.

“They took a vote. The whole mob of fifty people decided right there whether to hang Mallock or let him keep doing his thing.”


“You saw the butcher shop,” said Mike, bending down to where his eyes were inches away from Dan’s. “What do you think?” Mike whispered in a strange, eerie tone. Dan lowered his eyes to the bar while he considered. Mike suddenly slammed one hand onto the bar. Dan leapt back in shock and fell straight out of the chair onto the damp wood floor. A moment later, every other customer in the bar was laughing their ass off. Dan dusted himself off and got back into the seat. Although Mike wasn’t laughing, he was smiling very broadly.

“I couldn’t resist,” said Mike. “Yes, they lynched his ass. No more Sunday Special for them.”

Dan finished his drink with a long gulp and slammed the glass onto the bar.

“That a true story?” he asked, leaning back into the chair.

“Honestly, I don’t think anyone even knows anymore,” said Mike. Dan chuckled and looked down at the other customers. Apparently after they got to see Mike scare the new guy, they had lost interest. Looking down at his watch, he saw that it was almost 9 o’ clock.

“Wow,” said Dan. “I have really got to get going. How do I get to Odela from here?”

“It’s easy enough,” said Mike. “Just go back to the highway, turn right, and it’s going to be the first left after you go over the river.”

“Great,” said Dan, getting to his feet. “How much do I owe you?”

“Not so fast,” said Mike. Dan froze in place. “How about a shot on the house to remember Campsong by?” Dan had never heard a bartender offer free booze right before a guy was about to drive off.

“No thanks,” said Dan. “I don’t do shots. They’re the main reason I have an ex-wife.”

“Oh come on,” said Mike with a broad grin. “I have a very good house shot here.” He pulled a clear bottle of dark red liquid out from underneath the bar. “I call it the Mallock.” He poured a small amount into a shot glass and pushed it towards Dan. Perhaps it was because of the story, or maybe because of how much it looked like blood, but Dan wanted no part of that shot.

“It’s a very pretty shot,” said Dan. “But I still have to pass. I have a fair way to drive on some bad roads, you know.”

“I understand,” said Mike. The bartender picked up the shot and drank it in one gulp. “Your loss.” Dan grabbed a $20 bill out of his wallet and laid it on the counter.

“Keep the change,” said Dan. “For the entertainment.” Mike laughed and grabbed the money off the bar.

“You’re very welcome, good sir,” said the bartender. “You’d better get a move on though. Pretty sure I just heard them talking over there about a winter storm coming in.” Dan looked out the window and saw a spattering of snowflakes on the window. He let out a burst of profanity and ran for the door, hoping to some higher power that the storm didn’t get bad. Moments later his car sputtered to life and skidded out of the parking lot just as the snow really began to fall. Dan could feel the bartender’s eyes following him through the window.

Dan couldn’t believe how quickly the storm had rolled in. As he made his way through the intersection, he already had his wipers on full speed. As he sped past the last buildings in the town proper, the wind was howling around the vehicle, trying like crazy to blow it off the road. At his best, Dan would have had an issue driving in this weather, but with the strong drinks in him, he knew he had no business driving through that night. He had to make it to Odela, though. And he wasn’t going to stay in Campsong all night. Dan stared through the windshield as the wipers did their best to keep the snow off of it. He kept hoping the exit to the highway was closer than he thought it was.

As Dan moved slowly down the road, expecting his traction to go out at any moment, he began to hear something beneath the wind. A thump. A rattle. Sounds that he shouldn’t have been able to hear above the howling wind. He forced himself to pay full attention to the road, knowing that his drunk ass was just hallucinating sounds. It was at that moment that the sound came louder than before and from directly above his car hood. It was the sound of massive wings beating the air above him. As outright terror began to creep into Dan’s mind, a blast of wind hit the side of the car. Dan tried to straighten the car, but it was no use. The car veered to the right and off of the highway. Dan’s head began to swim and he was only aware of two things: a large object right in front of him and the sound of giant, bony wings.

Dan didn’t know how long it was before he woke up, but he immediately felt the bitter cold and a shooting pain in his shoulder. Looking around, Dan realized he was still in the battered shell of what used to be his car. It must have slid sideways into whatever he had hit because the passenger side door had been ripped off. A frigid wind blew in through the gaping hole in the vehicle, testing the limits of his heavy, insulated coat. Dan unfastened his seatbelt, which he assumed was the cause of the pain in his shoulder and also the reason he was alive. Wanting to get a better view of the situation, he shoved the driver’s side door open. Dan fell out of the car into foot-deep snow. He brushed the snow off his coat as he stumbled to his feet and found himself in a halo of light. He looked up through the still-falling snow to see a single streetlight that was now bent at an angle. He knew where he was. Dan looked past the light and saw the ruined façade of Mallock’s Meats.

The butcher shop looked almost ethereal through the gusting snow. It was there one moment and gone the next, obscured by the storm. Dan quickly decided that there was only one thing to do. He had to get inside the building before he froze to death. He could think up a more extensive plan once he was out of the blizzard. As he made his way past the front end of his car, he saw that most of the passenger side of the hood was crushed in. He was unsure whether his insurance was going to cover any of this mess. He stumbled through the mound of snow in the center of the abandoned parking lot and found himself standing before the painting of the bone eagle. He began to shiver as he looked up into the dark skeletal eye of the mural. It wasn’t entirely the cold that made him do so. Dan had to tear his eyes away from it once again as he went for the still-intact door to his left.

Dan was at least relieved to be out of the wind. The frigid air still creeped in through the broken windows, but at least the wind was at the other side of the shop. That was the only relief he found in the ruins of Mallock’s Meats. The main room of the store had a strange feeling. The pale light from the bent streetlight outside illuminated a room that felt as though time had stopped in it years ago. While it was true that the windows were broken and piles of snow lay around Dan’s feet, the rest of the shop looked as though it had not been touched by the last several decades. The tile floor was largely intact, as were three rows of shelves in the middle of the room. A long meat counter on the other side of the room was empty, but looked entirely functional beneath a thick layer of dust. The only signs of degradation were in the walls and ceiling, which were full of cracks and peeled areas of paint.

Dan moved carefully through the store and away from the windows. He saw a door behind the meat counter and thought he might be able to make it through the night in the back of the store. As he walked around the end of the counter and by three abandoned cooler doors, he took out his phone and turned on its flashlight. He considered calling someone for help, but after a moment of thought, Dan came to the conclusion that even if anyone knew where he was, they wouldn’t be able to get there until the next morning. He was on his own for the night. He reached the door behind an antique cash register that still rested on the counter. As Dan reached for the door, for the second time that night, he heard a sound that should not have been there. A low buzz emanated from behind the door. It reminded Dan of the sounds he had heard coming from meat counters while they were carving up slabs of meat. All he could imagine was a blade sawing through flesh and bone. Dan stood there staring at the door, trying to rationalize what he was hearing. It had to be the liquor making him hear things, like before in the car. He couldn’t have heard wings in the air. Dan ignored the sound, pushed open the door, and delved into the back room.

The buzz didn’t get any louder, but it didn’t go away. Dan shone his phone’s light around the room, illuminating the abandoned cutting room. He could make out a rusted metal sink, a long counter, and two doors which he supposed were the meat freezer and cooler. It had the same timeless look as the main shop room, but it at least it was slightly warmer. Dan sat down on the antique tile floor as a wave of nausea washed over him. The only thing he wanted was to pass out and figure out a way to get into Odela in the morning. He shut off his phone light and lowered his body onto the ground. He was seconds from unconsciousness when he rolled over and felt something cold and wet on his cheek.

Dan wiped the liquid off his cheek with a groan. He turned his phone light back on, expecting to see half melted snow on his fingers. Instead, they were streaked with crimson. Dan slowly moved his eyes to the floor and saw a small puddle of blood where his head had been. He quickly began to feel around his head, searching for what he was sure would be a gushing head wound. Finding nothing but a matted area of hair, he rose to his feet and pointed his light at the counter above him. A gleaming meat cleaver lay on the counter, a small puddle of blood beneath it was running off and onto the floor below.

Dan jumped away from the blade and felt the antique sink dig into his back, a rusted edge jabbing into his back through his coat. The cleaver just lay there ominously. Dan struggled to remember whether he saw it when he came into the room. Was it another thing that wasn’t really there? As he stood there obsessing with his back against the sink, a loud cracking noise came from his right. This time, Dan could not suppress a frightened whimper from coming out of his mouth as he dropped shuddering to the floor. Something from earlier in the night came back to Dan: the state prison less than an hour away. It suddenly made more sense than anything that he had just found the lair of an escaped prisoner. Summoning what was left of his composure, Dan crept forward and grabbed the bloody cleaver off of the counter. The blade was as cold as ice. Drawing himself up to his full height and readying the cleaver, Dan spun into the doorway to face whatever was there. He instantly froze as he found himself staring into the empty eye socket of a skeletal eagle.

It stood atop the weathered meat counter, one claw perched upon the old cash register. The thing was massive, blocking his view of anything else through the doorway. Tatters of flesh and down clung to its skeletal frame. Its wings were barely cohesive masses of rotting ebon feathers. Its head bobbed back and forth, the dark socket fixed on Dan. He heard its claws scratching at the counter beneath it. Snapping out of his stupor, Dan did the only thing he could think of. He raised his arm and hurled the cleaver directly at the massive eagle. It was an awkward throw, but its aim was true. It flew directly into the eagle’s skull and passed through it. Dan could hear the cleaver land on the floor behind it with a loud thud. Dan collapsed to his knees as the vision in front of him began to fade. A moment later, the eagle was gone. It had been a hallucination after all. Everything had been. Dan was about to break into hysterical laughter when the loud cracking noise came again from behind him. Dan’s heart skipped a beat as he realized where he had heard it before. It was the sound of a freezer defrosting. He still heard the buzzing sound from before as well. It was the sound of electricity running through the building. The freezer directly behind him in the abandoned butcher shop was completely functional.

Dan took a deep breath and turned towards the freezer door. He had had enough of this night. Summoning all that remained of his composure, he began to move slowly towards the door. As he approached it, Dan could see light gleam off of the steel door; a door that looked strangely modern in the middle of the antique site. His innards felt like they had turned to ice as Dan grasped the handle on the door and pulled it open. The pale light from the streetlight outside shone just bright enough to illuminate the nightmare lurking within, where large, dark bags hung from the ceiling. The shapes inside the bags were not from any animals.

Dan didn’t scream when he saw the contents of the freezer. He didn’t run away or drop to his knees. A single thought just kept repeating in his head: I knew this was coming. The very second he had woken up in front of Mallock’s Meats he had known there would be bodies in it. And they couldn’t be real. After a few strong drinks and a probable head injury during the crash, of course he was going to be seeing things. The bartender’s tale had done a number on him and this was the end result. He had seen bloody cleavers, skeletal eagles, and now a freezer full of dead bodies. He just had to prove one thing. Dan walked forward and reached a hand out towards a large black bag, fully expecting that his hand would go right through it, returning him to a reality in which the only thing to fear was the biting cold. When he felt a thin layer of plastic over what could only be a human hand, the terror finally came. And at the very same moment, a calm, measured voice came from behind him.

“You should have taken the shot,” it said. “The rum was drugged.” Dan had no time to react before a large blow struck him on the back of the head. He fell face first into the body bag in front of him and then collapsed onto the floor, reeling in pain. The world around him wavered slightly, but Dan remained conscious. He looked up and saw Mike the bartender illuminated by the pale light coming through the door.

“Mallock didn’t lose that vote, did he?” asked Dan in a low and distant tone. His hand groped around in the darkness, trying to find anything that might save him.

“No, he didn’t,” said Mike. “He won in a landslide.” The bartender pulled something out of his belt. Dan saw the shimmer of light off a blade. “He was my grandfather. And in his memory, Mallock’s Tavern still serves up the Sunday Special week after week, rain or shine.”

“Do they all know?” asked Dan in a whisper. “The whole town?”

“Some do,” said Mike. “Some of them suspect. But in the end, nobody does anything about it.” Dan was suddenly less annoyed that he hadn’t gotten his tenderloin.

Mike grabbed Dan and spun him belly up on the ground. He grabbed Dan’s two hundred dollar coat by the front and ran his blade top to bottom, shredding the front of the garment. Before he could protest, Mike had ripped the heavy coat off of him, leaving him defenseless against the cold.

“I like you, Dan,” said Mike, brandishing his knife. “So I’ll give you a choice. I can make it end nice and fast for you right here or I can lock you in and let you freeze to death if you want some time to make peace with things.”

“Fuck you,” said Dan, spitting out the words.

“Don’t say I didn’t try,” said Mike. He placed a foot on Dan’s chest and readied his knife. It was at that very moment that Dan’s hand felt a large, heavy piece of ice on the floor beside him. Finding a strength that he would not have believed he could muster, Dan gripped the chunk of ice and swung it wildly in front of him. Mike let out a loud scream as the block landed a blow directly on his kneecap. The bartender collapsed to the ground next to Dan grasping at his knee. Dan scrambled around and let out a wild kick at Mike’s face. It connected with a dull thud and Mike spat up blood. Dan’s head began to clear as he saw the open doorway with light streaming weakly through. He struggled to his feet and lurched out of the freezer. Stumbling through the cutting room and into the main store, he fell against the counter, grabbing it for support. Looking behind him, he saw Mike unsteadily rising to his feet. Looking towards the outside, Dan saw a spot of shining light on the floor. It was the cleaver he had thrown at the hallucination earlier.

Dan slid over the counter and landed roughly on the floor on the other side. Hearing footsteps behind him, he frantically crawled past the old shelves to where the cleaver lay on top of a mound of snow near the broken windows. Dan dove the last few feet and clutched the blade with both hands. He rose to one knee and was about to spin around and face Mike when he heard an engine revving from outside.

Dan froze in place, not wanting to look out the window. He forced himself to look up and through the now-dying blizzard. Two vehicles had joined his wrecked car around the lonely streetlight. The first was the tow truck from the tavern, which was in the process of towing his car away to somewhere no one would ever find it. The second was a large pickup with two men riding in the flatbed. Even with his clouded vision, Dan could see the scoped rifles they were holding. He was finished.

Dan’s arms went limp at his side. The cleaver gave a dull clang as it struck the old tile floor. Dan only had to wait a moment before the calm, measured voice came from behind him once more, albeit in a slightly more nasal tone.

“I really have to know now,” said Mike. “What were you going to get in Odela?”

Dan stared into the blizzard for a moment, and then began to laugh softly. Mike waited patiently as the laugh grew more frantic. It took a few seconds for Dan to compose himself again.

“It was an autographed baseball bat,” said Dan, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “My favorite player from the local minor league team. It was in my dad’s room when he died. The old lady just took it. I just wanted it back.”

“I understand,” said Mike, after a brief silence. “And I promise you.” Dan felt the tip of a knife against the back of his neck. “If your family stops by the tavern on their way back home, I’ll bury it next to what’s left of you.” A split second before everything went dark, Dan thought he could hear the sound of bone wings echoing through the night sky.

Credit: Alex Taylor


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