Green Valley Alarms

August 16, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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I took the last drag of my cigarette and inhaled a deep breath, savoring the carcinogen-filled smoke inside my lungs before I drew it out again. I looked down at the smoldering butt in my hand and took a gander up at the green trees that surrounded my back yard. Modest, all-consuming green trees which everybody here claim are what make this little town so damn pleasant. More like smothering if you ask me, I’ve always been more of a city boy myself. Whereas most people around here find the streets of Los Angeles overbearing and nauseating, I’d gladly give up those pretty, green trees for apartment buildings and taco stands. There’s something mysterious about the mountains, something lonely, something desolate, and every once in a while things happen out there that just aint right.

Let me tell you a little something about where I used to live. “Green Valley,” it‘s called. And believe me, there is no false advertising in the name. The little mountain town in the heart of Southern California is greener than an over-enthusiastic Irishman on St. Paddy’s day and covered with a heavy layer of wild shrubs, foliage, and modest-sized trees. There are only 2 real streets in the town (by real I mean frequently traveled on by the town’s residents and commuters). First, there’s “San Francisquito Canyon Road,” which weaves down through the mountains for about 20 miles and puts you right at the edge of Valencia. Then there’s “Spunky Canyon Road,” which most of the other streets in the town branch off of as it connects up the neighborhoods. Commuters traveling between the Antelope Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley drive up and down San Francisquito Canyon every day which also provides a quick way for families and teenagers to get to Magic Mountain from Palmdale or Lancaster, if they don’t feel like taking the freeway. Given it’s heavy traffic at times, winding curves, razor-sharp corners, and drivers who fly down the damn thing like they’re practicing for the Daytona 500, it’s seen it’s fair share of accidents over the years.

Now, one thing I always found quite interesting is that, years ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to have a loud, booming alarm system set up in the Green Valley fire station that alerts the locals when there’s an accident in the canyon. Given that there is no cell phone reception anywhere, the alarm provides a means of communication to the residents when San Fran is blocked off due to a car crash. It’s not a bad idea and I never would have had a problem with it, except…there is just something really off-putting about this alarm. I always thought it sounded like the type you would hear at a government facility when they’ve discovered that a nuclear bomb is about to be dropped and blow the whole fucking country to smithereens, or that some deadly, flesh-eating virus has escaped from a laboratory and is quickly seeping into the air of our neighborhoods. Which aren’t the loveliest thoughts when you’re laying in bed at 10:00 at night in your underwear and you hear this loud, belligerent siren suddenly rattle through the streets and penetrate you to the very core. It’s just…disturbing.

But anyways, that’s not too important at the moment. What’s important is that on this day, on this evening, I had just smoked my last cigarette down to the filter and I was in dire need of more to carry my nicotine fix throughout the night. This meant that I had to make a run to the little gas station on the corner of Spunky and San Fran where the canyon meets the main residential area of the town. I had just disposed of the cigarette butt in the trash can and was walking back to my front door when I heard the alarm pierce through my ears. It stopped me in my tracks. That familiar, low yell of the siren rang in my head and I instantly felt a wave of compassion for the sorry saps who had just crashed their car in the canyon. I had hoped it wasn’t as bad as the one I saw a few months ago on my way home from work in which a small sedan going about 90mph, had a head on with an SUV about 30 feet behind me while I watched the carnage from the rear view mirror of my truck. “Poor bastards,” I said out loud as I continued my strut inside to grab the truck keys. Then something struck me and I paused, mouth agape and listening attentively…There’s something slightly off about this one. I couldn’t really tell for sure but it didn‘t seem to be coming from the fire station, it was too distant; and what’s even stranger is that there was this unsteadiness to it. It was dying down a little and then coming on strong again in waves and changing in pitch too. The dynamics were totally off. It had a beckoning, sorrowful longing to it like a wild animal with his leg caught in a hunter‘s trap. I wasn‘t just hearing it, I was feeling it too; my insides felt like they were being grabbed and pulled towards my legs like silly putty. I was getting more uneasy by the second.

“Of course it was weird,” I thought, but I had other, more pressing priorities at hand than sitting around pondering the peculiarities of this alarm. My nicotine craving struck again and I was suddenly in the truck cruising down the road towards the corner store to get to those sweet, sweet Newport menthol-smokes. I turned on my headlights as I navigated the small stretch of asphalt that leads to the gas station about a mile from my cozy, little 2 bedroom house. It was summer time and the clock on the dash told me it was 8:30pm. Summer days are pretty long out here and the sky was at that stage right between dusk and twilight where everything I passed had a subdued glow about it. The road was not yet a complete mass of darkness without my headlights, but it was close. I saw silhouettes of bushes, hypnotically flailing side to side in the distance as I approached the gas station.

When I pulled in the thought gradually crept into my mind over the next few seconds that I was staring at an empty establishment. There were no cars at the pumps or even the familiar employee trucks in the parking lot. It wasn’t that business was just slow or anything, I mean the place was totally abandoned. Where the hell was everybody? “And what the fuck,” I thought, as my eyes caught the dim OPEN sign in the window who’s lights were not flashing in their usual neon red; “the place is closed?“ It’s the one night the bastards decide to close early and I happened to have just burned my last cig of the carton. Damn, just my luck. I pulled up in the parking lot and parked my truck so I could think about my next move. I saw the metal gate behind the big double doors then looked over to the empty chairs still lingering out front where Frank and Tom shoot the shit every day on their cigarette breaks. Call me what you will, but I was not about to go the whole night without that sweet taste of tobacco; so I walked over to the two chairs in hopes that Frank, or Tom had left some butts for me to scrounge up and hold me over until morning.

I was in luck! They had left their ashtray right between the chairs and there was even a half smoked stogie still burning, emitting broken coils of smoke like tiny ghosts dancing in the moonlight…I must have just missed them. I gained some amusement at the thought of them on their first break tomorrow trying to figure out how in the hell thirty cigarette butts apparently just jumped up and disappeared from the tray. Then I remembered that Frank still hasn’t returned my power drill I let him borrow two and a half weeks ago (“just for the afternoon,” he had told me) and my amusement turned to out-loud laughter. “Ha! Let that bastard think it over.” Frank was a good guy but he had a reputation of holding onto other people’s things for a little longer than he should.

I turned and walked back to the truck a little shamefully, feeling like a grimy, cigarette-butt scrounging bum and gazed at the Canyon road…Not a single damn car, that accident must have been pretty bad to block the whole road like that. There wasn’t a single vehicle driving the streets. I looked back at the two chairs then to the road again; that’s when I first noticed the feeling. Something just wasn’t right about all this. In my 2 years of living in this little hole in the mountains I had never seen the corner store close early. And given that Frank or Tom’s cigarette was still lit in the tray, they must have rushed out of here in a real hurry. Feelings aside, the day had been uneventful up until this point and I was bent on knowing what the hell was going on so I decided to take a drive down the canyon a little ways and see if I could take a peek at that accident. It sounds morbid, I know, and the last thing I wanted to do was get in the way of an ambulance or a cop if someone was seriously hurt but I was putting it together in my mind and figured the emptiness of the gas station and the alarm going off may be connected in some way, plus the dull day had stirred up a sense of adventure in me that was not subsiding so I lit a re-burn and took off down the road. Danger is the heart of adventure.

I was just about to give up and head back when I saw it. It was dark now and a tiny little light was shining a ways down the canyon on what appeared to be the side of the road. There were still no damn cars which had begun to give me a slight case of the jitters and the creeps all at once that manifested into my hands which were now slightly tremoring as I gripped the wheel of my Ford with white knuckles. My mouth was drier than a barrel of hay. A wave of panic shot through me as I started to worry I might actually be having a mild seizure, a ridiculous notion. I had never had one before and I was pretty sure the symptoms didn’t match up even in the slightest. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and continued accelerating towards the glowing anomaly down the way which was approaching faster than I had anticipated, swerving and slowing to accommodate the sharp bends in the now dark mountain road. I thought for sure I would have seen somebody by now but there was…nothing. No ambulances, no cop cars, no angry commuters coming up through the road, speeding and pissed off for getting held up by a car crash on their way home from work. It was beyond strange for this usually bustling canyon and my better judgment was telling me to just go home to my blood hound who was waiting for his 2 scoops of doggy chow and forget all about this damn excursion…but I just couldn’t. When I set my mind to something, I follow through and have a mighty hard time dismissing it. So as stubborn as I could allow myself to be, I pressed on. And in God’s name and all the creatures in the world do I wish now that I hadn’t.

The small light was becoming ever more apparent as I approached it slowly on my right side. There was something so mesmerizing about it, yet sinister like a shimmering lighthouse guiding lost ships towards some hidden, rocky shore. I was a defenseless fly drifting closer and closer to a fluorescent bug zapper, right before he gets torched and turned into a thousand specks of ash blown away by the steady, warm Summer wind. I began to make out the shape of a car in the darkness. That’s what it was alright, it was a car, with the interior light still on and the driver’s side door swung wide open. I pulled up in front of it on the side of the road with my headlights glaring down, turned the ignition, removed the key, and sat in the deep silence; silence which after a moment was broken by the sound of an owl emitting a large hoot up in the trees somewhere. My mind raced as a million thoughts rushed through me at once. The most prominent one being that this must be the car that triggered the accident alarm earlier and it had been in some kind of wreck; but if that were the case, then where the hell were the ambulances and the cop cars that I had nervously expected and the crowd of people that usually linger around an accident to gossip and make sure everything‘s alright? There is no way they kept driving by this peculiar looking scene without offering some kind of help. People have their downfalls, but they are nonetheless eager to help out their fellow man when in dire straights. And we’re a curious breed, no doubt curious, which is what left me so baffled as I stared out my windshield. It’s coming.

My personal curiosity was at an all-time high as I stepped out of the truck and approached the car. I left the headlights on to provide me with some illumination. It appeared to be in decent shape until I circled around to the driver’s side. There was a monstrous sized dent in the door that stretched all the way to the front fender. The window was smashed out, but no glass on the ground as far as I could see; and no driver anywhere to be found. It was a puzzling scene. I stepped back to observe the damaged vehicle a little better and that’s when it hit me again…the feeling. It came on stronger now and I began to tremble harder. I shouldn’t be here. Something was horribly wrong and I knew it. And not just in a “someone got hurt,” kind of way; this was different. I even felt it in the air; there was an oppressive musk that weighed on me making me feel like my legs would give out at the slightest movement. I looked up at the trees, even they were different; they appeared to be cowering back away from this wrecked hunk of metal in front of me as if they themselves were terrified of this intruder in their quiet little home. “That has to be my imagination,” I thought. I felt like I was trapped in some dreamlike landscape and any moment I was going to wake up in my bed submerged in a pool of sweat. No, not a dream, a god damn nightmare. “Where the hell is the driver?” I couldn’t help but wonder.

I leaned against the side of the car with the door still open and began to rationalize the best I could. As I looked down, thoughts moving and circling around in my mind, something caught my eye. There was a trickle of blood in the dirt by my right foot. I looked up further and there was more blood, and more. It was a trail leading away from the car so I followed it with my eyes until it was out of the car light’s reach and taken out of sight by the night. A chilling realization crept into my mind; whoever was driving the car had gotten out and ran into the forest. The next thing I knew I was grabbing the flashlight from my center console and aiming its beam at the blood trail leading from the side of the road into the trees. Whoever it was that had been in this vehicle was badly hurt. I walked a little to get a better view and saw a break where a small beaten path was winding up through the trees and into the mountain. That must be where he ran off to.

The questions that had dominantly plagued my mind since the gas station had become secondary when I realized this person is probably in need of some serious help. I was getting a hold of myself a little better now and that rational part of my brain that had been temporarily hijacked was starting to make its way back. Even so, the mixed emotions I had at that moment could have torn me in two, but I knew deep down that if there was someone dying out there and I had to hear later on the evening news that this man or woman had bled out in the mountains of my little town, I would have never forgiven myself. Arguing with that other half of me had suddenly become fruitless, now was the time to act. Even though every bone in my body was telling me to just go back home and call 911 or maybe wait here for a moment for the ambulances that would eventually arrive, I didn’t. Flashlight in hand, I headed up the trail.

I immediately saw more blood as I headed up the winding path. The beam from the flashlight illuminated the way as I stepped over fallen, dead branches and leaves. The drops weren’t huge but they were enough to know that whoever was bleeding had taken a serious injury back in that car and was out there cut to all hell. I entertained the thought at this point of at least turning around and snatching my .45 pistol from my house and rushing back here quickly just in case I run into some kind of trouble up there but I was just too far and I didn’t want to risk getting to the victim after it was too late. I had remembered reading somewhere in a magazine or journal that a person will die when they have lost 40-60 percent of the blood in their body and by the looks of it, my missing man was getting there, fast. I stared at the quarter-moon sky, which hadn’t been providing me with jack-shit as far as moon light goes, then back down again and continued on. The drops began to get bigger as I progressed up the trail. I paused to take a look at a peculiar looking one that seemed to have a chunk of something white and slimy stuck to it. After a good few minutes of brisk walking I noticed that they weren’t only getting bigger now but also thicker and more pronounced. I was reminded of my own mortality as I followed these crimson puddles of dense fluid that leaked out of this broken human being and sat coagulating and festering in the cold earth, or maybe out of something else, it’s easy to forget how fragile our bodies really are when you’ve never really had an accident. They suddenly veered off the trail and I caught one with my flashlight on a branch about as high as my head. Then I heard something…

I couldn’t quite make it out but it sounded like the low chatter of someone’s voice. I looked through the trees where the blood on the high branch was dripping from and I could vaguely see an area that had been trampled through. The voice definitely came from that direction. I climbed in through a small opening the size of a crouched man and began to cautiously follow this trampled wonder through the trees. My senses were wild, heightened to the point of animalistic intensity in the cool darkness. I saw more blood on the branches and then stepped in a small pool of it. I shined the flashlight down and observed more of that white, slimy crap that I saw earlier. It looked gut wrenching. If I had stared any longer I would have been at risk of losing my dinner. I felt stomach acid arise in my esophagus and slowly make its way back down again. “What the hell was it?” I thought to myself as I crouched to get a better examination of the shimmering white pieces against their dark, scarlet background. They looked something like chunks of peeled grapes, if peeled grapes were white. My concentration was interrupted when the chatter started again, only this time it was much closer and almost directly in front of me. It sounded like some one mumbling to themselves and I knew it had to be my man (or woman, although I thought this was unlikely by now). I flared with bursts of excitement as I headed closer to the sound, rushing through the trees branches and low bushes as I continued on the trail. They were cutting me up something fierce, but I didn’t care because at that moment I saw an opening amidst the branches. I made my way through it and fell to my knees with a hard thud as I tripped over a stray branch that caught my shoe just right.

Sharp needles dug into my palms as I hit the ground. “Ouch!” I said out loud in much more than a whisper. The flashlight slipped and launched a good couple feet away from me during the fall. I winced a little and returned to my feet, brushing the leaves and dirt off of my clothes. It was at this point that the environment had my full visual attention as I studied my surroundings with a deep, penetrating gaze. My mouth suddenly dropped. I was in a clearing, at least it appeared to be a clearing until I shined the flashlight down to my feet. My eyes accompanied my mouth and grew from astonishment. I had been walking on top of smashed bushes. All around me in almost a perfect circle 20 feet in diameter these bushes had been collapsed and laid down to create a perfect surface to walk on. It was utterly bewildering. I shined the light around some more with my continual countenance of pure awe which was now permanently attached. “This doesn’t just happen in the middle of a group of trees, someone made this.” I thought. Every bush had been pressed in exactly the same fashion as the next and snapped at the same height to create this perfect platform of shrubs.

I barely had time to wonder when I heard it, that mumbling again. It startled me this time. A shudder went through me like a bolt of lightning and I frantically pointed the flashlight in the direction of the noise. The blood drained from my face and I went completely cold. By the edge of this platform on the opposite side of where I was standing there stood someone with their back towards me. It was indeed, a man. He was wearing a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black slacks. His arms were at his sides and I saw a trickle of blood running down his right one. His head was faced downwards and he remained perfectly still like a statue.

“Sir!” I called out. “Sir, are you alright?”
No response.
“I saw your car down there, were you in an accident? Are you hurt?”
Still no response.

I did nothing for a moment. I just stared at him waiting for some kind of communication, but I got none. Then it hit me again, hard. There was a pressure that rushed inside my head which felt like a million bees swirling around my brain. It was pressing on my shoulder blades, weighing me down almost to the point of collapse. Every part of me was screaming, pleading to get out of there. I was a hair away from bolting the other direction as fast as I could to my truck. Go! Run! “What the hell am I doing here?” the thought returned. I took another look at him. It was all wrong, just plain wrong. But I had to hold on a little longer, now was not the time for another internal argument. I brushed it off the best I could and began to walk forward towards him slowly, eyeing his frozen limbs with great caution. I heard the branches crunch beneath my feet.

“I…I’m bleeding.” he spoke. His voice was calm, soft but with a hint of something else. I have never heard anything like it.
“Yeah, you are. Looks like you’re hurting pretty bad, too. Why don’t you let me walk you down to my truck, it’s just down the road. We gotta get you to the hospital.” I pleaded with the man for any excuse to get away from this creep show.
“They…they got me.”
“Wh..who got you? Is that why you’re bleeding? Did someone a..attack y..you?” My voice was quivering and I was shaking all over. I could barely articulate my words.
“They think they can have this place but…”
“but…” He was heaving in deep breaths.
“but they’re wrong…”
“This one’s mine!!!” His voice deepened to something atrocious as he yelled.

The force of his scream flung me backwards and I fell on my ass dropping the flashlight. I got to my knees and began to fumble around like a frantic lunatic in hopes of recovering it. The bleeding man turned around slowly, walked closer to me, and leaned down a bit. I found, curled my fingers around, and immediately shined the flashlight in his face all in one fluent motion. I surprised myself with how fast my movements were which gave me a small sense of control amidst the chaos. And then as quickly as it came, the brief joy I felt had fled…what I saw paralyzed me to the spot. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t even breathe. There was the handle of a small knife sticking out of his eye socket which had been lodged into his head through his left eyeball. There were slimy chunks of white stuck to his cheek. He was peering at me through his one good eye. I was trying so hard to keep my thoughts together which had now become a jumbled blur. I was floating in the night sky. “There is no way he could still be alive after a wound like that, the blade must be halfway through his brain,” I thought. He gazed at me for a split second and with a raspy, low voice he leaned in closer and lividly shrieked “You’re all going to die!”

Just then his head starting jerking in short, rapid movements from side to side, impossibly fast. An inaudible gibberish began to come from his mouth which sounded like the mumbling I had heard earlier. In between a burst of jerks, he grinned forcefully to reveal a repulsive set of rotten teeth. His eye rolled back and his head was moving faster. The incoherent mumbling got louder and louder.

Before I knew it, my paralysis subsided and I was on my feet sprinting as fast as I could move while taking in heavy, deep breaths. I got back to the trail at lightning speed and took one look back to see if he was behind me. What I saw then, I will never forget. A beam of light appeared out of thin air and began to consume his body as he continued to go through his bizarre, terrifying episode. He stuck his legs in first, they disappeared and he began to lower his arms into it. Half of his torso and head were still sticking out while convulsing and spewing his incoherent babble. He roared and exhaled a stream of green vomit which flung around him in a circle as his head was spinning and splattered onto the collapsed bushes. I didn’t stop to watch any longer, I booked it as fast as my legs would go; down the trail to the side of the road I went until I saw my headlights. I jumped feet first into the truck, fumbled with putting the key in the ignition, heard the roar of those sweet six cylinders, jerked it into gear and with dirt roosting from my tires I was out of there.

It’s all over.

…..

The next morning I took a little trip to the gas station. Frank was sitting out front in his usual smoking chair puffing on a Marlboro red. He moved his gaze from the cement walkway as I saw the logo of his faded trucker hat with the two criss-crossed assault rifles ironed on the front jerk up towards me. He squirmed in his seat a little bit as I approached then forced a stupid smile. I parked my feet directly in front of him and stared into his aging, wrinkled face. I should have expected his loud-mouth to start gabbing before I could get a word in but somehow it still surprised and irritated me.

“Billy, how you doing brother,” his mouth moved as anxiously as he did in that aluminum chair he probably took from an outdoor furniture set. “Hey listen, I’m gonna need that drill for a little bit longer. You see, me and the wife are fixing up the barn and I thought I’d put some more shelves in. Say, what do you make of this? I could have sworn there were a whole mess of cigarette butts in this ash…”

“Where the hell were you last night?” I interrupted him. I was in no mood for his rambling, not today.
“Wha.. what are you talking bout?” He said, perturbed by my interruption.

“Last night, why did you close up the store so damn early?”
“Oh, well…some funny things was happening and me and Tom thought it best to just call it quits for the night.” He looked troubled when he spoke, with a slight wave of bewilderment and irritation. like I was trying to force some taboo topic from his mouth that he had thought he’d never have to actually bring up in conversation.
“Funny things?” I said. I was all nerves.

“Well, yeah. You see the power went out in the whole place about a quarter past 8. Couldn’t see a damn thing. Have no idea why, either. Tom checked all the breakers and they seemed to be in order.”
“So why didn’t you just pull out the generator?” I said. “People need their gas and smokes.” My mind was running and I was caressing the corner of my flannel shirt between my thumb and forefinger. He could tell things weren’t well in Billy Town. My face was ghostly pale, I knew from the glimpse I had caught of myself in the bathroom mirror before heading out, and black circles were starting to form under my eyes from the restless forty-five minutes of sleep I had gotten.
“Well, that’s just it,” he said. “Hadn’t been a car come up that road for nearly an hour. Usually that time of night is busier than hell with the folks commuting from work and what not.”
I met his stare while still caressing my shirt…
“You feelin alright Billy? You aint lookin your freshest this morning.” He said sounding genuinely concerned. “Looks like you had a meeting with the devil himself.” he followed his words with a nervous chuckle but didn’t take his eyes off of me.
My heart began to jump a little and I felt the shakes coming on. “I…I’m fine.” I said “Just…never mind. I’m gonna go grab a pack of smokes.” I suddenly realized I wasn’t in the mood for this.
“Well hold on now Billy, there’s something else too if you really wanna know.“ He said as he grabbed hold of my arm during my attempt to escape.
“Something else?” I managed to sound a little more enthused.
“Nah, forget it.” he said.
“Frank, what are you talking about?” I had to know now. Whatever it was it couldn’t do much more damage to my already fractured state of mind this morning.
He eyed me up and down with a look on his face that said you know what kid, fuck it, just go grab your cigarettes. I don‘t think you can handle what I have to say considering you look like you’re gonna go running behind those bushes like a scared puppy dog if so much as a loud car drives by. But after a long while he came out with it and when he was finished, the comfort of those bushes didn’t sound like a bad idea.
“Well, me and Tom just had this funny feeling,” he began. “You know how sometimes you just get a feeling, Billy? Like when you know something aint right? It was just this funny feeling that me and Tom both kept gettin…like….”
“Like what?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“We couldn’t tell ya really, and looking back on it sounds kinda ridiculous now. But well…it was like we just shouldn’t be there.”
I gazed at him, flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it.
“It didn‘t have something to do with that alarm going off, did it?” I asked with a hint of hopefulness in my voice.

“Alarm? What alarm? Hasn’t been an accident in the canyon for nearly 3 weeks.”

…..

I moved to Los Angeles 6 months after the whole thing and quit smoking. After my conversation with Fred I bought my cigarettes in a dazed panic and rushed back to the safety of my home where I locked all the doors and windows, drew the curtains, and dozed off into a few hours of dreamless sleep. I had anxiety issues for a few weeks and had to take some time off work. About five days into my vacation, a Jehovah’s Witness came to the door and I nearly had a heart attack; I guess they got the idea to start soliciting to the smaller towns in Los Angeles County which I can safely say they won’t be doing again, well at least the kid who came to my door won’t be. I’m sure he’ll door knocking in more populated areas from now on considering how fast he booked it out of here when he heard the cock of my 12 gauge shotgun letting him know I‘m not in the business to be opening my door to strangers; poor bastard made it to the end of my drive way in about two seconds flat. I kept thinking anybody and everybody was that…thing, in disguise. I turned my phone off and permanently moved my shotgun to the nook by the front door as well as kept my .45 pistol tucked into my pants while I pranced nervously around the house, checking the windows every five minutes. It sounds stupid now but I thought for sure it was going to come looking for me and I sure as hell wasn’t going to take any chances.

After about a month, I realized I was turning into a paranoid, reclusive, wreck and I hated myself for it so I decided to face my fear and take a drive down the canyon to that little spot where I had first seen the car. I parked the truck near it and got out to gather whatever information I could find. I wasn’t just facing my fears, I was looking for answers and by God did I have a lot of questions. Some tire tracks were vaguely visible in the dirt where my original meeting with the car had been but there’s no way they could have belonged to my truck or the busted up sedan, our tracks were long gone by then, blown away in the summer’s wind. The blood was gone too. I took a walk up the trail again, re-tracing my steps from that night. I never found the bush platform or the opening in the trees, or the “man” anywhere, it’s like he was never even there. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, I know what I saw. There was something on the road that night, I knew it and everybody else knew it. That’s why there wasn’t any cars because just like Frank, the people who usually travel that road had enough sense to stay away from it and take the freeway home. Some call it intuition; we all have those built-in alarms that draw us towards great and beautiful things as well as steer us clear from danger. They knew there was something evil in that canyon, some abomination. That’s what it was, an abomination. What I think, is that…thing, was calling someone or something that night to take it back home because it knew it had been bested and, god knows why, but for some reason I was susceptible to its call. I chose to ignore my instincts and it almost cost me my life. Anyways…I can’t do anything about it now but carry on living and learn from my mistakes. I have no reason to fear it for I know it’s gone far away from here. But you know, sometimes on the darkest of nights as I stare out my third floor apartment window at the late night city traffic, I get this funny feeling it wont be gone for long. And you know what? If it does happen to return and our paths do happen to cross again, I’ll be ready, and this time I won’t choose to ignore my inner alarms.

Green Valley Alarms 1

Green Valley Alarms 2

Green Valley Alarms 3

Green Valley Alarms 4

Credit To – Ryan Berg

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Walburton Park

August 13, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Curtis held on to an unfulfilled joy for exploring.

The prospect of discovering new places always enthralled him, and often, whether he was just lazing around at home, slacking off during a lecture, or just hanging out on a sober night with his friends, he would often daydream of travelling the world to diverge himself in the vast cultures of many countries.

Unfortunately, he was unemployed and was still living in his home town after 21 years. Also, he came from a lower-middle class family who couldn’t afford many luxuries, especially in this lousy economy, and after all the CVs he had sent out, and all the interviews he had stressed himself through, he just couldn’t seem to get a full or part-time job, no matter what. He didn’t have the resources to travel to places abroad. He couldn’t even drive, so his options were limited even in his own local area.

His impatience and unrest to break free from the small town to explore the world was rapidly beginning to catch up with him, so he did his best to satisfy this need by walking the dog everyday. He would go to pathways and nature walks he had never walked before, explore forests and lakes that were well out beyond civilizations’ way, and climb up steep hills in the countryside and gaze around at square miles of fields, forests, and hills. If he was walking the dog through his local neighbourhood, he would even go into housing estates he had never been to before, just for a change of scenery; to see what the houses there looked like. He even had a peculiar habit of estimating the demographics of estates he visited, based on the type of houses they lived in and the cars they drove.

Today, he decided he would walk the dog by the nearby pond. Recently, he had been frequently going to a forest a few miles out, and he hadn’t walked the dog by that lake for around a fortnight now. The surroundings of the forest were starting to become all too familiar to him now, and seeing as Spring had just arrived, the scenery would not be changing anytime soon. The thirst for a change of scenery was really beginning to tickle his throat.

So he grabbed the leash, strapped it on to Sylvester (who heard the sounds of the leash being removed from the drawer, and in his usual response, ran eccentrically into the kitchen), and headed out to the nearby pond on an unusually scorching April afternoon. He walked by the row of identical houses that he lived on, imagining taking breathtaking pictures of giant castles in Germany. After that, he walked through tufts of grass and straws of chickweed at the rusty, abandoned railway road, dreaming of drinking bourbon in a red barn with people he just met in one of the rural states of The USA. Finally, before he crossed the road to the park where the pond was, he envisioned touring through the Southern French countryside, embracing the sweet smells of France’s wine country; he envisioned relaxing to the sound of oars splashing the water, while slowly sailing through the rippling canals of Venice; and he envisioned gazing up at the empowering pyramids of Ancient Egypt with the desert sun roasting his milk-pale skin and bleaching his brown curly hair.

Yet when he reached the lake, it only made him depressed that he would most likely not be visiting these countries anytime soon, and frustrated at the fact that after all the painstaking job-searching he had done, that he was still unemployed and lacked the resources to satisfy his travel-hungry mind. Trying to ignore his annoyance and to just enjoy the beautiful, sunny day, he approached the section of the path which started down a short but steep hill, and which diverged into a left path and a right path in the shape of a bident. From here, he could gaze at the rippling pond, sapphire in the flourishing sun; at the flat plains which surrounded it, deceivingly emerald on this bright April; and at the fancy new private hospital which had only been recently built. Looking at the colourful, sharp design of the hospital, his attention caught the entrance to a small housing estate which was located right beside it.

It was not that Curtis had never noticed this housing estate before, he had just never thought to journey into it. Walking by it all these months, he had only ever noticed two things about it; he had always seen its large green area just past the entrance, which had a single sycamore tree sprouting out from the middle; and the centre road, which all other lanes in the estate emerged from like branches from that tree. The main road of the estate had also been a hill, although its steepness had been rather more subtle than the sharp drop of the hill which he was standing on right now.

Curtis wondered whether the houses all looked different, or if they all looked the same. Perhaps there were sections to this estate, where the houses all looked the same in their own individual section, but the design of these housing sections were all unique. He wondered what brand of cars the neighbourhood in general owned, what their gardens looked like, and perhaps he could get to glance into the inside of their houses. Gathering all this information, he could try guess what kind of people lived in this estate. He yanked Sylvester’s leash, and trotted down the left path of the steep hill.

He crossed a small stone bridge over one of the stream which fed into the pond, took the path around the large, circular plain surrounding the pond, and started walking on the footpath beside the road. He continued walking until he was directly opposite of the entrance, waited for the two oncoming cars on either side of the road to pass, and jogged quickly across the road when the second car had driven by. Imitating Curtis, Sylvester sprinted ahead of him in a sudden burst of excitement.

“Walburton Park” was etched into a sparkling, light-grey boulder in all-capitals, which sat on a small patch of grass on the corner of the road. There were three houses on either side of the road at the entrance, and all six of them were small, white, two storey houses. After the houses was a cross roads. Down both the left turn and right turn, there were seven medium-sized, two-storey, redbrick houses on either side of the streets, totalling 34 houses at the entrance. The road continued on to a t-junction at the very back of the estate, and there, the right street was about equal length to the two streets at the entrance, and the left street was much longer than the rest of them.

The houses on of both these streets were nearly twice as big as the houses at the entrance. All houses were on one side, while the other side was a field separated by a line of old, large oak trees. They all had two main parts to them; one part was a white two-storey, while the other was a brown dormer bungalow. There were four of these houses on the right street, and another ten down on the left street. Before that, there were two green areas in between the crossroads and the houses at the t-junction. One was the clean-kept, well-maintained green area with the large sycamore tree spurting out from the middle that Curtis had always seen, whereas the other was a shaggy, overgrown green area with a swing-set and a slide, surrounded by three grey concrete walls. Curtis had never noticed this area before, despite all the times he had walked by this estate.

While Curtis was walking down the street observing the ten large white and brown houses, something odd occurred to him. As nice as this estate was, it was eerily quiet, and from what he had seen so far, was totally deserted. Of course there was nothing wrong with these quiet estates. In fact, if Curtis had noticed groups of hyper children playing around here, he would more likely have shied away from coming here in the first place. However, Curtis had not seen a single soul. No children out playing around the sycamore tree or on the swings, no middle-aged people sitting on their sofas watching television, or even any senior citizens out gardening, basking in the glorious sunshine. The quiet wasn’t just attributed by the absence of people out and about though; Curtis couldn’t even hear any cars driving on the main road he had crossed to get here, or on the road which he knew was beyond the fields and rows of tall oak trees. He didn’t hear the trees sway in the wind or even hear any birds tweeting. All he could hear was his own footsteps and the ringing of Sylvester’s collar as he trotted alongside him.

Curtis reached the end of the cul-de-sac, turned around, and decided to have a look at the four houses down at the other side of the estate. While walking, he looked up at the trees, swaying silently in the brisk spring wind. He noticed that grey clouds were beginning to quickly accumulate from what he guessed was a west-south-west direction. He checked the time on his phone. It was 15:30 exactly. He decided that he had enough time to have a look around the remaining streets of the housing estate, before making his way back home before four o’clock.

When Curtis reached the top of the right street, it looked as if the four houses here were exactly the same as the ten he had just observed. This street was slightly curved however, so he continued walking just to make sure that he wasn’t going to miss anything. Slowly, the hidden remnants of the last two houses emerged from behind the front two houses, and to his disappointment, Curtis found that they were in fact just the same as all twelve other houses at the back of this estate. This anti-climax, however, was short-lived, as almost immediately Curtis had noticed a sharp right turn just after the last house. Quickening his pace, he observed that this newfound section was identical to the two streets of two-storey redbrick houses at the entrance of the estate. Curtis looked back at his phone. 15:41. He walked forward, looking at the Volvo parked in the driveway of the first house on the right…

…and was then halted unexpectedly. Dazed for a very brief moment, he turned around to find Sylvester sitting down, all four of his paws pressed into the concrete.

Curtis jerked on the leash twice more, urging Sylvester to walk on with him. “C’mon boy! C’mon! C’mon Silver, c’mon!”

Sylvester continued to sit stubbornly, staring solemnly at Curtis with those wide, watery brown eyes. Curtis stared at him, defeated. Had Sylvester been a Chihuahua, a Jack Russell, or even a King Charles, he could have dragged him down the street easily enough, but he was a well-fed, sturdy Weimaraner, who Curtis knew would have put up a tough fight. Curtis whipped the leash up in the air feebly, then Sylvester sprang to a stand with his ears pricked, and followed Curtis away from the street of the hidden fourteen houses.

Curtis led Sylvester to what looked like a young Ash tree, growing amidst the old, looming oak trees. He tied the leash around it, and bent down to rub Sylvester reassuringly. Sylvester tried to lick at his face and sprang at Curtis, as he walked down the street away from him, but was jerked back by the tight knot which secured him to the tree.

Trying his best to avoid the guilt from Sylvester’s puppy eyes, Curtis walked along the middle of road, glancing at all the redbrick houses without looking back. All houses appeared in good condition on the outside, although a few had messy, unkept gardens. Curtis counted six of these gardens, five of which had at least one children’s toy recklessly skewed about somewhere. It reminded Curtis of the discomforting, empty, overgrown green area with the cheap slide and swing-set near the entrance of the estate. The remaining gardens had their edges and corners blemished with haphazard bunches of flowers, their colours vividly clashing, yet relievingly soothing to the eye. Their lawns were flatly even and fresh spring green, and one or two had a few rusty coloured tiles matching their redbrick house, just as a cherry on the icing.

Curtis reached the end of the cul-de-sac, marked by a mossy, grey concrete wall with long green grass at its bottom corner that towered at what Curtis assumed was at least 15ft tall. Following it up to the top, Curtis noticed that the sky was completely overcast with thick, light grey altostratus clouds. Fearing the small risk of rain, Curtis decided it was best to head home straight after this, also deciding to observe the types of cars on his way out. Looking around at a few Volkswagens and Hondas, and remembering that one Volvo at the very first house on the right (which was now the very last on the left), Curtis looked for the car at the house directly opposing that one. While doing so, the same eerie thought from before struck him from out-of-nowhere.

While it was weird enough to have absolutely no human activity on one stretch of housing in this estate, it was getting all too unnerving now for him that there was no people on this street either. Again there were no children playing, elderly gardening, and not even anyone sitting in their front rooms, from what Curtis could remember.

While approaching the left turn back onto the street at the back of the estate, Curtis noticed something stark that made him halt and recoil in swift panic.

Sylvester was gone.

Curt’s muscles intensified, he was breathing heavily, immediately sprinting, profusely panicking and cursing himself for leaving the dog all by himself. “SILVER. HERE BOY. COME HERE SILVER.” he said loudly and desperately while running at a sharp pace. He whistled thrice, and loudly called for him again. “HERE, SILVER SILVER SILVER. C’MON BOY.” He was approaching the turn when he began to shout for him, straining the muscles in his dry throat. “SILVER. SILVER. SIL-‘’

His shouting was brought to a halt, as sudden confusion washed away Curt’s fretting. He should have been running on the road between the oak trees and the large brown and white houses. However, unease was tingling down Curt’s spine, as he looked around at the redbrick houses, standing only a few feet away from the tall, mossy, grey concrete wall which marked the end of the street he had just turned away from.

Curtis was anxious, wondering how he had just unexpectedly hallucinated or daydreamed that whole fiasco. But as he looked back up to the top of the street, Curtis saw once more that Sylvester was nowhere to be found. Curtis sprinted again, his thoughts a little more collected and his worries pushed aside briefly. As he approached the turn for the second time, Curtis noticed that the leash was also missing, signalling to him that someone had found Sylvester and took–

He looked around at the redbrick houses, standing only a few feet away from the tall, mossy, grey concrete wall which marked the end of the street he had just turned away from.

Curtis was frightened. He had definitely not hallucinated that. ‘If I had, why would I be panting so much?’ he thought to himself. He sprinted once more, faster than the previous two times. He was fatigued, but he kept himself motivated by that thrive to break free from the seemingly-infinite maze. He was thinking to himself again. ‘Perhaps if I just try to glimpse at the white paint of the house around the co–

He looked around at the redbrick houses, standing only a few feet away from the tall, mossy, grey concrete wall which marked the end of the street he had just turned away from.

He was dreaming. He trembled fiercely and glanced around frantically, feeling like he was going to go blind if he stared at one thing for more than three seconds. His energy was absent from all the running, but he kept walking, doing-so rapidly while swirling his vision around in circles, his only motivation fear and despair. The Ash tree that Sylvester was tied to jumped back and lurched toward him every few seconds, like his rapidly beating pulse. His shaky legs attempted to pick up a jog once more. Trying to glimpse for one of the white houses again, he peered intensely through any gaps, blotches appearing quickly in his central vision while his outer vision blurred. When he couldn’t find even a hint of white housing in any gap anywhere on this street, Curtis clutched his head into his hand, flailing his legs into a chaotic run towards the left-turn, only hanging onto a thread of hope th–

He looked around at the redbrick houses, standing only a few feet away from the tall, mossy, grey concrete wall which marked the end of the street he had just turned away from.

Curtis lay down on the cold concrete in the shape of a foetus, burying his face into the warm, dark depths of his palms, his emotions latent on his pale, blank face apart from the wordless tears which gushed from his hazel eyes. He unintentionally scratched his brown curly hair against the harsh surface of the road, refusing to look at any of his surroundings. Curtis was surrounded by unchanging scenery, and total, maddening silence. There was not a single soul to share or polarize his never-ending suffering.

Hundreds. Hundreds of dead arms slowly materialized from beneath the nucleated evergreen trees where Curtis had submerged himself into. Rotting flesh, crusty and glistening, the colour of mixed pale grey and deep blue. From all floors on the houses; behind the numerous windows in all the large, white and brown houses, bodies of pale grey and faces of deep blue, with large circular black eyes, thin, stitched lips, and noseless faces, scratched softly at the window, sometimes drumming all five fingers on the glass. You couldn’t hear the sound, but the vibration left an echo in your chest, an echo so dense it was like a protected kick from a startled horse. Their vacant eyes spoke the messages that the muscles of their stitched mouths struggled to.

Sylvester snarled at the slow-moving arms, and barked viciously at the dead eyed children emerging from the sewer. Sylvester whined for Curtis to return, and with every passing minute, the sky turned an even deeper orange.

Sylvester pulled full force away from the black, dying tree. Each leaf that fell onto his back was scorching him. The deceased children swayed from side to side, slowly moving in on helpless Sylvester. Not a sound could be heard from anywhere, as Sylvester violently shook the leash which had bound him. Sylvester snarled and barked viciously once more, in a futile effort to intimidate the emotionless, dead children still swaying slowly toward him.

Sylvester turned away from them and then towards the tree. He walked backwards, until the leash was at its very-most strained. Then, he shook his head rapidly from side to side, tightening the grip of all four paws that were submerged into the muck. Slowly, the leash began to slide over his neck, the nylon scraping painfully at the back of his ears. The ball in his throat became rapidly swollen as he struggled to breath with the collar wrapped so tightly around it. The heavy friction made the collar slip past his ears extremely slowly, awfully anxious about the emotionless, dead children swaying toward him painfully slowly.

His vision blurred when his head jerked back violently and when the air flooded back into his lungs. The moment he released himself, a pale grey arm swung toward him and their rust-coloured, razor-sharp nails dug past his thin silver coat and into the soft tender flesh just above his hip. Sylvester yelped, then snarled and barked mercilessly at the noseless, stitched mouth, void-eyed, dead child, sinking his teeth into their ice-cold flesh. The child stalled and pulled away, with just enough time for Sylvester to dash away from them.

He galloped left, down the subtly steep hill. The orange sky swirled like a gyroscope right above him, but Sylvester never looked back once. He galloped towards the entrance, where a slit of light shone blindingly bright in the dead centre. Surrounding the blinding light, was nothing but total darkness. The pale grey, deep blue bodies of men, women, and children hung, gloomy and still, from the thickest branch of the withering, black, dying sycamore tree. Sylvester stopped to snarl and bark at the dissolving children sitting on the swings, and the eyeless men and women drumming their fingers on the windows from the small white houses at the entrance.

Sylvester continued running and running and running, running towards the blindingly bright light, until it was that, that was all he could see. At that moment, the entire world seemed to shift entirely onto one side, while Sylvester could see nothing but blindingly bright lights, hear absolutely nothing, and floated in the air, feeling gravity pull him to the left.

Sylvester landed onto his side, a sharp pain throbbing just above his hip, and a dull burning sensation all over his back. He barked a few times while his vision spun around dizzily in his mind. A few seconds later, after he rubbed at his eyes with both his front paws, Sylvester looked around him curiously, readying his teeth to snarl. Families of smiling adults and playful children were walking around the lakes with their noses and eyes in tact, and their mouths unstitched. Cars were driving on the roads and the sounds of birds tweeting and ducks quacking still echoed through the beautiful, sunny April afternoon. Sylvester loosened his jaw, and started to pant.

All that was missing was Curtis.

Credit To – CrashingCymbal

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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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