The Engineer

September 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The Engineer sat quietly in his chair, hands folded in his lap, staring at the blank walls of his office. It was almost time to press the button. That was his job. Every hour on the hour from nine to five he would press the button. He didn’t even know what it did.

Four years of college and another two years to get his master’s degree, and all he did for a living was press a button. He didn’t complain about the money, though. He made ten times what an average mechanical engineer made. All he had to do was press the button. It wasn’t as easy as one would think, though. He could never be late. Never call in sick. Never nod off, even though there was nothing else to do except wait for the hour to come. Books, as anything else that might distract him from his task, were forbidden in his office.

Every day, coming and going, The Engineer had to force his way through a crowd of protesters shouting things like “Give us back our babies!” He had no idea what that meant and had no desire to find out. He came to work to do his job. Press the button eight times, collect his paycheck, and go back home to his family.

His family. The Engineer had a nine-month old son, and sensed the unease that the demonstrators outside his office felt. He had trouble pushing the thoughts from his mind. What had happened to their babies? Why did they think that his company was responsible? He had never seen any babies, pregnant mothers, or – for that matter – anyone who did not work there enter or leave the building.

Granted, his office was but a small part of a large campus. Sitting out there in Whitehall, near the airport, was perhaps the largest military logistics campus that existed in the United States. Logistics – particularly “combat logistics” – generally meant finding a way to get things that kill people delivered to other people who use those things to kill the aforementioned people. He saw no ties to babies in that equation. As far as he knew, the campus consisted of five large office buildings (much larger than his), a national guard barracks, five humongous hangars where they kept God-knows-what, a railyard, and enough stores and entertainment facilities to accommodate the 5,000 people who lived on the campus. The campus was surrounded by a double set of eighteen-foot-high chain link fences topped with razor wire. The Engineer’s office sat just outside of one of the sally ports entering into the campus proper. He had never, ever been inside the fences in the ten years that he had worked there.

Worked where? Come to think of it, he did not really know. He assumed that it was connected to the logistics campus because of the proximity, but there were no actual identifying marks on the building itself – just an address painted in foot high black numerals on the white stone facing of the structure. He didn’t pay much attention to the place, really. He remembered that ten years ago, when he first interviewed for the job, he arrived at the place thinking that it looks as if it were built in the 1950s. He had just recently moved to the area, so as far as he knew, it had been there that long.

He had been instructed to dress professionally every day, indicating a button down shirt and tie, but not necessarily a sport coat or jacket. He had a badge to permit him entry, but it had no text on it. It was simply a white plastic rectangle with a blue square in the middle of it. He assumed that there was some sort of RFID chip inside. Even his salary gave no indication of whom his employer was. His pay was directly deposited into his bank account under the innocuous name of “Employer C.” He received no pay stubs, of course. The benefits were great but even then, his insurance cards listed his employer as “Employer C” with a group number of 00000.

The platitude “Ours is not to questions why. Ours is but to do or die,” crossed his mind often. Daily, in fact. Perhaps because it was painted on the wall in his office lobby.

Oops. 10:54am. Time to concentrate. At five minutes to the hour, he would begin focusing his attention on the button and the clock. He prided himself on his ability to always press the button exactly on time. Never a second too early or too late, as measured by the big hand on the analog clock hanging on his office wall. He was allowed a certain measure of leeway, but once he had pressed the button a full five seconds early, and was called to the carpet over it by his supervisor. Another slip-up like that would affect his performance review. A few more would jeopardize his job; and though no one had ever expressed it in words, he had the idea that his was not a job that you could simply get fired or resign from.

There was Harold, for instance. When he retired, they had a party. Well, not a party, really, but Harold, he, and some other employees gathered in the lobby for cake. They were each allowed to take a piece back to their offices. He told Harold to keep in touch, but Harold just blew him off with a tear in his eye. The Engineer guessed that Harold was sad to go and would really miss his job. He must have been right, because Harold turned up dead a day later. Hung himself from a clothes rod in his closet with a belt. Apparently.

The Engineer had allowed his thoughts to wander. 10:59am, and the big hand was on the nine. There was the countdown and… press the button. Oh, God! That was too close. His heart was pounding. He held out his right hand, fingers spread, and looked at it. He was trembling uncontrollably. “Told you that it was a stressful job,” he thought aloud, thinking of his wife.

Three o’clock had finally rolled around. The day was dragging on, as usual. The Engineer was in a rut. That happened sometimes. He had just pressed the button when he heard a commotion in the hall. He stood and was about to head for the door when Justine opened it and pushed her way through, slamming it behind her.

“We have to leave!” she shouted at the Engineer.

“Leave? But, we can’t. It’s not five yet. I need to press my button one more time before the end of the day.”

“Forget the button. We need to go now, while we still can.”

“No. Absolutely not. I can’t…” The Engineer was cut off as Justine grabbed his right wrist and dragged him back through the doorway. People were running up and down the hall, some carrying sheaves of paper, others carrying trash cans or boxes bursting with journals and log books, all making their way to the incinerator room. He had noticed it before, but never been there. He thought that trash incinerators went out in the ‘60s – probably outlawed – and it was a leftover from the days when the building had been first put in use. Jimmy pushed his loaded mail cart down the hall, nearly toppling it as he made a quick turn into the incinerator room. As the young clerk opened the door, The Engineer choked on the smell of singed paper and ash.

“What’s going on?”

Justine stopped and turned back briefly. “I told you,” she growled, “we have to leave now.”

The Engineer just gawped at her. He would obviously not be getting an answer any time soon. He figured that he had better just keep quiet and follow instructions. Whatever was going on, it seemed serious. Justine kept pulling and led him toward a rear fire exit. The door had been labeled “FIRE EXIT,” anyway, and “OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF FIRE.” The Engineer always followed the rules, so of course he never opened it. He had wondered about it, though, because from the outside of the office building, he deduced that it would open inside the campus fence. Now he was being hauled through it.

He was correct. As they emerged through the doorway, he saw that they were inside the inner campus fence. There were people – civilian people – thronged outside the outer fence. Their fingers were laced through the fence and they were shaking it. Trying to push their way through. They were shouting again.

“Give us back our babies!” “You are thieves!” “You stole them!” “We want our children!”

The Engineer squinted and pinched his mouth. “What are they talking about?”

“Just keep moving,” Justine answered as she pulled him back away from the fences.

The outer fence had just collapsed under the weight and force of the crowd of people, and now they were at the inner fence, still screaming their protests.

“Where are we going?”

This time, Justine gave him an answer. “To the railyard. I think we can get out on one of the trains. They can’t stop it. The box cars are the safest place to be right now, anyway. They’re armored.”

“Why..?” The Engineer gave up trying to get answers. He broke from Justine’s grip and began running toward the railyard on his own. The horde had now broken through the inner fence and were running after them, as well as the rest who were fortunate enough to escape The Engineer’s office. Glancing back to look at the crowd, he now noticed that the office was on fire. The people were growing frantic and began throwing anything they could find: rocks, bricks, tools from steel chests in the work yard.

They reached the railyard, and one of the box cars, when a crescent wrench hit Justine in the head. Blood gushed from the wound, but scalp injuries usually looked worse than they were. Usually. Justine went down like a rock. The Engineer considered stopping to help, but his fear outweighed his compassion. He jumped into a railcar just as another coworker was closing the sliding door. It plunged them into darkness. After a bit, The Engineer’s eyes adjusted to the low light filtering in through translucent plastic sheets set into the ceiling of the car. He was in the company of four other coworkers and they were surrounded by hundreds of what appeared to be orange, five gallon buckets with white lids – the kind that they sell at Home Depot, he thought – only with cryptic markings in place of the easily recognizable square label with stenciled words.

The car began to sway as the people outside were pushing against it. “What do they want from us?” cried The Engineer over the din from outside.

One of his coworkers – one that he somewhat recognized, Jeff, he thought – began talking as if The Engineer already knew part of the story. “They’re not babies. Not even fetuses, for God’s sake.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

It dawned on Jeff that The Engineer really had no clue as to what was going on. “The buttons, man. The buttons. Each person had one task. Each button performed one phase of the operation. Preparation, extraction, fertilization, and so on. That way no one person was responsible, either morally or legally.

“Wha..? What did my button do?”

“Yours filled the buckets.”

The Engineer looked around him. The buckets surrounded him. He made his way over and pulled one off a pile, setting it on the floor in front of him. He reached down and pulled off the tab which sealed the lid. Not wanting to draw out the suspense, he tore off the top and looked inside.

“Oh,” whispered The Engineer. “God forgive us.”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

The Kids Next Door

August 28, 2016 at 12:00 AM

“But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.”

After a job-related relocation to Indianapolis, my family and I were given an allowance to rent a home in the city in order to give us some time to look for our “forever home.” That rental – a hundred-year-old house that was considered historic, and couldn’t be gentrified – was charming in its own way, but it gave us a pretty good idea of what we did NOT want. It had some… er, quirks, but we got used to them. Ah, but that’s another story for another time.

To sum it up, though, that rented house was cold, damp, and dark throughout. It got to be pretty depressing at times.

Indianapolis is like a gemstone in the middle of Indiana; albeit one whose clarity, cut and color would never pass a jeweler’s quality control measures. What I mean is that it’s a bright, glaring, concrete and glass island in the middle of what some consider “flyover country.” Pretty much all farmland. Indy doesn’t have much to offer in the way of suburbs. Its central business district is surrounded by a pretty ugly industrial zone littered with slums and trailer parks which gives way almost immediately to open fields.

Having lived in big cities all of our lives, my wife and I were ready for a change. Plus, we wanted somewhere safe and with lots of space where our kids could grow up. We wanted them to have a swing set, a place to ride their bikes – not crowded sidewalks and busy streets right outside the door. We weren’t having much luck, though.

Then we struck gold. We found a plot of land about twenty miles outside of downtown – agricultural land that had been rezoned for residential – that was smack dab in the middle of wide open fields, with a nice stand of trees at the rear of the property as a bonus. The nearest neighbor was a horse farm about a half mile down the road. It was a place that we could build our dream home, so we put down the money, found an architect and contractor, and commenced construction.

The first snag during construction would become an omen of what was to come, but at the time we thought it was just an inconvenience. Being an engineer myself, I was keeping a close eye on construction. I paid daily visits to the site and planned to watch everything from the groundbreaking until the final tack installed in the carpeting. The contractor had broken ground and was beginning excavation for the basement and footings. They were making good time until one fateful day. I showed up at the site after work to find that the contractor’s men had left, the equipment was gone, and there was a large (and obviously ancient) metal tank sitting on the ground at the edge of the hole. Uh oh.

I immediately called the foreman and he told me that, while digging, they had broken through a brick cistern about fifteen feet under the grade. He almost lost a piece of equipment down the thirty-foot-deep hole underneath. They had found the metal tank near the well and pulled it out. It would have to be inspected by the EPA to test for environmental hazards, and that would set them back about a week. He was more concerned, however, about how he was going to work around the deep hole. Filling it in with soil would cause settling problems later, and he certainly couldn’t fill it in with concrete. It would have raised the construction cost by tens of thousands of dollars.

When I told my friends about the obstacle my contractor had stumbled upon, almost all of them joked. “What’s next? An ancient Indian burial ground.” I laughed. I had a sense of humor about it back then.

After the EPA cleared us, the contractor proceeded with construction. He had come up with a plan to cast a reinforced concrete beam across the top of the old cistern and cast the house’s footing across it. So I got the bonus of having the north wall of my home supported by a very deep footing. Not a bad deal but even after moving in and living there for years, the thought of that big, dark, empty space lying beneath my basement floor sort of gave me the willies. There were no other hitches throughout the rest of the home’s construction, save for the usual deviations from plans and wrong materials being delivered. No more big surprises, although they did pull up the occasional interesting brick or antique tool when doing earthwork around the yard.

When complete, our new forever home was the complete antithesis of the rental we were moving out of. The floor plan was open and airy, with plenty of light streaming in from windows in every wall. A particular favorite spot for the whole family was a large all-glass sunroom at the back of the home. It was a beloved place to curl up on the couch and read during the winter, or sit and watch the children play during the summer. During the fall, we had a beautiful view of the woods and the changing colors of the leaves. It was perfect. For a while, anyway.

It was a few weeks after building a huge swing set/playhouse for our two boys that I first noticed the four children playing in our back yard. Two boys and two girls. The oldest of the girls seemed to be in her early teens, and the youngest – her brother, I assumed – perhaps five or so. The age of my youngest son. The boys were outfitted in coveralls and the girls were dressed in simple shifts. Their clothes reminded me of the Amish, and since the nearest neighbor was the horse farm, I naturally assumed that the children belonged to the couple owning the place. Odd. We had met them briefly when moving into the new house, and they never mentioned having kids. Some people are funny that way, though.

I was happy to see the children. I had been thinking that my own kids were not going to have anyone to play with. No friends. And here were four children who obviously lived quite close. I opened the back door and stepped out onto the deck.

“Hey there, guys!” I no sooner got out the words, then the kids reacted. They looked up at me, seemingly startled, then took off running. “Wait! It’s okay. You’re welcome to…” I trailed off. I hoped that I didn’t scare them. I found myself wishing that they would come back. Perhaps I would take a walk down to their parents’ farm when I had the time and let them know that the children were allowed to play in our yard; that we didn’t mind.

After a couple of days, I realized that it had slipped my mind, but it didn’t matter because the children were back. Playing on the swing set again. I figured that I should approach them more carefully this time. I put together a tray with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and some cookies – an international sign of goodwill among kids – and started out the back door once again.

“Anyone up for some cookies?” I called out. It didn’t work, though. They caught a glimpse of me and took off through the trees again. Dang! I felt really bad for scaring them. I really needed to get over to that farm and talk to them. Once again, though, I got busy with other things and the task went on the back burner.

I came up with a plan. Sure enough, the kids came back. This time, though, instead of going outside myself, I sent my own two boys (then five and seven) out as ambassadors. My strategy worked! The children were a bit wary at first, but soon warmed up to my boys. After a while, I called the boys in and sent some drinks and snacks out with them. Once I had seen that all of the kids had taken something, I went outside. This time, the children didn’t run away.

The older girl spoke up. “Please forgive us, sir. We did not mean to play here without your permission.”

“Nonsense,” I replied, “You all can come over whenever you feel like it, whether my boys are out or not. We’re neighbors.”

I received a chorus of thank-you’s from the children. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Once again, I’m happy that you kids are around. I’m sure that my boys will enjoy your company.”

My boys did enjoy their company. Over the following weeks, they had all become the best of friends. My boys began asking if they could go to the children’s farm to play, and I hesitated at first because of their ages, but soon relented. The children seemed so nice and polite, after all. And the oldest girl was what my wife and I thought of as “babysitting age,” so I figured that they were safe with her.

One day, my boys arrived home with dirty clothes – dirtier than usual – and I asked them what they had been up to. “Nuthin’” was the usual reply, but this time my older son, by then eight years old, seemed really excited.

“We were checking out the cemetery, Dad!”

Boy. That came as a shock to me. It was my impression that there was nothing around us. “What cemetery?”

“The one in the woods,” said my boy, “The other kids showed us.”

Well, this I had to see for myself. I had been a kid once, too, though I barely remembered it. I did recall making up places. An old boathouse became a fort for my younger self; a fishing pond seemed like an ocean. The kids had probably found some interesting looking rocks and imagined that they were tombstones. Still, I asked if they could show me. My younger son was tired, and went directly upstairs to take a bath, but my older one – still full of energy – was eager to go.

“It’s getting dark, Dad. We’d better get there while we can still see.”

He led me off into the woods at the back of our property. Needless to say that I was shocked by what I saw.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I mumbled to myself.

There was a farm back there in the woods. A small one, yes, but a farm nonetheless. It was in decrepit condition and no longer inhabited. No house left, but there was a small barn, half falling down; a corral that looked like it once held sheep or goats; and a large, low structure – another barn – but perhaps for the small animals or chickens. There was an old truck back there. Not a “truck” like you’d normally picture, but a panel truck on wagon wheels. The type that would have been drawn by a horse.

And right there in the center of it… a cemetery. “I’ll be damned,” I repeated. There were five tombstones visible: two large ones and three smaller ones, the smallest measuring about one-foot square. In the center of these, and toppled over by a tree that had grown practically around it, was a large, prism-shaped monument with a roughly chiseled sphere on top that had some names chiseled in it. “Baden” was in the largest letters. Probably the family name. Still in a state of surprise, I quickly looked over the smaller stones. They were dated from the early 1900s, and doing some quick math I deduced that the inhabitants of the graves ranged in age from less than a year old to thirty-eight.

I don’t know how I had never see it before. I had hiked a short way into the woods before, but somehow missed this farm. Granted, the barn (the tallest structure) was weathered and its planks had turned gray to match the surrounding cedars, but still… it only sat about twenty-five yards from the edge of the woods. Once I knew it was there, it became obvious. I looked out at it from my bedroom window every morning. This definitely deserved looking into.

I dug into everything I could find on the internet and at the local library. It seemed that these “pioneer cemeteries” dotted central Indiana. A quick search turned up at least three more within a couple of miles from my house. The Baden cemetery – MY cemetery – however, was not listed among them.

The long and short of it was this. During the late 19th century, pioneers were crossing the Midwest on their way to America’s west coast. Many of them found sufficient places along the way and decided to settle in those spots. They would build their tiny homesteads and usually live out their lives there. Many of the older families still remain. The reason for the concentration of these homesteads (and cemeteries) around our area was the proximity to what would become Route 40, one of the first major travel ways across the United States.

Unfortunately for many of the budding families, the great Influenza epidemic of 1918 struck. Dense populations fell quickly because of communal wells and sanitary facilities. Even the outlying farms fell victim because of shared groundwater or a family member that picked up the bug on a visit to town. Most of these smaller homesteads fell into disrepair and their farms and deceased were absorbed back into the wilderness. As the old family cemeteries were discovered, they were usually cleaned up out of respect for the dead, and there were vast movements and societies dedicated to restoring the tombstones and their gravesites, as well as compiling records of those who were buried there.

On one of my almost-daily visits to the cemetery I verified that the residents had indeed all died in or about 1918 – victims of the flu, sure enough.

Once all of my sources of information were exhausted, I contacted the local historical society. I told the representative about the cemetery, and expressed my interest in helping to clean it up and get it recorded in the historical register. They were excited and sent someone out, literally within hours, to take a look. Her name was Jodi, I believe.

Jodi and I walked out into the woods. She asked all types of questions and told me a little about the history of the area, most of which I had already discovered on my own. She did point out a couple of interesting things, though. She had brought a long piece of rebar and began walking around poking it into the ground.

“Yep, just as I suspected,” she said. “There are more.”

“More?”

“Yes, more. More graves.” She explained that – because the grave markers were small and not supported on concrete pads, as they typically are now – they tended to sink into the ground. She estimated that there may have been up to twenty-five people buried out there.

The other tidbit she let me in on was a little disconcerting. “If you find any bones, let me know immediately.”

What? Bones? She went on to explain that, although most of the wooden coffins tended to rot away over time, foxes would sometimes pull up metal hinges, jewelry, bits of clothing, and even bones. After everything that I had been through in my life, I was not squeamish. Still, this revelation sat ill with me.

Throughout all of this, the thought of the neighbor’s children had taken a back burner. They were the ones who were really responsible for the discovery. Perhaps they knew more. I would definitely need to talk with them. I told Jodi about them and she expressed an interest in meeting them also. While she had me on the phone, she asked if she could email some documents that she had found regarding “my neighbors,” as she had taken to calling them – the family who were most likely occupying the graves out there behind me. I remember joking that they were the perfect neighbors: always quiet and never asking to borrow my lawn mower.

While the Baden family were the final owners of the farm, Jodi found out that they had married into the family of the original owners: The Bucksath (pronounced Buckshot) family. Turned out that the Bucksath boys were grave-robbers by trade. The not-so-nice kind, who opened recently filled graves to steal jewelry and valuables. They had gotten into trouble for it a number of times. Ironic, since we would most likely now be digging up some of their graves. Only we wouldn’t be stealing anything, just restoring and preserving them for history and out of respect.

The neighbor kids hadn’t been around in a while, so Jodi never got the chance to talk to them. After a bit of research on her part, she found an heir to the sliver of property (one who didn’t even realize that his family had owned land in the area) and they had made arrangements for him to begin clearing the area with the assistance of volunteers from the local pioneer cemetery restoration society. They did find quite a number of bones at the back of the farm, but determined that was the location where the farmers had slaughtered hogs and dumped their carcasses. The workers had not come across any human remains yet.

My interest in the project did not wane. In fact, it intensified. I began visiting other cemeteries and museums. The Indiana State Museum had a large exhibit dedicated to relics of the early twentieth century, with a section devoted to burial practices, which were a fact of life. A big part of life, given the harsh conditions that the early settlers had to face.

That’s when it started to become creepy for me. I was fascinated by some of the vestiges of the time that the museum curators had on display: fancy burial clothes, photos of the dead in their coffins (a common practice, apparently), ringlets woven of hair from the deceased as remembrances, and – most disconcerting – small caskets. Child-size coffins. That really hit home. Being a father of two young boys, I was disturbed by the thought of a parent having to bury their fledgling child. Then I saw IT. The thing that would haunt my dreams. A child-sized casket with a window set into it. A window that would display the child’s face and upper body. There were photos of such coffins with their occupants displayed next to it. All that went through my mind was “Why the hell would someone ever do that? That is so freaking disturbing!” People back in the old days were certainly a different breed. I left the museum immediately and literally could not even eat the rest of the day.

From that point on, I lost interest in the work going on in the woods behind my house. Honestly, I didn’t lose interest, so much as avoided it. I dreaded the thought of the workers unearthing one of the small caskets – caskets that were undoubtedly out there, given the ages showed on the grave markers. Worse still, what if one of them had that glass pane in it. I couldn’t handle seeing that. No way.

I did my best to forget about the whole mess. After avoiding a few of Jodi’s calls, she must have finally gotten the message and stopped bothering me. I warned my boys not to go near the cemetery, even if the neighbor kids urged them to play out there. Not wanting to scare them, I explained it away with the excuse that the barn was old and dangerous – ready to collapse at any moment – and that the volunteers working out there did not want to be disturbed.

Ironically, the big discovery came on Halloween day, 2012. Jodi thought that it was a big enough event that she skipped calling and just came knocking at my door. They had begun working near the graves, raising sunken markers, and had inadvertently pulled up an entire child’s casket. One of those sort with the glass window. The glass had been shattered, of course, but Jodi said that the remains were in remarkable condition. She asked if I wanted to come out and take a look. I told her that I was simply not interested anymore and slammed the door before she had another chance to speak. I warned the boys again that they were not to play in the woods, especially after the discovery. My worry was doubled because of the holiday. As I said, it was Halloween. What better way for kids to celebrate than by visiting a spooky graveyard and telling ghost stories?

The afternoon faded, dusk came, and darkness soon followed. Even moonlight could not filter through the overcast night sky. Around nine o’clock, I heard banging on the back door. Trick-or-treaters? Not in our neighborhood. It was too far out of the way, not enough houses, didn’t make “economic sense” for true candy-hunting aficionados. I went to the door and looked out. It was the neighbor kids – only three of them. They seemed to have left the youngest boy at home. Relieved, I opened the door and apologized.

“Sorry kids, I didn’t think that we’d be getting trick-or-treaters tonight. Guess I didn’t plan ahead,” I chuckled. “But I’ll catch you next time, ‘kay?”

One by one, their faces changed to outrage – pure hatred – and the politeness they had always exhibited disappeared entirely. “Blast you, you cussed old boat-licker,” said the older of the two brothers. “Fuck off, you Nancy boy prick,” said the younger girl. Explicitly appalling given her age.

The oldest girl finally said “Let’s leave this blue-nosed twat to the devil!” and the children ran off into the woods.

Damn it all. What the hell had gotten into them. Just because I didn’t have candy? I was so angry that I paced for half an hour. My boys, still awake, had come down to see what was going on.

“You’re NEVER playing with those damn kids again!” I threatened. But in reality, I thought “at least not until I get an apology and an explanation.”

I gave my boys a lecture on politeness, and sent them off to bed. I sat down in my favorite chair and flicked on the television. Due to the complete blackness outside, I didn’t see them approach the house, but I was startled when all three children slammed their hands against the great windows along the back of the house. Sticking their tongues out at me, they chanted in unison.

“Tell me you been gone all day, that you may make whoopee all night;
I’m gonna take my razor and cut your late hours;
You wouldn’t think I’d be servin’ you right.

I said, Undertaker been here and gone, I gave him your height and size;
You be makin’ whoopee with the Devil in Hell tomorrow night.”

Then they ran off. It wasn’t long before they returned, banging on the windows all together. Scared the crap out of me. Again, they were chanting, this time a more detailed and descriptive song:

“We’m gonna cut your head four different ways;
A, B, C, D, that’s long, short, deep and wide.

I’m gonna cut E, F, G right across your face;
H, I, J, K, that’s where runnin’ bound to take place;
Cut L, M, N cross both your arms;
You’ll sell an’ peddle gal your whole life long.”

And so on. You get the gist. At least these kids knew their alphabet. This continued most of the night – long after normal kids should be asleep in their beds. I would definitely be visiting their parents the next day. First thing in the morning.

We were already in bed when I heard the glass break. One of them had thrown a rock at a window downstairs and it had shattered the pane. I ran down the steps and threw open the back door.

“A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds

And when the weeds begin to grow
It’s like a garden full of snow

And when the snow begins to fall
It’s like a bird upon the wall

And when the bird away does fly
It’s like an eagle in the sky

And when the sky begins to roar
It’s like a lion at the door

And when the door begins to crack
It’s like a stick across your back

And when your back begins to smart
It’s like a penknife in your heart

And when your heart begins to bleed
YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD INDEED.”

Again, they ran off. I decided that I wasn’t going to play around anymore. I knew that they were only children, but I grabbed a baseball bat from a bin in my garage and took up a post on the steps of my deck in the back yard. “Let’s just see them come back again,” I thought.

The next time, it was only the teenage girl who came out of the woods. She approached me cautiously, her head lowered, not looking me in the eyes.

“We’re sorry, sir,” she said softly. “We’re just so angry. They took our brother.”

“What?” I wrinkled my brow. “Who took your brother? Why?”

“The bad people. They came to our farm and took our brother away.”

An anxious feeling began creeping into me. I felt a shiver up my spine. “Where are your parents?”

“Dead, sir,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Hold on!” Now I was in an outright panic. Was this a prank? What if it wasn’t? Not to be made a fool of, I wasn’t about to call the police just yet. I told the girl to wait at the house while I jumped into my car and sped down the road to the neighbors’ farm. The lights were on in the house, and I could see someone moving inside, so I approached the front door. After I felt sure that it was safe, I screwed up my courage and knocked. The owner of the farm answered.

“Oh, thank God you’re okay,” I breathed a sigh of relief. Then my anger returned ten-fold. “Do you know what your damn kids have been up to?”

He looked at me as if I was a lunatic. “What are you going on about? We don’t have any kids.”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

Between the Walls

May 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM

I had never been frightened by anything. Sure, I’ve always been fearful of things like terrorism, bankruptcy, drunk drivers… but nothing paranormal. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and the like. Not out of any misdirected bravery, but simply because of the fact that I didn’t believe they existed. How can one be afraid of something imaginary? Then I found out how wrong I had been. How very, very wrong.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to set the scene.

My family and I had recently moved to Indianapolis. We left our home of six years in Texas – the home where we had raised our two children – because of a new job opportunity. It was my job that had been the reason for moving from Ohio to Texas in the first place, but after six years we came to the conclusion that were Yankees through and through. We just weren’t suited to live in the desert of southwestern Texas.

Arriving in Indiana, we opted to rent a house temporarily. That would give us the time to complete the sale of our house in Texas and look around for a new home that our family would like – a forever home. My office was located in downtown Indianapolis, and there was a newly gentrified section of the city located within five miles. We found an old house – very old – that the owner had restored with the help of subsidies from the city council. That’s what he told us over the phone, anyway.

The first time that we arrived to meet the owner and look around, we were impressed. We had beat him to the house so my wife and I parked in the long gravel drive and exited our vehicle, our two young children in tow. We walked around the house in awe. It, like the neighboring homes, was practically a mansion. The entire avenue consisted of large, brick homes with slate roofs and scores of chimneys. Lots of limestone lintels and decorative filigrees, even a gargoyle here and there – none on the home we were looking at, unfortunately. As promised, the house was pristine. From the outside.

The landlord’s name was Lenny. He was a pretty cool guy. A bit cynical, but given the people he probably had to deal with on a daily basis, not too bad. He seemed to take to our children pretty well and didn’t mind that we had a large dog. He pointed out some of the outdoor renovations – repointing of the brick, new slate roof, and newly glazed windows. Then we went around back to enter through one of the rear doors.

When he swung open the door, it quickly became obvious that the exterior of the house was not indicative of the interior. Its beauty was indeed only skin deep. A musty odor wafted through the entryway and the interior hall was dimly lit. All of the sheer curtains had been drawn and only slivers of sunlight filtered through, motes of dust floating about. By the end of our tour, we had determined that the house was definitely in need of a lot of work, but it had a certain charm about it.

The rear entry hall was surfaced with a vintage hex pattern porcelain tile which extended into a small – very small – half bath immediately inside the entryway. At six foot four inches, I couldn’t stand fully upright in the washroom. The hallway extended forward toward the front doors, and at some point about halfway the flooring transitioned to hardwood. As the foyer opened up to the full three story height of the house, we noticed a huge stained glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was impressive.

Just to the left, a small – and when I say small, I mean normal-sized as the rest of the doorways in the house were almost nine feet in height – swinging door led into a tiny kitchen. The kitchen had absolutely no conveniences save for a sink. It was almost a surprise that there was running water. When we pointed out that our refrigerator would obviously not fit, Lenny offered to bring in a smaller one from another of his rentals. The kitchen had three more doors: one leading into a dining room, one leading out into the backyard, and one leading down into the cellar.

The cellar was a sight! The stairwell was steep. Just one flight leading down about twenty feet to the cellar floor. Bare bulbs lit each of the eight rooms it had been divided into. This basement was one of the creepiest places in the house complete with dripping pipes, chains hanging from the block walls for no apparent reason, and a huge gravity furnace in the farthest room from the stairs. It lurked there like a colossal monster with a multitude of steel arms reaching up into the house above. The floor back there was littered with papers and boxes, and the walls were lined with cabinets that we never did dare to open.

Aside from the kitchen and half bath, the first floor of the home contained a dining room and large living area, both separated from the main hall by pairs of huge arched doorways, and both with large limestone hearths set into the far walls. I supposed that the gravity furnace was either a newer addition or that – like most that I have had experience with – did not do an adequate job of heating a large house. The bedrooms occupied the second and third floors. A niche in the wall housed an old-fashioned servant bell system. Bells on springs attached to chains leading to each of the upstairs rooms. Lenny claimed that they still worked, and we were sure that the kids would test them out.

The upstairs bedrooms were unremarkable, save for the supersized doorways and fireplaces in all of them. The two bathrooms on each floor were also tiled in the hex pattern porcelain we had seen in the entryway and had genuine, honest-to-God claw footed bathtubs.

Lenny made sure to point out another unique feature of the house. At the back of each bedroom closet lay a narrow, almost undetectable doorway. He opened one of them to show us a system of slim passages that ran behind the lathe and plaster walls and connected most of the bedrooms to each other. Why were they there? Probably for no other reason than one would expect to find something like them in a house like that.

So, as I mentioned earlier, the house was perfectly creepy in every way.

“We’ll take it!”

I figured that if I would ever experience anything spine-chilling or uncanny in any way in my lifetime, it would happen in that house. I wasn’t disappointed.

It was late fall and the apple tree in the back yard had started shedding its fruit. There were half rotting apples all over the lawn, so I was raking them up and scooping them into bags for the trash. I stopped to rest for a moment and my eyes fell to rest on the garage. Like the house, it was brick with a slate roof. It had two large carriage-house type doors. Since the drive was large enough and there was a turnaround at the rear of the house, we generally left our vehicles outside. The only time that we had even been inside the garage was when we had moved in. We had instructed the movers to store some things out there – things that we would not be needing for a while until we found our forever home. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to give the garage a closer inspection.

About forty feet to a side, it – like everything else about the property – was a rather large structure. There were no doors other than the carriage doors, so I eased open one leaf just wide enough to step inside. I felt around and my fingers eventually brushed up against a chain hanging from the ceiling rafters. I yanked and a single bare bulb cast a small pool of light around me. I made my way through the garage pulling more chains and managed to illuminate most of the garage floor. All of our belongings – garden tools, lawnmower, my large shop tools, and boxes of things that we hadn’t planned to use for a while – lay against a wall along one edge of the floor. The only other thing in the garage was a four foot high pile of slate shingles in a back corner. I walked over and took one of the tiles in my hands. Heavy. The garage roof alone probably held tons of weight. I couldn’t imagine roofing the entire house in slate.

I heard a ticking, scratching sound from overhead. The ceiling of the garage was mostly open, with bare rafters through which you could see the underside of the roof sheathing. About one quarter of the rafters had been covered over with wooden planks forming a sort of floor. Probably for extra storage space. I imagined that a house and garage as old as this had been must have mice, at the very least. From the intensity of the sound, though, I could tell that it was something much bigger than a mouse – even bigger than a rat. I groaned at the prospect of having to evict a raccoon or some larger animal from the attic. I considered leaving it alone. We were just temporary visitors anyway. It was probably a more permanent resident than us. My conscience ruled against that thought. With two children who were bound to end up playing out in the garage someday, I couldn’t chance them encountering a wild, possibly rabid, animal.

I peered up into the darkness, allowing my eyes to adjust, looking for some sign of movement. There! I saw it. Quick. Fleeting. It startled me so that I dropped the slate tile I had been holding and it shattered at my feet. I had only caught a short glimpse in my peripheral vision, but it didn’t look like any animal I had ever seen before. An icy chill ran down my spine but I chalked it up to the darkness, an unfamiliar place, and a general feeling of anxiety. We had recently completed our move and moving had always stressed me out. I used a shovel to scoop up the tile shards and took them around the back of the garage, throwing them into a pile of stones and bricks that a previous tenant had heaped back there. Then I went back into the garage, turned out the lights, and closed up the door.

Later that evening, after dinner, after the kids were asleep, my wife and I sat in the living room huddled close to a fire that I had built in the hearth. We had learned that the old house got extremely cold at night, despite running the furnace at full-tilt.

“Hey, Hun. I think we might have an animal problem out in the garage.”

My wife looked up in surprise. “Rats?”

“No, no. Probably a raccoon or something. I really only got a glimpse of it, but it seemed pretty big.”

“What are we going to do? The boys… What if it’s rabid?” She looked alarmed.

“I’ll call an exterminator tomorrow. I’m not going to mess with it. Who knows what might be out there? I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

My wife smiled, and I felt more at ease. I had decided to put the problem in someone else’s capable hands. Whatever it was out there, it would soon be gone. We began to talk about how relieved we were that the move was over. The conversation turned to our next step – finding a forever home – and then led to talk of making the creepy house more livable until such time as we could move out. Painting, maybe? Replacing the carpet runner on the staircase, definitely. Just then, one of the bells in the niche jingled.

“Huh?” I got up and walked over to the front hall. The bell jingled again, and I could see that it was the one labeled “Master bedroom.” I yelled up the staircase. “Boys! Get back to bed, and stay out of Mommy and Daddy’s room!” No answer, but the bell was silent. I assumed that they got the message. When we climbed the staircase a half hour later, we looked in and saw that both boys were tucked in and sawing logs. I imagine that they were excited, but I didn’t want them exploring the house until I could check it out thoroughly. If there was a raccoon (or something) in the garage, there just may have been mice, rats, or worse in the house.

I started a fire in the smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, and we fell asleep as it waned. I was in a sort of twilight when I heard the bell jingle again. “What the..?” I crossed our bedroom and tiptoed down the stairs to the second floor. Looking in their rooms, I discovered that both boys were still tucked in. Jingling again. Now I ran down to the first floor hall just in time to see the “Master Bedroom” bell shake again. Bewildered, I headed back upstairs.

“You rang?” I asked my wife as I walked back into our room.

“What?”

“Why did you pull the bell chain? Are you trying to freak me out? Or did you just miss me?”

She looked puzzled. “Um, I didn’t pull the chain.”

I could tell that she was telling the truth. I had gotten good at reading her over the ten years of our marriage. With irritation and perhaps a bit of denial, I resolved that we did, in fact, have a rodent problem in the house. That was the only explanation, right? I pictured a mouse (or worse) scampering across the bell chain as it ran behind the walls through one of the house’s heating ducts or pipe chases. Lenny would certainly be getting an angry call in the morning. We eventually managed to fall asleep, even though we could hear one or another of the bells ring a few more times during the night.

Lenny grumbled a bit about “No damn mice… ” but he did agree to have someone come out and check. He knew a guy. Lenny knew a guy for just about everything: plumbing, yardwork, and now pest control. The exterminator set and baited a cage trap for the raccoon out in the garage. After checking out the basement and closets, he said that although he didn’t find any signs of mice or rats – scat, nests, etc. – he would set some glue traps under our furniture and near the baseboards. He said that they would be safer than snap traps, which we probably didn’t want around the kids. Both my wife and I thought of the suffering that a mouse would endure if it were caught in the glue to eventually starve to death or die of thirst, so we asked for an alternative.

The “terminator,” as my boys called him, agreed to set some bait stations instead. He said that Lenny wouldn’t be happy about the extra cost but I could see that he was pleased to be upping his sale. He said that the bait stations just held poison – out of reach of children and pets – which the pests would eat and then leave. They would bleed out somewhere within a couple of days. He promised that we would never have to see or smell the dead mice (or whatever they were). Still sounded pretty nasty, but at least we could just leave them and forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

We gave it about a week or so, but nothing ever showed up in the cage trap outside, and the bells still jingled all night. Sometimes in our room, other times in the boys’, yet other times in the unoccupied rooms. I called the terminator again, and he said that Lenny had instructed him to “Just put out the damn glue traps,” which he did. He also rearmed the trap in the garage with what he called “special bait,” and warned us to stay away from it.

Another few days passed with no changes. I checked hourly at first, then daily, but nothing appeared in the traps. I was determined to get rid of the varmints myself. So I got on the internet and began looking up homemade solutions. I found a really simple one that involved rubber-banding some paper over a five gallon bucket and cutting a cross in the top. I set the bait, a peanut butter and cheese cracker, carefully near the center of the cross and pushed it to the back of our master bedroom closet. The concept was that when the rodent went for the bait, he would fall through the paper and get stuck in the bucket. Sounded slow – catching them one at a time like that – but at least it would be making some progress.

Nothing happened the first night. The bells still jingled. Midway through the following evening though, I was startled awake by the sound of something falling into the bucket. Something big! Oh God, it must have been a rat! I jumped out of bed, still in my boxers and bare feet, and whipped open the closet door.

“Now I’ve got you, you little fu…”

I’ll never forget what I saw. Thinking back, I still get a chill running down my spine. Tiny hands gripped the lip of the bucket and it pulled itself up over the rim. It was not a mouse. It was not a rat. It was not a raccoon. When it had fully extracted itself from the pail, I could see that it stood about a foot high when erect. It was humanoid in form. Humanoid, but definitely not human. Pale skin hanging over a bony frame. Although it was naked, I could see no genetalia to speak of, yet I got the feeling that it was a “he.” Huge eyes that were black through and through – no irises. Its ears and nose were simply holes in its head. It had no hair, and when it turned toward me it flashed a big toothy smile. Crazy – they looked like human teeth, not enlarged canines or front teeth as one would expect a rodent or small animal to have. For some reason that made it seem even more disturbing. It waved the peanut butter cracker in one tiny hand and ran off. Ran off into the passageway between the walls, the panel snapping shut after it went through.

In a cold sweat, I ran to the bedroom door and switched on the lights.

“Holy mother of God! Shit! Fuck me!”

My wife sat up, scared by my reaction. If only she had seen it… I immediately ran to the kids’ rooms and switched their lights on. In fact, within the next five minutes the entire house was alight. Except the cellar, though. That place gave me the creeps on a good day.

The four of us had gathered in the living room. Still shirtless and shaking from the cold or the shock, I said, “That’s it. We’re not spending the night in this house. Get dressed. We’ll find a hotel.”

“Nonsense,” said my wife. “We’re not going anywhere. What the hell happened?”

I pulled her aside, out of earshot of the boys, and told her what I had seen. “Come on,” she pleaded, “think about this rationally. Nothing like that exists. It had to be a rat or something. It was dark. You were half asleep. I mean seriously, honey…”

Once again, I wanted it to be true. Even a rat seemed like a better alternative than what I had seen. What I thought I had seen. I calmed down a bit. My wife got the boys back to sleep while a made a cup of tea and settled into one of the tubs for a hot bath. After a bit, I was calmed down enough to go back to bed. As I fell into sleep, a bell jingled.

Every night after got progressively worse. The bells continued ringing throughout the days and night. I kept hearing bumps in the dark. Panels slamming shut. At times, I heard the closet door creak open – the proverbial “monster-in-the-closet.” I could even swear that a few times I saw it watching me from the darkness beyond the cracked door. The final straw was when I awoke one night, roused by a sound near my bed, and came face to face with it as it stared at me over the edge of the mattress. Once again, I jumped out of bed and flipped the lights on.

“That’s it you little bastard!” I couldn’t see it, but I heard it scampering toward the closet. I gave chase and saw it just as it slipped through the panel at the back of the closet and into the hidden passage. Determined to put an end to the insanity, I grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand drawer. By that time, my wife was looking at me as if I was crazy – and I considered that she may have been right. I threw on a T-shirt and ducked through the panel at the back of the closet. It was the first time I had been back in those passages. Maybe, as a younger man, my curiosity would have made me check them out the first day we had moved in; but over time, the thirst for adventures like that had been quenched by a “too-much-effort” attitude.

The passages had hardwood floors, unfinished planks widely set – not carefully like in the livable areas of the house. I saw only the backs of the walls. Lathes with plaster that had oozed between the seams before hardening. To my surprise, there were no cobwebs, as if someone had been using the passageways; but the floor had a layer of dust and little crumbs of plaster coating it. There were footprints in the dust. Not just one set running away. Not even a set coming toward the bedroom and then away. There were hundreds of footprints running this way and that. Either my little friend had buddies or he had been a busy guy.

I was so fascinated that I had about forgotten why I entered the passage when I heard another bump down the hall. My flashlight only cast its beam a short distance, but I shone it ahead and slowly walked down the hall. I had to hunch over at times, as it seemed to have been built for a man smaller than myself. I supposed that people were shorter back when the house had been built. Of course, I don’t imagine that the passages were built for comfort. I could see that they were built out of some necessity. I was a bit surprised to find that a set of narrow stairs led down to the second floor, another down to the first, and another that must have gone all of the way to the cellar.

I was constantly propelled ahead by a series of bumping noises. Whatever he was, he clearly was not afraid of me. The noises weren’t moving away from me very quickly. It was almost as if he were waiting for me to follow. As much as I wanted to avoid the cellar, I was a man on a mission. I plunged ahead until the passage at last came to an end. It wasn’t closed off at the end, but apparently opened into one of the cellar’s rooms. I noticed an iron flap-type door set high into the wall and realized that I must have ended up in one of the coal bins, built before the gravity furnace had been converted to burn heating oil instead of coal. Lenny had assured us that the door had been permanently sealed, but now I doubted it.

A dim light filled the room – moonlight filtering through the smudged and dirty glass of a high set window – but not enough to see by. I spun slowly around, shining my flashlight ahead as I turned. I was surrounded by dozens of the little creatures. They did not appear to be afraid of me, nor did they appear to be aggressive. I felt safe, even somewhat calm. Relieved to know what it was that I had been pursuing for the past weeks. Calm, that is, until one of them – the bold one that had been in my closet, I believe – “spoke.” In a gravelly, high-pitched voice it raised the peanut butter cracker and questioned, “More?”

That was all it took to send me bolting out of the room and up the cellar stairs. I slammed the door shut behind me and threw the bolt. Pouring myself a glass of water from the kitchen tap, I walked to the living room and sat down on the couch. I was breathing heavy, almost hyperventilating. Even though I knew in the back of my mind that nothing had really changed, and they apparently had the run of the house, I calmed down after a while. I never did fall back asleep that night. Not entirely. I must had nodded off occasionally, but I woke every time I heard something stir. After a fitful night, I returned to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee once the dawn sunlight began sifting through the house’s windows.

I called the exterminator at precisely 8:05am. I wanted to be the first to get a hold of him, but I didn’t want to leave a message. I needed to talk to him immediately. I was in luck, and he promised to make our house the first stop of the day. While I waited for him to arrive, I drank some coffee. As the caffeine started to kick in, I began to understand the ridiculousness of what I thought that I had experienced during the night. I convinced myself that I had merely dozed off on the couch and had a horrible dream. Yes, that’s what it had been: a dream. Nevertheless, I would have the exterminator check out the basement, as well as the rest of the traps.

I met him out back as he was getting out of his truck. I tried to speak lightheartedly as I related my nightmare. It all sounded so silly when I told the story out loud. He smiled a little, but didn’t seem as amused as I thought he would be. Perhaps the normally jovial man was having a rough start to the day.

He headed for the garage first. He opened the door just a crack and, turning on his flashlight, poked his head inside. Then he turned back to face me – a serious look on his face.

“You had better wait here. Looks like the little buggers are back.”

“What is it?” I asked with excitement. “Raccoons? Rats? Oh, please tell me it’s not rats.”

“No, not that bad.” He shook his head. “You may want to stock up on peanut butter and cheese crackers, though.”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

12 Steps

November 3, 2015 at 12:00 AM

Danny knew he had made a mistake in coming, but he took a seat nonetheless.

All of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on his side of town seemed warm and welcoming. All of the people were friendly and knew him by name. There were hugs, handshakes, slaps on the back. The rooms were well lit with comfortable chairs. There were always freshly baked cookies or donuts.

A recent falling out with his sponsor, Ralph, had caused Danny to choose to avoid some of his normal meetings, though. He had already been down to two meetings a week, which Ralph had so poignantly called him to the carpet on, so he didn’t want to cut those out completely. He had been feeling antsy lately and probably needed to go to a few more. Never the type to ask for help, he was unwilling to admit it, though. Instead, he decided to try a few meetings on the other side of the tracks. Whitehall. The seedy part of town.

Fucking Ralph. “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” he said. Danny had made a list of all those he had harmed, and went about making amends to them all. Some accepted his apologies, some didn’t. All he could do was clean his own side of the street. There were fa few amends that were impossible to make, but he had admitted all of his sins to either his sponsor, his therapist, or his priest. All but The One Thing, that is. That’s what Ralph kept harping on. Danny had stayed sober for fifteen years. He deserved to keep The One Thing to himself, didn’t he? Fucking Ralph.

Danny chose a group with the innocuous name of “New Hope” that met in the basement of Saint Pete’s Episcopal Church. While groups sometimes did actually meet in church basements, they were rarely as depicted on television or in the movies. That’s just not the way things worked. Hollywood had gotten the coffee and donuts part down to a tee, but missed the mark on most of the rest. Sadly, there weren’t even any donuts at the “New Hope” group. Danny wished that he had known. He would have sprung for some. AA had given him his life back, and brought a good bit of financial security with it, so he didn’t mind giving back now and again.

He made his way over to the coffee urn, making eye contact with a few people on the way. He didn’t even bother to smile. The most he got were some grunts and shrugs as he walked by. He had already decided that he wouldn’t ever be coming back to this group, so why bother. He wasn’t about to walk out, though. Giving up was for losers. He grabbed a Styrofoam cup from the top of the stack, which already had some black smudged fingerprints on the outside, and filled it with a sludge that they called coffee here at Saint Pete’s.

Danny threw a buck into a basket on the table and plopped into a chair that seemed to be farthest away from everyone else. This was nothing like the usual meetings he hit. The church’s basement room was about forty by forty feet square. There were eight rectangular folding tables set up in a makeshift circle with wooden chairs set along the outside. Unfortunately, there would be no speaker. This was a discussion meeting. They would most likely read something out of some bit of AA approved literature – the Big Book, Twelve and Twelve, or some meditation book – and then go around the room weighing in on their own personal experience, strength, and hope. Danny didn’t feel like talking, but the one bit of his sponsor’s advice that he had latched onto early was to always say something. Always be “part of.”

Even though the ceiling held banks of fluorescent lights, the room still seemed cold. Perhaps it was the type of bulb they used. (Were there different types?) Or perhaps it was the way the light reflected off the sickly yellow linoleum floor and institution-green walls. It smelled funny, too. Oh well, thought Danny, it’s only for an hour. He had spent twice that amount of time scraping together change for another bottle while fighting off the shakes in the past. In comparison, this would surely be more pleasurable than that.

That’s what it came down to, wasn’t it? For him, to drink is to die. There were times that he had done the most disgraceful things in order to get drunk. Things that would have sickened him if he had been sober and not fiending for the next drink. So if sitting through a boring meeting in a crappy place meant not drinking, even for only an hour, then so be it. Not a difficult choice.

He was not a snob, but the thought that the people here seemed to be a little lower class than what he was used to. He was by no means rich, but now that he had gotten his life together, he was back in the upper-middle class demographic. The meetings that he attended were regularly frequented by businessmen, doctors, realtors, and other professionals. Frankly, even the blue-collar people at his normal meetings seemed to be upper class compared to these people. These people were… and he had to remind himself that he was being honest and not uncaring… the dregs of society. Unshaven, unkempt, tattooed, greasy, foul smelling.

AA had taught him not to judge. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Still, it was hard.

Just before the meeting was called to order, a man plopped down into the chair next to him. Oh, come on, buddy, thought Danny. Ten empty chairs, plenty to keep enough distance between all of us, and you have to sit right next to me. He sighed. At least this guy seemed friendly.

Short, stout (PC for obese), with a red, round face, he introduced himself. “Hi there! Name’s Mike! How ‘bout you?”

“Danny,” he said as he extended his hand.

At least Mike was dressed well. Button down shirt, slacks, dress shoes. He was even wearing cologne. Or was it the smell of booze? No, Danny decided, it was cologne. The guy’s breath smelled bad though. Not “smelled” as in “drinking” smelled, but just reeked. His teeth seemed white enough, but it was as if he hadn’t brushed in ages.

Mike tried to make small talk. “I haven’t seen you before. So how long have you been coming to these meetings?”

“About sixteen years,” replied Danny. “I came in for a year, and then decided that I wasn’t ready to stop. I went back out for a while, and have been sober ever since. Fifteen years, one month, one week, and two days.”

“Wow!” Mike seemed truly amazed, “How many minutes?”

Danny just smiled.

“Me?” Mike continued, “Me? I’ve only been coming for about a month now. I’ll have thirty days on Wednesday.”

“Well, congratulations. For some people, those first thirty are the hardest. Real white knuckle time.”

Mike was definitely pink clouding it. That’s the term for AAs in early sobriety who think that life has suddenly become wonderful and carefree. After a good period of sobriety, it kicks in that drunk or not, life still has challenges. There’s just no more alcohol to make the bad feelings go away.

“I’ll be getting my chip.”

Mike was of course referring to the colored aluminum medallion that – although not universally used – has become almost synonymous with AA. Sobriety coins themselves do not help people stay sober as such. It’s the meaning behind them that is important. When a person receives a coin for one month, three months, or a longer period of time, the coins give a sense of pride for staying sober as long as they have, and to motivate them to continue. If a person should feel the desire to drink again, they might finger the coin in their pocket to remind them of all the headway they have made up to that point. It makes them ask themselves if they truly want to throw away all that progress. Danny never liked the chips. He would occasionally step back and remember exactly how much sober time he had – remember that last drunk vividly – but he didn’t want a constant reminder. He felt it would make it easier to ask the question “Has it been long enough? Am I cured now?”

The conversation was surprisingly pleasant enough, but Danny was happy when the meeting began all the same. Same old, same old. Business first, then reading, then around the table sharing. When eight o’clock rolled around, the chairperson indicated that it was time to close, and they joined hands for the Lord’s Prayer. AA is not a religious organization, but saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end is sort of a tradition in most – but not all – groups. It’s a sign of unity, if nothing else. Danny really didn’t plan to stick around for fellowship afterwards, but he always stayed long enough to help clean up. However, before he got to the door, Mike cornered him.

“Hey Danny, am I going to see you around here again?”

“Eh,” Danny creased his brow, “Probably not. I live on the other side of town. I just stopped in here tonight because… well, it was just convenient.” Danny guessed that had not technically been a lie. AAs had to be careful. “Practice these principals in all of our affairs.” Lies paved a slippery slope.

“Oh,” Mike seemed dejected, “It’s just that they say to get phone numbers – you know, to call for when you feel like drinking – and I was wondering if I could get yours.”

Danny’s shoulders relaxed a little. “Of course, Mike. That’s never a problem. Never feel like you can’t use it.” Mike wouldn’t use it. Most of the newbies never did. Danny pulled out a pen and jotted it down in the back of Mike’s meeting pamphlet anyway. “There you go.”

“Thanks, Danny” Mike shook the pamphlet. “I will definitely use this. You’re a lifesaver. You guys are great.”

Mike bounced away. Danny made his way out into the parking lot and slid behind the wheel of his 2012 KIA. He said a little prayer for Mike. “Hope he makes it.” Who knew? Maybe being at that meeting was God’s way of putting him in the right place at the right time.

Danny rolled through the Burger King drive-thru on the way home to pick up an artery clogging dinner. He just wanted to flick on the television, eat, shower, and get into bed. It had been an exhausting day. He had barely pulled into his garage when his cell phone began to jingle. Danny finished parking, unbuckled his seatbelt, and answered the phone right there in the front seat. It was an old habit – probably not a healthy one – but he just had to pick up the phone when it rang. He could not bear the thought of someone leaving a message. He had heard stories of AAs who were never able to get through to someone, and things didn’t turn out well. Once their faith in the system was broken, especially the newcomers, they didn’t trust it anymore.

“Hullo.”

“Danno! It’s Mike!”

“Uh,” Danny shifted the phone to his right ear, “What’s up, Mike?”

“Oh, no no no. Don’t worry, Dan. I’m not thinking of drinking. Just wanted to test out the number. Practice call, you know? They say to get used to calling when you don’t need to, and that way it’ll be easier to call when you do need to. Right?”

“Um, yeah Mike. That is a good idea.”

“So what’s up?”

“Um, well, not a whole lot since I saw you. I just drove home. That’s about it,” Danny said with a smirk on his face. “I’m about to have some dinner and then it’s off to bed.”

“Oh, okay,” Mike replied. “You go have your dinner and have a great night! Maybe I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”

“Sure, Mike. Tomorrow.”

Danny showered, toweled off, and padded into his bedroom. He slid into a pair of silk boxers and fell into bed. He didn’t imagine that he’d have any problem sleeping – he was physically exhausted – but as usual, his mind raced a mile a minute. He was never able to fall asleep without the radio turned on, even when about ready to pass out. His head would hit the pillow and the stinkin’ thinkin’ would kick in. That’s how Danny discovered the wonders of talk radio.

Dialed in to a pundit recapping the day’s news in a soothing voice, Danny pulled the chain on his bedside lamp and plunged the room into darkness. The pillow was cool. His stomach was full. His mind had calmed. Sleep began to…

Danny phone jingled. He propped himself up on one elbow, used the remote to turn the radio off, and grabbed the phone from the nightstand. Its screen had lit up with the number of the incoming call, but he didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t a name that had been programmed into his phone. Danny briefly considered putting the phone back down and letting it go to voicemail, but he knew that he would not be able to sleep until he heard the message and, more than likely, called whomever it was back.

“Mmm,” Danny sighed, “Hello?”

“Danny.” Mike sounded grave this time. “Sorry to call so late. I mean, I know you said that you were going to hit the hay, and I didn’t want to bother you, but…”

“S’okay, Mike. Go ahead.”

“Remember how I said that I’d be getting my chip in a couple of days? Yeah. I can’t believe it’ll have been a month already. You know, the day I took my last drink was a special day.”

“Every day is special when it’s your last day drunk, Mike.”

“Yeah, yeah. But, I mean special. It was the anniversary of… Well…” Mike began to get flustered. “See, my wife and I, my ex-wife that is, and I lost our daughter that day.”

Danny swung his legs out from under the covers and sat up. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be, Danny. It happened a long time ago. Long time ago. It would have been her twenty-first birthday,” Mike trailed off. “So long ago. The denial, the depression, the sadness, the anger. I started drinking afterward and just never thought to stop. Until now, that is.”

“That’s a long time to be stewing in it, Mike. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nah, Danny. No sense dredging up the past. Not when I’m doing so well.”

“You’re only as sick as your secrets, Mike.” God, Danny hated it when his sponsor was right.

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe when I’m feeling a little more stable, Danny. Maybe I’ll talk about it then. I’m just not doing so well right now.”

Danny spoke with Mike for about half an hour and, when he was convinced that Mike was over the urge to drink, let him off the phone and promised to meet him the following day. He lay down his phone and swung back under the covers, a smile on his face. What was it they say? Even if Mike went out and drank that night, at least Danny stayed sober. Help yourself by helping others. Danny forgot to turn the radio back on, and that night, he dreamt about The One Thing.

Danny awoke to the sound of his phone. It wasn’t the alarm tone, but the ringtone. Another phone call. He had come to recognize Mike’s number by now. This was getting a little annoying, but sometimes that’s the way it went. Mike would either fall off the wagon soon, or he would start to make new contacts. In the meantime, Danny would just have to deal with it.

“Good morning, Mike.”

“Dan, my man! Good to hear your voice.”

“Yeah,” said Danny, scratching at the back of his head, “It’s been like… six or seven hours now, huh?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“No, no.” Yes, yes, though Danny. “So how did last night go? Didn’t drink, did you?”

“Nope, and I owe it all to you Dan.”

“Well, Mike, you picked up the phone and made the call. So you can give yourself a little pat on the back. That phone can seem real heavy when it stands between you and a drink.”

“Ain’t that the truth? So, are you hitting a meeting this morning, Danny?”

“Um, no, Mike. I have a job,” Danny tried not to sound ticked off. “I have to work today. I promise that we’ll get to one tonight. You pick it out, and call me back around six. Okay?”

“Got it, Danno. Six! Talk to you then.”

Danny’s worst fear came true. Three more calls during the day. Mike had picked a group called “As Bill Sees It,” on Danny’s side of town. Danny decided that he would need to have a talk with Mike that evening. Calling when in need, or even for occasional friendly support, was fine, but there was such a thing as abusing the system. You know, the boy who cried wolf sort of thing. Danny was about ready to throw his always-answer-the-phone policy out the door.

Danny didn’t look forward to the conversation, and had a rough time forcing his dinner down that evening. He wasn’t hungry but, as usual, he tried to keep his stomach full. “HALT” Hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Four things an alcoholic never wanted to be. Any of those could be a setup for another drink. As he was finishing his second hot dog, wrapped in white bread with ketchup – just as he liked them – his phone rang again. He checked the screen. Fucking Mike. Again. He decided that he wouldn’t answer it, and let it go to voicemail.

Seconds later, it rang again. Didn’t that guy get the message? Danny let it go to voicemail again. Another few minutes passed, and it rang again. Danny wondered if Mike had changed his mind. Maybe he couldn’t make it to the meeting after all. Still, he let it go to voicemail. Thankfully, more minutes passed and Mike did not call back. Danny felt like a heel, but he just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

At around a quarter of seven, Danny tied his shoes and gathered his wallet and car keys. As he headed toward the door, his phone jingled. Mike. This time, he answered.

“Hey, Mike. I’m headed out the door right now.”

“Oh thank God, Dan!” exclaimed Mike. “I couldn’t get a hold of you, and then I started to worry… I wondered if maybe you went out drinking again, I… I…”

“Mike! Slow down, buddy.” Danny was beginning to let his temper get the best of him. “Would you…? Oh, look. Just wait for me at the meeting. Outside! We need to talk.”

Mike was breathing more regularly now. “Oh, Danny. You really had me going there. Well, anyway, you can ride with me.”

“What?”

Danny strode out of the back door and pressed the button to lift the garage door. As the door rolled up, it gradually revealed a battered, green Honda sitting in the drive. Mike sat behind the wheel with the engine idling. Danny was taken aback. He walked briskly up to the driver’s side door and motioned for Mike to lower the window. After a moment, and with a confused look on his face, Mike hit the button and the window glided down.

“What’s wrong, Dan? Hop in. I thought that maybe we could ride to the meeting together. Then, maybe grab a cup of coffee after, huh?”

Danny was fed up. “No! No, Mike! No meeting, no coffee after. I don’t have time for this. I don’t know what to do with you. You cannot keep calling me. How the hell did you even find out where I live?”

“Oh, uh,” Mike looked shamefacedly, “I guess maybe I, uh, followed you home last night.”

“What the hell?!”

“Sorry, Dan. I’m new at this. I really don’t know how it works.”

How it works. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Danny thought it over and softened.

“Okay, Mike. Here’s how it works,” he said calmly. “I’ll come to the meeting, but I drive there myself. We talk a little. After the meeting, I come home. Alone. No coffee. No more calling, unless you really need to – like ‘I am going to drink’ need to. Are we clear?”

Mike looked a little hurt, but replied, “Okay. Clear, Danno.”

Danny got into his KIA and followed Mike to the meeting. They sat next to each other, but Mike was uncharacteristically quiet. Afterward, they separated in the parking lot with nary a word.

“See you tomorrow, Danny?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh, hey,” said Mike, “There’s a candlelight meeting called ‘Nite Owls’ tonight at the… Oh, right. Sorry.”

“Tomorrow, Mike.” Danny stressed.

Danny thought that Mike may have gotten the message, but just in case, he turned his phone off for the evening for what was probably the first time in years. That night, Danny had a nightmare about The One Thing.

Danny pulled himself from bed and showered in the morning, and had almost forgotten his phone. Still wrapped in a towel and with damp hair, he walked over to the nightstand and turned it on. He returned to the bathroom as it went through its boot up process, and then he heard a message tone from the next room. Hmm. Wonder who that could be.

Six missed calls from Mike. One two voicemails, four texts. “Thanks for coming, Dan,” “Sure you don’t want to go to the meeting?,” Great meeting – shoulda been there!” and “Need 2 talk.” Danny didn’t want any confrontation today. He turned his phone back off, dressed and left home. He knew – just knew – that Mike would show up at his door after not receiving answers for long enough. He planned to not be there. Even though it was a Saturday, he would hang out at his office. There was a couch there. He could take a nap if need be. (And he did need it after the previous night.)

He felt silly and demoralized. It was his own house, damn it. He was being chased away from his own home by… well, a stalker. Should he talk to the police? No, he decided. He would talk to his sponsor first. Not daring to turn his cell back on for fear that it might ring in his hand; he picked up his desk phone and dialed in Ralph’s number. Ralph was no help. At least, he didn’t tell Danny what he wanted to hear.

“Just suck it up, Danny. I’ve had my share of pigeons who either tried too hard or didn’t try hard enough. My guess is that this Mike guy will turn out to be one or the other. Why don’t you bring him along to tonight’s meeting? I’ll meet you guys at the ‘Acceptance Group’ tonight. Maybe I can have a talk with him.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

Danny turned his cell back on in order to call Mike and invite him to the “Acceptance Group” that evening. Six missed calls, and it was barely noon. He sighed and began to scroll to Mike’s number when the phone jingled. Danny didn’t even need to look at the number to know who it was.

“Hi Mike.”

“Danny! I tried to…”

“Yeah, I know Mike. I’ve been at work. I just turned my phone on and saw that you had called.” An icy thought ran down Danny’s spine. Did Mike know where he worked, too? “Anyway, Mike, my sponsor suggested that I introduce you to him tonight. We’re going to Saint Andrew’s to a meeting called the ‘Acceptance Group.’ Want to come?”

“Are you kidding? Do you even need to ask? I would never pass on the chance to meet my sponsor’s sponsor. He’s like, what, my grand-sponsor?”

Whoa. Danny thought about it, and never had the talk of him being Mike’s sponsor come up. A sponsor is a recovering alcoholic who has successfully made some personal progress in the AA recovery program. He or she is asked by another AA member to take on the individual responsibility of sponsorship. A sponsor shares their experiences on an individual and personal basis with another alcoholic who is trying to achieve or maintain their own sobriety through the AA program. They help the person focus and navigate through the stages of the program. The relationship between an AA member and his sponsor is usually a pretty close and intimate one, and not gone into lightly. Not only does an alcoholic need to carefully choose a sponsor, but also the potential sponsor must cautiously decide whether taking on a sponsee is prudent.

Danny gave him the benefit of the doubt, though. Mike was new at this. “Hey now, Mike, I’m just another alcoholic willing to help you out. I’m not really in the right state of mind to sponsor anyone.” Not until he rid his conscience of The One Thing, anyway.

“Oh, okay.”

“Don’t feel bad, Mike. You’re new. You catch on to how this works.” Then Danny had a thought, one that might rid him of Mike for good. “Ralph has really helped me out. Maybe he’d be a good choice for you to consider.”

“Eh, he won’t be the same as you, Dan.”

“You’d be surprised. We’re all the same in one way or another. Promise me that you’ll keep an open mind.”

“Okay. Anything for you, Danno.”

Danny hung up and texted directions to the meeting. Then he turned his phone back off. He decided on trying to catch a little nap, after all, and so curled up on the couch in the reception area of his office. He drifted off almost immediately, but it didn’t last long. He awoke screaming and in a cold sweat just forty-five minutes later. He felt his face and realized that he’d been crying, also. He dreamed of The One Thing. Why had thoughts of it returned, and in such force? Fucking Ralph. He brought it up and started pressing Danny. That would make sense. Although, Danny had a feeling that Mike had something to do with it. Guilt over avoiding him? Constantly having to look over his shoulder and avoid phone calls? Or perhaps the fact that Mike had lost his daughter. Danny pushed The One Thing to the back of his mind once again, and decided to cross the street to McDonald’s to get in at least one meal before that evening’s meeting.

Danny had to cross a four-lane street in order to reach McDonald’s. It was the middle of the afternoon, clear weather, and – being a Saturday – there was only light traffic. He absentmindedly glanced both directions and crossed, not bothering to walk to the corner and wait for a signal. He was about halfway across when, seemingly out of nowhere, a car came racing at him. The driver was noticeably straddling the double striped centerline of the road, and overcorrected when he noticed Danny at the last moment. Danny could hear the tires screech as the driver got back into his own lane and sped off.

A drunk knew the signs when he saw another drunk driving under the influence. This guy was definitely drunk. Probably drinking in his car all morning and then falling asleep at the wheel after finally deciding to go home. Danny had done it himself. Even though he could have stayed home and drank contentedly (and safely) in the comfort of his living room, he would choose to sit at the park on some mornings and drink in his car. He thought of how strange the ritual was, and how it was not unique to him. On any given morning, there would be a spattering of cars in each lot – all parked as far away from each other as the lot would allow. Each car with a single occupant, seemingly just sitting there. Every now and then, he could glance over and catch the sight of a bottle being raised to the driver’s lips.

Fred, another guy from one of the meetings, would occasionally go down to a local park and “work it.” He’d walk around the lots and catch drunks, pretending that he had just been walking by and was looking to make conversation. Sometimes, his presence was enough to make the drunk drive away. Sometimes, they’d stay and talk. Sometimes, they would even offer him a drink. Only twice, as far as Danny was aware of, did Fred actually get a drunk to open up about his problem and agree to take Fred’s advice. It might not have seemed like a lot, but that may have been two lives saved. Plus countless others, if you figured in the innocent lives that a drunk might take along with himself on the highway to Hell.

Danny began to hyperventilate. He ran the rest of the way across the street and sat on the curb, his gorge rising. He tried to calm himself, but could not. Eventually, he vomited into the gutter. It wasn’t the first time, but in the past, he’d always been drunk or hung over. He realized how pitiful he must have looked. He had never seemed to care in the past.

Eating was out of the question. Danny went back to the parking lot of his office, crossing the street with extra care this time, and got into his car. He drove straight to the church. He would be almost an hour and a half early, but that was okay. Someone was always there early to open up the rooms and make coffee. It was nice to show up and shoot the shit sometimes.

Not surprisingly, Mike was already there when Danny arrived. He was sitting out in the parking lot, but remained in his car. It looked like he was dozing. Danny walked over and rapped on the driver’s side window a few times. Mike startled, and he rolled the window down.

“Danny! You’re early. That’s great.”

“Yep. Couldn’t wait to get here, Mike,” he said half-heartedly. “Tell you what. Let’s go around back and grab a bench.”

Danny led Mike behind the church. There was a small outdoor chapel of sorts – just a few benches faces a cross, and overlooking a small stream. Danny motioned for Mike to take a seat, and then sat down next to him.

“Mike, let’s talk.” Danny seemed surprisingly calm. “I know that you’re pretty new to the program, and this may be skipping ahead quite a bit, but… let me explain how the fourth and fifth steps of AA go. They are, to me at least, probably the most important steps of all twelve. They are where you begin healing.”

“Sounds great, Dan.”

“Not really. I did a really shitty job on my fifth step. Remember how I told you that you’re only as sick as your secrets?”

Mike nodded, “Yeah, Danny.”

“The fourth and fifth steps ask you to make a searching and fearless moral inventory, and then admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

“I can see where that would help. I have so much guilt and remorse, Danny. Sometimes, I think it’s what makes me drink.”

Danny shook his head. “No, Mike, you drink because you’re an alcoholic. But it’s a whole lot easier to get sober when you get your head on straight. When you get rid of all of the shit that’s deep down inside. The stuff that regrets are made of.”

“So are we going to do that now?”

“Not we. Me.”

“I thought that you already did your steps.”

Danny nodded. “I did, Mike. I did. But the fourth and fifth steps are carried on throughout the rest. We have to continue to take a moral inventory, and do those steps over and over, because we are human. Just because we get sober doesn’t make us saints. We still make mistakes.”

Mike nodded slowly and remained quiet. It was as if he knew that Danny was about to say something important and it was time to keep his mouth shut.

“You see, Mike, there was something that I never admitted in my fifth step. Something that I couldn’t admit. The One Thing that I wasn’t ready to give up. I don’t know why, but it’s catching up to me now. I’m afraid that if I don’t let it go, I’m either going to drink or kill myself. Or both.”

“What is it, Danno?”

“This is probably a mistake. Telling a newcomer. Especially about The One Thing. In fact, this would be better left with a priest, but at this point it doesn’t matter because I’m going to have to own up to it. The One Thing is something that everyone will find out about eventually. Probably sooner, now.”

“You can tell me, Danny,” your secret is safe with me.

Suddenly, it was as if Mike had become the old-timer. His demeanor changed. He surely didn’t seem like a newbie anymore. The whole way he was acting… He had gone from being an annoying, overexcited, asshole to a quiet, comforting soul – at least in Danny’s heart. Danny took a deep breath.

“I’ve been sober for fifteen years, one month, one week, and four days. I told you that I came into the rooms about sixteen years ago, though. Well, something happened about six months into that. I’d been dry, sure, but still an alcoholic. Still exhibiting all of the same behavior. That’s what the program is for, by the way. Not to make us stop drinking, but to make us saner, healthier people. Well, Mike, I…” Danny’s breath hitched in his throat. He was already regretting bringing this up, but he felt like it was too late now.

“Go on, Danno. I’m listening.”

“It was late summer. Around seven o’clock, dusk. I was driving up Parkside Avenue, you know the place?”

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I used to live in a cul-de-sac off Parkside.”

“Then you know the hill, about midways. Anyway, I was coming up over the crest of the hill, tooling along… pink clouding it, stone cold sober, mind you. A girl. A little girl, damn it. She came out from between two parked cars and just… just ran right out in front of me.”

“Oh, God Danny. No.”

“Yes. I couldn’t stop. I fucking ran her down, Mike. A little girl!”

“That’s horrible, but it was an accident Danny. You said so yourself. You were sober. She ran out from between the cars. You couldn’t have known.”

“No, but it was what I did next that was unforgiveable.”

“What, Dan?” Mike rocked back, laced his fingers together, and knitted his brow. He had a clearheaded look about him. One that Danny had never seen on Mike’s face before. “What was unforgiveable?”

Danny took a deep breath. “I didn’t stop. I just kept on driving. I panicked. It was like I had been drinking. I didn’t want to get caught. Afterward, I realized that it was an accident, but at the time… At the time, I just panicked. I acted just like a drunk would have. I left her there, Mike. Maybe she was still alive, but I left her there. What if she was just hurt and could have been saved if I had just stopped?!”

“She wasn’t hurt. She was dead the instant you hit her, Dan.”

“You couldn’t know that. I didn’t know that, and I was there.”

“I know, Danny. That’s what the EMT said. ‘Dead on impact.’”

Danny jerked his head up. It was as if his stomach had dropped out from under him. Like the first hill on a roller coaster. “What did you say?”

“When I got there, that’s what the EMT told me. Dead on impact. She didn’t suffer. She probably had no idea what had happened.”

“What the hell are you talking about Mike?”

“She was my daughter, Danny.”

Danny was speechless. He sat still for a moment, and then started shaking his head violently. “No! Fuck you, Mike. Her father is dead. I followed the story in the papers. He killed himself two months after the accident. Got drunk and drove into a bridge abutment. Why the hell would you even say something like that?”

Mike had tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. “Because now I know, Danny. Now I know that you are repentant.”

“Fuck you, Mike. How can you pull this shit on me? How can you even say something like that? Do you think that this is a joke? Well, fuck you.”

Danny stormed away, sobbing, and walked toward the church. Ralph had arrived and was walking in himself. He noticed how upset Danny was and stopped him, grabbing his shoulders and turning his=m around somewhat forcefully.

“Danny! What’s wrong? What’s going on?”

“That asshole. I told him, Ralph. I told him The One Thing, and do you know what he said?”

“Slow down, Danny,” said Ralph. “If you’re ready, why don’t you tell me what The One Thing is first.”

His secret no longer a secret, he told Ralph exactly what he had told Mike. “And he said that he’s her father! And he forgives me! That dick!”

“Who, Danny? Who?”

“Mike. That idiot who’s been harassing me.”

“Where is he, Danny? Is he here? I’ll talk to him.”

Danny turned and pointed at the bench. “He’s right… He was sitting with me right there.”

Ralph cocked his head. “Danny, are you okay?”

“No, I’m upset, and with good reason. I just told him The One Thing, and he goes and says that?”

Ralph’s brow wrinkled with concern. “Danny, I’ve been here for ten minutes waiting for you to go inside. I saw you sitting there on the bench talking to yourself, and thought that you needed some alone time. You were alone the whole time, Danny.”

Danny scanned the parking lot. No battered, green Honda. He started to breath heavily, and pulled out his phone. He scrolled through his call log – all of the calls he had made and received. All of the texts. Nothing. The only call in the last three days was the one he had made to Ralph that same morning. There was one text message waiting in his inbox. It had no number associated with it.

“I forgive you Danny.”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

The Montford Experiment

October 8, 2015 at 12:00 PM

My name is Jim Hutchison. Most people call me Hutch, even in my professional life. My family-owned business is as a concrete contractor, and we perform work for a variety of private and federal clients. One such client is the Texas State Department of Corrections. It was work at one of their detention centers that got me interested in volunteering at a facility.

About five years back, we were installing a parking lot at the Montford Adult Correctional Institute in Lubbock. It is also known by its more appropriate name, the Montford Psychiatric Unit, as all of the inmates have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder or other. As my men were doing the preparation, concrete placement, and finishing over a number of weeks, I used to watch people walking in and out of the front doors of the facility. It was depressing.

Always the same scene. There would be inmates in orange and white striped jumpsuits – trustees – outside the doors sweeping the front steps and picking up trash: cigarette butts, gum wrappers, etc. But mostly sweeping, always sweeping. All day long. Must have been the cleanest set of stairs in all of Texas. I supposed that it was a treat for them, though. After exhibiting good behavior for a while, they were actually allowed outside the unit. I have seen the conditions inside, and boy, I would not want to be locked up in there for too long.

Still, the looks on their faces. Blank stares, slack jaws, sweating in the one hundred degree sun. As I said, very depressing.

I had a lot of experience with mental disorders, being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, and being a recovering alcoholic. I had found help and comfort through proper medical care and support groups, and I wished that there were some way I could pass that on to these poor men. Then, one day, I discovered how I could.

The guards at the front desk came to know me and some of my supervisory crew. They didn’t mind if we occasionally came inside the lobby to get out of the summer sun and use the rest rooms or buy soda from one of the machines in the waiting room. I was sitting in a chair one day, holding a cold bottle of Big Red to my forehead, when I overheard two women talking nearby. They were well dressed and obviously not there as visitors. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but the few words I heard caught my attention. Apparently, they were volunteers at the prison, “bringing the Word of the Lord” to the inmates confined inside. I told them how much I admired their work, and how I had a desire to help in a similar way. And so, they suggested that I apply for a position as a pastoral counselor in the unit.

Long story short, I did just that. I had to go through some training – what I could and could not bring into the facility, what I could and could not say to the inmates (never share personal information or build friendships), and how to act when inside general population walking and talking amongst the convicts. It was all pretty much common sense.

For the first eight weeks or so, I had to be escorted in and out of the unit proper. I would arrive, place my boots, keys, wallet, and such on a conveyor belt, turn over my briefcase for inspection, and walk through a metal detector. Then one of the guards at the entrance to general population would call up to the counselors’ office and someone would come down to get me. During the eight weeks, I was fingerprinted, interviewed, and a federal background check was run on me. Eventually, I was given a badge of my own and no longer needed an escort.

I learned many things in my first few months of volunteering. Bibles were like currency to the inmates (reading material to overcome boredom). Pencils were not allowed in the cellblocks, so the men loved meeting with me to write journals. They spent most of their time doodling ideas for tattoos. The really sick ones – the “mentals,” as the guards cruelly referred to them – were not allowed into general pop and looked forward to my visits. Most of all, I learned how easy it was to get in and out of the prison. Not that I would ever have done it but I marveled at the fact that, given the right inclination, a body could make a mint smuggling in cigarettes or booze stuffed into their socks.

I followed the same ritual every evening that I visited. I would park in the lot, walk past the trustees who swept the front steps (wow, did they ever stink), and enter the facility. The guards got to know me and grew comfortable with my visits. They began by waving me through the detector without having to remove my boots or open my briefcase, and eventually started letting me avoid the security check altogether.

Next, I was allowed to bypass the desk and go directly behind to a filing cabinet, where I could retrieve my badge – I wasn’t permitted to take it outside the prison. Then I’d get buzzed through an unremarkable metal door and walk down a long, unadorned hallway. At the end of the hall was where the genuine security measures began.

The hallway terminated at another door, this one made of double layers of thick, cloudy bulletproof glass supported within a frame of four-inch by four-inch square steel tubes. I would approach and stand under a camera mounted above the door, lifting both my face and the badge toward the camera in order for the guards inside to verify my identity. Once done, the door would slide open, allowing me to step inside an “airlock,” of sorts. Then the door would slide shut behind me.

The compartment was a triangular room with three doors, all similar, and a window set into the side. The guards in control of the doors sat behind the window, and would control the doors, opening only one at a time. I came to call them “doors number one, two, and three,” sort of like the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” I always entered through door number one, and then was allowed to pass through door number two into the prison’s general population. From the start, I would always gaze at door number three and wonder what was behind it, as it was the only door with darkened glass. Since no more than one door was ever open at a time, I never got a peek inside. During my orientation, I was told that the prison’s infirmary was back there.

When door number two opened, the stench was overpowering. No matter how many times you would enter the block, you never did get used to it. Mostly, it was the reek of urine, but was accompanied by an underlying sweet citrus smell, as the result of the cleaning fluid that they ineffectively used to mop down the halls. Inmates ambled up and down the halls, always giving you the once-over with their eyes. Occasionally, they would lock eyes with you and try to stare you down. During orientation, we were told never to look away – to stare them down as you would a stray dog. Looking away would be a sign of weakness.

It may seem cruel, but you had to keep them beat down. You had to constantly remind them that you were in charge, that they were nothing. Anything less could lead to unrest and rebellion, and you couldn’t have that.

The “mentals” were up on the ninth floor. The elevators, like the doorways, were controlled by the guards and monitored by cameras. I would press the single wall button, and eventually the doors would open. I’d step inside, look at the camera, and speak my destination into the camera microphone. Sometimes, there would be an inmate or two in the elevator. I never stood with my back to them. I would always stand facing them, my back to the door, staring them down, and for the most part, they would lower their eyes to the floor and try not to look at me. I was instructed never to enter an elevator if it was occupied by an inmate that intimidated me, but I never backed down. At first, I acted brave because I was unsettled but didn’t want to show it. After a while, I felt sympathy for the men more so than fear of them.

The ninth floor was divided up into five “pods,” each containing five double-occupancy cells. My habit was to rotate which pod I would visit on a daily basis, taking the weekends off. Even though I was educated not to make friends with the prisoners, I have to admit that I looked forward to the visits as much as they did. Sometimes heavily medicated, and by far the calmest group of men in the facility, they were (save for a few odd ducks) among the nicest people I’d ever met.

So it was day after day, week after week, month after month that I would follow the same routine. There were occasional variances, on some days due to fights or unrest among the inmates in general population, but one thing never changed. Every day as I entered the block, I would look over at door number three and wonder what lay behind it. I asked a few times, and was always told “the infirmary,” and after a while stopped asking for fear that someone might become suspicious about why I cared so much. Truth was, I’m just a curious person. Once, I even asked another volunteer if there was a chance that I could get a tour of the infirmary – perhaps visit the men back there – but was told (with great firmness) that my request would be impossible to fulfill, and that I should let the issue drop. I could almost hear the implied “or else.” That just piqued my curiosity even more.

My interest grew and grew until I one day decided that I was going to visit the “infirmary” one way or another. Although my decision was made on a Tuesday, I didn’t act immediately. I became more attentive to which guards were working on each day and at each time. Certain ones were more lax, or friendlier. It took two weeks of studying them, and building my confidence, until I decided that it was time to act.

Exactly two weeks and one day from the Tuesday that I made my decision, I finally got up the courage to say, “I’m visiting the infirmary today.” In my mind, I thought, let’s see what’s behind door number three, Monty!

The guard never even batted an eye. “Alright Hutch. Have fun,” he said, twinkling his fingers as his eyes dropped back to the video screens in front of him.

That easily, the door slid open. Boy, if the stench in general pop was bad, the odor wafting through door number three must have been quite literally a hundred times worse. In the hot Texas sun, and with all of the turkey vultures, road kill never lasted very long in Lubbock. Every once and a while, though, you’d come across a “fresh” one. That’s the closest thing I could think of to describe the smell behind door number three. It was as if you picked up a day-old dead armadillo, buried your nose in its crushed belly, and took a deep breath. Well, what I imagine it would smell like. I had never actually done that. Definitely the smell of rotting meat and gangrene, though.

The doors slid shut and another long hall was revealed. Dimly lit, with flickering fluorescents, it was like something straight out of a horror movie. I soon found out that was an extremely appropriate description. Another door at the end of the hall hung loosely from its frame, allowing light to leak out around it. I could hear alternating moaning, crying, and the worst – screaming coming from behind the door. I could have… should have turned around and headed back for the exit, but I had gotten too far. The only way to go was forward. Forward and through that door.

Although I knew it would seem suspicious, I opened the door slowly and stuck my head around the corner. The best way to seem as if you belong somewhere is to stride right in with confidence, but I couldn’t. I was afraid of what might be behind the door. Heck, I thought, it most likely was just a prison hospital. Moaning, crying, screaming – all normal noises for men in pain.

It was most definitely not a normal hospital ward.

There were at least a dozen men strapped to steel tables. Some naked, some in orange prison jumpsuits, and some wearing the striped suits like the trustees that I passed every day outside on the stairs. All of them had IV’s inserted into their arms, the drip bags containing a fluid that looked like antifreeze. Vitals signs monitors (VSMs) were attached to most of them, and I could see by the displays that two of the men were clearly dead.

There were two men and a woman, all wearing lab coats, standing amongst the tables. One of the male doctors (?) looked up in surprise, and then beckoned over “Come in, come in.” They must have noticed the look of confusion, quickly turning to panic, in my eyes. The female doctor began explaining in a soothing voice.

“Don’t worry. You’re not the first outsider to stumble his way into our infirmary, and I’m certain that you won’t be the last. As you’ve probably already guessed, what we have here is more of a lab than a hospital. We’ve just become so used to calling it the infirmary that it’s simpler that way.” She drew a breath and was about to continue when another of the doctors shouted, “It’s happening!”

Everyone, myself included, turned toward one of the tables that held a dead man. Well, previously held a dead man, to be exact. His VSM had jumped to life, and seemingly so had he. He began twitching, and then thrashing, then he began to scream. I had seen a man being burned alive once, when a barrel of hot tar accidently spilled on him, and the screaming was the same. It was gut wrenching and made my skin crawl. You could hear the pain and sorrow in it.

The female doctor scrambled to inject a syringe of some milky liquid into the man’s IV port and after what seemed like an eternity (although it was probably mere seconds) he calmed, and his breathing steadied itself.

Here’s the thing: They had not been performing CPR on the man when I walked in. There was no defibrillator to be seen. The man was unmistakably dead when I arrived and during the few minutes we had been talking. Yet, here he was alive once again, as if he had spontaneously resurrected. Disturbingly, though, his eyes were still clouded over as if he had cataracts. An uneasy and sick feeling crept its way into my belly. The doctors had not told me anything yet, but on some level, I already knew what was happening – or at least part of it.

I was incredulous. “Wha- what’s going on?”

So, while two of the doctors tended to the resurrected man, the third explained the experiment to me.

“You see, we were tasked to find out whether or not so called ‘evil’ men have souls or not,” he began. “Of course, I personally do not think that there is any such thing as true evil, but I do wonder if these malcontents have the same sort of spiritual makeup as normal people. After all, why do they do what they do?

“In 1907, a Haverhill, Massachusetts, doctor by the name of Duncan MacDougall managed, apparently overcoming any ethical reservations over human experimentation, to put six dying people on a bed equipped with sensitive springs, and claimed to have observed a sudden loss of weight – about three quarters of an ounce – at the exact moment of their death. Having reasoned that such loss could not be explained by bowel movements or evaporation, he concluded he must have measured the weight of the soul. A follow-up experiment also showed that dogs didn’t seem to suffer the same sort of loss, therefore they didn’t have souls.

“I’m not implying that these inmates are on the equivalent of dogs, but one must wonder exactly how they compare to normal, healthy human beings. We obviously do not have much control data, but we have recycled these men as much as possible for our research.”

It was there that I stopped him. “Recycled?”

“Oh yes,” he brightened. “We don’t just throw them away. You see, as a pleasing consequence of our intended experiment, we found that we were able to revive our test subjects.”

“Revive them?”

“Yes. Revive, resurrect, bring them back… whatever you wish to call it. This way, we are able to take measurements and observe through a variety of different conditions. It’s quite ingenious.”

I really did not know what to say at that point. To question who authorized the experiment, what the ramifications were, how it worked. So I asked the first question that popped into my head.

“So, do they have souls?”

He removed a pencil from his breast pocket and tapped the side of his head, as if thinking it over. “You know, I’m quite certain that they do. As I said, we lack enough data to use as a control. However, it seems that each time we bring them back, they lose a little until – it seems – it’s all gone. After a certain point, we can no longer observe any differences.”

“And how long does that take?”

“Usually four or five cycles.”

I cocked my head, still in disbelief over the casual way he was talking about the atrocities they were committing. “And what happens then?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t follow you.”

“After you’re done with them. What happens to them then?”

“Whoo,” he blew air through pursed lips. “Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s currently the little ‘snag’ we’ve run into. You see, eventually they just stop dying.”

He must have seen the look on my face.

“I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t tried. We usually put them down in a most humane way. Sedation, paralysis, and eventually with an injection of enough potassium to stop their hearts. Then we revive them and do it again. And again. And again. Each time, it gets a little more difficult to put them down, until… well, until we just can’t do it anymore.”

“What?” I was just about screaming.

“In simpler terms, they are basically incapable of dying. Quite a problem. And they really start to stink,” he said, as if that were the chief problem.

“Can’t you burn them, cremate the bodies?”

It was his turn to look at me in disgust. “Oh, now that would be cruel.”

I held my head in my hands and began to hyperventilate. “So where are they?”

“Well,” he said, “Outside. Sweeping the steps.”

With that, I began to feel lightheaded. What caused me to faint, though, was his next question.

“Mister, um…” he looked at my badge, then into my eyes, “Hutchison, would you consider yourself to be a good person? Do you believe that you have a soul?”

Credit: Kenneth Kohl

Creepypasta

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