They Came From the East

August 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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“They came from the east”, he said. A pot of malt ersatz coffee stood steaming on the table between us. We both took it black.

“Fearsome warriors on horseback they were, a fierce barbarian horde, the most lethal mercenary tribe to plunder and pillage Europe for centuries. They fought for the Russian Czars against the Poles you know, and then for the King of Sweden against the Russians. They fought the Turks and the Persians in turn. They fought Napoleon. They fought for anyone who promised them a country of their own. They were the Cossacks and they were feared by all.”

“I was 23 when they came to our valley”, he said. “Of course, everything was different then, it was 60 years ago after all.”

I looked out the window, the crags of the Dolomite mountains looming over the valley below us, shadowy in the twilight. Their house was perched by the steep edge of the tree-line, one of ten clustered around a small church. Barring indoor plumbing and electricity, time already seemed to have stood still. A city girl meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, I had been startled by a sheep peering into the bathroom window that morning.

“I was one of the only boys left in Lienz. At the beginning all my friends volunteered, and I was eager to fight too, of course. But the army didn’t take me because of a goiter. Years later, it was different. They were rounding up everyone they could get their hands on, boys of twelve, thirteen. Grandfathers. I would’ve been drafted except for a tractor accident on my father’s farm.” I looked at his blunt carpenters hands folded on the checked tablecloth, and I wondered if his father had been equally capable … and practical-minded enough to manufacture a minor glitch in his machinery when called for.

“The fighting was all but over, the war had really been lost years ago. Now everyone left alive was fleeing west, trying to outrun the Soviets and reach the Allied zones. American was best, of course, but we all trusted the British too. At the time.”

What did you know? I wondered, and when? What of your neighbours? Did you believe the propaganda in the papers, on the radio? Did your priest preach of sacred duty to the fatherland? Did your mayor hang the swastika with pride? Growing up in Austria, you are taught to respect your elders, but whenever I see someone of that generation I always ask myself – what did you do to survive? Or rather, what did you not?

“Stalin had it in for the Cossacks especially. They’d been vicious in battle against the resistance partisans and they hated the Soviets. It was 1945 when they fled from Yugoslavia. They fought their way through to the British, who put them in an internment camp here on the river Drau. Enemy combatants, you see. Prisoners of war who surrendered voluntarily.”

What did they look like, the men? I asked. “Men? There were entire families. Husbands and fathers on horseback with their women and children trundling behind them in carts. Old and young alike. Defeated they were, but proud too. They’d been beaten before, and regrouped. And they were safe now, under Churchill. Or so they thought.”

Yalta, I remembered. The treaty, a betrayal to some, the salvation of Europe to others. Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt – men with moustaches, waistcoats and cigars, divvying up a continent with rulers. Most refugees who had fled the east were granted safe haven. The Cossacks, with their democratically elected leaders and their nomadic freedom, were not.

“They settled in happily enough here, for the most part. Made friends with the villagers, helped with the harvest. They were waiting to see where Churchill would resettle them. Perhaps they would have been happy to stay. They certainly didn’t bother us. But they were to be sent back to Russia to face execution. Cattle cars came to the train station, this time sent by the British. Soldiers encircled the valley, the internment camp, trying to round them up. We could hear them all the way up the mountain. The screaming. Men. Women. Horses. Mothers threw their babies into the river to drown and jumped in after them. Men cut their wrists as the soldiers dragged them toward the train tracks, trails of blood wending behind them.”

And you heard this? I ask, you saw? “Yes. Yes.”

A long silence. We gaze out the window to the mountains beyond, as if listening for echoes. “Those they caught were sent to the Soviet Union, where they were shot. The Communists executed men, women and children alike. But some, some managed to escape deportation. They hid in haylofts, scrambled up cliff faces to abandoned sheep sheds. The mountain farmers helped to shelter them if they could.”

Did any of you shelter anyone in the years before, I wondered. Other refugees, perhaps the very partisans hunted by the Cossacks and the Nazis? There had been only one Jewish family in the town of Lienz before the war, or so I’d read, and not one of them survived.

“But most of them” he continued, “ran away and hid in caves. The British spent months clambering about the mountains, searching for the ones that got away.” He chuckled briefly. “Those caves, some of them were crevasses, narrow slits between rock-faces. Some were no bigger than holes. Tricky to climb into, but even more difficult to get out again. Kossakenloecher – Cossack holes – we call them to this day. When we talk about them at all.”

He paused. I wished for a cigarette. “Because some of the holes aren’t empty. We had archaeologists here last summer, searching for remnants. A medal here, a belt buckle there. But they didn’t get very far, didn’t climb high enough, or stay the night.”

Another silence, more tense this time. Do you mean to say there are still bones? I asked. “Bones… it’s not their bones I worry about.” he replied, and crossed himself reflexively. “Some nights, when the stars are out and the moon is low, you hear the river screaming. And some nights, even closer, you hear the rocks scream back.”

He makes eye contact for the first time in what feels like forever. “We put you in the guest room” he says, “it has a balcony. It’s looking to be a lovely clear night.” I dutifully assure him that it is a lovely room, careful not to to mention I’ve taken down the various crosses and icons hung from the walls, a constant reminder of my status as godless-city-girl-evil-influence-on-beloved-son.

He grunts assent and, rising from his chair, bids me goodnight. “I’d lock the windows and doors before turning in if I were you.”

Credit To – cinekat

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The Junkyard

August 5, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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It was late into July when we decided to visit a place from our past. This would be one of the final nights we would all spend together as friends. There were five of us and we were soon to be going our separate ways. Cooper and I would be starting our college degrees in the fall, him across the state in East Tennessee, and I in Missouri. Lawrence and Amanda were a package deal. They were juniors and had been dating on and off since elementary school, for all the good that did them. They were often times arguing, but always seemed to make up one way or another. Finally, there was Hannah. She was two years younger than us, and the first week of August she was moving across the country. Her father was a software developer and after decades of struggling he was offered a job by some promising start-up company in Silicon Valley.

The week before Hannah was supposed to move she asked us to go out to the field and forest right off Old Union Road. It was a strange request coming from Hannah. She was never the one to suggest we hang out there, but she was always happy to accompany us, and considering the accident she had in the forest nearby, it was stranger still. Perhaps it was for the sake of nostalgia. We had grown up in those woods, playing in that field; there was no way we’d pass up one last chance to be kids together. We arrived at sunset. I parked my car at the top of the hill not far off the road. The field sloped down gradually until it ended at the edge of the thick forest. We spread out our blankets and laid out to stare at the heavens above us. After a couple hours, a lull in our conversation allowed my mind to wander. I turned my head and my eyes caught sight of the trees through the twilight. I began thinking about what lay beyond that tree line.

The initial outset of the forest was dense. A small path designed for a four-wheeler or Mule cut along the surface and followed the tree line. There was no see-able path deeper into the forest without traveling by foot. Many large trees had collapsed either near or across the path from time to time. The caretakers of the land would often drive through and clear the path, moving the large trees to the side. Over the years the build up of fallen debris had created a barrier re-enforced by gnarled branches, saplings, and bramble bushes. It wasn’t worth the effort trying to get a motorized vehicle over the mound, so we always traveled by foot once we got as deep as the path would allow. Besides, we knew it was pointless, as not much farther in was a narrow creek that cut deep into the earth. The easiest way across was a well-timed jump. Otherwise, it was a laborious descent down into ankle deep water and a messy climb out.

The trees of the forest become sparse once further in. That’s when you knew you were almost there. The small trees gave way to ancient oaks and pines that towered over the forest. The shrubs and bushes were mostly gone, and the ground was covered in moss, vines, and dead leaves. Barely visible was a large ridge in the distance at least 25 feet high. Originally a railroad lay on the top of that ridge and cut through these woods, ending in town, but that was many decades ago. Now the track was all but gone. A few ties were left behind, but the metal had been recycled into scrap, or so we thought.

The railroad wasn’t the most interesting part of the forest, however. It was what was at the base of the ridge, a small junkyard, or more appropriately, a dump spot. It wasn’t uncommon to find these places around the more rural parts of the county. You see, the railroad eventually intersected a road many more miles down to the east. The ridge was just wide enough for a truck to travel down, and although it was a very slow drive, it was much faster than driving across the county to the landfill. To the west, the track eventually ended in overgrowth deep into the forest.

The ridge sloped down at a near sheer drop. Some small trees sprouted up from out of the side, but nothing of any substantial growth. The only tree of any size that grew in the junkyard was at the bottom and dead center amongst the morass. The maple was still pretty young by the standards of the trees around it, but it’s bark was strangely dark, much darker than any other tree I had ever seen in the forest.

At the base, all manner of garbage could be found, anything ranging from soda cans to an entire washing machine that was half embedded in the dirt. Radiating out from the ridge, the junkyard formed a semicircle. It occurred to me that the structure of the junkyard was planned. At one point many summers ago we had found the intersection and followed it all the way in. From up above, the uncanniness of the semicircle could be seen. That same adventure ended with Hannah falling down a lesser part of the incline and spending a few weeks in the hospital. It wouldn’t be the last time we visited that place, but an unease about the junkyard would always remain etched into our minds.

Well all knew these woods well. We spent hours upon hours hanging out at the junkyard, just being naïve juveniles, until, of course, Hannah’s fall. We never really went back to the rubble. She had become frightened of the area, and most times it was enough just getting her past the creek. I remember it had been a couple years since I had seen the familiar rubble, but I caught a glimpse of it one late afternoon while we were trekking through. A pang of nostalgia struck me. Hannah urged us to turn back, so we complied.

Someone shifting on the blanket brought me back into the present. My eyes broke from the trees and returned to the stars. There we were, five of us laying out in the field. The forest was not far in front of us, and behind us, the nearest house was almost too far away to see except a small prick of light cutting across the tall grass. Faintly off in the distance I heard the familiar sounds of coyotes barking and howling deep in the woods. It was always an unsettling sound to me, but this time was even stranger. The cacophony continued for quite some time. After about twenty minutes I noticed something else was permeating the sounds of the coyotes, something slightly higher pitched and reminiscent of a bird. Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk, followed by a series of clicking noises. I seemed to be the only one that heard it at first. The coyote calls continued for a few more minutes, and then the strange sound happened again.

“What the hell was that?” asked Hannah.

I quickly replied, “I heard it, too, but earlier. I think it’s been happening since the coyotes started.”

“I think it’s some kind of bird,” said Lawrence unconvincingly. Through the darkness I could see his eyes shining, apprehension scrawled across his face. “Well, I think it’s time we when back and put on a movie. I’m bored,” but his voice betrayed him and cracked on the last word.

As we shuffled to stand and gathered the blankets, we heard a rushing sound in the tall grass behind us. Something had cut across between us and the car. Was it a coyote? I had never come face-to-face with a wild animal, especially a scavenger desperate enough to attack 5 of us. That’s when I heard the rushing coming from a different angle. It cut across our path again and all I could see was the tall grass waving in the moonlight. We were all frozen in fear. Had it been the same animal, or another? Almost in answer, the rustling happened again, but this time from two different points; they came to a halt in front of us. We were still at least 50 yards away from the car. The a pack of coyotes had circled around the field and cut us off. There was no way we could make it.

Some weird urge suddenly came to me. I felt exposed, I needed to get out of that field “The forest,” I croaked in a whisper. My chest was tight and I could feel the familiar pangs of heart palpitations incurred by my anxiety. I hadn’t blinked since the second rush. As my eyes flashed closed, I heard the rustle in front of us move forward and come to a stop. I was taken off guard and stumbled backwards. One of the girls let out a short cry. The sudden movement must have startled the animals in the grass as everything around us began moving and rustling. The dread set in completely now. We were surrounded in a wide arc with the forest as our only retreat.

I quickly stood back up when suddenly everything stopped, the light breeze ceased, the grass slowed…The silence enveloped us, and for a moment I thought I had gone deaf, but I was reassured by the sound of blood pumping through my ears.

Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk! The shrill cry pierced the silence. It was right in front of us. The animals in the grass were making these noises. Another responded from our left, and then another clicked multiple times from our right.

“Go,” I said exasperatedly. Lawrence spun and sprinted for the forest line, and we were all following close behind. As we approached the black towering trees I could hear the quick footfalls of an animal running parallel to me. I could even hear it’s labored breathing as it raced across the field with us. I lost control of my voice and I let out a guttural scream just as we entered into the darkness of the forest.

We passed through the first line of trees and ran perpendicularly across the Mule trail. My shin slammed into something hard and I felt myself falling. I crashed into a pile of logs and debris that were built up on the side of the path. The wind was forced out of my lungs and I clawed at the bark trying to drag myself over. Something warm wrapped around my wrist and arm and pulled hard. I slid over trees and rolled down the other side.

It was Cooper. He had pulled me over and I could barely make out his face but he had his index finger to his mouth. The other 3 had disappeared deeper into the woods. I heard something stirring back behind us at the tree line. I quietly rolled over and laid on my stomach to see over the barrier. Black four-legged figures paced back and forth in the moonlight. They had stopped at the treeline. Long fur hung off the creatures, but something was odd about the way it moved. There wasn’t a strong wind that night, but the fur moved back and forth like tendrils. These things that were hunting us were not coyotes.

“Where are the others?” I whispered, barely audibly. Cooper grabbed my shoulder and motioned for us to keep moving into the woods. I turned back to look at the creatures at the tree line. One slowly entered into the shadow of the canopy. It was wheezing and panting in strange uneven breaths. It kind of hopped forward and stopped on the Mule trail. My eyes got bigger as more of the animals entered the forest. Cooper tugged at my shoulder and I began pulling myself up. I placed my hand on a branch and I immediately knew it was dry and brittle, but before I could stop myself from applying my weight I felt the branch give way. A loud crack echoed briefly and the creatures chortled their strange sound and rushed into the woods.

We were sprinting again. It wasn’t much farther before we hit the creek, and I knew in this darkness and at this speed I was sure to miss the jump. Falling in would give the creatures enough time to catch up to us. Cooper was only a few feet ahead and very quickly I saw him leap. I estimated and leaped as well. The ground didn’t come up to meet me. Instead, I continued to fall.

I landed and my feet sank into mud up to my knees. The summer heat had mostly dried the creek up; all that was left was a soft sludge along the bottom. I looked around and Cooper was down there with me. He was laying prostrate. I didn’t have time to check if he was alive or dead. I laid in the mud as the rustling of the animals behind us grew louder. They were right on top of us. We were dead. We were dead, and no one knew it. How long would we be missing before anyone came looking? Would they even find our bodies?

The first creature to arrive at the bank leaped over and continued running. Then two or three more. Or was it four? How many of these things were there? As their panting and rustling dissipated I reached out for Cooper. His head was facing the opposite direction and I couldn’t make out if he was breathing in the darkness. My legs were still stuck and he was outside of my grasp. I stretch and writhed in the mud.

When my finger brushed his arm he recoiled violently. His head spun around to meet my own. He grabbed my arm once again and pulled. I could feel my legs coming free, but the suction of the mud ripped the shoes from my feet.

“Are they gone?” he asked. I had to lean down and nearly place my ear against his lips to hear his words. There was a quiver in his voice that made it difficult to completely understand him. “We have to go back and get help.”

“What about the others?” but my question was only met with horrified eyes waiting for the only thing he wanted to hear: a confirmation that we would leave the forest, that we would be safe. I couldn’t do that for him. Despite the overwhelming desire to flee, I couldn’t leave my friends in this hell. It would be nearly two hours before we could get help out here. I shook my head, not really convinced I was making the right choice.

A short whimper escaped Cooper’s lips and he stood. The forest had grown unnervingly quiet. I hoisted myself up and stood where the mud wouldn’t suck me down again. Cooper turned towards the bank in the direction of the car. “I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.” He whispered and began climbing using twisted roots as steps. I did the same, but only on the opposite side.

“Cooper. You cannot leave us here. Get to the car, lock the doors, wait for us. Do not leave us,” I said as loud as I dare in hopes that I wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. Cooper did not respond.

Once we had both climbed out of the ditch I looked around towards the tree line. Only a few slivers of moonlight on the field could be seen if I looked at just the right angle. We were a ways in, but it was deeper still to the junkyard. Calm momentarily crept over me as once again memories of past summers flashed through my mind’s eye. If my friends had gone anywhere, it was there. Cooper had his back to me, but I knew exactly what he was doing: calculating the fastest way out of the forest.

A human shriek cut through the forest, and like a gun shot at a race, Cooper bolted away from me. But it was a short lived escape. He made it only about five feet before he stopped and made a choking sound like he had been hit in the throat. His hands shot up to his neck, grabbing at something I couldn’t see in the darkness. His head jerked up and he was quickly lifted into the trees with his arms flailing and his legs kicking. The scream that issued from him sounded like it was being pushed through his clenched jaws.

Kyuu, kyukukukukuku! It came from above and multiple other calls responded followed by a sea of clicking.

The creatures were in the limbs of the trees.

How had it grabbed Cooper and pulled him up and so high? They were medium sized animals, nothing larger than a Labrador and yet Cooper was gone, pulled into the blackness like a doll. His scream suddenly ended and I could hear the sound of liquid drizzling down into the branches and grass like rain running off a clogged gutter.

I twisted around and sprinted through the dense trees, small saplings tearing at my face and brambles attempting to snag me and bring me to the ground. Every time I brushed against a larger limb I pulled away, afraid that dark unseen hands were reaching out to grab me and pull me into the branches. Tears were streaming down my face and my chest was tighter than it ever had been before. It was like some enormous rubber band had been wrapped around me, and with each passing second it squeezed just a bit tighter. My breath was coming in short bursts and I could feel my vision becoming hazy. Of all the times to have a panic attack, this was both the worst and most fitting moment.

I pressed on for what seemed to be far too long. I should have reached the junkyard by now. I was exhausted. Pain from running had begun to form in my lower abdomen and my speed was decreasing. I could feel my steps becoming sloppy, but finally I noticed the forest had become thinner. A bramble wrapped across my ankle succeeded in tripping me up. I stumbled forward and fell to my knees. My hands came down hard on a rock and something sharp. I knew immediately I was bleeding.

I was still hyperventilating and my vision was blurred from the tears. My hearing was diminished by the rushing of blood through my ears. I couldn’t make out if any of the monsters had resumed their chase. My hands probed the rock, it was smooth, incredibly smooth except for a patch that felt like sandpaper that flaked off as my fingers ran over it. I quickly wiped my eyes and brought my face down low. It was a half buried washing machine, partly rusted, but mostly still covered in smooth white painted metal.

My breathing began to come under control. That’s when I heard the sobbing. I stood up quickly, reeling from being lightheaded, but I pushed through the rubble and into the semicircle. I tried to speak, but only a croaked moan came out.

Hannah screamed through her sobs. My eyes locked on her. She was sitting in the middle of the rubble with someone laying beside her. “Hannah? Oh, my god, thank god. Are you alright?” She didn’t respond. She only continued to cry. When I reached her it was like she hadn’t noticed me. She was holding Lawrence in her arms. His eyes were closed. I reached out and placed my hand on her shoulder. She jerked, released Lawrence and flailed. Her arms and hands struck my face, my chest, my arms. I bit back the pain and pulled her into an embrace.

“He’s dead. He died only a few minutes ago. Amanda was pulled down by the dogs. But they aren’t dogs, are they? Are they?!” She was still hysterical, but at least she was also coherent.
“No. I don’t know what they are.” Her face raised up and our eyes met. The moonlight danced off her tears.
“Their fur, it moves like hair underwater. And their hooks–”
“Hooks?” I hadn’t noticed any hooks on the creatures when I saw them at the treeline.

“The ones in the trees. They have these long arms that reach down, and their hands are large hooks, like what you hang meat on.” She began to tremble violently. “As we ran, Amanda fell behind. She doesn’t know these woods like we do. She called to us but I was too afraid to look back.” Hannah was crying harder now. “I heard her scream and then those things, I knew they had gotten her. It was only a few more feet before Lawrence caught his side on something, just under his armpit. He was pulled into the air and flipped sideways. He fell and I grabbed him. I don’t know why I stopped for him, but I saw it.”

Chills ran down my body. My arms and legs pricked up in goosebumps. I couldn’t look away from Hannah. She had regained some composer, but her eyes were hard. “Wha-” I began, but was cut off.

“It was covered in that black wavy fur. As it climbed down I could see its arms were incredibly long and where its hands should be were two hooks. It got so close to us. I couldn’t tell where it’s head ended and it’s body began. And it’s eyes. There were so many, like a spider, glossy red in the light.”

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. My mind kept replaying the moment Cooper died. How his head snapped back and that terrible scream he loosed. One of the creature must have caught him in the throat or under his jaw. It was almost like these things were fishing for their prey.

“We managed to make it here,” Hannah continued. “Lawrence was still alive for awhile. He was bleeding so much. I—I couldn’t stop it. There was so much. All he kept asking me was if Amanda and I were fine. Oh, god, Patrick, what is going on?!” Her eyes finally broke from mine and she stared down at Lawrence, who I could see was pale from blood loss. The moon shining down gave him an ethereal quality.

I didn’t have the answers. I doubt anyone did. I suddenly became painfully aware of the silence that had been present since my arrival to the dump. “Have you heard them since you came inside the junkyard?” Hannah didn’t respond. “God dammit, Hannah! Have you heard them!?” Her head snapped back to mine and for a moment all there was in the forest, in this entire universe, was her face.

Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk!

The pain of my heart skipping pierced through my chest. For the first time since I had arrived I noticed Hannah had been leaning against the one tree in the center of junkyard. It was the maple with the darkest bark in the forest, and the animal call had come from directly above us. The rapid clicking of the creature filled my ears as I slowly looked up and met it’s glossy red eyes staring back at me.

Credit To – B.P. Gee

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Fool’s Game

August 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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I loved traveling.

It was for research mostly. I worked as a paranormal investigator, going from place to place with my crew, to search for local “sightings” or “otherworldly instances”. My team ran a rather well-known YouTube channel, “The Plasmatics”. I guessed it was supposed to be some sort of pun on how most people believed ghosts were made of ectoplasm, or something like that, but truth be told, it was kind of dumb.

The latest case we’d been assigned on was a doozy. Some kids who decided they’d rather be out smoking little rolls of shredded grass instead of being in school reported a sighting of a something “creepy as Hell”, out in a little town up north. And by up north, I mean nearly forty miles away from where we were already stationed. The plea for our help came in the package of a nicely written little email, complete with an amount of improper grammar that could make a literature teacher suicidal. It was a jumble of letters, and I almost deleted it. Almost.

I probably should have, looking back on it. Even looking that damn letter over was a mistake. I should have clicked that little trash-can button, closed my laptop, and gone back to kicking Jonah’s ass in Street Fighter. It would have been safer. It would have been different.

But instead, I looked it over, calling the guys to double-check what I couldn’t pronounce. Turns out, I’m not “up to par” with new generation lingo, or as Leo likes to tease me about, I’m not “down with the flow”. Whatever.

They both skimmed the message, Jonah already researching the name of the hospital on his phone as Leo called out the name of the town. I was already looking at one bright screen, and the moment the light from his phone shot into my face, my eyes threatened to implode.

“Damnit!” I mumbled, pushing the screen from my face, “Don’t do that!”

“Check it out!” He replied, so filled with energy that my irritation was completely ignored, “They might not be the smartest kids, but they might be onto something! Turns out the place they were lighting up at is an old mental hospital, famous for burning down, and having a prisoner breakout, all in the same night!”

“That’s messed up.” Leo mumbled, flipping his bangs out of his eyes. I always told him to trim his hair, but apparently he liked the “old-age pop star” look, because every time I saw him enter a room, I swore it had grown an inch in length.

“You sure they’re not screwing with us?”

“Dude, do you really think a group of teenagers would really go through the trouble of locating our website, sending us an email, and sending us a picture of the place?”

I narrowed my brows, giving the photo attached a brief glance. It looked like an innocent enough place, rickety, and charred around the edges. The fire hadn’t done as much damage as I’d thought it would have. Control of the situation must have been taken really fast.

“They might.” I replied finally, leaning back to bend my arms behind my head. “You can’t trust people for bull these days, man. Especially kids.”

“I agree with Leo.” Jonah muttered. “Think about it. If we showcased this place on our channel, it’d be an instant hit. People love asylums and crap like that. Makes ‘em all shivery inside.”

A force pulled my chair into a spin, until both of my teammates had me pinned in the chair; Leo’s expression dead-serious, Jonah’s stuck in a permanently intoxicated high.

“Dave, we’re both ready to go. We’re into this, man. Even if the brats are lying, it could be good publicity. This place has got its own news station. Think about what would happen if we ever got interviewed—we’d be on TV, man! Us! On TV!”

I exhaled deeply, still unsure. It really felt wrong.

I probably should have followed that instinct. I should have put my foot down, and told them both no—Hell no, that we weren’t going to follow some random kids’ message to drive all the way across the country, just to checkout some place that might end in a bust.

But instead, I looked at their faces, so bright and hopeful, and caved. These guys had good intuition about cases, so it was just natural for me to follow their lead.

“Alright.” I gave in. My blonde comrade let out a sound, half-girlish scream, half whoop, and chest bumped Jonah full force. The poor recipient of his excitement ended up knocked back so hard that he nearly tumbled over the back of his armchair.

I miss those times.

I miss us laughing, joking around in front of the camera. I miss zooming in on Jay, our other camera-guy, as he stuffed his face full of nachos. I miss the way we all shared them, making sure to document our last night before we set off on the trip.

The next day came in a blur, so fast I can only remember small details. Morning ritual, sharing a bathroom with three other roommates, fighting over a piece of toast with Jonah. Our stuff was packed into the van we used on our excursions, stuffed full of bags, boxes, discarded trash, and tons of equipment. I can recall the smell of it, thick of smoke and beer, from the first time we’d decided to give the old vehicle a joy ride. It was both the best and worst night of our lives.

I remember flashes of the road trip, Jay and Jonah singing off key to some classic rock song, Leo head-banging from the driver’s seat, and me, watching it all and laughing. I joined in once, for the guitar solo, while my beanie-headed friend jumped up to belt out the remaining chords in a slow, drawling voice.

Jonah, Jay, Leo, and I.

We were a great team.

Forty miles we drove, on half a tank of gas, a mini-fridge full of Heinekens, and a few bags of potato chips. Jonah made us pull over every so often to relieve himself. Poor kid couldn’t go twenty minutes without peeing. After the fifth time, Leo took away his beer privileges, leaving a very unhappy hat-wearing grump in the back with Jay and I.

We left around seven in the morning, and by the time we passed through Route 85, leading us into North Dakota; it was the same time in the evening. The group decided, collectively, to stop off at an inn for the night. Pulling up nearly empty to a hotel was a no-go for Leo, so he dropped us off to make a quick gas run.

We waved as we watched him go.

It took quicker to unload our stuff into the room than to pack it, and before we knew it, we were all in our respective corners, doing our respective things. Jonah was in the bathroom, relieving the bladder he’d been trying so hard to restrain, Jay was fiddling with his equipment, check and rechecking his camcorder, and I was lying across one of the queen sized beds, staring at my laptop.

I was really unsure about the place we were going to, so I decided to double-check it. Normally, I wasn’t like this at all, jumpy and anxious. My fingers tapped along the keyboard, spelling out the institute’s name in small, blinking letters. The mouse swept over the top link, highlighting the text underneath.

“Anderson’s Memorial Mental Hospital: A Place For Greener Days, A Place For Happier Stays”

It sounded like total bull, but I clicked it anyway. The picture that popped up was the same building that the kids had sent us, only in one piece, uncharred and whitewashed in a grayscale tone. The tall gate that surrounded the place made it look more creepy than inviting. I let out a low whistle, wishing pity on the poor souls who had to deal with living in that place.
At least now they don’t have to worry about that anymore, a sadistic voice in my mind whispered.

Shaking my head to clear away the fog of drowsiness that had clouded over, I kept reading, moving from the photo to scan the article underneath.

“September, 27, 1968

Latest reports given by sources show that mental health of patients at Anderson’s have a fifty-seven percent chance of full recovery, this is nearly double the amount stated in the last five years, as Anderson’s gains more and more recognition with its prowess.

Head psychiatrist and caretaker, Dr. Geoff Anderson has this to say about the steady progress his institute is making,

“The Institute does everything possible in its power to ensure a healthy lifestyle for its patients, full with comfortable room and board, three square meals a day, and medicinal care on a daily basis. All funds appropriated go into taking care of our patients, and helping them out of this haze that has enraptured them into such nonsensical states.

Our motto is, ‘Give Fully, Take Foolishly’. We do not ask for what we receive, but we do hope to spread our services across the country, to give every poor soul like the ones we take care of here a chance at redemption.”

It went on like this, leading into charts, one-on-one reports from recovering patients, statements from nurses, and placements by reporters to potential donors.

I clicked back, changing my search to the fire that destroyed the building, and clicked on the link that followed. The summary was simple, yet, truth be told, a bit unnerving to read.

“June 4, 1971

Over five hundred patients, doctors, and nurses at Anderson’s were killed in the massacre that began, just previously before the devastating fire. The perpetrator that initiated the massacre remains unknown, as all possible evidence was destroyed in the blazing flames that engulfed the building, and the inhabitants inside.

Of these killed were, by alphabetical order:

Jeremiah Alcox

Geoff Anderson

Mario Bellum

Marie Cosander

Edgar Divvens—“

A flushing sound broke my concentration, and I glanced up, seeing Jonah exiting the bathroom, wiping his wet hands across his sweatshirt lazily. He looked around, his head on a slow swivel, and spoke the words that broke the spell of our calm.

“Where’s Leo?”

Jay looked up, and we locked eyes. It’d been a while since Leo had driven off, most of our equipment was still in the van, and he had gone to get a full tank of gas. Like a projectile in a slingshot, Jay leapt up, and began rifling viciously through our duffel bags, gutting each one of its holdings, sifting through every shirt, pair of pants, and booklet for one thing.
The map to the Institute.

Each bag lay emptied on the floor, across the bed, and strewn around the room in a mess. Jay stood, his hands gripping the mop of black on his head, as he took in deep, shuddering hyperventilations.

“Not here,” he breathed, “it’s not here.”

“What the Hell do you mean, it’s ‘not here’?” I snapped, scrambling forward to do some digging on my own. Jonah and I knocked through everything over and over, unfolding every tiny piece of paper, emptying every dresser drawer, but he was right. The map was missing, and so was Jonah.

“What the Hell does he think he’s doing, going off on his own?” I was trying hard to keep from screaming. Jonah looked close to wetting his pants.

Jay took a deep breath, and furrowed his brows in deep concentration. “Just before we left…the night before we left…we got into a fight.”

“What?”

“You two were already asleep.” He admitted, looking sheepish. He dragged his hands through his hair again, pulling the skin on his scalp taught with stress. “We were discussing management of the channel. Of everything, actually. He wanted a bigger cut on the final product, more screentime, more money. I told him we should keep it the way it was, split between the four of us.”

I lowered myself to the corner of the bed, listening intently. Was he saying Leo had gotten power-hungry?

“He got mad. Pissed, actually. Started screaming, saying I’d be nowhere without him, or his equipment. Said it’d be better off if he just went and did his own thing. I managed to calm him down with a few beers, and we fell asleep after that. I didn’t think…he’d actually go through with it.”

“Leo went solo?!” Jonah squeaked. He looked utterly terrified at the thought of being abandoned by his leader. “What’re we gonna do without him? He’s got all our stuff, and the car, man! He’s got the car!”

“We’re not doing bull without him.” I snapped. Both heads turned to look at me, surprise and concern reflected in Jay’s eyes, panic and terror evident in Jonah’s. Angrily, I swept our stuff to the side, uncovering the hat I usually wore. I pulled the faded Bears cap onto my head, staring at my remaining crew with lava boiling through my system.

I was so, so stupid.

So young.

So foolish.

“We’re going after that sorry S-O-B, and we’re gonna kick his butt for leaving. Then we’re going to pack up, go home, and make up like real men. We’re gonna throw the biggest beer-a-thon known to mankind.”

Both faces crinkled comically, enjoying the very prospect of the idea.

“Jay, grab your camcorder. We’re going on a trip.”

We had to take a cab to get to where the map Jonah had pulled up on his phone told us to go. The driver stopped short, just of the gate, and we exchanged thanks, stuffing what was left of our money stash into his hands.

The car peeled off so fast that the smoke covering the ground felt more like mist, deep and ominous. Jay scanned the sight with his camera, sucking in a breath as he surveyed the tall columns of stone that held the gate in place, each crumbling and shattering in a different place.

“Jonah, slip through that gap there and let us in from the other side.”

“Don’t need to.” He pointed out, staring wide-eyed at the gap in the side of the busted metal cage, “Look’s like Leo’s already here.”

“Good.” I growled. Fire was coursing through my veins. I was going to find our friend, beat him senseless, and make him promise to never pull something this stupid ever again.

I was the idiot.

We slipped through unnoticed, completely abandoned by all signs of life. The night airs hung heavy and thick, pitch black but for the light given off by the van’s headlights, and Jonah’s phone. I walked up the desolate vehicle, shutting off the ignition with a sudden sense of dread. The feeling felt like an iron ball in the pit of my stomach.

Why was it here alone?

Why was it still running?

Why were the keys in the ignition?

I pocketed the item, and turned to face the building the lights were illuminating. It was a lot more sinister looking in the dark, covered in shadows, and broken at the edges, where the wood had rotted away and fallen somewhere in the inside. This place was dangerous, and now that we couldn’t see where we were going to be headed, it was even worse.

“Y-you sure about this?” The youngest of our group mumbled, his hands shaking the light in his phone violently. “Maybe we could just go and leave him to walk back to the hotel—“

“No.” I pressed. “We’re going in after him.”

This time, I felt my reasoning was different. Something had…happened. It was a guess, but from what I’d seen, a deserted car, still running, and a missing crew member…it was a good guess. My ears started buzzing, the moment I took a step towards the collapsing Institute. It was low and irritating, like the hum of a mosquito. Angrily, I swatted at my ear, unable to cease it.

“Are there bugs around here?” Jay asked. I felt the edge of his camera brush my shoulder.

“Guess so.”

A few steps forward, my foot hit something hard. It wasn’t hard enough to be metal, but not soft enough to be wood. I guessed it was somewhere in between, like plastic, or linoleum. The same feeling continued where my foot landed, and I realized we were inside. It was even darker than it was outside. For a moment I froze, my body going ramrod stiff where I stood. It was like knowing you had a large, poisonous spider crawling along your body. If I moved…If I moved—

Then the feeling was gone. My limbs went limp, and I could walk again. I didn’t want to. I wanted to listen to the rush of instinct that came after that moment, to grab Jay and Jonah and run.

I really should have.

The farther we got the more conscious I was of the noises around us. Somewhere in the darkness, a broken pipe dripped with residue moisture, the steady thumping sound raising the hair on the back of my neck. The floor beneath us clicked with each of our steps, varying in pace and force. Jay let out sounds of appreciation, able to take in what we couldn’t see with his night-vision.

“This place was lush.” He spoke into the abyss, his voice bouncing off invisible walls. “They’ve got plush chairs, glass tables—are Asylums supposed to have glass anywhere in the building?”

“We’re in the lobby.” I muttered. “This is probably where visitors gathered to talk with doctors and to sign appointments for their loved ones and stuff.”

“D-do you see any sign of Leo?” Jonah whispered, still loud due to the large echo.

“Nah.” Jay replied, sounding as calm as ever. “He’s probably upstairs, checking out the rooms and cells and crap.”

“Upstairs?” He sounded ready to faint.

Feeling around in the dark, I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t worry man, we’ll be alright.”

Another hand shook my own shoulder in return, from the opposite side. With the movement, came Jonah’s voice. “If you say so, man.”

I froze, gripping the cloth beneath my hand tightly. My throat ran dry. This wasn’t Jonah.

“Jay?” I croaked out.

“Yeah, Dave? You find something?”

He was up ahead.

The thoughts ran together in my brain, coming out as mush from my mouth.

This wasn’t Jonah. This wasn’t Jay. If it was Leo he would have said something. Yelled, screamed, jumped.

This body was completely still, unmoving except for the occasional twitch.

“Jay…” I whimpered. “Turn around.”

“Dude, what is i–?” His voice trailed off into silence. Slowly, that quiet broke into a soft mumbling sound. “God, no.”

“Jay?”

“No. God, no.” He spit out a string of curses, the mumbling pooling into a sound reminiscent of a cry.

“Letgoletgoletgoletgo—DAVE LET GO OF IT!”

The humming in my ears burst, the sound getting louder and louder. Jay’s hand on my shoulder turned into a claw, and I could hear him sobbing with fear.

“What is it.” He kept mumbling. “What is it.”

I pulled back. Another hand snatched out and grasped my wrist, wet and slimy. An iron scent hit me, full on. My stomach churned with the thick salty smell. The humming burned in my ears, coming out as a piercing squeak through my brain. It was like when a mic needed to be tuned, and let out that single, deafening sound that could make your ears bleed.

It sounded like a scream. Loud, high-pitched, and painful. A woman’s scream.

“Dave!”

Jay again. I felt a hand bunch into my shirt and drag me forward. There was a sickening sound, like bone snapping, and my wrist slipped from its captor. Jonah held onto me as we were jerked forward, all letting out one terrified series of screams as the wail echoed behind us.

Run. Run. Run. Run. Don’t stop. Don’t let go. Run.

I should have stopped running. Or at least, slowed down.

Jonah. Poor, young Jonah. There was a tug from where his hand sat, followed by the sound of his terrified scream echoing in the dark. I reached out to grab his hand with mine, but I moved the wrong arm. With a single jerk, his fingers fell away from my shirt, and his shriek quickly fell away into the shadows.

“Jonah?” I stopped, turning one-eighty. I couldn’t see for crap, but the soft light of his phone was near my feet. He’d dropped it when he’d been…

“JONAH?” I called out, shining the beam every direction. The trail we’d run was coated in something slick, slippery to the touch. My shoes squeaked against the surface as I traced the way we’d came, screaming for our friend the entire way.

“Dave! Stop running, I can’t keep up!” Jay jogged up from the opposite direction, holding up a hand to shield his eyes form the phone’s brightness.

I cursed under my breath, breathing deeply. With what was left of my voice, I gave one last scream. “JONAH!”

“Jonah! Jonah! Jonah…!”

My voice sprang back to my ears, greeted in reply with silence as it faded. Jonah was gone. Taken by that…whatever it was. Whoever it was. It had grabbed me, but I had gotten away and now it had Jonah what was it going to do to him where would we find him oh God he’s so young what were we thinking—

“Dave!” My head snapped back, stars spinning around my eyelids with the force of Jay’s slap. “Calm down!”

“I won’t.”

He shook my shoulders, his eyes wide and doe-like. “Calm down, Dave. Breathe. We can do this. We’ll find Jonah, and Leo. Okay? Stay with me, buddy.”

How was he so calm?

“It took him. Jay, it took him! You saw it and now it’s got him—what is it, Jay? What the Hell took Jonah?”

His face paled. Sweat pooled around his forehead, running in streaks across his face. A few droplets pooled across the patch on his chin, and when he shook his head, they dropped, one by one, onto my shirt.

“I…I don’t know, man. It looked like…a lady. This lady—she was wearing one of those hospital gowns, but it was, I don’t know, cut up and stuff. Covered in…it wasn’t blood. It was too dark to be blood. And she was all skinny and veiny and…” he cut off with a huff, “It’s not important. What’s important is that we keep our heads and find our friends. We’ll find our brothers, okay? And then we’re gonna go back home, and Leo’s gonna owe us so much beer. Okay, man. Okay…Dave?”

He pulled me in a little, shouldering my stress by leaning our foreheads together. I took in a deep breath, nodding.

We should have left.

In the dim light I could see him grin, shaking my shoulders. He clapped me on the back, and still inhaling my lungs back into rehabilitation, I returned the gesture. My legs felt so weak, buckling and shaking with each step. The liquid I’d run into made each step squeak, each movement slip.
We walked like that for a long, long time, me stumbling and tripping on my own feet, Jay shouldering my weight and calling out our younger comrade’s name. The humming noise never went away, but it was softer.

“The battery’s dying.” I mumbled, staring at the red symbol at the corner of the phone’s screen. “We’re gonna run out of light soon.”

“Don’t worry, man. I’ve got my camcorder on full charge. We ain’t losing sight any time soon.”

“Oh, good. I think…I can stand now.” He helped me slip into a standing position, and I muttered out thanks in reply.

I underappreciated them. They’d been my buddies for so long, but I’d never realized how great of friends they actually were.

And now we’d lost two of them.

“Do you hear that?” Jay whispered. I stopped, focusing my ears on the distant noise he had picked up.

Footsteps. Approaching fast. Running.

“Is that…?” The way he tensed next to me, I didn’t need to finish my question.

“Run.” He breathed.

We turned and ran back the way we came, hoping the sound would fade like it had last time. But the monster had taken one, and showed no sign of leaving without another. Nails raked across my back, long and sharp. They sliced through my shirt, scraping the skin so fiercely I could feel the blood springing up where the wounds lay.

I let out a grunt of pain, but pushed forward, ignoring the burning pain in my legs. I was so close to collapsing, just from these short spurts into the dark. Jay’s hand wrapped around my arm, pulling me away from the claws for a second time. We kept going up, faltering awkwardly up the staircase, him leading the way with his recorder, I only trying to keep the same tempo.
The noise in my ears. The same as before, sharp, biting, painful. Static buzzed through my mind, reflecting across my vision. The wooden stairs creaked and bent where our feet touched. One board snapped, and my leg jolted down, stuck in the hole.

I wish I’d fallen through.

I felt Jay let go. At first I feared that he’d left me to save his own skin, but then I felt his hands under my arms, lifting me back to my feet. “You okay, man?”

There was a moment’s pause. He’d dropped the recorder, but the wail hadn’t stopped.

Breath pulsed across my neck, cold and wet. The sound of its breathing was murky and raspy, like a smoker’s cough. Slowly, so painfully, painfully slow, I felt Jay lean down to grab his camera. A hand moved across my neck, the sharp nails pressing into my jugular. I held up the phone, palm shaking, to look at it.

But the moment the light illuminated the skin, just a flash of grayed, rotting, torn away piles of pale scrap against yellow bone and withered flesh, the monster let out a scream and tore forward. Jay let out a scream, so like Jonah’s.

It cut off with a wet squelch. Something warm sprayed my face, wet and thick. Iron. Salt. Pain.

Blood.

“Jay…?” I shivered, hating the feel of the warm liquid on my face. It brought up so many thoughts, so many ideas, none of them I wanted to accept.
“Jay. Jay. Jay…”

He didn’t reply, no matter how many times I said his name.
“No. Jay, no. Jay, say something. Please. Please, Jay. Man, say something. Jay, please…”

There was something crumpled at my feet. I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to see it, to accept it, but I had no choice. Not with those…sounds. Those horrible, horrible sounds.

It was like someone trying to drink the last of their soda through an ice-clogged straw. It was soggy, greedy, and made my skin shiver. Soft prickles slipped all across my body, growing more and more intense as I lifted the phone to see what was happening before me.
I shouldn’t have.

It was…what Jay had said. A woman, of indiscernible age, on her hands and knees. Her skin was translucent, pulsing with veins and giving full view of the bones and organs that lay within. Something like a pink rope pooled around her knees, hanging out from under the bottom of her dress.
I gagged.

Her intestines. Pulsing, and flowing with the red they were absorbing, spilled out their intake at my feet. I took a single step back, my legs kicking at the open hole just below where I stepped. I sucked in a breath to try and regain my balance, able to push back onto the lower step not a moment too soon.

But it caught her…its attention.

The head of the creature whirled around to stare at me, the blue and red streaked cranium covered with wispy, thin strands of blonde hair. It had a full head of hair. It was wearing clothes. It was a person.

It was a woman. No matter how unhumanlike, it was a woman.

A pair of empty sockets stared in his direction, spilling a thin trickle of black liquid from their holes. The same liquid pooled out of her mouth, across those small, shark-like teeth, and onto the body of his dead friends. One hand clutched a beanie, bloodstained and holding tightly to the strands of blonde within.

It was Jonah’s hat.

Why did I keep standing there?

The other claw held a handful of Jay’s face, my friend’s eye hanging from the thin cord leading to the mass of flesh it was attached to. Below it, he gurgled, choking on the red liquid that spurted up in geysers from his open throat. The static in my ears was dying out, making way for the groaning sound the monster was making. It caught sight of the phone’s light, and let out a horrified shriek, like a child that had fallen from a swing and scraped its knee.

Its skin spread and burst, like a burning film reel, and with another howl, it leapt out of my view, up the stairs.

Like a weight, dragged myself to where Jay lied, his mouth spouting river after river of blood.

“No. No. Jay, stay with me. Jay, hold on man.” Jonah’s beanie lie discarded on the stairs, dyed red in newly and previously acquired blood. I grabbed it and pressed it to the open wound, trying to apply as much pressure as I could. I didn’t have any sort of medical kits. Why hadn’t we brought any? Why did we have to come out here? I was going to be the last one left, all my friends were dead, and if I found Leo I was going to skin him alive—

“D…ave…” My dying comrade managed through a mouthful of crimson.

“No, don’t say anything. I’m going to…get help. Keep this on your neck—okay?” I moved, just a fraction, when his hand snapped up, pulling mine into place.

“N…o….st…st–,” he coughed, a fountain leaving his mouth to land on my face.

Tears pooled in my eyes. Oh God, my friend was dying and I was sitting here crying. Sobbing. I couldn’t do a damn thing, and he was dying, they were all dying, they were all dead and here I was.

“Alright.” I leaned down, pulling my blood-soaked friend closer. Jay had always been a bigger guy than me. It’s something I got teased about regularly, but he was always nice about it, never really teasing me like Leo or Jonah had. “Alright, man. C’mon, you’re gonna be just fine. Okay? We’re gonna…we’re gonna go, and find Jonah…and Leo’s coming this way right now.”

“Y…eah?” I could see it in his eyes, he didn’t believe me. But he replied anyway, going on with this last memory.

“Yeah, man. We’re gonna go find Jonah. He’s probably hiding somewhere. And we’re gonna…we’re gonna go back to that damn hotel room and…man, we’re gonna raise Hell. We’re gonna get pizza and cake and ice-creams, and we’re gonna invite some hot girls over and go swimming in the hotel’s pool. And we’re gonna drink and drink and drink till we pass out.”

“Sound gr…ea…t.” His words were slowing. Frantically, I plastered a smile on my face, willing the tears to stop. My hands bunched into Jonah’s hat, my nails already dried and reapplied with a red polish I knew no remover would ever manage to get off.

“Da…ve?”

“Yeah…?”

His head bobbed, and I leaned closer. His lips brushed my ear, his voice so weak I could barely hear it.

“Gla…d….m…fr…nd.”

I choked back a soggy laugh. “I’m glad you’re my friend too.”

“Lo…ve…y…”

The words trailed off. I leaned back, my confusion dissolving into hysterical sobs as I watched his eye roll back and his head slump into my shoulder. The blood flow trickling across my hand slowed, eventually coming to a stop.

I didn’t want it to. I wanted it to keep flowing, so that I would know that there was at least a single fraction of life still left in him. I didn’t want…he couldn’t be.

“Jay…brother. Open your eyes. C’mon. C’mon…” I choked violently, pressing my tear-soaked face into his blood crusted hair.

I cried, like a child.

I cried, in the dark.

I cried, alone.

I cried until I was sick, and then kept going. Pulling myself from his corpse was like inviting Death, and now, I was. I walked up the stairs, instead of down. As I ascended, images of our life before this had begun flashed through my brain, like a film reel.

We were riding bikes, joking and laughing.

I walked up, into a place that was filled with bulbs, unbusted, luminescent, and still flickering. The room it illuminates is comprised of cells, burned and twisted, the doors all swung open, the beds turned into strips of charred fabric, and the discarded flesh-white bones.

Across the room, a corpse lies with its entrails spread across the floor. Black hair peeks out from where it lies.

The remains of Leo are everywhere, acting as a pathway for the decaying legs that draw closer and closer.

Sharing our food and sneaking sips of beer, winking at passerby and laughing at each other’s buzzed antics.

Static roared in my ears. Jonah’s dead phone dangled from one hand, Jay’s busted recorder in the other.

We were kids again, climbing trees and waving to our crappy webcam.

Humming. My legs gave in, and I dropped to the floor, paying no mind to the blood that dripped across my eyes. Jonah’s hat was a size too small.

Older. We had a website, and were all arguing over the color scheme. Leo wanted blue and black. Jay wanted green. I wanted red.

Footsteps. Not fast this time, but slow. Shuffling. The lights spark, and go out.
Even older. We’re introduced to the newest member of our team. A shy, trembling blonde boy smiles and holds out his hand to me.

Slowly, a hand touches my throat. The moan is right next to my ear, growing louder every second.

We get the van, and go for our first joyride.

I close my eyes. I see my friends, for the very last time.
Leo grins at me, giving us a thumbs-up for the first job we ever completed. We were all so proud.

There is pain, quick and simple. Merciful.

We were all so foolish.

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Vae Victis

July 29, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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17-MAY-2008 Fort Huachuca, Arizona

Just like the old marching cadence, it’s the“Same old shit again” indeed. And now here I am marching my own Soldiers off to one of several pre-deployment briefings being held today. Most of it’s just the usual mandatory stuff, what to do in combat situations we might not actually get to see, thank God. Our unit is comprised of mostly Signal geeks and I.T guys, at least a third of them are fresh out of A.I.T and they’re pretty easy to pick out of the crowd: They all have this terrified look on their face like they think they’re about to die as soon as they get off the plane, and I have to laugh because that’s exactly how I felt right before my first deployment to Iraq. I feel bad for most of them, T.R.A.D.O.C fills their heads with all kinds of bullshit about kicking down doors and pretty much duct-taping their buddies back together while they’re screaming for Mommy. It’s mostly intended to remind them that while they’re being trained in a technical capacity, they’re still Soldiers in the United States Army and very well may wind up in combat nevertheless. I understand why they do it, but they rattle off about it so much to these kids that it almost becomes counter-productive: Instead of learning how to just do their damn jobs, they lose sleep over nightmares about explosions and gore.

I remember being that scared before my first trip to the Sand-Box, now as an NCO myself it’s my job to set them straight well before this one officially kicks off. This will be my second trip to Iraq, for most of these guys it’ll be their first. Hell, for a few of the senior members of leadership and Command, this will be their second or third. Serves ‘em right for voting Republican, but of course, it’s not like I’m going to be caught saying that out loud. These scared kids are having a Hell of a time with a very simple cadence that they should damn well know from day one, a few of them are too scared to even open their mouths. They just march, lost in their own minds. And I’m fine with this, so long as they hear me order Mark-Time and Halt when we arrive.

I’ve got my own shit to do, I’m only leading these guys to their briefings because I had to fill in for Sergeant First Class Parvis when he showed up drunk again. This isn’t anything new for him, sadly. If he weren’t such a sadistic, sexist piece of shit I just might consider feeling bad for the guy because he has such severe PTSD, but after the last time he staggered past me and asked if my “carpet matched the drapes,” he’s damn lucky I left the building when I did. Parvis is one of those senior NCOs who really shouldn’t be wearing the uniform anymore. Sure, I made my complaints and reports, just like policy tells us to, but it almost never amounts to anything. The best I can really do is try to stay the Hell away from him.

He made a complete inebriated ass of himself in from of the entire Company this morning though, and this was a rare performance indeed coming from him: Instead of the usual nasty remarks and barely intelligible swearing, I could swear I heard him choke on a string of desperate apologizing and frantic groveling for forgiveness from every Soldier standing in formation. There were a few audible snickers, I tried not to laugh at him myself, Parvis is known within the whole unit for his completely non-sober tirades about this-that-and-everything. They almost always end with the usual screaming at all of us over one person’s mistake, his way of mass punishment over trivial stuff as a way of asserting power over the rest of us knowing full well he barely had any real power of his own. Gee, I wonder why… This time was a bit of a spectacle, sure. I grew up with alcoholic relatives, the public sobbing and endless train of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I swear I’ll change blah blah blah” has long since lost it’s effect on me, but now I can only stand by and watch.

This is the end for SFC Parvis, finally. Command can’t cover for him anymore after this and they know it, at least I hope so. He did his time in Iraq just like I did, and it broke him. It happens, that’s what war does to people. The ones with any brain cells in their skulls go talk to a shrink or a chaplain, Parvis came home and went balls-deep into a bottle. No more family, no more friends, just drinking buddies and an undeserved rank-patch that’s been begging to be torn off his faded uniform ever since. Eventually, two other NCOs “escorted” him behind the back parking lot to our Commanding Officer, there were a few awkward murmurs from the Company but nothing out of control. Parvis was still losing his shit, all I could make out was some frightened gibberish over finding a weird little photo inside his truck after the Flag went down yesterday.

He was crying so hard about this stupid picture he was hysterical. Eventually the MPs had to get him, hopefully dragging his ass to therapy this time. The rest of the senior NCOs put me in charge of my platoon for a day, I bet nothing would have pissed Parvis off more than seeing a female NCO taking charge. Not long after the morning melt-down, we were given marching orders to attend our required briefings.

Something tells me “Pervy-Parvis” won’t be joining us on our little vacation this time around, or ever again, for that matter.

This can only be a good thing for the rest of us.

2-JULY-2008 Joint Base Balad, Iraq

See, guys? It may be hotter than the Devil’s undying cunt in the shade out here, but it’s not really so bad, is it? Compared to other bases and F.O.Bs here in Iraq, J.B.B is practically a country-club. A giant Post Exchange complex, at least two DFACs, there’s even a movie theater.

The last time I was out here, I could barely walk fifteen feet on the sidewalk before alarms went off left-and-right over incoming mortars and rockets. One time I had to take a roaring piss inside the very concrete bunker I had been stuck in for 2 or 3 hours, I wasn’t permitted to leave until we finally stopped taking fire from whatever the Iraqis decided to throw at us for the time being. That’s kinda their thing, aside from road-side bombs: They launch things over the fence at seemingly random times for indeterminate amounts of time. Sometimes it’s just one rocket landing in a ditch and then we resume business as usual, sometimes it’s two or three days before we get to see our beds because it’s just non-stop.

Things seem to be winding down this trip, supposedly there’s a big exit strategy in play and this sad chapter of American military history is going to actually end soon, but this won’t exactly happen overnight. Things have to be repaired, restored, reclaimed or straight-up handed back to the people of Iraq with a great big smile on our faces. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I may be a card-carrying Democrat but I fucking get it, okay? Arguably, we probably never should have come here, but it’s not as easy as just packing up and leaving immediately.

A few of the new kids seem to be getting used to this kind of life, none of them have been called on to go kick down any doors or dismantle any bombs like their well-meaning Drill Sergeants warned them about.

We got word from back home that SFC Parvis has been in the hospital ever since we left the States. It could have been the daily intake of gin and tonic taking it’s toll on his already war-ravaged brain, but it looks like the poor bastard finally lost his fucking mind and won’t be “Being All that He Can’t Be” anymore. He’s in a heavy lock-up because supposedly, after two doctors came into his room to try and treat him, one male and one female, he attacked them both at once. Funny, whatever stupid prank picture that someone put in his car that day, it really set him off this time.

True, he should have just hung up that uniform the first time he came home instead of being such a relentless dick for the rest of his career, but goddamn… Now I really do feel bad for him, a little. I never liked him, not from the start, but he’s still just a person in the end.

A couple of us were chatting about it on a smoke-break outside, a couple of the other guys that knew him were having a bit of a laugh about it. I casually asked if the picture he was so worked up about was one of them fucking his ex-wife or something, received with the usual sarcastic laughter, except for two of them. Not one blink, not one word, not one single peep.

“Yeesh, guys, what’s YOUR problem? Parvis was an asshole, whoever set him off was doing the entire Army a favor.” One of the other guys barked.

One dude just kinda took a nervous breath and shrugged, then another drag from a cigarette. The other kid was much younger than that dude, a Private Gerard according to his name-patch, he threw his to the ground and walked off.

What the fuck?

I’ve seen young Soldiers behave oddly under stress before, usually much worse than a quiet little tantrum like this, but something about this guy and his tense demeanor caught me a bit off guard. Maybe he doesn’t like other military women very much, which is entirely his fucking problem and VERY MUCH not mine, but those guys I can usually tell right away. Misogynistic little shits usually won’t even look me in they eye when I’m talking to them. But THIS kid… the look he gave me before he took off behind the concrete t-wall… made my heart stop. It’s the middle of summer out here in Iraq, suddenly it feels like February in Maine.

I have been shot at, multiple times on many occasions. I have seen combat, in all it’s horrible glory, up close and personal.

But THIS genuinely scared me.

23-SEPTEMBER-2008 Joint Base Balad, Iraq

Our Commanding Officer is dead!

We haven’t done anything outside the wire aside from minor equipment maintenance, and he never came with us on a single one of those trips. He never went out and about much, the only times I ever saw him was either at the DFAC or in his office. Nothing like this ever happened the last time I deployed, when guys died it was either because of the local anger catching them in the form of a bomb or an ambush, or just a dumb-ass accident. We’re just Fobbits for fuck’s sake, none of us have seen any actual combat since our boots hit the ground out here!

The morning rotation found him on the floor behind his desk, like he fell out of his chair and just fucking died. No one was allowed near his office while investigators were working, some of them were asking us questions about him and how he got along with us. I barely ever spoke to him, on the few occasions I did it was just business. I knew he was from Indiana, I heard he had a wife and a little girl, but we were always so busy I barely ever saw the guy most of the time. I was on the night crew, my shift ended at 0100 hours and when our relief showed up we always walked back to our rooms as a group: This place is even more dangerous at night because there are almost no outside lights to speak of. Anything can happen out here.

It must have happened after we were relieved, but the graveyard shift swears up and down that they didn’t see or hear anything strange. The floor was sticky outside his door, which was unlocked when his body was found, but that was about it.

Sometimes guys lose their minds out here for seemingly no reason, a Soldier is technically more likely to kill themselves than die in combat. While Officers aren’t completely immune from the seemingly never-ending plague of suicide within the military, it’s very rare that Brass actually end their own lives.

After a few brief questions, I asked a CID guy if I could at least step into the building to go pee, and he let me. I had to hold my breath walking past that office door, dead bodies stink something fierce right from the get-go: Within hours after dying, your muscles release and you shit yourself. It’s not an urban legend, I’ve seen it happen before. After my first deployment, I just kinda learned to… well, “expect” death. It’s a cold, inhuman thing to think and feel, and I know it. I feel horrible about it sometimes, but I accepted it the moment I signed that enlistment contract. There’s nothing I can do now except hold my breath and hope to God I don’t catch a whiff of my C.O’s last “Commanding action.”

But I don’t. I don’t smell… shit.

I skulk past his door on my way to the ladies’ room with my lungs filled and my entire face scrunched up, I’m suddenly slapped upside the nostrils with the stench of burning garbage.

It’s not uncommon here in Iraq, sometimes that’s how the locals dispose of their trash. There’s a burn-pit here on J.B.B, but it’s way the Hell on the other side of the base. And J.B.B is HUGE! It’s practically two separate bases that are bisected by a large collective of air-strips and runways where C-130s and C-17s take-off and land constantly.

It smells like a burn-pit, and… something else.

10-OCTOBER-2008 Joint Base Balad, Iraq

We have a new C.O. on the way, but we don’t know much about him. Supposedly, some green-horned jack-off fresh out of West Point who wants to tell the entire Army what’s up. Yay, I just love barely competent and inexperienced fresh meat telling me how to do my job, but considering the circumstances of how he got the “promotion,” I’m not really in a position to complain.

I had to give the whole lot a sexual harassment briefing in the conference room, again. Sure, put that awkward burden on the only NCO in the building who so happened to have been born with a vagina… I’d like to think that they don’t MEAN to be insulting by appointing me for stuff like this, because these things have to be discussed and I understand why. I just can’t help but get this fucked up feeling that they’re not even taking this seriously at all, even though in the Army a male Soldier is just as likely, if not more-so, as a female, to be assaulted or harassed, none of them give a shit. Neither does the entire Department of Defense, for all anyone can rightly tell. “Same old shit again…” for the most part. I’m starting to think that the only real reason I’m actually subjecting everyone to Death-By-Powerpoint about a subject we all know and love is an attempt to distract everyone from walking in on our old Commander’s still unresolved death.

If that’s the case, then I get it. I could use a distraction, too.

We all could.

Throughout the entire briefing, however, I noticed that Gerard never once glanced up at the Powerpoint slides. He stared off into space like he was high off his ass on something, lost in wherever he happened to be in his own mind. I was nearly done anyway, but that didn’t stop the NCO sitting next to him from giving a swift little kick to his ankle, nothing hard just enough to force him to “wake the fuck up” as that NCO so delicately put it. Gerard jolted in his seat with an embarrassing little squeak of alarm, looked around at the others, then at me.

Poor kid, he belongs in some comic book store playing table-top games with his hygienically-challenged Cheeto-eating friends. Not on the other side of the planet, certainly not like this.

“Fuck it.” I sighed, waved the signature sheet in front of the whole room, and told them to sign it and get the fuck out. The NCO who woke Gerard wanted to take him outside for a little corrective PT, but I told him I can take care of it.

Everyone left the room, probably thinking I was going to do the something mean to Gerard, but really I just wanted to talk to him.

“What’s your problem?” I asked him.

He took breath, hesitated. I was about to ask him again when he cut me off before I could speak, but I don’t think he did it on purpose.

“I didn’t want to believe it,” His voice cracked, he was turning white before my eyes, “I … don’t usually believe in that kind of thing, but I felt like…” His jaw wagged open and closed a few times, like that of a fish, “I just had to try.”

“Try what, Gerard?” Whatever he was afraid of, I could feel it. It was thickening the air all around me and in my own lungs as well. I don’t want to over-do it with this kid, but I’m starting to feel sick inside, “Do we need to have a chat with the First-Sergeant?” He shook his head, with lips flapping side to side from shaking so fervently.

“Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” As an NCO, I have to ask. It’s my job, and if HE DOES hurt himself, it’s my ass.

He shook his head one more time and scrunched up his face, like he was fighting to keep something the Hell out.

Oh Jesus Christ on crystal meth… He knows something.

“Gerard, please look at me.” I took a deep breath and tried to give him a reassuring nod, he looked like he was about ready to shit himself. He’s probably not used to NCOs actually being somewhat civil with him, which is unfortunately common among lower enlisted.

“Gerard,” I asked calmly, concerned, “Can you tell me what happened?”

His face went from white to red in about two seconds and his eyes widened like he was choking to death, I quickly took a step back because I wasn’t sure if he was about ready to hit me or have a seizure. What the fuck is eating him? No sooner did I yell out for help than Private Gerard hit the floor: Sure enough, he was actually having a fucking seizure.

Two other Soldiers ran into the conference room, tried to stabilize Gerard and stop him from accidentally injuring himself while I ran to Top’s office for the phone to call the Medics. I shoved past his opened door to discover him talking to the CID investigators before they noticed me coming in, just in time to hear one particular word so happen to slip from their mouths.

“Homicide.”

I can only assume they were following up regarding the Commander’s sudden death, seems a little fast if you ask me. I didn’t mean to interrupt them, I had no idea they were even here, but as soon as I alerted them to the matter of Gerard’s seizure they took off into the conference room for help.

When I reached across First-Sergeant’s desk for the phone, that’s when I saw the crime scene photos underhand. I’m no stranger to death, so the sight of his corpse in the pictures didn’t shock me all that much. There are politicians who think that women can’t handle the rigors and horrors of battle, yet they have no issue with sending us anyway.

There were holes in his uniform when they found him, but nothing to indicate what actually made them. Another photo had a note at the bottom of it, an investigator noticed that there wasn’t a whole lot of blood on the floor around the body. The third photo…

… Fucking Hell, man…

THAT was the photo that burned itself forever into my mind, THAT was when I knew that this wasn’t just someone getting pissed at him and beating him to death, or even having a stupid heart attack… that third photo was just an object found in his desk drawer with an evidence marker next to it.

“Found in victim’s desk: One Tarot card,” the notation read, “The Lovers, a major arcana card not usually interpreted as threatening. Only identifiable set of fingerprints on it belong to the victim.” I flipped the photo over for a second, just long enough to see something else written on the back, but that’s when Top came back into the office with the CID guys.

I snatched up the phone and kept slamming the buttons trying desperately to pretend it wasn’t working, but I don’t think they were buying it. They kicked me out of the office and grabbed the phone from me, but thankfully nobody noticed me tuck the photo up into the sleeve of my ACUs, I ran out just in time to catch a glimpse of Gerard. He wasn’t on the floor seizing anymore, but he was still visibly unwell.

He wouldn’t even look at me, but at least the medics were on it and looking after him. I guess someone else called from one of the other offices while I was fumbling through the murder photos of my dead boss, but one less corpse in here nevertheless, though, right?

Most of us were relived of duty for the rest of the day, they only kept a minimum crew of necessary personnel to continue operations. Top was pissed at me, I could see it in his face. I’m totally going to get an ear-full about it later, but at least Gerard was alive and being taken care of. The whole lot of us walked back toward our rooms quietly, no one really spoke to each other. I stopped at a road-side bunker telling everyone I needed a smoke-break, no one came to smoke with me. I guess this was their way of trying to show their disapproval of the situation, maybe a few of them even blamed me for Gerard’s mishap, but I was actually kinda hoping to have a moment alone.

I pulled out a smoke from my pocket, lit it, breathed it in deep. Goddamn, this is NOT how a deployment is supposed to work, especially not for a Company of tech-geeks with nothing better to do that stare at screens and code things! We’re just here to make sure the shit works, maybe turn it off and on again when it DOESN’T work, that’s it! Soldiers like US are where the term “Fobbit” comes from, we’re so sheltered and non-lethal that we almost never leave the proverbial “Shire” that is the main base. If we ever do wind up in combat, REAL combat, some shit has hit a really big fan! I re-enlisted into the Army Signal Corps because I was sick of being an MP that no one took seriously the first time I was here in 2005, boy was I misled.

Time to find out what is going on here, so I slid the now-bent photo out from inside my sleeve and had another look-over: I’ve seen Tarot cards before, every new age nerd brings a deck to a party to show off or to impress people with them. Some people have Bibles, others have Korans, then there are people with crystals and cards. I think they’re all bullshit, really, but this obviously meant something to SOMEONE, otherwise it wouldn’t have been left behind at the scene. The note was right, The Lovers card doesn’t usually have so-called bad-vibes in it.

There were two sentences on the back, each obviously written by two different people:

The first line read, “Why are their faces burnt out?” And upon re-examining the photo, I saw that there were in fact two neat little blackened circles where their faces were printed, any cigarette could have done this. They burns were precise, intentional, definitely not by accident. Someone MEANT to do this.

I flipped it back over to read the second line.

Upon reading it, though… my brain felt like it caught fire.

“Not this again! Secure the burn-pit site A.S.A.P.”

This has happened BEFORE?

13-OCTOBER-2008, Joint Base Balad, Iraq

Private Gerard is still in the hospital. He’s conscious, but he won’t eat or talk to anyone. CID has their eye on him, if he really does know something I’m pretty sure they’re going to find out about it. There’s talk of sending him back home, supposedly he has epilepsy. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that no one up and “catches” epilepsy while being deployed. It’s more likely that he’s always had it, but something probably set it off.

There have been a few intermittent rounds of indirect fire over the last day or so, but so far I don’t think anyone has been killed or injured. Even without the incoming mortars, though, I haven’t exactly been able to sleep very well. I have to force myself to shut my eyes at night, but it doesn’t help. I was never really that much of a drinker, but I could sure go for a beer right about now. No one has been talking to each other outside of duty since the murder, Gerard’s seizure only made things worse.

I can’t stop combing over this photo, either.

“Burn-pit site…”

“Not this again…”

I’ve been here on J.B.B before, back in 2005. It was an even bigger mess back then, wasn’t fixed up as nicely, comparatively speaking, as it is now. A few things have changed around a bit, some of the buildings have since been destroyed by mortars, on the whole I think I know how to get from one end of J.B.B to the other. I’ve been here long enough already, this is driving me nuts.

My shift always ends at 0100, without a flash-light at night I’m pretty-much blind.

I’m required to have at least two 30-round magazines and my M-16 with me at all times, just in case something does happen.

After I’m relieved for the night, tonight I’m doing to “get lost.”

Oh I’m going to catch SO MUCH SHIT for doing this if I get caught, but I feel like I have to.

“Burn-pit site…”

I can’t help myself.

15-OCTOBER-2008 Joint Base Balad, Iraq

Apparently, wandering off into the darkness all alone in a war zone wasn’t one of my better ideas. To be fair, there was no way for me to know a sand-storm was coming in the middle of the night because no one could see it until it was right on top of us. A sand-storm whipping up seemingly out of nowhere in Iraq. Gee, who’d have thought…

It was a VERY long hike from the fenced-off housing paddock to the area surrounding the burn pit. I didn’t exactly NEED my flashlight for the rest of the trip, I could smell my way over there in the dark just fine. They don’t really burn stuff at night if they can help it, the light of the fire attracts too much attention from the Iraqis. It was easy to creep behind t-walls and buildings once I was able to get away from the main roads. I snuck a cigarette or two along the way, periodically checking that I had my M-16 and both magazines close at hand, damn I was tense.

I accidentally disturbed a couple making out in a bunker. She looked scared, he looked pissed, I looked pretty stupid right about then and I knew it.

I smiled nervously, “Um… I won’t say anything if you won’t.”

They didn’t say anything at all, just stared at me looking extremely annoyed.

“Okay then, enjoy yourselves.” I left and didn’t look back, hearing only their gasps and groans.

That stuff happens out here all the time, it’s really not a big deal unless the wrong people start to notice it. More often than not, the Soldiers that hook up in a combat theater are actually married, but not to each other. I always found it a little fucked up that we have to have briefings about rape and sexual harassment practically every other week because Soldiers can’t figure out that it’s not okay to hurt one other, but somehow consensual sex between two men in uniform is so taboo that people actually get in trouble over it. And y’know, cheating on your spouse who’s waiting for you back home is perfectly fine too… Bastards.

Welcome to the Army: If it makes sense, it’s probably wrong.

Ultimately, though, that just means I need to be all the more careful out here in where I know I’m not supposed to be. I was an MP long enough to know the difference between someone who was lost and someone who was “lost.” And by lost, I of course mean trespassing. I continued into the void of the night, looking over my shoulder periodically. After a long, flat clearing of rock and gravel that seemed to make an awful lot of noise with every step, I came upon a chain link fence skirted by rusty concertina wire.

Well fuck, there’s only one way over this stuff.

I stripped the patches off my ACU jacket, took it off and threw it over the wire. Without the patches, I can’t be identified as it’s owner if someone finds it, but it also means the jacket itself is ruined. Whatever, Soldier: Stick to the mission. Climbing and hopping the fence, I proceeded exploring the area as quietly as possible until I noticed something odd straight off the bat.

The gravel under my boots didn’t crack as loudly when I stepped on it here and I couldn’t hear the whirring of the generators. I could see headlights of vehicles driving on base in the distance, but I couldn’t hear their engines anymore. Oh this feels SO WRONG right now, my instincts are telling me to go back but I kept telling myself that I had come too far and that I had to at least LOOK for something relevant. I had no idea what, but I’d probably know about it when I saw it.

And then, I did see it: A narrow circle of concrete t-walls, the very tall ones usually reserved for the base exterior walls or dividers meant to protect something from blast debris. The walls are covered in a patchy black coating of something, it could have been accumulating soot from being so close tot he burn-pit, but there’s no logical reason for this structure to be here all by itself in such an obscure location. People take things to the burn-pit to destroy them, not to protect them.

The t-walls were sticky to the touch and arranged very tightly together to form a sort of column, I began walking in a brisk circle around it’s circumference and not seeing any gaps between them. Well, there was one, about large enough to maybe fit my head through and look. I stared into the middle of the enclosure, raised my flashlight above my head and scanned the interior: There was only a pile of burnt garbage in the middle of the enclosure, that was it.

No, hold on, that CAN’T be it.

THIS is what needed to be secured “A.S.A.P?” A pile of burnt trash among an even BIGGER pile of burnt trash?

That’s when I noticed two things: Unlike the filth-coated exterior walls, which had already stained parts of my skin and clothes on contact, the inside walls were almost spotless. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear this concrete structure was brand new.

Then the second thing.

The unscathed flash-drive atop the pile.

I couldn’t quite reach it.

I took the magazine out of my M-16 and attempted to knock it toward me with the butt-stock of the weapon. It’s a damn good thing no one can see me doing this, because the muzzle of the weapon is right at the base of my wrist, and it’s heavier than it looks. After two or three bumps without blowing my hand off, it comes tumbling close enough for me to reach down and pick it up, when some of the trash I jostled about fell from the top of the pile…

… to reveal a section of untouched cloth from some discontinued desert-cammo uniforms.

No one, literally NO ONE out here wears these anymore. How long has this pile been here and how come this flash-drive looks undamaged? Something IS fucked up about this place, but now that I got SOMETHING out of this trip I can finally leave now, and the sooner the better.

And no sooner did I stash the drive into the pocket of my ACU cap and re-sling my weapon, when I felt the wall of sand hit my face. It damn near knocked me flat on my ass, I reached for my cap to make sure it stayed on my head, and thankfully it did. I ran into the storm, but not very far before I made out the shape of my ACU jacket fluttering against the fence. I accidentally tore it in a few places trying to get it free, at this point I don’t even care about getting caught anymore. After the unsettling scene at the burn-pit, I just wanted to get back to my room and throw these ruined ACUs away. Getting caught might be a blessing in disguise, given the circumstances. There is no way in Hell I am going to be able to make my way back in this sandstorm alone.

This was a terrible idea.

I stumbled upon the road-side and found a concrete bunker I could duck into, hardly perfect cover but it sure beats being exposed out in the open. Once inside, I took the flash-drive out from my cap and took a quick look at the outer cover: It was sticky, but not like the t-walls. There was at one point a label affixed to one side that had since come off, but despite having sat out there for who knows how many years, the glue was still tacky to the touch. On the other side of the flash-drive, there were two words written hastily with a shaprie:

VaE viCtIs

Sounds Latin, and kinda familiar. I know I’ve heard this phrase somewhere before, but right now it escapes me. I’ll have plenty of time to check out the drive’s contents when I get back to my room, but for now I just need to lie low until this storm passes and hope that no one noticed me. The wind wasn’t beating quite so hard on the inside of the bunker as the outside, I took the opportunity to pull out a smoke and try to light it. I need some good-ol’ “Vitamin N” before I lose my fucking mind.

It took two or three clicks of the lighter before I finally got a workable flame, I was well into getting a well-earned cherry on head of my cigarette … that I noticed the flame had illuminated something in my peripheral vision. Not just on one entrance of the bunker, but from both sides.

It wasn’t the storm playing tricks on my eyes.

I haven’t been drinking, either.

And no, there’s nothing “special” about my favorite brand of smokes.

I don’t care WHAT my personnel file says.

Those discontinued desert-cammo uniforms from the pile…

…were now wearing their discontinued boots.

I don’t remember what was going on or how long I was there, I don’t even remember getting into the back of an MP vehicle. But that’s where I woke up, with plastic zip-ties around my wrists and a huge cigarette burn on my shirt.

20-OCTOBER-2008 Joint Base Balad, Iraq

I’m not allowed to give briefings anymore, not for a while. On his way out of the hospital, Private Gerard sobbingly admitted that he was the one who put the picture in SFC Parvis’s truck. He had stumbled across some online forum, maybe a Facebook page, about bullshit urban legends like Slenderman, something with a really long title about “Normal Porn,” and a story about a psycho kid named Jeff… Come on, no one in their right mind thinks any of that shit is real, right? He said he got the idea from reading some discussions on the page, some of the members claiming to be current and former military obviously told him a screwed up kind of war story and maybe, in his desperation, he thought it was real. Whatever Parvis must have done to this kid, it must have been pretty serious for him to resort to actually trying out something he read about on the Internet somewhere, hoping that it would work.

Maybe in a weird way, it did. But it doesn’t matter for Gerard now, he’s on his way back to Arizona and being chaptered out of the Army for medical reasons. People are pissed off at me over it, even though there was no way for me to know he had this issue. All I did was ask him a question, there was no way for me to know that other NCOs had been pushing him as far as they did. I thought back to the note on the photo, “Not this again…” I guess Gerard isn’t alone in his desperation.

As for me, well, Top was already pretty on-edge about Gerard. So when the MPs carted my happy-ass to his doorstep at 0500 or so… the look on his face was almost kinda funny. I was forbidden from re-entering the office until “the smell was gone,” I assume he meant from my adventure in the burn-pit. I had to throw away that entire uniform ensemble, even my socks. I’ve been showering 3 times a day ever since the MPs released me, I still can’t get the stink of burning garbage out of my hair. I’m giving serious consideration to going all Demi Moore from GI Jane, but it’s technically against the rules for women to shave their heads according to Regulation AR 670-1.

But, y’know, trespassing and possible theft of government property are both fine.

I’m going to be under a very big microscope for the rest of my time in Iraq, I’m probably going to be on the roster for every single “random” piss-test for the rest of my military career after this. Top asked me if being an NCO was getting to me… I know what that means, I’m not stupid. As if by some miracle, there hasn’t been any official paperwork thrown at me, yet. The Army doesn’t exactly WANT female Soldiers, they’ve made that perfectly clear, but deep down they know that they need us. Especially female NCOs, there are too few of us and we’re too far in between. I think that’s the only thing saving me from getting shit-canned right now, and I’m in no position to complain, really.

I haven’t been able to bring myself to examine the contents of the flash-drive, I stashed it in my computer case as soon as I could and I can barely stand the thought of opening it. I stopped keeping the case under my bed and moved in into my locker. I know I’m being ridiculous, but the events of that night have me THAT freaked out about it. I don’t give a shit what that counselor says, bits of old cloth might fly around in a storm but they sure as shit don’t stand upright. ESPECIALLY with boots that no one has worn in-theater almost since the war began in ’03!

I want to let this all go, I really and truly do. I want nothing more than to forget this ever happened, go about the rest of the deployment without fucking up again, and move on with my life. Will that be possible as long as I’m in possession of this flash-drive, though?

1-DECEMBER-2008, F.O.B Warhorse, Iraq

I’ve managed to stay under the radar for a bit, but Top had me transferred to this hole-in-the-fucking-dirt Forward Observing Base. The food isn’t as nice, facilities for females are sketchy to the point of being non-existent, but he hasn’t yanked my rank, soooo… again, I can’t complain. I’m not here by myself, at least. One of the usual smoke-break crew is out here with me, Gerard’s friend, the new guy who didn’t say anything after we all found out about Parvis. He was a little stand-offish at first, but it turns out he’s a decent guy. This is also his second deployment, as well. I’m glad I’m not stuck out here with a bunch of noobs fresh out of A.I.T, the few young Soldiers who came out here with us seem to be adjusting well, for the most part. Sure, things get scary when indirect fire comes in, but they’ve been pretty lucky here in that there hasn’t been a whole lot of serious action at Warhorse.

It may be dull, but it may be just the reprieve I need to figure all of this out.

It took me a fair bit, but I finally worked up the nerve to dig out that flash-drive I found. It’s still sticky on the surface, still smells bad, too. My computer is an old piece-of-shit Compaq laptop, so if a virus fried it, I wouldn’t have been too bummed out about having to replace it like I’ve been meaning to do anyway. Every time I read the lettering on this thing, I swear it feels like it knows I’m holding it.

Fuck it, time to get this over with. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? Is a creepy Japanese bitch going to crawl out of my screen and attack me?

I plugged it into my computer, it read the drive just fine.

I ran quick virus-scan on it just to be sure, didn’t find anything.

Hmm, so far so good. No blue-screens or tentacles popping out.

Just three folders: Two with people’s names, probably personnel files, and a folder just marked with the Roman numerals signifying the number 6, a big bold VI.

The name on the first folder was Giles. It belonged to a Warrant Officer, an ordinary looking dude from somewhere on the coast of Massachusetts. Impressive record, for the most part: Time in Iraq and Afghanistan, did some consulting in Kuwait not long after 9/11, he had a Master’s degree and a super-ridiculously high security clearance. Should I be reading this or even talking about this guy? Damn, better not show this to CID…

The name on the second folder was Leveau. Another female Soldier, a rank of Specialist. Her record said she was from the outlying areas of New Orleans, but hadn’t lived there since Katrina. Her record mentioned something about her interest in the arts, she had some previous years of college but never finished. Nothing extraordinary or particularly attention-grabbing, and from the look of it not really a trouble-maker either, so what do the two have in common?

Are there some details in the third folder? The one designated VI?

Am I absolutely sure I want to open this?

Click.

There was one file in the folder, and ordinary .pdf document. Sure enough, it was an incident report dated from 2003. Apparently, these two were caught together in a rather… shall I just say, embarrassing manner. According to the report, no one is sure how long they were seeing each other, but Officers and Enlisted aren’t supposed to be that involved with each other according to the rules. Sure, this kind of thing happens sometimes, but was this really worth throwing into a pile of trash to be burned? The file said they they were both in the process of being officially legally processed, they were both detained and being held at…

…Joint Base Balad. Wait, what?

The file also said that before official proceedings could begin, they both escaped and committed suicide somewhere in an isolated area of J.B.B… near the burn-pit. The report was signed by Leveau’s Commanding Officer, an man named Major Summerfield.

Okay, THIS is what the fuss was about? A couple of lonely grown adults were caught fucking and killed themselves? The report didn’t explain any details about their alleged escape, nor the method used in their mutual self-termination. I can’t imagine that two people who had just been hailed off to jail would have access to their firearms so easily, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t shoot themselves.

Something’s not right about this, any of it.

As soon as I closed the report, another document emerged. I guess you have to read the first one before the other becomes active, but… that seems really silly. There was no visible icon, just the usual highlighted blue field and the text bearing only it’s name:

vae_victis

The second I saw it’s title, every nerve, muscle and instinct in my body was begging me, almost PLEADING WITH ME not to open it the file. The floor felt like it fell out from under me and I could have fallen into the depths of the Earth itself, and yet here it was plain as day right in front of my face. I became so tense that I was struggling to swallow, and nothing had even happened yet! I swear I could almost hear my brain yelling at me, “Don’t do it, don’t you dare fucking do it!”

Something else, though, despite my own best efforts to fight the urge, was compelling me. I held my breath for a second, closed my eyes and tried to gather myself. Surely, this is no more dangerous than anything else I’ve done out here so far, yes? As long as I’m in my room by myself, not out roaming around in the middle of the night making trouble… What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? I’ve gone through too much to just give up now.

Click.

There’s no sound, just a series of papers falling down flat in front of the camera. Like someone is dropping them within the frame on purpose, maybe someone wants me to read them. They look real enough, the sound of ruffled stacks of paper seemed authentic. The first paper that I could make out clearly read “Autopsy Report” at the top, it bore an Army insignia stamp at the top right-hand side. The smaller text was indecipherable, but the camera crept a bit closer. The next paper, presumably the next page, showed a few marginal comments and notes written on it. I couldn’t make out all of it, but some sections of the report were underlined with a thick pen with a small note next to it on the side, all ending with a giant question mark. The next page, the same thing, more notations and more question marks. The NEXT page, one big note scrawled at the bottom of it, “Suicide?”

The next page had a small photo clipped to it. The resolution on my screen wasn’t so good, but I instantly recognized what it was: Two dead Soldiers, a man and a woman.

Both wearing now out-dated, discontinued desert-cammo.

More papers, more somewhat pixelated images of the scene, the camera creeping ever slowly closer. More notes scrawled on the pages, “This can’t be correct,” more questions in the margins, this time with a red pen. The next page, a photo of the dead man. There’s so much blood soaked in through his shirt-collar I almost couldn’t make out his rank. It was the Warrant Officer, this must be Giles. A note at the bottom, “So, he bashed his OWN skull in?”

Next picture, the woman. She’s lying on her stomach with her head rolled to one side. Her hair is tied back, but very messed up like someone tried to pull it out. Her natural red hair is so matted up from dried blood and sand from the ground, it almost looks like one solid… thing, on her head. I can’t see her face clearly, there’s a huge dried-up stain from her blood soaking into the ground. Another note at the bottom, “Blunt trauma to the head from behind, no weapon found.”

The next photo, the expression on Giles’s face when they found him. Once blue eyes now clouded up to a pale grey, porcelain white skin spotted with his own dried up blood. The inside of his mouth was starting to turn blue, highlighting where a few of his teeth that had been knocked out.

The next photo, Leveau is rolled onto her back exposing the garish abrasion wound on her face: Something hit her so hard, it tore a massive section of skin right off and exposed the pulpy flesh of her entire cheek. I won’t be eating any meat for a while, not after seeing that.

Next photo, Giles’s body is covered in boot-prints, they vary in size.

Next photo, Leveau’s wrist was twisted so hard that it broke, flopped on it’s side like a dead fish.

There’s no way in Hell they did this to themselves.

The photos were coming slightly faster, there were no more notes on them. Just pictures of their battered, violated bodies. Photo after photo, details of horrific injuries and close ups of seemingly random features. Next photo, Giles’s clouded eyes framed by the darkening skin of his eye-lids. Next photo, Leveau’s mouth is propped open slightly to emphasize the extent of the wound on her face. Next photo, dried blood. Next photo, Leveau’s eyes. Next photo, Giles’s hand reaching for Leveau. Next photo…

Enough, PLEASE!

The second I went to close my lap-top, the next sequence of the video began: A conversation between six men, more Soldiers. All wearing the old desert-cammo. They were gathered around one standing in the center, a middle aged black man wearing an Officer’s rank patch. From his age and the coloration of the insignia, I’m guessing that he’s a Major. Is this Major Summerfield? The other five stood quietly while only one other spoke to him, the conversation was garbled and distorted. I could just make out a few words being said by the Soldiers, intermittent mention of “betrayal,” “Humiliating,” and the one that made my stomach tighten, but I’m all to familiar with, “SLUT!”

But what sickened me even more, was the expression on the Major’s face when that word came out of someone’s mouth. A cocked eyebrow, and then… a nod. The only words out of the Major’s mouth I could make out were “I’ve never liked doing paperwork on people.” He sighed, glancing down at the floor, “Let’s try something a bit more effective.”

I think I just realized something. I think I know what, more appropriately WHO, killed the two.

What am I still doing with this flash-drive? I should bring it to the MPs… wait, and tell them how I came about finding it? But I can’t just do nothing at all, and so I went to pull the drive from my laptop when my computer’s volume skyrocketed with anguished and panicked screaming. My screen went berserk flashing choppy footage of a man being forcibly restrained, getting kicked and stomped on. A woman, also forcibly restrained by two other men, being repeatedly punched in her face and abdomen.

I hit every key I could think of and nothing would happen, their screams were so loud that my laptop actually started to vibrate on my desk, each wet smacking sound actually made it move a little. Holy shit just stop! NO MORE! Jesus, this is fucking awful! I couldn’t power it down, I couldn’t make it stop, it just wouldn’t stop!

It didn’t want to, THEY didn’t want to.

They WANTED ME to see this.

Out of sheer panic, I started smashing my own laptop with the stock of my M-16. A few sparks and shards of plastic, but no more screams. No more fucked up photos of their corpses, no more back-room deals of vigilante violence, no… more…

I have to say something to someone. If I don’t, I’m probably going to lose my mind.

Turns out I didn’t have to, though.

The new guy, the quiet guy, had come to see me and I must not have heard him come in.

He startled me a bit, I was about to explain the situation when I noticed the tears in his eyes.

“I knew she didn’t kill herself.” He wept.

Is this shit ever going to stop?

28-DECEMBER-2008 F.O.B Warhorse, Iraq

I had been talking to the new guy, he was never exactly a new guy, he’d been in the Army for a while actually. At his highest rank, he was an E-6: Staff Sergeant. That was back in 2004. He knew SPC Leveau, they were in the same unit but in different Companies. They were classmates in A.I.T, they both arrived at their duty stations at the same time and both deployed to Iraq not long after the invasion.

They were friends.

He didn’t know Chief Giles all that well, he wasn’t officially attached to their mission but rather he would come by as something of a consultant for operations. He had no idea how Giles and Leveau met, but he knew that they were happy. Sure, Officers and Enlisted aren’t supposed to hook up… but who could blame two people for seeking some measure of warmth and comfort, some measure of sanity, in this sometimes Hellish place?

The only reason he knew about them seeing each other was because she confided in him, he said the smile on her face was enormous whenever she talked about him. New guy was married at the time, and thankfully NOT a douchebag, and so he didn’t pursue Leveau for a relationship and seemed genuinely happy that she had found someone.

Then she went off to meet him one night, and never returned.

The day she vanished, other Soldiers were looking mighty smug about something and a few were even giving each other high-fives. Leveau’s roommate, who supposedly was the one who turned them over to Major Summerfield, went on about lust and adultery being dreadful sins and that she needed to be “punished” for it. But according to the files, neither of them were married. Not to each other, not to anyone.

The military is full of Jesus-Freaks, some more zealous than others. I’d like to think that she didn’t know what she had actually done to them. In any case, Jesus doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who’d be down with murdering two people for being in love. Then again, there’s the entire Old Testament to consider…

For the rest of that deployment, Soldiers kept either dying or going nuts.

The first guy who died was ripped apart after a nasty explosion, even though he was the one standing farthest from the hidden road-side bomb when it detonated. The next guy was forcibly pulled out of a port-a-john after he had locked himself inside of it all night, and from the description he was built like Schwarzenegger. It took six MPs to drag him outside, all the while screaming “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Take it, take it YOU CAN HAVE IT!” as he had ripped off chunks of his own skin. Major Summerfield said it was drugs, he spent the rest of his life homeless before he eventually killed himself. The Jesus-Freak roommate was found face down in a pool of her own blood at the doors of the base chapel… figures. Her uniform was full of weird holes that looked like something punctured the fabric, but didn’t break her skin.

When I asked him how many, aside from the roommate, that either died or lost their minds, he hesitated for a moment.

“I think there were five.” He whimpered, “Six if you want to count the roommate, but they each went home either in straight-jackets or body bags.”

“Who was the big dude apologizing to? The one who was dragged out of the toilet?”

 He shook his head, “I had no idea at the time.”

“Had?” I asked, “Do you have one NOW?”

He nodded, the tears came back.

“Yes, Sergeant, I do.” And he pointed at the fucked up flash-drive. “Leveau had a deck of Tarot cards, I found her deck the day after she went missing. I had to grab something of hers before they guys came by and bagged her stuff up, I knew… I just knew that something awful had happened to her, but no one would say anything to me. It ate me up inside the entire time I was deployed, I eventually, well… gave Major Summerfield a piece of my mind on her disappearance and here I am now just an E-3. My wife left me after my demotion, I guess she loved the pay-grade more than she did me.”

“What did he look like?”

“Oh, black dude in his forties. Not very talkative unless he’s in the center-stage and hates doing paperwork.”

Hates doing paperwork, so it was him in the footage…

“Where is he now?”

He sighed, “Retired as a Colonel, didn’t deserve to. He lives in Florida with his second wife and step kids. After we came home from THAT shit-storm, he was transferred elsewhere. Leveau’s family kept writing him angry letters and e-mails, he never answered a single one.”

I can’t say I’m at all surprised. There are some “leaders” in the Army, Officers or NCOs, that want all of the attention and “respect” but not one ounce of responsibility. I see it every day, assholes like Parvis and probably thousands of others. This was starting to make sense now, everyone who got a card or a picture with a couple’s faces burned out of it were people in positions of authority. Had I known about this earlier in my career, I probably would have saved myself A LOT of trouble. I know, that’s not a nice thing to say, especially right now. I’m starting to not care anymore.

“Why a photo or The Lovers’ card? How did THAT start?” I asked him, hoping he wouldn’t know.

And that’s when he started choking up, his face turned red and his face began to twitch. With a gasp, he tried to regain his composure.

“Because I was the first one who did it.”

Did he really just say this? He started crying even harder.

“What… the fuck are you talking about?”

“I was just… After weeks of not seeing or hearing from Leveau, I got so upset. She loved Giles so much, she hated having to hide it but they didn’t have much of a choice. No one really CHOOSES who they love, so I can see why having to keep it a secret ate her up inside. One day I just kind of ‘accepted’ that I’d never see her again, and after all the horrifying shit I had been hearing about how their bodies were found, of course I was angry! I…”

His eyes went blank and he stared off into space for a second, after a strained gasp he regained his thoughts.

“I took out The Lovers’ card and burned out their faces, I knew they were dead. Nobody would tell me, they didn’t exactly have to at that point. I was angry, it was kinda my own way of expressing my anger about it. At first I blamed them for, well, leaving me. I blame Major Summerfield for ending their lives, ending THEM… and maybe this sounds selfish, but for taking my friend away from ME.” He stared at the floor, tears falling onto it in steady little streams. “Would it have been so hard for him to have just done his fucking job? Suck it up, write out the paperwork and send them both home? Kick them out? No, let’’s murder them instead! THAT’S PERFECTLY FINE!” He was so upset he was shouting, and starting to scare me a little.

“I have to ask,” I sank into my desk-chair a little, I was very scared, “What did you do with the card you burned?”

“Bible-bitch took it from me, snatched it right out of my hands. I told her to leave me the fuck alone, I just wanted to work this all out for myself, but… some nonsense about fortune-tellers and sin. She never gave it back to me, she never had the chance. They found her in a blood-puddle two days later. No witnesses, no fingerprints, no external wounds. Not a thing.”

He stood up, collected himself and made for the door.

“I think I have to go.”

He left.

That was the last thing he ever said to me. The last time anyone saw him was a week before Christmas at the post office, said he had a Christmas card he needed to mail out, then after he did so he went back into his room and decided to dine on his M-16.

The card he mailed out went to Major Summerfield.

The only reason we found this out is because his wife found his body in their backyard yesterday, according to an e-mail from Brigade. No strange sounds, no animal bites, no external wounds.

They found him in his favorite deck-chair in the covered porch, lying there in a bathrobe that had a bunch of holes in it, clutching a printed stock photo of a seemingly ordinary couple with both of their faces completely burned out.

7-JANUARY-2009 Camp Liberty, Iraq

Our operations at F.O.B Warhorse have been shut down until further notice, all of our personnel were given orders to leave a few days after the suicide. They rounded us up at this megaplex of a base in Baghdad, we have to report in for formations twice a day and no one is allowed to go anywhere alone. Top has gotten weird about people disappearing ever since our C.O died, but the events at Warhorse didn’t help things.

Presumably as a gesture of trust, Top put me in charge of a small group of Soldiers and told me to make sure they didn’t go anywhere they weren’t supposed to, “like the burn-pit.”

Yes, he actually said that.

Haha, First Sergeant made a funny joke.

I’ve barely slept a wink ever since I opened that flash-drive, which despite coughing up the money for a brand new laptop, I haven’t been able to re-open since. Every time I plug it in, it just comes up as being empty. I’d have the other I.T geeks take a crack at it, but… not sure if it’s worth torturing them with whatever the fuck this is. Or worse, getting them killed over it.

I’m up to a pack and a half a day, no matter what I eat it always tastes disgusting. I even tried going cold turkey for a few days to see if my cigs were messing with my sense of taste, no effect.

We’re not even a third of the way done with this deployment and everyone already seems at their wit’s end. This could very well be wishful thinking on behalf of some of the troops, but there’s talk of sending people home early, notably anyone directly affected by the recent deaths. I’m thinking of volunteering to go, but so far it’s just a rumor.

A few days ago, I went to the shoppette for some snacks and a book, some things to keep myself entertained until this whole thing blows over (assuming it ever will.) Every shoppette has an aisle or a display table full of home decor type stuff, items to give Soldiers a taste of home. This one had a few desk-top photo frames for sale, one model had token pre-printed images of a happy couple that came with them.

There were only three or four of these things left, the others barely look like anyone had touched them at all. I bought one. I haven’t done anything with it just yet, I might not do anything at all.

This may be a foolhardy assumption on my part, but I think that says something about the power of fear in a closed social system like the Army. People who feel crushed by the weight of administrative incompetence or authoritarian abuses that they reach the point of desperation. It makes perfect sense why people resort to destroying some of these top-heavy, brass-grabbing figureheads that they can’t otherwise reason with or work around, usually they wind up doing it Fort Hood style: In a closed society where everyone is presumed guilty of something, I guess the only true crime is being caught.

Just like Giles and Leveau.

I think I’m starting to understand not only why their spirits can’t seem to rest, but why they’ve taken to killing people who misuse their positions, just like Major Summerfield. However, they have to be… I can’t believe I’m about to seriously say this and believe it, but… summoned.

I get it. I understand now. And I don’t think I can blame them.

18-FEBRUARY-2009 Camp Liberty, Iraq

Word from back home is that SFC Parvis finally killed himself: After a few more incidents of attacking his team of doctors, they took to sedating him regularly. After about a week and a half of this, he took his bed-sheet and twisted it around his neck until he basically strangled himself to death. This is going to sound awful, but given my history with him as my supervising NCO, I’m having a difficult time feeling bad for the guy. Still, suicide is an agonizing death any way you slice it.

Which got me thinking, if HE got a photo and that dude who locked himself in the port-a-john… Those two both LIVED, at least for a time, so what did they do differently?

It took me a while, but I think I have an idea:

They apologized.

For the most part, nobody truly WANTS to die. I’ve seen Soldiers under fire ducking behind cars or any kind of cover they can find while pleading someone or something, anything, for forgiveness. About half the time they call out for their mothers, it’s a basic psychology thing. They realize their own mortality, so some of them feel a need to kind of… repent, beg forgiveness for mistakes made. I don’t believe in God, but I have to admit, having seen these two… beings, including what they’re capable of, my mind is open to possibilities.

I still have that cheap little photo frame, but I can’t bring myself to do anything with it.

That flash-drive still won’t work anymore, I don’t know why I bothered keeping it.

My request to be sent home with the other grieving Soldiers was denied. Either they genuinely need the power of my estrogen-infused presence, or they’re punishing me still for Gerard’s mishap and my little adventure at the Balad burn-pit. Whatever, I survived one tour in this shit-hole already, I’ll just have to find a way to survive this trip.

3-APRIL-2009 Camp Liberty, Iraq

Since when are random bands of bored NCOs not worth their rank-patches allowed to barge into random rooms and do health-and-welfare searches?!?! This cock-bite came banging on my door just as I was getting ready to leave for the next formation without saying who he is or who he’s with, then when I answer the door he just pushed right past me like I wasn’t even there! Two of his subordinates tried to grab me, I managed to Sparta-Kick one of them back out the door and then that’s when mr big-stuff FINALLY decided to tell me that my room is being searched for contraband. Hey, I’m a female Soldier with a room entirely to myself and for all I know someone with ulterior motives is trying to break in, what would YOU think?

He was searching my stuff for about an hour, ripped my room the fuck apart, all he found were my smokes and my vibrator. Hey, I’m an adult and I have needs, too… Then he stands at my doorstep looking out at me like he was disappointed that that was all he found. He wanted to confiscate my favorite toy, but I guess he didn’t care for my proposition of letting him borrow it as long as he washed it off before he gave it back.

After he huffed and threw it back into the room, he muttered something about having a talk with my First Sergeant, and walked off smoking MY CIGARETTES with his cronies like he owns the entire damp encampment.

Thanks for making me miss morning formation, ass-bag.

Don’t worry, Sergeant whoever-the-fuck-you-think-you-are…

I’ve SO got you.

I’ll have a little present waiting for you next time, after I finish cleaning this up I’m going to “wrap it for you” and you’d better hope to God I don’t find out where your office is before I leave it in your desk drawer.

I Googled what the phrase Vae Victis means, it is Latin after all. Basically it means “woe upon the vanquished.” Some barbarian conqueror first said it after his troops successfully sacked Rome and some of the aristocrats had the gall to come crying to him about it.

I guess that was his way of saying “Fuck you and your fucking city, you fucking lost so GET OVER IT!”

Well fuck you, too, buddy.

Vae fucking Victis!

10-APRIL-2009 Camp Liberty, Iraq

Top swears up and down that no one matching the description I gave him came to see him, but that a few other female Soldiers within the Company came to him voicing similar complaints. Unfortunately, none of them thought to get his name. I’m hoping that none of them were injured in the process, guys like that can be… dangerous. Many of the girls have requested new living arrangements because they’re scared, I don’t blame them at all. Top said he’ll look into it, but it might be a while.

I told him I could make room for one in my quarters, he said he’ll think about it.

It’s been a few days and this guy hasn’t come back, which is good because the last thing I need is one more reason to lose precious sleep, which I’m still be rely able to do still. When there aren’t bombs or rockets being thrown over the wire at us, I swear I’m still hearing those sickening screams in my head. Sergeant Douchebag who ransacked my room seemed to have completely missed the flash-drive as well as the then unused photo frame.

So yeah, I took the liberty of modifying the couple’s picture for him as a little “welcome back gift.” Or maybe I can’t just hand it to him, maybe he needs to find it? If so, I need to either find out where his Area of Operation is and make sure he gets it, or just stuff it somewhere in my room until he comes back. IF he comes back.

I feel like I’m sitting right on top of an IED, I still can’t believe I actually MADE ONE OF THESE! What am I supposed to do with it if I never see him again? Should I burn it? Maybe I should just take it outside and burn it right now… or will that just make something else happen? How do I know that they won’t just come after ME? I’m not so sure I want to encounter those two again, even though they didn’t physically hurt me the first time around, or the second, I probably should have thought about that before I burned the faces out of that stock-photo.

I was pretty pissed off when I did it, too. Maybe it needs the rage in order to work, maybe they feed of off it and use it to kill their victims.

I don’t know, I’m not sure that I WANT to know anymore.

I just want to go home.

17-MAY-2009 Camp Buehring, Kuwait

I can’t find it!

A few days after our re-deployment briefing, I was packing up my stuff to make my way out of this awful place. I’m certain that I packed it with my personal stuff, I checked on it daily! I kept it face-down with some of my books, and now I CAN’T FIND IT ANYWHERE!

What if someone else finds it and they die? Will… THEY kill an innocent person? Can they tell the difference between an asshole and an ordinary guy? I already know that they can operate outside of the Middle East when Summerfield got what he had coming, but … can they follow people? If so, I think I’ve drawn their attention plenty already.

Why do I feel like that IED I’ve been sitting on, waiting until that bastard came back, is about to go off?

I’ve been trying to keep myself distracted until it turns up. The others like to go off to the USO to play video games, but I just don’t feel like going anywhere. The last thing I want to do is play Call Of Duty with a bunch of macho meat-heads, for many of them that’s the closest they’ll ever come to seeing actual combat. Psh… then they have the nerve to go on about women not being able to hack it in the Army.

I’m too tired and too fucked up in the head right now to argue about it, I haven’t slept a wink since we got to Kuwait. It’s probably the sleep-deprivation, but I’m seeing shit out of the corners of my eyes and I swear on my life, it looks like flashes of old desert-cammo.

I’ve been trying to keep my mind occupied by reading books and playing games on my new laptop, I have a SNES emulator and some games that I used to play as a girl. I’m trying to kill the dread that keeps creeping up in my mind with cutesy shit like Mario and crappy Disney games, but it doesn’t seem to work. One minute I’m playing the old Sim City on my computer, the next, I see my old C.O on the screen, being repeatedly assailed by two pale figures, thrusting their hands… right into him. Right THROUGH his uniform… and inside his writhing body.

One time I was checking my e-mail, I was interrupted by two pairs of clouded eyes staring back at me, INTO me… followed by a blue-screen.

I have to find that picture, A.S.A.P.

20-MAY-2009 Camp Buehring, Kuwait

I still can’t find the picture.

I’ve been ordered to go to the clinic on the other side of camp. Apparently, I struck a Soldier who was trying to wake me for PT. I don’t remember doing it, and I apologized to him, he said he thought I was having a nightmare, but… so yeah, they gave me some valium.

I’m still afraid, even though I know I’m going home soon.

Valium doesn’t make you happy or sane, it just makes you not care anymore.

1-JUNE-2009 Camp Buehring, Kuwait

We’re getting on the plane tomorrow, thank God.

I can hear two people walking around the tents at night.

Everything I touch feels sticky.

I’ve gotta find that photo and get the fuck outta here!

2-JUNE-2009 Rammstein Air Force Base, Germany

I brought my assault-pack with me on the plane and took it into the bathroom during our re-fuel stop here in Germany, my pills are in there.

I went into the ladies’ room within the holding area to go take a piss followed by my meds.

You’re never going to believe what I found at the bottom of the main compartment.

Please, please whatever MP or CID guy reading this… don’t open that flash-drive! I don’t care who orders you to do it, don’t… fucking… open it. A Courts-Martial will be nothing compared to what they’ll do

CID Report: 3rd of June, 2009.

Deceased is a 28 year old caucasian female, rank of Sergeant (E-5) returning home from a particularly difficult deployment in Iraq. Other Soldiers describe the victim as bull-headed and mischievous, but an otherwise decent NCO who started showing signs of mental distress after the deaths of two people in the Company while deployed. Both deaths were ruled non-combat related, one an alleged homicide with no conclusive evidence as to what happened.

Body was found when a Soldier was sent to retrieve her well after boarding call. No screams were heard, so signs of a struggle have been observed, witnesses don’t recall anyone following her to the restroom. It should also be noted that the entire restroom surfaces, especially around the body, are sticky to the touch and there’s an almost overwhelming odor of burnt trash. Soldier’s supervising NCO told a story of a mishap at a burn-pit site in Iraq.

Victim’s uniform is full of hand-sized puncture-holes but there are no external wounds on the body itself. Bluing of the skin around the abdomen and noticeable amounts of blood emitted from her mouth, nose and ears, indicate massive internal injuries.

Found among the deceased: An assault pack full of books, a computer and some personal hygiene items. A photograph was found face down with the body, a paper image of a man and woman in an embrace, but their faces appear to have been burnt out with a lighter (victim appears to have been a heavy smoker.)

Aside from a hastily written journal entry, which has already been bagged for evidence, only one other object of interest was found among the deceased’s belongings.

A slightly damaged flash-drive with some Latin words written on it in place of a label:

“Vae Victis.”

Credit To – Egodram

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The Apollo Inventus

July 27, 2014 at 12:00 PM
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I hope to God, that this is the right thing to do. This is what he told us to do. This is the precaution he told us to take. That’s what I’ll tell myself to help me sleep at night.

***

The following is the main body of the transcription of the Apollo Inventus flightcrew personal communications as recorded on the Personal Data Storage Device (PDSD). Collected tapes containing voice recorded ground elapsed time (GET) were forwarded to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas after retrieval. Transcription of these tapes was managed by my peers at Test Division, New Apollo Spacecraft Program Office.

The Apollo Inventus mission was flown December 17, 2009 and its status is still currently under evaluation [June 17, 2014].

Communicators in the text are identified as follows:

CDR Commander Padraig F. Dennison

00 00 00 24

“You lied to me. You’ve been lying to us all. You sent me up here thinking you knew what it was. You sent me here as your goddamned guinea pig. You knew I’d die up here, but I won’t; I can’t. It’ll never let me die. It told me that. It told me everything. It told me what you know about it, and what you think it is. You were so wrong. You’ve sent me to hell without realizing, and it’ll keep me here forever; for eternity. I’m a prisoner, like you. This is happening because we broke the rules; the ancient rules set out by its ancestors. The rules are just for us, and we’re not supposed to understand them. We’re meant to obey them; we’re meant to die by them. It wants to contain our cancer, before we spread it. It knows what happens. It wants me to tell you, so you never try anything like this again. This isn’t what we’re supposed to do. This isn’t for us, it never will be. It’s important you understand that you can never come back here again. It’s important that you understand why that is.”

00 00 01 32

“I first became aware of extreme disorder about 4 hours after touching down at Autumn Base, and it was about 12:50 am on the monitor when the first incident started to occur. I spent the first 3 hours after touching down trying to re-establish communications with Houston, but it is my guess now that I was just being ignored. I was preparing tools and finishing the final calibrations and I had just put my suit and helmet on. I was about to leave the Inventus to conduct the geological tests outlined in my brief when I noticed that outside the craft, through the port hole on the exit latch, there was a dense layer of dust, hovering in a kind of stasis off the ground. This was at about 12:52 am. It was like a sandstorm, except everything was still. Then everything got dark, like a thick fog had rolled in, and then the tremors started. It was like the ground had a pulse and it rattled the shuttle violently, at intervals, maybe 2 seconds in between. There was a noise, too. It was like something was resonating through me from the ground, a kind of low humming noise, and it got louder and louder until it was like it was coming from inside my own skull. And then I saw him.”

00 00 02 15

“I watched his head come into view in the porthole gradually, as he climbed the last few steps on the ladder up to the hatch, and then he just watched me. I watched him back through the window; hoping to God It was some sort of hallucination. I tried to see his face, but I couldn’t see into his helmet through his dark visor and the mist. Then he brought a rock over his head, and began beating the porthole window with it. Between that and the tremors, I didn’t know what to do. What could I have done? They don’t prepare you for that kind of stuff in training. The first thing I did do was try to wake myself up, but obviously I wasn’t dreaming. I was terrified the tremors or the astronaut would cause some sort of irreversible damage to the shuttle, so I tried to take off; I tried to abandon my mission; I tried to get out of there. When I went to set up for lift off I noticed the banging on the window stop. When I turned to see what was happening at that point, there was a sudden, stronger, deeper movement in the ground. And then everything went black.”

00 00 03 12

“I wasn’t sure how long I’d been out for, but my oxygen gauge was telling me I’d used about 70% of my reserve; I don’t remember exactly how much. I woke up outside the shuttle, on the Moon’s surface, about 50 meters away from where I’d landed. That was my first time ever stepping foot on the Moon. I had no idea what was happening. I still didn’t know at that point whether I was hallucinating, or whether I was imagining things, or I don’t know what. The tremors had stopped and it seemed the dust and rocks had settled back on the surface while I was unconscious. The mist was gone too, and that humming noise. It was as if nothing had happened; just dead silence. I spotted the Inventus in the distance and started making my way towards it. Then as I got closer, I noticed a strange rock between myself and it. It was paler than the rest and longer too. Looking at it, it was noticeably distinctive from everything else; lying kind of skew-ways and lumpy. Then I saw it wasn’t a rock at all. It was the man, the astronaut from before. I stopped and watched. I tried to get a grasp on reality. I figured it couldn’t be real; what I was experiencing, but he stayed lying right there, motionless. And then he started to get up. He got up slowly, stopping on all-fours for a while, before getting completely to his feet. Then he started on his way back to the shuttle.”

00 00 04 18

“I kept about a 10 meter distance from him up to the ladder. When he got to it he started doing what I was hoping he wouldn’t do. He climbed it, halfway, and reached to the entrance latch. Then he got back down and lifted another rock. That’s when It happened the second time. The dust and rocks rose off the surface for as far as I could see. The deep pulse in the ground started beating again and that thick, dark fog just kind of materialized. I could barely see 5 meters in front of me. And that sound too, but it wasn’t really a sound. It couldn’t have been a sound. It was as if it was originating inside me; like it was vibrating through me. I could feel the hum in every inch of my body, and it got gradually louder. The astronaut seemed as concerned as I was. He got back up the ladder and started trying to break through the porthole again. My fear of being stranded out here gravely outweighed the fear of the astronaut, so I went after him.”

00 00 04 45

“When I got to the bottom of the Inventus’ ladder I reached up and wrapped my arms around the man’s suit, and with my body weight I dragged him off the and onto the ground. In a kind of desperate attempt, he swung at me with his rock hand. It struck my elbow that I had raised to it and I took that as my opportunity. I managed to prise the rock from his grip – I remember it being pretty weak – and then he stumbled back and took a moment to what looked to me like he was trying to catch his breath. He just stood there silently, kind of leaning forward a bit. That didn’t tell me much at the time. I stood there for a second too, as the adrenaline peaked, just looking at him in confusion, and fear. I was trying to see into his helmet, to see who he was… or what he was. Then he started coming towards me again, slowly, but intently. I put my boot out and planted it into the stomach of his suit, just to keep him back, but his legs folded and he landed face down in the dust. I watched to see if he was going to get back up, but he didn’t. Then my gauge pinged again. I had very little oxygen left in my tank at that point. I had to get inside the shuttle; I knew it was my only hope of getting out of that mess, whatever grossly underestimated mess I thought I was in at the time. I turned and put my boot on the first step of the ladder. I could see the man behind me in the reflection of the Inventus. I turned around to look at him one more time, before I climbed the ladder to the hatch; I don’t know why. He was sitting upright, his arms limp at his sides, staring at me through his dark visor, but there was something different about him that time. Then the ground gave that same, sudden grinding movement… of monumental proportion, and everything went black again.”

00 00 06 01

“I woke again on the ground outside the shuttle. My eyes burned and my ears were ringing. I had to fight with all my strength to not vomit inside my own helmet; I felt like I’d been brought back from the dead. I lay there until I could think straight, and then I noticed my gauge had been pinging while I was unconscious. I saw that my oxygen levels were critical. That was when panic started to really set in. I got up slowly so I wouldn’t pass out and spotted the shuttle about 30 meters away. I was so desperate to get back in there. I was desperate for oxygen… and to get away from this place. It was obvious something unprecedented was happening, even though I didn’t know what exactly. I had to get back before the tremors started again, and the fog, and the blackouts. I knew I was in a terrible situation, but I had no idea how bad it really was; how bad it was for all of us. I got to the shuttle eventually. There were moments I thought I would pass out, but I managed to get there. It was getting harder and harder to draw breaths and my head was getting hot. I climbed the ladder halfway and checked the entrance latch. It was locked. ‘The man’, I thought; ‘The man was using a rock, that’s the only way to get in’. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was desperate. I had my mind on the oxygen reserves inside; I had my mind on my family, on home.”

00 00 07 05

“This was meant to be a textbook mission. I mean… I was meant to come home! When I asked why it wasn’t going to be public, you told me it was for security reasons, and other reasons that weren’t relevant to me. I trusted you; why shouldn’t I have? I put my faith in all of you. I knew it was important, I understood that I was doing something that others couldn’t know about, but you kept so much from me. I put my life in your hands and you threw it away like it was nothing, and for what? You manipulated me. You threw me to the wolves. I wanted a story to tell, but not like this. I want to go home. This can’t happen to me… why did you let this happen to me?” [Sobbing and uncomprehend-able muttering from Captain Padraig F. Dennison until 00 00 14 19]

00 00 14 30

“After remembering the astronaut while standing at the locked hatch, I remember getting dizzy. I got off the ladder and found the easiest rock to carry, like I had seen him do, and then everything lifted off the ground again.”

00 00 14 42

“The rocks and dirt just hung there motionless like before. The fog materialized and everything got dark… and hazy. The hum started vibrating through me, louder and louder, and the surface started to pulse; that same primal series of beating coming from deep inside its core. The thought did cross my mind at the time, that it was as if it was alive. I got back onto the ladder, trying my best to hold on; the tremors were rocking the shuttle intensely now. Then I got to the top. I got to the hatch and looked through the porthole, and I saw myself. Not like a reflection, like a man inside the shuttle, only it was me. He stood there in his suit and helmet and just returned the stare. I saw the oxygen tanks on the racks to his left, and the screen that read 12:53 am to his right. I could see what was happening now; it had happened already before. I was not able to breathe at that point, and the pinging from my gauge was deafening. My tanks were empty. I held my last breath and with the rock I started hitting the window. I was trying to break it; there’s an emergency release on the other side, but then something grabbed hold of me around my waist. It was the same man as before. It was me. He pulled us off the ladder, away from the latch; away from the oxygen, and onto the ground. My chest burned, I couldn’t hold it any longer. I swung at him with the rock but he easily blocked it. Then he took it from me. I felt the blood rush from my head. My eyes leaked tears into the helmet and my vision spun. I stumbled forwards and felt him kick the last breath out of my lungs.”

00 00 15 56

“I lay there flat on my stomach, in agony. My eyes felt like they were going to pop, and my chest was clenching up so hard I thought it would burst. I felt its pulse rattle my helmet at 2 or 3 second intervals. The humming noise got louder and louder until I felt like it was shivering against my soul. My vision faded and I felt my life stutter. I felt it leak out of the cracks in my broken spirit. I felt it with every convulsion, and then it spoke to me.”

00 00 16 22

“It spoke to me without words, but I understood. It was instantaneous, like a flash, but less than that. All at once it told me. It flooded me with its knowledge, its evil, and it was terrifying. It’s not a God, but it is a creator. It’s a creator AND a destroyer; a manipulator. It’s an observer, an instigator. It’s our mother and our father, but it’s not our friend. Its nature is insidious. You lied to me. You’ve been lying to us all. There’s no flag up here. There are no footsteps, or milestones; I was the first. We have no history up here, we have no right to. You had no right to come here at all. It wanted to show me, so I could tell you. It wants to send a message. There are rules that you don’t understand. Rules that are beyond what we will ever be capable of understanding. But you need to know they’re there. The Earth is our prison; a cage. IT is our warden. That’s why it floats up here, watching us. You weren’t meant to leave. You’re never meant to leave! This is our punishment, and has been since germs turned to fish. You knew it was alive. You were trying to contact it. You fools. You sent me here to poke it, to see if it was awake. You thought maybe it could help us; it will help you die alone on your miserable blue sphere, away from the rest of the universe.”

00 00 17 52

“You’ll come back for my tapes, you’ll want them. It wants you to have them. A group of you will go public with them shortly after the investigation, and leak it all. This will trigger a series of events that will lead to the end of man. It will decide to speed up this process when it begins, and then it will take all of you as well, to where I’m going shortly. I hope we do burn together some day. It knows everything from now until the end, and now I do too. You need to destroy these tapes, discredit the transcripts. Do this by any means necessary before they can be leaked to the public. Make it so that nobody will ever believe their authenticity; it’s the only way. Then you need to leave this place alone. It will keep me forever, as a reminder to you. I don’t need food or air anymore; I’ll never die. It did this to me; YOU did this to me. There’s nothing for you here anymore. This place has a deep, dark evil living inside of it. It’s alive; it’s conscious. Please, never come back. Never leave Earth again.”

00 00 18 54

“At this present moment I’m just lying here recording this message, waiting for it to send me away. It brought me back from the edge just as I was about to die. It filled my lungs with air, and I almost choked on it, like I’d forgotten what it was. Soon I won’t need it anymore; I know that it’s only temporary. My eyesight and hearing came back almost immediately. Its pulse deep inside the core still rattled my helmet, and the hum still resonated inside my skull. I sat up slowly, through the floating layer of dust and saw the Inventus and the man on the ladder. I knew exactly how it would happen; it had happened already before. He climbed the last two steps and turned back to look at me through the layer of floating debris. Then the ground tensed and heaved, and they were gone.”

Notes:

Recording stays active after the speaker has finished until 00 00 27 53 before being manually terminated by the speaker. The sound recorded during this period mainly consists of the speakers breathing and sobbing. A snippet of an adult male’s voice can be heard just before the recordings termination. The location of Captain Padraig F. Dennison by his own account during the period of time which he records these messages would have made it impossible for noise outside of his space suit to be picked up by his Personal Data Storage Device (PDSD). The voice heard in that snippet has been confirmed to not belong to Captain Padraig F. Dennison.

It should also be noted that during the retrieval mission conducted by the Apollo Memory, no trace of the Apollo Inventus shuttle was found at Autumn Base in relation to where Captain Padraig F. Dennison’s suit was found and where he claimed to be speaking from in the recordings. Captain Padraig F. Dennison’s space suit was found in close proximity to Autumn Base and the tapes were collected from there. Captain Padraig F. Dennison’s body, however, was missing from the suit and was never located by the flightcrew of Apollo Memory. The crew reported that Captain Padraig F. Dennison’s space suit was completely intact on inspection, but that the lunar surface area where it was found on appeared to have suffered extensive burn damage in a 3 meter radius from an unidentified source.

***

I am still gravely unsure as to whether or not I am leaking this, or discrediting it. What I am certain of however, is that regardless of whether or not it comes for us, I will burn with Padraig F. Dennison someday for what I’ve done to him, along with everyone else directly involved in the Apollo Inventus mission. I feel that I may be joining him a lot sooner than I had previously anticipated.

Forgive me please, if I’ve damned us all. Forgive me, Padraig F. Dennison.

Credit To – Coffeey

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Nobody Lived In Flat Number Six

July 26, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Nobody lived in flat number six. As far as we were aware, it was empty. The date was October 1992 and my wife and I had moved in almost two months ago. We had bought flat number five, and were quite content to live in it – it was a neat, cosy little apartment with a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom, and one room which merged the living and dining spaces.

Not to mention, it came cheap and was only a ten minute walk from the train station. Sure, the wallpaper was a little fuddy-duddy, and the kitchen designing was a little seventies, but with a bit of paintwork and a few trips to the furniture store, we would hopefully make it work.

The little outer London neighbourhood was appealing, too. It was the kind of idyllic suburban places where there is enough traffic on the streets to reassure you that you aren’t in the middle of nowhere, and there is little enough traffic to let you get to sleep soundly. The high street had everything, too – a doctor’s surgery, an optician’s, a dentist, and a Tesco supermarket.

At any rate, we were feeling nicely settled in by the end of two months, and had high expectations of our new life in England. You see, we came over from the States, and in spite of the fact that the English speak the same language as Americans, there were aspects of living over there that were entirely alien to us. It was home, but yet it wasn’t quite home.

The weather was also something of an issue – not a disappointment, though, as we had had a great deal of forewarning about the clouds and the rain that fill England’s skies in the autumn and most times of the year.

Perhaps now I should turn the focus back to our new home. Ours was number five out of six flats which belonged to a tidy apartment block with the name ‘Gretel Cottage.’ It was situated midway along a street which held a mix of detached houses, blocks of flats, and even a few guesthouses.

Gretel Cottage had three levels to it: on the ground floor the hallway led to flat 1 on one side and flat 2 on the other, on the first floor flat 3 shared the landing with flat 4, and likewise flat 5 shared the second floor’s landing with, well – with flat 6. There were no other levels.

In our first week there, we had taken time to get to know the residents of the other flats – rather, they had taken their time to come upstairs and greet us. They were a friendly lot, for the most part.

There was a Ms. Miggins in number 4, a Mr. Smith in number 3, a Frenchwoman in number 1, and one other fellow in number 2. Remarkably, not one of them could have been younger than sixty-five. I was twenty-four and my wife twenty-five. Yes, I guess we did feel a little out of key with our neighbours. They never seemed to go out unless for groceries, and that seldom. We went out daily.

More remarkably yet, not one of them didn’t live alone – widowed or divorced. I suppose it’s a lonely time, old age – you get the feeling that nobody wants to talk to you, you feel detached from your loved ones.

Back in our apartment in Ohio, literally all of our neighbours had been young couples or families. There had been a great deal of noise over there: we heard children’s shoes bumping along down hallways and a great deal of both grown-up and children’s laughter. Sometimes we even heard quarrels, and parents scolding their children – and of course that meant very loud crying. But we had been surrounded by life and youth, and the place had seemed brighter and cheerier.

Gretel Cottage was different. It was nice and quiet – so quiet that sometimes it felt lifeless. Perhaps the dreary weather added to it, but the lack of sound gave the building a subtle lonesome feel about it. It was sad, in a way. Actually it was a bit eerie.

The good thing was that we spent less time at home than we did outside. We both worked the standard nine-to-five office jobs in the inner city, and returned home at about seven. As for weekends, we went out pretty much all day, both days, and came back at times ranging from six thirty to beyond midnight. When home, we were either watching the telly, making dinner, or simply unwinding. Sometimes we went to the gym. Sometimes to the cinema. Sometimes we just sat and talked and talked and talked. We had a good time, I’ll admit.

And then there was flat six. There was nothing immediately remarkable about it – it had an oaken door and front porch identical to all the others, with a knocker and a bell and a bristly brown doormat. A brass ‘six’ was fixed into the middle with nails. Nobody had opened that door to greet us on our arrival, and after a week of seeing not a thing go in or out, we assumed that the flat was empty. And what could be wrong with that? Nothing, right? Well – I know it sounds childish coming from a man of my age, but there’s something very slightly unnerving about an empty house. I’m sure you’ve all had a house on your street with no dwellers in it, and I’d bet many of you sometimes got the chills when you walked by it in the evening. Come on – admit it, empty, abandoned houses are creepy.

Well, with flat six, it was like that but… different – worse. All day and all night the empty flat was literally on the doorstep of our home. When we opened our front door to leave in the morning, that ominous door stood in wait for us, looming. When we returned home, we would turn the key in the lock and know that the dreaded door was behind us. Imagination would make us wonder ‘what’s in that flat?’ and ‘what if it opens right now and comes out?’

Alright, fair enough – that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It wasn’t really that bad – just a little weird, that’s all. And I’m ashamed to tell you this, but when I said ‘we’ and ‘us,’ I ought to have said ‘I and ‘me’ because to be honest with you, my wife didn’t feel in the least put off by flat six.

Yes – yes, I know. It’s shameful, I’m a jumpy, nervous sissy – I admit it. We had different teenage years: she went out and saw all the horror films she could, while I saw few enough as to get the creepy side of my mind working but not enough to dampen my imagination. We still went out for a scary one now and again, but I was never the one who suggested it.

Now that I’ve given you more than enough background knowledge on myself and my life at the time, and now that you have an idea of how brave a man I am, I should probably hurry up and tell you about some of the things that happened in late October 1992.

Nothing truly weird took place until the postman came one Monday. I remember I was sitting at the table with a plate of half-finished scrambled eggs, a cup of tea, and watching the BBC News. There was a scuffling of paper being shoved through the letterbox, and the damp clank as it fell shut. My wife was back in a moment with two letters. One of them, she explained, was an advert from some insurance company, and the other was a bill. She left them on the table and we returned to breakfast and the news. So far, so good.

Then a few minutes later we tidied up, switched off the television, and stepped outside. Something struck me as off as soon as we locked the door behind us. It hit me in a second – there was an envelope lying on the doormat of flat number six. My eyes searched the door and I noticed that there was no letterbox – or, rather, that the letterbox had been boarded up. I didn’t need to point out the envelope to my wife – you couldn’t miss it; a neat white rectangle, yellowish at the edges, sitting unobtrusively on the doormat. She gave a puzzled frown, looked curiously at it for a while, and then made a start as if to go and look at it. I caught her by the arm immediately, for some reason.

“What’s up?” she asked, even more surprised by my reaction than by the envelope.

“Don’t –“I began, clearing my throat and not letting go of her nor letting the envelope out of my sight, “Leave it.”

She looked at me with a kind of pitying smile, shook her head, and told me that I was being silly – but she listened, thankfully, she listened. I sighed and thanked her; I just didn’t want her to go anywhere near the letter, it didn’t feel right.

I got a strange call that day at work, during my lunch hour. I had just finished my smoked salmon sandwich, and was about to tuck in to a cookie when my phone began to ring. It wasn’t unexpected or anything, because I get calls all the time when I’m at work from colleagues. It wasn’t a colleague – I could tell as much.

“Hello? Who’s this?” I asked quite clearly, but all I could hear was the crackly hiss that you hear in the background of a call.

“Hello? Hello?” I asked.

Then I can swear I heard laughter – a kind of gleeful snigger, as if it might be some teenager prank-calling me. But I was not sure if it was a teenager; it sounded old – kind of weird. I was a little weirded out, so I hung up and checked the number. Strangely enough, the number was very similar to the number of our flat, but two digits were different. “I guess it’s a neighbour or something – maybe the estate agent.” I told myself that, but I wasn’t so sure. The estate agent wouldn’t have laughed at me like that.

Then something else weird happened. I got home before my wife, and was just turning the key in the lock when something made me look back. The envelope on the doorstep of number 6 – it was gone. I stared hard at the door for a while, and it seemed to stare back at me. My imagination threatened to scare me, so I opened the door to my own flat as quick as I could, and shut it behind me. I remember I felt a little anxious for my wife to get back soon. Something about the letter being gone had me creeped out – somebody was living in flat number six, and they had come out to pick up the envelope while I had been away.

I turned on the TV and made myself a quick cup of tea, sitting, brooding, and not really watching the screen as I waited for my wife’s return. When she came back, I told her to wait in the flat while I checked something outside. It was pretty abrupt and unexplained, but she waited while I ran down the stairs and out of the building to check the windows of flat number six. I saw that the curtains were drawn, and the panes had been in need of a clean for ages. When I got back to the flat, my wife had also noticed the absence of the letter. She was standing just at our doorway, and pointing at the doormat of flat six. “Have you seen-?” “Yeah I know,” I butted in, “there’s somebody there – I’m pretty sure there is.”

She strode up to the door of number six, and was about to ring the bell when I cried out to her, “Don’t do it!” “What’s up with you, Matt?” she looked at me in a slightly concerned way, and then raised a hand to ring the doorbell. “Please don’t – I don’t like it!” I protested like a child. “I seriously don’t get you sometimes,” she shook her head, “this is stupid – I’m going to ring it.” And she did. We listened, her calm and ready to greet whomever it was, and me tense and not sure if I wanted to meet them. As I had half-expected, nobody answered or even seemed to move inside the house. If the whole envelope incident hadn’t taken place, then we would have been convinced it was empty.

“What the hell? There’s nobody there – I suppose they’re out.” My wife assumed that in her realistic, matter-of-fact way. “Out?” I protested, “They’ve never been out as long as we’ve been here. There’s somebody there, alright, but it’s some kind of antisocial weirdo. Either that, or they just died a while after they picked up the letter!” I don’t know why I said the last bit, but it got me even more freaked out.

“Maybe, Matt,” my wife began, as we made our way back into our own flat, and as she turned the living-room light on, “maybe there’s nobody there, and the caretaker simply picked up the letter as it hadn’t been taken.” I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced, but that was fine with me – I liked that explanation a lot more, so we stuck with it and ate dinner. “Oh, and by the way,” my wife asked me later, as we got into bed, “did you get a call today at about two o’clock?” “Yeah – a weird one, with some guy laughing?” “Yeah… I got something like that too.” “You did? Who do you reckon it was – not many people here have our numbers, you know.” “I’m not sure. I expect it was the estate agent’s kids playing pranks – maybe got our numbers off their dad’s phone.” I agreed, but I didn’t stop thinking about that until I fell asleep. I dreamt about flat six, that night. I dreamt that I opened the door to it, and could only see pitch darkness inside. I dreamt that I listened in, and heard that same sniggering laughter coming from somewhere in the darkness.

On Tuesday night, I came home to find that I had forgotten my keys, and that my phone had run out of battery. You can imagine how frustrated I was when I found that my wife was not home, and that I had to wait on the landing for her to get back and open the door. You can imagine how anxious I grew when she wasn’t back an hour after the usual time, and I couldn’t get through to her. And I bet you can imagine how uneasy I got as I sat on the landing, within three yards of the door to flat number six. You know when you’re alone and vulnerable to getting spooked, you seem to think of the last things you would like to spring to mind when you’re feeling tense. Last night’s dream, for instance, kept playing upon my mind and I thought that at any moment the door to number six would burst open and something would come out and see me, and I would see it. Clearly, my wife was trying to get through to me, as I could hear the telephone ringing inside our apartment – she expected that I had got home. I was glad that she was alright, and able to ring me, but it made me nervous to think that she was probably getting anxious about me as well.

Then I looked at flat number six’s door again, and I could swear I heard a ‘click’, a tiny noise, come from somewhere inside that apartment. I frowned and listened closely, but didn’t hear anything else.

After that, I went outside to escape that dreaded landing for a while – she still wasn’t back and it was nine-thirty. Heavy rain started, and forced me back inside and up to the landing. I was almost considering asking a neighbour for a phone to call her (yes, at that time of night), but to my great relief, at a little after ten o’clock, she came up the steps to the landing and was startled to see me slumped on the floor outside the door. “Thank goodness, I was getting worried about you, where have you been?” I got up and spoke rapidly, catching my breath. “My colleague offered to drive me home – but the traffic was horrendous out there. I tried to call your mobile, but it’s out of battery, isn’t it? What about you? Why aren’t you inside?” I explained apologetically that I must have forgotten the keys inside the apartment in the morning.

She sighed, unlocked the door, and we stepped in. While I searched for my keys (they were strangely not on the key hook), my wife turned on the lights and I heard her gasp a little at the answer machine. “Look how many missed calls there are on the telephone!” “Yeah – you must have been calling me non-stop,” I told her, “I only called you twice on the home phone – there are like six missed calls, and – hang on. Come over here.” “What is it?” I hurried to see what had put the worried expression on her face. I looked at the numbers for the missed calls: two of them were my wife’s mobile phone number, and the other four numbers were the same number. “It’s the same number as those weird prank-calls we got yesterday,” she seemed now more irritated than nervous, “goddamn kids!” She deleted the missed calls, and we went to bed without dinner (it was a bit late, and we were both exhausted). I never found those missing keys.

Wednesday was worse. I got more calls from that number, but the hoarse, unfriendly voice at the other end was saying things now. I was shocked – intimidated, even – by what I was hearing. The voice was saying the vilest things, talking about rape, murder, and using pretty much every swearword in the book. The thing that really got me scared about the calls were how much the person at the other end seemed to know about us – he knew my name, my wife’s name, and that we were from the states, as he referred to us as ‘filthy yanks’ more than once. I made up my mind to report this fellow at some point, and as I was on my bus home, I blocked his number. There was peace for a while. And then – just when I thought I wouldn’t hear any more from that nasty, irritating sonofabitch, my phone rang again. I was amazed to see what I thought was the same goddamn number calling, but then I realised that it was not that number. It was OUR number. Somebody was calling me from my own home. I picked up and asked frantically if it was my wife at the other end. That ominous crackling sound followed, then that same mocking, sniggering laughter. It took me a few seconds to register how serious the situation was, and when I did, I almost vomited with anxiety.

I jumped off the bus, sprinted home, burst up the flights of stairs, and came up to the landing where I collapsed with sheer, utter terror. The door to number five was open.

“Oh my God!” I cried aloud, and staggered to my feet, rushing into my flat to catch the intruder. There was nobody there when I looked, so I rushed out of number five, and broke the door to number six open with by force. Hell – I would have gone in there and showed that thing what happens to people who mess with me, but when I saw that bare, empty, dimly-lit hallway beyond the door, I could not force myself to enter that place. I was a coward, and I collapsed and I fainted.

The police searched flat number six very thoroughly when they arrived, and also looked around our flat, as me and my wife stood on the landing in between and just stared into space. We felt violated – as if somebody was deliberately trying to make us feel unwelcome in our own home. She even suggested moving out, which was drastic – I don’t blame her; she had received a few of those calls lately as well. We were reassured, if not a little frustrated when the police claimed that they had found nobody in either of the flats. Interestingly, flat six had been empty after all – we ourselves even took a look around in there and found absolutely no traces of anybody living there. There wasn’t a phone in flat six either, so whoever was calling us couldn’t have been living there. Further investigation showed that the envelope had actually been meant for Ms. Miggins in number 4 downstairs, and she had checked upstairs, because her son who had sent the letter had in the past mistakenly addressed his letters to number six. My fears about flat six had obviously been sheer paranoia – there was nothing to worry about, so it seemed, in flat six.

As for my keys, they were found lying on the landing outside the flat – the intruder had obviously dropped them there before he had made his getaway.

We gave the police the number that had been troubling us, and they told us sincerely that they’d look into it and arrest the perpetrator for breaking and entering, as well as for going against the 1988 Malicious Communications Act.

More or less as reassured as a person can be after having their home broken into, we both thanked the ruddy faced inspector and the four constables before bidding them Good Night and closing our front door. We sighed and fell wearily onto the sofa and watched the TV for a while – it was some kind of sitcom, ‘Fawlty Towers’ I think it was called. We fixed ourselves a small dinner and watched in front of the telly, laughing at the bits we found funny, and laughing anyway at the bits that weren’t too funny. At about 11:30 we turned off the TV, washed the dishes, and turned in for the night.

Settled into bed, I was about to turn off the bedside lamp when my wife told me to wait a little. She had her mobile phone in her hand and a kind of smirk on her face.

“Why don’t we give the prank-caller a little taste of his own medicine?” she suggested, “He won’t like being called up at this time of night!”

“Sure do it,” I said, liking the idea as soon as I heard it, “what are you going to say to him?”

“I don’t know – suppose I’ll just make creepy noises or something. Anything to get back at him.”

“Sure, go ahead!”

She dialled the number and we were chuckling to ourselves gleefully as she called. We were quiet for a while, grinning stupidly while the phone connected. Then a noise from our living-room wiped the smiles right off our faces.

A phone had started to ring in the living-room.

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