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July 2014 Creepypasta Book Club: Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies – PLUS “The Secret World” Giveaway [Winner Chosen, Congrats to Kristela!]

July 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM

Welcome to possibly the longest-named post on the entire site! It fits, because this is going to be a long post – I’ve got a lot of ground to cover about the whole book club idea before we begin. Exposition, go!

Today we’re going to start the “creepypasta book club” that was discussed in previous announcement posts. If you’re not familiar, the idea is to read some books together that will help cultivate inspiration and nurture more original ideas in our writers. I don’t believe that I’m overestimating when I say that lately, a solid 75% of the incoming submissions are simply retreading the same few topics – I suppose that, for whatever reason, serial killers, haunted games, and fanfics of previously-created Creepypasta “characters” are extremely trendy right now.

The problem is, though, that after the 5000th rip-off of Jeff the Killer or the latest attempt to copy-and-replace Ben Drowned with the writer’s favorite game franchise, these stories get mind-numbingly boring. New ideas and inspiration are CLEARLY necessary now, because I for one am absolutely sick of reading about serial killers. I’m not sure if it’s just because they’ve been so in lately in pop culture (what a strange thing to say, but it seems to be true – Hannibal, Dexter, Jeff the Killer, so on and so forth), but we’ve gone way past the point of oversaturation.

You guys need to find something new to write about.

So that’s where this book club idea comes into play. Every month, I’ll select a general theme and give you guys one or two books to read. Now, to avoid confusion, this won’t be about reading already established “creepy” fiction like King or Chambers. Though we may do that another time, the book choices for the inspiration club will be, primarily, nonfiction (though some selections will definitely be “nonfiction” – we’re going to indulge in some pseudoscience and conspiracy books because, after all, we’re trying to get ideas for fiction anyhow). This will hopefully allow you guys to expand your comfort zone of creepy into realms like secret societies, cryptozoology, high-risk exploring like mountaineering, ancient cultures and pseudeoarchealogy, aliens, mysterious disappearances, and more.

The other added benefit of using nonfiction is that spoilers won’t be a concern. Since this post’s comments will act as the discussion forum for our book club, we need books that people can easily discuss at all sorts of different points of progress without ruining each other’s experience.

So, yes, to alleviate some of the confusion and concerns that initially came up when I presented this idea:

THIS POST is your book club. The comments here are where you should air out all your thoughts and ideas that spawn from reading the suggested books. There’s no requirement for how fast you progress through the book(s), whether you read both books or only one, or even if you finish the book(s) or not, so please feel free to jump in and discuss the books whenever you’d like.

If this takes off and you guys want it, perhaps in the future we can try and organize some sort of chat at the end of the month, but for now please don’t worry about that and just post here whenever you have things to talk about regarding this month’s books.

Okay, all that said – here are the two books I’ve selected for July 2014. As stated in the title, this month we’re going to explore the world of cults, conspiracies and the theorists who love them, and secret societies.

It should be said that these books were chosen with mature readers in mind. If you are under 18, please do check with your parent/legal guardian before reading these books. I’d really prefer to avoid a pitchfork-mob of angry parents who find this topic inappropriate for their kids. I’d also like to say that the opinions expressed in the books are, of course, the opinions of their authors and the people profiled only – I’m not advocating or co-signing any of the groups covered in these books. I’m not telling you to believe in the Illuminati or anything, I just think such topics are a cool and fun thing to learn about and will probably inspire some people to write better pastas.

The first book is by Jon Ronson, a British author/humourist that I personally really enjoy. Them: Adventures with Extremists is exactly what it says on the tin – Ronson meets and spends time with a lot of famous faces in the world of conspiracy theories and extremist beliefs. David Icke, Alex Jones, Omar Bakri Mohammed, and more – as Ronson says, the only criteria was that the people/organizations he features have been called ‘extremists’ at some point in their careers. Each episode gives you a look into the beliefs, day to day lives, personalities, and habits of the the various extremists that he profiles. If you’re interested in writing a character-driven story about conspiracies, cults, or societies, this book will be helpful. It also tends to be rather irreverently funny, which is a plus.

As a bonus, Jon Ronson was recently on WTF with Marc Maron, where he gave some behind-the-scenes details on this book (they also delve into The Psychopath Test, another book I’m considering for future months if this book club turns into a long-term thing) as well as more personal opinions and anecdotes. You can stream/download the episode here for now (it will eventually become a premium-only episode, so keep that in mind – based on the pattern, I’m guessing it will go premium-only sometime in August).

If you want to go more in depth, the second suggestion is Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull & Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many, Many More.

Unlike THEM, this book isn’t really a narrative – rather, the author has researched many of the world’s more infamous and interesting cults, conspiracy theories, and secret societies, and he’s done nice write-ups on each. The entries are organized thematically and can easily be read out of order if you’re so inclined. Beyond the organizations in the title, he also covers the origins of the Assassins (it’s not just a random word), Area 51 and all it encompasses, the Yakuza, the Kennedy assasinations, etc etc and so on. This book is really useful and interesting if you’d like to get a sort of crash course in this month’s topic.

Lastly, to celebrate the first book club post, I’m giving away ONE online game code for Funcom’s online game The Secret World.

Since the raffle is over (congratulations to Kristela A. for winning!), I’m putting the rest of this entry under a cut. The main page has so many stickied posts at the moment that I think it’s necessary to de-clutter wherever I can.

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How to Write a Vidya Gaem Pasta

April 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM
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(A last hurrah to the Haunted Game ‘genre’, as it were.)

So, you’re wanting to write a video game crappy – erm, creepypasta? Think you have what it takes? To be honest, you probably don’t. But fear not! With just the submission form (who needs proofreading? Or drafts? Hell, who needs edits? Not you, that’s for sure!) and this handy guide, you’ll be writing terrible pastas in no time!
Wait, did I say ‘terrible’? Like, out loud?
I meant ‘beautiful’.
First of all, you’re going to have to pick a topic! Maybe you should go for something well known? Maybe try your hand at more obscure games? It’s your choice! Let’s get creative!
(And by ‘get creative’, I mean ‘write the same shitty pasta that’s already been written a thousand times before’. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever.)
>Try a Pokemon pasta! They were the most popular video game pasta subject for a reason, you know. Don’t know anything about Pokemon? Doesn’t matter – just as people who have never played Pokemon can pick it up easily, you don’t need to know anything about it to write a pokepasta! Just throw in some peekachoos and charozords and you’re all set!
>Maybe a Minecraft pasta? Just like how you can do so much in Minecraft, you can write so much about it too! ..Or you can just write about Herobrine! ‘Who’s a hero brown,’ you ask? Why, only a slightly original monster that was mutated into a cliched horror monster by thousands of bad fan misinterpretation!
>Try your hand at a Legend of Zelda pasta! Hey, you remember that one ‘ben drowned’ pasta you read about a year ago? Well, let’s write that again, but with all grammar or decent writing absent! I’m sure it’ll get thousands of upvotes! (read: downvotes)
>Something a bit more obscure? Why not? You could be contributing to the large amount of stories that only make sense to a small, unknown group of people! A scary story… about lawyers? Farming? Why? Why the hell not?

Wow, that took a while! Time for deciding the name of the pasta! This is nice and simple!


Sounds relatively simple! Let’s try it out a bit!
Pokemon: Bloodied Diamond
Minecraft: Curse of Herobrine
Ace Attorney: The Demonic Testimony

Do you like those names? I like those names. Let’s move on!

Of course, your main character has to get their game in some way. What’s that? Introducing the character? No, no, no, no, no. You’re doing it all wrong.
>”I got it from a garage sale/market sale/yard sale” – The oldest and best one in the book. If 99% of people write it this way, then it can’t possibly be bad, can it?
>”Some shady guy/girl/being of unidentifiable gender gave it to me” – Sometimes, we just want to skip the boring introduction and get straight to the action, and there’s no better way to do it than this.
>”I downloaded it online” – Who goes to garage sales anymore? Keep up with the times with this new, hip trend!

Moving on to step number three – of course, because this is a creepypasta, the game has to be haunted, right? But what’s it going to do?
>Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary – because hey, if you put in no effort here, you can use that effort later, right? That’s how it works, isn’t it? Right? Right?!
>A couple of graphical glitches – because nothing makes your viewers tremble more than the screen flickering a little or some colours changed. This is a true fact.
>Noises. – More specifically, weird noises. Glitchy sounds. Muffled screaming. The usual.
Okay, those are some basic ones, but why not step it up? Add some blood! Lots of blood! Also, make sure to use some of these words at least three times in the story…
Alright, we’ve got some scary shit going on, but if the main character ran away now, the pasta would stop half-way, right? Let’s choose an excuse for them to stay around.
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
Just kidding. You get no choice on this one. Trust me, this is for the better.
Alright, now just fill in the rest of the story using more glitches (as always, consider adding more blood and hyper-realism to your story), until WHAM! Something really scary happens! This can be anything – hell, it doesn’t have to be scary. Just as long as your main character responds fittingly. Or, alternatively, not-so-fittingly.
How will your protagonist respond to the sheer creepiness? How will this story meet its conclusion?
>Throw their console out – Destroy their DS! Pulverise their Playstation! Erm, throw a TV out the window? Whatever. It works.
>AND THEN THE PROTAG DIED – Dead things are creepy. People dying are creepy. Why not kill off the protagonist? I’m sure that, with the large amount of characterization we gave them earlier, it will really shock the readers. Honest.
>YOU’RE NEXT – Did you know that all creepypasta readers have a constant fear that there’s a monster behind them? Use this to your advantage? Everyone’s terrified of walls!

Alright, now we have the main story and –
Did you think that was finished?
Oh no, this is the fun part. Now we add some… er… personality to your story. And by ‘personality’, I mean ‘bad writing skills’. I mean, let’s face it, nobody really misses punctuation. I sure don’t.
Choose one of the following typing quirks – I mean, writing styles.
>capital letters. get rid of all your capital letters. no-one likes them at all. too old fashioned.
>Make Every Capital Letter Refined And Pronounced. This Makes You Seem Posh And Smart.
And at least one of these. You can have more, if you want to be EXTREME.
>Motherfucker, let’s get some fucking swears up in here. Swears are bitchin’ as shit. It makes you sound fuckin’ hip and cool. Fuck yeah.
>No punctuation ever at all because seriously having things just constantly flow is so much easier and better in every way wow
>Waht if you where unabel to spel things right? Sonds fun!
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely just finished writing your first video game pasta! Now just publish your beautiful (read: horrendous) story (read: crap heap), and watch it get thousands of upvotes (read: downvotes) like it deserves! Good luck!

Credit To – Yu “The Operator” Meigns

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Succession Of Nightmares

August 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM
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We all have them, one time or another.

Everything has a dark side, our dreams were meant to be a place of jubilation, and contain our most wonderful fantasies.

This is kinda like an award. Some of us work our asses off all day long, and then come home to a nice cozy bed. Sleep by itself is a nice gift for our turmoils, but dreams make sleeping hard for us to want to wake up sometimes.

But there is of course a darkside…there is always a darkside.

Nightmares have a certain way of creeping up on us when we don’t want them to…its almost like they know…

Some may say that nightmares are our own fault. Watching scary movies, or reading scary stories can fuel our nightmares.

But….what if there are things out there…that can control our dreams?

What if there are beings who can purposely give us nightmares.

What if these things are there to drive us insane…to the point where we want to sleep forever.

Now is when I tell you about my nightmares…

A couple weeks ago I started to get really into reading creepy stories. All humans have this certain want of excitement…but sometimes we take it way to far. You know what I’m talking about. Surfing videos on the internet late at night, reading creepy stories, or making our own stories.

You know how it works. You sit there, tired in front of your computer. The room is dark, the voices in your head are telling you to shut off the computer and finally get some fucking sleep. But then it happens. You find a video that has a creepy description. Perhaps a video about a ghost encounter, or a video of aliens.

This is how my nightmares started.

My friend Zack has a youtube account where he plays video games and gives them commentary. You know, a “Let’s Play.”

But one day he decided to do something different. He narrated a story off of a website called “”

I have heard of this somewhere, I know I have. Its hard to surf the interent for so many years and not hear about something so popular.

He told a story of a man called “Slender Man.” Now I had obviously heard of this character. I’ve seen the MarbleHornets videos, and I’ve seen the fan art, and the so called “pictures.”

The story was interesting, and it made me want to read more, so I did.

Within a few days, I had read all the populare stories that this website had to offer. “Squidward Suicide” “Ben Drowned” “Dead Bart” “Jeff: The Killer” “The Tails Doll” “Smile Dog” And all the Pokemon hacks.

These stories…they give you a feeling of terror. You start to notice all the small things around you, all the creaks and moans. You look over your shoulder and think you see a shadow of some sort. Nothing…huh…silly you.

You finally get the courage to go to sleep, and then you start to understand the position you just put yourself in.

I understood what I was doing to myself…but I didn’t stop.

I saw them all…I saw all the creatures from those stories in my dreams.

I saw the Smile Dog try to make me spread the word…I saw Jeff telling me to go to sleep…Squidward staring at me with his bloodshot eyes…

Jerking myself awake everytime I encountered one of these freaks got old real fast.

But then, the nightmares begin to get so much more real.

No longer was I imagining the characters from the stories…but now…my nightmares were taking their own shape. Contorting themselves to make me even more uncomfortable.

One night, I was laying soundly in my bed. It was almost like an out of body experience. You see, I had a bird’s-eye view of myself. It was as if I was laying on the ceiling. I was laying on top of the covers, and my eyes were closed. I must note that I was not breathing. No snoring, no indication of my stomach rising and lowering. In fact, I was utterly motionless.

My room was pitch black as it usually is when I fall asleep, but I could see myself perfectly. Its as if I had some type of night vision, but it wasn’t all green and shit like it usually is.

Then my eyes shot wide open. It startled me a bit. I just stared up at the ceiling. It seemed as if he was looking at me, like I really was on the ceiling.

A drop fell…a ruby colored drop of blood fell onto my face. Then another…and another…and another…
The drops began to fall slow, but then they picked up speed, similiar to when rain begins to fall.

The version of myself laying on my bed then begins to smile. The blood soaks his teeth, and started to drip into his eyes. But he did not blink or close his mouth. Just let the blood fall on him.

Suddenly, the view switched to me being on the ceiling. Now I was the one laying on the bed.

On the ceiling…was a bloody, mangled, wounded version of me. My eyes were missing, and my teeth were missing as well. But I had the same smile as the version of myself on the bed.

My hands and legs were pinned to the ceiling…almost…as if I was being crucified.

Then the view began to slowly zoom in on my face. Blood still fell, and my view was being distorted. I wanted to see what was going to happen, so I tried my best to see. The view then zoomed in on my face at an alarming rate, and then I spoke.

“I am your God now.”

I woke up. Breathing fast and hard. I felt paralyzed, like I was stuck.

I felt liquid around me. Did I really just piss the bed from this nightmare? Or….or was it blood? I quickly jumped up and found out that I had knocked over a cup of tea in my sleep, and I was laying in it.

Sometimes when I have dreams I feel as if the interactions of objects in the real world affect my dream. In one dream I was being stabbed repeatedly in the arm, and I could actually kinda feel it. I awoke to my friend obnoxiously poking me in the arm with a pen. I thought that him poking me in the arm made the stabbing from the nightmare be all the more real.

Since dreams and nightmares are derived from our brains, we can experience things in our dreams that seem real. When you eat something, you can taste it. This is because you remember how the object tasted.

This dream made me not want to sleep anymore that night, so I didn’t.

But that wasn’t the end.

I had this same nightmare over and over again for a few days. Happening the same way everytime. There wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t change the dream even if I wanted to.

This nightmare scared me everytime. You think I would have got use to it…but I didn’t.

I began to think about ways I could avoid this nightmare. This was my first thought.

I can’t remember ever having a nightmare while I was napping during the day. So my frist plan was to sleep during the day, and stay up during the night. Hopefully this would work.

First day, no nightmare. I was relieved. I thought that I had found the solution. I had no problem sleeping during the day, I didn’t sleep much as it was already.

Second day, my plan failed. The same nightmare happened again, but this time. There was no smiling from the body on the ceiling…actually…there were no emotions at all. My head was missing…more blood fell quickly this time making the dream end faster. My body laying on the bed looked down, and my decapitated head was laying in my lap. And it was smiling.

I’m pissed now. What, I just can’t fucking sleep anymore? Fine, I won’t. I’ll stay awake! Yes, that will work. I’ll stay awake until I pass out from exhaustion. I won’t encounter the nightmare unless I absolutely have to!

I wrote this…quite a while ago…back when the nightmares first started. It’s been about a week since I decided I wasn’t going to sleep.

I’m so tired…I don’t think I can stay awake anymore. My bed…sounds so heavenly right now. I guess my plan didn’t work how I thought it would…

I’m going to go to bed now…I think I could stay up for a few more hours but…I don’t want to.

I want to see my smile…I want to see my bloody body hang from the ceiling…It sounds so interesting to me now…Oh how that blood felt so refreshing cascading on my face.

I have a bottle of pills…extra strength…I’m going to take them all with some alcohol…

I don’t want to be awake anymore. I’ve been awake for a couple days…and I now realize how horrifying it is.

I’m seeing all those creepypasta characters in real life now…I’ve gone completely fucking insane.

I know they won’t be there in my dream…they were never there before.

I’ll sleep forever…so I can look and smile at my God for the rest of days.

I just swallowed the pills…I’m going to have a quick drink, then I’m going to bed.

Why not join me?

It will be your God soon enough.

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The Cats of Juniper Valley

December 16, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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They put up a tall fence covered with black tarp and topped by barbed wire, surrounding Lake Collette at the center of Juniper Valley, so that no one could see what they were doing. Two of the three local cop cars were stationed 24/7 at either end – one to the east, one to the west. This all went on for three days while some unknown, official body did what needed to be done, then, overnight, the black barbed-wire fence was gone, replaced with one of the normal chain-link variety.

A few middle school kids dared Kevin Whitter to apply a pair of wire cutters and sneak in. My little half-brother knew Kevin; the kid claimed to have seen unmarked vans and a bevy of sunglass-wearing government agents with automatic weapons surrounding a team of scientists in hazmat suits, dragging a the carcass of a monster out of the water. The monster had ten legs, the skin of an alligator, and the body of a squid. Or the body of a shark. Or matted fur, or feathers, or teeth.

It changed per telling. And it was all bullshit. I’m guessing Kevin Whitter either chickened out before doing the deed, or else was picked up by the cops as soon as he approached the fence.

At the end of the three days, some early risers in Juniper Valley reported witnessing unmarked cars heading east on Skylark Road, towards the highway and the air force base and the Palmdale airport. Whatever government agency was operating behind the blockade, searching the lake, they were gone without a trace by the time the sun was up.

And whatever they found, they weren’t telling. The cops were clueless; all they told us townsfolk was that, due to a bacterial infestation, we were not to swim in the lake until further notice.

I will never swim in the lake again. And I hope to God they killed them all.


I stayed in Juniper Valley during the summer, with my father. He and my stepmother loved it there, loved the isolation and the small-town lifestyle. Though I would hesitate to even call Juniper Valley a “town.” It’s an unincorporated cluster of ranch-style homes planted like a pimple amongst the Sierra Pelona Mountains.

In the 90’s, the population of Juniper Valley and the surrounding hills was eight hundred and change. There was one general store in town, one gas station, one church, and one dirty little inn with a bar/restaurant. Anything else one might need could be found in Palmdale, a 45-minute drive east, through miles of gridded power lines and golden flatland, dotted with silos and scrap metal.

The town resembles a bowl, with Lake Collette at the basin, and streets and houses arranged around the edges, along the slopes of the surrounding hills. Calling Lake Collette a “lake” is also stretching things a little bit. Its a sag pond, right on the San Andreas Fault, which cuts straight through Juniper Valley. During droughts Lake Collette would drain to a glorified puddle, a mossy marsh of waist-high weeds.

There were quite a few rainy years during my childhood. Lake Collette would remain a proper body of water then, even in the midst of the hot, dry summer. I’d look out my bedroom window at the lake, below the dim circles of light cast by the two street lamps on Skylark Road, pitch-black like a tar pit. On moonless nights it seemed depthless, and I felt as though it could be a kilometers-deep well. A black hole. It could suck me in, swallow me whole.

I grew up. My months in Juniper Valley became skull-crushingly boring. My dad and stepmother worked, my half-siblings went to summer school, and my friends were seventy miles away. The nearest library was almost as far, and the rabbit-eared TV picked up three channels: local access from Palmdale, the Bible channel, and assorted infomercials.

It was my step-grandmother who told me about the Willfell Animal Sanctuary. She went to church with the lady who ran the place, a retired park ranger named Kathy. The shelter was a non-profit funded solely by donations, with an all-volunteer staff. Kathy owned an acre of hillside land off Skylark Road, just west of town, a fifteen-minute walk from my father’s house.

I was thirteen the first summer I volunteered at Willfell, and I went back every summer after. They loved me there. By “they,” I mean the only two staff members: Kathy, an earthy woman in her sixties who functioned as CEO, manager, accountant, and primary caretaker of the animals; and Jacques, a 27-year-old autistic man who cleaned cages and walked dogs as part of a government-subsidized program. And I fell in love with the animals. There were about sixty of them, homeless dogs and unwanted cats.

There were two huge kennels in Kathy’s large backyard: one for dogs, one for cats. Further back, rabbit hutches. And at the far end, against the sturdy fence, a tiny stable that housed an elderly racehorse and a fat little donkey.

When pounds in Palmdale and Lancaster received animals they had no room for, they’d give them to Kathy. She’d drive her rickety, old, windowless van east to the highway, then come back hours later with new furry charges. Sometimes, she’d function as a poor man’s dog catcher – agencies would direct her towards residences from Juniper Valley to Acton, asking her to remove starving, nearly hairless dogs from gardens and pull emaciated cats out from under cars. These were the highway strays, abandoned on the 14 by individuals who no longer wished to be pet owners.

That first summer, I meet Jane Kitornes.

Jane was a friend of Kathy’s, a retired Navy nurse who worked as an at-home caregiver and took in homeless cats. She visited Willfell at least once a week, sometimes bringing large bags of cat food. Jane was a rough lady. Tanned, sinewy, wrinkled beyond her years; only ever seen wearing stained wife-beaters and baggy fatigues. She’d never married, had no family I knew of, and seemed to prefer the company of cats to humans. Kathy considered her an asset – she’d take in twenty cats at a time, accepting responsibility when we had no more room.

She owned a half-acre a few miles southwest of town, off a shabby two-lane road called Oak Tree Lane. Oak Tree Lane snakes between grey-green hills before dead-ending deep in the Angeles National Forest; rusting mailboxes stick out of the ground like flags at the head of dirt roads, leading to remote ranches and groves and campgrounds.

Jane’s cottage was at the end of one of these dirt roads, in a little clearing carpeted with knee-high weeds and prickly shrubs, surrounded on three sides by gently-sloping hills. She’d take me there, sometimes. There were always cats everywhere.

Cats inside and out. Cats on the sofa, cats sitting atop Jane’s washer, cats sunning themselves, stalking field mice and butterflies, sleeping and fighting and screwing. I’d spend hours at Jane’s house with her cats, helping her clean up and clean litter boxes, cuddling kittens from the occasional litter.

Jane liked me. Since she obviously felt little need for human companionship, I took this as the highest of compliments. Every summer, on the first day I’d see her, Jane would break out into the biggest, brightest smile that Kathy swore she reserved only for me.

“You’re like me, Marlena,” Jane would say, as I stared out the window of her 1979 El Camino. “You can cut through anyone’s bullshit and see their soul. That’s why you love animals so much. Your standards for souls are higher than most.”


The earthquake hit the winter of my junior year. I remember waking in the middle of the night, roused by the “thud” of my precariously-placed math book falling off my desk. The mild shaking lasted about 3.5 seconds, then I realized I’d experienced an earthquake, rolled over, and fell back asleep.

My dad, his family, and Juniper Valley were hit a bit harder. Positioned on the San Andreas Fault and closer to the epicenter, structural damage was rather extensive. And, as the area was experiencing a rainy winter, rocky mudslides closed roads and isolated remote dwellings. The mess had been cleaned up by summer, but I noticed broken sandbag barricades and new, violent cracks along Skylark Road.

Lake Collette looked more robust than I’d ever seen it, but was surrounded by a chain-link fence. The water had taken on a greenish tinge, and hosted islands of thick, yellowish scum. For now, it was closed to the public.

I returned to Kathy and the Willfell Animal Sanctuary – with a driver’s license this time, which secured me a new responsibility. Kathy’s windowless van still had’t broken down, but she was sick of driving it all over the valley. So she handed me the keys. I enjoyed it at first. Rambling through golden plains until I saw the boxy developments of Palmdale or Lancaster; rescuing filthy, unloved creatures from the clutches of abusive owners or uncaring bureaucracy.

Jane Kitornes had all but disappeared. Her last nursing charge had passed away, and she was rarely seen in town – only at the general store, Kathy told me, and rarely. I think Kathy and I were the only people in Juniper Valley who noticed her absence. I missed Jane. I missed the way her face lit up when she saw me, and the warm summer afternoons spent in her backyard. I called her landline once. It had been disconnected.

Soon, the cats started appearing.

My third day back, I was sitting in Cathy’s office when I received a phone call from a talkative old lady in town. There was a cat in her backyard; it had been sitting in the lower branches of her oak tree for hours.

“I think it’s someone’s pet,” she said. “It’s too chubby to be a stray.”

This, in and of itself, was not an extraordinary event. Everyone in town knew Kathy ran a shelter, and would infrequently call her in lieu of animal control when an unknown animal became a bother. Sometimes said animal would be a neighbor’s lost pet; other times, a runaway that had wandered from Palmdale. Kathy always made an effort to find the owner. Rarely, a feral, abandoned highway stray would make it to Juniper Valley. These poor creatures were always half-dead things with matted fur and exposed, pustule-dotted skin. They usually had to be euthanized. Or died before the local vet got the chance.

At first, I assumed the calm, well-groomed, grey-and-white shorthair I found in the old lady’s oak tree was the former: a townie’s escaped house cat. I tried to coax the thing down with a can of tuna. No dice. It wasn’t remotely interested in the food – it just stared; black, depthless eyes locked on something that wasn’t me. I stood, tuna can in outstretched hand, looking like an idiot, for five frustrating minutes before giving up and going to the van to grab Kathy’s net. When I got back, the cat was gone. I never saw it again.

It bothered me all night. It was like the cat had been messing with me.

And it happened again and again. Homeowner after Juniper Valley homeowner, calling Willfell and asking us to remove a cat from their property. Always cats. Always different cats, I don’t think I ever saw the same one twice. The homeowner always insisted he or she had never seen the animal before, and they never had collars. They always appeared well-fed, if not overfed; their fur, though not show-quality, was thick and intact.

It became troubling. Juniper Valley had a population of 842; it was located forty-five minutes from the nearest town, and surrounded on three sides by hills and forest. Everyone knew everyone else’s pets, and the sudden appearance of so many unaccounted-for cats was mysterious, to say the least.

And these cats were not like any cats I’d ever seen before.

They liked fresh water. I’d find them sitting in fountains and kiddie pools. They didn’t seem to like the sun. They’d come out at night, or else be found in some shaded, dark, enclosed space. They were silent, never hissing or meowing.

They were really, really good at getting in and out of places. I found one curled up in the back of a lady’s car. Though she admitted she’d left the door unlocked, the physical act of opening and closing the door should have been impossible for a creature with only paws at its disposal.

They were smart. Supernaturally smart. At times, I fell under the disturbing impression the cat was taunting me. I’d be setting up some trap, or extending the net. The cat would sit there, calm and cool, watching intently. There’d be a minute in which I’d have some semblance of hope I’d finally catch the thing this time, and then the cat would dart out of my grasp. Or vanish the moment I turned my back.

The weirdest part was, once or twice, the cat stopped before running off and looked at me. I could swear it was laughing.

And they all shared the same icy, emotionless black eyes. I wished they didn’t remind me so much of the empty eyes staring from the euthanized corpses I saw at Willfell.

Finally, I caught one.

It was early July. I was quite pleased with my cunning. I bought one of those huge plastic storage tubs from the general store, filled it with water, stuck it in the back of the van, and waited for my feline quarry – a large, pug-faced tabby this time. After an hour of hiding in the cab, the cat climbed down from the roof where I’d found it and into the waiting reservoir. I raced to the back, slammed the van doors, donned leather gloves and prepared for a hissing, clawing fight.

But, surprisingly, the cat didn’t struggle at all. It was fully submerged in the water, curled up on the bottom of the container like a rock. I picked it up, shoved it in a cage, dumped out the water, and drove.

It wasn’t until I was halfway to Willfell that I noticed the smell. Once, my nine-year-old son dropped a fish stick in the back of my car and forgot about it. A humid summer week later, my car smelled just like that cat had.

When we got there, the chubby tabby put up about as much of a fight as it had in the van. I didn’t hold it for long – years of experience with scared animals taught me that the less time spent with claws inches from my face, the better. But the short span of time the cat was in my hands was enough to make me seriously uncomfortable. It was heavy and, somehow, doughy. My hands sunk into its flesh like silly putty. And it was cold.

I left the cat in the ‘quarantine’ cage in Kathy’s office. We usually only used the cage for animals that were obviously ill, which the tabby was not. But there was just something… wrong with this cat. Like it shouldn’t be mixed with others of its species. I gave it bowls of kibble and water, then sat down at the desk to fill out an application for a grant. Kathy was gone for the weekend, visiting her sister in Bakersfield. Jacques was in the back, cleaning out the pony stall.

I couldn’t concentrate. Not with the cat there.

I looked over my shoulder every other minute. Each time, I’d see the same thing – the flat-faced tabby, sitting in its water bowl, staring at me. It never blinked. It never moved. It didn’t even appear to breathe. The rotting, fishy odor filled the room.

Finally, I cracked. I double-checked the latch on the cat’s cage, locked the office door, and pretended to be busy feeding the dogs. I called the vet and asked if he could come by and take a look at the feline, but he said he wouldn’t be able for another week.

The next morning, I found the office window wide open, the quarantine cage open, and the cat gone. I wasn’t disappointed.

Not long after that, everyone started talking about little Charlie Henderson.

Charlie was 12, and had been skateboarding alone, shortly before midnight, in the parking lot by Lake Collette. The lake was still scum-covered and fenced off, and the occupants of the nearest homes had long since packed it in for the night. The way he told it, Charlie had been approached by a cat. He bent over to pet it, and the cat danced away, leading him to a grove of trees behind the lake.

He followed the cat. Then, suddenly, he was attacked by a small army of cats. They jumped from the trees and emerged from the shadows, latching onto his clothing and limbs and dragging him towards a hole in the fence. If a lost car hadn’t pulled into the parking lot and turned around, causing the cats to scatter and giving him time to run away… well, who knows what they’d have done with him?

No one believed him, of course. Everyone assumed he’d been attacked by, maybe, one feral cat, and his imagination had taken over. Because cats don’t corner people and jump them – that takes organization and planning, intelligence not possessed by house pets. And his story got weird, too. He claimed one of the cats had stretched itself, like silly putty, and grew an opposable thumb.

Then Jane came back.

It was a cloudy afternoon, and I was taking advantage of the slight cool-down to deep-clean the dog kennel. Kathy was gone again, in Riverside watching her granddaughter play softball. I was busy scraping dried dog crap off the concrete when Jacques ran out to tell me there was a lady asking for me. I wiped off my hands and went inside, to find Jane Kitornes staring at me from Kathy’s living room.

Jane had never been fastidious about her appearance. But, if I hadn’t known her so well, I would have assumed the gaunt, trembling figure in a stained wife-beater was a homeless woman. Her hair was a frizzy, matted mess of grey. She looked unwashed; her arms and chest were striped with lacerations of varying degrees of depth, in various stages of healing. And her eyes, which had once seemed to serve as a window to a rational, calculating mind, now allowed a glimpse into bloodshot insanity.

“Jane!” I said. “What… are you okay?”

She didn’t smile. “Do you have any?” she asked.

I frowned. “Any what?”

“Cats, Marlena,” was the curt reply. “It’s the cats. I need the cats. They’ve been wandering.”

I gave her what I hoped was a kind smile. “Okay, Jane. I can show you the cats. But Kathy said I’m not allowed to have any of them adopted without her around.”

That was a lie, but I wasn’t about to pass Jane custody of a pet rock, let alone a living, breathing creature. She was obviously not in the physical, emotional, or mental state to care for anything, not even herself.

I walked her out to the cat kennel. As expected, a small herd of dogs ran towards Jane to sniff her and beg for attention. Then, about three feet from her, the dogs stopped. They sniffed the air, whined, and loped off in all directions. Not a single one got any nearer.

Jane looked over the cats seriously, then sighed in disappointment. She shook her head, turned around, and paced back to Kathy’s house.

“You haven’t caught any,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

She glared, looking through me. She could cut through anyone’s bullshit and see their soul.

“You know what I mean, Marlena. My cats. Call me if you catch one. There’s so many of them now. And they’re getting bigger.”

With that, she walked out the door. She stopped. She turned around.

“And Marlena? Watch the lake.”

I spent the rest of the day in a daze. I’d been wondering where the weird cats came from – they didn’t belong to anyone in Juniper Valley, and it was hard to believe that they’d all migrated from Palmdale. Jane took in homeless cats. Maybe they were hers. I didn’t know why they would have left food, water, and shelter to wander for miles along an isolated road and into a neighborhood, but it was at least a possibility.

That night, following a tangled motivation I couldn’t put into words, I borrowed my father’s car and drove to the parking lot by Lake Collette. Where Charlie Henderson had been attacked. I pulled right up to the fence, turned off my car, let my eyes adjust to the darkness. I obeyed Jane. I watched the lake.

I hadn’t sat for ten minutes before I saw movement. A black shape, creeping out of the shadows and approaching the water’s edge. More movement, against the clump of trees to my right.

Cautiously, quietly, I opened the car door and stepped out. I shut the door gently and tiptoed towards the fence.

A large black cat waded in the dirty lake. Its paws were inundated. It kept on going.

A subtle creak. I came closer, until I was grasping the metal links of the fence, and I felt it quiver under my fingers. I looked to my right and saw them. Two more cats. Huge cats, the biggest I’d ever seen. Cats climbing down the fence like monkeys, head first, completely vertical. One, then the other, jumped gracefully to the ground and stepped into the feeble light bleeding from the two streetlights. One was yellow, the other a tabby.

The first cat was almost completely submerged. With the lightest gurgle, it ducked under the scum-covered waterline. Into the black hole, the toothed tar pit.

The light wasn’t good at all. It looked as though the second and third cats had… had flattened when they hit the ground, like play-doh thrown at a wall. And there was something about how they moved. They jiggled, their legs bent the wrong way. Or maybe it was just the shitty lighting.

Where was the black cat? It couldn’t still be underwater.

Ripples in the lake, small islands of yellow scum shifting in gentle waves. I didn’t feel a breeze. There was something else in there.

A cadence of nerves was triggered in my brain, forgotten but immediately recognizable like a song. I was scared of Lake Collette, scared like I had been as a child, when the black water had seemed from my bedroom window a depthless well. I ran to the car. I did a donut in the parking lot and sped home.


The next morning was hot and bright and, under the cloudless sky, it all seemed ridiculous. I was letting the Charlie Henderson rumors get to me.

I walked past Lake Collette on my way to Willfell. I went right up to the fence. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; no cats in sight. A light breeze ruffled the water.

I breathed in and gagged. It smelled like rotting fish mixed with a McDonald’s dumpster. It smelled like the pug-faced tabby I’d caught.

Cats don’t like water. Cats don’t swim. I’d spent nearly half a decade surrounded by cats, and the cats I’d been chasing around yards and spying on the night before weren’t… cats. That smell. The way the tabby I’d caught had felt when I held it – bloated and putty-like. Cold. Those cats didn’t purr or meow. They didn’t eat. They didn’t poop. Their intelligence. And that stare – those glassy, corpse-like eyes that seemed to take in everything and nothing.

And Jane. Her cats, she’d said. They’ve been wandering. They’re getting bigger. Maybe she was going nuts, living out there alone in the wilds, a mile away from her nearest human neighbor. The dogs wouldn’t come near her. Her own cats had been attacking her, apparently – how else to explain the scratches all over? Yet still, she was desperate to have them back.

I had to talk to Jane again.

Kathy was still gone and it was Jacques’ day off, so I planned on heading to Jane’s lonely dirt road as soon as I fed the animals. But a couple from Palmdale called unexpectedly, asking if they could come by with their daughter to pick out a pet. By the time they’d selected a Corgi mix and made arrangements to have the dog neutered, it was after five.

It was fine. It was still light out. I locked up, grabbed the keys to the van, and made my way into the hills.

My teen-aged bravado waned as I travelled farther and farther away from Juniper Valley. There’s no defined town line, but when you reach the intersection of Skylark and Oak Tree Lane you’re essentially watching civilization shrink in your rear-view mirror. I’d forgotten just how far away Jane’s shack was from anything, and just how desolate and lonely the mountain road became. I didn’t see a single other car the whole time.

Finally, I came to the rusted blue mailbox with Jane’s numbers on the side. I turned on the dirt road. The van jerked violently as I climbed up the hill. When I reached the apex, I saw Jane’s shack. Carefully, foot on the brake, I made my way down into the valley.

It didn’t look like Jane was home. There was no light coming from the windows. I pulled up closer, into the driveway, past the house, to the carport in the back. The back door was wide open, and Jane’s El Camino was there.

The cats weren’t.

No cats lounging in piles by the stairs. None prowling around the yard. I’d never been within a quarter mile of house, day or night, rain or shine, without seeing at least a few cats.

I pulled beside Jane’s car, climbed out of the van, strolled into the backyard. Jane’s empty property looked lovely in the approaching dusk. Tall grass surrounded by gentle golden hills, spindly naked trees reaching for the heavens, majestic firs meeting fluffy white clouds like an Old West movie backdrop.

She must have been hiding in the house. She must have crept up behind me. Because I don’t remember feeling the blow.


I woke up lying in cool, moist dirt. I was looking at water. Lake Collette? No, I saw nothing but hills and foliage in the distance. Where the fuck was I?

I sat up. My head spun; I felt blood in my hair. I was sitting on the bank of a small pond. The water was greenish and thick with algae, covered in thick yellow scum. I took a breath and lurched. The smell. Rotting fish, rotting flesh, fast-food dumpster – stronger than I’d ever smelled it before.

The water moved. Something was emerging a few feet in front of me. Swimming to shore. A black cat, paddling with uncomfortable, almost human strokes. I scrambled backwards, away from the approaching creature.

It reached land. It pulled itself onto the bank. It stood up.

Anyone who grew up watching Looney Tunes knows what a cat, in theory, looks like standing on two feet. This was nothing like that. The black cat’s weight shifted. Its belly bulged, its lower legs swelled, became shorter and fatter. The effect was the same as squeezing a stress ball. Instead of a creature with a skeleton and tendons and muscles, I was being approached by a thing, with the consistency of jelly, wearing a furry suit.

I screamed. I stumbled to my feet. Then I felt icy fingers curl around my neck.

I struggled, and instinctively horse-kicked my unseen attacker. The hand loosened, and I whirled around.

I was face-to-face with Jane Kitornes.

But it wasn’t Jane.

Her face was round and flat, boneless. The wrinkles under her eyes had smoothed themselves out, and her nose bulged like a mushroom. And her eyes…

The maniacal glint was gone from her eyes. So was the consciousness, so was the recognition, so was the vitality. Her pupils were so dilated her irises were no longer visible, and what had been white was now completely red.

Her eyes didn’t move. They were those of a corpse.

A wobbling arm extended, and I was falling backwards, back towards the pond. Towards the demented, anthropomorphic cat. I turned my body and caught myself as I slid, my left arm plunging into the murky water.

A cold weight on my shoulder, knocking me backwards. Then the cat… cat thing… was sitting on my chest. It held out a paw, then stepped on one foreleg with the other. Its paw bulged, then… reshaped itself. Its toes grew fatter, skin stretching, and a small nub popped out of the side. An opposable thumb. Like putty in a rubber glove.

Then something in the water grabbed my hand. Something soft and cold and rubberlike, slimy but very, very strong. It pulled me. It was pulling me into the water. Then something else jerked a my hair.

Jane stood over me, smiling. She bent down, hands outstretched. Pudgy, bloated hands, attached to rope-like arms that jiggled and curled and changed shape…

What happened next is a blur. I remember clawing, kicking, screaming at the top of my lungs… and then I was running, stumbling, lungs burning, stinging, aching, cursing the spongy, weeded ground that gave under my feet. I pushed through dry shrubs and jumped over tree branches, praying I was going in a direction that would lead me to humanity, and that the crinkling of grass behind me was only my imagination.

Then I was on top of a hill, looking down at Jane’s shack. And then I was in Jane’s yard. I saw the van and lunged for it, threw myself in the driver’s seat, silently thanking the spirit or guardian angel that distracted me so I’d left the keys in the ignition. I slammed the door.

I looked up. Out the windshield. And into the red-and-black, empty eyes of the thing that had been Jane. It was smiling. She’d always reserved a special smile for me.

I turned the key. I gunned it.


The van jerked violently. I slammed on the brakes, kicking up dirt like smoke. I felt a sticky moisture against my cheeks. I took a breath, and barely managed to pull open the door before I projectile-vomited. Even thinking about that acidic, rotting-seafood stench induces a nauseous tickle in the back of my throat.

I’d crushed Jane under the front right tire. I’d popped her.


God must have been smiling down on me that night, because the van still ran. I drove it straight to the police station. In the parking lot, I surveyed the damage. The front bumper was dented, and a headlight was out.

There was no blood. The mangled metal was splattered with glossy, opaque white goo.

I was almost completely honest with the sleepy-eyed desk cop. I said that Jane tried to drown me in the hills behind her home, chased me to the van, and then I ran her over; but I left out the part where her body had taken on the properties of pasta and silly putty. The cop asked sarcastically if I’d been doing any drugs, but radioed a car to the site.

Over the next week, I was questioned multiple times by the police. Their questions became increasingly bizarre, to the point where they were asking about toxic chemicals and lights in the sky (seriously) and whether I was, or had ever been, involved with a heavy metal band and/or a witch cult (this was the late 90’s). I was chastised for driving down a lonely backroad, alone, to approach a crazy woman. But I was never charged with a crime.

The cops were cagey, but they’d found something.

By the next morning, Oak Tree Lane was blocked off by the County Sheriffs, and the inhabitants of the hills had been roughly evacuated with no explanation. Then came more sheriffs, then the unmarked cars, then the tall, black, barbed-wire fence around Lake Collette. Jane’s death was reported as a “freak accident.”


I tried to forget. I holed up in my room, watching happy movies on VHS, until my mom came to take me back to Van Nuys. I went back to school. I threw myself into studying and applying for college. When I needed to, I snuck my mom’s sleeping pills.

Eventually, however, curiosity overwhelmed my fear. I wanted answers. So I elected to spend the following summer, my last before college, in Juniper Valley with my father.

Willfell was no more. Kathy had left the animals with a larger no-kill shelter in Acton, retired, and moved to Riverside. There was a large “for sale” sign in front of what had once been her home. And it had been a dry winter. The chain-link fence, broken and bent, still surrounded Lake Collette, but the lake was little more than a puddle.

I flirted my way into a job waiting tables at the bar/restaurant (they weren’t great with checking ID’s). I spent my nights serving burgers to bored townies, trying to strike up conversations about the strange events of the previous summer – the shadowy agents, the fence, the crazy cat lady. I was offered nothing but rumors, speculation, and good old-fashioned lies.

Finally, I met a man named Aaron. He was in his twenties, chubby, and socially awkward. He worked as a counselor at a camp for disabled children. He talked about Dungeons and Dragons a little bit too much. And his uncle was a local cop. It was a slow night; I shot the shit with Aaron for awhile. When I asked him if he’d heard about the “crazy cat lady” who’d died last year, he played it off like a tabloid headline.

“What crazy… oh, that lady!” He laughed nervously. “Yeah, I heard about her. They found her body and drained some pond in the hills, and all her cats were missing. That’s about it.”

But I’d noticed his eyes widen and his hands tremble.

I guess I got lucky. Aaron’s cop uncle, apparently, had a weakness for Jack Daniels and a tendency to ignore police confidentiality when drunk. And that weakness must have been genetic, because a sloppy, giggly hour later Aaron was singing like a canary.

The night Jane had tried to kill me, two cops had been dispatched to her home off Oak Tree Lane, expecting to find an empty bottle of Everclear and a discarded bag of ‘shrooms. Instead, they found what had been Jane Kitornes.

Pieces of her were scattered across the ground like debris. They radioed for backup, and a small posse spent the remainder of the night on a scavenger hunt for vital organs. They found skin, plenty of skin. The piece that once covered her back was folded up in a torn white tank top. Her bones and organs seemed strangely melted, as though pulled from a vat of acid. Or digested. It was like, one officer had said, Jane had been skinned from the inside, then filled with acidic goo like a water balloon.

Everything was coated in a white, translucent jelly substance. The officers had taken a sample to be tested. But by the next morning, it had evaporated into a powdery white stain.

The big guns were called in. Sheriffs, agents from multiple government divisions; he couldn’t say who exactly; the local cops had been pushed out of the investigation by that point.

He had heard that, upon searching Jane’s property, they found an axe, multiple firearms, boxes of ammo, and ten cat skins buried a foot and a half deep in the backyard. Mostly with their heads detached, and all coated in the familiar white powder.

They scoured the hills behind Jane’s property, and they found the pond. The small sag pond that, according to land surveying reports, had not existed before the earthquake and the rains of the previous winter. They drained it. At the bottom, they found twenty-four more cat skins.

The insides were all gone, yet the skins were unmarred; at no point had they been cut apart or sewn together. Again, it appeared as if something had eaten or dissolved all the blood, bones, and vital organs. Except for the teeth, and the eyeballs. The eyeballs were left intact to stare hauntingly into oblivion.

Ater this discovery, they dragged Lake Collette as well. Aaron didn’t know what they’d found there. The lake was thoroughly searched, and even after the government agents left, the citizens of Juniper Valley were urged to stay away.


It’s been nearly twenty years. I’m a veterinarian now, a divorcee, a mother. I’ve done some digging, spent hours in corners of the internet where I’ve seen things I can’t un-see, made some new friends. But I still don’t have answers. I don’t know what changed Jane’s cats that summer. Were they infected? Usurped? Possessed?

I think it was something in the water. Hyper-intelligent, blob-like things that had lay dormant for years, brought to the surface by the earthquake, revivified by water, able to invade the bodies of other creatures. Jane had allowed her cats to wander the hills. The cats had found the pond. They’d leaned in to take a drink…

Maybe the blob-like things drowned them first, then got inside them via mouth or anus, and digested their unfortunate victims from the inside out. Then, they wore the skins like wetsuits. To exit the water, perhaps – maybe their bodies were weak against air and sunlight. To look for more prey.

Or to look for replacements. Skin and eyes decompose, eventually.

But, as they consumed cat after cat, they grew too big to stay in the sag pond. They needed a bigger body of fresh water to make their home – Lake Collette. They grew too big to fit inside a cat’s skin. They needed clothes in a larger size. They needed humans. Little Charlie Henderson.

And Jane. Jane figured it out before anyone. Jane, who could cut through bullshit and see a naked soul, realized some of her cats no longer had one. So she chased them down. She killed all she could. God knows how many there were – the ten she killed, how many more?

Finally, they got her. She – it – found me. Knocked me out. Dragged me to the pond’s edge. I was going to be its next outfit, its next meal.

But this is all conjecture. My opinion.

All those years ago, I told Aaron, the chubby camp counselor, everything. He listened, eyes widening but never doubting. The next morning, he and I took his car down Oak Tree Lane, to the rusting blue mailbox, and finally the abandoned shack where I’d passed so many teen-aged summer days. We hiked a mile into the hills, carrying two shovels and my father’s rifle.

We found the hole that had once been a sag pond, now a weeded ditch. And we got to work. It was hard work. It was dirty work. It took a few trips. But, by the end of August, we had leveled the land and completely filled the hole with dirt.

I don’t know what was down there. But if there’s more, they’re not getting out.

Credit: NickyXX

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In The Tunnels

December 15, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I was fourteen when I went into The Tunnels for the first time eleven years ago. It was almost the end of summer vacation, a few weeks before school started. There were five of us, six if you counted Chaz, a junior at Pace Middleton. He was going into his senior year and we were incoming freshmen. One of us, I think it was Rob, had met Chaz at a baseball camp. He told him about The Tunnels, and asked if he wanted to see it. Rob told us about it and that was how we all wound up down there one Saturday morning in August. I remember looking at Chaz as he talked. I had heard the stories about what happened to his friend. I didn’t say anything to him. I never know what to say about stuff like that.

He walked us through the graffiti covered main corridor with its nearly seven foot high clearances. The water pooled in the middle, less than half an inch deep. Pentagrams and weird cryptic symbols I didn’t recognize covered the walls. Real edgy teen stuff. In between the graffiti, the walls were honeycombed with the genesis of other, smaller tunnels that branched off the main. Flashlights pointed down those holes revealed smaller tunnels, with ceilings anywhere from four feet high to ones that required crawling on hands and knees. We trailed behind Chaz in barely concealed awe, while he walked backward like a tour guide, explaining the history.

Chaz said it all stated because he was looking for a place to get stoned. Illswell is a small town and like most small towns, it’s attitude on public drug use by teenagers is hardly progressive. Spurred on by the draconian anti-marihuana policies of our great nation, Chaz wandered off to the south end of town, down by the river and the glass factory, in hopes of finding an isolated area to get high. That was where he noticed an old storm grate that seemed to be askew. Pulling it aside, he lowered himself down a worn path and was astonished to come out into the massive environs of The Tunnels. After a few moments of wandering around the cavernous space, he realized he was not only in a bizarre, empty space, but he was in a bizarre empty space that was completely free of parents, police, or any of the other patrician forces who would care if he smoked a bowl in public.

Which he did. And then the next day. And then the next day after that. Pretty soon, The Tunnels became a home away from home for him. Which is when Chaz started to wonder why a small town like Illswell needed such a massive, intricately linked tunnel system. A series of pipes to take away excess rainwater made sense. What he had discovered made no sense.

There were hundreds of tunnels, fanning in all directions. They followed no plan as far as he could tell. Some looped in circles. Others terminated abruptly. Still others seemed to go off for miles, with no end in sight. It was baffling and it seemed like it shouldn’t have existed. And after Chaz spent a few hours researching the city history, he found out that he was right. It didn’t exist.

At least that’s what the public record said. The Tunnels were not real. On paper the city of Illswell had, as one would suspect, an extremely basic water drainage system. One large pipe ran north to south and ten smaller crisscrossed the rest of the area. The infrastructure had been built in the early fifties and, as far as Chaz could tell, hadn’t been adjusted since.

These facts stood in stark contrast to the reality of what was underneath the town. So much so that Chaz wasn’t sure if he was going crazy. So he began to conduct himself scientifically. He swore Steve and their other friend Ray to secrecy and then enlisted the two in his project, explaining as much as he could while trying to sound as sane as possible. Once all the parties were all on the same page, the three descended into The Tunnels armed with pens, compasses and notebooks. They were going to map the system and find out exactly what was going on.

Almost immediately, bad luck struck. One of them, Ray, was grounded for failing geography (an irony lost on no one) and then there were two weeks of solid rains, rendering The Tunnels impassible. By the time the rains had ceased and everything was dry enough to explore, nearly a month had passed.

Once they got in The Tunnels, the frustration vanished in the face of the their task’s immensity. Beneath Illswell, The Tunnels splayed out in a hundred contradictory directions. The job to map them, the boys realized, was Sisyphean at best. Nevertheless they tried, diligently going after school to wander and sketch starting points and ending points and everything in between, meeting up later as a group to map out the territories as best as they could. Which is when, almost two months into the project, they realized why the area was so large:

new tunnels were appearing.

They didn’t know how it was possible. There was no construction work, no jackhammers, no machines, but somehow new tunnels were coming into existence at a rate of nearly one a week. Ones with ragged edges and the same sort of bizarre graffiti that infected the main corridor. Weird human like shapes but hunched over and with long tails, painted in a strange shining black ink.

Chaz and his friends decided they needed to talk to someone about what they had discovered. Ray’s dad was the unanimous selection. Not only was he a lawyer, he was also friendly with some people in the local government. Out of anyone they could approach, they assumed he was the most likely to be able to help.

Long story short, he wasn’t. First, Ray’s dad told the boys they must have made a mistake. When confronted with the unimpeachable facts of their maps, he grew silent, studying them. Then he cleared his throat and told the three that The Tunnels weren’t a place for kids. That he knew about them, that everyone in charge of Illswell knew about them, and that the boys were putting themselves at a risk going down there. The Tunnels, he explained, weren’t for us.

But he declined to say who they were for.

He made the three swear on a Bible that they wouldn’t talk about it and would certainly never go down there again. After he left the room, the boys stared at each other in Ray’s living room with its nice TV and huge bookshelves and expensive furniture.

“What the fuck was that?” Steve whispered.

Ray, Steve and Chaz decided to ignore Ray’s dad’s advice. They were going to keep going into The Tunnels until they discovered what was going on down there. They planned on starting that night, but the prediction of storms had them put their plans on hold.

The next morning as rain came down in great sloughs, drenching the landscape and turning the world grey and blurry, Steve called Chaz. Ray had disappeared last night. He must have gone into The Tunnels before the storms started.

After he hung up the phone, Chaz rode his bike down to the storm grates, pedaling so fast he crashed twice. When he got there, all he could do was stare at the flooded corridor.

They found Ray’s body a few weeks later, bloated and egg sac white from the unrelenting waters. He was naked, too, but the police ascribed that to the simple process of drowning and the degradation of the elements.

But there was something else. The body was covered in bite marks. Small, tiny bite marks. It was odd in that he hadn’t even been partially consumed. Just almost…nibbled. The bites formed a strange, cryptic pattern that Chaz and Steve immediately recognized, staring at the visible wounds on the neck of their friend’s corpse in his black coffin. When they left the funeral home, they looked at each other.

“Those marks…” Chaz said.

“They’re the same as the ones on the walls of the corridor,” Steve finished.

“And that,” said Chaz, finishing his story as we stared at him, open mouthed and gaping, “was when we decided we needed to find out what was going on in the The Tunnels.”

His words echoed in the suddenly sinister space of the great main corridor in which we stood, our shoes wet in the standing water.

“Why’d you tell us this? Is this a joke or something?” I asked, my voice shaky and weird sounding in the dark.

“We need help. We can’t do this on our own. I don’t want Ray to die over this and then nothing happens. We want to figure this out. You guys want in?”

I believed him. Even if his story sounded so absurd I was worried it was a prank, and I was going to be the incoming freshmen getting punked by the senior, I still believed him. The way he was staring at us, his eyes hollowed out and glowing, made something in me that usually wasn’t there present. I spoke up, my voice ringing in the enormous place.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m in. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Unfortunately I found out.

Chaz was almost thirty, but he looked older than that with his thinning hair and grey stubble. His teeth were bad when he smiled which he didn’t do a lot of, which was sort of a good thing, I guess. I had agreed to see him while I was home for a few days, but I told him I didn’t want to talk about The Tunnels, or what had happened to Steve. He said that would be fine. I got the sense that he was lying.

We met at a fast food Mexican place near my parents. It had opened after I moved out. I had only been back to Iswell twice since turning eighteen — once for Christmas and then for my dad’s funeral. Other than new taco places, it hadn’t changed at all.

Chaz had, which he acknowledged.

“I look different, huh?” He asked as we sat down at a table near the window.

“We all do,” I shrugged. But not like him. He didn’t look different. He looked battered.

“It’s my job,” he said. “They’re kicking my ass all day up there, Timmy.”

“Where do you work?” I wasn’t really that curious. I just was trying to make conversation.

“Mihn hospital. Near Greyson, out on 118?”

“My dad worked there. That’s quite a commute.”

“No jobs here, man. So it’s either a drive or,” he laughed, “you know, no drive.”

“A drive is definitely better, yeah. I hear you.”

“Plus,” he said, in between bites of his soft taco, “I’m pretty sure that the hospital has something to do with The Tunnels.”

I put down my taco and stood up.

“It was good seeing you, Chaz,” I said. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“No, don’t get up, please. Sit down. Please. Ok?”

I stared at him. He looked so desperate, rail thin and ratlike in the dirty fast food light. I sighed and sat down.

“I’m not talking about them, Chaz. I don’t want to think about —”

“I work in the animal labs at the hospital,” he interrupted me. “They do experiments on animals. The neurosurgeons. You know that? They get all this money and they do all these experiment. On all kinds of animals. Cats, monkeys, dogs —”

“I said I’d stay here, but I’m not going to just sit and listen to this. It was nice seeing you.”

“— rats,” he said and he made eye contact with me. He stopped talking and so did I. Above us, the ceiling fan spun lazy circles.

He played with the straw in his drink while we didn’t talk. Behind him, some guy was ordering a burrito. The place made terrible burritos.

“I clean the cages at in the hospital,” he began after the silence, “it pays nine dollars an hour. That’s the only reason I took the job, I swear. I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it. You think I do?”

I saw a woman at the table next to us look at us. She was with two kids who were petulantly eating nachos. She was trying to look like she wasn’t listening.

“But I took the job there. I didn’t think it would…” He looked away, at the register, at the sign for the bathrooms, then back at me. “I clean the cages. That’s all. But when I went into the rat room, I was by myself. I felt weird. Looking at them. Listening to them. But they weren’t…you know.”

“I know,” I said. My heart was pounding.

“But then, one day, they looked at me. I was by myself. Just me and all of them. And I swear I heard that noise.”

Someone dropped a tray. Both of us jumped. My knees banged the table.

“Are you sure? It was that noise?” I said, settling back down. The kid who had dropped his tray was staring in horror at his tacos splayed across the grey tile floor.

“Do you forget what it sounded like?” Chaz asked.

I shook my head. Sometimes I felt like I could still hear that noise.

“That happened two days ago” he said. He leaned across the table. “I haven’t gone back yet. Called off both days. They think I’m bullshitting them. But I can’t go back. I still go to Ray’s grave once a year. I stopped going to Steve’s. But I worry. I worry about —”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” I shouted and slammed the table. The mom with her kids stared at me. I lowered my voice. “I’m not here to talk about it. You said you didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I had to get you here and you wouldn’t come any other way.”

“Why? Why do you need me to —”

“I gave some kids the maps. They’re like, what do you call them? Urban explorers? They had heard about The Tunnels. I think they’re going to go in.”

“What?” I hissed. “You did what? Did you say what happened down there?” The mom with the kids was still staring at me.

“No, I didn’t tell them. You think I want them to think I’m crazy?”

“How could you give them the maps? After what happened?”

“They gave me money,” he said. He looked horrible. Pale and sickly. I remember hearing about what had happened to him. What he had started doing. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t have. I know…”

“When did they go in?”

“Two days ago,” he said. “I think.”

I got up.

“Where are you going?” Chaz asked. “You can’t. It’s been raining and — man, you can’t.”


“You know why,” he said. “They’re still down there.”

“I’m going,” I said, “and you can come if you want.”

“But —”


“—we’re going in. Tonight,” said Steve the last night I ever talked to him, almost eight years ago. His voice crackled over the phone connection.

“Tonight?” I asked. “It’s been raining.”

“Not that much. Chaz is there already. He said it’s fine.”

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there in, like, twenty minutes.”

The line went dead. Steve was awful at saying goodbye.

I left a note for my mom and dad that I had gone out. My mom was out at dinner with a friend. My dad was at work. He was always at work. After he died, I was startled by how little my life felt changed by his absence. I suppose he had never been there, so his death was merely the continuation of a theme, a running joke that hadn’t been that funny.

Whenever I tried to think of him all I could ever recall was him going to or coming from his job. I barely even knew what he did. Whenever I asked him, all he would is that he was trying to make a better world. My mom told me once I should never marry anyone who mistook their work for their life.

The Tunnels were a fifteen minute bike ride from my house. I loved Illswell because it felt trapped in time: an early eighties Spielberg movie with big rambling houses and cinematic cloud streaked skies. In the fall, leaves fell off of massive trees onto the bright black asphalt of quiet streets besides the sidewalks cracked by dandelions pushing up from the underground. Life is resilient.

That night was the last time I was in The Tunnels, I was seventeen. Out of all my friends who heard Chaz’s speech, I was the only one who had decided to help with their project. The other guys thought the whole thing was stupid at best, dangerous at worst, but I didn’t care. I wanted to learn the secret.

My whole life I had read books about mysterious cities and strange other worlds. The fictional undergrounds of my childhood literature seemed suddenly tangible. Everything was possible. I was on the verge of interrupting a grand mystery. I felt elated.

I also felt a grand, horrific boredom. For as mysterious as The Tunnels were, they were also essentially just big fucking holes. The weird graffiti was baffling, as was the emergence of new tunnels, but none of that ever turned into anything. I thought that maybe it never would.

Until that night.

We went in late, after seven. The streetlights were all on and it had been raining intermittently all day. We thought The Tunnels would be still dry enough to get through without any flooding. We were right about that at least.

The years of obsessive exploring hadn’t been good for any of us. I was in high school and everybody thought I was the weird kid who didn’t do anything, didn’t date anyone, and only hung with two shady older dudes. Steve was inarguably the most well adjusted. He worked part time at packing facility, lived in his own little apartment, had even stared seeing some girl. In contest, Chaz had fallen apart. Something about Ray’s death had driven him crazy. He copied down the patterns on the walls and filled notebook after notebook with drawings of them. I think he thought it was an alphabet — like hieroglyphics. Or maybe he believed it was some sort of weird code. No matter what he actually thought it was, his increasing devotion to it, and the subject of The Tunnels in general, was troubling to Steve and I.

Chaz had also started taking acid before he went underground, something he hadn’t told us. I’m not sure how it was even possible, but it slipped by both of us. Later, Chaz told me that the drug’s effects, combined with his nearly psychopathic focus on the area, allowed for an intense quasi-religious experience. He explained that that the dark and the hallucinations made him feel that he was on the verge of discovering some kind of God.

Going into The Tunnels that night something felt strange. My pulse was racing as I walked into the corridor. There was only a little water on the ground. I can still hear my chucks splashing in it.

“Let’s go,” Steve said. “We can finish tunnels 19-24 tonight if everything breaks right.”

The tunnels we were working on that evening were small and cramped. We had to crawl through most of them, which I hated. The trapped claustrophobia of it, the top of the concrete scraping my shoulders, my face almost in the dirty ground, made my body tense. I found it hard to not race out. Panic was always barely below the surface.

For the last couple of trips down, I had been hearing a noise. A strange sort of chittering. I asked the other two and they said they hadn’t heard it. This night, as I crawled into tunnel 21, I heard it again. Louder.

The graffiti in 21 was bizarre. Lots of crude drawings of what almost looked like houses with strange hunched over things standing next to them. Things with long tails.

21 was also one of the narrowest we were able to get in. I could barely fit through some of the smaller sections. I had never been in the one part I was trying to maneuver through. I thought I was trapped at one point — unable to move forward or backward. It was like when you have a ring on your finger that you can’t get off. You pull and you pull but it doesn’t come over the knuckle. You start to sweat and then, magically, it pops off. That’s what I kept trying to think off as i pushed my body as hard as I could, then harder, then …

I broke free and the tunnel expanded significantly. I was able to breath again, which I did. Great gasping gulping breaths of air. So loud I almost didn’t hear the chittering noise until it reached an unholy din.

I swing my flashlight to the darkness before me and gasped.

The tunnel had opened up to nearly three feet high. There along the edges were strange, horrifically primitive drawings of four humans. They were nearly cubist in their approximations of the human form but there was also a horrible familiarity to them.

They were pictures of Steve, Chaz, Ray and me.

The picture of Ray had X’s through his eyes.

The chittering was getting louder. I turned around and wedged myself back into tunnel 21. I was screaming for the other two as I scrambled through the dirty cement hole.

I came out into the corridor. Ray was standing in shock in front of the tunnel he had been in.

“We have to go!” I was screaming at him. “Where is Steve?”

He didn’t say anything. Just pointed behind me.

I turned around.

Steve was at the edge of the corridor. Something was holding a black hand, or maybe a paw, over his mouth. His eyes looked like two moons glowing in the black night. I could tell he was trying to scream.

The dark thing was with other dark things. They were hunched over, almost human but obviously not, even in the darkness. I saw long tails. I heard the chittering. It almost sounded like human speech.

I heard a noise next to me and turned. It was Chaz, running as fast as he could, away from the things and toward the exit. I turned back and saw Steve vanishing into a tunnel.

I wanted to say I tried to save him. But I can’t lie.

I ran, following Chaz, out of The Tunnels for what I thought was forever.

And now, here I was with Chaz, staring at it again.

“Long time, huh?” Chaz asked.

It was past sunset. The sky was all bruised yellow and pass out red colored. Chaz was scratching his arm. I could see scab marks along his veins. I remembered him that night, running out of there with me. When we stopped, what felt like miles later, he told me he was never going back. Ever.

I remember how he got strung out after that. Photo albums of bad scenes on facebook, a selfie of him smiling with blood in his mouth, holding one of his teeth, posted without explanation or caption. I heard he got arrested for possession — meth, oxys, heroin. He did time upstate. I went out of state, went to a small liberal arts school. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t met anyone. I stayed in my room. I drank when no one else was up. Then I started drinking when people were up. Then I stated drinking when I woke up. Anytime, really. Anytime I thought about this place, I drank. And I thought about it all the time.

I looked at Chaz.

“Let’s go,” he said. “This isn’t going to get any easier.”

The Tunnels were bigger than they used to be. Things usually reduce as you got older. Here my past seemed to expand to swallow me whole.

As we walked in, I heard the chittering. It sounded like a chorus.

“I shouldn’t have given them the maps,” Chaz said. He sounded like he had said that a million times to himself and he was practicing it aloud. “They gave me money…”

“It’s ok,” I said, even if it wasn’t. “Maybe we can find them.”

The rain waters were beginning to trickle into the corridor. Our flashlights glared dull yellow beams on the walls. I didn’t think we were going to find them.

“That noise…”

“It’s the same one in your lab?”

“I think,” he said. “It sounds so much like that. The rats in there, they look so weird. They don’t look right. They look smart. Like they know something.”

I thought I heard something moving behind me. I spun around and swung the flashlight. If there was something, I didn’t see it. But there it was. In front of tunnel 43.

An old tennis shoe.

“Do you think that’s one of their shoes?” I asked Chaz. He shrugged.


We decided to try the tunnel. It was a low one, but not so low you had to crawl. I could hear the water starting to splash in the main corridor. We walked hunched over, me behind Chaz.

The tunnel was long, filled with the graffiti. I hadn’t been there in so long that the vivid strangeness of the art grabbed me, but the obvious rage in the work shocked me. It showed people killing, shooting, dying in a world where the sun shone and birds flew and flowers grew, while underneath, the things with tails showed their teeth and wept.

The chittering was getting louder. The weird noise was turning familiar. Something in its pattern? I couldn’t catch it. We turned in the tunnel and Chaz, who was slightly ahead of me, gasped and stopped. I came out from behind him and froze.

In front of us, in a small room, pressed against each other, on top of each other, and suddenly staring at us, were hundreds of rats.

Seeming them up close, I realized they weren’t quite rats. They were too big, standing over two feet tall, and their faces carried too much if what I would want to call humanity in them to be only rats. But their tails, their greasy fur, their long quivering noses: that was rat. That was all and only rat.

I couldn’t scream. All I heard was their chittering. I could smell them, a hot wet smell like garbage in the sun. I felt sick. I thought of Steve, those things biting into him, all of them, chewing and chewing and chewing and —

“It’s one of the kids,” Chaz pointed. He sounded emotionless, like he was pointing out a car on the highway. “They have him on that stone.”

I looked. There was a stone in the front of the space, and tied to it was a dead teenager. His chest had been cut open. A rat stood next to him with bloody paws holding something raw and red.

“They cut out his heart,” Chaz whispered. “This place. It’s a church. Look.”

He was right. The rats were all facing the stone, which was obviously an altar. The walls were painted and their were candles burning giving off a queasy, flickering light. The rat at the stone had some kind of cloth wrapped around its shoulders. Behind him was a drawing, one I immediately recognized.

The way the rats stood, the way the air felt: we had interrupted some sort of religious ceremony. This was prayer.

Chaz looked at me. “Good luck,” he murmured. I was going to ask him what I needed luck for but then he ran, screaming, into the moving brown ocean of rat. I saw him bitten almost immediately. I heard the way his scream transformed from defiance to agony as he was swallowed in a sea of brown fur. I only saw his face once, the way his eyes were closed as tightly as he could close them, a paw reaching into his open mouth and ripping at his lips….

I turned and ran back into the tunnel, running as quickly as I could. He had bought me a few seconds, I remember thinking. I might be able to get out. And then I remember my foot hitting a puddle, a wet spot on the ground. I went into the air thinking this is the way I die. I remember landing and then hitting my head and then everything went away.


I woke up in the hospital. The cops said they found me half drowned, but somehow still alive at the edge of the entrance to the storm sewers. Next to me was one of the missing kids. He hadn’t been so lucky.

I told the cops I heard the kids had gone into The Tunnels and I had gone in trying to rescue them. I don’t know if they believed it or not. Maybe they didn’t care. I got out of the hospital the other day. Nobody answers Chaz’s phone. I don’t think anybody will. I don’t know why they let me out of The Tunnels and not him, or Steve, or anybody else.

I’m worried I think I know why I survived.

I’m worried I found out what my dad was doing, I’m worried I discovered how he was making a better world. I’m worried because he’s dead and I can’t talk to him about what happened.

And I’m worried because I just heard his voice, sounding as strange and as inhuman as his portrait had looked behind the altar of the rats, asking me to leave my room and to come and see the better world he has built, the world that will become a new and great kingdom upon the earth, a world which is about to begin.

Credit: Kevin Sharp

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One Mile

December 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 8.2/10 (201 votes cast)

JayJay suspected herself of having a mild form of ADHD to balance out her high IQ. It was undiagnosed, if so; she had better things to spend her money on than psychoanalysis. Still, there were the occasional days like today, when her concentration was shot, and whatever was in her peripheral vision seemed more important than whatever was in front of her face.

As she stood, fiddling with her phone in the convenience store parking lot, she found herself struggling with the simplistic task of downloading and installing an app. She was distracted by the dry wind blowing dust and leaves into her hair. She was irritated by the wail of a crying child denied candy by her stoic mother. She was creeped out by the ragged homeless woman idly eyeing her from the bus stop.

The app was a relatively simple thing. It would allow her to determine the make and model of a shoe via a simple photograph, automatically locating a nearby store and a current price. It was a silly thing, but her college roommates loved it, and so she had decided to give it a try.

Somehow, it was a hassle. She was momentarily blinded by sunlight reflecting from a passing car. She was jostled by a rude store customer with a dour look on his face and burly shoulders. She was startled when someone called her name from nearby, only to soon find out it was a different Jennifer they were calling out to.

Annoyed, she jabbed her finger at the shoe icon as soon as it came up, likewise clicking through the EULA without reading it (had it actually contained the word “soul”?) and chose INSTALL, anxious to get through the minor task.

After a moment, the phone’s camera activated, and she was looking at a closeup of her own finger on the other side of the phone. She brought the phone up so she could sweep the view around and paused, momentarily puzzled. The name of the app, sharply written in black letters resembling an old typewriter style font on a greyish white background read “One Mile”. Next to and slightly below the title was a green counter, set to 5280. Had she downloaded a pedometer by mistake? If so, why the camera function?

As she swept the camera around, however, she noticed that a green rectangle was appearing around the feet of people in the camera’s field of view. She hesitated momentarily on the shiny Mary Janes of a tiny schoolgirl, then the dilapidated and untied sneakers of a guy whose gait and facial expression screamed ‘stoner’. She was irritated, however that a display with the pertinent information was not automatically appearing. Did she have to frame the shoes for longer? Did she have to actually take a photo?

She considered taking a photo of her own feet, but the rectangle framing them was red for some reason: maybe the angle was bad, or her feet too close to the camera? She raised her gaze, and there was the homeless woman at the bus stop, pouting and staring steadily. Creepy. Defiant of the rush of fear tingling at her spine, she focused on the camera and aimed at the woman’s shoes.

The (presumably) homeless woman’s shoes were of course, old, unfashionable, dirty and worn. She figured that if the app could identify these canvas-topped rubber soled ancient artifacts, it could likewise handle any shoe she would actually be interested in.

They came up green. Since the woman was just standing and staring, she herself stayed still, and sure enough, after a moment, a green button appeared with a camera icon on it. She poked the icon.

The image froze, then zoomed to show the woman’s shoes (and swollen, greasy ankles emerging from torn, soiled socks) in more detail. The words “Are You Sure?” appeared in black typeface at the top of the app, with accompanying yes and no buttons. JayJay snorted a bit in irritation; of course she was sure! The thought occurred to her that the app might try to charge her credit card or something if she said yes, but she did not recall the app requesting access to her data. So it was probably safe? Shrugging, she pressed yes.

The disorientation was instantaneous and absolute. She felt like throwing up, but instead of pitching forward, she reeled backward, very nearly into …traffic?

Somehow, she was standing at the bus stop where the homeless woman had been. An irritated driver honked and swerved a bit, while still accelerating. She wrenched herself forward, skinning her knees on the bus stop bench. Scanning, she realized that she was looking at the front of the 7-11, where she had been standing a moment ago. She was annoyed to see a gawky blonde wearing the twin of her own outfit staring back at her.

The world seemed to spin and weave. She felt drunk. She was in fact drunk; she smelled like a brewery and reeked of old sweat. Her hair felt matted and tangled, and her clothes …she was wearing tattered, dirty, threadbare layers of mismatched clothing. She was dressed like a homeless woman. An instant later, more facts fell upon her like monolithic dominoes: she was shorter, heavier. Her skin was wrinkled, older. Her fingernails were longer. She was the homeless woman!

On the brink of madness, a dozen horrendous possibilities rushed at her, drowned her. Maybe she really was a homeless woman who had been enjoying a delusion of being a young pretty girl? Maybe she was simply dreaming? Maybe the application had somehow caused them to switch places, even bodies?

It didn’t matter. Dream or no dream, she needed that phone. Right now. She fixed her gaze on the gawky girl. Was that how she looked? Too skinny, hair the color of straw, showing too much skin, wearing too much makeup? It didn’t matter; it was better than what she had now. The gawky girl met her gaze and blanched. She looked quickly from side to side. Was she going to run? Crap, she was going to run.

The girl turned, stumbling and falling headlong, spilling the contents of her purse everywhere. Sitting up quickly, she started to scoop up the scattered papers and mascara and other items as if by instinct before she remembered her situation. Tearing off the high heeled shoes with something like regret, she stumbled to her feet and made for a narrow alleyway near the store.

JayJay was in no better shape. The old shoes were much better for running, but the body above them was not. She was heavier all over, especially in the hips and bust, and everything tried to go in different directions, throwing off her center of balance and making her want to vomit even more. She was grimy everywhere. Her heart was slamming like a jackhammer. She could not breathe. Her head was pounding.

She knew she looked like a monster, with her arms outstretched, lumbering forward. Her voice was moaning and unfamiliar even to her own ears, “My phoooone! That’s my phoone! Give it here!” The girl –JayJay’s real body– squealed and backpedaled, wheeled and ran. JayJay knew she looked like an utter lunatic to everyone around. But hopefully, that wouldn’t matter if she could simply get her hands on that phone.

If the app had somehow switched them, she could use it to switch back. She hoped. The only other choices were that the change was somehow permanent …in which case she would cry, and likely fling herself into traffic… or that it was a dream or otherwise temporary, in which case it didn’t matter. She needed that phone.

Into the narrow alley they plunged, the girl still awkward, but moving with an assuredness that JayJay did not feel. The alley was familiar territory to whoever was in that girl’s hed. JayJay seemed to stumble over every bit of trash scattered on the cracked pavement, while the girl’s steps were swifter and more sure. She was pulling away.

JayJay, already gasping and dizzy, pushed herself harder. This was it, she was sure; she’d have a heart attack and die in this alley, while that homeless woman walked off with her body and enjoyed an extra 20 years of young, fit life with it. It wasn’t fair! She had done nothing to deserve this! She was a good person!

It was at that moment that the girl, that JayJay’s body, died. As she had exited the alley into the street on the opposite side, she had cast a last glance back at the monster stumbling behind her. A fast, expensive white car, it’s stereo loud and it’s owner texting, plowed into her without slowing down.

The girl’s face smashed into the windshield, her own body a fulcrum, like a small wet wrecking ball. It was instantly destroyed: bits of glass drove into her eyes, her nose flattened, her lips were torn away by her own teeth as they tore loose from her mouth, scattering into the afternoon along with autumn leaves. Within her now fractured skull, her brain flattened and ruptured.

No. JayJay halted, unable to even speak. She wanted to scream, wanted to beat up the careless driver, wanted to ironically kill and re-kill her own body for both dying and being ruined. Instead, she threw up. In fact, she almost passed out, but as her consciousness descended into a grey well of denial, she shook her head (earning a spike of pain in doing so) and made herself stand.

The phone. Where was the phone?

Had it been crushed beneath the tires of the car, along with the girl’s twisted tangle of limbs? She did not see it there, just a widening pool of blood and some thick black liquid. The driver was emerging from the car, pale and texting frantically.

Could it still be with her purse?

JayJay vanished back into the alleyway just as the driver piped up with a “Did you see what happened?” and she moved to the opposite end as fast as her grimy but unbroken legs would carry her. Emerging from the alley, she looked toward the front of the store, where an employee, dustpan in hand, was procrastinating before cleaning up the scattered purse.

“Mine!” she hissed, kneeling in the spill of her belongings. The employee looked dubious, but did not protest. He seemed distracted by a growing group of people wandering toward the far corner of the building.

It was there! JayJay picked up the phone, holding her breath in the eternity between hitting the power button and the screen brightening into life. She swiped her finger in a familiar pattern to unlock the phone (she inwardly sighed; a part of her had been worried she had been delusional. Now she was just horrified). The app was still there, and opening it showed a simple blank screen with a counter currently at 5008.

She was puzzled, but she had no time to ponder. Soon, people would think that a homeless woman was stealing the belongings of a tragically killed girl, and she did not want to be here when that happened. She quickly located her wallet, her keys, and with that and the phone, she left. Somehow, her cosmetics did not seem so important now.

As she strode quickly and purposefully away from the convenience store, her mind continued to swim with a dozen warring implications. How had the app done this, if it had? What was the counter for? How many people had this app? How would she explain that some older woman was now living in JayJay’s apartment? What about her friends and family?

Back at her apartment, JayJay collapsed into a chair. Her phone pulsed, then started up in her mother’s familiar ringtone. She almost answered instinctively, but then she caught herself and ignored it; her mother would not recognize the voice on the other end. She let it go to voicemail, as tears streamed from unfamiliar eyes. Her mother would be so heartbroken when she found out…

JayJay looked at the app again, desperate for answers. Obviously, this was not the app her friends had been using, although the icons were similar. The counter had changed again, to 1237. That felt …ominous. She waited, holding her breath, for nearly two minutes. The counter did not change. Puzzled, she went to her refrigerator, grabbed an iced coffee, returned to the chair.

The counter was at 1231.

“What the fuck!?” With effort, she resisted hurling the phone at the wall. Calming herself with deep ragged breaths (that smelled sickeningly of onions and beer), she began to take off her shoes, desperate for a shower, although she was petrified of what she would find beneath the dirty ragged cloth and grime.

Her phone sounded a short, sharp alarm. The app, clearly visible on the glowing screen, read “Are you sure you want to quit?” With big red yes and no buttons. She grabbed the phone, eager to escape the nightmare.

But she stopped. If she quit, what then? Would she go back to her old body? Her destroyed, wrecked, ruined body? Her eyes glued to the screen, she clicked NO. The bland typewriter font returned: “Error: replace shoe.” With deliberate, slow movements, she ran a finger between the shoe and her foot, pulling it snug against her heel once more. The app returned to the green counter, back at 1231.

One mile. She was going to walk one mile in this woman’s shoes, literally. And then…

Her mind skipped across several scenarios: quit her job, become a hermit, work from home via her computer to somehow never walk a full mile for the rest of her life? What about her friends and family that could drop by at any time? What about when she was reported dead or missing and some strange woman was found in her apartment? What effect would using a car or a wheelchair have? If she took it back to the error screen and left it there, could she live out her life? Could she live forever?

Her heart stopped as a knock sounded through her door. It returned several times as she crept slowly up to the peephole and peered. It was no one she knew; a slightly plump young woman wearing conservative clothes. In one hand was clutched some brightly colored paper.

JayJay, feeling a reptillian cold creep down her spine, opened the door, refusing to allow herself to think; only to act. She forced herself to smile; something that probably looked ghoulish in her new hard, lined face with likely horrible teeth. She opened the door.

The young visitor kept her expression open and cheerful, although she hesitated for a telling moment upon first sight of the disheveled woman inside the apartment. “Might I have a moment of your time?”

“Jehovah’s Witness,” JayJay guessed in an unfamiliar voice.

The woman nodded. Cheerful and resigned, but hopeful. In white stockings. With black, polished Mary Janes.

JayJay opened the door wide and swept her hand in a magnanimous gesture. “Come on in! I’ll get us some tea.”

The woman hesitated, no doubt reciting a silent prayer, then stepped across the threshold. JayJay ushered her to an empty seat, taking her phone from the armrest as she did so. “This is going to sound weird,” she said. “But your shoes are darling! Do you mind if I take a picture of them?”

A few hours later, a young woman exited the apartment. She was dressed differently than when she had entered, except for her white stockings and black shoes. She was wearing a stuffed backpack and towing an equally overfilled wheeled luggage case, her large purse heavy on one arm. She had a phone in her hand, and a distracted yet determined expression on her face…

Credit: Kitsune9tails

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