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September 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Part 1

Growing up, people always thought that I had a really big imagination. When I was younger, my mom would ask if I wanted to watch TV or play a board game with her. She was usually prompted to do this after she would notice that I had been sitting nearly motionless at our big bay window that overlooked the front yard for hours on end. Sometimes I would amiably agree to participate in a different activity with her. Most often, though, I would come out of my reverie just long enough to shake my head at her and reply with a, “No thank you. I’m waiting for Vim right now.” She’d sometimes frown, sometimes scold me, or sometimes force me to do something different. No matter what, though, she’d take my face, look deep into my eyes and say, “You live so much in your head, Cara. What is going on in there?”

Vim was my “imaginary” friend and had been for some time. My mom knew all about his and my exploits together. I’d chronicle them for her at the start of every day while we ate breakfast. I’d regale her with stories of us two bold adventurers catching frogs in the stream behind our house or climbing the study maple in the backyard so that we could survey our kingdom from on high.

While I was very little, my mom enjoyed my stories of Vim. She wanted to know all about him. How old he was, what he looked like, where he came from. I always told her enthusiastically about Vim. He wanted my mom to know all about him. He was just that kind of sort.

Vim was a curious little creature. I likened him to a cross between a large teddy bear and a cat in my mind. He stood on two legs at about two feet tall and had the softest fur that you can imagine. It was a bright, shimmery pink color that glittered when the sun struck it. His gentle face had big beautiful eyes, a perfect pink nose that twitched when he was sniffing something, and delicate whiskers. He had a long tail that he would wrap around me when I was cold, and little hands that would grip mine tight when we were scared. My favorite part about Vim, though, was his ears. They stood straight up, almost like a German Shepard’s, except for the very tips which flopped forward. I loved to stroke their velvety softness and the space in-between them. He loved it too. I would know because he would sigh softly and lean into me when I did it.

Vim was my best friend in the world. I didn’t get to always see him, though. He lived in The Place That Isn’t as he referred to it. I could never really comprehend what he meant, though I understood that it was a world that existed alongside mine, but that I couldn’t see.

There were other creatures from The Place That Isn’t as well. Sometimes they would come and visit with Vim. Some, like the tiny and syrupy sweet smelling Sorg, and giant Ness, who was a towering orange character with cottony fur, I loved. Others, like Hobble, the foul-tempered and mean-spirited little imp, I truly disliked and attempted to avoid as much as possible.

As I got older, I saw even more of Vim and the others from The Place That Isn’t, not less as one might expect of childhood friends like Vim. It was around the time that I was 12 that my mother started to become very concerned that I was still playing with my “imaginary” friends. She began to become angry that I still referred to Vim often and that I seemingly only spent time with him and not with any other children. It was also around this time that Hobble started to become more and more of a problem.

Usually when Hobble came around, he would just be mean to me. Maybe say something to hurt my feelings, or tell me that he could read the minds of all the kids that I went to school with and that they all thought I was weird and that they hated me. But as I got older, Hobble got more aggressive. Though not particularly big, he was strong. His long gray-green arms had hands with fingernails that were as sharp as daggers. His wide flat face held a large mouth with rows of pointy teeth and a long tongue he used like a whip. He began to physically harm me when I turned 14. At first he would just poke me or push me down, but it quickly progressed to him pinching me tightly with his sharp nails or punching me hard enough in the arms and legs that he would leave bruises. Vim and the others would do their best to stop him, but they weren’t always around when Hobble would decide to show up.

My mother began to see the evidence of Hobble’s viciousness and would often ask what had happened. I knew that she would never believe me if I told her the truth, so I always lied and told her that I was clumsy and that I had accidentally hurt myself in various ways. As time went on, her concern only grew and I could tell that my lies were no longer working.

One dreary afternoon when I was 15, Vim and I were sitting together on the couch watching TV. His favorite show was Hell’s Kitchen so we watched reruns together often. About mid-way through the episode, Hobble strolled into the living room where Vim and I were. He crossed his scaly arms and leaned against the doorframe. With a smirk, Hobble inclined his head towards the television.

“Hell’s Kitchen, eh? Looks nothing like Hell to me. And I should know,” he said, jabbing himself in his chest with his thumb. “I’ve been there. This isn’t Hell. It’s a show for babies.”

“Go away, Hobble,” Vim said in an annoyed voice. “Nobody wants you here.”

“She does,” Hobble sneered, turning his attention to me. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

I had nearly had more of Hobble than I could take recently. My left foot still ached from where he had stomped on it the last time he visited. I was almost certain he had broken my pinky toe. I was close to my breaking point with the nasty little goblin. “Go away, Hobble,” I said through gritted teeth. “I hate you. You’re horrible, you hurt me, and to top it all off, you reek!” While that wasn’t exactly true, he did often have an unpleasant odor around him, like decaying flowers. He smelled exactly like I remembered the funeral home smelling like when we buried my father.

Hobble’s tiny eyes widened to the size of golfballs and became as dark as storm clouds. “You little bitch,” he snarled, “I’ll teach you to say that I stink!” With that, he launched himself across the room at me. Before either Vim or I could react, Hobble sank his mouthful of sharp teeth deep into my forearm. Blood immediately spurted from my arm into Hobble’s mouth and began running down onto my pants and onto the couch. I let out a blood-curdling scream while Vim yelled and began striking Hobble in the face. Hobble let go and, laughing maniacally, gave me a sarcastic wave and ran out of the room, blood running down his front. My scream roused my mother who was folding laundry upstairs. I heard her flying down the stairs yelling, “Cara, what on Earth is wrong?”

“Vim,” I whimpered. “Help me. What is my mother going to do when she sees all this?” I asked, gesturing to my mangled arm with my head. He shook his head at me. “You have to tell her the truth, Cara. Hobble is feeding off of your lies to her about him. She needs to know. It might help keep him away if she believes you!”

My mother burst around the corner and paled when she saw me clutching my arm, blood all over me. “Cara, what happened?”

Sobbing, I proceeded to tell her all about Hobble and how he was behind all of my injuries and that they were only getting worse. Her face became more concerned for a time, and then more worried and drawn as I continued. When I had finished, she took my arm and said, “Come on, child, let’s get your arm cleaned up.” “You believe me, though, don’t you,” I cried. She didn’t reply, but the worry in her face became even more pronounced. “You live so much in your head, Cara. What is going on in there?”

That night, as I tried to go to sleep, I heard my mother’s worried voice coming from downstairs. I crept to the top of the stairs and strained to hear what she was saying. Her voice floated up to me and chilled me. “Yes, Dr. Richards. She’s always had these imaginary friends for as long as I can remember. The last few years, she’s been getting injured more and more regularly. She told me it was just clumsiness and I believed her for a while, but the injuries are becoming more severe. I think she’s self harming. Today it looked like she ripped into her own arm with her fingernails or something. And then she blamed it on one of these imaginary characters!”

I had heard enough. My mom didn’t believe me. She thought I was crazy. I turned to go back into my room and found Vim waiting for me in the doorway. “Cara, we have to get rid of Hobble. I think I know how to do it, but it’s not going to be pleasant.”

“I don’t care,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes. “He’s hurt me for the last time. What do we have to do.”

“We have to call The Dredge,” he said, whispering the name with a terrified look around him. “Who is The Dredge?” I asked. Vim gave me a panicked look. “Quietly! I don’t want to summon him until we’re ready. The Dredge is a gatekeeper of sorts. He holds the key to the door from here to The Place That Isn’t, and to all the other doors in all of the other universes and worlds that I know of, and even the ones that I don’t. We need him to open up a door to a place that no one can return from, and then we need to send Hobble through that door!”

“Great!” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t we do this earlier? It’s perfect!”

“No, Cara,” Vim said softly. “You don’t understand. The Dredge isn’t good. He’s not exactly evil, but he always demands a price for a favor such as this, and he sets the terms. And often you won’t even know what the terms are until after you’ve agreed. There was a hefty price to pay to permanently open the door from The Place That Isn’t to here.” Vim’s eyes took on a faraway look for a moment. When he looked back to me I could have sworn that he looked older, though I had never seen any stamp of time on him before.

“Ok, Vim, I get it. There’s a price to pay. But if I don’t pay it, my mom may stick me in the nut house! Or worse, Hobble could permanently injure me or kill me. What other choice do we have?”

“One, I’m afraid,” said Vim sadly. “Instead of you opening a door and paying the price to The Dredge, I could close the door to The Place That Isn’t, lock Hobble inside, and pay the price myself. But I will have to stay there, too. We will never see each other again.”

“No,” I cried out. “Vim, I need you! I’ll pay it. Whatever it is, it will be better that losing you forever.” Again Vim got that faraway look in his eyes. “I certainly hope so, Cara.”

Over the next few weeks, Vim and I prepared to summon The Dredge, gathering up certain items to entice him to come to us, things that Vim said he liked. Things like old skeleton keys and ornate antique doorknobs. We were finally ready one bright and sunny afternoon, just a few days before my 16th birthday.

“Ok, Vim. I think we have everything we need. What now?” I asked.

“Just call him,” said Vim. “If he likes what we’ve gathered, he’ll be here.”

“That’s it?” I asked skeptically. “Call him? Now? In broad daylight?”

Though Vim’s face was etched with worry, he managed a small chuckle. “Yes, that’s it. The Dredge doesn’t need to deal in darkness or secret. He’s no more or less likely to come in the daylight than he is at midnight.”

“Ok,” I said with a shrug. I began to call for him. “Dredge? Hello, Dredge? If you can hear me, and it so pleases you, could you come to me? I have gifts for you and would like to make a deal.” It felt a bit awkward to me, but I had no idea exactly how one was supposed to address an invisible and potentially malevolent gatekeeper.

For a few moments, nothing happened. Vim and I exchanged glances. I opened my mouth to call again when suddenly it was like all of the air was ripped out of my lungs, and indeed, the whole world. Gasping and choking I dropped to my knees only to see a huge rip forming in the very fabric of the landscape in front of me. Out of the slit came two grotesque looking hands, ancient and withered. They grabbed the sides of the tear from the inside and pulled, opening the hole wider and forming a door.

A foul, disgusting creature emerged from the newly formed entryway. It was bent and twisted at odd angles, it’s skin the color of a corpse, the place where its eyes should have been were dark empty pits. I had never felt such terror or revulsion in my life. At least I hadn’t until it turned its hideous face towards me. It was then that I knew what true fear was. This was a primordial creature, one who had no real interest in the affairs of mortals or of the living, no matter what species or world they came from. This was a being that cared only for itself and its own gains.

It took longer than I’d like to admit until I was able to calm myself enough to begin speaking to The Dredge. Thankfully, Vim had reached up and squeezed my hand, which had always helped. “Dredge, I humbly ask for your help,” I began. Somehow, through the horror and the air which still seemed almost non-existent, I was able to explain what I wanted. When I was finished The Dredge opened its horrible mouth and began making a low rumble that quickly intensified into a higher pitched groan and then into a full on scream. It was a noise that I will never forget. It felt like it was both in my own head and everywhere else all at once. It was so loud and so utterly terrifying that it rocked me back on my heels and I also began to wail. I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut tight. Next to me I could hear Vim whimpering pathetically. Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. The air came back in a whoosh and I could hear birds again. I opened my ears and peeked over at Vim. He looked traumatized but otherwise unharmed.

“Did it work?” I asked anxiously.

“Look,” said Vim, “the gifts are gone. He accepted.”

“So Hobble won’t be a problem anymore, right?” I asked, no longer sure if going through that ordeal had even been worth getting rid of the beastly rascal.

“Right,” said Vim. “Hobble should be locked away in another dimension now where he can’t hurt you anymore.”

“And what about the price I have to pay? When will I know what it is?”

Vim’s fuzzy forehead creased as he thought about it. “I imagine soon. As far as I know, The Dredge has never taken long to call in a debt.” At this, he reached up for me to lift him off the ground. I had never really realized before that as I got older and taller, I was rapidly outgrowing his own little height. The thought made me sad as I pulled him into my arms.

He looked deep into my eyes. “One thing, though, Cara, that you must never do. No matter what happens. Do not go through a door that The Dredge has opened. Ever. No matter what. That won’t be his payment from you, don’t worry. But he will try to trick you. To make you go with him. In addition to being the gatekeeper to all of the dimensions, The Dredge is a collector of sorts. He collects souls and keeps them trapped behind doors he has tricked them into going through. But as long as you make your payment and don’t go through a door with him, we’ll be alright. You and me, we’ll be together forever.”

I buried my face in Vim’s soft fur and hugged him tighter than I ever had. It felt like maybe we could actually be ok.

That night as I laid down to sleep, I had a sudden resurgence of the terror I felt in the presence of The Dredge earlier that day, though it was admittedly muted this time.

I could hear The Dredge’s awful scream in my head, but it felt far away. I began to hear a voice too, almost too quiet at first to hear, though the volume rapidly ratcheted up to a near deafening level.

“Pathetic human child, you called upon me to banish a creature from your world forever. It has been done. Thus, payment is owed and must be made. From now until the end of your days, your dreams belong to me. When you slumber, all dreams, good or bad, belong to me. They will be of my design and will last as long as I wish. This is the payment, beginning tonight.”

The voice and scream ended abruptly. I felt a short burst of relief. That was it? He just wanted my dreams? Fine, he could have them. He said good or bad, so surely there would be some good ones in there too. Seemed like a small price to pay to be free of Hobble and to keep Vim forever. Sighing softly, I rolled in my bed to get comfortable for sleep, excited to tell Vim all about the payment The Dredge required in the morning.

Part 2

“Cara! CARA!”

I was woken up abruptly by Nurse Heidi. Drenched in sweat, I quickly sat up in my bed and wiped the damp hair out of my eyes and off of my forehead. Chest heaving, I looked up at Heidi and saw the concern in her face.

“It was happening again?” I asked.

“It was,” Heidi said gently. “I thought you were going to fling yourself out of your bed this time. I thought it best to wake you up.”

I nodded mutely at her and, suddenly remembering my manners, thanked her softly. She responded by squeezing my hand and giving me a small, sad smile. “Breakfast is still about an hour away. There’s time for a quick shower, if you’d like. Let me know if you want to and I’ll let you out” With that, Nurse Heidi left, leaving me and my thoughts all alone.

I knew I should get up and get a shower; get the sweat and sleep smell off before breakfast. Instead, I flopped back on my bed and stared up at my ceiling. The same ceiling I’d been staring at since I was 15 years old.

I live in the Lone Gateway mental health facility, two towns over from where my mom still lives and where I spent my childhood. It’s a decent place, considering it’s technically a loony bin. There are rules, of course, like no touching the other patients, designated shower times, and lights out at 9:30pm, but no one’s trapped in a straight jacket or padded room. I mean, there are locks on the doors of our rooms at night, but they do a good job of not making us feel like caged animals here.

I was brought here when I was 15 because my poor mother was at her wit’s end with me. I still had imaginary friends at that age, and though it was simply worrisome for awhile, I began hurting myself around age 14 and blaming it on the imaginary friends. One in particular, Hobble, I think I called him, was especially vicious, and caused me to do myself a fair amount of harm. My mom started taking me to doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists when the bruises and cuts started getting worse. Dissociative Identity Disorder was the first official diagnoses. When I insisted that the creatures weren’t me, that they were real and outside me, they threw in Schizophrenia as the next diagnoses. And then, when things only got worse, even with medication, they threw me in here, and that was that.

I’ve come a long way since then. I’m 17 now and have done a pretty good job of blocking these creatures out. I still see them from time to time, but I’ve gotten really good at simply ignoring them until they go away. I know they’re not real now. The only real problem I have left are these awful dreams. Dreams like the one Nurse Heidi saved me from this morning. They are vivid, nightmarish things. Dreams in which I have to watch horrible scenes like people I love dying in the most gruesome ways imaginable, and ones where I’m being tortured endlessly by a host of demonic creatures with green scaly skin and razor sharp teeth…

Last night’s dream was particularly brutal. I was trapped in a dim room, manacled to the wall with thick steel bracelets that had spikes all around the interior. If I moved my wrists at all, the cruel spines would jam into my flesh. Across the room, my mother was bound to a chair, gagged and blindfolded. She moaned every once in awhile, so I knew she was alive. One of those green creatures entered the room with a small dagger in his hands. He grinned at me with his wide, terrible mouth, and walked over to my mother. Staring straight into my eyes he asked, “Was it worth it, Cara?” and began stabbing my mother repeatedly in the face. While she screamed, I began thrashing against the cuffs as they bit into my wrists, sobbing, trying to reach her. As the spikes cut down to the bone, I heard a voice, ancient and terrifying, whisper, “You can make it end, Cara. Just go through the door.”

What door, I would never find out. Nurse Heidi had woken me up at that exact moment. It wasn’t the first time, though, one of these awful dreams had ended with that proposition. Sometimes, it would get to the point where a door would open in front of me. I could never see what was on the other side, but it always filled me with dread. However, as the dreams got more brutal, the door was beginning to seem like a viable option. Maybe I should go through just to see what was on the other side. Next time, I decided, I’d go through if I could.

Glancing at the clock on the wall, I saw that it was 7:45am; only 15 minutes left until breakfast. I had missed my window of opportunity to grab that shower without anyone knowing. Now I’d have to wait until my 11am designated time. Sighing, I rolled out of bed and went to change into some clean clothes.

At 7:55, I heard the familiar buzz of my room door unlocking. Now feeling rather famished, I pulled the door open and headed out into the hallway, quickly making my way down to the large dining room. As I rounded the corner, a bright pink, fluffy little creature bounded down the hall towards me.

“Cara! Cara! Please listen to me, Cara!” the little character cried out to me. I brushed past him, not even glancing his way. “He’s not real. Not real,” I muttered to myself.

“Cara, please wake up! Come back to me!” Annoyed now, I picked up my pace. The creature ran alongside me and repeatedly tried to grab my hand. “You’re sleeping, Cara! This is a nightmare! Wake up! Don’t go with The Dredge, Cara!”

At the sound of “The Dredge” a little flutter of fear touched my chest, though I didn’t know why. This only served to make me more angry. “Go away!” I shouted. “You’re not real! And I’m obviously not sleeping!”

An aide poked his head out of one of the rooms that I was passing. “Ok, Cara?” he asked. “Yes,” I snarled through gritted teeth. “Ok,” he said, raising an eyebrow at me. As he disappeared back into the room, I sighed with the realization that this little incident would likely mean my medication dosage would be upped again. “Dammit,” I muttered. An increased dosage meant I was even further away from getting out of here, not closer.

The next few weeks passed without incident in my waking hours. However, though I didn’t see the pink creature again, the nightmares only got worse. I began seeing a withered, twisted, gray, shrouded figure with a featureless face except for huge black pits where its eyes should have been. This monstrosity terrified me to my core. When it would begin screaming, it felt like I would die from fear. Usually, when it began screaming, one of those doors would appear again, and that voice would return. “Go through the door, Cara. End this.”

I kept trying to go through the door in my dreams, but it felt as though as I was moving through molasses. Before I could ever reach it, one of the nurses, usually Nurse Heidi, would wake me up. I was growing increasingly frustrated. I tried to tell them to let me sleep, to ignore my thrashing and screaming, but they ignored my pleas. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands. During my next visit with Lone Gateway’s resident psychiatrist, I told her I was struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep and that I could really use some medication to help.

“I don’t know, Cara,” she said with a frown. “I’m worried about how you may react on drugs like these with your disorders and your current medications.”

However, after working up some very convincing crocodile tears, telling her about my violent and terrifying dreams and begging her to give me something to help me stay asleep, she relented.

“Ok, Cara. I’ll prescribe you some sleeping pills. Just be aware, in conjunction with your other medications, they may cause some uncomfortable side effects. Things like hallucinations. If you experience anything like that, you need to tell me.”

Nodding, I thanked her profusely and headed to the pharmacy for my first dose. I was so hopeful that this might be what allowed me to dream in a deep enough state of sleep that I wouldn’t flop around and alert any of the nurses to my nightmares.

Just before lights out that night, I popped the sleeping pill straight into my mouth and snuggled down into my bed. As I was nodding off, a noise in the hallway disturbed me. I was about to shrug it off as someone getting back to their room a little late when a high pitched squeal came from outside my door. I jerked straight up, recognizing the noise from somewhere deep inside my memories. “Vim?” I wondered in my head. I didn’t know where I had come up with that name, but I knew I had to figure out what that noise was.

I peered out of the small window near the top of my door, but couldn’t see anything in the dim hallway. The only light came from the tiny nighttime lights in the ceiling spaced a few feet apart. Without thinking, I put my hand on the doorknob and pulled. To my utter surprise, the door opened with ease. Nervously, I peered into the hallway. It seemed like there was something at the end of it, but it was hard to tell. I desperately wanted to crawl back into bed, but something was driving me to figure out what that noise had been. I crept slowly towards the figure at the end of the hall, pausing every few steps to see if I could make out what it was any clearer. The silence in the hall was oppressive. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears from my anxious heart beat.

When I just about reached the end of the hallway, I could suddenly tell that what I had thought was a tall, spindly creature was really just a new coat rack that someone had put in the hallway. I let out a big breath that I hadn’t even realized that I had been holding. “Probably for doctors to hang their coats,” I thought to myself. “Stupid place to put it, really.”

It was then that I felt a chill sweep over my back and every hair on my neck stood straight up. I turned around slowly and found myself face to face with the ancient gray demon from my dreams. In his right hand he held the pink creature up by the ears. His poor little face was bloodied and his limbs twisted at wrong angles. I stumbled backwards and cried out in terror. The monster held the mangled pink animal out towards me and then drew out a large knife. Realizing that he meant to kill the little creature in front of me, I began screaming. Suddenly, a door appeared out of nowhere to my right. The pink character’s eyes flew open and he yelled, “No, Cara!”

But I heard the sandpapery voice saying, “Save him, Cara. Go through the door.” Though my heart was in my throat, I knew I had to take the chance. I dove through the door and…opened my eyes in my old bedroom. I could smell bacon cooking downstairs and could hear my mom humming to herself. The extreme juxtaposition of where I had just been and where I now was was jarring. I blinked a few times and shook my head and then heard a musical tinkling laugh come from behind me. I turned around and saw an angelic child smiling at me. “See, Cara!” it said with another giggle. I told you if you went through the door everything would be ok!” Stunned, I could only manage to gape around the room some more.

“Well,” the little cherub said, “you’re not exactly home yet. You have to go through the door for real, next time. Then you can really be home! Wouldn’t you like that?”

When I finally managed to nod, the golden child walked up to me and held out its arms for me to lift it up. As I lifted the child, not for the first time, I felt a strange ping in the back of my mind, like I was almost remembering something, but not quite. “Close your eyes,” the angel said. I obliged and felt tiny soft lips brush my eyelids. “Wake,” whispered the musical voice.

I woke up clutching my pillow in my room at Lone Gateway. When I realized where I was, I wanted so desperately to cry. That had all been a dream? I had been so close to being home. So close to this nightmare being over that the fact that I was back here was devastating. I pressed my palms into my eyes and tried to remember what the dream child had said. It had told me to go through the door for real next time. Next time? In my next dream? Who was that angelic being? And why had it sounded so terrifying on one side of the door, but so lovely on the other?

With all of these questions burning in my mind, I knew I’d never get back to sleep. I paced the room and waited impatiently until my door buzzed open for breakfast. Walking down, I was once again greeted by the pink half teddy bear, half cat creature that often plagued me. Seeing his face whole reminded me of how bent and broken it had been in my nightmare the night before. Shaking my head, I once again walked faster to try and outpace him. “I’ll have to tell the doctor that these meds are giving me hallucinations,” I said out loud.

“I’m not a hallucination, Cara! It’s me, Vim! This is our last chance! This isn’t real! You’re dreaming and sleepwalking!” I stopped abruptly and whipped around to tell him to leave me alone when something caught my attention in the corner of my eye. I looked around and saw the last thing I ever wanted to see again. The gray monstrosity from my nightmares stood at the end of the hallway, long knife in hand, low groan emanating from deep inside its chest.

“The Dredge,” I heard Vim whimper. “Cara, I’m begging you, don’t go through any doors.” Just then, what had simply looked like a crack in the wall began to rip open and a dark doorway formed. Freezing, dry, stale air blew out at me.

“No!” Vim wailed. I looked down at the furry pink creature and my nightmare from before leapt into my mind. “I think I have to, Vim. To save you from that,” I said, glancing back up at The Dredge, who had begun advancing. “It will be ok,” I said, as Vim clung to my hand, crying. “I went through in a dream last night. I got to go home. I was normal again. Everything will be ok.”

“Cara, no, please,” Vim sobbed. “You are dreaming now! YOU’RE SLEEP WALKING! Please wake up!”

“Come with me,” I said, scooping the little pink creature into my arms, as The Dredge came ever closer.

“Ok,” said Vim, still crying. “If that’s what I have to do to be with you again.” I smiled and kissed his little forehead and turned to go through the door when I felt Vim yanked out of my arms by an icy cold grip. I tried to grab him back, but The Dredge held him out of my reach. Though my heart was in my throat, I knew what I had to do. I dove through the door.

Part 3

I slowly opened my eyes as I struggled to wake up from my latest nightmare. It had something to do with being trapped in a mental hospital for years, though the details were already growing fuzzy. The gloom of another cloudy day did not make it any easier to wake up. As I glanced around the room I’d been sleeping in since I was a child, I realized that I should probably redecorate soon. There were still posters up of boy bands that had been broken up for years. Oh well, just another thing I needed to add to my list of things to do.

I swung my legs out of bed and put my feet down on the wooden floor. It was cold enough that I jerked my feet back into my warm bed. “Jesus,” I muttered to myself. “Why can’t I get this house any warmer? I’ll have to call a heating guy to come take a look at the furnace or something.”

I wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with that myself. A few mornings ago, I had awoken to a note from my mom saying that she would be visiting with her sister out of town for awhile and that she would be back soon and that I shouldn’t worry. I’ve tried calling her cell, but it just rings and rings and she never picks up. I’m not really that worried yet, though. My aunt lives way out in the boonies. She normally doesn’t have great cell service out there anyway.

I padded softly down to the kitchen for some breakfast. The cupboards were woefully bare. “Add shopping to the list of things to do today,” I grumbled. I managed to find a loaf of bread that was about 12 hours away from being inedible. As I munched on my stale toast, I went and stared out of the big bay window in our living room. It was so gray and cloudy out that it barely felt like it was actually daytime. This oppressive grayness had been stubbornly sticking around for days. I felt like it had started right around the time my mom left for her sister’s. It would figure that the days I was feeling lonely without my mom would be the nastiest days possible.

I wandered over to the TV to turn on the weather and see when I could expect the sun to return. I flipped the TV on and tried to get the weather channel, but every station was static. I turned it back off and flung the remote back on the coffee table disgustedly. Why was everything determined to break at the exact same time?

Snapping my fingers suddenly, I remembered I had the weather app on my phone that I could check. But I couldn’t find my phone, even after tearing the house apart looking for it. Feeling close to tears, I pressed my palms into my eyes until I saw stars behind my eyelids. After a few deep breaths, I decided I just needed to get out of the house. I had been in here for too long by myself with no company except for the ever-present gloom and chill that hung around the whole house.

Feeling like buying some food was the most important item on my to-do list, I went back into the kitchen to see what I needed. Everything was the answer. Even the quart of milk in the fridge had gone bad. I gagged when I opened it and gave it a whiff. “Gee, thanks for leaving suddenly with no provisions in the house for your only daughter, mom,” I snarled to no one in particular. I grabbed a handful of money from the jar she kept in the back of the pantry and headed out to the store.

It was only a short bike ride from our house, so I took my time. I didn’t see anyone out as I pedaled slowly down the street, but that was to be expected, I suppose. No one wanted to be outside in this nasty weather.

When I reached the store, it was pretty dead inside as well. I could see a few people hurrying around corners and rushing down aisles, always in the opposite direction I was headed. No one was talking. Not that it really bothered me. I wasn’t usually inclined to talk to other people anyway.

When I got to the checkout counter, the woman scanned my groceries robotically and didn’t say anything to me either. The silence was becoming so odd and oppressive that I attempted to engage her in some polite small talk while I bagged the groceries. But despite my best efforts with comments about the bleakness of the weather, I got nothing in return. Only a blank stare with no real life behind it.

Feeling even weirder and more lonely than ever before, I biked home quickly. Once back in the house, my sense of loneliness only intensified. I tried calling my mom again, but I still got no answer. I could feel a sense of panic rising in my chest. Why did everything just feel wrong? I closed my eyes and took some more deep breaths. When I opened my eyes, they fell on the DVD shelf across the room. “Perfect!” I thought. Even if the TV wasn’t working, I could watch a funny DVD. That would make me feel better. I selected one, popped it in, and curled up on the couch under a blanket. I did feel better while the movie was running, but as soon as it was over, the heaviness and dread reappeared almost immediately. I stared out the window hoping to see another person. Some kids playing ball, the mailman dropping off a package, someone walking their dog. But there was no one. I momentarily considered calling the police, but I had no idea what I would even say. “Excuse me officer, I think I’m having a mental breakdown because it’s cloudy out, my house is cold, my mom doesn’t have cell service, no one talked to me in the grocery store today, and no one is outside in this terrible weather.” Hearing myself say that in my head made me realize how ridiculous I was being. I gave myself a little mental shake and decided it was time for some dinner.

After whipping up a meal of all of my favorite things, I spotted a bottle of wine high up on a shelf. I only thought about it for a split second before I was grabbing a stool to get the bottle down. “Who cares if I’m only 17?” I thought. “This is what my mom gets for leaving a teenager alone in the house.”

I ate and drank myself into a near oblivion. Drunk, full, and tired, I dragged myself up the stairs and to my room. “ ‘S time for bed, I guess,” I slurred out loud. I pulled my pajamas on and crawled into bed. I searched under the covers for the little bright pink stuffed teddy bear that was really half bear/half cat that I slept with every night. I’d had it as long as I could remember. As I pulled it close into a hug, my fingers brushed over the scar on my arm from when the neighbor’s Cocker Spaniel bit me a few years back. I had had an extreme fear of dogs since then, but I was slowly getting over it. “Maybe I’ll go play with some puppies at the animal shelter, tomorrow,” I mused to myself. “Get some company and get over my fear of dogs at the same time. Kill two birds with one stone.”

Rolling over, I let out a huge yawn and closed my eyes. For a moment, I could have sworn I heard a pounding noise from very far away, like someone was knocking on a door loudly from a few houses down the street. As I was drifting off, it also sounded like a tiny, faraway voice was squeaking, “Cara! Cara, where are you?” I chuckled to myself. I had been hearing that same knocking and voice for a few nights now, but as I could never find any source of it, I guessed I must have been imagining it. And tonight I was certainly too tired and drunk to take another fruitless search around. “Oh well,” I thought, as I could feel myself being pulled into sleep. “At least the sun might be out tomorrow.”

The end

Credit: N. Christ

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Visions in the Fog

September 16, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Cliff was finally upon the small Louisiana town of Crescent Falls that he had sought out. It was an unassuming, run down town that normally wouldn’t attract anyone. But Cliff was not just passing through, and he wasn’t your average traveler. Cliff had a penchant for seeking out urban legends and myths, and he felt he had hit the jackpot. It was such a compelling legend that Cliff had decided to drive to Louisiana from his home in Arkansas.

Cliff had gone to several so-called haunted locations, with little to show for them. He always managed to capture some odd image or sound on his camcorder, but it was nothing of any significance. Cliff hoped he would find something worthwhile this time. He had stumbled upon the legend of a bog dubbed by the locals as Suicide Bog several months ago. After further researching the topic he decided it had some credibility, enough to warrant a trip.

He had read tales of ghostly figures, eerie whispers and past deaths in the bog, which had been both hallowed and feared by the local Native Americans. The townspeople of Crescent Falls had set their eyes upon the woods for various reasons, which culminated in a horrific massacre of seven loggers in 1923. Since then, several more mysterious disappearances had been linked to the place.

Cliff was now in sight of his intended first stop, the town’s warehouse. He had already arranged to meet with a contact he had met online, who told Cliff he would get him in touch with a local man who had extensive knowledge of the bog’s history. The warehouse was as derelict as the rest of the town. Cliff parked at the warehouse, and was immediately accosted by a middle aged man standing outside the warehouse.

“Are you Cliff?” The man asked.

“Yes”, Cliff responded.

The man motioned for Cliff to follow as he entered the warehouse. Men worked as the two walked through the warehouse and up a flight of stairs to the foreman’s office. The man knocked. After a few seconds, the door opened to reveal a decrepit old man.

“Cliff, this Everett. He’ll tell you all you want to know. I have to get back to work now.” The man said as he briskly walked back into the warehouse.

Cliff took a seat as Everett lit a cigarette and sat back in his chair.

“So, you want to know about the old Suicide Bog?” Everett wheezed out. It was clear his lungs were bad.

“Yes. Please I’m very interested in this legend.” Cliff replied

“I guess you are if you drove all the way from Arkansas. And it ain’t no legend. It’s very real.” Everett responded.

Cliff merely nodded and took out his notebook, ready to jot down what Everett told him.

Everett muttered under his breath about Cliff not believing him before beginning his narrative. In between coughs, he began about the bog’s use as a place for rituals and burials by the Native Americans.

“The local Indians used the bog for rites of passage.” Everett began. “It was a spiritual place. However, eventually the tribesmen began to feel the presence of a malevolent being. They ceased to enter the bog. They felt it was no longer their place to go and left it alone.”

“What sort of being?” Cliff asked.

“I’m getting to that,” Everett said as he took a drag on his cigarette.

“Avoiding the place wasn’t enough to keep the being, who would later be known to the tribe as the Mother of the Bog, at bay. The whispers and voices could be heard. The closer you got to the bog and the foggier it was, the more powerful and compelling the voices were.”

“That must be related to the disappearances and the murders in 1923,” Cliff said as he wrote down several notes.

Everett nodded. “Yes. The voices demanded sacrifice, to be fed flesh, blood and sinew. Some were able to resist the commands, others were not. Over the years, many tribesmen under the influence of the voices and fog wandered into the bog. They were never seen again.”

Cliff eyed Everett intently as his interest in the story grew. It was all bullshit, it had to be, but it still succeeded in sending a chill down his spine.

“After a few years,” Everett continued, “the tribe reached an agreement with the Mother of the Bog. They would leave their dead in the bog as long as the voices stopped luring their people to their demise. The deal worked, at least until the tribe was displaced. The settlers who moved here did not bury their dead in the bog, and the voices gradually grew stronger. There were a few disappearances here and there, but people picked up and left frequently so nothing was really thought of it. Until 1923.”

“The murders happened then.” Cliff stated.

“Yep,” Everett stated. “A group of ten loggers began working in the bog and surrounding woodlands. My grandfather was the only one of the ten to come out unscathed.”

Cliff’s interest reached new heights as he heard this.

“The ten of them were creeped out from the start. Something wasn’t right and they knew it.” Everett said. “The men spoke of their concerns, but their concerns were not heeded. It grew hard for the men to keep track of reality, but one logger in particular grew increasingly disturbed.”

“What happened? How did your grandfather manage to survive all of this?” Cliff asked as he continued to write in his notebook.

“Christopher Ross was the logger who grew disturbed. One night he began chasing a figure that only he saw. He described the figure as a hazy, otherworldly woman. Immediately after that he began speaking of ‘feeding the Mother of the Bog’. He started bloodletting every night, to the alarm of the other men. Every night, while muttering about feeding the mother, Christopher would cut the palms of his hands and watch the blood drip into a nearby stream.”

“Jesus.” Cliff stated.

“Christopher was still a reliable worker so the men neglected to do anything other than cease any interaction with him that wasn’t necessary. Christopher’s mutilation reached new heights after a few days though.” Everett said. “Just days before the massacre, Christopher cut off his ears and nose. He threw them into the stream as a sacrifice to the mother. He was about to cut off his lips as well when he was stopped by the other loggers.”

Cliff was shocked. He had not heard such a disturbing account of the place online. He was beginning to have second thoughts about visiting the bog.

“I never heard of such a graphic account.” Cliff said. “All I heard of was ghostly figures and sounds.”

“It gets worse.” Everett said grimly. “Christopher was restrained and taken back into town. He screamed angrily at them for interfering with his feeding of the mother. He was committed to a psychiatric facility. His delusions and self-harm stopped shortly after he left, but he maintained that the voices and hazy being were real. He was never released. He died in the mental hospital some twenty years later.”

“I’m guessing the murders happened next.” Cliff said.

“Yes. My grandfather was lucky. His wife-my grandmother-was pregnant with my father at the time. A day or two before the massacre, my grandfather came into town to be present when his wife gave birth. He was in town for three days. He returned to the loggers’ camp to find it a bloody mess. Seven of the loggers were horribly dismembered. None of them were completely recovered. Many of them had lost body parts that went unaccounted for. Some of the injuries were self-inflicted, others weren’t. The eighth logger, Jacob Bishop, was gone. They never found a trace of him. Some people think he killed the other seven, and others think he too was a victim. My grandfather was sure that whatever Christopher saw killed the others. He was also sure that Bishop also fell victim to the attacker.”

“My God. But wasn’t there another incident in the bog after that?” Cliff asked.

Everett nodded as he coughed several times.

Lighting a cigarette off the end of the old one, he continued. “Fifty six years ago, and thirty two years after the massacre, the daughter of the town’s sheriff disappeared in 1955. I was ten years old then, I remember it well. She had been playing near the bog when she heard the voices. At first her parents thought she had an imaginary friend, but it soon became clear something was wrong. She began acting strangely and had cuts on her arms. Before her parents could get help she wandered off, presumably into the bog.”

“I’m guessing no one saw her again.” Cliff said.

“Right.” Everett replied. “She probably met the same fate as the others who disappeared, whatever that may be. The sheriff became increasingly disturbed after she was gone. He began sitting by the stream in the bog, nearly catatonic. He would only give brief, terse answers. He believed he could hear her voice, and that she would return to him if he waited. Maybe he did hear her voice in the fog, maybe that damned thing out there is capable of that kind of manipulation,” Everett mused.

“What happened to him?” Cliff asked.

“He stopped taking care of himself. He basically stopped eating or maintaining himself. He was terribly pale and underweight by the time he killed himself. He left a note saying that the voice had told him that only by feeding the bog could he see his daughter again. He drowned himself in the stream.” Everett stated.

“His case sounds similar to one supposed ghost I read about the bog.” Cliff said.

“It is. A few people have reported such encounters. My grandfather, my father, and I all came to believe that the soul of anyone who died or was laid to rest in the bog was claimed by it. We’ve only had two disappearances since then as most people know to avoid the place. We can’t even be sure those two fell victim to the bog. On foggier nights the voices can be heard in town still. I think that thing uses the fog as its way of communicating with us.” Everett finished.

“That was quite a lot of information. Thank you for your time.” Cliff said as he went to leave.

“You aren’t going to go check out the bog now are you?” Everett asked. He had a worried look on his face.

“No.” Cliff lied.

“I’m serious Cliff. Don’t go. You’ll just be another disappearance. Mike, the man who showed you in, told me about you. The bog is way out of your league.” Everett warned.

“I won’t go. Thanks for your help.” Cliff said.

It was a lie of course. He hadn’t come all the way down just to interview one man. He was going to try to document the bog. Cliff made his way through the warehouse and out to his van. Cliff entered his van, and began going through the equipment he had brought. In addition to his camcorder, Cliff had packed a field recorder to capture sounds, a flashlight, a GPS, and a large pack of batteries. He had a mattress in the back of the van so he could sleep without paying for lodging.

Ignoring any hesitation that still remained, Cliff drove out to the road nearest to the bog. It wasn’t a long drive, and he had already looked up the route. The road was worn and in need of work, with the wilderness slowly but surely reclaiming the space. In a few minutes, the roadside was more spacious as Cliff came upon a clear area with a clear entry point to the bog. Just up ahead was a small bridge, which passed over a slow moving stream. After taking in his surroundings, Cliff entered the tree line and made his way into the wilderness. Tonight, he would simply set up his sound recording equipment as a sort of reconnaissance in hopes of recording the alleged whispers. Tomorrow, he would actually explore the bog at night.

Apart from the occasional bird, the bog was deathly silent. The vegetation was thick and impassible in many places. Many of trees, old and overgrown with other plants, hung eerily low. Cliff could hear the stream still, but he could not see it from where he was at. After walking for about thirty minutes, Cliff came upon some wetlands. Deciding this was a good place, Cliff went about setting up his recording gear and went back to his van. It was almost dark by now, so Cliff decided to settle down on the mattress in his van.

It was very quiet and peaceful as Cliff laid on the mattress, nearly asleep. He was about to drift off when he heard a voice. He was unable to understand a single word, but it sounded as if a heated conversation was taking place in the woods mere feet from his van. As he strained to listen, he could barely make out the words “among us” and “mother.” Suddenly, more voices from the other direction could be heard. These voices were much more calm but still unintelligible. Growing increasingly unnerved, Cliff realized these voices sounded as if they were right outside his van. Unsure of what to do, Cliff laid there in a sweat, hoping the voices would go away.

To his relief, the voices eventually subsided. However, Cliff could still hear voices in the distance every so often as he struggled to sleep. Cliff rose early and wasted no time fetching his recording equipment. He couldn’t help but think he was being watched as he ventured into the bog and retrieved his equipment.

Listening to the recordings, it was initially nothing more than typical wilderness sounds. That began to change as voices, harsh and menacing, could be heard with increasing intensity. Much of it was unintelligible whispering, but it was without a doubt highly discomforting.

Cliff thought about calling quits. This was more than enough to call it a successful trip. However, Cliff wanted more. He wanted to physically explore the bog at night. Cliff spent the hours idly waiting until the sun began to set. He set out into the bog with his camcorder, GPS, flashlight, and batteries. The bog was even more surreal and creepy at night, with the dying trees and thick vegetation casting menacing shadows. As nightfall came, Cliff noticed fog appearing at his feet. Worried he may trip, he began walking much more carefully.

The first hour or so was uneventful, although unnerving. As Cliff stepped over a fallen tree, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

“Snap out of it.” Cliff told himself. His eyes were playing tricks. They had to be.

The sound of the stream was getting stronger. Cliff decided to approach it, to see what sights the stream could offer. Keeping his camcorder up, he managed to get through a thick patch of brush. Cliff stopped dead in his tracks. Up ahead in the distance was a dark, hazy humanoid figure. Cliff’s heart skipped a beat, but just as quickly as he saw it, it disappeared.

“Come on Cliff, get a grip on yourself.” Cliff muttered.

Cliff was really starting to get freaked out. Every shadow made him do a double take. He mistook objects such as stumps for people. As if he wasn’t scared enough already, he could swear the whispers were back. All around him, low to ground, Cliff could hear garbled voices of varying volume. However, every time Cliff shined his light or otherwise checked where the voices should be coming from, he found nothing.
Every rational though in Cliff’s head was telling him to go back, but he wanted to capture more on camera first. As he continued to make his way towards the stream, he tripped on a root hidden by the fog. Cliff found himself face to face with a withered, anorexic corpse. Cliff flailed and screamed. As he got up though, the corpse was gone.

Cliff was rattled. As he hurriedly walked from the spot he had tripped, the path began to open considerably. In a few seconds he was upon the stream, as well as the most frightening sight of his life.

Just feet away from him, at the bank of the stream, sat a man. He didn’t seem to notice Cliff. The man was terribly pale and emaciated. He was balding, with just a few strands of hair on his scalp. Cliff trained his camcorder on him for a few seconds before backing away. As he backed away, the man whirled around. The man’s face was as emaciated as the rest of his body, with two sunken black orbs for eyes.

Cliff froze, paralyzed with fear as the man stood up. For several tense seconds, the man eyed him intently. Then he took a step toward Cliff. And another. And another. Cliff’s mind screamed at him to run but he was frozen in place, unable to move.

Without warning, the man cried out and lunged at Cliff. Reacting instinctively, Cliff raised his arms to defend himself. He caught both of the man’s arms.

“Please help! My daughter’s missing you have to help me! Make it stop!” The man wailed.

Utterly terrified, Cliff pushed with all his might, sending the ghostly man tumbling onto his back. The man cried out as he landed.

Finally finding his leg muscles, Cliff sprinted back the way he came, expecting the man to chase him. The man didn’t seem to follow but Cliff nonetheless sprinted, determined to escape this nightmare of a place and never come back. Cliff was frightfully aware that the whispers were becoming louder and more agitated. To his fear, he realized the fog was rising, and with it the voices were rising.

The fog was almost up to his waist now. Cliff had no choice but to press on, making his way back to the van as quickly as possible. Cliff stopped. In his path was another ghostly figure. This one paid no attention to him, passing right by him. It was still more than enough to send a shiver down his spine.

The fog was rising rapidly, it was up to his chest now. The whispers were becoming stronger as he began to run back to his van more desperately than before. As Cliff continued running, he stopped to catch his breath.

Almost instantly, the voices were louder and clearer than ever. As the voices assaulted him, the black hazy figure from before appeared in front of him. Cliff could see it much more clearly this time.

The figure was about seven feet tall and all black with the exception of its glowing red eyes.

“WH-what are you? What do you want?” Cliff stammered.

After eyeing him silently for a few seconds, the being spoke in a deep, thunderous voice.

“I am the Mother of the Bog. I want you to join me my child. Feed me and join the rest of my children.” The being boomed.

“No!” Cliff shouted.

The being extended an arm towards him, causing Cliff to run. This had to be a hallucination from the fog, Cliff thought. In a few seconds, he realized it wasn’t. The being was nowhere to be seen, but Cliff had run away and had gotten himself spun around.

As he looked around to get his bearings, he saw multiple figures. They were all around him, circling him. They were walking slowly, like a shark circling its prey in the ocean. He shined his light on them, revealing dozens if not hundreds of them. They all looked alike: Their faces ashen and their eyes sunken, emaciated with pale, waxy skin showing nearly every bone. Cliff screamed, and broke into a run. The beings shrieked in unison, shattering Cliff’s ears as he ran, the beings hot on his tail.

Worse, the fog was nearly nose level now. As Cliff ran, he inadvertently inhaled some of the fog.

“Stay here. Don’t be afraid. This is where you belong.” Said a voice in Cliff’s head.

“No!” Cliff shouted as the thought left his head.

He could hear the mob of beings chasing him; he didn’t dare look back.

The fog was still rising. He had to get out before the fog claimed and made him want to stay. He had to climb a tree. It was the only way. Hopefully he could wait it out until daylight and hopefully these fuckers can’t climb, Cliff thought to himself.

Cliff began climbing the first tree he could reach. He went up one branch. Then another. Then another. Suddenly, he felt a vice like grip grab his ankle. One of them had gotten him!

Cliff almost fell into the horde of monsters, but was able to wrap both arms around a strong branch. He cried in pain as nails from the hand dug into his skin, drawing blood. The fog was still rising. Cliff had no idea what time it was, he had to hope these things would vanish when the sun came up, if he could last that long.

Cliff looked down. The things had swarmed the tree. They were staring up at him ravenously. If he lost his grip he was a goner for sure.

The fog was almost at Cliff’s nose again. Cliff held his breath. The fog would drive him insane. He couldn’t breathe in it.

A minute passed. Cliff took a breath. He had to. His mind was immediately flooded.

“Don’t fight it Cliff. This is your home. This is where you belong.” The voice said.

“No! My home is in Arkansas!” Cliff screamed.

“I am your mother Cliff. I love all of my children. Stay with me and accept my love.” The voice boomed.

The voice was reassuring. He started to loosen his grip, only to immediately come to his senses and tighten his grip.

“You’re not my mother!” Cliff shouted.
He had to fight the urges. He couldn’t give in. He had to hold on until sunrise.

He held on for dear life. He could see the sun peaking over the horizon.

This place didn’t seem so bad. Surely there were reasons to accept this family, Cliff thought to himself.

“No! Snap out of it! The fog is getting to you! Just hold on a little longer.” Cliff told himself.

But the mother is so welcoming, Cliff thought. He had nothing but a lonely life back in Arkansas. He should join his new family.

“Yes. Yes. This is my home.” Cliff said to himself. He let go. He immediately screamed as he realized what he had done.

However, Cliff didn’t fall into the hands of a pack of demons. He fell onto the ground with a thud. The sun had risen enough to drive the things away. He laid there, sighing in relief.

As he laid there, relieved, something wasn’t right. To his horror, Cliff realized a cloud had covered the sun.

Cliff broke into a sprint as the beings reappeared, chasing him.

He tore through the brush and wilderness with vigor. He could see the clearing. He was almost at the van!
Cliff felt a hand brush against his back, but it didn’t succeed in grabbing him. Cliff burst through the tree line. He tripped but to his shock, the beings didn’t follow. He looked. They stood behind the trees, staring at him with angry snarls. It occurred to Cliff that they most likely couldn’t leave the bog. Not wasting any time, Cliff got into his van and drove back into town.

Needless to say, this was the last expedition Cliff ever undertook. He showed the footage to Everett, who called him a complete fool. Cliff posted his footage online, but it was ultimately dismissed as a hoax by many, much to his chagrin. Cliff just hoped his investigation wouldn’t inspire other people to seek out the bog.

Credit: Aaron C

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Barter

September 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.

It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.

A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.

Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.

The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.

That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.

Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.

Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.

The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.

All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.

Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Overtime, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.

Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.

The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.

Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.

There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.

Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.

Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.

“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.

She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.

There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.

Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.

“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.

The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”

With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.

“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”

One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.

Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.

The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.

The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.

“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”

Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.

“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”

Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.

“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”

Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.

“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”

Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.

“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”

Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.

“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”

“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.

The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”

Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.

“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”

Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”

“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”

Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.

Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”

“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”

Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”

Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.

“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”

Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.

Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.

A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.

After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.

However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.

“Number 43?”

She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.

The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.

The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.

“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”

She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.

“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.

He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”

“But you can give people whatever they want.”

He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”

“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.

He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.

“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”

“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.

She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.

His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”

“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”

“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”

Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”

“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.

“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”

“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”

Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”

He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”

She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.

He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.

As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.

He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”

“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”

His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.

Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.

“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”

Credit: Katherine C

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Underneath Reality

September 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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When I was a kid, I had this recurring nightmare that always preceded the death of a loved one. It wasn’t quite a premonition – I didn’t know who was going to die, how they would die, or when – only that it would be within the next few days to a week. I had the dream a few times before I figured out the link between the dream and the deaths. These were ordinary deaths – elderly relatives, my grandfather’s terminal cancer, my aunt who lost a child during preterm labor. I grieved for each lost loved one.

The dream was short. It took place in this massive white room, so big that I couldn’t see the walls. Maybe there weren’t any walls. It was like I was looking through a rip in reality – more like I was seeing behind the fabric of the reality we live in, seeing the machine that operates our universe. I say machine because it felt so cold, so mechanical. In the vast nothingness of all white, I would see this gray, not-quite-steel cable, extending as far as the eye could see. On the cable was a massive black sphere. No light reflected off of this sphere. In this too-bright, white plane, the sphere was impossibly dark, as if it absorbed any light. The sphere would move swiftly along this cable, until suddenly, the rest of the cable would just vanish and the sphere would stop instantly, without any slowing. Then a wall would appear, a too-bright white wall that was indistinguishable from the rest of the too-bright whiteness, but I would know that it was there. On the wall, a name was printed. At least, I always assumed it was a name. I could never picture it after I woke up. This wall would only stay up for a split second, but it was an eternity. Everything around me would evaporate, and I’d have this feeling in my entire body that was a combination of pure weightlessness, the feeling you get when you’re about to fall, and utter, consuming dread.

In that split second, something – someone – ended. This was an absolute ending; there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, after the certainty of this mechanism.

I would wake up gasping, crying, completely disoriented. The first time I remember having this dream was when I was 7, although it was already familiar to me then, so I’m sure I was even younger when it first started. I was raised Catholic, and was actually pretty religious when I was a kid. This dream was the antithesis of my entire religion. I tried to ignore it at first, tried to forget about this dream.

I had the dream a couple more times after that. When I was 9, I had it 3 nights in a row. Then my great-grandma passed away, and that night was dream-free. I realized what it meant, and tried talking to my parents about it. They chalked it up to grief and an overactive imagination. I tried talking to the school counselor about it. She talked to my parents. My parents were going through a rough patch, made worse by having to foster and provide for three of my cousins, plus my brother and I. I overheard things like, “seeking attention,” “acting out,” “maybe she got it from one of her books,” “needs more socialization.” I tried talking to our church’s priest about it too, who seemed very skeptical and just told me to have faith in God and pray more. After that, I learned my lesson and stopped talking about it.

The dream came again when I was 10, and I guessed (correctly) that it was my grandfather, who had been ill for some time with terminal brain cancer. I convinced my dad that they should go see him that weekend (he lived a couple hours away from us with his wife). My grandpa passed the night after they arrived.

I tried researching the dream, but unlike the movies, neither our school library nor our public library had many books about premonitions, the afterlife (aside from biblical texts), or anything supernatural. The internet wasn’t helpful either – this was in the 90’s. And not surprisingly, it’s hard to come up with relevant results for something like “big black ball precognitive dream death.” I did pick up dream interpretation as a hobby, and because of all the time I’ve spent digging into dream symbols, I’m pretty good at interpreting people’s dreams.

I had the dream again when I was 11 (great-grandma), then again when I was 13. This time the dream started nightly on September 4th, 2001. By the next week, I was very paranoid and freaking my parents out, mostly because I kept urging them to be careful, and telling them that I loved them approximately 100 times a day. They kept asking what was wrong, but I didn’t think they’d believe me, so I didn’t tell them. September 11th, 2001 happened, and I didn’t have the dream that night. I didn’t lose anyone close to me in the attacks, but it was a tragedy felt by the whole nation.

The next day, my mom asked me why I had been so weird all week, and all I told her was that I had a dream, that I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t know who it was going to happen to or when. She didn’t say anything after that, but I got the feeling that she believed me and was a little scared of it.

I was just shy of my 14th birthday when the dream started coming again. I also had the flu, and was running a fever, so I’m not sure if that affected me and made me a little delusional but I spent about a week feeling like I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not, even though I was awake. Two nights before my birthday, my fever peaked, and I went to bed early. The dreams were intense, alternating between my recurring dream and other, creepy black-and-white dreams that I’ve never been able to remember. What I do remember is sleepwalking. I’ve always been a sleep-talker but this is the only time I have ever sleepwalked. And I have lucid dreams quite often, where I’m able to change the dream that I’m in, and remember it, but this was completely different. I wasn’t in control of myself. I knew I was dreaming, but I was trapped inside myself, a spectator, helplessly watching as I walked around.

My house was different, too. The blinds and curtains were gone from the windows, and instead of the streetlamps and lawns outside, there was just black. A flash of light, similar to lightning, would go off and light up the blackness for a split second, but there was no ground, nothing to light up. The inside of the house was stripped bare, down to just the beds – no other furniture, no clothes, toys, towels, anything else that you normally see lying around a house. Everything was black and white, except the people – my family. I walked around, in my sleep, not in control but fully aware of what was going on, checking on all of my family members to see if they were alive. Once I had checked on all of them, I looked out this big window at the landing of the stairs, and when the lightning-like flash went off, I glimpsed the familiar cable and giant sphere in the distance. I felt this cold, unforgiving, omnipotent presence behind me, at the bottom of the stairs, and I knew that I had been found – something knew that I had seen behind the curtain, had seen the mechanics operating our world, and it was here to fix that problem. I turned to face it.

The next thing I knew, it was morning, the sun was shining through the blinds of my bedroom window, the birds were chirping outside (I’m not being dramatic, I remember this very clearly) and I was lying in bed. I felt great – my fever was gone, and the flu that had me in bed for a week had disappeared overnight. It was a beautiful morning, the stuff of fairytales (minus the singing birds and animals that help with chores), and I was utterly confused by it, because it seemed like a second ago, I had been nearly face to face with something that didn’t want me peeking behind that rip in reality. I was still filled with such dread, and I rushed downstairs to find my mom to ask if everyone was okay. Now that I think about it, I should probably apologize to my mom for that morning, because I’m sure I scared the hell out of her. The day before, I was so sick that I couldn’t keep any food down, and I had to alternate tylenol and ibuprofen just to keep my fever below 104. Then that morning, I was running around, looking much better, except I was obviously scared and asking if everyone was okay.

Everyone was fine. Everything was fine. But someone was still going to die, and I had no idea who. I spent the day frustrated and scared because I was powerless to stop whatever was going to happen, and even though that presence was gone, there’s not really a guarantee when it comes to forces that are far beyond mortal comprehension. I tried not to think about the sleepwalking – I was in no way ready to begin to wonder what happened there.

No dreams that night. I slept great, but I awoke with a heavy heart, because I knew what it meant. It was my birthday, but I was not celebrating.

Around 5pm that day, my mom came into my room and sat on my bed by me. She was trying to hold back sobs as she told me that a friend of mine was in his parents’ van, with his dad driving, his mom in the front seat, and his sister sitting next to him, heading into town the night before. For some reason (they think maybe an animal ran into the road), the van swerved and went off the side of the road, flipped upside down, and landed in the river. Several hours later, someone was driving by and saw frost on a tire that was barely sticking out of the water, and called it in. The family had all drowned.

It took me years to find an uneasy peace with what had happened. I felt such guilt, like I could have prevented it, like I could have stopped any of it. Losing my friend and his family was devastating to me. They were wonderful people, and although my friend and I were young, we could have been more than just friends eventually.

I never had the dream again. I’ve tried again and again to make some sense out of it, but I’ve never really found anything close to what I experienced. I know I didn’t cause any of these deaths, that I was just someone who, either by chance or for an unknown reason, saw through this immersive illusion we call reality, and got a glimpse into the mechanism behind it. I don’t feel like I was punished by the presence I felt – I think it simply closed up that rift that I was seeing through. I still don’t understand any of it; I don’t think we are able to understand. We just aren’t meant to.

Credit: WiltedRose52

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Ubloo, Part Five

September 13, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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My bangs stuck to the small bit of forehead above my blindfold in matted clumps. Mostly from sweat, but also from the dirt and grime of living in this dirty shit hole for the last month and a half.

I lifted my butt off my heels from where I was kneeling to avoid getting cramps in my thighs, and swayed slightly from side to side as I got light headed from the sudden movement and blood rush. If they don’t feed us before we move again I don’t think I’ll survive the trip.

My knees gave a small pop as they cracked when I sat back down again. Through the cracked wooden door I could hear the screaming among the rhythmic thwacks. What was it today? Broom stick? Cricket bat? Whatever it was it sounded relatively light. I always thought it strange that lighter things tended to hurt more when you were hit with them.

The noises of beating subsided and I heard some hushed words exchanged angrily. There was some rustling, a creak, and then the sounds of dragging feet.

The door flew upon with a bang, and I heard the ground thud in the middle of the room where they had thrown Mitch.

The guards exchanged some words in Arabic, and then I felt my blindfold rip back, the light of the world despite being in this dingy mud hut blinding. They yanked me up to my feet as the room came into focus. This wasn’t a face I was used to. This one was new. He stood in front of me in clean clothes, his beard well shaped and tended to.

We held each other’s stare for a while, and then he smiled. Showing a few missing teeth.

“We will saving best for you.” He said in a heavy Arab accent.

With this, they dragged me out into the other room and I heard the door slam shut behind me. They threw me down in the center of the room.

I rolled over onto my side and looked around the room. The translator stared down at me from the corner, looking frustrated. The two who dragged me in and the new guy stood there near the doorway, just looking at me.

The new guy said some words in Arabic which I had come to know quite well. They walked over, each put a hand under my arm pit and lifted me up into the chair. The first one walked behind it and steadied it, the second slowly maneuvered in front of me. A dance I was all too familiar with.

I looked up into his face, never dropping my gaze. He looked especially angry today.

The new guy shouted a quick word in Arabic that might as well have been a bell in a boxing ring, and the angry guy went to town.

He put two hard punches right into my gut that kncoked the wind out of me and sent me hunching over.

“How do the Americans plan to take the city? When will they attack?” The translator asked.

I answered him with solemn silence.

The left side of my head exploded as I was slapped hard with the meaty flesh of an open palm on my ear. The ringing came immediately.

“Which hideouts do they know about? Where do they think we are hiding?”

Silence again, and then a hard shot to my rib cage, followed by another quick punch to my temple that blew me into tunnel vision.

This continued on for a few minutes. The incessant and repetitive questioning, the beating, the panting for breath and the fight to remain conscious. Yet somehow, I was still worried about the new guy.

Once the angry guy was out of breath, I heard a few words in Arabic come from the side of the room. My head hung on my chest, throbbing uncontrollably.

I heard the door open. Good, it was over.

But then I heard footsteps from behind my chair, as the one holding me in place walked into the other room.

Without him to hold me up I slumped to the floor in a pile of breathlessness. I opened my eyes just in time to see them dragging Danny in. They untied his hands and pushed him down into an arm chair where the translator usually sat. They then tied his hands down to the arms of the chair, and then his ankles to the legs.

When they were done, they walked into the living room and out of sight. I looked up at Danny who was staring around the room, at everyone in it, and then down at me. All the while the new guy stood silently against the wall, twisting the very end of his beard.

The footsteps returned from the living room along with clanking of glass. First came the guy who usually held my chair, as he put a small table down next to me, and then the beater, who put down a large bottle of water so cold that it had already begun to condensate, and a plate of bread and lamb. The lamb was cold as well but I could already smell it wafting over to where I lay on the ground helpless.

Next, the two men walked over to a closet and opened the door. I heard them dragging something out but couldn’t see it from where I was laying. I heard them shuffling around and tinkering with it, then some more movement I couldn’t see, the sound of them dropping something down on the ground that seemed heavy, and then finally they walked over to where I was laying and lifted me back up into the chair.

I lifted my head from my shoulder and forced my eyes open. There, looking straight at me was Danny. His eyes then dropped to the table next to me as did mine, the carafe of water and the plate of bread and meat close enough I could practically taste it. I knew he could as well. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what the two guards had been constructing that whole time.

Against the wall of the room sat a generator. A cord ran from this over to a big black machine, with a long hose and what looked like a garden wand attached to the end of it. I stared at it puzzled. Then, one of the guards walked over to the generator and pulled the cord. It revved into life, spitting and choking on the first bits of fuel. I saw the hose leading from the black machine away and out of the room and horrified, it dawned on me.

It was a pressure washer.

The new guy slowly walked over and picked up the black end of the hose that shot the water. He carried it over in his hands with him as he leaned down to look straight into my eyes.

“’Imma ‘an tashrab, ‘aw yafeal.” He said with a smirk.

I looked worriedly at the translator, who even himself looked scared.

“He says, ‘either you drink, or he does.’”

The new man slowly walked back over to where Danny sat, turned and looked at me with that same smirk, raised the end of the pressure washer an inch away from Danny’s exposed calf, and pulled the trigger.

The smell of warm water and the explosion of screaming filled the room. I sat and stared in horror as the rushing force of the water ripped the meat from his leg little by little, a puddle of muck and blood accumulating under his foot and splattering against his other leg.

After five or so seconds of this the water stopped, and Danny’s screaming rebounded off the walls unencumbered, sinking into my bones.

The new guy nodded at the guards, who bent down behind me and cut the ties on my wrists. I pulled my hands in front of me and rubbed where the ropes had gnawed at my skin and turned it bare.

The new guy stared at me with a toothy smile.

“Shurb.”

The translator turned to me.

“He says ‘drink.’”

I looked down at the water and then back up at him. He smiled.

Slowly, I reached my hand out towards the water.

He then shouted something in Arabic that startled me and caused my hand to recoil.

“He says for every sip, you must answer one of my questions.”

I stared back up at the translator who was now smiling as well.

Now I understood the game.

“And if I drink, and don’t answer?” I asked him.

There was a quick exchange in Arabic, and then a prompt response.

“Then so does he.” The translator said as he nodded over at Danny, whose screaming had subsided into whimpers, his head hung staring at what was left of his leg.

My stomach dropped, and I felt my chest tighten up like a coiling snake.

I looked back up at the man holding the pressure washer, begging with my eyes not to make me do this. He smiled back, and then the smile slowly faded into an angry scowl.

He took the end of the pressure washer and lifted it up against one of Danny’ hands where it was tied down, and pulled the trigger.

The room was instantly filled again with humidity and screams and the smell of fresh wounds. I attempted to sit up but the two guards behind me shoved me back down and held me by my shoulders. Danny was jerking his upper body wildly trying to pull away from the pain. His fingers twitching and spasming like the legs of a wounded spider.

After what seemed like an eternity the water stopped, and I saw what remained of his hand. A mass of torn flesh and pale white bone. Danny was crying now, his body limp.

“SHURB.” The man yelled at me.

I began to cry as well.

“Danny, they’re going to kill you.” I sobbed.

He panted and hiccupped, but couldn’t force any words out. We both sat there together in the room and cried. Only a few feet away but worlds apart.

“I can’t do it. I can’t just sit here while they kill you.”

The new guy was smiling again. He was slowly leaning down to get on eye level with us, soaking it all in.

“We made a deal, Jeff.” He said between sobs. “We knew it was going to come to this. We weren’t scared.”

“But I’m scared now Danny.” I sobbed back, realizing what he was saying. “I can’t do it. I can’t.”

Danny raised his head just enough to look me in the eye for one split moment.

“Do it.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and tears ran down my face, sobbing uncontrollably. I raised my left arm and swatted the top of the table with the back of my hand, sending the plate of food and glass bottle careening against the wall and floor where it shattered.

We both sat there and sobbed.

There was shouting in Arabic but I couldn’t hear it. I looked up and took one last look at my best friend, one of the guards producing from his belt a gleaming machete. I’m not sure which one gave it to him, I didn’t care.

The pressure washer clamored to the ground as he threw it in anger, taking up instead the machete in both hands. He continued to point at me and yell in Arabic but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy drinking in every last moment I had with my friend.

One of the guards walked over and grabbed Danny by the hair, pulling his head down so he was bent over. The new guy wasn’t smiling anymore. He was furious. Screaming at me in Arabic and swinging the machete up and down like a madman.

He positioned himself to the side of Danny so he had a clear cut. He turned and looked me in the eyes and yelled again. Raising the machete above his head.

“NO! PLEASE STOP!” I shouted into that dimly lit and hellish room.

The machete came flying down in a bright glare of metal and reflecting light, it hit the back of Danny’s neck and then everything blew up at once.

“UBLOO!”

I felt myself screaming before I woke up. As everything was making itself real again I felt my chest vibrating and shaking while I thrashed upwards until I was sitting.

My scream was replaced by the lazy hum of the air conditioner as I sat there sucking in the cold dark air. I was sweaty and panting. A shiver ran down my spine as the nightmare’s muggy air was replaced with the cool dry reality.

The light on the other side of the room clicked on as shapes in the dark became recognizable.

“Are you alright?” Mary said timidly. “You were thrashing.”

“Yeah, yeah I’m fine.” I pushed out between breaths. “Just a nightmare.”

There was a long silence between us as I continued to catch my breath.

“The box?” She asked, scared.

I collapsed backwards onto my pillow and put my arms over my head.

“The box.” I answered.

She laid back down and cuddled up against me, putting her head on my chest. I brought down one of my sweaty arms and put it around her, scratching the back of her head. She started to cry quietly.

“Hey, hey now. I’m alright, I’m here.” I assured her, lifting my head so I could look her in the eye. “It was just a bad dream.”

We laid there for a short while in silence. She was beginning to stop crying, I was going over the dream in my head. What was it that he said right as it ended? “Ubloo?”

I picked up a little bit of Arabic but I don’t ever remember hearing this. I shook the thought from my head. Just then the door whined on its hinges as it was gently pushed open just a crack.

My wife rolled over back onto her pillow as I sat up and swung my feet onto the ground. I pushed myself onto them and walked slowly over to the door, where I squatted down.

“Sorry buddy, did I wake you up?”

He nodded at me from the hallway, half his face buried in the stuffed black lab that he was almost surely too old to still be attached to.

“I’m sorry to wake you up pal, Daddy just had a bad dream that’s it.”

He nodded again and stared down at the floor, worried and embarrassed.

I sighed.

“Say, why don’t you come in and keep me company? I don’t want Mommy to know that I was scared. I’m not brave like you.” I said though the crack in the door.

His eyes lit up.

“Sure Daddy.”

I opened the door and he trotted in slowly and sleepily. I shut the door behind him and then picked him up and carried him to the bed, where I lay him down between myself and Mary.

She smiled at me as I handed him a pillow and rolled over to turn off the light.

In the dark my son rolled over and draped his hand over mine.

“I love you Daddy.” He said dreamily through the fake fur of his stuffed toy.

I smiled.

“I love you too Danny.”

. . .

Phones rang as people bustled half-awake around the station. I took my first sip of black coffee and frowned when I tasted the stale burnt liquid.

“Hey Bill, great job on the coffee today bud!” I said sarcastically as I passed his desk.

“Thanks Jeff!” He responded excitedly, not knowing what I meant.

I threw the binder down onto my desk and wiggled the mouse until the computer screen returned to life.

There staring back at me was the face of Thomas Abian.

I took a long drink of coffee and ran through the file one more time.

Resident of Stoneham, Massachusetts. Practicing psychiatrist and if what the receptionist told me is true, a damn expensive one to boot. One day he just up and leaves everything, goes completely dark and winds up in Tawson, Louisiana with a car packed to the brim with shit, pills and empty booze bottles and a gun in his mouth at the local haunted house.

I shook my head. Local news is going to have a fucking field day with this. The vans are already beginning to circle the place like vultures. I’m just glad we were able to get the body out before any of them had got there.

“Hey, Jeff.” I heard just before the folder slapped onto the desk next to me. I looked up to see Reg, our Chief. “Autopsy is in on your body.”

“Nice, thanks boss.” I said as he walked away, sipping his coffee.

I liked Reg. He was a no-nonsense, old military guy like myself. Though admittedly, he had plenty of years on me.

I opened the autopsy report and began reviewing the information. Death by fatal gunshot wound, that much was obvious. Angle reflects self-infliction, no foul play suspected…

The file went on and on, and then one bit of information caught my eye:

“Cadaver showed rapid signs of cardiovascular distress associated with extreme sleep deprivation, along with intermittent premature liver damage that suggests sudden abuse of alcohol.”

This was curious. Sleeplessness I can explain because of the Adderall. Hell, the guy had somewhere between ten and fifteen empty bottles in his car alone, and drinking I could have guessed given it looked like the guy drank a whole gin distillery on his way down here, but sudden?

I sat back in my chair and rubbed the stubble on my chin.

Why would a wealthy, well off Doctor up and leave everything, turn to the bottle and pills and high tail it down to Louisiana? It just made no sense. I continued to rub my chin, and then leaned over to my desk phone.

I pulled up google and ran a search for hotels in the area, starting with the closest to the old school and moving outward. On the fourth one, just outside of Tawson, I got what I was looking for.

The drive over was short and enjoyable. It was relatively early in the morning so there was no traffic, and I just managed to catch the end of the sports radio segment I usually played while on patrol.

I parked my car right in front of the hotel lobby and walked in. One of the perks of being a cop; you never have to walk too far across parking lots.

The hotel lobby met me with a blast of cool air conditioning. I approached the mousy receptionist who was just sending off an elderly couple with a bellhop to their rooms. When she saw me approaching she smiled and her eyes flashed in a brilliant shade of blue.

“Hello Ma’am.” I began. “Office Jeff Danvers with Tawson Police, I believe we spoke on the phone?”

“Yes Officer.” She responded with another flirting smile. “We’ve been expecting you.”

She rattled away on her keyboard for a few seconds and then pulled a key card from the drawer next to her. She looked up at the screen and then punched in the numbers from the back of the card into the computer.

“Here you go.” She said sliding the card across the hotel desk. “Room 359, on the corner of the building.”

I returned the smile and took the card off the desk. I had begun to turn but then stopped.

“359, is that a corner room?” I asked.

“Well, yes in fact it is Officer.”

I stood and thought for a few seconds.

“The room right on the fire escape, yeah?”

She was a little surprised, as anyone would be.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

That was interesting. As I was walking away I heard her pipe up from behind me.

“Officer!” She called out. I turned around and saw her staring at me. “Is it true that… That he…”

She brought her finger up to her throat and made a slashing motion across it. My mind jumped to hazy images of machetes.

“That’s classified sweetheart.” I said in as calming a tone as I could, and entered the open elevator.

There was a ding as the doors opened. Red patterned carpet that matched the lobby’s lined the floors of the hall. There were two signs directly opposite the open elevator.

“301-325” and an arrow pointing left. “325-360” and an arrow pointing right.

I poked my head out and looked both ways. No one was around. I began the long walk down the hallway towards room 359.

Hallways creeped me out. That fact is something I just can’t seem to deny anymore. I’m not sure if it’s from watching ‘The Shining’ with my mother as a kid on winter vacation but if I were a betting man I’d say that sealed the deal. I think above all else it’s the feeling that you only have one direction to go if you’re being chased down one. One choice, no other options.

Before I knew it I was in front of room 359. I took a deep breath, slid the card in the door mechanism, saw the green light illuminate and pushed it open.

The smell of stale gin was immediate and overwhelming. The shades were drawn despite the bed looking perfectly made.

I flicked on the light and saw that the room was littered with empty gin bottles. Among them were a few boxes of paperwork. Cases he took with him on the road? Shrugging to myself, I walked around the room as I put on a pair of white rubber gloves.

Aside from the bottles it was relatively well kept. There was a short stack of laundry neatly folded next to the window and a spare set of car keys, along with a new pair of shoes. I opened the blinds to see that it led directly to the fire escape and my suspicions were confirmed. Someone was after this guy. He had his getaway route planned in advance and had the presence of mind to leave it there when he left, just in case he forgot to set it out again when he got back. You’ve gotta admire the preparation there. He earned every cent of those paychecks with that mind of his, I can imagine.

I opened the dresser and saw that it was empty. The coat hangers in the closet were bare and there was nothing on the carpet aside from empty gin bottles and a bare pill container.

I walked over to the desk and began opening drawers. The first was empty. I felt something rolling as I pulled on the second and found it to be full of loose bullets and Adderall. I picked one up and examined it. Magnum, .357, matching the weapon used. I placed the bullet back down and opened the top drawer. The contents of this made my eyes widen.

Slowly and carefully, I pulled the notebook out from the desk drawer. I held it in my hands and examined it for a few seconds just to be sure it was real. It was a blue, spiral-bound notebook with something scribbled hastily on the front.

I heard the floorboards outside the room creak. I turned suddenly to see something standing in the doorway. As I snapped from the trance I was in I could see that it was a man. He wore brown slacks with shined brown shoes. There were suspenders over a white button down shirt that matched his hair and goatee. I could see the glasses halfway down his nose over his dark brown skin, and saw that he was a much older black man with deep crow’s feet.

We stood there and stared at each other, and then he looked down at what was in my hands, and so did I. The notebook I held read across the cover:

“The Diary of Thomas Abian”

Credit: DifferentWind

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