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Rising Tides

May 27, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rising Tides:
Written in the Style of M.R. James
By J. Bailey-Hartsel

Some time ago, I was asked by several former colleagues to tell them a ghost story. We had gathered for an evening of socializing, a small group of academics from my department at a small but formerly respectable liberal arts university in West Central Wisconsin. As such evenings go when a group of academics cluster around a table for a satisfying meal, we had been drinking wine and discussing the sad state of affairs in contemporary trends in education, literature and film. I will spare you the details of the conversation – people in my profession seem to feel they need to use all the words they know in the course of conversation, and department meetings with those of my ilk can run far longer than is truly necessary.

Suffice to say for the purposes of what I am about to relate to you, eventually the conversation took a darker turn – perhaps due to the season, as we were approaching the end of October. An associate professor I knew slightly began to bemoan the dearth of truly frightening narratives that had been a hallmark of the Romantic period. There were no longer Gothic tales regaling the reader of “things that go bump in the night”; no gloomy mysteries, no startling specters, no malicious supernatural forces imposing themselves upon sympathetic characters naïve in the darker dealings of death (as are all we the living truly naïve of such things).

I had been silent for some time (an unusual thing for an academic, but then I was known by my colleagues to be a person of quieter contemplations), when our newly elected Chair of the department asked me whether I knew of any truly frightening stories. In fact, I did, and due to perhaps one half glass of cabernet sauvignon too many, dared to say as much. All eyes turned to me.

“Tell us,” urged the bombastic professor to my right, a gentleman of considerable letters from an East Coast Ivy League college. “Is someone writing frightening fiction that I have not yet heard about?” His tone indicated that he found this fact rather difficult to believe. If that indeed was the case, he would be further disbelieving of the tale I could relate to the roundtable of academics before me.

“Not written,” I said slowly, tracing the rim of my wine glass with the tip of my finger, “something that was related to me this summer whilst on vacation.”

“Oh my,” chortled the Ivy Leaguer, “a real ghost story?” He glanced about the table, looking for matched reactions to my admission, and several faculty members, though not all, joined in with his forced mirth. For my part, I half-smiled and replied, “but aren’t all stories somewhat real? Certainly authors of such tales have some autobiographical reason to engage in such wild narratives.”

“Indeed,” replied the Chair, smiling at me in an encouraging way. “I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.” And so I told them, as I am about to tell you, the story of two naïve characters and their dogs.

*****

I had returned to this beach on Wisconsin’s only peninsula for nearly 20 years. I rent the larger of three cottages on a quiet, narrow, lake side road each season in August. The cottage is simple and self-catering, and despite the sand carried in inevitably from the beach, is always clean and comfortable. However, last summer the cabin I normally rented was undergoing renovations to the roof and was unavailable for renting. In lieu of staying in the cottage I’d grown to love for it’s solitude, I opted to rent the smallest of the three for my fortnight stay.

The Firefly (for that was the name of the cabin) had always been visible to me from the west side of my usual rental. A one room cottage with a tiny kitchen and even tinier lavatory, it was nonetheless a pleasant place with a comfortable double bed, a picnic table in lieu of a dining table, and a small, working stone fireplace for colder nights. The décor was as rustic as the cottage. The furniture sported faded plaids, the windows red and white gingham check curtains and old photographs of the lake adorned the walls. One piece, however, stood out from the rest; the wall opposite the view of Lake Michigan held a round, convex and grotesquely ornate mirror, far too ripe with gilded vines and three chubby cherubs holding bows and arrows. The mirror hung from a ribbon of faded red velvet ribbon tied in a bow which draped either side of the glass, which was dark in places where the silver had warped and worn off the back. The owner, in handing me the key, stood to look at it with me.

“It’s ghastly, isn’t it?” she remarked, without a smile on her face. “We don’t know how it got here. A woman renting the cottage during my father’s time found it in the storm cellar, apparently.” Then she turned to me with a curious expression on her face and asked, “… do you like ghost stories?”

I was startled by the question which arose seemingly from nowhere, but replied that in my profession I could never turn down a good story, ghost stories (usually quite disappointing) notwithstanding. I retrieved a bottle of wine and we sat at the small picnic table, where she told me the following tale.

The cottages I had rented for nearly two decades were built near the turn of the century by the current owner’s grandfather and father. As a child, the woman’s father told her the cottages were built on top of an Indian burial site. She had grown up happily in the cottage that stood before a dense wood, had learned to swim in the lake, ride a bicycle on the narrow lane that separated the cottages from beach. Her father rented the two other cottages – the one in which I usually passed two weeks in August, and the other in which the owner and I were sitting. One year, when she was sixteen, a woman, newly widowed, came to spend a quite few weeks by the lake to calm and ready herself for a life alone. She brought with her as company her small dog – a Pekinese or some such thing – named Francesca. The dog was affectionate and adored her mistress, who in turn bestowed such fondness upon the tiny creature it was obvious that she had never had children of her own. To occupy her mind, she had determined to teach her small companion to swim in the lake. It was her to leash Francesca and draw her out further and further into the waters, until finally, with patience, the tiny dog would paddle happily around with her owner.

On her second night in the cottage, the sky broke open with incredible power, and the storm forced her to retreat to a small storm cellar which one accessed through at the back of the house with her dog. Whilst waiting out the storm with Francesca panting softly on her knees and only a kerosene lamp for light, the woman took stock of her surroundings. The cellar was dank and smelled of lake and must. Cobwebs hung thickly from the beams across the ceiling. Along with the old chair in which she sat, there were shelves stacked against one wall, a crate full of old, dusty children’s books and an item wrapped in a moth-eaten blanket leaning against the wall behind the stairs upon which she had descended. The woman set the dog on the dirt floor and more than the sake of boredom than curiosity, began to unwrap the dusty, decaying blanket using only two delicate fingertips. Outside, the storm gained strength and howled against the horizontal storm doors overhead. In the cellar, Francesca began to bark furiously as the blanket dropped away to reveal the same grossly overwrought mirror hanging now in the small cottage I’d rented.

Perhaps owing to the tastes of the time, or perhaps revealing a lapse of taste on the part of the widow, she opted to bring the mirror above ground and into the cottage once the storm had carried itself away. She retrieved a long red velvet ribbon from her cases, secured it to the mirror and hung the thing exactly where it still remains to this day. No dared move it following the events of that long ago August, and so it has been allowed to offend those with more tasteful sensibilities unabated; but since that fateful summer the mirror has apparently reflected nothing more than a strangely warped and blotchy view the rest of the cottage and the parcel of beach that can be seen through the building’s large front windows.

The owner of the cottages fell silent for a bit, until, thinking she’d lost her train of thought, I prompted her to continue. “If you’re suggesting that the mirror played some part in a tragedy,” I said at length, “I can hardly accept this on faith. It isn’t pleasant to look at, certainly, but that does not incriminate the object as having committed some sort of crime.”

The woman looked at me with some surprise. “Oh, it isn’t the mirror itself that is the issue,” she said slowly, as if explaining her story to a child, “It’s what appeared in the mirror that caused the – shall we say, “event”? – to occur.” Then she lapsed again into silence, glancing at the mirror from the corners of her eyes.

“And what precisely did the mirror reflect?” I asked more out of courtesy than curiosity. It was getting late and I had yet to have eaten my midday meal, and was anxious that she complete her story in a timely matter so that I could boil myself an egg or two and have my evening meal in comfortable solitude.

“Well, that’s just it,” the woman responded. “It didn’t reflect anything. It… well, it created an image, if you will. An image of a young man and a dog, walking in from the lake. My great-uncle, to be precise. Or at least, that’s what we were led to understand. It was, however, quite impossible that his image should appear. He and his dog drowned just after the turn of the century when he was just sixteen years old. They both died. Out there.” She turned and nodded toward the lake. “Just off the end of the canal where the lighthouse now stands. His little skiff went down in a storm.”

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand – how could this woman assume it was your great uncle she’d seen? It could have been anyone, with any dog. Or her own imagination.”

“No, no,” the woman said, and reached across the table and laid her hand on my arm, looking intently into my eyes. “No, she saw him. She described both him and the dog precisely – my father showed her a photograph and she nearly fainted. No, it was him. Come back from the other side some forty years after his death with his dog at his side.”

The morning following the storm, the widow awakened to the sounds of workmen in the yard. She dressed lightly in her swimming gear, preparing for a humid summer day and anticipating the cool waters of a lake reflecting a passively blue sky up to the horizon. She wandered outside with her usual morning cup of Earl Grey to survey the damage. Branches lay strewn across the grounds of the small cabin, and the workmen were busy at work dismembering the desiccated trunk of a long-dead blue spruce that had fallen dangerously close to the Firefly’s front door.

As she stepped daintily around the fallen bracken strewn across the small grass yard, the workmen glanced appreciatively at the woman carrying her small dog in her arms. She was comely for her age, with soft, lightly lined pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes that belied her Scandinavian roots. A tall and gracile woman, she carried herself with refinement and innate dignity but also with an openness of expression that indicated a woman who may have become used to the finer things of life without losing an instinctive gentleness of spirit that was the hallmark of her personality.

The foreman of the crew at work pushed his slouchy hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a red neckerchief. He held out a hand to help the lovely woman step over a fallen branch. “Mind the undertow, Ma’am,” he offered gallantly as she glided toward the beach with Francesca. “The lake is always a bit rough following a storm.” She smiled at him beautifully and thanked him with a slight and endearing nod, and continued on her way.

The beach grass swayed benignly against her ankles as she made her way through a soft dune to the rain-mottled beach, Francesca trotting happily beside her. They paused, the woman looking daintily away, whilst Francesca completed her morning business, then continued to the lake. The water lapped delicately at her feet whilst Francesca lapped delicately at the water. The lake beckoned, promising cool weightlessness, a floating and forgiving weightlessness free of the crashing weather from the night before. She moved further out into the waves which swayed against her ankles, then her calves, her knees and her finely muscled upper legs. Francesca, holding tightly at the far end of her leash, whimpered anxiously and paced back and forth with taught nervousness, wanting to be closer to her mistress but showing a marked resistance to the waters which seemed to draw the woman further and further out. The little dog sat on her haunches and panted as the woman, turning her back to the lake, pulled finally against the long lead. Francesca rose slightly, setting her surprisingly strong hind legs in resistance to the tugs. The widow tugged harder. Francesca resisted further, twisting her little neck and head against the pressure of her collar and.

“Come on, Francesca,” the woman called in deliberate soothing tones, assuring the small creature that all was well. The water swelled against the back of her thighs, forcing her to take a small and involuntary step back toward the beach. The leash loosened slightly and the little dog sat back down, her pink tongue pulsing with her pants. “’Cesca!” the woman finally called in sharper tones which were styled with the intention of a command which was not to be ignored. “Come!” The little dog clutched the beach sand deeper with damp paws and stood suddenly, barking madly. “Come here!” the woman ordered again, and was about to pull the leash far more firmly when suddenly a rogue wave which had been rising steadily behind her struck fast against the beautiful woman’s finely sculpted back and powerfully pushed her off her feet, forcing the breath out of her.

Francesca, the beach, the dune grass, the sky, the clouds, and the workers in the small yard disappeared suddenly as the widow was thrown forward and thrust beneath the waves of the first watery onslaught. The sounds of birds, the breeze, the workers dispatching the fallen branches and the small dog barking its warning were replaced with the muffled, subsurface roar of Lake Michigan recovering from the previous evenings severe storm.

Her footing gone, the woman suddenly found the sand floor of the lake beneath her hands and clutched at it helplessly before her body acted of its own accord. Her arms pushed firmly against the sand beneath her hands and tried to force her body upwards toward sunlight and air. Her face broke the surface and she managed one grateful gasp that partially filled her lungs. Her feet scrambled against the sand beneath her and she fought for her footing before the second wave suddenly crashed overhead and forced her back down beneath the waters.

Then, the undertow found her. She felt herself pushed forward and then sucked backwards with sudden force. The water seethed against her ears, filled her nose and then tossed her helplessly upward. Briefly, she saw the sky. She saw a confused blur of normal life continuing without her – workers hacking away at fallen limbs, birds calling sweetly, the breeze blowing her dog’s furious barking back toward her cottage – before another wave tossed her hopelessly forward, under and then back toward the lake’s distant horizon once again.

In a confused moment, the undertow felt like fingers clutching her ankles, her calves, her waist, her shoulders. Safety was either above her or beneath her – she couldn’t be sure. The strains of surface waters moving in opposite directions of the deep beneath it tossed her like a small stone. She felt the pressure of the lake pushing against her chest, filling her ears and nostrils. She felt the air moving upwards and out of her mouth, and the metallic taste of lake water and fish moved with oily slowness against her tongue. She struggled for what felt like an endlessly long moment against the waves, struggling to get footing against sand which slid infuriatingly away from her toes with every second that passed.

Suddenly, fingers stronger than the undertow that sought to draw her out to see grasped her upper arms. She felt hands beneath her arms and arms encircling her waist. She felt herself drawn suddenly and sharply forward and up as two men drew her up out of the water and her lungs burned as oxygen flooded her body. Lunging forward, the two workers who had finally turned at the furious sounds of barking and had seen her struggles dragged the widow out of the lake and up into calmer and shallower waters. All three fell against the shore gasping and crawling toward the other workers who had dropped their axes and saws rushed forward to help them all out of the lake.

On her knees, her hands gratefully gripping solid land, the woman vomited weak streams of lake water which ran from her lungs and up her throat to pour out her mouth and nose onto the wet sands beneath her. The widow was distantly aware of shouting, calling, asking her questions. She felt the warm, soft tongue of Francesca against her face, and pulled the trembling dog close in her arms, the damp leash tangling around her wrists and the dog’s fur hot against her hands. Opening her eyes finally, still panting and coughing for plentiful air, she looked up at the beach, the trees blowing in the summer breeze, the workers still rushing forward to help, the clouds like soft white sleep against the sky, and then blissful darkness.

The widow spent the rest of that day lying in beautifully artistic repose against soft pillows in her cottage’s double feather bed, Francesca sleeping peacefully curled beneath her mistresses’ right arm. She was gloriously pale, which only served to accent the blue of her eyes and dusky pink lips. She was a gracious and elegant invalid, nearly regal in the way she received visitors who either expressed sincere regrets and brought nourishing soups, or visitors who merely wanted to take some small part in the near-drama that had occurred just off the beach on the small, private road that shared a narrow and sandy earthly space with Lake Michigan.

Once the respectable time for sick-bed visits to occur had ended, the woman rose slowly, disturbing (however stylishly) her small dog’s slumber, and went to survey the damage to her beautiful face and her long, blonde hair which had curled prettily from the lake waters and the day’s humidity. She stood before the grotesque mirror she had retrieved from the storm cellar and slowly wound her hair into a soft coif atop the crown of her finely formed head. She glanced away for a moment to locate several bobby-pins, and when she looked up again she gasped in astonishment, her eyes wide and frightened. There, in the mirror, were two shadowy and indistinct figures moving forward from what appeared to be some distance like mirages that appear above hot sands, their outlines shimmered slightly at the edges, making them appear as ghastly shape shifters must to superstitious people who believed in things such as vampyres and werewolves, ghosts and daemons. The first figure was human in form, the second much shorter, reaching only to its companion’s waist (if such atrocities sported waists) and appeared to be crawling on all fours.

Alarmed, she spun round, one hand still securing her hair atop her head, the other holding out a u-shaped bobby-pin as if it were an effective weapon against anything other than stray locks.

There was nothing behind her. Slowly, her breath and body trembling, she turned back to the mirror and saw her own eyes staring back at her in wild alarm. And there, on the right hand side of the glass, was simply reflected the candlelight room, the front windows framing an evening sky, the lake beyond washing purple in the dying light of day.

With shaking fingers, she bravely arranged her hair with careful precision, smoothed her lace robe and pinched her cheeks to bring color to her face all whilst staring wide-eyed at her reflection in the fearsome mirror. The candlelight played garishly upon the surface of the gild covering the leaves and figures on the overwrought frame. The cherubs appeared to smirk with mordant humor, pointing poison-tipped arrows into the glasses’ depths and aimed directly at her heart. She backed slowly away from the mirror, the candlelight forming attractive hollows in her face, making her cheekbones stand out and her startled blue eyes to spark in the fading light. Francesca whined for attention and dinner, breaking the woman’s fascination with the mirror and gave her something else to focus on besides her strange hallucination. Nonetheless, when she went to bed that night she sat with her back against the headboard, her knees and blankets drawn up, her little dog cuddled protectively in her arms. She sat as such for hours until the extraordinarily stressful day finally exhausted her once again, and she slept fitfully until dawn.

The next morning dawned clean, cool and damp. The Widow woke as the very fingertips of light found their way from the horizon across the lake, along the beach and up across to smudge themselves along the woman’s face. She could hear the faint “shush” of a gentle surf at a distance, and turned on her side restlessly before finally opening her eyes. Accustomed as she was to having Francesca curled in upon herself atop a tufted, violet-velvet pillow the Widow kept on the mattress next to her, she was startled to find the dog’s cushion empty. She raised herself on one elbow.

“’Cesca?” She waited. There were no sounds of tiny nails scrabbling along the cabin’s wood floor, no soft jingle of the dog’s nametag playing against her collar hook. “Francesca!” the Widow called out rather more loudly than she expected to, and she sat up fully in bed, slightly wild-eyed, the fears of the evening before still gripping her imagination.

A soft, groaning exhale came from low beneath the foot of the bed. Gathering the skirts of her white cotton nightgown around her legs, the Widow crept slowly forward on the mattress on all fours, trembling, and then cautiously peered over the bed’s edge. Her mind manufactured all sundry of horrible sights – Francesca bloody and mauled, Francesca fighting for her breath, Francesca in the grips of some wild animal that had found its way in during the night – in all scenarios, Francesca at the foot of the bed, fighting for her life.

But there Francesca sat quite still and upright on the floor between the bed and the fireplace, staring fixedly up at the gaudy gilt mirror. “Bad girl,” the Widow exhaled without any heat nor anger. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” Francesca didn’t seem to hear her at all, in fact, but sat rigid, slightly shaking with some sort of internal intensity, her little eyes fixed on the mirror over the fireplace mantel.
With growing apprehension, the Widow found herself raising her eyes to the mirror.

The glass glowed with the reflective glory of a beautiful dawn. The sun, giant on the horizon, burned brilliantly, throwing up flames of orange, red and gold toward the sky and across the lake to the beach. The waters of Lake Michigan lay quietly in its bed this fine morning and blushed softly with the mirrored magnificence of the sunrise, as if embarrassed by its behavior of the previous day. A bevy of early morning fishing boats seeking the best catches steamed out from the canal and passed by as shadows all along the horizon. In the middle distance, an early morning swimmer emerged slowly from the waves toward shore. A soft breeze tossed the dune grasses gently, shaking early day dew from the blades of green and amber, and drawing brief but diamond sparkling sun showers from the leaves of Quaking Aspens.

Daybreak has a magical ability to chase away night terrors. All things that habitually skulked through the dark of night vanished in the face of the sun. The Widow stood transfixed at the mirror, watching life resume its business with seemingly no sense of any scars of fright one may have incurred the night before. It calmed her, filled with both hope and a sense of wellbeing that comes when a dark fear goes unrealized and renders itself ridiculous in the light of day. She stood next to her dog, both gazing at the mirror, watching the swimmer emerge slowly from the surf. Backlit by the light, the silhouetted swimmer appeared to be towing something at the end of a rope. The closer it came to shore, the more it became obvious the swimmer was a boy or a young girl, thin and athletic in outline, the rope a tight line between it’s hand and whatever was tethered to it. Enthralled by the idyll before her, the Widow watched the reflection of boats passing peacefully into the distance as the sun rose higher, the light now touching the horizon with the briefest of kisses. The swimmer had won the shore, and paused on the beach to allow what was now obviously a dog to vigorously shake the waters from its fur.

Francesca growled softly, her brown eyes wide, her body trembling with stress. The Widow, too engaged in the pastoral before her to notice, followed the swimmer’s ascent from the water to the beach, from the beach through the dune grasses, past the Quaking Aspens and toward the road. The little dog’s growls became low yips which quickly turned to a salvo of frantic yelping. The dog then leaped to its feet to brace herself against the ferocity of her own barking.

Broken from her reverie, the Widow turned her head to frown at the little dog for the briefest of moments, annoyed that her pygmy companion had broken her blissful morning reverie. Then, turning instinctively back toward the mirror in which lay a likeness of peace and tranquility, she felt her breath stop in her throat and her heart leap violently. Reflected in the mirror was the front room of the cabin, framing within it the door to the place. Just outside the door on the stone step, both dripping with lake water, were the shadowy figures of a young man and his dog. Staring in horror, knowing somewhere deep in her bones that there was no way the early swimmer could have breached the distance between shore and door in a mere moment, she watched in horror as the boy raised a spectral hand to knock and acquire entrance into the cabin. Reeling about in fear and confusion, Francesca’s warning barks echoing in her ears, the woman’s gaze swung to the front door.

There was no one there. Just the empty front step, beyond that the tiny road, the dune grasses, the Quaking Aspens, the beach, the lake, the fading glory of a dying dawn that heralds the burning promise of a bright day, and the fishing boats slipping into invisibility beyond the horizon as if they had never existed.

Bending down with trembling hands the Widow pulled Francesca up into her arms and backed away around the edge of the bed, away from both the mirror and front door, and, sitting suddenly on the wooden floor, pushed herself against a far wall, between the bed and the dresser, her breath scraping as best it could from beneath her pounding heart. Francesca squirmed frantically in her mistress’ arms, pushing with whatever might a small dog has against the Widow’s chest and belly to be free. Finally freeing herself, the dog ran back around the end of the bed to stand and savagely snarl and bark at the mirror.

From her place on the floor, the woman stared in abject terror up at the ghastly mirror, grabbing with some vague but irrational instinct at her bedsheets. The shawl she wore to warm her shoulders when she read at night propped up against bed pillows fell with a soft, silky hiss into her lap. It had been a wedding gift from her husband, a man she had not truly loved but had endlessly respected. He’d proven himself a good man and a decent husband, had provided for her and had indulged his beautiful young wife with both wisdom and whim. The memory of him, coming unbidden, gave her some brief relief from her terror. Grasping her shawl with sudden firm resolute, the Widow forced herself to her feet and raced across the short distance from bed to wall to fling the shawl over the face of the mirror.

The small cabin was filled with a sudden, soft silence. Francesca, her barking instantly stopped with the veiling of the mirror, sat down once again with her tiny ears pricked and her small head cocked to one side as she gazed up at the Widow. Beyond the silence of her immediate surroundings, she heard once again the gentle passes of waves moving back and forth upon the shore and the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze. She stood, panting, one place delicate hand pressed against her breast to stop the pounding of her heart, and waited for her mind to calm itself. She was only certain of one thing; she had to get out of the cabin and away from the veiled mirror. Perhaps another cabin in the small resort stood empty. Perhaps she could rapidly pack and leave her vacation early. Perhaps… perhaps….

First things first. She and Francesca needed to flee the small bungalow. The back door of the cabin through which she had escaped with Francesca the night of the storm was not reflected in the mirror, and therefore she considered it “safe.” She could dress, leash the dog, and escape quickly out that door without any fear of passing before the fireplace or the veiled mirror suspended above it.

Crawling on her hands and knees, she crept from her place beside the bed and into the small kitchen, then reached up, unlatched and opened the inner door, then hesitated. Francesca had run off twice before since the Widow had owned her, and both occasions had been heart-rendering until the little dog was back in her arms. Knowing the dog would run out at any opportunity afforded it, the Widow allowed the screen door to remain latched at the last moment. She then turned about, still on all fours, and crawled back to the comparative safety of the narrow space between bed and dresser.

Rising slowly, shakily, she yanked open drawers and dove her hands into the dresser, dressing herself hurriedly and with much less care than she generally prepared herself for any given day. She donned a top that didn’t quite match the skirt she’d yanked from a drawer. She buttoned the blouse rapidly, wrongly, and found herself nearly rending buttons from the cotton fabric in trying to get the thing on correctly. Finally, she drew on slippers rather than her shoes which were lying further away, and reached behind herself for Francesca’s leash, which she every night she hung on a peg near the top of the bed.

It wasn’t there.

Appalled, her breath escaped in one giant rush and, dizzy, she dropped instantly to her knees. Panting, her heart still throbbing painfully, she nervously looked beneath the bed only to find fine balls of dust and a pen that had dropped from the nightstand and rolled against the wall. She frantically searched beneath and behind the nightstand nearest her, then rose and frantically tore the blankets from the bed, sent clothes from dresser drawers flying, cast about helplessly on the floor beneath the dresser and under the blanket chest. Nothing. Raising herself to a kneeling position, she cast a furtive glance toward the mirror.

And there it was. In her haste to cover the damnable thing, she had somehow tangled the leash in her shawl and had tossed both over the glass one and one together. The braided leather leash drooped where it had caught about the head of a chuckling cherub near the top of the frame toward the fireplace beneath it, the silver clasp dangling over the edge of the mantel.

There were most like at least half a dozen ways the Widow could have retrieved her pet and carried both it and herself to safety, but a mind in turmoil is a labyrinth of intellectual failings and loss of common sense. At this moment, everything depended upon the braided leash capped with a silver clasp dangling from the veiled mirror. Even the shawl, the very thing which had brought memories of her husband which had allowed her the strength to place a flimsy silk barrier between herself and the loss of her very sanity would have to remain behind. All she wanted was safe escape for herself and Francesca. And she would do anything for the tiny dog that had taken the place of all the children she would never have.

With aching slowness, the Widow crawled round the end of the bed and approached the fireplace. Francesca danced backwards a few steps then lowered her front legs and raised her back end in the air, thinking play was in the offering. Ignoring her dog for the moment, the Widow raised her hand up to the mantel which thankfully, from her low vantage point, hid the mirror from her view. Her fingers, reaching, found the silver clasp and then gripped it firmly. With a thankful sigh, the Widow pulled on the clasp to bring the leash down to the floor. A blissful few inches of the leash slipped further into her grasp, the stopped. She tugged. The leash held tight, caught firmly by the frame as if some fat, gilded baby held it tight in its chubby little hand.

The Widow’s eyes filled with tears. Wiping angrily at them with her free hand, the woman gave a single firm tug to try and free the leash from the clutches of the frame. The mirror, in response, leant dangerously forward. To pull any harder would most likely mean pulling the entirety of the heavy monstrosity down upon her head. Suddenly sobbing, the Widow turned and leant her back against the stone side of the fireplace, and gave herself over to sorrow.

It was not an emotion she was unused to. It arose in her soul from loss – the loss of her father at an early age. The loss of her mother’s attentions and affection as she watched her drift further into the dark grief of her own widowhood. The loss of a much loved betrothed in the Great War. The loss of one child, then another, before she was informed of her inability to ever bear a son or a daughter to full term. All those losses leading to a hardness within her which then sought comfort in more concrete terms – she had found solace, finally, in the good reputation of her husband and the money and prestige they afforded her through what she’d always considered a loveless marriage. She’d learned to find peace in a doting husband besotted with the beautiful girl who had agreed to marry him. She acquired a bounty of beautiful clothes, expensive jewels, and enjoyed (as much as she was able) epically long journeys to Europe, extravagant meals boasting flesh of fowel and beast and bounties from the sea and prided herself in the beautifully turned-out Victorian home which boasted more bedrooms than it could ever fill. All of them cold comforts, now. Now, faced with the terror before her, the fear of the immediate loss of her mind drove her deeper into darkness where she feared she would meet the spectre of her own mother in her darkest days – unwashed and unchanged for days, hair disheveled, eyes wild and wide and at the same time sightless to what was directly before her, the images her mother saw coming only from deep within the dark void that comprised her grief.

The image of her own mother’s unspeakable grief internal torture brought within her some steel of reserve to save herself from any more loss. She would not lose Francesca. She would not lose her own mind. She would not lose her will to live. She reached behind herself and pressed her hands against the solid stone of the fireplace. Pushing herself thus to her feet, she stood for a moment, still, straight backed and stern, facing away from the thing of her dread until her tears stopped. Those that remained she uncharacteristically wiped away on the sleeves of her blouse. Then she turned with fierce determination to face the veiled mirror, and then moved with glycerine slowness to pull the leash down from its height.

The shawl she had cast over it was billowing as curtains hung before an open window on a breezy day. From behind the blowing veil she could hear the surf Lake Michigan, louder than it should have been given her albeit short distance to the thing itself. She could smell the fishiness lakeness in the breeze as it blustered out from the mirror. She could feel its breath upon her face, feel it blow back the auburn curls of her hair. But steeled as she was against Loss, she nonetheless reached out away from her fear and sought to pull the leash from the mirror’s frame.

The breeze from the mirror lifted a corner of her shawl, and as she reached out toward the thing, she glimpsed for the merest moment a hand likewise reaching out for her. Before she could react, the hand left the confines of the mirror and reached into her reality, where it gripped her wrist firmly, then grappled hungrily for her forearm where it wrapped it’s fingers tightly about her flesh and bone like a person will apply a deathly grip even to its rescuer to save itself from drowning. Francesca barked before shrieking once in fear or pain (or both), and then all was silence save for the soft , motherly “shush” of waves upon sand.

*****

I fell as silent as my colleagues gathered around the table with me. After a pause, my department chair asked, “…But is that all there is?” “Yes,” responded another colleague, “what happens next?” “Surely,” said another, “one cannot end a story there. What became of the woman? The mirror? The little dog, for God’s sake?”

“Ach,” said my bombastic male colleage, stabbing his fork into his dessert, “Chihuahas. If that’d been my dog, I’d have shot it in the pooper.”

“It wasn’t a Chihuaha,” someone corrected him, “it was a Pomeranian.” “No,” replied someone else, “a Toy Poodle.”

“Irrelevant!” my male colleague replied, downing the last quarter of his port in one gulp of gusto. “It was a dog. That is the fact. The type of dog is the fiction. All ghost stories contain more of the latter than the former.”

“But surely,” one of our newer faculty replied, “one must accept that all fiction contains within it at least kernels of reality. Should we not as academics at least consider that this story offered to us tonight,” here he nodded toward me, “carries with it at least the possibility of truth? Might it not be possible that things could happen?”

“Possible!” the bombastic male responded, “but not probable, my dear boy. You must learn that difference at once. Truth is not fiction, nor vice versa. Here are truths for you – dogs exist. Mirrors exist. Fragile females exist. Lake Michigan, most certainly, exists. The rest? …” and then he let his sentence trail off, waving his hand in the air as if he were shooing away at a noisome gnat.

After this brief exchange in relation to my tale, talk turned again to academia – to curriculums and assessments and quite dull things the likes of which I shall not bore you with here. I remained silent, drank my coffee and ate the remainder of a rather fine vanilla pumpkin custard that I had ordered for my own (shall we say “just”?) dessert.

Upon leaving, as I was buttoning my coat and chatting aimlessly with my Department Chair, she leaned forward suddenly and peered at my necklace. “Now, that’s a pretty thing,” she murmured. I wore a small, braided silver chain upon which hung a disk of beveled sterling with the initial “F” set in fine, pave diamonds. She took the disk between to fingers to admire it more closely.

“It was my great-aunt’s,” I told her, “left to me when she passed long before I was born. Her name was Finnula. I was named for her.” “Well,” my chair replied, tightening her scarf whilst staring at the pendant, “it’s beautiful. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

The first snow of the year had begun to fall whilst we were gathered at table. It’s not unusual for this part of the country to see frost and snow long before others ever do. I walked into the night and took a private moment at the corner to gather my thoughts. When it snows at night and one has the opportunity to look up at the sky from beneath a streetlight, it seems as though the sky does not exist and the snow falls from eternity itself. I thought about what I’d related at the table and also those things I did not relate. I thought about whether I regretted leaving out parts of the tale while embellishing other things to obscure what my colleagues considered, “Truth.”

Instinctively, from long practice, I gently took the pendant around my neck and set it inside my blouse, where it lay cold as ice, waiting to warm against my skin. My fingers slipped into the placket of my shirt, I traced the diamond “F” with my fingertip, glad I had not turned the pendant around. On the backside of the shiny silver disc is engraved in sweet scrollwork letters a single word: “Francesca.”

Credit: J. Bailey-Hartsel

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The Shame

May 20, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This pasta was the second place winner of our Gaming Creepypasta Challenge. Congratulations!

The first place winner can be viewed here, and the third place story will go up tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who participated!

This is the bit where I tell you I’ve always loved games right? That I’ve been a gamer my whole life? Sorry, that’s not how it goes this time.

In all honesty I’ve always preferred book. So many games only give you this snapshot of a world, but a book could take you through so much more. My favourites had always been stories like Alice’s Adventures in wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, where the character would be thrown into a world far stranger, and often more frightening, than our own.

But, like a lot people, my friends went more and more down the path of the gamer and I found myself playing more video games since I had only a handful of friends and wanted to hold onto what I had. I began with a few of the easy titles like Halo, and just messing around with my friends in Minecraft. Nothing here really seemed to stick however. Not like books did.

I talked to my best friend about it, a guy named Mark, and he said he knew what to do. They next day he came by my house with a game called Planescape Torment on CD. He told me it was an old title he’d played like crazy as a kid, based on some strange, Dungeons and Dragons world. I thanked him and took the game.

I have to admit I had very little drive to play the game. The whole gaming experience seemed a little dry on its own to me and, without the benefit of talking to my friends online, I had very little interest in the idea.

Still I told Mark I’d play it, so I put it into my computer and installed it.

The experience was incomprehensible. The game had you playing as what could be best be described as a zombie with a floating skull for a side-kick. You would run around a city called Sigil and interact with the strangest characters that could be imagined. More than anything it felt full. Sure, there was no voice acting, but I’ve told you how much I love to read.

I loved every moment and played for hours every day. I put down my books, called in sick to work a few times, and went offline to my friends so they couldn’t distract me.

No longer was I sitting on the outside and watching one of these worlds, I was living it, interacting with it. The whole thing felt alive.

And then it ended.

It was about 2:00 am and my new, exciting world of Sigil ended. Leaving me with nothing but the cold empty apartment and the whirring of my computer fan.

I needed more. I looked for my friends online but it appeared they had all gone to sleep or where elsewise busy. This was unacceptable.

Instead I went wider places of the internet. To forums. Looking for something else to satisfy my hunger. But as far as I could see, Planescape is the only game to have been set in Sigil.

There was one comment that caught my eye on a feed though. The commenter was called Redrum Gamer. And all he said was, ‘The_Shame: Play it and learn your heart’s desire.’

The message was weird, but that only got me more curious. What is The Shame? I wondered.
I looked further. It was tricky to find The Shame. None of the mainstream sight like Steam or Uplay seem to have it available. But soon enough I found it, available for thirteen dollars. I held my breath. I had a tight budget and thirteen dollars was a steep price to pay for a game that I had only the one limited opinion of.

I scrolled down to the comments section of the webpage. The only comment was Redrum Gamer, once again, and all he said was, ‘Your heart’s desire.’

The smart thing would be to let it go. The smart thing would have been to ask my friends in the morning. I didn’t do the smart thing. As I hit ‘Add to Cart’ and entered my credit card information I felt a tingle of excitement run up my spine. My friends had a kind of competition. There was this plastic trophy cup we would pass around called the Finders Cup. Once a month whoever had found the best obscure title would claim ownership of the Cup. Needless to say I’d never had it before. But maybe this time? I thought to myself as The Shame downloaded and installed.

Opening up the file named the_shame.exe, the screen went black for a fraction of a second. Well almost black… I think anyway. I swear I could have seen a face in that instant of a moment, one shade of grey above the total darkness that surrounded it. But then again, it was late and I may have been having a hard time focusing.

The title screed of the game featured a dark landscape of black, red and grey with wreaked buildings and strewn bodies everywhere all in 16 bit graphics. Hovering over the landscape was the words, The Shame in letters the colour of crusted blood, like a scar that had never been cleaned. Bellow this was two words, the first in white saying ‘PACISCI’ and another, below the first, this one greyed out: ‘EDURO’.

A tune played in the background of the scene of woe. It wasn’t distorted or eerie as you may be expecting. The tune rose and fell in a manner that, although seemed natural, also felt wrong… Like that sensation of nerves that shoot up whenever something touches your neck. It could be anything from a knife blade to a lovers kiss. Regardless, however, it still feels strange.

I tried to push down the felling the peculiar music gave me. I even considered turning the speakers off, but knew I had to give the game at least one try with the proper immersion. So, having only one clear option to me, I clicked enter on PACISCI.

The whole screen went black again. Grey writing came up which read: ‘What does your heart most desire?’ I hesitated at this. Is this what Redrum Gamer was talking about? I knew what I wanted to write, but also didn’t know whether it was crossing a line. Then I remembered that this was a video game and no one would have any idea what I typed Taking a deep breath, I typed in ‘Penny’.

The background was the same grizzled scene as the menu. The music became the same cringing notes that haunted me before. But the character, the character was almost featureless. Wrapped from head-to-toe in dark robes. The only part of him that wasn’t black was his face, but once again you couldn’t see it since over his face he wore a white mask I recognised as one that Italian doctors would wear during the years of The Black Plague. On his head he wore a triangular hat, which once again was black.
Glancing at the clock I saw that it was getting onto 4:00 am I realised I should have long since quit and gone to bed since I had work in the morning. But yet I still found my hands never going near the escape key. Instead they found their way to the W-A-S-D buttons. The default movement keys in modern games. Nothing happened.

Frowning, I then tried the arrow keys, to better success. I moved my character to the right, since this is how to progress in most side scrolling games. All of a sudden the scene started shaking, bouncing up and down. The chilling music was met with a low rumbling sound. Out of instinct I hit the left arrow and my character, my little plague doctor as it were, started running to the left.

The screen started moving left and the character kept running. I began to wonder if running form the presences to the right of me had been the right call after all. The rumbling never stopped however. And so I kept moving. This must have gone on for a good two or three minutes. I have to say that though the gameplay was beginning to become rather dull, I was impressed with the background. Where most games like this use the same small scene on a loop, the environment here always appeared to be changing, always something new, and considering the work was all in 16 bit it was visually stunning in its own twisted way.

I was so lost in the atmosphere of the whole scene, that when I finally had to respond it took me by shock for a moment. A vertical edge shot out from the scene leading upwards, a ladder just out of reach of my Doctor. The rumbling grew wilder, and more sporadic as my Doctor collided with the wall in front of him. Panicking I slammed my hand down on the spacebar hoping my character would jump like I intended. The Doctor shot up and grabbed onto the ladder dangling above him. With a heavy breath I climbed up and away from the rumbling.

As I rose up and away I became aware of my clammy hands and speeding heart. This startled me. I’d been frightened by games before, but they were games like Amnesia or Outlast. They were first person games that brought you right into the horror. I chalked it up to the music and my own exhaustion eating away at my sanity and with a heavy sigh to calm my nerves I climbed the top off the ladder.

Atop the ledge was what I assumed must have been some kind of checkpoint area. The rumbling had stopped, and there were even a few other living souls scattered about the broken environment.

I approached the closet of the other characters, a man wearing bright blue and gold clothes and a top hat on his head. For a time I pressed the buttons at random till shift brought up a text box.
“A wife I once had.
The light of my days and night.
But now she is gone.”
After a glance I dismissed it as meaningless dialogue and hit shit once more. But instead of closing it the conversation, it took me to yet another, although much shorter, text box.
“Such is shame.”

Hitting shift once again took me out of the screen, and gave me control over my Doctor. I kept moving forward to the second survivor, a women in a pink and red dress. Speaking to it again it said:
“I lied to escape
It. Tried to hold my head high.
Now it finds my dreams.”
Hitting shift once more I received the same second text box:
“Such is shame.”

There was one more character in the safe zone. A man wearing little more than what looked like a hessian sack, and was slumped on his knees. Curiosity getting the better of me once more, I spoke to him as well.
“I use to sing well,
Playing for all who listened.
Now they’ve gone away.”
Once again:
“Such is shame.”

I wondered what the messages meant exactly. It was clear these were all characters carrying shame, the game literally told me that so no secrets there, but is that all they were? In a game already so devoid of life, not just in gameplay but in people, colour and enemies as well, I’d hope for something more. Some reason as to why the four of us were here to begin with, and what had kept on my heels the whole run here.

After bouncing around for a while, and finding little else of interest, I decided to call it a night. I closed the game, hoping it had some form of auto-save function, and went to bed.

The next day, at my cubical desk job I E-mailed my friends about The Shame, asking if they knew about it, and telling them what I had done. None of them really should much interest, apart from Mark that is. Mark, the friend who had shown me Planescape Torment in the beginning, and I had always been close. We had met in high-school and stayed friends to this day even after I started dating and inevitably broke-up with his sister.

Mark was also an armature musician. And though he always said it was only a hobby even I could tell he harboured dreams of being professional. He was curious about what I had said about the music, having already started inserting some digital edits to his tracks, and asked if he could come around later that day and hear it for himself. I accepted, kind of relieved by not having to confront the game, and the music on my own again.

After getting home at 7:00 pm I grabbed something to eat, but while I was finishing I found myself torn between the desires to play more of The Shame before Mark arrived, and confronting the disturbing game world on my own. After all, at this stage it was still my discovery, but if Mark was around when I entered the meat of the game that I assumed was still to come, did it then become ours? Soon enough I settle for a third option, researching the game online.

I suppose it comes as no surprise: Googling ‘The Shame’ is a bad idea if you’re looking for specifics. You get this weird blend of Christians filled with it, and pornstars who are apparently without it.

So I tried again this time, adding ‘game’ to the end of the search. Once again, ‘The Shame Game’ harboured useful information.

Just as I sat scratching my head there came a sudden knock at my apartment door. It startled me, but I shock it off and opened up to let Mark in.

As Mark pulled up a second chair to the computer desk, I booted up the game. But as it started the piercing music never came. In fact what played instead was rather startling. It wasn’t 16-bit music or computerised in anyway. It was like a deep storm rising from a guttural rich vein. Like Mongolian throat singing. The kind that vibrates deep into your very core. This deep stir was then met by a striking higher note, the voice of a child, piercing into your mind.

I gave Mark a glance, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“Sorry.” I said. “It seems to have changed.”
“Not at all,” he replied, “this is outstanding…’

Looking back over to the game it was the same title sequence over the dead landscape. The two words, now both white, floating on the screen, ‘PASICI’ and ‘EDURO’. I looked at the screen for a moment. Mark tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you going to do something man?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just last time I had only the once choice, I’m not sure what to select.”
“Try EDURO.”
“Why?”
“I just – I’ve just got a feeling alright…”
Shrugging it off, and trying to ignore Marks almost reverent stare at the computer, I selected the second option. The screen went black and Mark jumped back in his chair.
“Holy Shit!” he shouted.
“What?”
“Didn’t you see it?”
“No… See what?”
Mark blinked a few times and shook his head before saying:
“I just… It doesn’t matter, keep going.”

The scene was the wrecked landscape with the survivors I had left it in. My Doctor sat idle, waiting for instruction. Doing a quick check of the other characters to see they all said the same thing, I decided to see how far left my character would go in this safe-zone.

Eventually an animation played where the screen wiped across and I was in a new location. The sky was now a dying gold, mountains protruded from the background, and the music had gone back to the sharp electronic notes it had been before when I first played. I smiled, even as my heart plummeted, pretending it didn’t bother me.

I looked over to Mark, he shot me a smile as well. But I could tell even his nerves were digging in. Then he looked back at the screen, and frowned.
“Were they there before?”
I looked over, my Doctor was running into the centre of the screen, but joining him were the three others I had met earlier in the broken village.
“No.” I replied, puzzled myself.

Then the rumbling returned. I slammed down on the left arrow key, my Doctor ran, and the others followed.
“So is this all it is?”
“So far, I guess I’m only in the first – level? I guess that’s what you would call it.”
My mind began to wander as Mark kept talking, I assume commenting on the music. The music which seemed to enter my mind, the music that brought me to thoughts of my parents. We hadn’t been on the best terms when I’d last left. After Penny – Marks sister and my girlfriend of a few years, – walked out on me, I kind of fell off the planet and into my books. I had been studying to get a medical degree, but after she was gone… it just took a lot out of me.

“… I mean you did say there wasn’t much to the game – Shit! Watch out!”
My mind shot back into the real world! I looked at the screen and ahead of my Doctor and his three companions was a whirling blade. I didn’t think I’d be able to stop myself before running into it, and I guess, in a way, I was right. When I was just by the razors edge my Doctor simply stopped moving. I couldn’t walk into the circular blade if I had wanted to. I hit space bar and jumped over, the spinning lumber saw.

I kept running, and my companions followed me. Bouncing over the rotating saw as they went. All but one that is… The man in the sack attempted to leap over, but, and I’ll admit it was hard to tell with the pixel graphics, it appeared his foot was caught in the saw and he fell on his face on the other side of the blade.

I panicked.
“What do I do?”
“Go get him for Christ sake!” shouted Mark, he wasn’t concerned, he was ecstatic.
I ran my character back to the injured man. I mashed shift, hoping it would do something to help.
“Help him!” Mark shouted, his voice growing more and more frantic.
Shift did nothing however. All that appeared was a text box with that message again:
“Such is shame.”
Hitting shift again presented me with a final comment from my beggar friend:
“This is the price of Satan’s game.”
The thing, the rumbling. It was too close now, I couldn’t try anything else. So I ran. Leaving the beggar to be taken in by the rumbling blackness that hounded our path.

The rest of the road was uneventful for my Doctor and his now only two companions, the Gentleman and the Lady. I played in silence, Mark seemed to be lost in his own thoughts too as he sat beside me, wide-eyed. Soon enough the trio arrived at another ladder, and we climbed it without incident.

Feeling bummed about the whole events I closed the game as soon as I reached the safe zoned and turned the computer off.

Looking at Mark, I saw he was biting his nails.
“Hey man, I know it’s late and all, but if you need a drink or something before you head out it’s cool.”
Mark blinked twice and looked at me before saying,
“Ah, yeah man. Thanks.”

I got up from the office chair and pulled out a couple of beers from the fridge before meeting Mark on the cramped area I had designated as the lounge in my two room apartment. All there really was to make it more liveable than the rest of the place was a couch and a TV.

The silence that sat between the two of us was irking at best. Though nothing was said, Mark’s tension grated away at my own nerves.
“So how’s Penny?” I asked, trying to make small talk. It’s sad to get hung up on your ex like this, I know, but this time I really wanted to just break the silence.
“She’s good,” was all the response I got.
The silence returned.
“Well what did you think of the music?”
Mark was silent for a time before saying,
“What?”
“The music. It’s why you came remember?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah… Look man I’ve just gotta go. I’ll see you round.”
Then Mark got up, putting his bottle on the floor, and made his way over to the door. I got up to see him out, but by the time I picked up the half-drunk beer Mark had already left.

I shrugged, thinking little of it, and called it a night.

The next day I sat at my desk, staring away at my computer. The phone at my desk rang. I tensed. I normally only got calls on the work phone when a higher up needed to yell at me. Thanks to The Shame I hadn’t slept much lately and I worried the exhaustion may have been showing up in my job performance.

I picked up the phone.
“Joseph?”
It was Penny’s voice? It sounded stuffy though, as if she had been crying. I had given her my work number in some show of drunken affection, a ‘Sorry I ignored you for a year and a half as I spiralled into depression! But if you ever need me, don’t be afraid to call!’ sap move.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said quiet as I could. Hoping no one realised I was taking a personal call on work hours.
“It’s – It’s… Mark. He had an accident last night.”
“What?” I all but exclaimed before reminding myself to keep my voice down. I looked around the office, but no one seemed to be paying much attention, lost in there on clicking and typing no doubt.
“Is he alright?” I asked once I thought it was safe.
“Well he’s not hurt… Or at least doesn’t appear to be anyway… Just–” The line went silent.
“He’s what?”
“He’s in a coma. They don’t know when – I mean if – he’s going to wake up.”
Now it was my turn to fall silent. My body turned cold as ice.
“What caused it?” I asked. Mark had always been a safe driver, stuck to all those ‘wipe off five’ rules and everything.
“Well they’re not totally sure. Apparently there was alcohol in his system, a lot apparently.” Penny said through chocked breaths.
“What? Look the guy had one beer – which he didn’t finish by the way. If there was anything still in his blood it would be well below the legal limit.”
“Hold on Joseph, what are you saying? Did you see him last night?”
I froze, I mean I had, but I knew how Penny worked. If I told her then she would insist on drilling me for information and I was still at work.
“Joseph, you still there?”
“Yeah, yeah. Look I’ve gotta roll a hard six here, but I’ll call you later, you’ve still got the same number right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”

I hung up and fell back into my crappy chair that company claimed was ergonomic, and maybe at some point it was, but with all the springs and adjustments broken it was a rattling mess these days. ‘Rolling the hard six’ was a reference to the show Battlestar Galactica. Penny and I had watched and loved the series together and it had become our code for doing something harsh but necessary. Still I didn’t have time to think on that now. I had to get through the day, and figure out what I was going to tell Penny.

By the time I got home it was dark. I was putting off the conversation and had found any excuse to stay at the office, but there were no excuses now. I picked up my mobile and dialled Penny’s number.
“Hey Penny, just calling you ba –”
“Hi!” Penny’s chipper voice cut in.
“I’m not at the phone right now, but if you leave a mess –”
I hang up, I’m still not all that sure what I want to say, and I certainly don’t want to say it in a message.

Collapsing on the couch I turn the TV on, hoping to detoxify my addled brain from the stress of the day. It takes me into the early morning and through a lot of weird channels and programs, but soon enough, I crash.

I find myself in a forest. The trees are distorted and my breathing is heavy. Looking up the branches seem to stretch far out of sight. Then I hear a voice call my name. Looking about with a slow calm that feels wrong in this place I see Jayson and Kat, my other two friends. Jay is shouting at me, his face red with fury, while Kat seems to have broken down into tears. I attempt to ask then what is wrong but no words come out.

A beep from behind me rips my attention away and I spin around to see myself in a hospital. The beep is a heart monitor and Mark is laying in a bed, his face almost peaceful. I step closer and closer to his unconscious frame. Then his eyes shoot open and he turns his head to look at me.
“Why Joseph?” he asks.
“Why have you done this?”

When I awaken I find myself still half seated, half sprawled on my couch, perspiration built up on my face. I go to the kitchen and wash myself off. Looking at my phone I see I’ve get a missed call from Penny, and that it’s well past midday. I curse under my breath, but also feel a sense of relief that it’s my day off.

I was just about to call Penny again, but then I stop. I put down the phone and head over to my computer. I was acting out of some kind of instinct, an instinct that didn’t feel like my own. I switch on my computer, and open up Google Chrome, then my hands type the word ‘Pacisci’, the word from The Shame’s menu. The word was Latin, as I’d expected. However where I expected it to say ‘start’, or ‘begin’, it came up with, ‘to make a bargain or agreement’. My heartbeat rose as I typed in the next word. Whether it were by my own incentive or that of the outside force I wasn’t sure. I looked up ‘Eduro’ this was closer to what I’d been expecting. Yes it meant to continue in a sense, but with a little extra digging, I found it specifically applied went it meant to ‘persist or endure’. An odd choice for a game, something meant to be enjoyed.

I shook my head, attempting to clear my thoughts. I had to know what was going on here. I opened up The_Shame.exe and the background came up once more. I hesitated between the two options.
“But it can’t be?” I whispered to myself.
“This… This whole thing is insane…”
Eventually I selected ‘ENDUO’ and in that fraction of a second, where the screen went black, I saw in clear white letters: ‘No it’s not.’

I blinked in surprise, but that was all the time it took for me to return to the hillside. To my Doctor and his two remaining friends. I walk my Doctor about the scene for a while, even talked to the two other characters.

The gentleman says:
“So sad, that back there.
But we should move along now.
Move before He comes.”
And as always, clicking again he says:
“Such is shame.”
‘Jay is divorced…’ the stray though slipped through my mind as I remember the Gentleman’s first comment, ‘A wife I once had.’

I then found myself to speaking to the women, though dreading every moment of the approach. She said:
“It was his work not
Mine. Why should I pay the price?
I couldn’t do time.”
What did that mean?
“Such is shame.”

I picked up my phone and dialled Kat.
“Hey.” She said, her voice full of nerves.
“Hey Kat. I take it you heard about Mark?”
“Yeah.” I heard a chocking sound, as though she were fighting herself from breaking into tears.
“You doing okay?” I ask, despite already knowing the answer.
“Fuck no! I mean – You know Jays party two weeks ago?”
“Yeah?” this wasn’t where I expected this to go…
“Well remember how Mark said he’d give me a lift home?”
I stayed silent, knowing that she didn’t need an answer.
“I didn’t go home Joseph… I went to Mark’s, and we…”
“Jesus Kat!”
“It gets worse,” she said with a painful chuckle.
“I was late this month so I took a test and… I guess I’m pregnant.” Her words cut off and this time the tears really did come, I could only hear it through the phone but I felt my heart tense up all the same.
“Shit…” I had no idea what else to say. Eventually I found the right question:
“Did Mark know?”
“No,” Kat breathed in a high pitched whine.

Then the thought crossed my mind, why I had called in the first place. But I couldn’t ask now, could I? As I sat on the line to my sobbing friend, I felt compelled to run my Doctor to the left. And upon entering the next zone I felt my grip loosen on the phone and I felt it clatter to the floor. My Doctor, the Gentleman, and the Lady ran into the middle of the screen with a backdrop of a mighty forest, but not just any forest, the forest. The one that I had been lost in with Kat and Jay in my dream. The one with the stretching trees taller than the eye could see.

With a shaking hand and a brow all but dripping with sweat I reached down to pick up the phone once more.
“Joseph? Joseph? Are you there Joseph?”
“Yeah,” I croaked back in a broken voice.
“Is everything alright? I heard a crash a –”
“Kat I’ve got a question and it may sound dumb but I really, really need to know, okay?”
The line went silent, my screen started to rumble and I ran my Doctor onwards. I eventually hear Kat wipe back her tears and say:
“Ummm… Okay. What is it?”
“Have you ever been charged, or investigated for a crime?”
“What?” She snapped back.
“I told you it would sound dumb but I’m serious!” My eyes darted between the two figures running alongside my doctor, wondering who could be next. I knew someone would be next.
“I’m not talking anything major, just enough that you might get jail time.”
Kat said nothing for a long while. I was worried about how far I’d passed through the level, and how little I had left to go. But if I stopped the rumble would get us and somewhere in my bones I knew that would be far worse.

The music seemed to be getting louder and louder through the speakers, once again it had turn to the Mongolian throat singing. My hands were tight, every muscle contort despite only using the one finger to keep running onwards.
“Yeah, yeah I did,” Kat eventually spat at me. Then she continued.
“I dated a dealer after my parents kicked me out of home. I helped him out for a while but when he got busted I cut and ran. Now how the hell is that your goddamn business?”
I had no idea what to say? The truth would sound stupid and only make everything worse. But in what real-world scenario does any of this make sense?

I had to tell her the truth. It’s the only way I can live with myself, even if Kat never speaks to me again. I open my mouth to speak, and in that split moment it happens. My Doctor and the Gentleman pass over some form of rope-bridge, and just as the Lady goes across the panel breaks beneath her. My heart jumps and I run over to where she is still dangling.
“Joseph?” I hear Kat say on the other end of the phone.
Hitting shift I whisper an apology.
“Sorry, I’m so damn sorry.” I wasn’t sure if this was to the lady in the computer, Kat on the phone, or to both really.
The Lady said:
“Such a shame.”
“What the hell is with you today? I swear the next time I see you Joseph I’ll punch you right in the face!”
I hit shift again and I get one final message from the Lady:
“One last piece to be played.”
I hit shift and the Lady tumbles down in to the pit with no end. As the rumbling shakes the screen wildly I run my doctor away as fast as I could.
“Tell you what Kat,” I say to the phone as a tear rolls down my cheek.
“If I ever see you again, go right ahead.”
“What the fu–” Kat begins but I hang up before she finishes. Jumping onto the ladder I climb my Doctor and the Gentleman to the next safe zone, before shutting off the computer, climbing into bed, and crying myself to sleep.

I wake up to a banging on my door. Like a slug I ooze out of the cocoon I have made for myself and check my phone. More missed calls from Penny. The time reads 10:30 am, Sunday. So who the hell is at my door?

I slouch out of bed and drift my way over to the door. When I open the door one of the cops had his hand raised, clearly he was ready for round three.
“What is it?” I ask, looking them square in the eye.
“Joseph Ark I assume?” asked the cop who had been knocking. I nodded and he continued:
I’m detective Gabriel, this is my partner Fin.” The other cop gave a sarcastic wave.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions if you don’t mind?”
“Of course he doesn’t!” the cop called Fin says as he brushes past me and into my apartment. His matter-of-fact tone irked me.
Detective Gabriel shot me a glance, as though asking if this was alright. With a groan, I gestured him in.

“Joseph, mind if I call you Joseph?” Gabriel asked.
“As long as you tell me why you’re here?”
“Are you in anyway associated with a Miss Katrina Evans?”
It took me a second to recognise Katrina’s full name. A pang of gilt stabbed into my chest, I just prayed the cops didn’t notice.
“Yeah, I am.”
“How long you been sleeping with her?” Detective Fin, who had been idly drifting about my apartment, jumped in.
“What?” I scoff back. Seeing the script starting to play out before me. They must know about the pregnancy. But why assume it was mine, or that I was even involved.
“Hey!” Cut in Gabriel, holding up a finger to his partner.
“Were just asking a few questions. Now Joseph, are you aware that Miss Evans threw herself out a window last night?”
“Christ, really? Is she…”
“Dead? No.” Gabriel pulled out a pen and pad before he continued.
“It was a damn miracle to be honest. Five floors. Left her in a coma though, that’s why we’re getting involved.”
“Alright, but how does this all get back to me?” I knew the answer, well at least the answer that made sense in the way that nothing makes sense anymore but I continue to accept it.
“Because you made her do it!” burst Fin and he stepped towards me. Gabriel grabbed his partners arm and pulled him back.
“Wait outside.” Hissed Gabriel.
“But–” began Fin.
Gabriel cut him off:
“Save it rookie, I don’t want to hear it. Now get out.” Gabriel pushed his partner towards the door and Fin reluctant as a cat to water shuffled out, giving me one last glare.

“I apologise for my partner. Something like this happened to his sister.”
“Something like what?” I asked.
Detective Gabriel held his breath for a moment before going on:
“Miss Evans’ phone records show you two were chatting pretty late last night.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Neighbours say it got pretty heated?”
“Umm, yeah,” I mumbled back.
The detective narrowed his eyes, looking me over.
“How would you describe your relationship with Miss Evans?”
“She’s a friend I guess, we’ve known each other for a fair few years.”
“Ever look like it was anything more?”
“No. Definitely not.” That much I could say with confidence. She’d always told me how pathetic I was, still being hung up on Penny.
“And were you aware that Miss Evans was pregnant?”
“Yeah, that’s what we were talking about, mostly…”
The detective’s eyebrows shot up.
“Really, what else did you talk about?”
I thought about trying to explain for a brief moment, then realised it was futile.
“It – it doesn’t matter. Just a stupid video game.”
Detective Gabriel nodded. It was clear he was in deep thought.
“Okay Joseph, let me tell you what’s going on here. You seem like a good guy to me, honest. You could have lied about knowing she was pregnant, hell you could have even lied about ever meeting her before! But you didn’t. I like that. Shows you’re trying to get this sorted just as much as I am. But at the same time, a girl is in hospital on an IV drip and I have a duty to find out why.”
I go to speak, but Gabriel shushes me.
“So let’s run through the facts here Joseph. Miss Evans comes home after finding out she’s pregnant. She call you, has a heated argument about that pregnancy. Then throws herself out the damn window? What kind of light do you think that shines on you Joseph?”
Gabriel stood there, waiting for an answer. I felt my fists clench and my body go tight.

“Okay how about you listen to me, and I mean actually godamn listen, none of this good-cop-bad-cop mind game crap!” I had no idea where this anger was coming from. Whether stress from all that had happened, or my own rage towards myself, but for now it will be set doing something useful.
“If what you are insinuating is even true – and believe me it isn’t. The Dad’s name is Mark Grey, you’ll find him next door to Kat in his own hospital bed – being an asshole isn’t a crime. So if you ever, and I mean ever, need to speak to me again, it will be with a lawyer present. Now get out!”
Detective Gabriel gave me a weak look. He moved towards the door, and just before stepping through it he looked back at me.
“You seem like bright kid. Make sure you keep it that way,” then he stepped through the door and was gone.

Now I want to make a few things clear. Yes my friends were in trouble. And yes it was likely my fault, even if I didn’t understand how. But at the same time, they weren’t dead yet, and somehow, I knew I was the only one to change that. The question was how?

The obvious answer was to beat the game, at least that’s what a lifetime of Hollywood movies had taught me. But that left two glaring issues. First off: Life isn’t Hollywood and I can’t know for sure that will even work. Second: I’d be playing with Jay’s life, as well as my own… Now Jay was a good guy, but even if I could explain the whole thing to him, this was a big ask for only a chance of fixing my screw up.

I take a heavy breath and dial Jay’s number. It rings three times before he picks up.
“Hey man, you heard?” he says, voice distorted and crackling through the phone.
“Yeah. I just had a pair of cops give me an interrogation on the whole thing.”
“Shit man, what did you do?”
“Nothing. They just though I was the father.” The line goes dead for second.
“Kat’s father?” Jay said confused.
“No of course not, the kids.”
“What kid?”
“Kat’s!”
“Kat had a kid!”
“Jesus Christ! She was pregnant man! She and Mark hooked up.”
“Oh… Oh shit…”
Nothing but the buzz of the phone could be heard as the slow light of realization flooded over Jay.
“Now it’s making some sense…”

Jay and I talked for a while. Awkwardness colliding between us. I had no idea if I should tell him or not, and if I did, how could I say it in a way he would believe?

“Jay what are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much, why?”
“Come round and have a drink. I’ve got something to show you.”
“Ummm, alright. See you then man.”
Alright now I just have to wait…

The knock on my door came by at about 8:00 pm that night. I’d been sitting upright in my bed the whole day trying to think about anything but that damn game. However, no matter how hard I tried, I always found my eyes wandering back to the computer, speculating. It’s just a game, right? I’ve worked myself up over nothing! Endlessly these thoughts passed through my mind and time after time I had to push them back down. It wasn’t that simple. No matter what my brain may say, my heart or soul or whatever you want to call it, knew otherwise.

My bones cracked as I moved to the door, stiff from little movement. Opening up, Jay eyed me over.
“You look like shit man,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s been a rough couple of days…” I said, gesturing him inside.
After Jay passed through the door I did a quick glance, up and down the hallway. Jay payed this no mind and fell into the couch before saying:
“So what did you need to show me?”
“Huh?”
“You said you wanted to show me something? And let me tell you, I’m praying its good news. In the light of recent events we could sure use some.”
“Yeah… I’m afraid I’m fresh out of that…”
“Should have known,” Jay said in response, letting out a heavy sigh.
“Well hit me with it, whatever it is?”

I’d rehearsed this part in my head, I’d told myself what to say, and convinced myself Jay would play his part to a T. It took all of three seconds after Jay walked in the door for that plan to go out the window. Still, Jay was the son of a Minister, and had always been a bit driven towards the supernatural and whatever was going on here clearly wasn’t possible in the natural world.

“Jay what I’m going to say is weird, in fact it will probably sound impossible, but I need you to hear me through. Can’t you promise me that?”

Jay sat back on the couch awkward in his own weight. After his divorce Jay filled the whole in his life with fitness. And though the countless martial arts lessons had paid off and he looked fantastic, he still seemed kind of uncomfortable in his larger frame.

Jay was giving me a look that simply stated: are you serious? Without a single word. But when he saw that I was keeping a straight face he sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth and said:
“Alright, shoot.”

I told Jay what had happened. Everything form finishing Planescape to the discovery of The Shame. I went into every detail about the characters and the conclusions I was drawing. I talked about the cops, both Gabriel and Fin. All the while Jay’s face turned darker and darker. When I was done the last of my words hung in the air:
“… so what are we going to do?”
Jay had been staring down into his palms for the past while, slowly rubbing his hands together. Then the silence was broken as Jay spoke.
“There are three possible answers to what you just told me,” Jay began, rising to his feet and floating towards me.
“First, you’re legit crazy. If that’s true I’m going to pick up my phone and call you some help.”
I took a thick swallow, glancing down at Jay’s hands to see if he was already reaching for his phone. One of his large hands were in his pocket, but they didn’t seem to be moving.
“Two, this is a sick fucking joke, and I’m about to beat you bloodied.”
Needless to say, Jay was doing nothing for my already racing nerves.
“And finally,” he said, standing less than an arm’s reach away,
“It’s all true.” Jay’s arms shoot up and around my neck, forming a tight grip. “It’s all true and I’m going to do what I have to!”
I panicked and tried to push him back but it was hopeless. Trying to fight against Jay was like playing The Shame, my fate was sealed from the beginning.

One, two, three seconds. Then the world disappeared around me into darkness.

The world around me was a lie, or something close to a lie anyway. I was in the forest once again, its tall trees shooting far out of sight. There was Jay, dressed up in the blue and gold of the Gentleman, his face a blank slate.

Beyond my control I found myself drawn towards him. Moving closer to him he said:
“The deal is all but
Set. Have you worked it out yet?
Enter in the sleep.”
I tried to call out to Jay, ask him what was going on, but try as I might, my lips didn’t move.

I then felt my body moving once more without my permission. An outside force pulling me to the left. A large black wall appeared before me and, despite trying to stop, I drove onwards to it.

Soo enough I collided with it and was consumed by blackness. A blackness that cut away in less than a moment. I was surrounded by white. A white hall. A white, blinding, florescent light, and white tiled floor. Blinking my eyes adjusted to the light. I heard footsteps clattering on the tiles, not just my own though. Jay?
I tried to turn my head but it wouldn’t move. We just kept running onwards through the hall. There were no doorways or windows along the corridor. In fact the scene showed no form of life or decoration at all.

Then the rumbling came.

A tremor at first. Barely recognisable from my own body, shake with exhaustion from the run. But as it grew heavier, and the deep, throaty music began to play, I realised the reality I was living in. Jay has open the game. I am lying on my on floor, a helpless vegetable, as he checks the credibility of my story.

There are no other words for it. My heart plummeted. I knew Jay wouldn’t screw the level up, I mean all it really needed was for the player to hold one button down. But in a way that only made it worse. Because If Jay didn’t get my Doctor killed, then he was the one in danger. But even if he did lose at this stage would that help? If it would save the others I’d gladly throw myself away. But from all appearances Jay was behind me and that means that this thing behind us was only going to get him first if we slowed down.

Then the scene was changing. The lights flickered and soon died all together. The tiles on the walls grew larger and heavier. Till soon enough it was thick stone walls that had us boxed in. The rumbling had gone far beyond what it had ever been before. I lost my footing for a brief moment and found my head slamming into the stone wall.

Opening my eyes as fast as I could. Then I heard a bleeding ring pierce through my ears. As the world became clear once more I realised the original menu music had begun to play once more. The tunnel was tighter than it had been before. I tried to take a step but felt a stabbing pain in my leg from a twisted ankle.

I almost collapsed, ready for the growing rumble to take me. In less than a moment something snatched me up by my waist, I panicked at first but then realised it felt familiar, definitely human at least. I looked to the side, once again having control of my body, to see Jay. His expression was of a determination as hard as steel.
“Jay?” I gurgled as he dragged me onwards.
“How did we get away?”
“We didn’t,” he replied, not losing focus.
“It caught me and brought me here. It told me everything.”
“But then… What?”
“I got away from it for a moment, but I can only run, never escape. That means I still have time to get you out.” Jay paused and glanced at me for a moment.
“I’m sorry, for what I did, in the real world I mean. I took you out because I had to see this for myself. I knew you’d never let me touch it. I was wrong and I was stupid. I should have listened. Sorry.”
Feeling my senses return to me I could make out a door up ahead.
“I forgive you Jay but your wrong, okay? There’s got to be a way for us both to make it out of here.”
“If only…” he said. Grabbing the door handle, pulling it open, and throwing me into the bright, glowing light that radiated through.

When I opened my eyes my head pounded in my skull. Looking around I found myself lying on my own floor. I cracked my neck and got to my feet. Looking around the room I saw Jay was on my couch, a collection on my anti-depressants and anxiety medication scattered about him. His body devoid on motion apart from his slow breathing. I glanced over to my computer and see a green DoS override box was displayed over The Shames main menu. I walked over and took look at the message.

“Congratulations!” it said.
“You have officially completed The Shame and shall receive your award momentarily.”
Bellow this was a flashing green tab, as though I could write something in response. Taking a breath, my hands trembling, I typed:
“Who are you?”
The computer seemed to process this for a second before replying.
“Peter 5:8.”
Clearly a biblical reference, I wish Jay was still awake to tell me what it meant. Having no bible handy I asked:
“What did you do?”
“Upon completion of the first level of The Shame you agree to the deal struck between us. I find the three you hold most dear, and exchange it for what your heart most desires.”
What my heart most desires? Does it mean Penny? I wonder.

A sudden knock at the door brought me away from my computer and back into my apartment. Taking one last glance at the screen it read:
“Enjoy!”
Step by step I approached the door. There was another knock.
“Joseph? Joseph? Open up Joseph I’m getting cold out here!” As I suspected, it was Penny’s voice. I opened the door and there she was. Dressed up in black lingerie and stockings. She leans in to kiss me and I wish I could say I was man enough to try and stop her.
“Hey Sweetheart,” she said. Leaning so close that her sweet lips brushed mine with every word.
“Can I come in?”

I stepped out of her way to let her in, my body feeling stiff as a tin-man. I watch her and her long and ever so elegant legs drift through my apartment to my bed.
“Come and join me?” she asks, fluttering her eyes.
“What about Jay?” I reply. My voice broken and cracked.
“Who?” she asks, looking puzzled.
I deliberate the idea of trying to talk to her. Trying to tell her what has happened and why this isn’t really her. But somehow I already know it would be futile.

Walking over to Penny I find myself kissing her once more.
“I’ll be over in a minute,” I say, returning to the computer.
“Oh,” she says, still seeming confused.
“What are you doing?”
I type in my final question to whoever it is on the other side of the screen before replying:
“Sometimes you’ve just gotta roll the hard six.”

POLICE AUDIO LOG TRANSCRIPT
DATE: 03/11/2016
OFFICER REPORTING: DETECTIVE GABRIEAL

The scene was a mess really. There was a guy [Jason Rowland] who had taken enough drugs to sink an elephant sitting around, confused but beyond that the picture of health. Then there was the girl [Penny Singer] all dressed up nice for her boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend… No one seemed sure of that one. Regardless it was for the victim by all appearances. Anyway she was claiming she had no clue how she got there.

Finally there was Joseph Ark, a suspect in the then ongoing case of Katrina Evans’ attempted suicide. [Miss Evens case has now been closed due to her and what is apparently now her fiancé making a full recovery.] Our old friend Joseph seemed to be just slouched at his keyboard, hacking some strange video game. I say hacking because when our specialist took a look at the computer they saw he had some override up that interacted with the programs base code.

The program in question appeared to be some kind of non- sensical communication between Mr Ark and the computer. The last part of this dialog, which my specialist assured me all happened offline, caught my eye particularly since it looked like an early-era chat room. It said:

Joseph Ark (JA): What if I didn’t complete level one?

Other (O): You would still get your wish. But I’d take your life instead of the others.

JA: I want to play again.

O: … What?

JA: You heard me. Start it up again.

O: Very well. But what does your heart desire now?

JA: I want my friends back.

Peculiar at best. I think I may attempt this game myself. See if I can find any answers there.

This is detective Gabriel signing off.

[This transcript has been withdrawn as evidence in the case against Detective Gabriel relating the hospitalization of Detective Jack Fin, Elizabeth Gabriel and Kyle Gabriel (Detective Gabriel’s with and son.)]

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By The Light of a Dying Fire

May 16, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Ever since history began, mankind has been fascinated by fire. In the days of the caveman the hunter’s campfire was often the only thing that protected our prehistoric ancestors from the predators that prowled the dark. The scenario must have been terrifying as the cavemen sat around their fire knowing that death watched from the shadows. Something about this experience must have imprinted itself upon the human race back in those days, for even today a campfire can bring a chill to most people’s spine, given the right circumstances, and one of the favorite pastimes on camping trips is to sit around the fire and tell scary stories. Many may find this tradition old fashioned and cheesy, but I always felt a small thrill whenever the talk would turn to tales of the dark and disturbing while I was in the Boy Scouts. There is one night in particular that sticks in my memory, and when I tell people about it they are surprised that I am not in therapy.

People sometimes ask me what the scariest thing I have ever experienced is. They are usually surprised when I tell them that I have to think about it for a while. I may look not look like the sort of person that strange things happen to, but I have had far more than my fair share of weirdness in my life. This is one such story.

To begin with, I have to provide some background information. I am the oldest son of a large family and I live in the north-eastern United States. (I have had to fudge the names of people and geographic locations, although some people may be able to recognize the places and people I am referring to.) One of the greatest joys of my high school life were my activities with the Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout and a Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow, scouting’s honor society, so I am no stranger to the outdoors. In fact, I so loved scouting that, once I was old enough, I joined the staff of Six Hills Scout Camp as a summer camp councilor. Like most summer camp workers, I had coworkers who were among the most awesome people that I have ever met, some who I wish I had never met, and a whole lot of people in between. The two people that I hung out with the most were my friends Topher and Joe. I actually ended up going to the same college as Topher and our camping experiences were how we became friends, but that is another story. Topher was a very logical guy who loved studying the plants and animals of the wilderness and frequently expounded upon them at length, while Joe was more bookish and shy. The three of us were about the same age, and after our Junior year of college Joe found himself a girlfriend named Ann who frequently visited camp.

Unfortunately, for every Topher and Joe there was a Kyle. Kyle was one of those people who made my skin crawl and yet for some reason most women found him irresistible. Kyle would frequently string along several lovesick girls at once, use them for what he wanted, drop them in the dirt afterwards, and then brag about it. Needless to say no one could stand him and the only reason he was on camp staff was because his uncle was camp director.

The last person on camp staff to play into this story was Bert. Bert ran the camp’s health lodge and was primarily responsible for giving out medications to the campers that needed it. The fact that Bert was in charge of the health lodge was a source of great amusement to most of the campers as he was very old and not in the best shape. In fact, he often drove around the camp in a golf cart as he couldn’t walk long distances very well. In spite of this, Bert was actually a pretty cool guy once you got to know him. He was an Eagle Scout and had traveled around the world a good deal, although he was very reticent about why he traveled so much. If you got him talking he could tell some fascinating stories about the things he had done or the legends that he had heard.

As the last week of summer camp drew to a close that year there was a sense of melancholy among the staff members. As much as the kids had driven us crazy, we would miss them. The last of the scout troops had left that morning and Joe, Ann, Topher, and I were sitting around a campfire as the last of the evening light faded. As usual, the talk turned to scary stories, but we found that we had run through most of the classic ones already. The tales of Hook Hand, Don’t Turn on the Light, and the Licked Hand had already been told and we were running short of ideas. It was Ann who finally came up with a solution.

“Hey,” she said. “Why don’t we tell each other the scariest true story that we know?”

“Here we go with BaronVonRuthless91 and that Aztec Idol again,” said Topher.

“Don’t even joke about that.” I replied. “That is a long story which I am not going into right now.”

“I’ll go first,” volunteered Ann. “Have you guys heard about those murders that happened up on the mid-state trail a few miles from here?”

We agreed that we had. The campers had spoken of little else for the last couple of weeks.

“Well,” continued Ann. “You guys don’t know the full story. The cops are treating it as a homicide because one of the guys was tied to a tree before he was killed. The strange thing is that that other man and woman who were with him were practically torn to pieces. They found parts of them up to a mile away from where they were killed. What type of man could do something like that? They also say some other hikers on the trail have been hearing strange sounds in the night.”

“Probably a coyote or a fox,” suggested Joe. “They make pretty weird sounds sometimes.”

“Not like this they don’t,” said Ann. “That’s how I found out about all this stuff. My dad is a zoologist and they brought him a recording of the sounds the hikers heard on the trail. He said it definitely wasn’t any animal he had ever heard. The strange thing is this. If some kind of animal killed those three people, how did that one guy end up tied to a tree before the bear, or whatever it was, disemboweled him?”

The thought was unsettling. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for several minutes and we nearly had a heart attack when a twig snapped it the night. There was a short huffing sound and the antlers of a large deer poked over the top of a bush. We breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the antlers. The deer was just as scared of us as we were of it and after a minute we heard it move away through the bush.

“You know,” said Topher. “For some reason that reminds me of something that happened to me a little while ago. “ Topher turned to me. “Do you remember that weird guy at the Order of the Arrow ordeal?”

“Vaguely,” I replied. “I remember you talking about him, although I never actually saw him.”

“That’s right, you didn’t actually see him because we were on different work crews. Anyhow, we were at our Order of the Arrow ordeal.” Topher turned to Ann. “It’s kind of an initiation ceremony where we spent the weekend working. We weren’t supposed to talk unless absolutely necessary. To make a long story short, there was this strange guy who showed up at my work crew and just watched us. Since we couldn’t talk we couldn’t ask him who he was or what he was doing there. He just stood in the trees by where we were working and looked at us. It was really creepy. I had to run back to the dining hall at one point to use the restroom, and he actually followed me for a little while until I ran into one of the scoutmasters. I probably should have told someone about the guy but I thought I would get in trouble for talking.”

“Well that is a little creepy,” admitted Joe. “I probably wouldn’t consider it to be the scariest thing that ever happened to me though.”

“You didn’t see this guy,” said Topher. “It was the way he looked at you. He looked at us the way a snake watches a rat before eating it. The reason I thought of this story just now is because of those noises that Ann mentioned. That night when we were walking back from the big campfire, I remember hearing some kind of weird animal. It sounded like a cross between a lion and a hyena. Is that what those hikers recorded on the trail?”

“I’m not sure,” replied Ann. “The sound my dad heard really gave him the creeps. He wouldn’t let me listen to it.”

At this point there was another sound in the forest. This one was unfortunately all too familiar to the four of us; it was the unmistakable sound of Kyle’s voice followed by a feminine giggle from whoever was with him. A minute later Kyle stepped into the firelight with a dark haired girl who was clearly drunk leaning against his shoulder.

“Well, helllloooo everybody,” exclaimed Kyle in a voice that was just a little bit too loud. I was fairly sure that he had been drinking as well. “I hope I am not interrupting anything.” When he said this Kyle made sure to leer at Joe and Ann. Ann narrowed her eyes angrily and looked as if she were about to reply with a snappy retort until Joe placed his arm on her shoulder. After a second she relaxed. Kyle had spent the previous summer trying to seduce Ann to no avail. Then, at the very end of last summer, Ann’s little brother, Tyler, had died in an accident. He had been two years younger than us and had worshiped the ground that Joe had walked on. He had been at camp with us and had been one of the kindest souls that I had ever met. He had gone out on a walk late one night, and had fallen down a ravine where he broke his neck to the point where he was almost decapitated. I still remember seeing the paramedics take out his body the next morning. The strangest thing about the situation is that the most vivid thing in my memory was the Captain America t-shirt that Tyler has been wearing. The shirt was all torn up and covered in blood, and the image still haunts my dreams. In the aftermath of the tragedy it was rumored that Kyle had taken advantage of Ann’s emotional state for his own purposes, although we never dared to ask her if this was true. Ann had only just started to recover a couple of months previously when she had started dating Joe, and every lecherous look that Kyle gave her was like a slap in the face.

“What are you all up to?” Kyle asked, pretending to not notice the death glares we were giving him. “Oh and by the way, this is Whitney,” he said gesturing to the girl hanging onto his shoulder. “She was hiking along the trail and got lost. I offered to put her up for the night until she can get her bearings. After all there is a murderer on the loose.” Whitney giggled again and the rest of us tried not to visibly cringe.

“We were kind of telling each other scary stories about things that have happened to us,” Joe said quietly. “I guess it’s my turn now.”

Kyle let out a harsh guffaw. “Is this going to be about poor baby Tyler again?” he jeered. At this point even I started to stand up to show Kyle exactly what I thought of him. Thankfully for my well being (Kyle was pale and scrawny but surprisingly strong) Topher stopped me.

“He’s not worth it,” he said quietly.

“What is Kyle talking about?” asked Ann. “Did something happen between you and Tyler?”

Joe winced. It was clear that he had not been planning on telling this particular story. “It’s kind of complicated,” he began. “The thing is…I suffer from something called sleep paralysis. It’s when you wake up from a dream and are conscious, but you can’t move. Sometimes you also see strange hallucinations. The most often hallucinations for me are long fingered shadows with way to many teeth. I would wake up at three in the morning and not be able to move. After a few minutes I would hear my closet door open, or something move under my bed, and then the shadow creatures would appear. Sometimes they would actually touch me. Even though I know they aren’t real I can still feel them brushing against my face or sitting on my chest. I had one of these episodes the night Tyler died. I woke up but couldn’t move or talk. I saw Tyler sit up in bed. I saw him look at his phone and then go outside. He must have gotten a text message or something. The point is that I saw a bunch of the shadow creatures follow him outside. I know it doesn’t make sense. There was no way I could have warned him. I just feel like I could have stopped his accident and I couldn’t”

By this point in the story there were tears streaming down both Joe and Ann’s faces. Ann gently put her arm around her boyfriend’s shoulder and the two of them quietly wept. The silence lasted for another minute before Kyle interrupted again.

“Well,” he said. “That is all well and fine but I have a real story to tell. It is the tale of what really happened to RON GRAYSON.” Kyle paused dramatically to let the words sink in. Ron Grayson had been a local lawyer ten years previously who had one day vanished off the face of the earth. They found his car abandoned in a supermarket parking lot and his cell phone in the river a few miles away, but there was never any body found. The incident was one of our areas biggest mysteries and, even ten years later, just about everybody had a theory about what had happened to him. The prevailing theory was that he had either committed suicide or run afoul of some inner city mob boss, but there was no conclusive proof either way.

“No one knows what happened to him,” I said. “The man could have been abducted by aliens for all we know.”

Kyle smirked. “That’s what you think. See this is the thing, remember two years ago where I had to spend a couple of days in jail on those drug charges?” We remembered. The charges had eventually been dropped. “My cellmate was this guy who worked for the mafia as a hired killer. He was there waiting for trial.” We raised our eyes skeptically. “I’m serious, this guy was a hardcore killer. He was a mess though. Apparently there was this hit that went wrong a few years back. He and his partner were supposed to off this lawyer who was filing charges against his boss, so his boss sends my buddy and his partner to make the problem go away. The thing is, my buddy’s old partner is like a cat. He likes to play with his food before he eats it. Anyhow he convinces my buddy to kidnap this kid. They found some homeless kid up in Pittsburgh that no one would miss, and they bring him down here. They have this lawyer tied up in the woods and they tell him they will let him go as long as he shoots the kid. Sure enough, this lawyer guy shoots the kid to save his skin. The problem is that the lawyer is a horrible shot so this kid doesn’t die right away. He starts screaming bloody murder and then something in the forest starts screaming back.”

“My buddy gets spooked, so he gets in the car and leaves his friend to finish the job. The thing is, his friend never comes back. My buddy goes up to the place they had the lawyer the next day, and there is nothing there. No lawyer, no kid, no psycho killer for hire, and no monster. Anyhow, that’s how this guy told me the story. The next day he hangs himself in his cell. I get out and I look up any disappearances around the time this guy says this stuff happened, and I see that Ron Grayson disappeared around that time. So there you have it. The lawyer was eaten by a monster. Maybe it was the same one that killed those hikers.”

Once again there was a sound in the bushes and we all jumped. Off in the distance we heard a faint howl. At the time I figured that it was a coyote, but now I am not so sure. A second later a light shone through the tree branches and there was a strange rumbling sound. We all let out a breath of relief when Bert’s golf cart came puttering around the bend in the trail. Huffing and puffing as if he had just run a marathon, Bert heaved himself out of the golf cart and sat down by the fire. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a peppermint candy and tossed it to Kyle. Topher held out his hand for a candy as well, but Bert seemed not to see him.

“Well that’s that,” Bert sighed. “I just finished a run through of camp and everything is more or less in good shape, although Troop 83 did leave a giant archway in the middle of their campsite for some reason.”

“I guess that means we should be able to get on the road pretty early tomorrow then,” I said. “I’m looking forward to a few days rest before I head back to school for the semester.”

“I think it’s your turn to tell a scary story.” Joe said to me, and so I began my tale.

“Kyle’s story actually reminded me of something,” I began. “I think I actually saw Ron Grayson at this very camp a year or so back.”

“Uh, he’s dead,” interrupted Kyle. “Didn’t you hear my story?”

“Well it must have been his ghost then,” I continued. “It was really weird at any rate. I was doing a night patrol of the camp last summer and I thought I saw someone down by the trading post. I just caught a glimpse of him as he walked around the corner. I thought it was weird, and I didn’t recognize him as one of the scoutmasters, so I decided to investigate a little bit more. I walked up onto the trading post porch and there was this man standing in the corner looking out over the lake. There were a few scouts on the other side of the lake and the man was watching them. We stood there like that for a while; him watching the scouts and me watching him. Then he turned around suddenly and saw me. Then, I swear I am not making this up, he grew a giant pair of antlers, screeched at me, and took off into the forest. I thought about telling someone about this at the time, but I thought no one would believe me. The point is, I was reading the paper a few months ago and I saw some news report about Ron Grayson and they had a picture of him. I realized that he was the man I saw on the porch. Well, at least before he grew that pair of antlers and did his best Nazgul imitation in my face. I actually have a picture of the article on my phone if you guys want to see it.”

I passed my phone around to the others in the group and when it reached Topher he went as white as a sheet.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied. When he saw that none of us believed him he reluctantly continued. “It’s just that that lawyer looks an awful lot like that guy who was following me around in my story.”

“My turn! My turn!” called Whitney, still very much intoxicated. “I was hiking the mid-state trail last year, just like I am doing now in fact, and one night I tried some new…” She cast a suspicious glance at Bert and then continued in a quieter tone of voice. “Stuff, I tried some new stuff. It gave me the biggest high of my life but it also made me see some strange things. So anyhow, here I am in the middle of the woods and I have to go take a crap. So I go off by myself and take care of business. Keep in mind during this entire thing the trees are trying to tell me the meaning of life. Anyhow, I am on my way back when I see Count Dracula fighting with Captain America on top of this hill. I realize that this is just the drugs of course but I still don’t want them to see me. I can hear them yelling at each other. Captain was telling the Count to ‘stay away from my sister’ or something like that. It was weird. Eventually, Count Dracula hits Captain America over the head with a stick and then throws him down the other side of the hill. At this point I decide to get out of there, so I slip away. On my way back to the campsite I see all kinds of crazy things. The trees started trying to attack me, these little goblins would laugh at me from behind the rocks, I think I also remember a bunch of bears and deer ballet dancing. It was a weird night. I’m tired, I think I am going to go to sleep now.”

With that, Whitney lay down and began to snore. None of us quite knew what to make of that story. Bert philosophically stared into the fire before tossing Kyle another peppermint candy. For some reason Joe seemed particularly disturbed.

“She said she saw Captain America getting thrown down a hill by a vampire,” he mused. The image of a bloodstained t-shirt sprang into my mind. “You don’t think that…?”

“Oh for crying out loud!” yelled Kyle. He seemed to be very unnerved by the story as well. The look in his eye resembled that of a frightened rabbit who has just detected danger. “You guys aren’t taking that load of bullshit seriously are you? She had ingested enough drugs to kill Charlie Sheen, nothing she saw had any basis in what was really going on.”

“Are we sure of that?” murmured Bert. “There may have been a kernel of truth hidden in her story.”

“Come on Whitney, we are leaving.” Kyle said roughly shaking Whitney awake.

“Not now Edward. I want to sleep.” She replied and then promptly went back to snoring.

This response seemed to anger Kyle even more. Swearing at all of us, he stormed away from the fire into the night.

“Did he really kill my brother?” asked Ann quietly.

“We will probably never know for sure,” said Bert. “Whitney probably doesn’t recognize what she saw consciously. No jury in the world would convict based on something that may have been a drug hallucination. Although the fact that she just called Kyle ‘Edward’ is telling. I saw Kyle and Tyler having a heated discussion the day before he died. I mentioned this fact to the police, but the coroner ruled the death an accident, and that was that.”

“So he is just going to get away with murder,” said Topher angrily. “Where is the justice in that?”

“Sometimes there is no justice in this life,” replied Bert. “Sometimes we have to wait for the next life for our reward or punishment. In this case, however, I think the situation will take care of itself. It’s getting late and I have a scary story to tell you as well before we go to bed. It is about a creature that was once called the Wendigo.”

As Bert began his story the fire seemed to die down and a cold wind sent a chill down our spines. Whitney let out a whimper in her sleep and curled up into a ball close to coals of the fire. The shadows at the edges of the light seemed to stretch closer, and the insects and night birds fell silent as if they too were listening to Bert tell his story.

“The Native Americans would tell their children tales about the Wendigo. They sometimes called him a Forest Giant. The story goes that the Wendigo could change his shape so that no one could see him coming or kill him. The legend also goes that a man could become a Wendigo if he ever ate human flesh. That is how the old stories used to go. When I was a lot younger I met a Medicine Man when I was doing some work on a reservation. He told me some more stories about these creatures. He said that a man didn’t have to be a cannibal in order to be turned into a Wendigo anymore; although that was still a good way to become one if anyone ever wanted such a thing. The man said that the Wendigo was in constant pain as a result of the curse. As the years went by, the pain would get worse and worse until it drove the Wendigo into a frenzy where it killed anything in its path. The Medicine Man said that there was only one way for the Wendigo to stop the pain; and that was for the Wendigo to attack someone who had been as wicked as it was, someone with innocent blood on their hands, and turn them into a Wendigo. Then the pain would fade for awhile, and eventually the original Wendigo would die after it had created a few new Wendigos. It is very difficult to kill a Wendigo although there are certain things that attract them or repel them. They don’t like light and the smell of garlic for example, while fresh blood, peppermint, and the sound of young children will attract them like moths to a flame.”

“A few years after the second World War there was a little boy who claims that he saw a Wendigo. He had gone out on an overnight backpacking trip with his troop when he became very sick. One of the scoutmasters had to drive him back in the dark along with one of the other scouts because of the buddy system. Now this scoutmaster was not a nice man. He had only recently come to the United States and he claimed that he was Dutch. However, a lot of people who were actually German claimed to be Dutch in order to come into the United States. We were not that friendly towards Germans seeing as we had just fought a war against them. The rumor in the scout troop was that this particular adult leader was one of these Germans who had pretended to be Dutch. The rumor further went that not only was this man a German, but he had been a Nazi. At any rate the leader and the two boys were driving along the back roads towards the hospital when all of a sudden they see this man standing in the center of the road.”

“The adult leader swerves the car to avoid this guy and ends up crashing into a tree. One of the scouts was knocked unconscious in the crash but the leader and the sick scout were still all right. The leader gets out of the car and goes over to where the man is standing and starts to yell at him. The man doesn’t say anything. He just stares at the leader and the two scouts. The sick scout is back at the car and managed to drag his friend out of the wrecked vehicle where the scoutmaster had left them. At this point the man in the road grows this big pair of antlers and opens his mouth wide. The scout can see that all of the man’s teeth are at least three times the size of a normal man’s teeth and are very sharp. The strange man jumps on the scoutmaster and begins to tear him apart before coming after the boys. Luckily the one scout managed to find a large hollow log and pulled his friend inside before the monster could get to them. The Wendigo spent the rest of the night clawing at the log trying to get at the boys. Around dawn it went back up to the road and crouched over the body of the scoutmaster. The boy then swore that he saw the dead leader stand up and follow the monster into the woods. The sun came up and a search party found the two scouts a few hours later. The little boy spent the rest of his life looking up information on all kinds of monsters, and travelling the world to hear the various stories about them, so he could find out what happened to him that night.”

There was a long silence after Bert finished the story. Finally Whitney let out a drunken giggle. Apparently she had woken up part way through the story.
“The scary stories were supposed to be true stories that actually happened to us,” she said.

“Sorry,” said Bert after a slight pause. “My mistake.”

“Well we should probably turn in,” said Joe. “We have a long day tomorrow.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Bert. He turned to Whitney . “Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”

“I have a campsite a few miles up the trail,” she responded.

“You know what?” said Bert. “You can sleep on the sofa in the health lodge. Something tells me that tonight isn’t a good night to be out in the woods alone.”

Bert helped Whitney into the golf cart and the two drove off down the trail. In the distance there was a very faint sound that could have been a human scream that was suddenly silenced. Shortly afterwards there was a strange call that sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a hyena’s laugh. Topher, Joe, Ann, and I decided to share a tent that last night. I had a funny feeling that we would never see Kyle again and we didn’t. Topher claims that it is probably because he ran away for fear of getting arrested for murder. I am not so certain. That last night in the woods I remember drifting off to sleep with dreams full of antlered men and peppermint candies.

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Prometheus

May 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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There was nothing about the old library on the corner of South and Second Street to stamp it as anything out of the ordinary, save for its size. The library was so enormous that it was possible (and not infrequent) for visitors to become lost in itfor hours at a time. With so many shelves to roam through however, the patrons seldom minded an occasional misdirection.
Unmolested, readers borrowed books, returned them, stole them, and guiltily replaced them with a regularity of a well-constructed clock. Every bookcase in this nameless library was an amiable companion to this cycle. Every bookcase but one. Most readers overlooked it because it was the smallest bookcase in The Library, housing only five shelves just wide enough for five books apiece.
The first five books were fairly well-worn, clearly having been devoured by some multitude of avid readers. The five on the second shelf were significantly less worn. The third shelf had gathered a respectable layer of dust, as though the books on it had been read but rarely. The last two shelves had never been touched at all.
It was here that the Librarian presided, never speaking a word or blinking an eye unless a reader came to ask for a book from this case.
Fame of these guarded books spread as fame always does; in whispers behind closed doors, mutters buried in coffee mugs at chic cafés, drawled through the fog of post coital cigarettes. The tales in the books were marvelous! Singular! Masterworks that could be found nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
Those brave enough to go after them came in droves, offering up jewels, checks, tax exemptions, even Swiss bank account numbers in vain; no bribes would change the Librarian’s counteroffer. When bribery failed, they came with legal threats, city ordinance slips, guns, gas cans and matches. The Librarian’s answer remained unchanged: “One year per book.”
In sheer desperation most acquiesced in the end. Quite a number of them offered up five, and a brave handful volunteered for ten. Only three individuals ever opted up for fifteen, reaching with trembling hands for the first of the three shelves they had earned.
In mingled fear and triumph they would read while the Librarian sat like a monstrous frog, digesting silently.
One day a woman came into the library, wasted no time scouting the larger shelves or safer classics, and strode instead straight to the little bookcase. The Librarian eyed her with dim interest; she carried neither a gun nor a checkbook.
Business was business, however, so it simply grunted: “One year per book.”
The woman scanned the shelves, moving her lips as she silently counted twenty-five books.
“One year per book?” she repeated doubtfully.
The Librarian blinked. It was unused to being asked to repeat itself.
“From which direction?” The woman pressed. At the look of vague puzzlement she got in response, she clarified, “Are you taking the years that I have already lived, or the years I have yet to live?”
The Librarian had not truly considered the point before, but after a moment of deep thought (and oh how the poor thing had to strain its limited vocabulary!) it managed to proudly sound out, “Un-lived years.”
The woman frowned and chewed her lip as she scanned the shelves again. “Can I offer up one rather than the other?”
The Librarian’s head was beginning to ache a little, but dutifully it pulled up The Old Rules from its memory and answered at last with a vaguely surprised: “Yes.”
The woman did not hesitate. “I will offer up twenty-five of the years I have already lived in payment after I have read the last word of the last book.”
The Librarian once more dragged out the Rules from the dusty archives of its memory, and finding post-payments to be permissible, heaved its massive body out of the way of the shelf. Lips faintly trembling, the woman pulled down the first book.
For twenty-five days the woman sat nearly as motionless as the Librarian itself, moving only to turn the pages of the precious books or to fetch the next in the series. Tome after tome she devoured eagerly, finding that the vibrant contents nourished her body as well as her mind. Knowledge grew like fire behind her eyes.
The Librarian settled comfortably into its cushion of flesh. Along the slow singular thoughts that made up its brain, it began to wonder if lived years tasted differently than the unlived. Perhaps they would be more flavorful and satisfying.
At last, on the twenty-fifth day, the woman closed the last book with an abrupt snap and stood up to face the Librarian. Even the Librarian could not bring itself to look directly at her, so brilliantly did the light burn inside her. Into endless unrepeated colors and patterns it fractured like a kaleidoscope. Thus burning the woman approached the Librarian.
The Librarian was almost eager as it grasped the woman’s shoulders. Slowly it lowered its great toothless maw to bear on hers and began to draw the years out. First one year, and then another and another until her college years, boyfriends, hiking trips and birthdays blurred together into one great rush of scent and taste and color into The Librarian’s gulping mouth.
The Librarian’s stomach roared in triumph. The lived years were as full flavored as a well-aged wine. Greedily, it sucked them down.
The woman flinched under the onslaught as great ragged chunks of her life disappeared in bite-shaped rips, leaving only the books behind. The Librarian continued to draw, satisfied for the first time in its long life as the twenty-first of the twenty-five years was digested.
The flood of color became brighter, more flavorful. Eagerly, the Librarian latched on tighter to the limp woman, gorging itself until it swelled up like a great snake. Then all the color ceased midway through the last year. Color and sound was replaced by dimness, muted measured beats swallowed into a great pinky-wet blackness. At last the flood stopped, and the woman vanished beneath The Librarian’s meaty hands.
All the years she had lived stripped away, the girl kicked happily back in her mother’s belly. Her head swum with such wonderful stories, companions in the waiting darkness. When she was birthed a few short months later the doctor remarked that he had never seen a newborn with such brilliant eyes. She nursed greedily and grew quickly.
Her primary school teachers reported that she showed signs of creative genius. The praise of her teachers was disturbingly intermingled with disciplinary notes for the frequent theft of other student’s lunches. Hunger grumbled like a half-wakened bear in her belly when she lay in bed at night. Her mother remarked that she had never seen such a good child at the dinner table – she never wasted a single bite.
She began to write down the books in between lessons during her freshman year of high school. She was touted as an internationally celebrated author before she was thirty, beloved for her twenty-five book series. And if any eccentric elderlies recognized the first few books in the series, they never let on.
In the old library at the corner of South and Second Street, the Librarian began to feel the first stirrings of alarm. In the months since the wide publication of the new books, the few brave souls who came for the guarded books only read a few pages before returning the books in disgust.
Apparently the word must have spread. Within a matter of weeks, the years that had flowed to the Librarian slowed to a trickle. Then they stopped completely.
As the Librarian sat alone in its little corner, unease gave way to fear. A great emptiness yawned within its belly. When the hunger had grown to true desperation, the Librarian heaved itself to its feet with a wordless grunt and dragged its massive form to the bookshelf. One by one, it seized the books and stuffed them into its drooling maw.
When the bookcase was empty, the Librarian sat down again, staring stupidly at the blank shelves. The defiled books sat like sodden ashes in its belly. It whimpered once, clutching its belly. Starvation swept like a desert wind through its body. It shuddered once and then never moved again.
The newly famed writer was suffering in her own right. She hired on three full-time chefs; hunger never stopped twisting in her belly even as her flesh began to mound up like risen bread dough. A great black crevasse widened by the day in her belly.
Even as her stomach emptied, her mind swelled with desperate understanding of the possibilities of the world. Strange thoughts that she barely understood bled through the levels of her consciousness until they clawed at her sanity. Hunger and truth and wisdom and fear battled like crazed beasts inside of her until the fabric of her mind stretched to the breaking point.
One day, as her pregnant mind swelled like an overripe grapefruit, one last idea of self-preservation surfaced; her very last. She retreated into her private study, sat down at the typewriter her parents had given her to celebrate her first book, and began to hammer away. On and on she went, emptying all the terrible beauty in her head into their pages until there was nothing but idiot white peace at last.
Twenty five manuscripts lay innocently on the table. She contacted a professional book-binder with mechanical pleasantry. She used childlike, single syllables to explain her request. He came and bound the new books in simple leather covers, numbered one through twenty five. Only once out of sheer curiosity did he crack one of the books open.
Between the power of the words he found there and the weight of the writer’s hungry gaze on him, he firmly shut the book again. When he finished binding the last book, he dutifully carted them and the writer to the massive library on the corner of South and Second Street.
Together they trundled the precious books to the smallest shelves in the library. The writer easily kicked aside the withered husk of the old Librarian, which crumbled into dust at the first blow. She settled herself down beside the shelf.
She would never be hungry again, she knew now. When the visitors realized that there were new books to be read, she knew just what to do, and she was happy. With the first new readers, she proudly offered them a new trade:
“Two years per book.”

Credit: MJ

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Propane

May 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Thump.

The girl jerked awake. She glanced at the window, afraid of what she would see, yet it revealed nothing but the dark night. They’re back, she thought anxiously. A week ago, the girl awoke to find that somebody had spray painted loops and scribbles of blue and red on their garage door. Mom thought it was a rival gang at first, maybe trying to intimidate the girl’s brother’s clan, but the girl wasn’t so sure. She’d never seen gang graffiti like this; usually it was only one color, and they’d write out just a letter and a number, like the “X4” she’d seen in a bathroom stall at school. If they used a lot of colors, it was to paint a nickname in cool, bubbly letters, like the ones under the bridge on her walk home. This looked nothing like that graffiti.

She had thought it was silly at the time, but the next morning as Mom was leaving for work, she noticed something lying across the top of the driveway. It was a long, wooden board with nails poking through it, sharp side up. It was a good thing Mom noticed, because it would have popped all of her tires for sure.

The girl was anxious about it, though nothing bad had happened. The events were strange, more than anything, but Mom said she’d ask her boyfriend to stay over the next night to keep them safe. That made the girl feel a little better, but something happened that night, too. The girl thought all those globs of white on his shiny BMW were just bird poop. It looked like a whole flock of giant birds had unloaded their intestinal burdens right on his car on purpose, and since the girl didn’t like him much, it made her laugh. Mom’s boyfriend got mad and cursed a lot, though, because the globs turned out to be paint remover. He’d have to get the whole car repainted.

Somehow, targeting a full-grown man like that made the girl more frightened than anything else. It didn’t feel like teenage pranksters anymore, nor gang rivalry.

At the present, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to hear anything even if someone was right outside the door, because her heart was pounding so hard in her ears. She strained to listen for another sound anyway and –

Thump. Thump.

Her eyes darted to the source of the noise and realized it was coming from her brother’s bedroom, which shared a wall with the living room. They’re probably doing it, she cringed in discomfort. Her brother and his girlfriend were supposed to be watching her. She didn’t really need a babysitter, but Mom’s boyfriend didn’t want to come over anymore. Mom had night classes and wouldn’t let the girl stay here alone, since someone kept messing with the house.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The girl turned up the volume on the TV to drown them out. She’d fallen asleep watching Nickelodeon, but now an old show in black and white was on. She considered just going to bed, but her room was upstairs and the staircase was dark. The laughing and talking from the sitcom was comforting. She would just fall asleep on the couch, and Mom would put her in bed when she got home.

By the time the episode ended, the thumping from her brother’s room was long gone. Now, he was playing his rap tapes, and even though she liked the music – and she’d even steal his Walkman when he was out of the house and listen to them – the deep, shuddering bass penetrated her heart at night and set her on edge. It would be less overwhelming if she went upstairs, so she resigned herself to brave the darkness and try to fall asleep in her bed.

As she rose from the couch to turn off the television, she thought she glimpsed a flash of light from outside. She froze. A car? Their house was set against a hill, so the living room windows looked out on mostly sky and treetops, not roads or sidewalks. It couldn’t be a car. Lightning? But there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day… Just as she had convinced herself she had imagined it, the girl saw the light again. It was a flashlight. Someone was walking through the yard below their back deck, and the beam from their lamp flicked up through the trees as the figure stepped over larger logs and stumps.

She could see the man by the dim light coming from the window at which she stood – and it was definitely a man, with a big, broad back and long legs stomping through the brush – edging closer and closer to the shed by their propane tank. When he stopped and set down the pack he was carrying, the girl jumped back and turned, running to her brother’s room. She glanced at the splintered hole that he had kicked in the door and for a moment reconsidered, but someone was outside their house and she didn’t know what else to do.

The girl knocked. Waited. Knocked again. Knocked louder, and finally she heard footsteps coming toward the closed door. Her brother threw it open, and a smelly wall of smoke hit her face. It wasn’t like his room usually smelled – that weirdly sweet smell, like a skunk but not bad. This was more like when Mom cleaned the oven. Or like a litter box. Or both at the same time.

“What do you want?”

“There’s someone outside.”

“Shit! Mom’s home?”

“No, it’s not Mom. I think it’s like last time…” The girl started to cry. Her brother was being stupid. His eyes were red, and his girlfriend was just lying there in his bed, doing nothing, when there was someone outside their house! She wished Mom were home.

“Someone’s outside?”

“Yes! That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” The girl sobbed.

Her brother pulled on his red-and-black plaid jacket and clumsily pushed her aside. He strode to the living room window, the one looking out down the hill, and the girl followed. She could see the man down there, crouched over his pack, like he was trying to hide, as he pulled something out of his pack. Something long and shiny. It was a handsaw.

The girl pressed her face to the glass to see better.

“Hey! I see you, motherfucker! I’m gonna call the fucking cops!” Her brother shouted, his barely post-pubescent voice cracking on the last word.

The man leapt up and dropped the saw. Before the girl’s brother could shout anything else, the man was sprinting up the hill to Begonia Road, running at an angle to get away from their house. The girl’s brother turned on his heel and burst out the front door. Just as the girl was starting to worry that her brother had found the man and the man might hurt him, her brother came back in the door, sweaty, pale and out of breath.

“He’s gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think he’ll come back?”

“I don’t fucking know, alright? Just go to bed.”

The girl went upstairs to her room, but she couldn’t sleep. She sat on her bed until she saw the headlights in her window that announced Mom’s return, then crept to the landing outside her room and listened to her brother tell Mom what had happened.

“Jesus,” Mom sighed when she’d heard the story. “Thank God you guys are ok.”

“Yeah.”

“Who do you think…?”

“Don’t look at me like that, Mom, it wasn’t because of me.”

“I didn’t say it was, Joseph. I just don’t know who else could be doing this, or why. What if it’s some punks trying to scare you?”

“He wasn’t trying to scare us, he was trying to blow up the house!”

“The house wouldn’t have blown up. It would have caused a leak, that’s all. Cost us a fortune to have it fixed and the tank refilled. Maybe the spark from the blade would have started a fire, but it wouldn’t have blown us up. I’ll check it out tomorrow.”

“Maybe he didn’t know that. He was trying to blow us up.”

They went quiet. The girl tiptoed to her bed and crawled under the covers so that when Mom came in and checked on her, she would have thought the girl was deeply asleep. But she didn’t sleep at all that night.

Mom said the tank was probably fine the next morning, but she could smell the propane and had called a professional to come and make sure there wasn’t a leak. It was Saturday, so Mom made French toast for the girl and Joseph. Joseph’s girlfriend was still sleeping.

The phone rang. Mom lifted it from its mount on the wall and said, “Hello?” Her face went cold. The girl’s dad must be on the other line.

He asked how she was, the girl guessed, because Mom said “fine”, but she said it in the high-pitched voice that betrayed her words. Mom never lied except when she said “fine,” and always in that tone.

The girl’s dad wanted to come over and borrow some tools from the shed. Mom didn’t say anything about last night, or the other nights. The girl knew Mom was afraid that he would use the information in court to make her seem like an unfit mother. He did that when the girl got lice from school, and said that Mom’s home wasn’t clean enough. Mom’s house was always clean.

The girl’s dad arrived in his big, white Chevy truck soon after they finished breakfast, and he walked into the house like he lived there. He swooped the girl up onto his big, broad shoulders, and the girl wrinkled her nose at the odd smell on his thick jean jacket that had mingled with its usual scent of sawdust and cigarettes. Mom gave him a cup of coffee, black. He talked about the garage door, said it was gang-related for sure, and he shot Joseph a nasty look.

“I don’t think so, Mike. I haven’t seen any graffiti like that before.”

“Well, I have. And I think you know what to do about it,” Mike said, looking accusingly at Joseph again. Joseph got up and went to his room.

“Yeah, I do,” said Mom. “We repaint.”

Mike offered to help and said he’d be back tomorrow with a roller and a bucket of paint, but now he had to leave, so he went out the door and hiked down the trail to the shed.

The girl went outside when he was back up at his truck to say goodbye. He was lifting a pack into the passenger seat, and she saw something shiny sticking through the open zipper.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“A saw. I’m helping someone with a project today.”

“You don’t have one of those?”

“I did. I must have left it here the last time I visited.”

They locked eyes for a moment, and the girl tried not to let her thoughts show on her face. She wasn’t sure what she thought, anyway… She felt like she did when she was taking a test at school and she knew the answer to a question, but just couldn’t pull it up in her memory. Her dad broke his gaze first, smirked and climbed up into the truck. He didn’t look at her again, as he turned his truck around in the driveway and chugged up to Begonia Road, but that smell from his jacket lingered on the girl’s pajamas. The distinct smell of propane.

Credit: Holly Radmacher

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Protocol

May 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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"Protocol" – Short Film from Lorenz Troebinger on Vimeo.

Protocol follows a man caught in a vast, intricate bureaucratic system, an analogue AI, in which humans are nothing more than circuits and sliderules executing orders. However, what happens if someone makes a mistake in such a system?

Starring:
Patrick Derieg
Christopher Hütmannsberger
Alexander Reinberg
Manuel Lutz
Christian Tröbinger

Written & directed by Lorenz Troebinger

Credit: Lorenz Troebinger

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