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The Montford Experiment

October 8, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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My name is Jim Hutchison. Most people call me Hutch, even in my professional life. My family-owned business is as a concrete contractor, and we perform work for a variety of private and federal clients. One such client is the Texas State Department of Corrections. It was work at one of their detention centers that got me interested in volunteering at a facility.

About five years back, we were installing a parking lot at the Montford Adult Correctional Institute in Lubbock. It is also known by its more appropriate name, the Montford Psychiatric Unit, as all of the inmates have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder or other. As my men were doing the preparation, concrete placement, and finishing over a number of weeks, I used to watch people walking in and out of the front doors of the facility. It was depressing.

Always the same scene. There would be inmates in orange and white striped jumpsuits – trustees – outside the doors sweeping the front steps and picking up trash: cigarette butts, gum wrappers, etc. But mostly sweeping, always sweeping. All day long. Must have been the cleanest set of stairs in all of Texas. I supposed that it was a treat for them, though. After exhibiting good behavior for a while, they were actually allowed outside the unit. I have seen the conditions inside, and boy, I would not want to be locked up in there for too long.

Still, the looks on their faces. Blank stares, slack jaws, sweating in the one hundred degree sun. As I said, very depressing.

I had a lot of experience with mental disorders, being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, and being a recovering alcoholic. I had found help and comfort through proper medical care and support groups, and I wished that there were some way I could pass that on to these poor men. Then, one day, I discovered how I could.

The guards at the front desk came to know me and some of my supervisory crew. They didn’t mind if we occasionally came inside the lobby to get out of the summer sun and use the rest rooms or buy soda from one of the machines in the waiting room. I was sitting in a chair one day, holding a cold bottle of Big Red to my forehead, when I overheard two women talking nearby. They were well dressed and obviously not there as visitors. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but the few words I heard caught my attention. Apparently, they were volunteers at the prison, “bringing the Word of the Lord” to the inmates confined inside. I told them how much I admired their work, and how I had a desire to help in a similar way. And so, they suggested that I apply for a position as a pastoral counselor in the unit.

Long story short, I did just that. I had to go through some training – what I could and could not bring into the facility, what I could and could not say to the inmates (never share personal information or build friendships), and how to act when inside general population walking and talking amongst the convicts. It was all pretty much common sense.

For the first eight weeks or so, I had to be escorted in and out of the unit proper. I would arrive, place my boots, keys, wallet, and such on a conveyor belt, turn over my briefcase for inspection, and walk through a metal detector. Then one of the guards at the entrance to general population would call up to the counselors’ office and someone would come down to get me. During the eight weeks, I was fingerprinted, interviewed, and a federal background check was run on me. Eventually, I was given a badge of my own and no longer needed an escort.

I learned many things in my first few months of volunteering. Bibles were like currency to the inmates (reading material to overcome boredom). Pencils were not allowed in the cellblocks, so the men loved meeting with me to write journals. They spent most of their time doodling ideas for tattoos. The really sick ones – the “mentals,” as the guards cruelly referred to them – were not allowed into general pop and looked forward to my visits. Most of all, I learned how easy it was to get in and out of the prison. Not that I would ever have done it but I marveled at the fact that, given the right inclination, a body could make a mint smuggling in cigarettes or booze stuffed into their socks.

I followed the same ritual every evening that I visited. I would park in the lot, walk past the trustees who swept the front steps (wow, did they ever stink), and enter the facility. The guards got to know me and grew comfortable with my visits. They began by waving me through the detector without having to remove my boots or open my briefcase, and eventually started letting me avoid the security check altogether.

Next, I was allowed to bypass the desk and go directly behind to a filing cabinet, where I could retrieve my badge – I wasn’t permitted to take it outside the prison. Then I’d get buzzed through an unremarkable metal door and walk down a long, unadorned hallway. At the end of the hall was where the genuine security measures began.

The hallway terminated at another door, this one made of double layers of thick, cloudy bulletproof glass supported within a frame of four-inch by four-inch square steel tubes. I would approach and stand under a camera mounted above the door, lifting both my face and the badge toward the camera in order for the guards inside to verify my identity. Once done, the door would slide open, allowing me to step inside an “airlock,” of sorts. Then the door would slide shut behind me.

The compartment was a triangular room with three doors, all similar, and a window set into the side. The guards in control of the doors sat behind the window, and would control the doors, opening only one at a time. I came to call them “doors number one, two, and three,” sort of like the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” I always entered through door number one, and then was allowed to pass through door number two into the prison’s general population. From the start, I would always gaze at door number three and wonder what was behind it, as it was the only door with darkened glass. Since no more than one door was ever open at a time, I never got a peek inside. During my orientation, I was told that the prison’s infirmary was back there.

When door number two opened, the stench was overpowering. No matter how many times you would enter the block, you never did get used to it. Mostly, it was the reek of urine, but was accompanied by an underlying sweet citrus smell, as the result of the cleaning fluid that they ineffectively used to mop down the halls. Inmates ambled up and down the halls, always giving you the once-over with their eyes. Occasionally, they would lock eyes with you and try to stare you down. During orientation, we were told never to look away – to stare them down as you would a stray dog. Looking away would be a sign of weakness.

It may seem cruel, but you had to keep them beat down. You had to constantly remind them that you were in charge, that they were nothing. Anything less could lead to unrest and rebellion, and you couldn’t have that.

The “mentals” were up on the ninth floor. The elevators, like the doorways, were controlled by the guards and monitored by cameras. I would press the single wall button, and eventually the doors would open. I’d step inside, look at the camera, and speak my destination into the camera microphone. Sometimes, there would be an inmate or two in the elevator. I never stood with my back to them. I would always stand facing them, my back to the door, staring them down, and for the most part, they would lower their eyes to the floor and try not to look at me. I was instructed never to enter an elevator if it was occupied by an inmate that intimidated me, but I never backed down. At first, I acted brave because I was unsettled but didn’t want to show it. After a while, I felt sympathy for the men more so than fear of them.

The ninth floor was divided up into five “pods,” each containing five double-occupancy cells. My habit was to rotate which pod I would visit on a daily basis, taking the weekends off. Even though I was educated not to make friends with the prisoners, I have to admit that I looked forward to the visits as much as they did. Sometimes heavily medicated, and by far the calmest group of men in the facility, they were (save for a few odd ducks) among the nicest people I’d ever met.

So it was day after day, week after week, month after month that I would follow the same routine. There were occasional variances, on some days due to fights or unrest among the inmates in general population, but one thing never changed. Every day as I entered the block, I would look over at door number three and wonder what lay behind it. I asked a few times, and was always told “the infirmary,” and after a while stopped asking for fear that someone might become suspicious about why I cared so much. Truth was, I’m just a curious person. Once, I even asked another volunteer if there was a chance that I could get a tour of the infirmary – perhaps visit the men back there – but was told (with great firmness) that my request would be impossible to fulfill, and that I should let the issue drop. I could almost hear the implied “or else.” That just piqued my curiosity even more.

My interest grew and grew until I one day decided that I was going to visit the “infirmary” one way or another. Although my decision was made on a Tuesday, I didn’t act immediately. I became more attentive to which guards were working on each day and at each time. Certain ones were more lax, or friendlier. It took two weeks of studying them, and building my confidence, until I decided that it was time to act.

Exactly two weeks and one day from the Tuesday that I made my decision, I finally got up the courage to say, “I’m visiting the infirmary today.” In my mind, I thought, let’s see what’s behind door number three, Monty!

The guard never even batted an eye. “Alright Hutch. Have fun,” he said, twinkling his fingers as his eyes dropped back to the video screens in front of him.

That easily, the door slid open. Boy, if the stench in general pop was bad, the odor wafting through door number three must have been quite literally a hundred times worse. In the hot Texas sun, and with all of the turkey vultures, road kill never lasted very long in Lubbock. Every once and a while, though, you’d come across a “fresh” one. That’s the closest thing I could think of to describe the smell behind door number three. It was as if you picked up a day-old dead armadillo, buried your nose in its crushed belly, and took a deep breath. Well, what I imagine it would smell like. I had never actually done that. Definitely the smell of rotting meat and gangrene, though.

The doors slid shut and another long hall was revealed. Dimly lit, with flickering fluorescents, it was like something straight out of a horror movie. I soon found out that was an extremely appropriate description. Another door at the end of the hall hung loosely from its frame, allowing light to leak out around it. I could hear alternating moaning, crying, and the worst – screaming coming from behind the door. I could have… should have turned around and headed back for the exit, but I had gotten too far. The only way to go was forward. Forward and through that door.

Although I knew it would seem suspicious, I opened the door slowly and stuck my head around the corner. The best way to seem as if you belong somewhere is to stride right in with confidence, but I couldn’t. I was afraid of what might be behind the door. Heck, I thought, it most likely was just a prison hospital. Moaning, crying, screaming – all normal noises for men in pain.

It was most definitely not a normal hospital ward.

There were at least a dozen men strapped to steel tables. Some naked, some in orange prison jumpsuits, and some wearing the striped suits like the trustees that I passed every day outside on the stairs. All of them had IV’s inserted into their arms, the drip bags containing a fluid that looked like antifreeze. Vitals signs monitors (VSMs) were attached to most of them, and I could see by the displays that two of the men were clearly dead.

There were two men and a woman, all wearing lab coats, standing amongst the tables. One of the male doctors (?) looked up in surprise, and then beckoned over “Come in, come in.” They must have noticed the look of confusion, quickly turning to panic, in my eyes. The female doctor began explaining in a soothing voice.

“Don’t worry. You’re not the first outsider to stumble his way into our infirmary, and I’m certain that you won’t be the last. As you’ve probably already guessed, what we have here is more of a lab than a hospital. We’ve just become so used to calling it the infirmary that it’s simpler that way.” She drew a breath and was about to continue when another of the doctors shouted, “It’s happening!”

Everyone, myself included, turned toward one of the tables that held a dead man. Well, previously held a dead man, to be exact. His VSM had jumped to life, and seemingly so had he. He began twitching, and then thrashing, then he began to scream. I had seen a man being burned alive once, when a barrel of hot tar accidently spilled on him, and the screaming was the same. It was gut wrenching and made my skin crawl. You could hear the pain and sorrow in it.

The female doctor scrambled to inject a syringe of some milky liquid into the man’s IV port and after what seemed like an eternity (although it was probably mere seconds) he calmed, and his breathing steadied itself.

Here’s the thing: They had not been performing CPR on the man when I walked in. There was no defibrillator to be seen. The man was unmistakably dead when I arrived and during the few minutes we had been talking. Yet, here he was alive once again, as if he had spontaneously resurrected. Disturbingly, though, his eyes were still clouded over as if he had cataracts. An uneasy and sick feeling crept its way into my belly. The doctors had not told me anything yet, but on some level, I already knew what was happening – or at least part of it.

I was incredulous. “Wha- what’s going on?”

So, while two of the doctors tended to the resurrected man, the third explained the experiment to me.

“You see, we were tasked to find out whether or not so called ‘evil’ men have souls or not,” he began. “Of course, I personally do not think that there is any such thing as true evil, but I do wonder if these malcontents have the same sort of spiritual makeup as normal people. After all, why do they do what they do?

“In 1907, a Haverhill, Massachusetts, doctor by the name of Duncan MacDougall managed, apparently overcoming any ethical reservations over human experimentation, to put six dying people on a bed equipped with sensitive springs, and claimed to have observed a sudden loss of weight – about three quarters of an ounce – at the exact moment of their death. Having reasoned that such loss could not be explained by bowel movements or evaporation, he concluded he must have measured the weight of the soul. A follow-up experiment also showed that dogs didn’t seem to suffer the same sort of loss, therefore they didn’t have souls.

“I’m not implying that these inmates are on the equivalent of dogs, but one must wonder exactly how they compare to normal, healthy human beings. We obviously do not have much control data, but we have recycled these men as much as possible for our research.”

It was there that I stopped him. “Recycled?”

“Oh yes,” he brightened. “We don’t just throw them away. You see, as a pleasing consequence of our intended experiment, we found that we were able to revive our test subjects.”

“Revive them?”

“Yes. Revive, resurrect, bring them back… whatever you wish to call it. This way, we are able to take measurements and observe through a variety of different conditions. It’s quite ingenious.”

I really did not know what to say at that point. To question who authorized the experiment, what the ramifications were, how it worked. So I asked the first question that popped into my head.

“So, do they have souls?”

He removed a pencil from his breast pocket and tapped the side of his head, as if thinking it over. “You know, I’m quite certain that they do. As I said, we lack enough data to use as a control. However, it seems that each time we bring them back, they lose a little until – it seems – it’s all gone. After a certain point, we can no longer observe any differences.”

“And how long does that take?”

“Usually four or five cycles.”

I cocked my head, still in disbelief over the casual way he was talking about the atrocities they were committing. “And what happens then?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t follow you.”

“After you’re done with them. What happens to them then?”

“Whoo,” he blew air through pursed lips. “Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s currently the little ‘snag’ we’ve run into. You see, eventually they just stop dying.”

He must have seen the look on my face.

“I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t tried. We usually put them down in a most humane way. Sedation, paralysis, and eventually with an injection of enough potassium to stop their hearts. Then we revive them and do it again. And again. And again. Each time, it gets a little more difficult to put them down, until… well, until we just can’t do it anymore.”

“What?” I was just about screaming.

“In simpler terms, they are basically incapable of dying. Quite a problem. And they really start to stink,” he said, as if that were the chief problem.

“Can’t you burn them, cremate the bodies?”

It was his turn to look at me in disgust. “Oh, now that would be cruel.”

I held my head in my hands and began to hyperventilate. “So where are they?”

“Well,” he said, “Outside. Sweeping the steps.”

With that, I began to feel lightheaded. What caused me to faint, though, was his next question.

“Mister, um…” he looked at my badge, then into my eyes, “Hutchison, would you consider yourself to be a good person? Do you believe that you have a soul?”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

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The Reserve

October 7, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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Until recently, I had considered the reserve near my home just another quiet, if slightly unnerving, relic of pre-suburban life. With sub-divisions and commercial sectors rising steadily around it, the knot of thick trees, greenery and long, straw-like grass had been cast aside by time; a mottled green and brown fortress among the ever-expanding web of houses and streets.

Nothing about the area seemed inviting. Entirely unkempt, the reserve, which stretched out over a square mile, was visibly overgrown. It was near impossible to make out any detail amongst the trees. As a natural wall, the old branches and predatory vines weaved together on the outskirts to truly reinforce the isolated, island-like nature of this heavily shadowed place.

During my childhood, I remembered that the area had been popular with trekkers and runners. A long tourist trail wound from one corner of the park to the other, providing a nature walk for visitors to what, at the time, was a very tourism-oriented area. The walk would take the best part of an hour, with the trail weaving through patches of woodland and large open areas of tall, pale-coloured grass at the centre of the reserve. Considering the lack of anything truly spectacular about the place, it is no wonder that after several years the local Council abandoned consistent maintenance of the park. They had quoted a lack of public use for the decision, and had then planned to sell the area to commercial developers.

Through my research, I discovered that it was around this time the disappearances started. Although the authorities had abandoned the reserve to the elements, some runners insisted on continuing to use the area. The Council had made no efforts to actually fence off the area, instead choosing to erect several temporary signs at the track entrances indicating the impending sell-off of the land. As such, it was easy enough to simply enter the area. The thick masses of foliage had already begun to press into the path, narrowing the already small trail. It was somewhere along this isolated track that runners begin to vanish. Over the course of six months, 3 different people had entered into one end of the path, never to emerge from the other.

Police invested significant resources on all three occasions, searching the reserve with dozens of volunteers, but no bodies were ever discovered. This deepening mystery had an immediate ripple effect, with the company expected to purchase and make use of the reserve withdrawing their application. With no other serious offers, the Council then left the land to itself, listing it officially as a ‘nature reserve’. To my knowledge, they have never again attempted to sell the land.

As the years passed, the local homeless population began slowly migrating into the area. Makeshift shelters and camps sprung up deep into the wilderness during my teenage years. I clearly remember seeing dishevelled, untidy hermits plunging into the, then, entirely overgrown track entrances, as if the woods themselves had reached out for them and consumed them whole. In recent years, the park has been as good as forgotten by the greater society. It still looms over the homes of those families it borders, but to some, having evidence of more untouched nature at their doorstep must be a blessing rather than a curse. But, it is a curse. The whole area is cursed, and it was almost enough to ensure that I never wrote this story down.

You see, I made the mistake of discovering the secret of the reserve. I didn’t even do it intentionally. It started purely by chance, from an unlikely source. One afternoon, several weeks ago, I had planned on walking several miles to a party someone from my college was hosting. I had never been to their house before, so I had punched their address, and my own, into the maps website to check for the fastest route. The program had returned three alternatives, two of which would take me almost two and a half hours. The third option, however, showed as less than one and a half. The blue line on the map worked it’s way from my house the two blocks to the edge of the reserve, then traced the original tourist trail before emerging out the other side, only several streets from my destination. Despite the almost instant apprehension about crossing that place at night, I think I had already decided I would risk it to shave an hour off the trek.

It wasn’t long before I was standing at edge of the green, imposing mass. After checking my phone one last time and wishing, fruitlessly, that it now showed a different path, I plunged into the undergrowth. The sensation of walking on human-constructed ground wasn’t instant, as over time, foliage had even grown over the gravel trail. But soon, the earth hardened, the trees parted, ever so slightly, and the thin, shadowy trail was revealed. After 15 minutes or more of manoeuvring through low-hanging branches, guided by the impressively powerful light on my phone, I pushed through a net of thick vines and shrubbery to emerge at the mouth of the grassed section of the park. The pale blades stretched upward, easily towering over me. Some fell lazily over the path, bending at their middle, but the trail was still defined enough to push onward.

About halfway across the reserve, still engulfed in the imposing grass, I came across by a small clearing. The grass parted to reveal a loosely-circular bare patch, no bigger than a basketball court. I slowly swept my light across the clearing, and at it’s centre, stopped on what appeared to be the silhouette of another person. As my eyes adjusted, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a another human at all, but a grass giant. Long strands of the surrounding grass had been cut, or pulled out, and intricately woven into a human effigy. It was secured in place with a gnarled tree limb which had been embedded in the earth. The figure loomed, standing at least eight feet tall, it’s arms hanging downward almost to the ground below. It’s head was rectangular, featureless, a knot of grass blades rising above the figure’s low, drooping shoulders.

I cautiously approached the bizarre creation, refusing to let my light leave it. As I reached the grass-man, I tentatively reached out to touch it. I’m still not sure why. As my arm extended forward, I heard a rustling directly to my right. I paused, arm outstretched, listening. The sound came again; a clear movement in the grass. For the first time since arriving at the clearing, I shifted my light, as I begun to scan the grass encircling me. As I swept my light to the right it revealed a man, standing quietly at the clearings edge. He wore a large overcoat, and appeared to be covered in dirt and dust. Even with the light shining directly on him, I couldn’t make out any of the details of his face, his long, matted hair hanging down below his chin. The grass beside him rustled, and several more figures emerged, none too dissimilar from the first. I was obviously terrified, but knew almost instantly who they were. I quickly rationalised that they were members of the homeless community in the park, and that I had walked into one of their areas.

As that moment seemed to stretch into eternity, I finally found the courage to act. I ran, diving forward under the overhanging grass figure and towards the opposite side of the clearing. From behind me I heard only a single sound. A male voice, quiet and rough, said ‘they won’t like this’.

I powered forward along the trail, breathing heavily, my light sweeping wildly in the dark. Without ever looking back I made it to the edge of the reserve and emerged triumphant from the trees. I was shaken by the encounter, but refused to let it rule my thoughts. Trying to understand why these hermits had constructed a grass man, or what they used it for, both seemed fruitless thoughts. I had a party to go to and wasn’t going to let any of this ruin my night.

As with most college parties in my town, it was a pretty big let down. I drank to overcome the dullness of the people I spent the night navigating my way around, both physically and socially. I drank too much, it seemed, because on leaving the party somewhere around two in the morning, I had entirely forgotten the encounter earlier in the night. My brain, however, did choose to remember that I had taken the wooded shortcut to the party, and mobilised my feet back in that direction. I shuffled into the trees almost robotically, guided by that inbuilt GPS we all seem to have for home while we can somehow consciously construct little else. The next thing I clearly remember, having apparently already made it back to the clearing, was facing the tall, woven figure again. It dominated my perspective, hunched over in the thin beams of moonlight. I fumbled for my phone in my pocket, having seemingly given up on using my light sometime earlier.

The memories of my previous run-in with the clearing quickly flooded back, and I anxiously glanced at the clearing boundaries, searching for any signs of movement. Almost instantly, I again heard a shuffling noise. A rustling, indistinct. This time I couldn’t exactly tell where it was coming from. I finally pried my phone from my jeans pocket and fumbling, switched on the light. As I raised it forward and revealed the grass figure, the source of the sound became apparently. The effigy lurched, a staccato jerking motion, as it’s arms raised their hanging grass knuckles from the earth. The legs each shuffled slowly forward, each moving as if seen through a strobe light. The branch securing the creature to the ground fell loose to the earth. With the short, sharp movements, the grass man, with arms now stretching onward in my direct, moved closer at a frighteningly fast rate.

I think I screamed, I’m not sure any more, and ran to my right, plunging straight into the tall grass. Sharp blades whipped against my face and hands, causing small cuts, but that was the least of my concerns at the time as I ran on. I felt almost instantly sober, my senses working overtime as I continued to run. I could hear the creaking, shuffling sound of the figure behind me, unsure how far back it was. As if on queue, my foot caught in a tight knot of dead grass, and I tripped forward as the grass in front of me parted. As I regained my balance I quickly became still as another clearing appeared in front of me. Far larger than the previous one. As my light pierced the darkness, dozens of grass figures were spread across the glade. Each of them, almost in unison, turned at the waist, their torsos bending to face me. Their featureless, shapeless heads twisting around to acknowledge my arrival. As I turned to run, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the homeless people from earlier in the night. They were huddled at the other edge of the clearing, kneeling down over what looked like a large pile of loose grass. They raised their heads, and I could feel their gaze upon me.

I dived back into the long grass, ploughing forward blindly through the dense expanse. I could hear the sounds of my pursuer, or pursuers, but they quickly began to fade into the distance. Struggling to breath, my lungs burning in my chest, I reached the tree-line and stumbled back out into the world. I somehow found the strength to continue to run all the way home, bursting inside and securing every door and window in every room within minutes. I collapsed onto my bed, the lights left on, and waited. I’m not sure for what, but it didn’t feel like the events of the night were over. Despite this, the tiredness must have overcome me because I somehow slept. I slept almost the whole following day. When I awoke, it all truly felt like a bad dream. A nightmare more twisted, more real, than any I had experienced before.

I doubted my own thoughts, my fears. It didn’t take long after I awoke to convince myself, through the haze of a fairly heavy hangover, that it all had been some sort of bad waking hallucination. After the amount of alcohol I had consumed, I quickly came to believe that I’d scared myself into jumping at shadows the whole way home. Emerging from bed, I noticed that I still had my shoes on. Dirt was spread through my bed, and my room. I cursed at myself for the stupid mistake, and removed the shoes. Carrying them to the front door, I opened it to place the shoes outside. Sitting on the doorstep was a doll. Well, not exactly a doll. It was a small figure, made from pale, woven grass.

Credit: disque

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A Soft White Glow

October 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I didn’t want us to move, but my parents didn’t give me a say in the matter. My father’s new job paid much better than anything he could have landed within driving distance of our home in the city, and the new company agreed to hire my mother, too. Not only would she have the chance to go back to work for the first time since I’d been born, but the two incomes would afford us the money to buy a house — an actual house, my father stressed — that even came with some land attached. They promised me it would be a welcome change from our apartment in the city. To them, our home was merely a cramped little space where we lived on top of one another, and that we didn’t even own. It rankled them to shell out more and more money every year to an unseen landlord for permission to occupy space, simply because that person had wealth and we did not. It was if we would not be granted the right to exist if we were any poorer than we currently were.

My parents didn’t much care that I liked being in the city. There, I never had to confront my fear of the dark. A light always burned somewhere in the city — the sky by day, the streets by night.

More than anything, it was the lack of light in the countryside that I wasn’t prepared for. Things weren’t so bad in the daytime, when the sunlight shone in the grass and speared between the tree branches to dapple the ground below. Come nightfall, however, our new home and its vicinity became a different world entirely. The darkness in the countryside was absolute. No matter how long you stared into it, your eyes would never adjust. Unless there were a strong moon in the sky, you would be condemned to blindness once the lights went out, and forced to rely on your ears and touch and imagination until the sunrise restored your eyesight.

I fell into the habit of leaving the blinds in my bedroom open at all times, including at night, so that the sunlight could start streaming in as soon as it breached the horizon.

* * *

We had finished with the move in the spring. The dark and seemingly endless nights in the country had me on edge within a week. I looked forward to the summer and its progressively longer days.

I came to learn that it wasn’t the dark itself I was afraid of, not quite. I hated what it did to my senses. Imagined motions — particularly flurries of static like on the screen of a broken television — rushed over my eyes when they remained open in the darkness and found nothing to draw their focus. My ears would pick up sounds that drove me crazy if I couldn’t immediately put a source to them: the creaking of the house as it settled into its foundation, the yowling calls of animals out in the distance, the lonely and sorrowful moans of the wind through the pines. Then there was the problem of my own body, and discovering that no position in bed was comfortable once I started thinking about it.

Mostly it was the feeling of abandonment I couldn’t stomach. Nothing in my life had prepared me for how isolating rural living can be. In the city, you never want for human contact; the streets are never empty, and the public venues always crowded. In our new home, hidden away among large swaths of field and forest, there was nobody around but us. Once my school day ended, I was effectively done with seeing other people. In the evenings I felt like a castaway marooned in the middle of a sea of grass, and at night, that sea seemed to swell and broaden, pulling me even further from the world I knew and loved.

I never could deal with the overwhelming sense of space the surrounding fields gave me. Open air was not something I had ever experienced in the city. I soon discovered I didn’t like it. What did I care about a bunch of grass? Where other kids my age might want to roam the fields and explore, I found I would much rather stay inside, surrounded by the safety of walls and floors and ceilings and the finite. Plus, there were no mosquitoes indoors.

And there was no computer outside to connect me with the friends from back home that I hadn’t yet lost in my great uprooting. I spent fewer hours basking in the sun than in the glow of my monitor, trying to maintain friendships that slowly slipped away as life happened differently to each of us, and brought my friends new excitements that I had no part in to replace our shared memories.

* * *

“You should eat some more,” said my father at the dinner table. “You’ve lost weight these last weeks.”

I tried to put down seconds.

“Try going outside tomorrow, too,” he added. “You’re looking pale.”

“If I have time, sure.”

It was obvious they worried about me — but not enough to reconsider the move.

“Why don’t you call your friends tonight?” my mother suggested. “They’d be glad to hear from you.”

“Yeah. I’ll do that.”

It was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear. I could have mentioned that the silences when I called my friends were now longer than the sentences. Yet somehow it didn’t seem right to let my mother know that my friends and I didn’t have much to talk about anymore.

* * *

In wishing for the change of season, I hadn’t accounted for the heat. We’d always had an air conditioner in our apartment in the city. The new house, however, had no means of cooling down besides opening the windows. I had thought the nights in the springtime were miserable by virtue of their length. I knew nothing of the unpleasantness of summer nights, of simmering sleepless in one’s own sweat no matter how many sheets and layers one shed. Sometimes I caught myself exhaling a low, lonely moan, like I’d heard in the trees.

One summer night, when it was too hot to sleep, I found myself staring through my dark window, wishing the pinholes of starlight above were enough to brighten the earth. They sparkled, winking at me through passing cirrus clouds as if they were teasing me. Some even seemed to descend from the sky, lighting on the fields below. It occurred to me that stars don’t really “fall” like that — despite the fears and warnings of the world’s early civilizations — and I began to wonder whether my mind was playing tricks on me again.

When the fallen stars started to shimmer and flash, I realized what I was actually seeing: fireflies!

I had never glimpsed one before, having only the fakes from movies and television for reference, but I didn’t think there was anything else the lights outside could be. They certainly moved like fireflies, tracing lazy arcs between blades of grass before disappearing into the darkness, and surfacing from the blackness again some distance away. I watched them flit and flicker until I felt tired enough to sleep through the heat.

In the morning they were gone, but the fireflies returned the next night. The soft white glow they trailed through the field’s tall grass gave me a sense of deep comfort, like what children must feel around their night-lights. With each brief flash, I felt as if the fireflies were calling me to play. Few things seemed more fun to me in those moments than chasing the little white motes around. Yet I worried about being eaten alive by the mosquitoes that surely swarmed out there — and about finding my way back to the house in the dark — so I remained indoors.

Inwardly, I was already preparing myself for the season to come, when the fireflies would pass from the field, and into memory and regret. If our abrupt move from the city taught me anything, it was that nothing lasts. It was best to inure myself to it sooner than later.

* * *

The cold season struck early that year, snowing in mid-October before the trees had the chance to drop their leaves. They couldn’t bear the extra burden, and their limbs snapped beneath the loads they were never meant to carry. Oftentimes they took power lines with them, and we spent several days without electricity. The wreckage outdoors looked to me like the world had ended — in ice rather than fire, answering an old question. I wondered how the fireflies had fared in the unseasonable cold, figuring that few of them had survived.

Imagine my surprise when I peered out my window one night at the tracts of snow, faintly blue beneath the crescent moon, and saw clusters of fireflies glittering over their favorite haunt. At first, the sight left me bewildered — how could cold-blooded insects endure the premature winter’s chill? Then again, I knew nothing of firefly ecology. Perhaps they were hardier bugs than I thought. My confusion soon gave way to joy, for the fireflies’ soft glow filled me with the same warm feelings it always had. Their playful glint seemed to promise all the pleasures I had wished for through the years, and never attained.

A thought arrived, unbidden, as if it came from outside of me: that nothing would make me happier than to stand amidst the procession of fireflies in the field, to let their glow wash over me, to reach out and touch the light I’d craved.

I resolved to venture out into the field once the moon was full. With all the fallen snow to reflect the moonlight, it would be as good as daytime; I could find my way back to the house in it easily. And surely the cold snap would have killed off all the insects out there that wanted to drink my blood.

* * *

Before the end of the month, the night came when the moon shone full like a silver sun. I waited until my parents had gone to sleep. Then I headed downstairs, put on my snowboots and bundled myself in my winter coat, and went outside. The glassy scent of the cold shocked my airways and stung my lungs as I trudged toward the firefly field. The blanketed snow muted every sound, making my footsteps seem yards away, and my breath belong to somebody beside me though I saw it cloud and disperse before my eyes. In the distance, the fireflies rose from the ground like snowfall in reverse. Even through the frigidity of the air, the sight of them warmed me. I picked up my pace.

As I neared, the fireflies drifted away from me like dandelion tufts on a breeze. I thought I had startled them, so I slowed my approach. I crept toward them, planting my every step lightly enough that the thin layer of frost over the snow made no noise as it broke beneath my weight. The fireflies retreated, but less than before. A few cautious steps later, and they hardly moved at all, floating in space as if I were not there. They allowed me to tread into their midst.

Surrounded by the little glowing sparks, I felt a happiness unlike any I had known. I giggled, delirious with pleasure. I was pricked by an urge to hurl myself onto my back and make a snow angel while the fireflies settled on my face. I threw out my arms. Several fireflies drew closer. One landed on my outstretched finger. Delighted, I brought it toward me. How thrilling it would be to see a firefly in the flesh!

It took me a moment to see the thing at the center of the soft white glow. Squinting, I could discern a few of its features. Then, as its image came into focus, I gasped as if I had been struck.

Whatever I held, it was no firefly.

I could not have told you exactly what it was. It resembled a human skull in miniature, ringed in pulsating white flame. It seemed to stare at me — into me — as I regarded it. There was a certain predatory intelligence behind its empty gaze.

My glance averted by instinct, and darted among the other glowing things. Were they the same as the one on my finger? I shook my hand, and the spectral skull drifted away. The rest of them encroached, gradually but deliberately. The low moan I had formerly ascribed to the wind soughed across the snow through the still air.

I heard a crack like a breaking bone, and my heart sank.

For I realized what I had never discovered hiding indoors: it was not a field the glowing creatures had led me to, but a bog.

The ice gave way, and I plunged into the freezing water. My boots dragged me down, dunking my head below the surface. The terrible cold forced the air from my lungs as my muscles began to quake. Above, the white lights bobbed like jellyfish, their outlines undulating in the turbulence.

The blackness under me looked darker than sleep. Small white spheres rose from it like bubbles. They skirted my cheeks, revealing bone grins inside their glow. I started to flail, but I found I could not move one leg — something grasped me by the ankle!

The shining little skulls gathered in the shape of a hand where I felt clutched. It tugged on me, and something like a white human silhouette raised itself from the depths. I thought I could see bones beneath its luminous skin. It brought its face up to mine, restraining my head between its palms. A bottomless loneliness radiated from its empty eyes, devouring, insatiable.

Then, as I fought to break free, it pressed its mouth to mine in a cold, hungry kiss that tasted like everything I had ever lost.

* * *

My parents tell me they found me in the morning, pale and emaciated, lying on the bank of the bog. They said I was shivering and unconscious, and feared I had gone into shock. At the hospital, I was supposedly treated for hypothermia. I remember none of it. The doctors discharged me with a relatively clean bill of health, advising me to pack on a few pounds in the meantime. They claim there’s nothing wrong with me.

But I know better.

I tremble beneath blankets even when the air is warm. I feel no hunger, and steadily drop in weight even if I can manage to eat anything. My skin picks up no color after hours in the sunlight.

It doesn’t matter what I lost, or where, or to what. I have no answer; nobody does. All I know — and all I need to know — is that some precious thing of mine is gone.

And I doubt it will come back to me, even if I knew where to look for it.

Credit: Lex Joy

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I Drove Out to the Desert

September 24, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I was driving out to the desert. The panorama of distant rock, endless sand, and occasional cactus slowly blurring in my peripheral vision. Sparse cloud cover traversed the sky overhead, providing brief interludes of shade over deceptively large patches of the arid wasteland. I found my exit, an unremarkable dirt path most motorists would overlook. It led seemingly to nowhere, out into the emptiness devoid of civilization. To those in the know, however, it was a familiar avenue. The indicators were clear to me as I passed them. First the wooden signs with crude pictures of mountains carved on them, then an outcropping of small boulders with a giant arrow pointing East painted onto it. I turned my four-wheel drive on and took a sharp left past my silent navigators. As I penetrated deeper into the wilderness, my radio began to cut out, its signal fading to static.

In my trunk were the necessities: water, rope, carabiner hooks, chalk, and harness. I had everything I needed to make it up the sheer rock face. After about ten miles, I arrived the base of the towering mesa. It loomed over me and the surrounding terrain. At almost three thousand feet high, it dominated most of the adjacent landscape, its beckoning cliffs and peaks threatening to swallow everything that approached. Even the clouds struggled to graze the roof of my imposing adversary.

All that remained was to locate the starting point of the climbing route. Hundreds, maybe thousands of climbers before me had attempted to conquer Black Mountain. Some were victorious, most gave it an admirable effort. It wasn’t the most difficult climb in the world, but the heat made for a formidable obstacle. Lucky for me, clouds were gathering above, shedding precious shade as I inched closer to the base of the mesa. I spotted the stone circle and stopped my car, stepping out into the elements from my air conditioned haven. A slight breeze carried the dry, stale air over me as I walked to the trunk and equipped my physical burdens. With a loud clank I closed the hatch and ensured my car was locked properly. It was unlikely I would be robbed out here, but safety is key in the desert. As my feet shuffled to the small stone circle, the clinking of my gear echoed slightly against the rock face, reflecting the emptiness of my situation.

I’m glad no one’s here, I thought to myself. I peered down at the circle of rocks, taking in their fake petroglyphs left my previous climbers. Written in chalk, paint, or who knows what, some left them as a simple guide post to the start of the climb, others as a “I was here” type of graffiti. This sort of childish obsession never interested me, but it was interesting to see what images were left. There were even some new ones I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe this route was getting more popular than I expected.

Moving on from the new-age vandalism, I proceeded to the cliff face. In front of me was a large crag, ideal for shimmying up with just my hands. It was a kind start to the climb, and I had a long way to go. For the first leg I hadn’t needed any clips to secure my fall, my hands finding the holds from muscle memory. Eventually, however, after a brief rest on a small cliff, the real climb began. Most beginners stopped here, calling it quits and discarding unnecessary gear. It was frowned upon by most of the community, but there wasn’t much you could do to stop it. I felt a strange pang of anger and resentment against whomever littered this place. This example of nature’s terrible cataclysm was something to be shared and respected, not used as a dumping ground. Up here, far above the cities and streets, the people and traffic, the work and responsibilities, I gazed out to the horizon. Up here, away from all the business of my mother’s estate, I sought peace. Up here, I wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout from breaking up with Joel. No friends to harangue or “comfort” me. Just the wild air sweeping across the desert, and some asshole had to ruin it with their garbage.

Fuck it, I said in my head. “FUCK YOU!!!” I screamed to the vast expanse before me. Clouds covered the mesa again, as if cooling me and my temper, the wind cooing against my face. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe.

I was suddenly startled by a sharp noise behind me. I quickly turned around to see small rocks falling from above the next leg of the climb. I quickly scanned the area for signs of life, or worse, disintegration. I’ve known climbers to be attacked by mountain goats, coyotes, stray bee hives, even mountain lions, but the number one killer is unstable rock formations. Time wears away at everything, even the monolith I was perched upon. One loose hold and you plummet to your death with little to no warning. Determined to conquer the route, I pressed on. I’m not going to die like that, I promised in my head.

I saw no trace of animal life nearby, so I pressed on. The climb was slow compared to my start. Fewer obvious places for me to make a safe grip meant for more and more clips to be driven into the rock face. Thankfully, there were well-established directions evidenced from previous climbers. After an hour of strenuous ascending, I could tell I was reaching the next flat portion and rest stop. My hands, calloused and chalky, dug into the harsh rock, and with my weakening strength I lifted myself ever upward. Finally, as the sun began to creepy back out from the clouds, I found the cliff edge. Then, I found bones.

Bleached from the sun but in sickly arrangement, a grotesque mixture of human and animal skeletons were splayed out in front of me. Bile began to rise in my throat. Determined to refrain from further dehydrating myself, I held the vomit down. I’m no forensic technician, but I could identify human, lion, and coyote skulls. Sinew still hung from some of the bones, nearby tracks indicated it was all dragged from some other location on the mesa. Whatever did this had killed recently, and had gathered it all together in a macabre spectacle, a trophy to its ability, a warning to the world.

I looked up the trail to the next ascent, the last leg of the climb until my journey was over. I looked to the left to an old goat trail that curves along the face of the mesa, where the dirt tracks had come from. For anyone finishing the climb, it was a simple descent back the way you came to get back down. It was impossible to climb three thousand feet and make it back down in time to return home the same day. This may be my last time, but I can make sure others don’t perish here in the future, I decided. I downed more water, held a moment of silence for the slaughtered, and began travelling along the goat path.

Mountain goats can walk incredible edges. We humans have to make do with shuffling carefully and placing fail-safes so we don’t fall to our deaths. I did what any experienced tracker would do, I followed the signs of life. To my dismay, they were mostly omens of death; more bones discarded here or there, droppings, tufts of fur and horn, teeth from human and beast alike. I made my way horizontally across the mesa for a grueling amount of time, until suddenly my hand met with too little friction. The fingers slipped abruptly from the hold, hanging uselessly on my side and bringing my body swinging. All at once an entire half of my body was dangling in the hot air, my view forced to gaze at the treacherous depths below. Dust, dirt, and rocks fell before me in a slow tumble, bouncing and shattering off the cliffs. I had trained for this and reminded myself, This is not how I die. Gaining my second wind, I swung back to face the wall and found a stronger hold. I glanced at my hand, finding a black substance coating my fingers. Resolved to make it to a rest stop and study the peculiar pigment, I continued on. Within fifteen minutes, I had found what I was searching for. A short drop into a flat patch of rock would be my salvation. I steadied myself again, slowly and carefully moving into position to properly descend. First I set my legs, pointing my heels back to the wide world. I set my right hand in a good crag. Finally, I curled by left hand onto a hold. I counted down in my head and swung slightly out with each number, Three….two…one-. My hand slips again.

The fall is quick and the injury quicker. My right ankle meets the ground at an unsafe angle, twisting and fracturing, breaking the bones and cutting deep into my body. I gasp for the air that had been forced of my lungs form the impact. Grabbing for my wounded foot, I feel a substance on my hand. At my fury I see more black substance. Furious, I scream in frustration and pain. The scream echoes in to the nearby cave.

A cave? The goats, it’s here! My mind races as I peer over at the foreboding cave leading into the bowels of the mesa. I quickly take out what little I brought with me. I wash off the blood, bandage up what I can with the basic climbers tape I had, and begin limping towards the cavern. My flashlight provide a scant amount of light, but it illuminates at least one mystery.

Coal. The black substance is coal. Native Americans used the coal centuries ago. Mining operations almost began here but they were shut down as being environmentally unstable. I limped further in the body of the mesa, my grunts and footsteps echoing in to the otherwise silent tunnel. As I progressed, I began to make out drawings. In a larger chamber where the outside light had completely faded, I was alone with the glyphs of someone unknown entity. Harsh black outlines in coal were everywhere. On every surface save the ground were depictions of animals, humans, monsters of disgusting scenes of violence and murder. I began to tremble, What have I found? What could do this and not get caught? I began to feel faint, and sat down. I expected to meet with more horrible skeletal remains, but felt only the cool rock on my skin. Whatever lived here was long gone. There was no fire pit, no remains, no droppings, nothing. My vision began to blur, I was bleeding from my wound profusely. The tape was meant to bandage hands, not fix broken bones. I reminded myself why I had come up here. I recalled why I packed so little. I never wanted to come back down.

Was it the mesa scolding me? Chiding me for planning to end my life on its sacred person? I doubt it cared. Nothing in life seemed to care anymore. After drinking the last of my water, I threw the canteen to the darkness ahead. It clanged and made a cacophonous sound reverberate off the hard walls of my makeshift tomb. Resigning myself to fate, I thought on my departed mother, my friends, family, co-workers, even Joel. “Fuck me, I guess.” I stated to the cave. I slumped further down the wall, feeling the pain numb from lack of blood. I closed my eyes and waited for the end.

Seconds later, I jolted awake from the sound of the clanging of my canteen. Accompanying it was the howl, or growl of some unseen force. I was too weak to grab my flashlight, too weak to cry out. I whimpered every so softly, straining to see in the pitch black darkness. I heard it draw closer, cold air sweeping over my body. Oh how I wish I was out in the sun again. Otherworldly footsteps echoed in the chamber, gathering speed as it gained distance on my hapless body. As I felt it stand above me, it roared in what sounded like three voices at once.

It grabbed my injured ankle, once numbed pain resurfacing and tearing through my body. I sobbed with what little strength I had left as it started dragging me towards the outside. As the last vestiges of adrenaline faded from my system, I began to drift off once more, each ping of pain less than the last. My dying thoughts filled with regret and remorse as my assailant ferried me to the horrible death pit where it left the other pitiful skeletons. I knew I would die before I saw light again. As I left from this world I could only muster, I didn’t want to die this way.

Credit: Abysmii

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Red Water

September 23, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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I was on a business trip about a year ago and I had to drive from Denver to LA. It was a long drive and I was growing tired of the road, so I stopped at the Holiday Inn hotel that was nearby. I walked up to the desk and rung the bell. Just seconds later, a man came out from the back room. “Hello sir, my name is John Shelby,” the man said, “How can I assist you?”

“I’m looking for a room,” I replied, “Are there any available?”

He searched in his computer to see if a room was available. To my luck, there was one more room left. He gave me a key and told me to have a nice night. I asked him to point me toward a vending machine and he did just that. When I walked to the vending machine, craving a bag of chips, I noticed a pool at the end of the hall. A lot of hotels have pools, there’s nothing strange about that. What got me confused was the fact that the water was red, blood red. I purchased my bag of chips and went back to the front desk where the man was still present.

“What’s up with that pool back there?” I asked him.

“What do you mean, sir?” He asked, a confused look grown upon his face.

“The water is red,” I said, “Why is it red?”

He took off his glasses and took a deep breath. “Well it’s kind of a freaky story,” he said, “Years ago, a woman was found brutally murdered in that pool and the water was contaminated with her blood.”

“Are you telling me that her blood is still in there?”

“No, no, of course not,” he said, “The water was removed and the pool was closed down. But many people say they see the pool filled with red water.” He put his glasses back on. “Personally, I had never seen it, but I think this hotel likes to play tricks with your mind.”

“So this place is haunted then?” He shook his head yes. I was shocked, not really scared, but just surprised because I had never had an experience like that before.

I went up to my room, took a well needed hot shower and I lay in bed. I couldn’t sleep for some reason, my mind was so curious and it had so many questions that needed answered. I got out of bed, put on a shirt and I walked out into the hallway. I walked down the hall and headed toward the pool. It was quiet out in the halls, I guess nobody else had trouble sleeping. I was laughing at myself when I realized I was in my underwear, so it was a good thing that nobody was out in the halls at that time. I did believe that I saw a woman cross from one room to the other. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, I just figured it was another guest.

When I reached the floor of the pool, I was able to see the blood red water even from way down the hall. I passed the front desk, nobody was there. I then passed the vending machine and I stopped directly in front of the door that would lead to the pool. I tried the door, but it was locked. I don’t think I would’ve gone in even if it wasn’t. I looked through the large window that showed the blood contaminated pool. It looked as if the pool had been closed for a long time. I looked behind me, down the hall to the elevator. I was imagining a scene from “The Shining” when the stream of blood came shooting out of the elevator. I had a feeling that I would see something similar to that, but I didn’t. Instead, I saw a woman, standing at the edge of the pool and looking as if she was about ready to jump in. She was completely nude, not a single piece of clothing on her body. When she snapped her head my way, I jumped back in fear and I walked back to my room as fast as I could, taking the stairs next to the vending machine instead of the elevator.

Hours later, I woke up to my alarm going off. I took a shower, threw on some clothes and I walked down to the first floor for breakfast. After breakfast, I was ready to check out and get back on the road. I decided to take one last look at the pool before I leave. I walked slowly pass the front desk, pass the vending machine and to the pool. I was still freaked out by what happened the night before as I looked through the window. I was surprised to see that the pool was empty. There was no red water and there was no woman.

I walked back to the front desk where a woman was working. “Is John Shelby available?” I asked.

She gave me a confused look. “Excuse me?” She said.

“John Shelby,” I repeated. “He was working here last night.”

“John Shelby died back in 1982,” she said. “He killed himself after murdering a woman, right there in that pool.” She laughed. “Is this a joke, sir?”

“Yeah,” I said, forcing out a laugh. “It was just a joke.” I returned my key and I left the building. I got back on the road, never forgetting about what had happened that night in that hotel.

Credit: MurderHouze

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Someone Always Comes Along

September 23, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Hey there. Are you lost? Me too. Aw there there, don’t be scared, someone will come along. Someone always comes along. Sooner or later.
I’m Amy. We can wait here till someone finds us. In the meantime, would uh… would you like to trade? Yeah I’ll tell you a story and, well… you listen to it. It’s a great way to pass the time, you know.
So do you want to trade?
Ok, my story happened a long time ago, I got lost then too. I kinda feel like I’m always lost, you know?


It was late September when my family and I took the visit to the Great Corn Maze Farm. This was the largest corn maze in the state and we had traveled for nearly two hours just to get here. The farm boasted 5 separate mazes all intertwined into the corn field. They ranged from “Lil’ Pumpkin Path” that was the easy level, to the “Devil’s Labyrinth” the longest and hardest maze in the field. The Devil’s Labyrinth was nothing to laugh about, it wound around and around in horrid circles and had long twisting paths leading to dead ends. Without any direction you could get completely turned around in there and spend hours trying to find your way out. Luckily, you could grab a maze map at the entrance so you wouldn’t have to wander around hopelessly lost. Although for me getting lost in a corn maze is usually half the fun.
This maze had a reputation for being creepy and strange. At my high school there were all kinds of rumors about the Great Corn Maze, especially about Devil’s Labyrinth. Some kids swore that strange creatures or demonic scarecrows or other such monstrosities lived in the maze and came out at night to steal souls or eat brains or whatever. I never believed any of them, they were just lots of silly Halloween type stories just told to frighten people. Only one rumor floated around that had any kind of menace. It was really simple, just an old newspaper clipping about a little boy that went to the Great Corn Maze last year, he went into the maze, and simply never came out again. No one knew why… maybe he got lost…
But things like that didn’t really happen to people, and like I said, I didn’t believe in silly rumors. No silly rumor was going to spoil my birthday trip! No way!
Or so I believed…

We drove up to the farm, bumping over the dirt roads. Eagerly I gazed out the window at the huge green cornfield, unable to contain my excitement. I loved corn mazes and this was the best one ever! Late September was my birthday and this year, my family had splurged just to bring me here! I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to wander through the rows of sweet smelling corn… We pulled up to the dirt and hay field that served as a parking lot, driving our little Nissan over the rough mud ruts. We all got out, Mom, Dad, my cousin and me.
We passed by the other attractions at the Farm. There was a hayride, a little train ride that went around and around, a carousel, a petting zoo, an obstacle course, an empty field for pumpkin throwing, a typical haunted house, and various other little food vendors and kid playground attractions. There weren’t many people here today, and many of the vendors were closed up. But then again it was the early part of the season. Halloween was still weeks away, so it would make sense that not everything was open. Unfortunately…..

“They closed the maze?!?!” I exclaimed as I stared in shock at the cheap wooden sign hanging over the maze entrance, forbidding passage to my birthday adventure.
“Fraid so,” mumbled a farmhand that worked there.
“Why?” I asked, disappointed. “Isn’t the maze finished?”
“Uh huh. The maze is all there, but um… well the corn ain’t ripe enough. Field is still too green.”
I didn’t like the way he said that; somehow that hesitation in his voice told me that he was lying. “Come on, you gotta be kidding me! Couldn’t we just go inside for a little while?”
“No, absolutely not!”
“But why?!” I didn’t mean to act like such a baby, but I just couldn’t help it.
“I told you why! Field is too green, and anyways we ain’t got the maps printed. You can’t go in there without a map.”
“I don’t need a map… ”
“Without a map, ma’am… ” he leaned in close to whisper to me. “You might get lost.”
“Pfff, I don’t mind getting a little lost.”
For some strange reason this seemed to upset him greatly. “No ma’am. You don’t want to be lost in there. You don’t ever want to be lost in there!” Then he caught himself and replied more casually, “I sure don’t ever want to be lost in there, I always carry a map and so does everybody else, cause no one wants to be lost in there! You hear? We ain’t got the maps so the Maze is closed!”

I could not believe it. My birthday trip and the main attraction was down because they didn’t have the stupid maps, and the corn wasn’t ripe? It wasn’t fair. As my family and I walked away to enjoy the train and the hayride and all the other little attractions that the Farm offered, I kept stealing sullen glances at the closed corn field. I watched the beautiful green stalks sway in the autumn wind, beckoning me. I wanted so badly to go in there, to smell the growing corn, to run laughing down the paths with my arms outstretched, winding and twisting ever deeper into the maze until I became lost and playfully found my way out with my map, only to rush back in and get lost all over again. But that luxury had been stolen from me… It just wasn’t fair.
“Amy, Helllllllloooooo? Are you lost or something?” my cousin’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Huh what?”
“I asked if you wanted to go to the petting zoo with us?” my cousin repeated.
My mother joined the conversation. “If you didn’t want to go to the petting zoo, then you and I could go shop for some souvenirs over there, maybe pick out a birthday present? Or you could venture over there and do the Haunted House? You would have to go by yourself though…”
I glanced over where the Haunted House was. I enjoyed haunted houses, but I already knew this one. Plastic looking but still with a gory edge to it, loud music and sound effects came from that corner of the field along with shouts from the costumed people within.
“Yeah,” I decided. “I’ll take in the haunted house and maybe the train ride again.”
“Ok sweetheart.” Said my mother. “We’ll all meet up right here again in two hours. Have fun! Don’t get lost, sweetie, don’t get lost!”
I waved goodbye to my family and walked away… I should have listened closer to those last words, “Don’t Get Lost”
But like I said before, getting lost is half of the fun….

I stopped to grab an ear of roasted corn from a nearby food vendor. It was piping hot, so I left it in the bag to cool for a little while and followed the screams that led to the Haunted house. I smiled wondering what kinds of halloweeny scenes they had made this year. As I started to go up to the entrance, a sudden gust of wind blew me back slightly. I heard a soft papery sound at my feet and when I looked down, I saw a thin corn husk blowing in the breeze along the dusty ground. It flew up in a small whirlwind and then breezed around the side of the Haunted house. I didn’t know why, but it felt like I ought to follow it. Somehow, I needed to see where the wind took it. So I darted after it. The papery husk flew in front of me, then ducked around the corner of another building. Growing ever curious, I followed around the corner….
…and there was the Corn Field, tall and green and wonderful before me. I watched the green stalks bow with the breeze, seeming to welcome me back after a year of waiting. I caught a whiff of the green scent of corn on the breeze. It smelled like the sweetest perfume, rich and irresistible. Looking around I saw that no one was near this part of the field, and I ducked under a feeble roped off walkway. I tiptoed along the outer perimeter of the corn field, stepping carefully over ruts made by a tractor. I dared to get close enough to touch one of the growing stalks. Huh, that was weird, it seemed… warm. Must be the sun, I thought.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw the papery corn husk again. It floated on a gust and blew along the perimeter, staying just within my vision. I couldn’t seem to help myself, I followed it. Like it was drawing me to some amazing discovery, and that if I just kept going, just kept walking around the edge of the field, I would find it.
And I did find it.
An exit.
An exit that led INTO the maze!
I was looking at one of the five maze exits that led people out of the corn field. But this time it seemed to be pulling me in. The wind swept over the corn stalks making them bow and sway, calling to me. Beckoning me to enter their lair of greenery. All day long I had been wishing that I could run into the corn maze, run and laugh and enjoy the winding trails that led through the cornrows and now here was my chance! Nervously, I looked around, afraid that I would get caught wandering around. But the area was empty. Nobody noticed me, the coast was clear. Cautiously, I tiptoed up to the maze pathway, their perfumed scent flooding my mind with a kind of childlike joy, and silently I entered the lush jungle of bowing stalks.

Left turn, right turn, middle fork, left turn, right turn, right turn, dead end. Go back and take the right fork… I was grinning and running with my arms outstretched as though I could fly, my fingertips grazing past the ears of green corn, not yet ripe. One hand clutched my bag with my ear of roasted corn still in it. I was so happy! I felt this total euphoric freedom and rebellion against the stupid people that had closed the maze today. I couldn’t see why they had, the field was perfect! Maybe a little muddy perhaps, but otherwise perfect! I ran and ran, trying not to laugh with joy, lest someone heard me and caught me. I danced around the corners loving the smell of the fresh green stalks and the feel of the warm sun and cool breezes. Oops another dead end. I grinned and spun around taking another right fork and running around a zigzag of freestanding stalks in a large square clearing before finally I came to a halt, breathing hard but feeling amazingly happy, as my birthday wish had come true.
I took out my cooled ear of roasted corn and bit into it. Mmm the sweet taste of the golden kernels mixed with melted butter had never tasted so sweet as they did in that beautiful field. I gobbled up about half of the ear, put it back and decided that it was time to head back the way I had come. I had my fun, but I sure didn’t want to get caught in here. I gazed around the large square empty clearing with joy then turned back toward the entrance path. Or rather…. the exit path…. right?

Take a left turn, right turn, right turn, left, right, right, left, I stepped back along the path trying to recall the way I had come. Most of the path looked ok, but it seemed to be taking a while. I turned left again, and again, then the path went straight for a while and came to a fork. “Did I take that fork from the left, or from the right?” I thought to myself. I kept going, further and further. For no apparent reason, an image from the story of Alice in Wonderland flickered into my mind, poor Alice was wandering through the Tulgey Wood and getting lost; she kept saying to herself, “Did I come this way, or that way? This way or that way?”
“Wait, I don’t remember a T junction here…” I said out loud, a flicker of worry crossed my mind. I didn’t have a map and I was starting to not remember coming this way at all. “We ain’t got the maps…. without a map you might get lost…” the farmhand’s warning floated through my mind like the echoing moan of a lonely ghost. I shook off my slight fear and doubled back for a while. At the next junction, I took a different path certain that I would find my way back to the exit again. After all, I hadn’t come that far…. had I?

The wind blew the stalks together and made murmuring noises. “This way or that way? This way or that way?” They seemed to be whispering. I felt a slight touch of claustrophobia as I gazed at the green pillars growing high above my head. Where at first the corn stalks had seemed so welcoming, now they seemed to be staring at me, lifeless green husk-eyes that followed my every move as I continued down the winding twisting paths. A series of left turns gave me a sudden flash of hope, and then crushed me as I came to an unfamiliar dead end. I was getting lost, but this time it wasn’t fun! Panic started to grip at my heart, I ran faster down the pathway, looking down every corner for a familiar junction, somewhere I knew I had been. Had I come this way, or did I go that way? This way or that way? This way or that way? My heart was starting to pound frightfully in my chest. I looked toward the green stalks for some kind of answer; but now the rows seemed to glare coldly back at me, the pathway looked darker and more forbidding.
I stopped along the path trying to get my heartbeats to slow down. I breathed hard, trying to calm down. I had to still be near the rest of the farm, I thought. I listened for a sound from one of the other rides, the whistle from the train ride, the familiar sound effects coming from the haunted house… I listened expecting to hear phony screams and families laughing… I listened for any sound that might give me comfort. All I heard was the rustling whisper of the wind through the corn… and footsteps.
I concentrated hard as I stayed where I was and listened. Yes! Soft footsteps coming from in front of me, no… behind me…. no… where were they? I spun around trying to find a person, a face, some source of the tiny footfalls. Was that a child walking so softly? “Hello?” I called out. I no longer cared if I got caught by the farm workers anymore, I just wanted to be out of there, I wanted to be out of the maze and with my family, I wanted to not be lost anymore. “Hello?”
Silence. The footsteps had stopped, even the wind had stopped.

“Oh Amy, why did you wander in here?” I asked myself, shivering. “Why didn’t you listen to the workers and just stay out of the maze?” I didn’t even know which maze I was in, the exits all looked alike. I really hoped I wasn’t in the Devil’s Labyrinth. Without a map, it might be dark before I managed to find my way out again. I started to run down the path. It couldn’t be very much farther, I thought. I ran faster and faster, a few of the green corn husks slapped at my face. The ground grew wetter and slippery. Suddenly I tripped over a broken corn stalk and went sprawling, down down, face down into a patch of rotten smelling mud.
Pain shot up my knee and my left side, and I gagged as my mouth filled with greasy muck. I spat and groaned and tried not to be sick. God I hope they didn’t use pesticides in their corn. Wiping mud from my hands and my face, I looked down and saw that my left knee was bleeding, my jeans torn, my shirt ripped where it caught on a sharp ear of corn. All I kept thinking was: how could I have let myself get lost in this maze?

I glared at the corn stalks around me, now I was angry. I felt betrayed, like this maze had lured me in here, like the sweet sticky maw of a Venus Flytrap. Here I was, lost and afraid and struggling to get out! I stared up at the yellowing stalks and wanted to scream.Furiously I grabbed a nearby ear of ripe corn and shook the dry husk from the cob…. I blinked at the ripening kernels. Slowly I looked around at the golden yellow stalks, swaying like a dry wheat field.
I thought the corn was still green? Why did this area seem so dry and yellow? My questions went unanswered as a sudden chill ran down my spine. I turned around and tried to go back the way I had come. But this wasn’t the way I had come, not at all. The pathway seemed totally different now, the furrows were dry now, not muddy like they had been before; and the corn was ripe and golden everywhere, and the wind felt cold and crisp. Like late-October wind. Or mid-November wind. I shivered and turned down a long unfamiliar corridor with a dozen different paths to follow, I tried the first left path and got a dead end. I tried to turn around but suddenly the corridor wasn’t there and the path veered off to the right. I went along until the path split into a fork, I went left but soon changed my mind and turned around to take the right path, but there was no right path, the corn rows had closed into a dead end behind me. I couldn’t understand any of this! Was I going this way? Or was I coming that way? This way or that way? This way or that way?
I fled down the pathways faster and faster, feeling panic rise in my chest and an acidic bile taste rising steadily my throat. My heart began to pound and my bleeding knee throbbed. Every few seconds I looked behind me and each time the paths were different than they had been before. Then I flew back around again only to find the open path I had been walking had turned to another dry dead end. Now the dead end was behind me… now there were two dead ends and no paths! Now the dead ends were really a four way intersection that stretched on and on and on forever! My head started to spin, nothing was making sense anymore! This way or that way? This way or that way!?!

I clutched at my ears and shut my eyes tightly. Stop it! I thought. This isn’t happening! This is not happening! You’ve got to pull yourself together and get out of this damn maze!” I stayed like that for a while, thinking, hoping that it was a dream, that I would open my eyes and be safe in bed. But I could still hear the wind rustle through the rows, mocking me, Thissss waaaay or thaaaat waaaay? Thisss waaaaaaaaaaay or thaaaaaaaat waaaay?
I opened my eyes and finally saw a place that I had been before! The old square clearing with the zigzag of freestanding corn stalks. I had somehow wandered back into that same clearing again! Only….. the corn stalks were now a rich golden yellow, the husks papery thin and many of them littered the pathway, the ears of corn were going dry and overripe, the sky was a stormy gray with a cold bitter wind that whipped at my face.
I trembled with fear. Just how long had I been in this field? It had only been a little while right?A few minutes…. a few hours….. a few days….. a few weeks…..
“No no no no no no no no no no!” I couldn’t let myself think like that. It wasn’t possible, I simply couldn’t have been lost in here for that long! Could I?
Voices floated in my head. More disembodied ghostly moans… warnings that I had not listened to… my friends telling their scary rumor stories…. ‘People would wander into the maze,’ they would say, ‘and never come out again. They would go on wandering this way or that way, this way or that way and never be seen again….’
“Help!” I finally screamed. I grasped the dry corn stalks and shook them like prison bars. “Someone help me! I can’t get out! I’m lost! Help me!!!!” I cried and shook and ran around the clearing, feeling terrified. I was afraid to venture along another path, afraid I might never find my way out again. Afraid that I would be lost among the rows and rows of corn stalks, wandering this way and that way….forever….

Wait, I suddenly looked down and realized that I was still holding the bag that held the half eaten roasted ear of corn I had just bought. I opened it up quickly, perhaps the sight of that fresh roasted food might bring me back to reality, might remind me that I was not really in this Rip Van Winkle nightmare all around me. I grabbed the wrapped paper that held the other half of the corn cob and opened my mouth wide to bite into that sweet buttery corn, to taste reality again…..
And screamed as a million crawling black bugs swarmed out of the paper and down my hands, arms and into my mouth.
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” I flung the bag away and swatted at the mass of legs and black shells furiously. I felt them slide down my shirt, wriggling up my sleeves, crawling up my face, biting me, stinging me, everywhere, millions of them! I gagged as I felt a stinging crawling sensation inside my mouth, and bending over I puked my guts out, watching as the black intruders struggled in the pool of sick brown liquid. Somewhere in my mind, I wondered if I had really eaten any corn at all, or if I had really been eating those stinging black bugs the whole time…. “Ohhhhh”

I ran. I ran without stopping or thinking; I couldn’t see any paths anymore, just corn. Rows and rows of corn, stretching endlessly on and on. I ran, stumbling over the rutted cornrows, the dry stalks clutching at my hair, ducking under dry corn husks swarming with bugs and mold, the stench of dry rotting plants invaded my nose. And still I ran, I ran till I couldn’t see, ran till my sides ached, till I couldn’t breathe, and still I ran and ran and finally I tripped and fell…..
Into a puddle of mud.
Eewww! I gagged as the muddy water filled my mouth and nose. I sat up quickly and wiped my eyes, but I felt afraid to open them, afraid of what I would see now. I froze, as the faint sound of soft footsteps approached me…

“Are you ok?”asked a tiny voice.
“Huh?” I looked up quickly and saw a young boy, about 6 or 7 years old. He was looking at me down in the puddle I just fell into. I looked around at the normal green corn rows, the simple square clearing with the zigzag of green cornstalks, the muddy ruts, sounds from the nearby train and haunted house attractions wafted by. The perfumed scent of green corn drifted around us. Everything was normal, everything was ok.
“Yeah, kid.” I exhaled a sigh of relief as I wiped muddy water away from my face and grinned. “I’m doing great.”
“Wanna trade?” he said holding out a napkin for me to wipe the mud off with.
“Sure.” I took the napkin and wiped my face with it and stood up. I looked at the dusty little face and realized I had nothing to trade with. “How come you are in here?” I asked.
“I got lost.” he said. “But I knew that someone would come along and find me. Someone always comes along. That’s what she told me.”
“Umm.. who told you?” I asked, mildly confused. I started to notice the dark circles under his eyes and the haunting way he was looking at me.
“The girl I saw. When I got lost in here, I met a girl and she was lost, and she had met another girl who was lost, and the other girl met a man with a cloak and scary eyes. The man said: whenever a person gets lost in here, they have to wait for someone to come along. And when they do, then they can trade.”
“Trade? Trade, what?” I felt my mouth go dry, why did this thin little kid scare me so badly?
The little boy let out a sigh like the dry rustling of the corn stalks. “Trade…. souls. So that the person who was lost in here can go home.”
I decided right then that I didn’t like this story at all. I dropped the napkin he had given me and started to back away. He looked up at me with his haunted eyes and gave that low rustling sigh again.
“Mommy told me not to go in here, but I did. I didn’t have a map so I got lost, and I didn’t know how to get out. I went this way and I went that way, but I couldn’t get out. Then I met that girl and she wanted me to trade with her and I did. I’ve been lost in here for a whole year.”
“Wait… wait!” my mind was reeling from the strain of trying to make sense of it all. The corn, the changing, frightening maze and now this haunted thin figure masquerading as a little boy. “You couldn’t be lost in here that long! You just couldn’t! Someone…. someone would find you! Someone would help…” I sputtered to a silence.
His dusty head shook from side to side as though it were blown by the parched wind. “Not while we are lost in here. No one can find us if we are lost…. ”

The ghostly warning voices returned with a laughing, ironic hopelessness. Without a map, you might get lost. You don’t ever want to be lost in there. I always carry a map, no one wants to get lost… Even my own mother’s voice calling to me, Don’t get lost, sweetie, don’t get lost…
“The maps…” I whispered more to myself than anything. “They didn’t open the maze because they didn’t have any maps…”
“I didn’t have a map, so I got lost.” his eyes gazed hollowly from that dusty solemn face. “Everybody else always has a map, so they never get lost, so they never found me. Until you came along… ” The skeletal little figure bent down and picked up the napkin, when he looked up again, he was smiling. His smile resembled that of a grinning skull, a death smile. “Thank you for trading with me.”

“No….. no….” I shook my head violently as though trying to shake off muddy water, or crawling black bugs, or moldy ears of corn…. I scrambled for the nearest path, the sounds of the rest of the farm seemed to be fading into the distance, I chased them hopelessly. “Please, ” I begged to the corn, to the sky, to anybody. “Please, let me out! I don’t want to be lost anymore!” The wind whipped at my face like a knife, an icy cold, jagged knife at my heart…. so sharp… so cold….
His tiny haunted voice seem to float into my ears. “Don’t be scared, the other girl told me that someone will come along and you’ll get to trade souls and go home. Sooner or later, someone will come along. Someone always comes along.


Creepy huh? Yeah, that happened to me about five years ago. Still gets me every time I think about it. I wonder how he’s doing sometimes…. but anyway that is my story.
Oh and by the way…
Thanks for trading with me.
Remember, I asked you if you wanted to trade with me, and you did.
It won’t do you any good to run away, this corn maze won’t let you go until you’ve made the trade, believe me. After five years of wandering this way and wandering that way, I know. The maze will keep you lost, and won’t let you go.
But don’t be scared. You’ll get your chance. Sooner or later, someone will come along.
Someone always comes along.

The End

Credit To – B.J. Byrd

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