The Squire and the Black Scroll

December 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Kneeling before the Knight, Edwin accepted the scroll with great honor. It was such an odd thing he held; one of the likes he had never experienced before. The parchment was cold to the touch and made from leather of the deepest black. It was absent of moisture. Still, it felt slick and slimy in his hand as if it had been pulled from the river, rotting and decayed. He shivered at the thought of the animal whose hide hailed its origin. The parchment was rolled tight with a clay seal upon its surface. The emblem embedded in the clay consisted of sharp lines and gashes. The boy knew little of matters of magic and wizarding, but he had enough sense to see that dark curses and wicked hexes did this crest bind.

“Arise boy! Make haste and do not delay your departure. Word will soon reach the Enemy of the Scroll’s discovery. The time of reckoning fast approaches! The sacrifices made to deliver that evil thing into our grasp cannot be wasted with indecision!” said Sir Leonidi, Knight of the Fourth Realm.

With great effort, the young boy tried to remove any hint of apprehension and fear from his voice. “Yes my Lord,” he answered.

“Heed my words and do not deviate from my instructions. Head South and ride hard across the plains and through the Scorched Hills until you reach the Sunken Mountains. Avoid the main paths and stay hidden until you reach the gates of the White Keep.”

The Knight put a large hand on the boy’s shoulder and said with a lowered voice, “The item you carry is dangerous and will betray you if given the opportunity. Never must darkness fall upon it. An hour before nightfall, build yourself a fire and with green salt must you encircle the Scroll to ward off any dark spirits and shadows that call to it. If you must draw your sword, you strike to kill! Trust no one! Do you understand me?”

The boy swallowed and gave small nods of affirmation to the Knight.

Satisfied with his response, the Knight continued, “I ride East in the morning with every sword and shield that would answer the call to follow my banner.”

Sir Leonidi paused and looked affectionately down at the boy, “My dear Edwin, I fear this may be the last time we speak, but if fortune favors us, we will attract the attention of the Enemy’s eyes and draw their numbers toward us. You will pass through the lands undetected.”

The boy took leave of the Knight. He swiftly made his way to the supply hut within the encampment to gather all he would need for the journey. He was lost in thought as he saddled his young steed. He thought of the war that tore through the land from an enemy that came from the stars. He wondered about the object openly displayed in the daylight upon his saddle bags. He pondered what would come to pass if the rays of the sun no longer fell upon the Scroll. So focused on the dark Scroll was he, he took no notice of the hooded figure that approached from behind.

“Such a mighty quest for such a tiny boy. Are the times so dire that it comes to this? Well, one cannot deny that the Fates do not have a sense of humor in matters such as these. Wouldn’t you agree, little one?” he bellowed a jolly laugh.

The boy turned and clenched his jaw at the insult but held his tongue when he saw the robes of a nobleman. He bowed his head and said with as much respect as he could muster, “I do what is commanded of me, Sire.”

The man laughed again, “Do not take offense, young one. I merely saw an opportunity to jest with you. Although, it might be wise to avoid such things until a more appropriate time, wouldn’t you say?”

The man’s eyes suddenly narrowed as if truly seeing the Squire for the first time. To the discomfort of the boy, the man approached. He circled Edwin several times, inspecting him up and down. Once satisfied, he knelt before the young man, meeting his gaze as equals and said, “Yes! Yes, I have chosen well. I have chosen well, indeed.” At this, he removed his hood and revealed his identity.

The Squire immediately bowed, recognizing the face of the Wizard and gasped, “The Old One!”

The old man smirked, but still held humor in his eyes, “Hmph, If I were able to conjure the name of the bastard who thought up that title, I would curse his children and his children’s children. The whole lot of them would sprout tails of a pig from out of their bottoms!”

Jokti, Wizard, and advisor to the king returned his attention to the Squire and gently lifted the boy back to his feet and spoke, “Nay! Brave, brave child, arise. You bow to no one after this day comes to pass.”

For a moment, the old man’s attention seemed to drift to other matters. He lifted his head as if listening to voices only he could hear. After a time, his eyes cleared, and they fell upon the boy. He hurriedly began helping to load the Squire’s equipment and supplies on the horse. He said, “Time is precious. So little of it remains and you have so far to go. However, do not despair, my lad. You do not go into the wilderness without defense and unprepared.”

The Wizard reached into his robe, removed several objects and presented them to the boy. He held a torch, a dagger, and a leather pouch.

He said, “I give to you the eternal Torch of El Anan-dor’ah. Darkness will flee from the light of the flames it shines. Bathe that wretched thing you carry in its glow, and you will be safe.”

Next, the Wizard held up a sheathed dagger of silver and blue steel. He spoke, “This is the blade A’Noelaa Teh Ra. It fell from the hand of our Goddess the day she succumbed to the Enemy and was stolen from us. May it give you sight in your darkest hour. Respect this blade and it will serve and protect you well.” He placed it in the boy’s hand.

He lifted up the final item and gently laid it in Edwin’s hand, “Long ago, a mortal and an angel formed a friendship during the War of Daemoni. So deep was their bond that it surpassed death and immortality. At the end of the mortal’s life, the angel wept silver light and offered up his wings to exchange places with his dear friend. Moved by this act, the Goddess called back his friend from the afterlife and made each into a star. She put them in the night sky where they would stand next to each other for all eternity; never to be separated. As they ascended, each shed joyful tears of silver that fell to the ground.”

“My dear boy, I now give to you this pouch. It holds the very last of our most treasured possession, silver salt from the tears of those two old friends. It is but a pinch, but it is all that remains, and no more will there ever be after this is gone. Use it wisely and as a last resort.”

The Wizard led the horse to the encampment’s edge and helped the Squire mount his steed. He spoke, “Accompany the Scroll and personally place it in the hands of my sister, Aliadria. Tell her you carry the Scroll of Ne’Kra Toratum. She will know what to do.”

Trying to feign as much courage as possible, he asked the old man, “My Lord, why does this Scroll carry such importance? Why do you entrust its charge to me? I am a mere squire who has barely seen the edge of battle.”

The Wizard gazed sadly at the child and said, “My boy, I am afraid your questions must be put aside for another day. The less that is known to you the better. If it were up to me, a garrison of our mightiest men would accompany you, but this quest is for you and you alone. I have foreseen it. As I said, the Fates do have a strange sense of humor.”

With that, he slapped the rear of the horse and sent the two racing off towards the smoky, black Southern horizon. The Wizard turned and softly said to himself, “Yes, I have chosen very well.”

As the Squire was an obedient servant as there ever was, Edwin followed his master’s instruction to the letter. He rode hard and swift through the Scorched Hills and faithful to the Knight’s word, not a sign or hint of the opposition’s forces did Edwin encounter. Each day, the boy was ever so mindful of the position of the sun. He always gave himself sufficient time needed to prepare the Scroll before nightfall came. He carefully sprinkled the emerald salt around the Scroll and set ablaze the sacred torch. There he would sit until morning, with his dagger clutched tightly in his hands.

It was not until he reached the passageway to the Sunken Mountains did misfortune eventually find him. A company of troops occupied the mouth of the slender pathway. Never before had he laid eyes upon soldiers of the Enemy. Even from a distance, they filled his heart with terror and dread. Long and slender, they stood motionless along the rocky path. Stalks of pointed nobs protruded from their brown and black rotting flesh and grew like that of moss upon the trees of the swamp. No hint of eyes did they possess except for pinprick glints of silver like that of a coin. Their mouths slowly opened and closed, reminding him of a fish plucked from the waters with gills gasping for breath.

Consulting his map, the boy confirmed what he already knew. Only one other path could he take. Determined to complete his quest, he continued South and followed the river. When night approached, Edwin repeated his ritual of protective spells and brought his beloved horse into the safety of the torch’s comforting glow.

Edwin shuddered at the thought of his new destination- The Devil’s Maw. It is said, in the Age of G’oah Teh, a great Hellmouth had formed in those lands. The Goddess sprung forth a forest and commanded the trees to bind this new evil. The good trees performed their duty but eventually came to feel betrayed and abandoned. They turned away from their mandate and betrothed themselves to the Hellmouth. The caverns consumed the trees and merged to become a forest of wood and petrified stone. Now, all men are warned to steer clear of its boundaries for dark spirits look down upon them with unimaginable hate and ill intent.

In two days time, the boy stood before a treeline of bark and gnarled trunks at the mouth of a gaping cave opening. Massive twisted branches of black and green stretched as far as the eyes could see. Stalagtites and stalagmites jetted up and down the stone floors and roof, giving it the appearance of jagged fangs. No sound could be heard. No bird sang, or animal stirred within the dark wood and cold stone. The silence and absence of movement were oppressive upon the young boy’s spirit.

He took what supplies he could carry, unsaddled his beloved horse and removed its reigns. He took a handful of hay from deep within his satchel and held it up to the horse’s snout. It caught the scent of the feed and ate gratefully from the boy’s hand. Edwin spoke, “This hay comes from the stables to the Nobleman’s steeds of the Keep. Follow its scent and continue South along the edge of the forest and caverns until you stand before the walls of the White Keep. My fate lies on a path you cannot follow, my friend. If the grace of the Goddess is upon us, we will meet again.”

Terrible loneliness laid heavy upon the boy’s brow as he wished his companion good fortune and set his loyal horse free. With the Torch of El Anan-dor’ah in one hand and a sword in the other, Edwin entered the Devil’s Maw; alone as the Wizard foretold.

By the Squire’s calculation, three day’s time would it take to transgress the narrowest part of the forest. He would emerge on the morning of the fourth day with only a quarter of a league to travel. The silence was maddening the first full day in the belly of the beast. True to its word, the Torch of El Anan-dor’ah burned brilliantly. Never did its wood burn down nor was its oil consumed by flame. The trees looked down with such hatred and rage. Root and twine writhed on the ground, unable to penetrate the glow of the torch. Thorn and thistle scraped along bark and rock waiting for a chance to pierce and puncture skin and flesh.

On the second day, broken was the silence. Stirred was the stillness. Whispers emerged and called out from the darkness behind the deep groans and moans of tree trunks swaying in the windless night. The vast branches beaconed for a champion to come hence to handle this transgressor and acquire this hidden thing that tingled the ground it passed over. At last, a guardian emerged from the dark caverns of the Hellmouth that lay below. The call of the giant masters had been accepted.

Upon the evening of the third day, weariness and despair weighed heavy on Edwin. He poured the last of his precious emerald salt around the wicked Scroll and sat before it, with his dagger in hand. Fatigue overcame him swiftly, and the Forest saw an opportunity to strike. Masses of twisted and gnarled vines approached from above, carrying droplet of mildewed water within its crevices. Drip by drip, water fell upon the Torch. The flame singed and hissed against the moisture, but slowly its light grew less. With the last droplet of water, Edwin opened his eyes wide, and the last of the light was extinguished. All was plunged into darkness.

In the darkness, the Scroll gave a heavy sigh then silence fell. A scream pierced the night from the cursed object. It shrieked with the voice of a hundred women and infants merged into one. It hurt the boy’s ears and filled him with terror. The wail slowly faded, and in the distance, something answered the Scroll’s cries.

The Edwin unsheathed his dagger, and it cut through the air with a slash. A yellow wave of light shot forth in every direction illuminating the area. In the distance, he heard branches breaking, rubble fall and leaves trampled from the one who answered the Scroll’s call. Not knowing what else to do, he placed the Dark Scroll into his satchel and buried it under what green salt he could scoop off of the ground. He hung the pouch of silver salt around his neck and nervously gathered his essential belongings. Beyond the amber glow, he heard the sound of ripping and tearing coming from the ground. A large black root had emerged from the wet, stone ground. Blackthorn covered its body and glistened in the yellow light as it reached for the boy. More thorned roots emerged from the grotesque plant and rattled in the cold air.

The boy fell to the ground as similar ripping sounds began to emerge from his left and right. The sound of galloping feet grew closer from the woods. The black root curled itself into the shape of a scorpion’s tail, preparing to strike. The Edwin pushed himself off the ground with only moments to spare as the black root shot towards him. In a burst of speed, the boy ran toward the direction that would lead him out of the forest and caves.

He ran without letting up, occasionally slashing at vine or thistle that moved towards him with the bloodlust of an enraged animal. The footsteps of his stalker were relentless in its pursuit. It stomped on the ground and then leapt to the trees and back to the ground. The boy scrambled to the top of a ridge and saw a cluster of vines not yet afflicted with the forest’s curse. He grabbed the vines and swung across the open gully to the other side. He quickly cut the vines to prevent anyone from following. He turned to leave when the sound cut through the air.

The scraping of two metal blades rung out from the darkness. It kept its distance just beyond the mystical golden light that surrounded the blessed dagger. It continuously scraped its knives together, over and over again. The sounds grew louder and faster. Panic filled the boy. Just as he was about to turn and flee, the scraping stopped, and the beast emerged from behind the flickering shadows of the trees. It stood at the edge of the ridge, and its stare fell upon the boy.

It was a dwarf; not the dwarves recited to children in tales of fantasy and delight. These were ancient, evil creatures who despised the very existence of man. They infested the outskirts of each of the twelve known Hellmouths and greedily excavated the caverns for jewels, diamonds, and other precious metals.

The creature stood hunched on all fours. It was half the size of a man, naked and emaciated. Its flesh was white and stretched tight over its bone. Every manner of metal rings hung from its flesh and nails pierced its skin. Filled was its mouth with two rows on top and bottom of needle-thin teeth. Upon its head sat the only clothing it wore, a pointed hat, stained brown and red and made from the skin of human flesh.

With a smug confidence, it turned and walked away from the ridge’s edge. Turning, it bellowed a loud howl and ran at full speed towards the ravine. The boy turned to flee as the beast jumped high into the air landing a short distance behind him. Edwin suddenly stopped and swung his weapons in an attempt to surprise his foe. The white creature easily batted away each strike with its two short and twisted blades. The boy swung and jabbed, but the pale beast evaded each slash and every attack. It hopped from the ground to the branches of the trees then back to the ground with speed and grace. Cackling, it was now just playing with the boy.

From behind, it jumped onto the boy’s back and buried its needled teeth into the boy’s shoulder. He howled in pain and stumbled backward until he slammed the creature into the trunk of a tree. Its teeth shattered and broke off in the boy’s flesh. The wounded Edwin was losing this duel, and he knew it. He then looked past the dwarf and saw the ground sloped downward and heard the sound of running water. A glimmer of hope crossed his eyes. He broke the bindings of the pouch around his neck and poured its contents into his hand. With all his might, Edwin charged at the dazed creature. He slammed hard into the dwarf sending the both of them spiraling out of control down the wet hillside and towards the running stream’s edge.

They rolled and tumbled for what seemed like forever until crashing hard at the hill’s bottom. The beaten and battered Edwin slowly crawled towards the water’s edge to make his escape, but the dwarf was unfazed and pounced on the boy. He landed hard on the boy’s body, submerging his head under water. It grabbed a handful of hair and yanked Edwin’s head back roughly to expose the child’s throat. It laughed in his ear and spoke insults to the boy in its strange tongue. The Edwin could feel its hard member dig sharply into the small of his back. He felt the cold steel pressed up against his neck; blood already beginning to trickle from the cut of the blade’s sharp edge. The dwarf lifted its head and howled a cry of victory.

Before the breath from dwarf’s yell of triumph had entirely left its mouth, Edwin turned his head around and spat a mouthful of water directly into its face. Silver beads of light erupted upon contact with the dwarf’s face. It clutched its face! Flesh fell away in mushy clumps and seeped between its bony fingers. Oily black and green blood bubbled over its cupped hands and oozed down its arms. Its eyes were expelled from its skull with such force, the dwarf’s head snapped back sharply, breaking its neck.

Paralyzed, it wailed in agony from the silver salt eating into its face. Unnoticed, the boy had put the salt into his mouth before his head was plunged underneath the cold water. Triumphantly, the young boy picked himself up and stood over the broken body of the fallen dwarf. In the distance, light from a new dawn broke through the forest’s edge and the boy smiled. Sir Edwin tightly grasped the hilt of his sacred dagger and with two mighty swipes, he took the head and manhood of the conquered dwarf.

On the Fourth day, Edwin emerged from the cavern’s treeline and fell into the arms of the beautiful Sorceress. She had foreseen his arrival and anxiously stood with the boy’s faithful steed, awaiting his approach. With his final breath and the last of his strength, he reached into his bag and gave the Scroll of Ne’Kra Toratum to Aliadria as the Old One had commanded.

Aliadria fell to her knees from grief for this had not been foretold. The Fates had once again made a mockery of the pain and struggles of a mortal to satisfy their need for entertainment. She looked down at the child and mourned the loss of one so young and brave. It surprised her when the boy’s loyal steed came forth and nestled its nose against the dead boy’s face. Never had she witnessed such bonds of affections from a beast towards a human soul. If she were to render a guess, she would swear it too was grieving the loss of its companion. She could not help but feel pity for the animal. Her thoughts were interrupted when a glint of silver sparkled and caught her eyes from within the child’s mouth. Hope ignited within Aliadria as realization ascended upon her. The reunion between two friends had created a moment powerful enough to find the tiny granule of silver salt.

Aliadria smiled as she saw the depth of friendship these two dubious characters shared. The Sorceress quickly took out her wand and waved it in circular motions over the boy’s body. She said, “Not yet, child. We beg you not to leave us! You have so much left to do in this world. Come back. Come back.”

Edwin’s body began to shudder, and the lids of his eyes fluttered. They snapped opened with awareness and life and Edwin took in a deep breath of air. Tears of joy filled his eyes and flowed down his cheeks in streams. Trails of moisture glistened with magnificent light from the silver salt they held. He clasped the beautiful Sorceress by her hands and said, “She is real! She led me through the darkness towards your voice! She spoke of the Scroll and revealed its secrets to me! I know how to use it!”

“Be still. Of whom do you speak, child?” asked Aliadria.

“The goddess, my Lady!” said the boy. “I know where she is imprisoned! I can find her and break the bonds that restrain her!”

Edwin stood shakily to his feet, his face now ablaze with light from the silver salt of his dried tears. He spoke with such joy, “She gave me a message to deliver to the Old One!”

“Speak child. What was the message?” Aliadria asked.

Edwin looked at the Black Scroll in Aliadria’s hands and with the sight of a seer and the strength of a knight he spoke, “She said, ‘Prepare. The day of the prophecy will soon be upon us. The return of our champion grows near. The time has come to rid the land of the Worm!'”

The End

Author’s note: The Squire and the Black Scroll is meant to be a companion to the story “Day of the Worm.” Although the plot of TSATBS is adequately contained in itself and reads well as a stand-alone fairy tale, its true intent is to build upon the beautiful and rich world that was created in “Day of the Worm.”

Credit: Killahawke1

Past All Hope

December 5, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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A tropical retreat in Cozumel full of sun bathing or scuba diving? Kayaking with the whales, or sky diving in Nova Scotia? Or how about that eerie and highly illegal trip into the Paris catacombs where Holestead paid the fine eagerly without batting an eyelash almost as if he had the check ready to go beforehand. None of the above. This year the eccentric CEO of Global Gaming Conglomerate, Leon Holestead, chose the coldest, darkest, and most desolate landscape imaginable for his leadership conference and team building seminar. Besides the locale, it was the same old thing: two teams guided by Holestead with a series of lectures and dumb tasks. The only reason people came were to get in good with the boss and see the sights… sights that would be woefully lacking this year. As always, it was all expenses paid… but that didn’t make Gretchen Knight feel any better about it. Nor, it seemed, did that seem to matter to those others forced to go on the outing to Alaska’s Mount McKinley.
“McKinley was President just before Roosevelt… the good one,” Harlan Ross lectured to himself and those designated to “Red Team,” which consisted of Gretchen, Harlan and four other poor fools. Blue Team had it easy, as they didn’t have a know-it-all like Harlan to keep them company, “He got shot by an anarchist. Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have had ole Teddy. You know, they should have named that mountain after Teddy, or William Seward. After all, it was Seward that bought…”
“For the love of God!” Gretchen sighed as she laced her climbing boots, already longing for her high heels back in the hotel room. “Just stop already! No one cares. The less you talk, the quicker these three days will go.”
Harlan ceased and peered down at the new Global Gaming Conglomerate tablet in his hand, the GGC logo with a psychedelic colored palm tree next to it, “Do you all think we’ll have WiFi signals up there? I heard this thing reaches pretty far, but this seems a little extreme.”
“Aren’t you in the programming division?” Gretchen hoisted a large red pack onto her back. “That should be a question you’d be able to answer yourself.”
“I do games, not… whatever this is,” Harlan turned the tablet over several times.
“With any luck,” Leon Holestead interrupted them, “that will run out of juice before the end of the second day. Come on, Harlan. It’s all part of the team building experience! Put the technology away and embrace your natural instincts; put trust in your fellow man.”
Harlan and Gretchen sized each other up in silent disgust.
“Now hurry everyone,” Holestead urged both the Red and Blue teams. “Sunrise is only a few minutes away, and we will only have about five and half hours of it.
“Sounds like poor planning,” Gretchen mumbled a little too loudly than she intended for the benefit of a fellow female director from Milwaukee. After several years of these annual get togethers, Gretchen still couldn’t remember her name. To Gretchen it didn’t matter, Milwaukee probably didn’t remember her name either, and regardless, both of them got along fairly well.
“Nothing of the sort,” Holestead corrected. “Perfectly timed for the Winter Solstice. There is something to be said about a mountain in the nighttime. Beauty and intrigue that one can’t get from some yacht in Mexico.”
“But Mexico doesn’t have wolves, bears, and frostbite,” Gretchen added.
“Personally,” Harlan added his two cents, “either one is a hazard waiting to happen. Toes falling off out here, or skin cancer on the beach. Maybe next year we can go to Mayberg, the most haunted town in America. At least then we can stay inside…”
“Oh, listen to you two,” Holestead shook his head. “Sure, this isn’t going to be the same as past years, but let that be your team’s first lesson: It is all a matter of perspective. When we find ourselves rehashing the same issue, or coming by hard times, all one might need to do is flip their perspective around.”
And so the lectures began. In the emails sent two months before the date of departure, Holestead outlined his grandiose plan. Every so many miles into the mountains, he had designated GPS waypoints where they would stop and both teams would engage in a new team building exercise. Each one was accompanied by some all important seminar about an aspect of GGC’s expectations and goals. Usually Holestead got away with his unbearably cheesy rhetoric, but in the cold with snow past their shins, his employees were less than enthusiastic. Despite wearing gloves, Gretchen’s manicured fingertips were already beginning to dry out and crack. The long treks between waypoints proved that progressing up the mountain was strenuous and more difficult than even Holestead seemed to expect. Now at waypoint five, they had sloshed through the snow for four hours.
“Maybe we should take a three minute break before continuing,” Holestead sat down on a snow covered log as his breaths created white wisps in front of his face.
Gretchen moaned and sank against a tree trunk, happy to be off her feet again. She tried connecting to the internet through her phone, but found the bars to be too low.
“I’ve got a connection,” Harlan offered his tablet. “What are you trying to look up?”
“When is the snow going to melt?” she huffed facetiously.
“Oh, that’s not going to be for a while,” Harlan did not catch her sarcasm, “especially not until the blizzard has come and gone.”
“Blizzard!” Gretchen stood up and slapped the snow off herself. “What blizzard?”
Harlan stared back at her meekly, “I… told Holestead before we left. I thought that everyone knew…”
Before he could finish, Gretchen trudged through the snow as quickly as she could toward the eccentric CEO.
“You all have done a beautiful job so far. If only Red Team could garner so much enthusiasm for…” Holestead paused when he saw Gretchen approach. “Gretchen, what may I do for you?”
“A blizzard?” Gretchen crossed her arms and tucked her numbed fingers into her armpits. “And you knew!”
“Now, now,” Holestead gave a weak grin, “I know how it sounds, but it’s only a little storm, and won’t be coming around til about midnight. By then we’ll already be tucked in and…”
“A little storm?” a balding man on Blue Team groaned as others approached to listen in. “There’s no such thing as a ‘little’ storm.”
“It’s not that bad,” Holestead reassured. “I checked the weather reports beforehand and…”
“I vote we go back down the mountain now, while we still have daylight,” Gretchen raised a hand. “Who’s with me?”
“All right,” Holestead gave in after several persons on both teams nodded in agreement with the upstart. “How about this: I can’t force you all to stay given the conditions. But… if you do, then I’ll add to your Christmas bonus.”
“I can take the group back that doesn’t want to stay,” Harlan entered the conversation late, still wielding his tablet. “I’ve been setting up GPS waypoints every fifty feet or so, we could follow them back like a trail of bread crumbs.”
“Hey,” a short red head from corporate asked, “I want to hear more about the bonuses.”
Holestead stood up straight, “Let’s say, three thousand for everyone who stays. An extra five hundred if you try to have a little fun while you’re here too.”
Seeing that the tide turned against her, Gretchen threw up her hands, “Are you people seriously going to go along with this? Do you know how cold it will get?”
Some people shifted their weight, unwilling to give up the promised gifts. Holestead sensed this and added, “I guess we better get moving before the storm gets here then. Just a couple more checkpoints, and I promise that we can tent up for the night and get a fire started. How about it, teams?”
Everyone except for Harlan and Gretchen relented. As everyone prepared to get on the move again, Harlan whispered to Gretchen, “You know, we can still head back… He said we could go.”
Considering her options, Gretchen realized that grinning and bearing it through the cold she would be able to maintain sanity by sticking close to people she could get along with. However, if she departed, then it would be several hours of listening to Harlan drone on and on about topics of zero interest to her. Gretchen did not reply, but rather pushed past him and toward the front of their group.
As twilight peaked hours later, their group stopped for the final team exercise of the day. Like most of Leon Holestead’s group activities, this too was juvenile. Harlan and Gretchen had to participate as a duo in a trust exercise. Holestead tied a blindfold over her eyes and instructed Harlan to guide her around trees and drifts to grab a flag, then back again. The activity went more or less well for others, but Gretchen found following Harlan’s verbal commands to be as painful as pulling teeth.
“All right turn…,” Harlan attempted a third time.
“This way?” she said, placing an arm in front of her to keep from running into anything.
“Right… no I mean correct. No, turn back,” Harlan bit his upper lip. “Turn to your three o’clock.”
“Three o’clock?” Gretchen tripped on a buried rock and fell face first into the snow. “Goddamn it, Harlan!”
She tore the blindfold off and stumbled back onto her feet, snow leaking down her collar as she did so. For a moment Gretchen felt like crying with frustration and hatred of the mountain, “Give me real directions, idiot!”
“I did!” Harlan took a step back to avoid her wrath. “It’s like the hands on a clock… you know… twelve is straight ahead, six is straight back…”
“Shut up!” Gretchen threw the blindfold into the snow and returned to the group. “Just shut up! I’m done!”
“Okay…” Holestead looked to the others. “Point goes to the Blue Team. Better luck tomorrow Red. I think this is as good a place to set up camp as any other. Does everyone remember who their tent companion is?”
Harlan high fived a fellow programmer, as others less enthusiastically paired up. To Gretchen’s pleasure, she got the director from Milwaukee.
“So, Gretchen, have you ever set one of these up?”
The theory that Milwaukee might not remember her name got thrown out the window.
“Too long ago to matter,” Gretchen replied. “Tab A into Slot B?”
“Something like that,” Milwaukee shrugged and took her pack off with Gretchen. As her bunk mate took out the camping gear, Gretchen noticed a lace snowflake pinned just below Milwaukee’s collar.
“Is that standard issue now?” Gretchen gestured at the addition to Milwaukee’s garment.
“Ha ha, no,” Milwaukee tapped the snowflake. “My niece made that. Told me to wear it when I was ‘playing in the snow.’ Little kids and their innocence, right?”
“Yeah… right,” Gretchen let the conversation drop. Kids were not, and would never be, a subject matter she found worth pursuing in conversation.
Both continued their banter as they took out the tent and camping materials, each woman longing to be wrapped up in a warm blanket again far away from here. After several minutes of struggling with a red nose and chilled fingers to boot, Gretchen was no closer to achieving her dream of warmth. She looked over her shoulder at the others and found Harlan and his companion already zipping up their completed tent and jabbering about a new virtual reality game design.
“Can you believe those two?” Gretchen grumbled to Milwaukee. “How can they pretend that this isn’t one of the most miserable things they’ve ever done?”
“It helps when you have ADD,” Milwaukee stomped a stake into the snow, nearly knocking herself off balance.
“Is everyone done yet?” Holestead called out from where he’d started a campfire. “If you are, come gather round for a quick presentation, then we’ll delve into another part of good ole fashioned Americana.”
Milwaukee and Gretchen eyed their haphazardly constructed tent and shrugged. Fire meant warmth… the tent could wait til later.

***

“…and that is why the mountain is so important. It is a metaphor for our journey as a company and the road to expansion and progression,” Holestead concluded, sensing some of the team already closing their eyes out of boredom. “Okay then! This is a campsite, and this is a campfire! So how about we swap some spooooky stories?”
“I’ve got one,” a corporate exec stated. “Thirteen people were stranded on a mountain, freezing their buns off, and became human icicles. The end.”
“Yes… well,” Holestead said glumly. “Seriously though, does anyone have a story to share? Anyone? Don’t be shy.”
Several of them looked from one to the other, but no one stepped up to participate.
“Fine then,” Holestead rubbed his hands together and placed his face closer to the fire. “I’ve got one.”
“Great…” Gretchen mumbled to Milwaukee. “Thirty bucks says it’s about ‘team building.’”
“You’re on,” Milwaukee nudged her.
“It’s about the Windego!” Holestead’s face appeared sinister in the flames.
“The what?” someone asked.
Holestead tried again, this time accidentally burning himself in his proximity to the flame, “The Windego! A ravenous beast that scours the Alaskan wilderness!”
“No,” Harlan interrupted as he pressed a few buttons on his tablet and scrolled down, “I’m pretty sure it’s only in Eastern Canada and New England.”
“Well this one’s in Alaska,” Holestead tried ignoring him, “and has been seen right here on Mt. McKinley!”
“When?” Harlan raised an eyebrow. “I can’t find anything on that.”
“It doesn’t matter when,” Holestead did his best not to break character, but now he began to crack. “It only matters that it happened… right here of all places!”
“It doesn’t matter?” Harlan repeated. “Of course it matters. How am I supposed to verify the story if I don’t have the details?”
“You’re not supposed to verify it, Harlan,” Holestead sighed and tossed a stick into the fire. The twig crackled and popped as his voice took on a more exacerbated tone, “Spooky stories aren’t supposed to be true. They are supposed to be fun.”
“Oh…” Harlan put his tablet down, then whispered to the person on his right. “How is something supposed to be fun if it isn’t true?”
“Moving on,” Holestead ignored Harlan and proceeded uninterrupted. “The Windego was once a man, a gold prospector, who got lost with his team up in the mountains. For weeks they tried shooting game or trying to find their way back to civilization, but to no avail. The storms were too thick, and the temperature was so cold that the triggers of their guns froze in place. All the men grew weak and weary with no food to comfort them. After a month, their skin pulled against their bones, causing them to look like haggard skeletons.”
Gretchen leaned against the trunk of a tree and closed her eyes, less than amused at Holestead’s attempts to frighten them.
“An idea stirred in the prospector’s mind,” Holestead tried his best to look menacing in the flames, but for the most part, failed. “Not all of them were going to survive, he surmised, so it was only a matter of luring one away to fill his belly. So, when the sun went down, the prospector led one of the men away from the others and down a ridge. He throttled the poor man and ate to his fill. A few days later, of still no game, the prospector led another away… again, killing him in the night and eating him. It did not take long for the last two to see what was going on, but by then it was too late.”
“Idiots,” Harlan whispered. “You know this story is contrived when the characters in it act like buffoons.”
Holestead continued, “One by one the prospector picked all their bones clean. Shortly thereafter the snow began to thaw and the streams started to trickle. Birds and small animals returned, but the prospector could not stomach the taste of any of them. One day, he looked into a newly melting stream and saw his reflection for the first time. What once was a man, was now a misshapen creature with glowing yellow eyes, razor-like fingernails, and skin so taut that it looked like dried leather! Native Americans gave him a name… the Windego!”
“You mean, ‘a’ windego,” Harlan prodded the campfire’s flames with a stick. “I mean, there isn’t just one. Like I said before, it’s an old legend from out east. Some dumb pioneer tale to warn against cannibalizing.”
“And there goes the punch line, thanks again, Harlan,” Holestead shook his head, then recomposed himself for the real conclusion to his story. “And the windego has eaten lost campers ever since!”
“I don’t get it,” Harlan interjected. “He was just a mortal, right? Why is he still living?”
“I don’t know… magic?” Holestead shrugged. “It’s just a story, Harlan. I made it up. It was just a campfire story… you know, for fun. Oh forget it… all right everybody. I guess you all want to get some sleep.”
Holestead hung his head and flicked some snow into the fire, “Though, I strongly suggest better attitudes in the morning. This trip could be a lot of fun if you just give it a chance.”

Later that night, curled up in her sleeping bag, Gretchen dreamt of a continental breakfast in a hotel whose heater was turned all the way up. It comforted her to know that the trip was almost half over, and then it was back home again. A part of her wanted to feel sorry for Holestead, but at the same time, it was him who made these bad plans to begin with.
Wind whipped through the pine trees as the blizzard picked up in speed. More than a few times, Gretchen heard a branch snap and come tumbling to the ground far off. In their tent, she and Milwaukee were shielded from most of the wind’s icy cold blasts. Despite the howling of wind, sleep wasn’t impossible to attain.
BOOM!
Milwaukee and Gretchen sat bolt upright at the sound, like an explosion. Through the howls of the wind, a rumbling sound approached. The closer the rumbles got, the more their tent shook violently from side to side.
“What is that?” Milwaukee’s face drained of all color.
“I don’t know,” Gretchen listened intently as campers unzipped their tents and walked out. Tree limbs snapped near them. A pained shout rang out after a branch plummeted downward.
“Oh God,” someone said. “It landed on their tent.”
“Quick,” Holestead’s voice commanded through the storm, “someone help me get this off of them.”
“Should we go and help them?” Milwaukee asked, crawling over to their own zipped door.
Gretchen latched onto Milwaukee’s wrist to keep her in place, “No… it’s too dangerous.”
The rumbling grew louder, and now came with the distinctive sound of cracking timber.
A scream uncleared their minds fully, “AVALANCHE!”
Milwaukee’s eyes widened and looked to Gretchen, but before any words could be said, their tent’s roof caved inward. Everything happened so quickly that it was all a blur to Gretchen. One minute Milwaukee returned the clutch Gretchen had on her wrist, and the next both of them were crushed by several hundred pounds of snow. Before the avalanche struck them, several screams had begun, but were all abruptly cut off in one fell swoop. In a confusing blur, Gretchen and Milwaukee were swept up and tumbled head over foot in the ripping vinyl of their tent. Their bodies twisted and rolled, but yet their hands remained latched tightly together. Cracks and snaps, both near and far, joined in the rumbling of the avalanche, and Gretchen felt a spike of pain jam through her left arm. Though the pain ripped through Gretchen’s body, their hands remained locked.
In one of the violent rolls, the tent ripped apart completely. A heavy mass of snow and ice swarmed around them, cutting off their screams. Their descent down the slope slowed, but not until one more quick jerk that caused that put Milwaukee just below Gretchen. Finally the movement of the avalanche ceased and the two women were left in iced over silence.
Snow covered Gretchen completely, compacting tightly about her body. She tried moving her legs or arms, but found that she was so deeply buried that movement was impossible. Only her fingers were able to move, and then only the tiniest bit. Elsewhere, Milwaukee must have come to the same realization as a deepening fear set into both of them: they were buried alive. In a claustrophobic ridden panic, Gretchen inhaled snow through her mouth and nostrils… trying desperately to get a breath. The sheer cold against her face and body added to the pained desperation. She tried screaming, but more ice and snow fell into her mouth with the effort. Milwaukee flexed her fingers around Gretchen’s hand multiple times, no doubt out of the same miserable hysteria that overtook her companion. No matter how desperately they tried, the snow would not allow them to budge from its freezing cold prison.
Somewhere over top of her, something scratched and crunched through the snow. Was someone coming to get her? Gretchen tried crying out again, but whoever tore into the frozen ground seemed not to notice. As suddenly as it came, the sound disappeared. Tears streamed from Gretchen’s eyes as her struggle to breath came to an end. Her breath grew shorter and shorter until her lungs realized there was no more oxygen to take in. Gretchen’s heart raced as her throat and air passages locked up. Wide-eyed, Gretchen felt her body give in to suffocation. Things grew calm as the panic subsided along with her will to fight. Gretchen’s body grew weak… this was it… this was how the story ended. Milwaukee’s grip loosened for the first time until her quivering fingers became perfectly still. The weight of the snow crushed in on Gretchen’s body, so she closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. As she faded out of consciousness, a faint crunching came from above, followed by a relief of weight and pressure over her head.
There was another sound… someone spoke to her… but with snow in her ears, Gretchen couldn’t make anything out. Still with her eyes shut, Gretchen felt like sleeping. Once upon a time, Gretchen thought she would fear death… but in the calm that followed her pain, she welcomed the peace. Her cheeks stung, but it didn’t faze her. Then, there was an extreme sharp pain shooting through Gretchen’s left arm. She screamed and came to.
“Oh shit… I’m sorry… I…” it was Harlan laying over her, his face a cut up mess of blood and scrapes. “I’ve got to get you out… okay?”
“Harlan? Harlan? What happened?” Gretchen’s frozen eyes streamed ice cold tears. “WHAT HAPPENED?”
Her frantic screams made him cringe, but Harlan fought through his own pain to free her body from the snow. When he freed Gretchen up to her belly, Harlan bid her to take hold of his arm with her good hand. Once they gripped each other tight, Harlan crawled backward, pulling her out the rest of the way. When her legs came out of the snow drift, Gretchen only had a few seconds to see the unmoving hand of Milwaukee before loose snow filled in the gap. Gretchen flipped onto her belly and dry heaved saliva and swallowed snow onto the ground, then laid onto her side sobbing uncontrollably.
Grimacing and panting through his own physical torture, Harlan crawled backward to half buried timber and rested against it. The stars above them continued to shine as if nothing had happened. Elsewhere in the universe, things continued on in peace. Gretchen observed him lean back as if dazed and half asleep, not fully comprehending his distress.
“Harlan…” Gretchen still shook with fear and despair, but was beginning to regain herself. “Where is everyone else?”
“I don’t know… The avalanche knocked me out… But I assume somebody else made it,” Harlan pointed behind her to a human-sized depression in the snow field where someone appeared to have dug themselves out. A shallow set of footprints led away from the hole and into the forest.
“I hope they’re going to get help…” Gretchen considered the footprints. “How… how did you know where I was?”
“Pieces of a tent shown through… I just dug in hoping to find someone,” he admitted.
Gretchen cast her eyes to the ground, “Thank you… You saved me.”
Harlan ignored the sentiment, “I… I almost didn’t have enough energy to do that. Working under adrenaline, I guess…”
The snow inside her sleeves and clothes caused Gretchen to tremble, but she fought through it, “Harlan… we need to get the others out…”
She attempted to rip into the snow like Harlan had done, but stopped as she shrieked from the pain in her arm, “You’re going to have to do it… My arm, I think it’s… broken. Harlan, they need us…”
Harlan wiped his cheek and gestured to his right leg, “I told you… I’m done…
At first Gretchen didn’t see what he was getting at. More careful observation, though, brought to her attention a jagged, white protrusion sticking through his poofy blue pants. She was horrified by the sickly white bone covered in smatterings of red blood. A piece of her mind denied the sight entirely.
“We have to try!” Gretchen cried out of frustration, regardless of the protests, her arm allowed her no leverage. “They’re dying! Maybe they’re trying to crawl out like you did. We have to help them…”
“I tried climbing a tree when I saw the avalanche coming… I never got fully covered, only beaten up pretty bad,” Harlan hung his head in silence for a few seconds, “You were almost gone when I found you… there isn’t anyone else. We’re it… along with whoever was able to dig out and walk away.”
When he finished, Gretchen pounded the snow under her feet as a new wave of desperate screams and crying took over, “No! She was under here with me! I felt her! We have to try!”
Gretchen flung snow in every direction until she collapsed onto her belly, no longer able to fight through the pain.
“Who?” Harlan’s eyelids drooped. “Who was there?”
“I…” Gretchen paused and trembled with a new wave of grief. “She… her name was… Harlan! God damn you! Why would you ask me that?”
“Just… asking,” Harlan remained on his back, gazing up at the night sky and letting his breath slow. As quickly as it had come, the blizzard had blown out of sight, leaving the forest quite still. A thought occurred to him, and he quickly sifted through his pant’s pocket for the tablet. After taking a look at it, Harlan let it fall to the snow. The tablet’s screen was fractured in several spiderweb patterns, and its frame was cracked so severely that internal damage was a certainty.
“What do we do?” Gretchen tried to recompose herself. “Do we just wait here?”
“No,” Harlan shook his head from side to side. “We have to find some sort of shelter, or get to civilization or we’re going to freeze to death.”
“Wuh… what?” she choked through sobs and shivers. “How are we going to do that when you have only one leg?”
“Do you think that you can support me if I leaned on you?” Harlan slowly hoisted himself up, using the tree behind him for support. “It’ll still be hard… but it’s the best way.”
“Shouldn’t we make a splint for your leg first?” Gretchen watched as pained tears slid down his own cheeks for the first time.
“What are you going to make it out of?” Harlan clenched his teeth as he waved her over to help him stand. “We don’t have any straps… none of us are in a condition to dig… and the more time we waste, the more likely we are to not make it through the night.”
Gretchen nodded and stood, “We follow the footprints then? How do we know whether the person who made them knew where to go?”
For a moment he said nothing, then Harlan rose his head to lock eyes with her, “We don’t.”

The first few steps made both of them question whether this plan would work at all. Any weight that Harlan allowed on his bad leg, jarred the bone protruding through his pants. After those first barely successful attempts at progression, the two worked out a system of timing and balance so that they moved along at a slow, but consistent pace. Adding to the difficulty was that every now and then the snow would collapse under their weight, causing both Gretchen and Harlan to stumble.
“How far could they have gotten?” Gretchen gazed between the pines at the seemingly endless and straightforward set of footprints. “No one could have come out of this going that quickly.”
“Shock and adrenaline can have odd effects,” Harlan offered. “Either way, the trail is leading us down hill. Maybe we can catch up to him before all three of us freeze.”
“Harlan…” Gretchen paused, her cracked lips parted in an expression of confusion and muddled contemplation. “Have you taken a look at these tracks?”
They ceased their trek to observe the print in front of them more closely. The size of a normal human foot, the only odd thing about it at first glance were dug in points where each toe should be. Also, each print seemed to only skirt the surface of the snow, whereas the body weight of Gretchen and Harlan made them struggle through almost a foot of snow with each step.
“Cleats?” Harlan suggested.
“I… I guess…” Gretchen wasn’t convinced, but couldn’t devise her own alternate theory.
Over an hour passed as the two struggled along their way. The blistering cold stabbed their faces and numbed every portion of their bodies. Will alone kept the two survivors continuing onward, along with the knowledge that whoever’s trail they followed was created by someone who seemed to know what they were doing. After so long, Gretchen surmised that their invisible leader couldn’t be continuing on their quick pace for much longer. Every now and then, Gretchen mistook the shadows of looming pines up ahead as being their elusive trailblazer. However, after a couple blinks or approaching closer, none panned out to be humanoid.
“Wait…” Harlan put his hand to her chest. “Look…”
Gretchen followed his gaze to the trail ahead of them. The footprints continued ahead into a snowy plain surrounded by ice capped pines. Once reaching the center of the plain, the trail of prints ceased. Searching the trees and looming branches above, Gretchen sought any sign of the maker of the prints, but found nothing.
“What’s going on?” Gretchen’s shivering turned to violent trembling as the freezing cold over her limbs was supplanted by intense terror and despair. “Where is he? Where did he go?”
Harlan looked over his shoulder and tried to size up the situation, “Maybe the snow blew over the trail?”
“There hasn’t been any wind since the blizzard ended just a little after you pulled me out, and none of the other tracks were covered…” Gretchen almost let go of him as panic took over. “Hello! Are you out there? Hello! We need help! Please!”
“Stop it!” Harlan cupped a hand over her mouth. “There’s already been one avalanche today, don’t cause another. There’s no one here.”
“But the prints!” she stammered.
“Where do you think their maker went?” Harlan asked. “Into the trees? Maybe he flew away? Either way, Gretchen, we need to consider the possibility that this was just some sort of animal…”
Her eyes bulged, “But you said!”
“I was wrong…” it took a lot for him to admit to such, but at this point he had run out of options. “We should turn back… there’s no shelter here, and maybe we can dig up something useful in the morning.”
“Along with the dead bodies of our friends!” Gretchen protested. “Someone crawled out of the snow! I heard it! And we saw the evidence! He’s here! He has to be!”
Despite his pain, Harlan remained patient with her, “Then point him out… Gretchen… face it… there’s no one…”
He stopped in mid-sentence. The causation of his hesitance did not go unnoticed by Gretchen either. A sweet, peppery smell wafted into their nostrils; the scent of a meal in preparation.
“No one?” Gretchen repeated. “Come on! They have to be close!”
Taking him by the arm again for support, Gretchen led them over the top of a hill, away from the strange footprints. She followed the scent and felt a surge of energy pass through her; such that Harlan had to squeeze her arm to slow Gretchen down. Standing atop the hill, a small cabin built against the hillside came into view. A faint yellow glow came through the slats in the door frame, letting the two know that they were not alone.
“I told you!” Gretchen could barely control her excitement. “Someone was out there!”
Harlan’s ice crusted eyelids blinked twice, “It takes an adult to admit when they are wrong… and for once I am glad to acquiesce.”
Their descent down the hill caused them more distress than any other element of their journey. More than once their feet slipped on the embankment, causing Gretchen or Harlan to rely on the other to keep from tumbling down. It proved nigh impossible for Harlan to not bear some weight on his bad leg, and with every instance writhed with pain. Gretchen’s good arm grew tender with the amount of pained squeezes Harlan laid on.
Greyish white smoke billowed from the cabin’s chimney, mixing with the starry night above. At the bottom of the hill, both Gretchen and Harlan nearly forgot their pain. All around the outside of the cabin were the same footprints that had led them here; still bearing the unique cleat pattern in the toes. A pile of chopped wood laid off to the side with a double bladed ax embedded into the top most log. Nicks along the blade’s side showed its age and abuse. The nearer the duo got to the door, the more prominent the sweet smell of burning pinewood became.
“Harlan… what’s that?” Gretchen hesitated and pointed to a crude wooden spit between two trees. A pair of sheers, straight edged clippers, and a bone saw laid near the spit amidst a mass of red tinted snow.
“It’s where he cleans out the game,” Harlan shrugged.“Someone who lives all the way out here has got to do his own hunting and preparing.”
Gretchen eyed the blood stained area suspiciously, but her need for warmth and shelter overrode that of fear. They mounted a low wood porch, and Gretchen knocked on the door, “Hello. Is anyone in there? We need help… please… we’ve been out here for…”
“Shhh…” Harlan placed a finger to her lips. “Hear that?”
She waited, but could hear nothing other than that of a boiling kettle, “Hear what?”
“Exactly,” Harlan twisted the door handle. “There’s no one inside.”
With the door swung open, a breeze of warm air wafted over them. For the first time, it seemed, feeling returned to Gretchen’s fingers. Throwing caution and courtesy to the wind, both Harlan and Gretchen staggered in and closed the door behind them. Snow dripped from their stiff pants and boots onto a beaver skin doormat. Skins and animal hides hung around the room as functional appliance and decoration. Near a cracked stone fireplace was a seven foot tall coat rack with several thick coats of bear and moose skin draped over it. Before Gretchen could observe anymore, the coats bent over toward a kettle over the fire. It was then to her embarrassment and horror that she realized the rack and apparel were not inanimate objects, but a man.
Gretchen gripped Harlan’s shoulder with white knuckles as her fellow survivor spoke in a voice broken by shivers, “Sorry mister… we wouldn’t have barged in… but… it didn’t look like anyone was here…”
The hides covered every inch of the man before them to such a level that they could not even see his skin or features. Still without speaking or seemingly acknowledging that two intruders had arrived, the colossal-sized man scooped two bone white bowls into the kettle and filled them with steaming stew. Keeping his head low so that neither Gretchen nor Harlan could see his eyes, the giant set the bowls down at a table made for two, and pointed with a bear claw gloved hand at two carved spoons at either end.
“Eat,” he commanded in a raspy tone that echoed around the room.
“We can’t,” Gretchen removed her gloves and allowed her fingers freedom from their cold and damp confines. “We’re hurt bad. We need rest, bandages, a doctor…”
“Eat,” the man lifted his cloaked head and stared her to silence with yellow eyes, the rest of his visage being obscured by the skins covering him. “Eat. Then rest.”
Before Gretchen could protest anymore, the fur covered giant stepped through the doorway and disappeared into the bitter cold. As he departed the cabin, their host slammed the door behind him, causing the dishes on the table to shake.
“He’s right,” Harlan staggered to one of the wooden chairs, itself covered in deer hide. He kept his bad leg straight and winced as he lowered himself. “That meal will warm us up.”
“How did he know we were coming?” Gretchen cautiously took her own seat opposite of him.
“Maybe he heard you shouting and saw us staggering down the hill,” Harlan shrugged and examined the crudely carved spoon in his hand.
“Okay…” Gretchen hesitated to touch her spoon, bowl, or its contents. “But what about those prints, Harlan? They led us from the accident site to here… then disappeared. None of that sounds odd to you? And why didn’t he come out to help us?”
“There’s a rational explanation for everything. Besides, I already explained the footprints to you before we found the cabin,” he said with mouthfuls of the stew. “Come on now and eat up. This stuff hits the spot.”
Gretchen took the spoon in her good hand and swirled her bowl’s contents. Strips of tender white meat climbed to the surface of the steaming pasty brown water. Though chicken noodles and broth were old childhood favorites, Gretchen couldn’t stomach the thought of consuming anything. For the first time since they embarked on their journey through the forest, she had the ability to take in all that had occurred. Harlan stopped eating as she began to cry. It surprised Gretchen that Harlan seemed to take this so well. Maybe the key to his success was the constant look in his eyes that he might pass out at any moment. She held a whole new respect for the little man, as if it were her with the compound fracture… Gretchen may have just lay in the snow and allow herself to freeze to death. Yet, somehow Harlan persevered. It was a testament to human endurance… if only she could be as tough as he appeared to be.
Harlan reached across the table and clasped her hand, “Maybe you’re right, this food tastes a little stale anyway.”
“Harlan,” she sobbed, “what are we going to do? You’re… you’re leg. And I think my arm is broke too.”
“Only one way to know that for certain,” Harlan pivoted his bad leg outward. “Help me over to the fire and we’ll have a look.”
She nodded and, much as they had before, walked him to a grizzly bear rug in front of the blazing fireplace. Harlan unbuttoned his coat and tossed it onto a stool not too far away. Drenched all the way through, the heat from the fire helped offset the hypothermia and frost bite he knew were all too real concerns.
“Ow!” Gretchen cried out as she tried to remove her coat too.
“Here,” Harlan offered, and assisted in taking the garment from each arm. At this juncture, he paused before continuing. “Okay, so in order for me to take a look you need to roll the sleeve up or… take the shirt off.”
Gretchen nodded and gestured for help to take the shirt over her head. When it came to curling the shirt off her left arm, she grit her teeth and let a few more tears fall. The damage was worse than Harlan expected to see, creating a hesitated awe that did not go unnoticed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her chest beginning to heave with up coming panic. “Is it like yours?”
“No…” Harlan shook his head. “You’ve got massive bruising… from just a little left of your upper spine to your elbow.”
“Only bruising…” she sighed. “That’s not bad…”
Though he could have given a wordy description of the mass of black and purple on her backside, Harlan thought better of it, “No… it’s broke… And probably more than one bone too.”
“Shit,” Gretchen buried her head in the nook of her good arm. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“Well…” Harlan tried not looking at the jagged bone protruding from his own garment. “It’s only logical that we have to do our best to sleep until the master of the house returns. There’s nothing more we can do other than make sure our bodies get warm and nothing falls off.”
“That can happen?” she shot bolt upright.
“Take your boots and socks off,” Harlan suggested, “so you don’t have to find out.”

After helping to remove Harlan’s boots and socks, Gretchen took two musty smelling blankets from a bed that didn’t seem to have been slept in for decades. When placing the blanket on him, she noticed Harlan wince and move his broken leg out of the way.
“We need to do something about that…” she said, diverting her gaze from the exposed bone.
“Not right now,” Harlan waved her off. “We’ll wait for our friend to return, then get our bearings first.”
Gretchen nodded and took a place on the opposite end of him. Laying down again, she felt the bruising on her backside that Harlan had said was there. Unlike her arm, this was a dull throbbing that lessened once she was laying down on her side. In normal circumstances, using a wood floor as a pillow would have been less than ideal, but after all she’d been through, Gretchen didn’t notice. She found sleep nearly impossible to achieve. When pain wasn’t keeping her awake, thoughts of nearly dying under the snow did. After a while Gretchen heard Harlan begin to snore. With nothing but the firelight and the stillness of the cabin to keep her company, Gretchen made closer observations of her surroundings.
There was something not quite right about their present situation. What were the odds of some loner living all the way out here? Then there were the tracks which led from their demolished campsite to here. What had the owner of the cabin been digging up? And if he knew that they were coming, then why didn’t he help them to the cabin in the first place? Then there was the question of where he’d gone just after they arrived. None of it made any sense. Adding to her sense of discomfort was the dawning realization that almost everything in the house was made out of some sort of animal part. It was like lying in a one room house of horrors from another century. Or was it a house at all? With no windows, the cabin seemed more to be a wooden prison. The cabin, itself, looked barely lived in with cobwebs and dust covering nearly every surface. Straining her head around just a little, Gretchen caught sight of a door they hadn’t seen before. Even though it faced the hill from whence they came, she did not recall having seen an entrance to the building from that side. Before she could examine it further, Gretchen heard the front door creak open.
Panic stricken, Gretchen closed her eyes and pretended to sleep as the owner of the property entered. Even with her ear pressed to the floor, she could not hear the heavy footfalls that must have been there. It wasn’t until she felt hot breath on her hairline that she realized the fur covered entity had bent over just beside her. With every exertion of effort, Gretchen kept her breathing normal and continued to pretend. The straining worked, and she felt the breath disappear. Unable to tell where their host was now, Gretchen continued to keep her eyelids shut. Minutes later, pretending became reality and she joined Harlan in sleep.

“Gretchen, wake up,” a familiar voice prodded her foot.
She bolted upright so quickly that Harlan thought something terrible were happening. Gretchen’s lightening-like jolt jammed her broken arm into the brick of the fireplace, causing her to wince and tear up. Sunlight shown under the thin slat below the front door. She blinked several times and rubbed her eyes to see more clearly.
“What was that all about?” Harlan gaped at her, owl-eyed.
The fire burned bright with new logs added to it; a sign that their host must have come back in the wee hours of the morning. The unmistakable aroma of evergreen from the burning pinewood logs mixed with that of bacon still sizzling on a skillet while Gretchen considered how to answer. She thought back to the strange occurrence a few hours before, “Nothing… still riled up from yesterday I guess.”
He nodded his understanding, “It could have been worse. There’s this true story about a rugby team that were in a plane crash on a mountain… they had to eat their dead friends to stay alive until they were rescued.”
Gretchen covered her mouth and held back another wretch, “Why would you mention that right now? What’s wrong with you!”
“Sorry…” Harlan shrugged. “I just hope that our friend will make a reappearance so that we can get our bearings.”
“About that…” Gretchen began, but then noticed the food cooking in the fireplace in front of them. “Did you do that?”
Harlan shook his head, “Our mystery host has cooked and disappeared again. Best not let it get too burned though, right? If this is going to be anything like last night, he won’t be here in time to stop it from burning.”
“Have at it then,” Gretchen crawled out from under her blanket and retrieved both of their coats. “I couldn’t stomach anything yet even if I wanted to.”
She placed the coats near the fireplace to dry them, then took the skillet out of the fire and laid it next to Harlan. The savory scent of the bacon didn’t seem quite right to her. Like the cabin, there was something that just didn’t sit well with her about the whole thing.
“Did you stop to consider where a hillbilly gets his bacon from when there are no farms or grocery stores around here?” Gretchen asked as Harlan peeled a strip off the skillet and tore into it. “You could be ingesting squirrel.”
“Then it’s the best squirrel I’ve ever had,” he winked. “Seriously, you’re missing out. Tastes kinda like the normal thing.”
Briefly reconsidering, Gretchen leaned over and almost lifted a piece off. The red and white lines of the strip waved in between her fingers, with a tail of fat at its bottom. Grease and the slimy texture made her recoil, and drop the strip down as she dry retched.
“Not a big carnivore, I take it?” Harlan asked as she staggered away wiping her hand off on her pants.
“No, it’s not that…” Gretchen struggled to find the words to describe her feelings, but couldn’t. “It must be the situation.”
She reclined in a wicker chair near the fire. As Harlan ate, Gretchen reconsidered the door she noticed the night before. Next to it at eye level was a grizzly bear’s head, mouth agape in a snarl. What Gretchen was drawn to the most were the beast’s red eyes. The more she looked at it, the more the feeling of being watched crept over her.
“He was breathing over top of me last night,” the words blurted out of Gretchen’s mouth before she could stop herself.
Harlan licked his fingers and furrowed his brow, “What do you mean?”
“After you went to sleep,” Gretchen began, wary that those noiseless footsteps may be standing on the other side of either door listening in, “he came in and… knelt over me. It was so creepy… I could feel his breath… it was hot, too hot.”
“That’s insane. You were by the fire, that’s all,” though the reasoning made sense, he could tell that Gretchen wasn’t moved by it, “probably heard him come over and warm himself up. It’s his right. You know, his house and all.”
“But that’s just it,” Gretchen caught herself going into hysterics, “I didn’t hear him. He just appeared next to me after coming inside.”
“Okay,” Harlan acquiesced just a little. “Let’s say that’s what happened. Listen to his speech. He’s got to be a little slow, combine that isolation and you have the perfect storm of social awkwardness.”
“That’s not it!” she protested.
“What do you want me to say about your illogical deductions?” Harlan threw his arms up in the air. “He’s a ghost, so let’s go aimlessly gallivanting around the woods? Not to mention that neither of us are in the shape to do that. If we hadn’t found this house, then we’d both be dead right now.”
She paced in front of him, “Who’s to say we won’t be still?”
“Now that’s a tad extreme,” Harlan crossed his arms and leaned back. “The man opened his home up to us. If he’d wanted to kill us, why not do it right as we walked in or while we slept? You need to get a hold of yourself.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a thwack from outside, followed by several more in rhythmic succession. Gretchen peered outside to get a glimpse of their fur clad host. Working by the gore covered spit, the owner of the house used a hatchet to cut away slabs of meat around the rib cage of a skinned animal. The creature’s head and limbs were no where to be seen, but guts and entrails spilled on the ground told that the cleaning had happened recently. Another thwack from the hatchet flecked blood onto their host’s fur covered arm. Though Gretchen was sure that she hadn’t made much noise coming outside, nevertheless, the yellow-eyed giant swung around after his latest thrust and stared at her.
An awkward silence followed in which Gretchen and their host stared each other down. His yellow eyes scanned every inch of her, looking for something that Gretchen couldn’t understand.
“Friend. Hurt,” he grunted.
“Yes… friend is hurt,” at first Gretchen had thought he was growling at her, but she understood enough of the noise coming from his mouth to answer. “Friend is hurt bad.”
“Inside. Fix later,” the response came in a guttural drawl.
“Well, we’ve been in there for a while and were hoping to find out…”
“Inside,” he repeated with another thwack to the carcass, this time cracking through a rib.
Once behind the closed door again, Harlan noticed all the color drained from Gretchen’s face, “What’s going on out there?”
“It looks like he’s cutting up some sort of creature on that spit,” she shook her head, “I don’t like it… he’s so strange. I don’t feel safe here, Harlan. We need to go.”
Harlan raised an eyebrow, “We need to go, because you don’t like him serving Bambi for dinner? Maybe it’s like Holestead said, you just need to change your perspec…”
“Don’t!” Gretchen held out a hand to stop him. “Just don’t. It’s too soon.”
He down cast his eyes, “He’s probably a hermit. Yeah, maybe he’s not quite right in the head, but at least he’s providing for us until we can get back on our feet.”
“You’re too trusting,” she added.
“At this juncture we don’t have a choice,” Harlan shrugged. “It’s kinda like the Kobyashi Maru. Either choice you make isn’t a good one, so you just need to go along for the ride and roll with the punches.”
“I’m not even going to pretend to know what you just said,” Gretchen rolled her eyes, then pointed at the door next to the snarling bear head. “We should find out what he has behind that.”
“Why?” Harlan cautioned. “Haven’t you heard what happened to the cat? Besides, isn’t there a fairy tale about that? Bluebeard or something?”
“Yeah,” Gretchen affirmed, “and Bluebeard was killing people too!”
“You’re being irrational,” Harlan laid his bad leg on a chair. “If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you open it?
“I suppose I will,” she looked quickly at the light coming from under the front door, but didn’t see any shadows present.
“Don’t let the brooms fall out on top of you, though if they do, take out the Nimbus 2000 for me,” Harlan chuckled. “Seriously though, I’m sure a recluse like him wouldn’t want a stranger snooping around his personal things, so make it quick.”
She had already begun her approach before Harlan completed his sentence. Silent warning signals flashed through her mind as Gretchen neared the door. Were they set off by the red marble eyes of the mounted bear head, or the memory of the two beady pupils of the cabin’s owner? Whatever the reason, an icy chill crawled down her spine as Gretchen’s hand touched the handle.
Forget it. Just turn around and let Harlan laugh at you…
“Go on then,” Harlan supplemented the voice in her head. “Show us all the terrible, horrible things the man keeps in his closet.”
Gretchen gulped and decided to ignore the warning sensations. Her fingers tightened around the doorknob and twisted…
“All that build up for a locked door,” Harlan shook his head. “You could always ask him for the key next.”
“No… I can’t…” Gretchen prodded the center of the knob with her fingers. “There isn’t anywhere to put a key.”
“Put your back into it then,” Harlan continued to jeer.
Clutching the handle, Gretchen thrust the full force of her body weight against the door. Still nothing happened. She slammed against it several more times, but to no avail.
“It’s locked, Harlan!” Gretchen ceased her work as her left arm and shoulder began to ache with the effort. “It’s locked from the other side!”
“Or he hasn’t used WD-40 in a while,” Harlan shrugged. “Admit it, you aren’t exactly in your peak amount of strength. Besides, how could it be locked from the other side, if that is the only way in?”
“I… I don’t know…” she began to say, but stopped in mid-thought. A smoky, burning smell overcame the both of them.
“Oh my. Cooking again already? I can’t wait. If he keeps it up, I’ll never want to leave… well that is if it weren’t for the lack of technology and civilization,” Harlan clutched his stomach as it rumbled. He reached out a hand to stop Gretchen as she passed by toward the front door, “Come on. Quit bothering the guy, Gretchen…”
She pulled out of his grasp and flung open the front door, immediately spotting the large fire begun under the spit. What Gretchen saw put panic into her. On the top of the pile of wood, being used for kindling, was a blue winter coat. Barely visible through the flames were the letters, “GGC,” with her corporation’s multicolored palm tree logo emblazoned on the coat’s breast pocket. Even more eye catching was the lace snowflake pinned below the collar. Stumbling down the porch, Gretchen plowed into the snow, forgetting that she wore nothing to cover her bare feet. She waded through the foot high drifts toward the bloody spit, the large blaze underneath cooking the skinned ribs over top. Gretchen fell onto her belly as her heel slipped over a buried log. A sharp pain shot through her left side, but she fought forward, reaching a hand out into the flames for the coat.
A heavy hand gripped her wrist, and dragged Gretchen backward, away from the flames.
“No!” she cried out. “No! Let go of me!”
Gretchen kicked at the leather boots of the yellow-eyed stranger as she writhed like a fish on a hook. Finally her wrist slipped free of his grasp, but cut against something sharp as it pulled away. Ignoring the short burst of pain, Gretchen lunged out again for Milwaukee’s coat, this time to be held back by her collar.
“Why are you doing this?” she screamed. “Why are you burning her things?”
“Gretchen!” Harlan had painfully hobbled to the front door. “What’s going on?”
Her assailant’s hands held her firm as the coat blackened and turned to ash. Despite the freezing cold, Gretchen felt trickles of warmth slide down the sleeve that initially broke free of him. Red drips painted the snow from claw-like wounds on her wrist.
“He’s burning her coat!” Gretchen fell limp in his arms, no longer struggling. “He’s been back to our site and is burning our things!”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Harlan hopped out, squinting against the blinding white of the snow drifts. The remnants of the coat could just barely be seen, “Where’d you get that?”
The big man rolled Gretchen out of his lap and waded to the pile of cut logs. With his beady yellow eyes glaring at Harlan, he twisted the two-sided ax out of a log and pointed a finger at Harlan’s jutting out bone, “Hurt. Need help.”
“No,” Harlan took a stand. “Where did you get that coat?”
In just a few quick strides, the yellow-eyed giant was within inches of Harlan. Gretchen watched Harlan twist his head away from the man’s scorching hot breath that she felt the night before. She also recalled the putrid smell that followed that warmth.
“We fix. Now.”
Before Harlan could protest, one fur covered arm lifted him up and over the giant’s shoulder. Gretchen gaped in horror as both Harlan and the stranger disappeared into the house, followed by a thud and a pained shriek. She staggered to her feet and waded through the snow toward the cabin. With her feet numb from the cold, Gretchen tripped upon entering, but caught herself on the door frame.
The giant had thrown Harlan against the wall, causing the thud she heard from outside. Now he knelt down beside Harlan, as the wounded man came out of his daze. At first the assailant prodded the jagged bone.
“Ah! Stop!” Harlan cried out and squirmed.
Instead of letting up, two brown fingers lifted the fold of skin under the loose bone. Gretchen watched in horror as she realized that the hands of their host were deformed. Each curved finger was two inches longer than her own and ended in pointed, triangular, claw-like nails. One of the claws pulled at the meat and muscle of the wound, but Harlan’s attempts at struggling were weak and futile.
“Stop it!” Gretchen rushed the man and tore at the furs covering his head and neck. “You’re hurting him, you son of a…”
Just as she grappled onto his clothing, the giant gave her a backhanded swing. The force of his smack sent her reeling onto the cabin’s one table, and rolled her over top of it to the floor. She landed on her broken arm, forcing an involuntary scream. The furs she gripped had come with her, now leaving him exposed. Yellow eyes bore into her as the beast stood up. His head was bald with dry skin clutching at his skull. Each ear tapered upward to a curved point following the roundness of his head. But most striking were the sunken eyes and two gaping slits where a nose used to be. Gretchen’s eyes grew wide and she let out an ear piercing scream.
“Leave her alone…” Harlan wheezed. “You ugly piece of…”
The beast turned from Gretchen in a quick, fluid-like gesture as something whizzed through the air over its head. A loud, squishy thwack cut through the room. For a moment, Harlan’s lips curled and tried to form words as his jaw quivered; both bulging eyes were still glued to the beast in the fur clothes. Slowly, Harlan’s gaze traced down the shoulders of the beast, to its arms, to its hands, and then to a wooden handle clutched between them. From her position on the opposite side of the room, Gretchen couldn’t see what had happened, only Harlan’s reaction as his eyes widened in silent terror, “I… can’t feel my…”
Harlan ceased speaking and emitted a horrified series of prolonged shrieks. Wincing against the sound, Gretchen covered her ears helplessly. The beast reached down to where the ax blade was embedded and lifted up Harlan’s boot. When the rest of his detached leg came with the boot, Gretchen’s eyes rolled back into her head and she passed out.

When Gretchen came to, she couldn’t tell how much time had elapsed. No more sunlight came from under the door, but in this part of the country that could have meant as much as two hours or six had come and gone. Harlan still laid against the same wall as before, but now with his head slumped to the side, apparently also having collapsed into unconsciousness. Gretchen tried moving her arms, but found that her wrists were tied behind her backside. A throbbing ache from her broken arm caused the onset of a migraine, compounded by the fact that she could do nothing to stop it. Oddly though, her legs were unbound allowing Gretchen some mobility. Set on the table was a plate stacked with cooked ribs, a light brown gel, probably honey, was lathered over them. Gretchen’s stomach rumbled at the thought of food, but with the pain from her arm and shoulder, she couldn’t will herself to an appetite. Gazing about the room, Gretchen came by a sight that almost made her faint again: a bare severed leg roasting over the fire.
Gretchen pulled and twisted at her restraints, but couldn’t remove them, “Harlan. Harlan, wake up… please wake up…”
Slowly Harlan stirred. His face was deathly pale, and it was clear he was still in a state of shock.
“Thank God…” Gretchen sighed upon realizing he was alive. “I thought you were dead…”
“I don’t think… you’re far off,” Harlan mumbled and looked down at the floor.
Gretchen bent down to look underneath the table and nearly cried out. Blood from his wound pooled over the floor and underneath Harlan’s resting body.
“How much blood have you lost?” Gretchen turned away to regain herself.
“Too much…” Harlan breathed deeply and leaned back against the wall. “I’m so tired…”
“No!” she chastised, keeping her voice low in case the creature was around. “Don’t you dare, damn it! Keep talking to me, Harlan! Don’t you dare leave me here alone!”
He opened his mouth to reply when the front door swung open. The beast still hadn’t recovered its head covering, leaving visible those features the scared and repulsed Gretchen. Its yellow eyes scanned the both of them, then he proceeded to the table and took one of the honeyed ribs from the plate. When the creature opened its mouth to take a bite, Gretchen spotted its malformed, broken, and jagged teeth. Instead of ripping the meat from the ribs, the creature crunched through and chewed both the meat and bone. Gretchen turned her face away from the sight. She closed her eyes and tried willing the entire situation to disappear.
Hot breath tickled the hair on her forehead, and Gretchen quickly reopened her eyes. The creature’s face was barely an inch away from her own. She opened her mouth to scream, but closed it again when the beast raised one of the honey coated ribs to her lips.
“Eat,” the noseless creature pinched Gretchen’s arm. “Grow big.”
Gretchen twisted away from its horrid face. The beast cackled in a raspy, crackling bellow, then skitted across the floor toward Harlan. For the first time, Gretchen paid attention to its light, tiger-like footfalls. The silence and fluidity of its movement was astonishing for a creature of its size. Still crouched over, the beast held the meat to Harlan too. Harlan pursed his lips and struggled as the pointed-eared creature tried forcing the rib into his mouth. Again, the monster howled with laughter and departed.
As the creature turned its back toward them on its way to the fireplace, Gretchen twisted her wrists, still stuck in their bindings. Her broken arm sent sharp pain signals throughout that side of her body, but Gretchen had no choice but to persevere. Rubbing her wrists along the splintery sides of the log wall behind her, Gretchen felt the bonds begin to release. All the while, she kept an eye on the beast at the fire. Using its claws, the creature checked the condition of the roasting leg. With a quick swipe, the giant took the limb from fire and sunk its teeth into the big toe. Bones crunched and snapped as the beast chewed and swallowed. When the creature’s eyes fell onto her again, Gretchen paused in her work; half afraid that it had heard her.
For a moment, the entity gave her a suspicious look and wrinkled its face. Moving its jaws and tongue around in circular motions, the creature finally opened its mouth and pried out a piece of toe nail stuck in between its teeth. The beast approached Gretchen one last time and lifted her chin with one jagged claw. It turned her head from side to side as if checking for something, then stormed out the front door. Gretchen waited for a few seconds before attempting to dislodge her restraints again.
“Harlan, are you still there?” she asked, a tear fell with each time her bad arm rubbed against the wall.
“Yeah… I’m here,” he replied, still as if in a daze.
“If I came over there,” Gretchen began, “do you think that you can undo my bonds?”
“I can try,” Harlan nodded. “No promises.”
Gretchen waited to make sure that their host wasn’t returning, before standing up and making her way to Harlan. His hands reached for her restraints, then froze.
“Do you know what these…” Harlan stopped. “Never mind… just don’t freak out when you see.”
Every time Harlan tugged on the binding, Gretchen cringed. This whole thing was a nightmare. She cursed Holestead for ever bringing them up here, and cursed the snow for not having killed her outright.
“What is he?” Gretchen asked, trying to take her mind off of the pain.
Harlan paused, then continued working as if she hadn’t said anything.
“If he’s not human… then what in the Hell is he?” she tried again.
“I don’t want to speculate on something like that…” Harlan kept to his work. “I’m not capable of…”
“Naming the impossible?” Gretchen completed his sentence. “Do you think that he could be what Holestead was talking about?”
“Windegos don’t exist,” Harlan sighed.
“How can you say that?” Gretchen sniffed back tears. “How can you say that when he… when he did this to you?”
“Because I don’t live in fantasies,” he mumbled.
“This isn’t a fantasy! This is a goddamn nightmare!” tears fell, but with her hands behind her back, Gretchen couldn’t wipe them away. “Do you think I want this to be real? Do you think I want to… to…”
“Die,” Harlan interjected.
“Be served up on a plate,” Gretchen felt the bindings loosen, and sighed. “He was eating one of us… you were eating one of…”
“You don’t know that!” Harlan snapped. “You don’t fracking know that!”
Gretchen placed her hands in front of herself and saw a purplish red mark around both wrists where she’d been bound. She turned around to thank Harlan when she saw the bindings by his side.
“It’s sinew,” Harlan explained, “from some animal he killed.”
“How do you know it was an animal?” Gretchen shuddered. “You don’t know that…”
He glared at her, “And you don’t know that it wasn’t.”
“How is it that you can still be a skeptic?” she knelt by him and motioned to the leg that was no more. “You saw him COOKING you!”
“Don’t you understand!” Harlan screamed himself to tears. “If this is a… a cannibal like you say, then I did it too! Damn it, Gretchen! Stop talking about it!”
It was then she realized that Harlan wasn’t meaning to imply that she was in the fantasy world, but that he was. The little man was pleading with her not to break his delusion. A self protecting mechanism? Perhaps it was the only way for Harlan to maintain his sanity as he followed the white rabbit even deeper into Hell. After his outburst, Harlan laid his head back and closed his eyes, seemingly to shut out the whole world around him.
“I’ll get us out of here…” Gretchen whispered. “I promise.”
Against her better judgment, Gretchen let him sleep. There were no weapons in the room, or anything that she could break apart to make a worthy offense. Whatever weapon she came up with would need to deal a quick and strong first blow, or else the strength and ferocity the beast used on her before would turn on her again. A beast? Gretchen considered the description and found it wanting. The more she thought about their captor, the more one word kept flashing through her mind: Windego. Irrational? Maybe. But where Harlan couldn’t fathom it, the belief kept Gretchen going. It gave her a foundation to stand on… something that made the situation less confusing.
The only area not searched was the cabin’s mystery door. Gretchen tried its handle, only to find it still locked from the other side. She turned to Harlan again, who remained still with his eyes closed. For the first time another thought crossed her mind: she could run. Yes, that meant leaving Harlan behind, but maybe she might make it to civilization before freezing to death. It was a shot in the dark, but might work.
What about the Windego?
Snow left trails, and the windego already proved that it could traverse the frozen fields with ease. Leaving would only hasten her demise. No… if she and Harlan were to survive, the windego had to be defeated. That meant getting through the damned door.
As Gretchen slipped on her socks and boots, she considered the deteriorating condition of the cabin’s features: the musty blankets, the dusty interior, and cobwebs in the corners. If the house was as old and decrepit as it looked, then there was a chance to get through the door after all. Standing back, Gretchen kicked it as hard as she could. The frame shook, but other than that, nothing happened. With even more force, she laid into it again. This time she heard a whining creak in the wood.
“Come on…” she murmured and slammed her foot into it several more times. The creaking grew louder and more pronounced, until finally the wood frame splintered and the door gave way. Gretchen’s heart pounded as she gazed at the dark void beyond the door. Even Harlan looked up to observe the new development. Cold air rushed through the space, causing Gretchen to reach for her coat before entering.
“Wait,” Harlan wheezed. “Gretchen, you may not want to see what it has in there.”
“It’s the only way,” she crouched next to him, “and I have to know…”
Harlan nodded, “If you hear it come in… don’t turn back. It’ll know now… there’s no telling what it might do.”
“You’re calling him an it now?” she clasped his hand.
“Just hurry,” he ignored her, “and be prepared for the worst.”

Stepping through the doorway was like walking into a demented Narnia. The closet opened into a craggy, cavernous void. Rusty tools that looked weathered with age and disuse rested on shelves or bent hooks. A hollowed out section of the wall to her immediate left tapered to two red points: the marble eyes of the bear trophy. She peered into the space and saw the fireplace and table clearly, though through a red tint.
“He’s been watching us…” Gretchen whispered to herself. “But this wasn’t put here for us… my God… how long has he been…”
She backed into a cabinet with loose doors. Gretchen jumped away as a dusty glass jar fell through one of the swaying shutters, and smashed to pieces on the floor. Bending low, Gretchen took a handful of its contents and held it up. Teeth… twenty human molars in her hand alone, with over a hundred others strewn amongst her mess. Gretchen chucked them away and listened to them clink along the floor and walls. Gazing back to the swaying doors of the cabinets, she spotted at least twenty other jars, each full of the same macabre trophies.
Gretchen clasped onto a rusted hammer which seemed to not have moved from its place on a shelf top for decades. Making her way through, her boots no longer thudded onto wood, but dirt and rock. The secret to the inner locked door was now revealed. No one was supposed to access this space from the inside of the cabin, but the outside as it opened into a cavern that went under the hill beside the dwelling. A few more steps further and her boots stepped onto a surface that cracked and popped. Even though her mind did not want to let her do it, Gretchen knelt down and grabbed at the new floor covering. It did not take her long to recognize the object in her hand… a human femur. She shuffled her feet and found that from here on out the entire bottom of the cavern was littered with human bones haphazardly strewn about.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as other things came into focus. A crude stone table with bloodstains and white scars appeared straight ahead. Beside it was what appeared to be an old trough for livestock filled with all sorts of odds and ends from throughout the ages. She sifted through the collection objects which included a ranger badge, driver’s licenses, credit cards, wedding rings, glasses, coins, and anything that couldn’t be burnt like zippers and buttons. Gretchen claimed every usable cigarette lighter she could find to keep warm, and a switchblade for herself… leaving the hammer behind.
It took four attempts to get one of the lighter’s flame to catch, but once it did, a whole new field of vision came to her. Gretchen almost dropped the lighter again as she made to scream. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the little bit that did come out. Human skin hung stretched out like drying garments clipped to a clothesline on both sides of the cavern for as far as she could see. The likenesses of the persons to whom they used to belong were no longer recognizable as the heads were all missing. One of a male, still bore a tattoo along its right arm. The skins of women gave Gretchen the most pause, as even the skin of the breasts was left behind although the muscle and insides were no more. If she failed in her escape, or to destroy the creature… this would be her fate… to exist as a wall decoration in the lair of an inhuman monster.
Shaking violently, Gretchen proceeded still further as the tunnel rose at an incline. She tried her best to ignore what covered the walls, and kept her gaze straight ahead. A sinking feeling told her to turn back toward the cabin, but her legs kept walking forward. Her boot lost its footing on a vertebrae, sending Gretchen tumbling down. She caught herself on another table, and immediately backed away from it after her hand felt its wet stickiness. Gretchen rubbed her fingers together, realizing that the substance was now stuck to her. Flicking the lighter back on, she gaped in horror as tears streamed down her cheeks. Her palm and fingers were covered in blood from the crimson soaked table. A variety of severed heads rested on it with their eyes and teeth removed… one of them she recognized. Matted with blood, Milwaukee’s brunette hair clung to the sides of her face; just another head among many in various states of decay.
“AAAAAH! AAAAAAH!”
The shriek was unmistakably Harlan’s; Gretchen’s warning that the beast… the windego had returned. Her heart raced and panic flooded her body. Upon entering, the creature would realize that she had departed down its lair of the macabre. What would happen then? Would the beast immediately rip her open and feast then and there? Or would it sever off one of her legs to keep her awhile, like Harlan? She had to think fast, or the alternatives would certainly end here… hanging in the cave.
Despite the light footed steps of the windego, the scattered teeth and broken glass at the entrance to the tunnel betrayed its approach. Gretchen only had a few seconds now before it would see her. She looked around for a place to hide, but the only area immediately around her was the gore covered table of severed heads. Gretchen got down on her hands and knees and scoot herself under the fixture, keeping a lookout through a small crack on the poorly constructed table’s paneled left side.
Approaching from the darkness, two small yellow orbs appeared. Seemingly unattached to anything, the orbs floated in mid-air until the black outline of a body came into view. Gretchen pulled away from the crack, fearing that the windego’s glowing yellow eyes had seen her. Instead, the windego appeared to be following the sound of Gretchen’s rapid thumping heart pounding inside her chest. Gretchen covered her nose to hush her breathing and tried to take calm and collected breaths to still the panic setting in.
“He hasn’t found me yet,” Gretchen said within the confines of her mind. “Just remember… he hasn’t found me yet.”
The windego approached within inches of her hiding place and halted. From under the table, Gretchen could see that the beast no longer wore its leather boots, and instead walked upon its bare feet. What Harlan and Gretchen once foolishly mistook for cleats, were curved daggers on each malformed and twisted toe. Even the rest of the beast’s feet were mutated, with the foot being a slim sliver in the minutest form of its human equivalent, and a thin heel just above a pronounced ball for an ankle. The beast turned toward the table and sniffed the air in snorting noises. Gretchen heard one clawed hand remove one of the heads from the table, followed by another snorted sniff.
“Oh my God!” the voice in Gretchen’s mind quivered. “He smells me!”
As the windego lifted yet another head, Gretchen frantically sought an alternative method of escape. Clutching the switchblade in her hand, she clicked out the blade and stabbed at the windego’s heel before it could react. The blade sunk deep into the tendon, causing a gaping wound that made the creature utter a horrific, echoing howl unlike anything else heard on this planet. Taking her opportunity, Gretchen shrieked and sank her blade into the tendon of the second heel, spilling even more blood over the white bones covering the ground.
Gretchen clambered out from under the table as the windego fell backwards, shrieking angrily in a series of snarls and gnashing of teeth that made a cacophony of sound in the narrow cave. With the beast blocking her retreat back to the cabin, Gretchen had nothing to do, but run forward blindly. The cigarette lighters jingled together in her pockets as she sprinted with her hands out to keep from running head first into a wall. Finally, with the windego’s pained howls behind her, Gretchen came around a bend leading to a scene of sparkling snow and ice. Without looking back, Gretchen dashed toward the cave opening and halted to catch her breath.
Gazing about her, Gretchen recognized the clearing that had led she and Harlan to the windego’s dwelling. Sure enough, the staggered trail of their own footprints still existed, undisturbed in the snow leading down the embankment. Smoke billowed from the chimney, still out of sight.
“Harlan…” Gretchen thought aloud, then gazed into the tunnel. With the windego wounded, it may take it awhile to catch up to her. Maybe… just maybe there was enough time to retrieve the cripple and make a run for it.
Ignoring the pain in her left arm, Gretchen almost fell several times as she slid down the hill toward the cabin. Upon her approach, she spotted a new body strung up on the spit; it’s head and limbs still attached with its skin. Though in a frozen posture of death, Gretchen recognized the body of Leon Holestead almost immediately. She batted the image from her mind, and thrust open the cabin door.
The interior looked as if some large animal had barreled through. Both chairs and the table were shattered and splintered along with several other articles strewn about the house. Harlan laid in the middle, atop the remains of a chair, crumpled in a bloody heap. Serrated incisions on his arms and torso exuded blood in slow spilling, but concerning amounts.
Taking Harlan by the shoulders, Gretchen lifted him out of the mess and crouched with him on the floor. His bloody hand gripped hers as he struggled to find words, “Put up a fight… didn’t I?”
“Tore him a new one,” Gretchen batted a tear away. “Come on, we have to go.”
He shook his head, “I think my luck’s run out… I’ve got, what… a few minutes?”
“Harlan,” she placed both hands on either side of his cheeks and forced him to look at her, “you have to try. The things I saw… you don’t want to end up like that.”
“Where is he now?” Harlan blinked his eyes in his delirium.
“In the…” Gretchen began to respond when they heard a shuffling enter onto the wood floor of the closet. Four curved claws grappled the shattered door frame, causing Gretchen’s heart to skip a beat. Barely able to stand, the windego rounded the corner, its glowing yellow eyes narrowed in an angry and predatory glare.
“You…” Gretchen laid Harlan’s head on the floor and stood up, switchblade in hand. “You monster!”
The windego grinned and cackled, baring its jagged and broken teeth. As the beast took another two steps out of the shadows, Gretchen saw the double bladed ax it used for support. The pale expression that passed over her must have showed, as the beast’s laughter grew in volume. Seeing Harlan struggling on the floor, and knowing the imminent certainty of her own demise, Gretchen felt fear and despair leave her. Something else took their place: determined survival.
Gretchen removed one of the lighters from her pocket and jammed the switchblade into the underside of its base. Twisting the knife, she created a small opening as the windego came forward, mouth open in a savage display of ferocity. Before the beast could wrap its claws around her, Gretchen took a step backward and flung the lighter’s fluid onto the creature’s chin and fur coat. Smelling the substance on itself, the windego flinched, then renewed its attack. Dropping the ax by its bleeding feet, the windego wrapped its claws around Gretchen in time for her to have opened up the body of another lighter. The hands of the creature felt like dried leather against her neck and shoulder. Unable to raise the lighter while the windego had her arm pinned, Gretchen felt herself get lifted off the ground. She twisted and struggled to no avail. The beast opened its mouth, exposing its rancid breath, and lunged for her neck.
THWACK!
The windego dropped her abruptly, howling as it sank to its knees. Dazed, Gretchen squirmed away from the monster’s claws, then saw what had happened. Harlan, in a last burst of energy drove the ax blade clean through the windego’s already gashed open left heel, severing most of the foot from the leg. Crying out in an ear splitting set of shrieks, the beast clutched at its appendage, cursing in a language that neither human could understand.
Taking her opportunity, Gretchen struggled to her feet and closed the distance between she and the creature. Ruined lighter in hand, she turned it upside down and spilled the little bit of lighter fluid into its mouth. The creature spat and swung its arms savagely, raking Gretchen across the belly, sending droplets of blood onto the floor. Clutching the fresh wound, she removed a zippo lighter and flicked on an orange flame.
The windego grabbed her ankle and forced Gretchen to the ground, where it pounced onto her chest. Taking her by the neck, the windego applied pressure, drawing blood and letting the red goo seep between its claws.
“How about…” Gretchen gagged and choked. “A light…”
She rose the open flame to the windego’s chest. In a sudden torrent, the spilled lighter fluid ignited, sending flames up the beast’s chest and up toward its mouth. Gretchen felt her hair singe as the flame sparked an inferno along the windego’s lips and inside of its mouth. With its grip on her released, Gretchen rolled away. Quickly, she took the musty blanket once used to cover herself by the fireplace, and threw it on top of the writhing creature. Almost on cue, the covering combusted into flame, engulfing the creature entirely. The windego somehow managed to stand, grabbing at its burning garments, but unable to tear the thick fur off. In blind fury, Gretchen grabbed a broken table leg and slammed it into the windego’s side, sending it tumbling into the fireplace. Taking the switchblade, Gretchen released the fluid in the remaining lighters and splashed their contents upon the cabin’s floor and walls.
“Harlan!” she shouted above the horrid cries of the beast. “Wake up! We have to go!”
Still not stirring, Gretchen took him by the arms and dragged him away from the thrashing flames. A sickly smell of charring flesh came with black smoke that issued from the windego’s frantically convulsing body. Dragging Harlan’s body quickly away before a stray flame licked his leg, Gretchen looked up and saw the eyes of the windego glaring back at her. No longer yellow, the pupils were an uncanny black. Along with the blackening long ears pasted to the creatures scalp, the beast looked like a demon climbing its way out of Hell.
Flames traced the paths of the lighter fluid up the walls to the ceiling, creating a yellow-orange canopy. Harlan’s weight made Gretchen’s progress to the front door frustratingly slow. Hairs on the bear trophy twisted and curled with the encroaching flame as the dwelling became an inferno. Nearing the door, Gretchen watched in horror as the black-eyed demon waddled toward them. The creature was so engulfed in flame, that one could not see any distinct or recognizable features whatsoever. With arms outstretched toward them like a zombie, the windego took three more steps before a groaning sound came from above. Weakened by the fire, the stone chimney tilted toward the roof of the cabin, then tumbled down in a cascade of granite and cinders crushing the windego underneath.
Gretchen kicked open the front door and took Harlan out the rest of the way. The cold winter air was a blessed reprieve from the furnace from which she had just come. Taking him under the armpits, Gretchen carried Harlan off the porch and several feet away into the snow. Sweat from her forehead dripped down the bridge of her nose as she laid Harlan against logs from the wood pile. Harlan’s eyes were closed in the calmness of sleep. She placed a finger on his wrist to check for his pulse, but realized that through her gloves she wouldn’t be able to feel it anyway. Wrapping her arms around him, Gretchen gave the unconscious man a hug.
“We made it, Harlan,” she wept onto his matted hair. “We got him…”

Two hours later the towering flames died down. The roof and one wall of the cabin caved in completely leaving only an outer shell still burning like the wick of a candle. Gretchen gazed at the hypnotically flickering orange light, not even realizing the passing time. In one hand she clutched Harlan, who still hadn’t awoken, while in the other she gripped the switchblade. Ice started to form along her cheeks where the tracts of her tears had not been wiped away. After everything she had seen… everything that had happened… it was hard to fathom a path from here.
“How much longer until they send someone out looking for us?” Gretchen asked Harlan. “You’re the one that knows everything.”
She cast her eyes up to the starlit night sky. In the endless sea of celestial orbs bordered by the tops of tall pines still outlined in snow, it was difficult to believe that such horrors could have taken place directly below it. Who would believe her story? Would that even matter?
Gretchen flicked the switchblade open and closed in rhythmic manner, just so its clicking could add something else to the mundane atmosphere. Where should she go from here? Maybe when Harlan woke up, he might be able to provide some insight. For the first time in her life, Gretchen was deciding she didn’t much like being alone without someone else to help make the decisions. She chuckled to herself, “Maybe I shouldn’t have burned the cabin down.”
She gazed back up to the night sky and considered the stars again. Some of those pointed in certain directions, right? Perhaps that could help. Was one supposed to look for the Big Dipper or the brightest star in the sky? Maybe she should just find one of them and follow it. First she should rest. Harlan was already way ahead of her on that. He really was pretty smart the more Gretchen thought about it. Ultimately, she closed her eyes to follow his example… but reopened them when images of the cave appeared out of her mind’s shadows. Without sleep, how long could she last? In the cold, how long did she have? Harlan would know, if only he’d wake up…
“OOWOOOO!”
The cry of a wolf startled her. Of course there were other predators in the forest…
“Oow! Oowooo!” Another called out from somewhere else. The beasts were communicating with each other. Someone had found prey; a deer, rabbit, whatever else didn’t hibernate this time of year.
Gretchen heard sniffing to her left. She slowly turned her head and saw one of the wolves at Holestead’s strung up body. The gray canine prodded the carcass with its nose. Out of necessity, Gretchen allowed her eyes to close. She controlled her breathing as to not draw attention. Another animal approached…. she could hear its paws hit the snow as it came down the hill. She waited a while longer, then heard the squishy sounds of fangs tearing into flesh. In silence, Gretchen’s bottom lip trembled as more tears flowed from her closed eyelids. The sounds of tearing meat filled the night air. Unable to stand it anymore, Gretchen opened her mouth.
A scream rattled the mountain’s landscape for almost a mile. But no one was around to hear it…

Credit: Benjamin Krause

The Forgotten

December 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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When hiking alone in my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days in which events took place that disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of those days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering mind and my thoughts which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending images plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.

A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they would hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had once shown to him. The same paths they used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before those native folk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimalistic clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at a young age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.

From what I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language or customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence.

It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to that region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. However, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken.

Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther down the inevitable route that would lead to the rest of my life.

That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire, as though they had been betting who could throw the farthest. That night I slept beneath the stars in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.

The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly, because of the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.

I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.

I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.

And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.

The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcomed into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.

In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.

I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.

With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.

Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.

I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.

From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focusing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.

Outside there was the unmistakable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.

I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.

And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.

I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.

By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.

I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?

I tell myself that those visions I experienced were figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?

I’d rather believe I’m insane.

Credit: Keith Daniels

Unwanted Room

November 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I thought it was a great house and at a price we could afford, despite being laid off after ten years of steady employment and a new baby in my wife’s arms. The area was rural, the nearest neighbors not even a sight from our kitchen window, and the previous owner had left a lot of furniture that we didn’t have. From our small one bedroom apartment in the city to this place, it was like finding a piece of Heaven. The real estate agent had been nice as she showed us several different places, all out of our price range. Then suddenly the previous owner had passed and his children didn’t want the property, so it became available. I was eager to get the house. It was modest enough for our growing family, what else could we want?

The agent had what I thought at the time a funny story to tell us. Before she could even tell us the asking price, she said that she was required by law to inform us that a paranormal research team had visited the house under the notion that the place was haunted. She assured us that the investigation happened twenty years ago and there was no evidence of a haunting, just some old family rumors that scared the residents at the time. We all had a laugh at that, especially my wife Molly. We were both skeptics of the paranormal, we didn’t believe in ghosts and vampires any more than we believed the moon landing was real. The agent didn’t have the exact details, but it was a clean house. I put a bid on it immediately, never bothering to inspect the house for damages or insect infestations; a decision I came to regret.

Our first week was uneventful; Molly and I took the upstairs master bedroom and little baby Ethan got the room next to ours. There was a third bedroom, which sparked Molly’s interest in having another child. I didn’t have a problem with that, the attempts were the best part for me; and she never knew I used a condom so that I could be with her without risking getting her pregnant. She was so beautiful with long brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her slight Asian heritage showed in the small slant of her eyes, my purely European ancestry didn’t mind at all. Her body was something I couldn’t be more proud of, with her skin soft as satin and her ample breasts there was no sign that she’d ever been pregnant.

The second Tuesday after we moved in the problems began. They were subtle things, all which could be attributed to faults in the house; though I could see why someone obsessed with the paranormal would immediately assume ghosts were at work. Molly was the first hit as she went to take a shower before leaving for work. As she stood naked under the spray of water the hot water stopped and she jumped out of the shower screaming; I comforted her with a large towel and then set myself to checking the water heater. I thought it odd that all the sinks still had hot water, but I was determined to check it out. I didn’t have any experience, though as a husband I felt qualified. It was like I was given a book on how to be a man when I married, just to do all the things a husband was expected to do.

I hadn’t been in the basement much since moving in, the movers brought all the boxes down and Molly was the one to search through them. In my inspection I noticed the strange architecture that formed the foundation to my new home. It was old, blended with cunning skill to the newer sections of the basement. I was never good with history and couldn’t place it immediately, but some of the carvings reminded me of what Molly and I had seen in an old Roman church on our honeymoon to Ireland. That had been a special place, the tour guide had explained that the Romans had no known success past Hadrian’s Wall in England and the church was evidence that the empire had spread further than previously known. They even might have made it across the Atlantic, the guide had joked. A lot of educated historians and archaeologists were in the news infrequently, talking about Europeans in New England long before Columbus arrived; though I barely paid any attention to it.

The water heater was in the corner of the basement in what appeared to be the newer section, though the entire place was dark and filled with cobwebs of spiders long gone. The cylindrical device was in a recently built cabinet to hide it from view, as if the notion of finishing the basement had come to mind before being abandoned. There wasn’t anything in the cabinet with the heater other than more webs that had been abandoned by their makers. I wondered how long it’d been since anyone actually checked the machine, I had to brush several webs aside just to get a good look at it.

I’ve already said that I’m not taken to believing in the unknown and mysterious, but I felt dread being in that place. I could feel eyes watching me though I never saw the source. I swallowed my pride and looked at the heater, expecting to know nothing. But I did, a valve dial was turned almost entirely to the right. A worn label was beside it but I risked the danger and turned it to the left, opening the valve. There were no explosions and the heater didn’t react differently; but when I checked the shower the hot water was working again. I told Molly with feigned mastery, knowing that the valve was likely closed enough that it allowed some hot water through but wasn’t reliable. I fixed it, twisting one of the knobs until it was fully open.

I stayed home, unemployed as I was. Molly appreciated it, I was able to watch our child and work on what I’ve always dreamt of, composing music. Ethan slept most of the time, waking only when hungry or after he’d soiled himself. It was good for me; the baby monitor I kept a few feet away was almost always silent. And because he couldn’t tell me what he dreamed of, I didn’t know what was going on in his head. Thinking of it made me laugh, I didn’t know what a baby could dream of other than milk and maybe Molly’s breasts; I dreamt about them all of the time.

Other things happened, all that I was able to explain away. From the missing cordless phone to missing silverware; this could easily be my fault. Odd cold spots appeared, but always seemed to be the result of a broken vent or something else changing the air around it. Then there were the lights. When I say that, I mean the lights would turn on and off seemingly randomly, even if someone was in the room. I’d checked numerous times to see if there might’ve been bad wiring but I’m no electrician. We eventually bit the bullet and, after I admitted my ineptitude, called someone that really knew what they were doing.

The electrician was a kid barely out of school who acted as though he’d had a lifetime’s worth of knowledge. I led him to the basement and the circuit box, showing him the tangle of wires. He mumbled something about a long job and set to work examining the wires. I found a chair that was free of infestations and watched him work; when I was young a contractor stole things from our house when nobody was around. Since then, I always watch. I accept that people are flawed, but that doesn’t mean I have to trust them. So as the kid started his work I relaxed and pulled a worn book out of my pocket to read. I figured my presence there would be enough to deter any thoughts of theft. But not watching I didn’t see what was happening to him. I know that he was examining several wires that passed over the old part of the basement when I heard the noise. It sounded like a scraping sound, followed by a murmur of surprise and a whoosh of air. I stood to investigate and the kid ran into me.

“Burn it down, man; just get out…” He was saying as he collided with me; his skin was pale and eyes wide. I jokingly asked if he saw a ghost; his silent reaction to that question was more frightening than his appearance. I left the discarded book on the basement floor where I had dropped it and ran after the kid. The electrician nearly broke the kitchen screen door as he ran outside to his truck. When I reached the door the kid was backing down the driveway. From what I could see, he was sweating profusely with the same shocked demeanor. In moments he was gone, his tires screeched as he slammed the pedal down in his escape. I’ve never seen that happen to a person, I didn’t know what to make of it. Curiously, I returned to the basement to see if I could find what might’ve frightened the kid.

I first noticed that the book I had left, and I thought fallen on the floor, was resting peacefully on a small table beside the chair with a scrap of paper acting as a bookmark. I couldn’t remember doing it; and considering that I dog ear the pages when I take a break, the bookmark was highly unlike me. I put the small book back in my pocket and circled to the other side of the basement where the electrician had last been. It appeared as though he was at a portion of the basement where the old and new portions were blended together with artistic grace. There was white dust everywhere and I noticed that some of the wires were inside the wall, engulfed by plaster. I tugged one of the wires and made the same scraping sound I heard earlier. It wasn’t hard to figure that the electrician was pulling out some of these wires when something happened to him. I looked at the several wires that were free and noticed one that had been pulled out more, done by the electrician. I moved to inspect the area that the wire had been ripped from when I heard a sound that immediately took my focus; a baby crying.

I rushed up the stairs to find Ethan lying in his crib, wrapped in his small blanket, crying. His eyes were pinched shut and he was slightly curled in a fetus. I went to him, thinking of nothing but my son. He cried as I picked him up and as I held him close he grabbed my sweatshirt with his small hands. I circled the room, trying to calm him, but nothing worked. I decided to feed him and walked to the hall. Ethan stopped crying the very instant that I’d stepped out of the room. I looked at him strangely and stepped back into the room.

Ethan began crying again, wailing as if haunted by something I couldn’t see. I took him out of the room and once again the tears stopped. I admit to my confusion as I brought him to the kitchen where Molly kept several bottles for him. I rested him comfortably in a playpen he could grow into using as I prepared some food for him. Once I knew it wasn’t too hot or cold I went to my son. He drank some, but he wasn’t as hungry as his crying would’ve otherwise suggested. He burped a little and fell asleep in my arms. I carried him to the master bedroom and put him in a bassinet in the corner. When Molly came home, he was still sleeping.
“I’m home,” she called as always. I went to the stairs to usher her up to the bedroom. I told her about Ethan’s crying as she picked him up and carried him to his crib. He was sleeping and didn’t wake when she brought him across the threshold. She found me, smiling as she always did, and led me to the kitchen were she prepared a small dinner for us. That night we were both woken by Ethan’s screaming, which reminded me again of his awful tears earlier in the day. Molly brought him into our room and he slept in the bassinet without disturbing us once. He slept in the bassinet for two more nights, stopping us from attempting another child, before the sexual tension between us grew too strong. Molly waited for Ethan to sleep and brought him to his crib.

A two o’clock in the morning he started to cry; Molly once again told me that she’d handle the baby. Lying in bed I could hear her pacing the hallway whispering to Ethan. I couldn’t hear what she said, but it was calm and relaxing even to me. When she brought Ethan into our room, her inaudible words had put me to sleep. Three more nights we attempted to sneak Ethan into his crib, and every night he dragged Molly out of bed with his crying. By the third night I could easily see the lack of sleep taking its toll on her; her eyes were always red and the skin under them was darkening. She even dressed in more muted colors, as if the rainbow of fabrics held no appeal to her. It was bad and I resounded to solve the situation myself.

The following day I ran to Ethan’s rescue and, after comforting him, laid him to rest in the bassinet. Then I went into Ethan’s room to see if I could find anything. I checked the crib, initially thinking there was something wrong with it that upset my son, but it was fine. Then I checked the toys and even inspected the carpet, but nothing that would frighten a child. I was standing in the middle of the room, looking at the mirror on Ethan’s closet door, when I saw it. Someone else was in the room.

I spun quickly but the room was empty. I ran into the hall and quickly down the stairs, but found no evidence of another person in the place. I went back upstairs and inspected every nook and cranny in every room, but there was nobody. I went back to Ethan’s room and looked around. After no initial signs I looked back at the mirror. At first there was nothing, and then I saw him. Almost my height, he was old with a bald head and wearing a black suit with a black tie. He didn’t look at me, but I could tell from the reflection that his eyes were glowing, a soft red light like an old bulb. He turned to me, expressing no emotion, and then started to walk out of my vision. I turned to look and once again found the room empty. I walked to the crib, where the man had stopped, and looked. To my surprise, it wasn’t empty. Lying there, half buried under Ethan’s soft sheet, was that same small book I’d read in the basement.

I couldn’t figure out anything special about the book, it was just a story about a group of kids stuck on an island and how a misguided civilization grew. The place I stopped wasn’t even special; it was still early in the book. Then I noticed the scrap of paper that’d been used as a bookmark. It was a torn piece of newspaper that had yellowed with age, advertising several small businesses in the area. One was circled in a dark substance that I recognized immediately.

In my former job I saw a lot of injuries; accidents resulting in bleeding and even hospital visits. I remembered the color of blood so very well, I even imagined that it was a color necessary in a crayon box; but I also knew the color blood made when it dried on paper. It was a brownish color with just a hint of red, the longer it was there the less red there would be. It was too clumsy to be a marker, even the small grooves in the lines suggested that a finger was used to make it. It was for a psychic nearby, but I imagined that the paper was very old and the place closed. But with the way my son had been behaving, I had no choice but to try.

I dialed the number and waited as it rung. As I sat I contemplated disconnecting, but a woman answered before I could commit to such action. She sounded old, with a weak wavering voice similar to the one my mother had.

“This is Researchers of Unknown Knowledge, may I help you?” She asked. I looked at the paper and frowned, it wasn’t even the right business.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “I have the wrong number.”

“Were you looking for Madam Oracle?” She asked. I wasn’t expecting the question, but that was the name on the paper.

“Yes, I was.” I told her, almost afraid of what she’d say next.

“I am Madam Oracle, or I was when I was younger,” she laughed and coughed for a moment, “My grandson works with me and we started this a few years ago.”

“Oh, well I hope you could help me, I-” I started to speak when she cut me off.

“You found this phone number and you suspect that your home may be haunted.”

“How did you know?”

“Just a lucky guess.” Something told me that she had more to say. “I also guess that you’re skeptical about the paranormal. Well, I can assure you that we act in a very thorough, scientifically unbiased way. How’s tomorrow afternoon?”

“But I didn’t say what was going on.”

“No need dear; it is better if we don’t know. And I know your address; caller ID.” She laughed and hung up. At the time that was the strangest experience in my life, second to the mysterious man I kept seeing in my son’s room. But I was determined to solve this, anything for my little boy. Hell, I was already keeping him from having a sibling just so that he’d get the attention he deserved. I was the third of six boys, there was never enough attention to go around; we competed for the spotlight. I never wanted to put Ethan through that, and I didn’t want him to suffer any torment. If the crazy bat I’d just spoken with could help, then so be it. I’d bend over backwards for him, and truthfully I hoped that he’d never remember any of this.

I didn’t tell Molly about what I’d done, it’d be better for us both if I alone had to live with the memories of this event. My only suggestion was to keep Ethan in the bassinet all night; Molly agreed with me on the count that she had less than eight hours of sleep over the past three nights, she was too tired to have to handle another one of Ethan’s mysterious nightmares. When Molly went to work the next day I put Ethan in the bassinet and waited for the woman to come. The doorbell chimed one minute after one o’clock; apprehensively I opened the door.

Her name was Bethany Warwick; she was near eighty years old and used a cane to support her hunched body. Her hair was as white as snow and thick black sunglasses hid her eyes from me. She was dressed in simple clothes, the same sort that my aging mother would wear, and bunny slippers. With her were two men. One was Theodore Warwick, Bethany’s grandson, and the other was Francis Conway. Theo, as he introduced himself, was younger than me in his late twenties, with cropped black hair and thin eyebrows over deep set eyes. His eyes were small, darting back and forth like a nervous mouse watching for the stalking cat. He was wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants, carrying a large suitcase. Francis was shorter than Theo but about the same age, with a brighter appearance that hinted at his bright attitude. He wore a shirt that read ‘Who you gonna call?’ on the front and on the back was the Ghostbusters symbol. He was wearing jeans cut off at the knees and carried a suitcase like Theo’s.

They set their things on the kitchen table, one of the pieces that had come to the house thanks to the previous owner, and showed me their gadgets. They had something called an EMF detector, which could detect changes in electricity in the air, and a sensitive microphone recorder so they could ask questions and hopefully catch answers in the white noise. There were several cameras, all equipped with thermal scopes and motion detectors, as well as simple tools like screwdrivers and hammers. Bethany was proud of the simple flashlights, the tool she was most familiar with. I was given a camera to use and instructed on how to use it properly. Take three pictures, in sequence, from the same spot. Bethany took the lead and guided us to the baby’s room without a hint of direction from me and stopped with her back to the mirror on the door. She had us line up opposite her so that we could see ourselves in the mirror and the room behind us.

“Gentlemen, have your devices ready; I will call him. Don’t be afraid if the cameras stop working.” She must have been talking to us, and we did as asked. As she began chanting something in a low voice, the three of us watched the mirror. I’d already seen the mysterious man; it was only a matter of time before they did too. We didn’t need to wait long; the old bald man appeared behind us, rather than walked into view the last time I’d seen him. Theo, who’d been holding the EMF detector, nearly shouted in surprise as the small gadget began getting high readings that weren’t normal for a house; readings that were lethal to humans. Francis was asking questions, holding the microphone a foot away from his mouth. I would have taken a photograph but the camera turned off in my hand and wouldn’t turn back on.

If the man’s presence wasn’t frightening enough, when he walked through me I almost fainted. Now he should’ve been visible, standing before me. But in the mirror we could see that he didn’t appear whole, we could still see through him. He was saying something, which I hoped Francis was able to record, and then lunged at Bethany. The ghost grabbed Bethany by the neck and started to squeeze, choking her words. Theo jumped to the rescue though it was hard to know what to do. Bethany looked like she was being strangled by an invisible hand, like Darth Vader in Star Wars; only when Theo attempted to save her was she able to speak again.

“Be gone, you’re not welcome here.” Her voice was raspy but the ghost responded and released her, disappearing. As she started to fall, Theo caught his grandmother. Her eyes were closed as Theo lifted her off the ground and carried her to the living room. As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, Francis played back the recording so that we could listen. At first it was just Bethany’s rumbling, with questions from Francis breaking in. Then there was a distinctively deeper voice that was clearer than any ghost recording the two men had ever heard.

“I (inaudible) called Peter Foster; I was the priest (inaudible). This land (inaudible) the church; this room was where I lived. I pretended to be a Christian, (inaudible); beneath my feet is the entrance to the real church (inaudible), one you will never see.” That was the point the ghost attacked Bethany and Theo shouted, forcing Francis to stop recording. I looked at the two investigators but they could make little of it. It was Bethany, who we thought unconscious, that broke the silence.

“Secret door…basement.” Was all she could say, but that clicked in my head. Theo wanted to stay with his grandmother until the paramedics arrived, so Francis and I went into the basement to where the electrician had seen something that frightened him. I showed him the wires that were being pulled out and Francis inspected the holes. He showed me that this section of wall was covering a small space. I didn’t know what to do, but Francs did; he took a hammer and smashed holes in the wall until the sheetrock was weak enough to break. It took him almost five minutes to clear it away.

What we’d thought was an alcove was actually the top of a set of stone stairs descending into the earth. Francis gave me a flashlight and we walked slowly into the darkness. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was more horrifying than I could imagine. Skeletons were suspended from the walls where once people were left to die, only their bones remained after untold years. Cobwebs and the small bones of critters filled the passage as we continued down to an octagonal room. There was a pit in the center with decaying matter that Francis identified as firewood and a floor to ceiling carving of a beast I didn’t recognize. It was over twelve feet tall and nearly the same wide, but it didn’t represent anything that existed outside the imagination. The thing had a cobra-like head that connected to a human body that’s legs had fused to become a tail twice the length of the creature’s head and body. It had six arms, thin like those of an insect, and a pair of wings that resembled those of a bat. There was an inscription, but neither Francis or I had any hope of understanding it. I found that the camera dangling from my neck still worked, so I took pictures of it like I was instructed to do. There was a crashing sound to my left and I spun towards an opening to a dark cavern. Without thinking I took three pictures and waited, taking three more before lowering the camera. I looked at Francis who was as frightened as I. When he suggested that we leave, I wasn’t going to argue.

When we got back to the living room the paramedics were just pulling into the driveway. For her credit, Bethany seemed to be improving. She looked at me through those dark glasses and smiled. “I once came to this house and decided that it wasn’t haunted,” she coughed a little, “now I know that’s because it isn’t haunted, it’s infested. So many souls are stuck here; this is no place to raise a child.” The paramedics took her away and Theo joined her in the ambulance, Francis followed in their van. Alone, I realized that they had forgotten the camera I had been carrying. With a deep breath I turned the camera on and began scrolling through the pictures; the first were just those of the wall carving, though it did almost appear to move but that could’ve been a trick of my mind.

Then there were the six photos of that cavern. Seeing these pictures changed my whole outlook on life, I’ll never doubt the existence of the paranormal again.

The first picture seemed like a photo of a cave, with an odd looking stalactite to the right. The second photo was of the same cave, but now a blur ran across the image and the stalactite was gone. In the third picture, the stalactite had moved to the left side of the picture. Nervous but needing to know, I looked at the last three. These were taken a few moments after the previous three. The first picture showed the cave, no stalactites and the walls appeared differently. In the second image, something was just beyond the camera’s focus; all I knew was that it was big. The last photo nearly made me scream, and I’d have dropped the camera if it wasn’t hanging from around my neck. Whatever had been in the second picture was closer; I could clearly see the cobra-like head and dark eyes. The cavern was changing shape on account of the thing’s large wingspan and its arms and legs. Knowing how large the opening was, I can only imagine the magnitude of the thing approaching. If Francis hadn’t suggested that we depart, we would’ve been attacked by the alien creature.

Molly came home and had to park on the street on account of the numerous fire trucks and police cars that filled the driveway and front lawn. She found me carrying an awed Ethan as our home burned to the ground. The fires ate through everything, and they reacted strangely when consuming the basement; almost as though it was a large place deep in the ground. Our nearest neighbor, who happened to be the real estate agent, joined us to watch the house burn.

“Such a shame; that house needed good memories.” She was shaking her head. Molly carried Ethan now and hardly listened, but I was curious.

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, I must’ve forgotten to tell you about the previous owner. It was a mistake, considering the circumstances around his death. The man who used to own the place was Mark Craftsman. He remodeled much of the place; did you know it used to be a church until he changed things? I should’ve told you that much, some people are superstitious when it comes to living in an old church. Up until a few years ago, everything seemed to be alright for Mr. Craftsman; then he started sleeping outside of the house. There was a camper in the driveway for the longest time; it was unused except for the bedroom and the small bathroom. Mr. Craftsman died while outside of the home, just around the corner of the house where the door to the basement was. It must’ve been a heart attack, I heard nothing different.” She spoke with a coldness I didn’t expect. But when she turned to me, I saw pity in those eyes. “I’m sorry I kept it from you.”

“It’s alright,” I wanted to assure her that. “What about that haunting investigation?”

“That’s a weird story, without the paranormal part,” she chuckled briefly. “This psychic from town… I think her name was Madam Oracle, came. She was reportedly in the basement when something happened to her and her eyes were burned out of her skull. She wears these dark sunglasses now to hide the scar tissue,” she shivered. Molly looked at her but said nothing.

“I think we’re going to sell this place, we can’t raise a child here.”

Credit: Michael Bertolini

Sniff

November 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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(A/N: this is a companion piece to Slum)

I never liked Rustic Gables Skilled Nursing Facility.

Years ago, I worked as an EMT for MediTrans Ambulance Service. We did inter-facility transports, mostly dialysis runs and hospital discharges, so I spent a lot of time around crappy nursing homes. But even with my bar set as low as it was, Rustic Gables SNF still managed to underwhelm.

The four-story building itself put off an air of hostility. Near Sixth and Alvarado in a slummy corner of Westlake, Rustic Gables SNF sat like a diseased tooth – a squat, square, filthy-white structure jutting out of a narrow, uneven parking lot surrounded by a fourteen-foot fence.

Inside, Rustic Gables was, well, exactly how you’d expect. The residents were crammed four to a too-small room. Every August, half the ancient window air units broke down. Their one-and-a-half star rating was on display over the reception desk, and I’m pretty sure they only managed the extra half-star because someone knew how to BS the inspector.

The faceless healthcare conglomerate that owned the place had bought the property from a bank auction. I’d never leave anyone I loved at Rustic Gables SNF.

Rustic Gables burned through nurses like cheap cigarettes. It seemed like every time I approached a nursing station, I was greeted by a different young woman in stained scrubs. Meanwhile, my partner and I would run into ex-Rustic Gables employees everywhere we went – dialysis centers, hospitals, other SNFs.

It was rumored that Rustic Gables was haunted.

Stories were told of eerie voices behind patients’ closed doors. Of strangers seen wandering the halls, of objects moving by themselves, and of staff members somehow teleporting themselves all over the facility without realizing it. I heard more than one tale in which the teller swore they’d seen a nurse walk into a patient’s room, fail to reappear, then be found on the next floor up – swearing she hadn’t been near the patient’s room in hours.

Once, a patient had been killed when a nurse gave her a second dose of Metoprolol, sending her into hypovolemic shock. The guilty nurse swore that she’d spoken to the medical director, in person, and that he’d given her orders for the extra dose. That was obviously bullshit – the medical director had been in his office, miles away, with multiple witnesses. But the nurse was insistent, even after she’d pled guilty to avoid jail time.

I highly doubted that incident was the work of ghosts – a hangover was a more likely culprit. But even the most skeptical of the ex-nurses agreed they’d gotten a bad vibe working at Rustic Gables, especially at night.

*****

In early 2010, my wife Lily told me she’d gotten a job at Rustic Gables SNF. I warned her that everybody who worked there hated the place, and offered to continue paying the lion’s share of our bills until she could find other employment.

“You want me to say ‘fuck you’ to a full-time nursing job with benefits?” she snapped, squishing her mouth into a pissy little bow. “I’m sick of working at Subway. Do you honestly think anyone else is going to offer me anything with no experience?”

She had me there. The oversaturated medical job market of Los Angeles was a tough spot for a recently-graduated Licensed Vocational Nurse, especially in the middle of a recession.

“I get it,” I told her. “But I’m making enough money now. And I don’t think you’re going to like Rustic Gables much. People say it’s haunted, and you hate horror.”

Lily flashed me a condescending, pursed-lip smile. She knew I hated that smile. She was a tiny girl, my wife, barely five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Her eyes were opal-shaped and deep-set in her square face. She had long, dark, silky hair. A clump of it fell over an eye.

“But you’re not making enough money, Cyrus,” she chirped, as though I were a retarded kindergartener. “And I’d rather hang out with Casper the Friendly Ghost then ask my dad for money. Again.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. She was baiting me. Her parents didn’t like me much, because I didn’t have a college degree and my parents were alcoholic white trash. And her father had loaned us money twice in the last year. Once the previous January, when we signed the lease and had to cough up first and deposit for our microscopic Koreatown one-bedroom, and once in August, when my car broke down.

“Fine, Lil,” I said through clenched teeth. “Do what you want.”

With that, I went to shower and get ready for bed. Our marriage was doomed. We both knew it, but neither of us had the balls to give that final nail in the coffin the mighty whack it needed.

*****

Lily took job. A couple days later, during her second training shift, my partner Rivera and I were sent to Rustic Gables to pick up a patient. A patient who, of course, lived on the first floor – where Lily was stationed.

Our patient was a bed-confined octogenarian going to St. Vincent for a g-tube placement. It should have been a quick, drama-free call, but the nurses didn’t have the paperwork done yet. Lily was being a complete asshole about it – hanging over the shoulder of the charge nurse, smiling her noxious pursed-lip smile as her new friend berated us over the pick-up time (as though it were our fault they didn’t have their shit together).

Rivera went to the ambulance to charge his phone. I’d grit my teeth so hard my skull hurt, and a half-glance at Lily’s haughty profile was enough to propel bolts of pain up my jaw. For the sake professionalism – and my sanity – I walked away.

I wandered to the mismatched front lobby, and there I found a shriveled old woman with dyed orange hair, curled up on a stained couch. A nasal cannula dangled from her face, attached to an oxygen canister on the back of a rickety wheelchair. Her eyes snapped open. When she saw me, her face fell.

“How are you, ma’am?” I asked sweetly. “Do you need help?”

She mumbled something, her voice weak. I hunched beside her and asked her to repeat what she’d said.

“I’m waiting for Scott.”

I looked around. “Is Scott your nurse? I can find him, if you want.”

She shook her head sadly. “He comes here, at night. He talks to me. I’ve gotta stay here or I won’t see him.”

I breathed in, and found that the lobby had a weird smell to it. Kind of rotten, but kind of sweet, like the funk that filled our station when the shared fridge was opened. The orange-haired lady didn’t seem bothered by it, but I was relieved to see Rivera round the corner, paperwork in hand.

I came home after Lily; she pretended to be asleep. The next morning, she was gone before I work up. Perfect situation, I thought. Now we never have to talk.

******

A couple weeks later, my company picked up another dialysis patient out of Rustic Gables SNF. Soon, Rivera and I were sent to get him. On the way in, I spotted the same orange-haired woman, on the same stained couch, still waiting for Scott.

The new dialysis patient, let’s call him Herbert Smith, was seventy-nine and not doing well. He was bed-bound due to the lingering effects of a stroke, half-blind, and atrophied. He looked in my general direction when I called his name, but responded to all further inquiries with incomprehensible muttering.

His room, happily, was on the third floor, which put a whole story between me and Lily. We got him loaded in the ambulance, and after a set of vitals I took advantage of the fifteen-minute drive to Western Dialysis to finish some paperwork. Herbert Smith stared mindlessly ahead, seemingly unaware of my presence.

Then, he mumbled something.

I looked up from my writing. “What’s that, Herbert?” I asked loudly.

“The one-legged man talks to me,” he repeated.

I leaned in. “Who talks to you, Herbert?”

“The Oriental man. The man with one leg. He comes into my room at night.” Herbert’s milky eyes were unfocused, staring vacuously into some point between the road and the ceiling of the ambulance.

“The Oriental man, huh?” I pressed indulgently.

“He’s angry with me,” Herbert continued, speaking to oblivion. “He knows I left him. I wish he’d go away.”

*****

That night, I came home to every light in the apartment on and Lily in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. This was a surprise, as she’d gotten into the habit of feigning sleep. On the rare occasions she’d exchanged a few words with me, she’d done so with a constipated pout, as though my presence was physically painful.

“You’re still awake, Lil?” I asked without thinking. I immediately realized the stupidity of the question, and braced for the sarcastic answer.

But the nasty remark didn’t come. “Yeah,” Lily replied nonchalantly. “I have a headache.”

She looked at me. For the first time in awhile, I didn’t see contempt in her eyes. I realized, all of a sudden, that I no longer remembered how to act around Lily without picking a fight or continuing one. Then I thought of something.

“Lily,” I asked, “the old woman who’s always on the chair by the door, with the bright orange hair and the oxygen. Who is she?”

Lily frowned. “Her name’s Greta, she’s in my station. She’s pretty far gone.”

“I talked to her,” I said. “She said she was waiting for Scott.”

“Oh, I know.” Lily shook her head. “Scott’s not coming. He was Greta’s son. He died of cancer five years ago. There’s pictures of him all around her room.”

This piece of information jolted me. I remembered the look in Greta’s eyes when I’d woken her – pure happiness, then immediate disappointment when she realized I was not, in fact, her long-deceased child. Poor old bird. Dementia’s a bitch.

I’d thought that night was a fluke, as far as my and Lily’s relationship was concerned. Lily, tired and in pain, hadn’t had the energy to antagonize me. But the next night, I came home to her awake, again, and decidedly un-antagonistic. And the next, and the next.

One night, I came home to find her huddled on the couch, shaking, the glow from the muted TV illuminating her tears. My first impulse was to run – I’d long forgotten how to comfort Lily. But I’m not an impulsive person.

What came next was the first honest conversation we’d had in months.

Lily had been on edge for weeks. Work was the problem; her shifts at Rustic Gables had become both physically and mentally unbearable, for reasons she couldn’t justify to herself, let alone anybody else.

“I just… as soon as I walk in, my chest tightens up and I start feeling weak,” she said. “I’m scared of something, but I don’t know what it is. And whenever I’m alone, I hear things. Little noises behind me. But when I turn, there’s nothing there.”

I reiterated that she could leave, that I’d pay the bills, and that I’d known other nurses who’d left because the place was too creepy. But Lily shook her head decisively. She wasn’t batshit. And if she quit after working at Rustic Gables for barely a month, she’d appear flaky.

*****

The next day was Herbert Smith’s dialysis day, and Rivera and I were the crew sent to pick him up.

The young nurse on duty told me he was being showered; we’d have to wait a few minutes. I considered going to find Lily. Then I was drawn to a feature of Herbert Smith’s room I hadn’t noticed. There was a bulletin board on the wall parallel to his bed, and someone had pinned up several old newspaper clippings. I looked closer.

Herbert had been a medic during the Korean War. One article, titled “Wounded Hero Welcomed Home”, described his commendable service. He’d found a young soldier with a chest wound lying on a path. All of a sudden, bullets started flying around them. He pulled the soldier into a ditch, patched him up, and waited with him until they were found by an American platoon.

While Herbert was hailed as a hero, he had regrets about the incident. He’d seen another man, a Korean villager, lying on the ground with a nasty wound in his leg. The man was writhing, but too weak to remove himself from danger. Herbert had been conflicted. But he could still hear gunshots and, following protocol, he stayed put. By the time help arrived, the Korean man had died.

The article included pictures taken by a soldier in the platoon. In one of them, you could just make out the face of the dead Korean in the background. I remembered Herbert’s comments about the ‘Oriental man with one leg.’ The one who he hadn’t gone back for.

As long as I’d known him, Herbert hadn’t looked great. But I was surprised at just how severely his health had deteriorated. His atrophied limbs had become skeletal, his skin was translucent, and he’d lost hair. His cloudy eyes didn’t even flicker as we lifted him from his bed to the gurney.

I drove that day, Rivera sat in the back with Herbert. As we wheeled the old man in, I asked Rivera if he’d said anything strange in the back. Rivera gave me a weird look; he wasn’t aware Herbert could speak at all.

Herbert was completely unresponsive as we placed him in his dialysis chair. He slumped to one side; we propped him up with a pillow. While Rivera chased a tech for a signature, I wrapped the blood pressure cuff attached to the dialysis machine around Herbert’s arm.

Before I knew what was happening, Herbert Smith was clutching my bicep.

I jumped. The old man kept hold, his grip stronger than his spindly fingers should have allowed. His milky-white eyes bored into mine.

“The Oriental man says he’s going to take me with him.”

I wrenched my arm out of his grasp. Herbert went limp and flopped over. I called his name, but his ashen face drooped dumbly and his liquid eyes were dull. Whoever had spoken to me was logged off, signed out, no longer in the building.

Forty-five minutes into dialysis, Herbert violently tore the blood-filled tubes from his arm. The staff attempted to stop the bleeding, but he fought them off with an alarming level of ferocity. It was said that Herbert Smith never looked so peaceful as he had while being carried out by paramedics, already into irreversible shock. He died before they made it to the hospital.

*****

I remained ignorant as this was going on. Rivera and I ran a few more calls. I drove in and out of hospital parking lots, pondering Herbert’s Korean ghost. Later, at around six, I received a text from Lily.

That was hot Cy :)

It was a weird thing to say. I assumed she meant our conversation the night before, responded with a single smiley face, and thought about it all afternoon. For months, I’d wanted Lily gone. I’d fantasized about coming home and discovering she’d moved out. But, when I read that text, I felt a little twinge of the ecstasy she’d inspired in me when we were eighteen and obsessed with each other.

As soon as I walked into our apartment, Lily jumped me. Wordlessly, passionately, we made love on the couch. Her perfume, her red lipstick, her hair tickling my skin was intoxicating. It was instinctive. Animalistic. When we finished, we lay entangled on the couch, strands of her hair still in my mouth.

“That was amazing,” I muttered to her. “I’m so glad we did that.”

“You started it,” she teased, running her hand across my chest. “That was a pretty hot kiss. The charge nurse was pissed, but it was worth it.”

“What’s the charge nurse got to do with anything?” I asked innocently.

Lily pulled away. She sat up. “You came to see me at Rustic Gables. You kissed me. Right in front of the other nurses.”

I went cold. “Lily,” I said, “I didn’t do that. I was at Rustic Gables in the morning, to pick up Mr. Smith, but I didn’t see you at all. I didn’t kiss you.”

She forced a laugh. “Cy, stop fucking joking. Unless you’ve got a twin I don’t know about, you kissed me today. The other nurses all saw.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Lil,” I said. “I was on the third floor for, like, fifteen minutes, then in the ambulance the rest of the day.”

Lily glared. Shoving me out of the way, she grabbed her clothes and stood up.

“Fuck you, Cyrus. You’re a fucking liar.”

With that, she stomped to our bedroom and slammed the door. In the morning, she was gone before I woke up.

The whole thing bothered me. Apparently, Lily had been passionately kissed in front of her co-workers by a guy who looked just like me. I’d long suspected she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, but I might’ve been wrong. Maybe undiagnosed schizophrenia.

*****

Two days later, Rivera and I were sent for Herbert Smith. The nurse at Rustic Gables told us he was dead.

Rivera went to call dispatch and tell them that, in fact, our services were not needed. I waited with the gurney in the front lobby. Orange-haired Greta was curled up on the couch, presumably still waiting for Scott. Poor lady. I tried to catch her eye, but she was oblivious to my presence. Then I saw tears running down her face.

I would have gone to talk to her if a hand hadn’t jerked my arm. I whirled around, and found myself face-to-face with Lily. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. She was pissed.

“There you are,” she snapped. “What the fuck, Cyrus? You’re messing with me now?”

“Lily, what are you talking about?”

“I heard you calling my name,” she said, unable to control the tremble in her voice. “Down the hall. In that fucking creepy voice. Where were you hiding? Under a bed or something?”

“Lily, I didn’t do that. I’ve been here.”

“It was your voice!” Lily insisted. “Saying ‘Lily, come to me.’ I was handing out meds, and I heard you. I’m so sick of your fucking jokes!”

“Lily, I’m…” I started.

“Fuck you, Cyrus. I want a divorce.”

With that, she stomped back to the nurses’ station. I didn’t go after her. I stood there, useless, fuming. All the anger and resentment I’d been nursing for months; the frustration of never, ever being good enough for Lily swirled around me like a tornado. I wanted her dead. I wanted to wrap my fingers around her neck and stare into her protruding eyes until they glazed over.

If Rivera hadn’t come to tell me that we had another call, I’m not sure what I would have done. We spent the rest of the night with one of the respiratory therapists, wedging a 400-pound, ventilator-dependent vegetable onto our gurney and driving him to a crappy post-acute in Sylmar.

As we drove back to station, I saw I had missed two calls from Lily, and that she’d left me a voice message. I ignored it. Even thinking about her jacked my blood pressure.

Lily didn’t come home that night, and I was relieved.

*****

The next morning, I was dismayed to see the address of Rustic Gables flash across our pager. We were picking up a psych patient. An old lady with dementia wigging out, going to the Brotman psychiatric ward.

The name of the patient: Greta. The orange-haired lady in the lobby, always waiting for Scott.

“It started a little after midnight,” the charge nurse told me. “All of a sudden, she was screaming and crying. I’d never heard anything like it. Just this… this anguished, otherworldly wailing.”

“Had she had any change in medications recently?” I asked.

The nurse shook her head. “Her son, Scott, died about five years ago. She was very devoted to him, and she’d been telling some of the nurses that he comes and sees her at night.”

I nodded sympathetically.

“Anyways,” the nurse continued, “last night, she kept on screaming Scott’s name over and over. We got her into bed and gave her a sleeping pill, but it didn’t take. She woke up around three, dragged herself out of bed and into the hallway. We found her pawing at the door of a storage closet.”

They had Greta restrained to the bed – unnecessarily so, I thought, as whatever sedative they’d given her had reduced her to a near-comatose state. We moved her onto the gurney without issue. But in the back of the ambulance, she squirmed around and opened her eyes. She threw a languid look my direction.

“So, Greta,” I said kindly, hoping my voice would keep her quiet, “How are you doing today? Have the nurses been treating you good?”

“Scott came to me,” she said emotionlessly.

The words hit me like a punch. “Let’s not talk about Scott, okay?”

“He was burning,” Greta continued, as though she hadn’t heard me. “His face was melting. He was screaming in pain.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Then… then it wasn’t Scott anymore. It was this.. this monster. This demon. And he told me that’s what Scott looked like in… in Hell.”

She sobbed. I might have said something comforting; if I did, it had no effect. I don’t remember. In that moment, at that moment, I had never been more disturbed in my entire life.

Greta didn’t speak again. She just cried, tears and snot collecting in her wrinkles. She cried all the way to Brotman, and kept on crying as we waited for her room to be ready. We heard her moans as we pulled our gurney down the sixth-floor hall, until the elevator doors closed.

*****

Lily didn’t come home that night. Days passed; I was given no clue as to her whereabouts. I called a few times, but her phone was off. I should have been concerned that she left so much of her stuff in the apartment. But she had her ID and bank cards, she had plenty of scrubs stowed at her parents’ house in Rosemead, and I assumed no one in her family was fond enough of me to call.

Finally, a week later, Rivera and I were sent back to Rustic Gables.

I don’t remember who or what we were supposed to pick up. We were walking through the little lobby, noticing Greta’s absence, when I felt hands around my waist. Tiny, perfectly-manicured hands. Lily stood behind me, looking happier than she had in a year. Rivera shook his head playfully and told me he’d meet me on the second floor.

When he was gone, Lily took me by the hand and led me away. Towards the back door, which was only ever used by nurses sneaking a smoke. Down a narrow hallway I’d never noticed, which extended to the left of the back door and dead-ended.

“Lil,” I said, “where have you been? I was starting to get worried.”

She stopped pulling and turned around, holding me close. She wrapped her arms around my neck, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed me passionately.

“I’ve been with a friend,” she murmured into my ear. “I miss you, Cyrus.”

She kissed me again, then pulled away and resumed tugging my hand with surprising strength. She stopped in front of a nondescript little closet, across from the janitor’s storage.

“Make love to me, Cyrus,” she breathed, her voice thick and sultry. “I know a special place.”

She reached for the doorknob. As soon as she let go of my hand, my senses came crashing back down to earth.

“Lil,” I said kindly, “I’ve got to pick up a patient. Come home tonight. We’ll talk then.”

She gazed into my eyes with a ‘come hither’ smile. For some reason, this freaked me out. Maybe because her mouth seemed to extend a little too far into her cheeks. Or maybe because, in the six years we’d been a couple, Lily had never once used the phrase “make love to me.” One way or another, my weird radar blipped, and with one more “come home tonight, Lil” I escaped to the elevator.

“Cyrus!” Lily called after me. I didn’t turn around.

On the second floor, I found Rivera talking to a squat Korean woman I recognized as the first floor head nurse, Lily’s supervisor. The nurse glared when she saw me.

“Hey you,” she said gruffly, “you’re Lily’s husband, right?”

I nodded, inviting the catty comment.

“Where has your wife been?” she asked. “Her phone’s dead, she hasn’t shown up for work in a week.”

“Um, she’s here,” I said. “She’s downstairs. I just talked to her.”

The nurse shook her head. “Well, I haven’t seen her all day, and I just left the desk five minutes ago. She hasn’t clocked in since the twelfth.”

I was confused. I told the nurse something, then ran down the stairs to the first floor, dead-set on finding Lily and proving her presence. I’d kissed her, I’d felt her arms around me. So either she was deliberately messing with her boss, or else her boss was crazy.

Or I was crazy.

No one was at the first floor nurses’ desk. I paced the halls, peeking into rooms. Nothing. No Lily. Then I thought of something. She hadn’t clocked in since the twelfth. The twelfth of February. That sounded familiar.

I checked my phone. The last missed call from Lily had occurred on the twelfth of February. That was the day she’d chased me down in the lobby, accused me of calling her name in a “creepy voice,” demanded a divorce.

I saw the voice mail icon, and recalled she had left me a message that day. I dialed my voicemail, deleted a few messages, and then I heard my wife’s voice. Her sobbing, panicked, terrified voice.

“Cyrus!” she breathed. “Cyrus, I know you’re not here, but I keep on hearing your voice. And I saw you again. But it wasn’t you, because your face was all blurry. Then you… you walked into the closet and disappeared. Is this a joke? Please fucking tell me this is a…”

She gasped, and I heard the phone drop. Then a muffled male voice. A voice that sounded terrifyingly familiar, saying something like ‘found you!’

Then I heard another voice. My wife’s voice. Calling my name. But it wasn’t coming from my phone.

“Cyrus! Cyrus!”

I followed the voice. It was coming from the back entrance, from the direction of the closet Lily had tried to drag me into. As I approached, I remembered what I’d been told about old Greta. She’d freaked out, and they’d found her pawing at a closet door. Had it been this door?

I turned the knob. I flicked on the light switch.

I found myself staring at a tiny, dusty storage room seemingly used as a dumping ground for cardboard boxes and broken equipment. The floor was peeling linoleum, and cobwebs hung from two cheap metal shelves. A healthy coating of dust told me this room was rarely accessed by the nursing staff.

I heard it again.

“Cyrus! Cyrus!”

I did a 360, then was hit with the dizzying realization that the voice was coming from under the floor.

Anyone with the IQ of a monkey could tell you I should have bailed. That a disembodied voice calling my name, beneath the floor on the first story of a building, was not a phenomenon I should investigate alone. But, somewhere between my softcore-script conversation with Lily and her gut-churning message on my phone, I stopped thinking logically.

I looked around. No doors, no stairs, and I knew there wasn’t a “basement” button on the elevators. Then I saw it. Under one of the shelves – a trapdoor. And a small black object. I knelt to look.

A Motorola Razr, with a Hello Kitty bauble and a small crack to the bottom left of the screen. Lily’s phone.

This discovery turbo-charged my nervous system. I stood up, grabbed the shelf, and pulled. With a loud VOOM, the metal structure pivoted. I examined the trapdoor. It was latched and fastened with a dusty, rusted lock.

Lily’s voice – louder – floated up from below. “Cyrus! Come find me, Cyrus!”

Using my pocketknife, I easily picked the ancient lock. Then I lifted.

I saw darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw stairs. Damp, rotting wooden stairs leading down to some sort of cellar. I breathed in and gagged. The musty, earthy smell was overpowering. It was the smell of a wooden shed after the rain, mixed with the smell of a compost heap, mixed with a smell reminiscent of the family of possums that had gotten trapped under my mother’s mobile home one December, died, and rotted until spring.

“Cyrus!” Lily cried again. This time, she sounded agitated. Scared.

I took a deep breath, then descended.

I proceeded cautiously – cell phone in one hand, pocketknife clutched in the other – step by step. By the pale blue light of my cell screen, I saw the floor was dirt. I made out a dark blotch that must have been a puddle, and I heard faint dripping. The walls were grey cinderblock with black designs painted on them.

Then, my feeble light fell on a woman with blue scrubs and long black hair. Lily.

“Lil!” I cried out. “Lily! What the fuck are you doing….”

“Shhh.” She put her finger to her lips as she approached out of the darkness.

Then I was standing on the earthen floor, and she was close. Close enough for me to see that her features weren’t right. Her eyes were too small. Her nose was too flat.

She took my hands. Her features shifted, blurring in and out of focus. Was it an effect of the light seeping in through the trap door? Were my eyes still adjusting? And why had Lily, of all places, chosen…

And then her mouth was against my mouth.

I couldn’t eat for three days. I felt her warm tongue dissolve in my mouth. Turn cold and dead. Break into icy chunks that tasted like dust and stringed cabbage and rotting fish, expanding in my throat, choking me…

I pulled away, coughing and sputtering and trying to scream. I dropped my phone. As I dry-heaved, I heard Lily’s laughter. Now it sounded distant. Without thinking, I stood up.

My phone had landed in the puddle, creating an inverted spotlight. A body, noose around its neck, hung from the rafters. Immobilized by terror, I was forced to take in every detail.

Blue scrubs. Feet dangling lifelessly. Claw-like hands, plaster-still in rigor mortis. Long black hair. Purple cheeks, open mouth, swollen tongue dripping dark saliva. Bloodshot opal eyes protruding like a demented cartoon character’s, staring into oblivion.

Lily. Dead. Lily.

I don’t know how long I stared at my dead wife hanging from the ceiling before I felt the hand on my shoulder. Jolted from my traumatized paralysis, I turned around.

Illuminated by the light from the open trapdoor, was me.

My mirror image stood in front of me.

While Lily’s doppelgänger had flitted in and out of focus, mine was explicitly, grossly exact in every last detail. The little hairs on my unshaved cheeks. The red pimple on my forehead. The scar at the corner of my eye, from when I “fell off my bike” during one of my second stepfather’s drunken rampages. It’s – my – smile was malicious. Triumphant.

Then it spoke, in a twisted, modulated mockery of my voice.

“Aren’t you going to say ‘thank you?’”

Then it started to melt.

I don’t remember much after that. I heard my own voice screaming – whether it was me or my putrefying doppelganger, I don’t care to find out. There were more voices, women’s voices, women’s screams. Rough hands on me, an arm around my shoulders leading me up, up… then sunlight, then sirens.

*****

Lily had been dead for more than a week. That’s what the police officers told me, the second time I was questioned. The types of questions they were asking, I was sure they were going to pin it on me, especially given the nature of my and Lily’s relationship. But they didn’t.

In the end, they ruled her death a suicide. She’d died by strangulation, though they didn’t know how she’d managed it. She must have found the rope already hanging from the rafters – the cellar was fourteen feet high; there was no way she’d have been able to climb up and tie it herself. Nor could they find the chair or stool she had jumped off.

They didn’t know how she had found the basement. None of the nurses knew the dirt-floored cellar even existed. When the healthcare corporation had bought and gutted the place, they’d left the back of the first floor as it was. No attention had been paid to the sad little closet.

And no one could explain how she’d gotten down into the basement in the first place. There was only one entrance – the trapdoor. The trapdoor I’d found, locked from the outside.

Even with the coroner’s report, the cops had trouble pinning down a timeline. Lily had gone missing on the twelfth, of that the head nurse was adamant. I insisted I had seen her, alive, on the day her body was found. Rivera backed me up.

We weren’t alone.

Another nurse had had a conversation with Lily on the 15th; she remembered the date because it was the day after Valentine’s day. And a patient claimed he hadn’t actually seen Lily, as it had been dark and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, but had heard her voice singing him to sleep.

This one was particularly strange, because the night the old man had allegedly been sung to sleep by Lily was a good two weeks after she’d died, and a week after her decomposing body had been recovered. The cops wrote him off as confused. But I’m not so sure.

*****

I left town after Lily’s funeral. My father in Bakersfield, with whom I hadn’t spoken in years, called out of the blue and invited me to stay with him. When the flashbacks stopped and the memories scarred over, I screwed my head back on and went to paramedic school. I found a job, ran the Baker to Vegas stretch for a few years, then decided to take the next step in my career.

I only applied to LA City Fire because it was ultra-competitive and I assumed I’d fail the psychiatric exam. When my new hire packet came in the mail, I picked it up off the porch with trembling hands. I wanted to say no. But LA City was the job a million guys would kill for; and my dad told me he’d knock me out, throw me in the back of his truck, and leave me on the station steps if he had to.

*****

I moved back to Los Angeles in March of this year. I didn’t know anyone; I’d lost touch with all my old friends but Rivera, and Rivera was in New Jersey, burning through his fourth year of medical school. My new partner was a cool guy. He invited me to a barbecue at his church, promising there’d be a lot of people our age.

There wasn’t, but I did meet my new partner’s Uncle Raoul, a retired LAPD officer. We talked, and I learned he’d been one of the cops who’d investigated Lily’s death. He was cool about it; I was never a suspect, he assured me. Suicide was the only logical conclusion.

“Logical conclusion,” he said sarcastically. Then, he asked me what I knew about supernatural phenomena.

I forced a laugh. He didn’t.

He asked if I’d seen the cinderblock walls of the basement, the underground room where Lily was found dead. There had been little black designs, I recalled.

They were faces, he told me.

Faces all over the basement walls. Some were recognizable – Rustic Gables employees, patients, visitors. Some were the faces of people whose pictures were displayed by the patients. Family members, dead friends, celebrities, even the Pope. There were hundreds of them.

And the strangest part was, they couldn’t figure out how the faces had gotten there. Samples were tested; no trace of paint or dye was found. Nothing could wash them away and, in the spots chipped for samples, the faces were redrawn in full within hours.

My face was there. So was Lily’s. And on his third trip down, Raoul found his face.

The owners of Rustic Gables made the unanimous decision to sell the property. When no one bought it, they abandoned it, shipping their 168 residents off to other facilities.

Apparently, they’d had more trouble with the place in the three years since remodeling than it was worth. There had been nine suicides in that time – four patients, five staff members.

Other mysterious deaths, too. One I’d heard about – the woman given an extra dosage of Metoprolol because the “medical director” told her nurse to do so. Another time, a physical therapist found a blind, non-ambulatory patient locked in the staff bathroom, dead, with a pair of bandage shears sticking out of his chest.

And then, there was the building’s history. It had once been Section 8 housing. Raoul had been called there many times when he was a cop, and always got a weird vibe from the place. Other cops insisted the place was haunted.

In 2001, the building nearly burned down. Arson. A 12-year-old boy locked his mother in her bedroom, set the couch on fire, then jumped out a fourth-floor window. Seven people died, including an LAPD officer. Prior to that incident, the kid had been acting bizarrely, claiming to see the ghost of his father, who’d been murdered years before.

Raoul and I parted ways. I drove home. I thought about orange-haired Greta, and I thought about Herbert Smith. She saw her dead son, he saw the man he regretted leaving behind. And Lily and I saw each other. Happier, lustier versions of each other – versions still in love.

The next day, I did some research on doppelgangers. Omens of doom, embodiments of one’s dark side, like Jekyll and Hyde. This led me to The Shadow of Jungian philosophy. One’s Shadow is the manifestation of buried, selfish, evil thoughts. The thoughts you’re not allowed to think, the thoughts you deny.

I thought about what my doppelganger had said: “aren’t you going to say thank you?”

Whatever demon or spirit lived in that basement – it collected faces. It could shape-shift, become the spitting image of any human form it saw, and it knew our desires and our regrets. Our fears. It came to Greta as her son, then used Greta’s love to drive her mad. It recreated the image Herbert Smith saw in his guilty nightmares. I wanted Lily to love me again, but a part of me wanted her gone forever. It gave me both.

*****

I drive by that building sometimes, the former Rustic Gables SNF. The asphalt is cracked now, and the windows are shattered. I wonder if the walls have changed, if there are now more faces – maybe those of transients or addicts who, naively, look to the abandoned structure for shelter.

Sometimes I catch something out of the corner of my eye, through a darkened window. Sometimes it looks like a human face staring back at me. But I never let my gaze linger for long. I fear I’ll see her face, see my mistakes, relive her death and my inadvertent part in it.

And I fear I’ll see my own.

Credit: NickyXX

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