Sniff

November 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM

(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

My Wife, The Fox Spirit

November 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM

It had been roughly a year. That’s how much time had passed since Jessica died. She was and still remains the love of my life. I thought that time would heal my wounds, but instead it threw salt into them with each passing moment I was forced to spend without her. I could bear the pain no longer and had to make an abrupt and permanent change. I needed to run far, far away. I needed to run back to where it all began; and so I did.

We met in Assabu, Japan three years beforehand. I remember the day clearly – half due to my broken leg, and half due to meeting Jessica. My intention was to climb to the top of Mt. Otobe. Now, I know what you’re thinking – why not Everest? Well, I prefer simpler adventure. That, and my father always spoke highly of this particular mountain, having lived in this area during his youth. He painted quite the picture, one that I longed to be a part of. It could have happened too, had I not slipped at the base of the mountain, effectively breaking my left leg.

Luckily, I had two locals with me at the time. They were there to guide me through the rough terrain. Unfortunately they could not prevent sheer idiocy. One stayed with me while the other went off for help. It would be a few hours before that help would arrive as we weren’t exactly close to civilization.

Eventually, help did arrive, in the form of a beautiful woman. She was slender, her hair was blonde, and she was American, much like myself. She came running to my aid and asked me in perfect English what had happened. I did not speak. It sounds cliche, and perhaps I was in shock from the excruciating pain, but I was captivated by her. Her presence itself was enough to make me forget about my leg and my failed endeavor. Even so, Having been in that amount of pain, lying at the base of the mountain for nearly three hours, I passed out shortly after she asked the question.

I woke up the next day in a hospital bed in Sapporo – a long ways away from Mt. Otobe. My leg felt better and had a rather large cast on it. I looked around the room to get my bearings, and to my surprise, sitting just to my left, was the woman whom had come to rescue me. Had she waited with me the entire time? Why? My inner dialogue was soon cut off by her beautiful voice.

“You’re awake! Marvelous!”

She seemed to be excited upon my awakening. I was excited too, but for different reasons. Her presence was very alleviating.

“Yes… yes… did you wait with me this whole time?”

I was curious to know how long she had been there.

“Guilty as charged. I wanted to make sure you were okay. I’m a bit of a worry-wart.”

“Well, thank you. I’m glad you stayed.”

We ended up talking for hours. We laughed about my untimely decent at the base of the mountain, we talked about our families, our homes, and even our love lives. We talked about everything. As it turns out, she did live in the United States, just one state away from me. She was there working in Assabu to treat the locals that could not venture to nearby hospitals. She actually left medical school to pursue this instead. Her kindness astounded me. There I was trying to conquer a mountain for my own personal benefit while she was there to actually make a difference and help others. I was a fool in her shadow, but she still fell for me, just as I did for her.

Despite her worldly ambitions, we both moved back to America and settled down. Love is the one thing powerful enough to make you forget the important things in life. It can also make you forget the importance of life itself, as well as its fleeting nature. After years of walking to her job at the local hospital, safely, danger finally caught up to her. She was struck by a bus that was speeding down our street. She died on impact.

I told her time and time again that I would buy her a car, but she refused. She enjoyed her strolls through our quaint, but bustling town too much. Walking to work gave her pleasure. This last walk took it all away. Not just from her, but from me. I now hate our home. I hate our town. I also hate public transportation. It was time for a change. I decided just days after her funeral to move to Assabu, Japan where we first met.

The transition was rather easy at first. My mind was focused on the move and I actually felt like I was doing something good; something that was much needed and would benefit my well-being. I was even welcomed with open arms by the locals. Newcomers were a hot commodity around those parts, and a cause for celebration. As such, I was able to meet almost everyone in my small village-like community at once, right at my door-step. It was nice.

Soon after greeting the locals, my joy was replaced with a feeling of dread. I sat in my small cottage, alone, and unwillingly allowed the death of my wife to pierce my very soul. It was almost unbearable, but not unexpected. I knew that I would have to mourn her death sooner or later, and I knew that I should. My first day in my new home was as good a time as any.

The months passed and the seasons changed. My time in Assabu was becoming a relatively easy routine to become accustomed to. Things were a little bit better, but it still wasn’t the same without Jessica. I knew that it never would be. I pressed on, knowing that this was as good as it would probably get for me. On a nightly stroll home from the local pub, however, my thoughts on the matter radically changed.

I followed the glow of the lamp posts as I made my way back home from the bar. I counted each one as I went. It wasn’t an obsessive compulsive condition or anything, it was just something that I started doing that helped me pass the time. It also allowed me to keep track of the distance between the pub and my house. There were exactly thirty-seven lamp posts along the path home, spread roughly twenty feet apart from each other. By the time I reached the eighteenth post, I knew that I would be about halfway home. On the night in question, however, I didn’t even make it that far. I reached the eleventh post and saw something that stopped me in my tracks. Something that I could not comprehend.

There, twenty feet away from me near the twelfth lamp post, was a shadowy figure. It was undoubtedly a woman, but I couldn’t quite make out her features. I stopped walking due to the odd nature of the encounter. Never in the months that I lived in Assabu had I ever seen a single person on my many walks home. Nobody else traversed the roads at night. There was never a single soul out this late other than myself. I was baffled.

While privately contemplating, the woman stepped closer into the light. This is when my jaw dropped. The woman was none other than my wife, Jessica. But how? It was impossible. I watched her casket as it was lowered into the earth. But there she was in all of her former beauty, staring at me from down the path. It was so surreal – I can’t quite explain to you how I felt, but I’m sure if you’ve ever lost a significant other, you might be able to imagine the heavy knot I had in my chest. I didn’t even get a chance to react properly before she spoke.

“Come.”

I didn’t understand what was happening, so naturally I wanted answers.

“Jessica! How is this possible? You aren’t alive. This can’t be real.”

“Come.”

She voiced the same plea, unmoved by my curiosity.

“Come…I need you.”

Again she reached out to me, seemingly in need of my company. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I just stood there in an awestruck and confused manner. While staring at her in utter disbelief, she vanished before my very eyes. What the hell? Was I seeing things? Dumbfounded, and unwilling to walk any further in the direction where she had been, I ran back to the pub. I needed to talk to someone.

Upon arriving at the pub’s entrance, I swiftly stumbled through the doorway in a hurried and fearful fashion. My friends were still there and took notice to my arrival. I sat back down with them and immediately opened up about my wife’s death – something I had never told anyone about. None of them interrupted me while I spoke. I then continued by telling them about what happened during my walk home. I expected at least one of them to crack a joke about how drunk I must have been, but they all remained silent. I too became quiet, waiting for a reaction. They all looked at each other very seriously before offering me some surprising insight.

“It sounds like you ran into a Kitsune.”

A what? I hadn’t a clue as to what they were talking about.

“What is a Kitsune?”

I looked to my bar buddies for answers as they seemed to know a lot more than I did on the subject. I listened intently while they explained. Apparently ‘Kitsune’ is a term found in Japanese folklore. It is used to describe a fox spirit that can shape-shift, fooling its victims into thinking it is human. One of my friends at the bar said that they fed on human blood, much like vampires. Another one of my friends said fox spirits had the ability to bend time and space at will. The bartender chimed in and said that a Kitsune can possess its victims as well as breathe fire, like a dragon. Their opinions were mixed, but they all agreed on one thing – all Kitsune have tails. They cannot hide them, even after shape-shifting. This is how I could identify it, if it ever crossed paths with me again.

I spent a little more time at the pub talking about the Kitsune before taking off. I didn’t exactly know what to believe upon departing. I never gave much credence to the supernatural, but it seemed that it was the only answer. The thing that I saw was either the ghost of my wife, or a fox spirit trying to lure me into a devious trap of some sort. After arriving home from a less eventful walk, I decided to do a little research.

I stayed up all night on my computer in the hopes of solving the mystery. I found that Kitsune often take on the form of a beautiful woman to lure its victims off into the night. This lined up with my encounter. I, however, found nothing about it taking on the form of a deceased loved one. This made me think that it might have been Jessica’s ghost. There was of course a third possibility. Maybe, internally, I was not coping with her death as well as I thought I was. Maybe I was slowly going insane and just seeing what I wanted to see. Something that was not there. I found myself on the fence, unable to lean towards any of the possibilities I’d come up with. No matter which one it might have been, forgetting it ever happened seemed to be in my best interest.

Days, weeks, months, and even years passed since the night I saw Jessica standing in the road. My friends didn’t ask about it again, and I didn’t bother bringing it up in conversation. I wanted to forget, and so I did. I continued to walk the streets at night, but never saw her. Sometimes I would think about what happened, but just as a passing thought – nothing more. Obsessing over it would be easy to do in my grieving condition, so I let my mind stray far away from the subject. I had almost destroyed the memory completely, until one night when it came creeping back up to the surface.

On my way back home from another night out at the pub, I counted the lamp posts, like I always did. After reaching the eleventh one, I saw her again. It was merely a silhouette at first, but I knew it was her. She was standing where she had been when I first saw her, years before. She terrified me just the same. But why? Why wait so long to come back? I was convinced that I was not going crazy at this point. Such a lapse in incidents wasn’t logical. She had to be a ghost or a Kitsune. Before I could think further on the matter, she stepped into the light and spoke.

“Come.”

I stood still and remained silent, feeling safe at a distance.

“I need you. You have to follow me.”

She began moving in my direction. I no longer felt safe. Perhaps it was my overwhelming curiosity, or maybe I was in shock, but I could not move even an inch to help myself. During her elegant stride, she continued to speak.

“Isn’t this what you want? Don’t I make you happy?”

I remained unfazed by her words, but somehow captivated by her beauty.

“We can be together again.”

She took her final step in my direction, landing herself smack-dab in front of me. I could now see every one of her features. She wore the same dress that she was buried in. This sent a chill up my spine. I brushed it off and kept observing. Her face harbored a smile – not an eerie grin of sorts, but a pleasant smile. It was one that I had seen her give many times before. Maybe this was my Jessica.

I looked her up and down multiple times. Everything looked right. The skin, the hair, the birth marks – everything. Even a shape-shifter could not imitate such fine details. She opened her mouth and spoke again.

“Come.”

She turned around and began walking forward. I looked down towards her posterior and noticed something that confirmed my suspicions. There was no tail! If I was not convinced before, I was now. This was my Jessica after all. I couldn’t believe it, but I forced myself to anyway. She was here – or at least her ghost was, and we could finally be together again. I didn’t care where she was bringing me, as long as she would stay. I was delighted to no end.

I followed Jessica in an elated, yet befuddled march. She started walking the way that I would normally go to get home. After a while, though, she took a turn. This eventually lead us to the nearby forest. I had never ventured that far, even when walking off the beaten path. Even so, I did not care. My wife was with me once again and that is all that mattered.

At the edge of the woods, Jessica stopped. While facing the forest, she spoke to me.

“Will you come with me?”

I would follow her to the ends of the earth, so there was no need for such a question to be asked.

“Of course, Jessica. I will follow you anywhere. I love you.”

She stood completely still for a few moments before responding.

“Good. Then we can begin.”

She went to take her first step into the forest when I noticed something pop out of the back of her dress. I didn’t know what it was at first, but as I continued to stare at it, I realized that it was furry. I then realized that it was a tail. A god damned tail. This was not my Jessica. This was a Kitsune. I began backing up away from it, unsure of how to proceed.

“Where are you going? You said you’d come with me. You said you loved me.”

The Kitsune took a step back away from the forest and turned around. I became frightened of her once again. Still, I stood my ground.

“I’m not going anywhere. You are not my wife.”

I was firm in my statement, but I lacked the courage to back it up.

“You will regret this.”

The Kitsune was now aware of the revelation I’d had. I watched in horror as its head morphed from that of my beautiful Jessica, into that of a fox. The transformation was grotesque and extremely unsettling to watch. The end result was a very over-sized fox head on top of what still appeared to be my wife’s body. I knew not how to react.

I probably should have run, but I continued to watch as the malicious spirit attempted to devour me, for lack of a better term. It opened its mouth wider than you could possibly imagine, revealing a plethora of sharp teeth, as well as some protruding, tentacle-like extremities. On top of this, an aura of swirling, black energy now surrounded its body. This is when I felt the suction.

I could feel myself being pulled towards the Kitsune. It started off slow, but quickly became stronger. I attempted at the very least to stay still, but it was no simple task. Everything I could see in my field of vision was being pulled forward. The grass, rocks, and dirt were all being ripped away by this monstrous gust of wind. Some trees even toppled over because of it. It was like a storm, the likes of which I had never seen or felt before. I knew that I would be the next one to be swept away by it, if I didn’t act fast.

I managed to turn myself around and begin fighting back. I fell to the ground and dug my nails into the earth. I crawled against the wind, hoping that I still had a chance to get away. It became increasingly difficult to do this, but somehow I was able to keep going. Eventually, I felt the tension break. It was like coming up to the surface quickly after being underwater. I had made it out of the fox’s grasp. I was free.

I ran and ran, hoping the spirit would not follow. I eventually made it home. I trudged inside, panting, and locked the door behind me. I drew my blinds, locked the windows, and shut myself in my bedroom. I hid there for a few hours before finally falling asleep. I didn’t recall lying down, but I remembered exhaustion beginning to outweigh my fear. Passing out was inevitable.

During my impromptu nap, I dreamt. In my dream, I saw Jessica. We were in Paris, it seemed, as I could see the Eifel tower off in the distance. She had always wanted to go there, but our time together was cut short before we had the chance to. At least in my dreams we could still travel the world.

She looked so happy. I knew it was a dream, but I still felt like she was actually there with me. We walked down the streets of Paris together, holding hands as we went. We exchanged no words. In fact, there was no sound in my dream at all. I noticed the lack of sound, but it in no way took away from the experience. Occasionally Jessica would look over at me with that beautiful smile of hers, happy to have a dream of hers realized. I was happy too. Unfortunately, happiness is a temporary emotion.

As my dream continued, Jessica noticed a vendor cart on the side of the road. It was being run by an older gentleman. He motioned for us to come over. Jessica looked at me in excitement and pulled me towards the cart. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the vendor was selling canaries that were being housed in small cages. I found this to be odd, but it was my dream, so who was I to judge?

Out of nowhere, a fox jumped up onto the cart and knocked over one of the cages. It fell to the ground and became open in the process. The fox then grabbed the canary in its mouth and ran off. Jessica was devastated. The look in her eye when this happened was a mixture of indescribable sadness and shock. Even though it was only a dream, I felt the need to do something.

I ran after the fox as quickly as I could. Somehow it managed to stay ahead of me. I kept running until eventually we reached the base of the Eifel Tower. This is where the fox stopped. Just as it did, my dream became unmuted. I heard all of the sounds of the bustling city at once. As such, I looked around at the world that my mind had created. It was breathtaking.

I turned back to the fox, but it was gone. In its place was Jessica. She stared at me with a very troubled expression. For the first time in my dream, she spoke.

“Save me?”

Immediately after she said this, a bus came from her left and struck her at a very high speed. It was just like her death in real life. I was stunned. Just as a great sense of unease set in, I woke up.

Just barely coming to my senses, I realized that there was a very loud banging noise coming from my bedroom door. It seemed that I was not alone. The thunderous sound continued for a few more seconds before stopping. I heard Jessica’s voice when it did.

“Let me in. We will be happy again.”

With one more loud bang, the door flew open, revealing that fox-headed monstrosity behind it. It charged towards me with alarming speed and grabbed me by the neck. It held me up against the headboard of my bed, and opened its mouth. I could feel it pulling me in again. I could feel its energy. Worst of all, all I could think about was the look in Jessica’s eyes right before the bus hit her. That would probably be my last, fleeting thought before dying.

I awoke in a cold sweat, moments before becoming a goner. I had still been dreaming. Thankful, but still in a mental frenzy, I jumped up and opened my bedroom door. There was nothing behind it. I looked around my room, under my bed, and in my closet. I found nothing. The Kitsune did not follow me home, it seemed. I sighed in relief. The monster was gone, but repercussions of my dream were still affecting me. I fell to my knees in dismay. It might sound a bit weird, but I think I may have fully come to terms with my wife’s death, that night.

And so, here I am, almost a year later. Despite what has happened, I still call my quaint village in Assabu, Japan home. There’s just something about it that makes me stay. It could be because it is where I met my wife, or perhaps it is the overlooking mountain that my dad used to talk about when I was younger. Either way, I won’t be leaving anytime soon. As for the Kitsune, I have not seen it since our last meeting. I haven’t even discussed my experience with my buddies at the pub. I think it is best to simply forget and come to peace with the ordeal. I do, however, wonder if I will see the spirit again on one of my late night strolls. I suppose the only thing I can do is hope that I will not. Who knows – maybe it has already moved on to its next unsuspecting victim.

One thought does cross my mind from time to time. What if the fox spirit was my Jessica all along? What if, upon dying, she somehow became a Kitsune? It sounds absurd, I know, but it’s as good an explanation as any. Maybe I should have followed her into the woods that night. Maybe I could have been happy with her, despite what she had become. Maybe we actually could have been together again, after all of the years that we’d been apart.

Perhaps… perhaps we still can.

Credit: Christopher Maxim

He Who Eats

October 31, 2016 at 8:00 PM

It was late September when I traveled north to the Great Lakes. It was one of the last stops for the last chapter of my book, starting with the eastern most part of Michigan and slowly making my way up to the Canadian border of Minnesota learning all I can about the Ojibwe people. My journey started in Tennessee to Kentucky and up into Ohio a bit, and up until I made it into norther Michigan the only things I had to fear were snakes and skin walkers.
The first few chapters of my book, though extremely informative, were very emotionally draining for me. Having a reprieve once I reached Ohio was so nice. To be able to sit and enjoy the scenery for a week or so before continuing on- it was much needed. As I traveled north and west I heard the stories I’ve heard hundreds of times so far. Peaceful tribes forced to abandon their home and assimilate to the whitewashed “culture” of settlers until all that’s left is a blind elder with an old war bonnet and a few arrowheads.
While the Saulteaux have a blighted history much like other tribes, there is a story told to me by a man from the Rainy Lake band that I will never forget, because it was the experience I had afterwards that turned my lighthearted journey for information into a terrified need to teach others. I learned very quickly that superstition older than written language tends to be rooted in reality.
It was late morning when I drove into the reservation near Red Lake, and met with a man named Waatese. His eyes were bright and welcoming, and his skin shimmered in the hot summer sun. His tight braid was being blown about by a soft wind as he talked to what looked to be a bit of an older man standing to his left. The older man is standing at a strange angle that I can’t quite figure out.
I parked over by a small cluster of trees on a stretch of gravel and grabbed my laptop bag and headed towards the two men. They both turned to smile as me and I waved.
“Hello!” I said, grinning and stopping a few feet from the. “I’m Wyatt, the man you spoke to over the phone a few days ago! Are you… Wa—Waatese?”
The younger man smiled at me again and reached out one hand for me to shake, and he nodded as he spoke.
“I am, and I remember your voice. I’m glad to see you’ve arrived so early, myself and Ziibi are very excited to be able to tell first hand stories to someone wishing to truly inform others.”
I look at the older looking man and he nods, but hasn’t yet spoke. I nod slightly in agreement and I’m let into a comfortably sized suburban looking home. The smell of savory food and smudging sage is heavy in the air, and makes it feel warm, while the openness of the home it is almost a tad unsettling.
The chairs at the kitchen table are pulled to one side and the wood of the table face is almost totally hidden by papers in various states of yellowing. The two men sit at the table and beckon for me to sit as well. I set my lap top up and take a deep breath to ready myself for the emotional roller coaster I knew I was about to go through.
“I’ve traveled through quite of Ojibwe land so far, and while much of what I’ve learned has been pretty similar to what other tribes have told me I do have a question about something I’ve heard others mention under their breath,” I begin, looking between the two men carefully. Their eyes shift from mine to each other’s as I speak, and the tension in the room begins to show. “I’d like to hear about Moguai.”
Waatese and Ziibi both hold their breath for a moment before the older man whispers something in what I can only assume to be their native tongue, and then the younger man speaks up.
“We will tell you, but you mustn’t say his name.”
Ziibi pulls a few of the papers together and hands them to me, and as the papers touch my fingers he bins to speak. His voice is soft and heavy with an accent that I can’t quite place- slight French? – and full of warning.
“He is the Maw of the Forest, He who eats.”
There’s a pause, and I take this moment to read through some of the notes. Some are in Gojijiwininiwag so I’m unable to read them, but there are a couple in English. The ones in English are the newer papers, less yellowed with age.
Waatese speaks up now. “He took a life last year, so for now he does not hunger. I can show you where he lives, if you’re interested, but I cannot promise your safety.”
I stare down at the papers in my hands and skim a few of them before looking up at the younger man and smiling. “I’d love to, a nice hike could help me add some extra information about the terrain.”
They look at one another again and Waatese gets up and leads me to the door, while Ziibi stays seated, but pushes his chair back. There is the slight sound of metal against metal, and it’s then that I notice Ziibi has a fake leg. That is why he was standing at a strange angle while standing on the gravel pavement.
I tear my eyes away from his prosthesis and follow Waatese out the door to the edge of the woods. The sun is blotted out by the thick canopy and the temperature drops a few degrees. I follow close behind him, with one of the notes in hand to refer to as I ask questions.
“What did you mean by ‘He does not hunger.’? Does The Maw not kill everyone who comes into the forest?” I keep my voice soft due to the echo from the trees.
Waatese lays one hand against a tree and stares into the forest for a moment before turning to me.
“Do you see these mushrooms here?”
I look just above his fingertips and eye the fungi growing from the tree trunk. They are a muted beige and very thin, curving slightly. I blink and take a step closer to get a better look. They are short and instead of growing in clusters thee is a line of them growing from the middle of the tree trunk up to its leaves.
“Those are God’s Flesh,” I mumble, half to him and half to myself “these shouldn’t grow this far north.”
The man looks me in the eyes and motions to the note. “The Maw of the Forest creates anomalies to mark his territory- his hunting grounds. These forests, all the way up until the ice caves, are arranged into a grid.”
He chews at his lip for a moment, and I smile.
“I know about the grid, actually. There are legends of odd things like faceless men and strange stairs. The internet loves to tell spooky stories about the woods.”
He frowns and shakes his head.
“I know of the stairs and the hikers, but those are the least of your worries out here.” He turns back to the trunk of the tree. “These mushrooms, we do not call them God’s Flesh. To us- my people- they are niibaabatoo. Run At Night.”
We are silent while staring at the little mushrooms, then I speak up again. “I’ve only seen these in Central America. They grow in mossy forest beds where it’s humid and damp. To have them this far north is nearly impossible.”
He gets a faraway look, then speaks softly “The Maw uses these mushrooms while he hunts. He crushes them between his paws and mixes them with the water from the river to create a thick syrups. He coats his claws in this liquid to make you see things- things that aren’t there. It is only then that he will show himself to you.”
I blink at him and open my mouth to speak, but then he nods and takes his hand off the tree trunk and gestures to the note. “Read while we walk, there isn’t much sunlight left and if you wish to stay and experience Him it’s best to start before the sun falls.”
I unfold the note and see that it’s written in blue ink, and the paper is crisp but there are little reddish brown stains and smudges of ink. Skimming it quickly I notice that it’s written in English and despite being on lined paper the words bend up and down and shake. It begins rushed and gets more and more urgent as it continues, and as I read I stopped walking.
The note reads as follows-
I am dying. I’ve made it to the ice caves, but He will find me. It’s been nearly a week and I can feel myself getting weaker. I am his first kill in 89 years, and he will not return for many many decades, but this does not mean you are safe. Do not venture past the mushrooms. Do not wander where the rocks are wet. I’ve given myself to him to keep him away from my home, but he still revels in the hunt. Once you feel his scratch it’s too late. Do not go past the mushrooms. When you find my body, save this note. Give it to Waatese to keep with the others. I have placated He Who Eats.
I look up from the note and with a slightly shaky voice ask “Why had it been so long since the last death?”
“He hunts every few years,” Waatese says, cold as if explaining a math problem, “but he only takes a life when the last two years have been added together. So, since my friend was killed after 89 years of dormancy, it will be over a century before he kills again.”
I nod, unsure what to say, and fold the note back up and stuff it into my pocket and trot to walk closer with the native man until we come to a clearing. There are a few patches where grass has not grown in a while, as well as small rings of those same mushrooms. Waatese stops and spins around and looks me dead in the face.
“Do you want to learn about The Maw, Wyatt?” He asks, his voice low and very serious. For a moment I thought he was going to pull a knife on me, but he doesn’t move as I stand there in silence. I can feel that he isn’t done speaking. “He will hunt you, and while you are guaranteed to survive you may not want to by the end of this. He is evil, Mr. Jones.”
I clear my throat and search his face, but there isn’t a threat in his voice or his eyes. He’s being sincere. “What do you mean? Are you trying to tell me He is real?”
Waatese laughs a great laugh and crosses his arms, puffing out his chest just a bit.
“Have you ever noticed that deep down we all have the same fears? Every horror movie or ghost tale plays on the same terror- Shadow figures, beasts with white eyes and no face. Fear is an evolution for survival, so there must be beasts our ancestors fought off for us to fear those traits. The Maw is one of those beasts.” He looks to the now orange sky and grabs a lighter from his pocket, flicking it open.
“The Mississippi river is to the west, and the caves are to the north. There will come a moment that His poison will wear off, and you will need to remember to watch which way the bird are flying. That is the way to safety, because by the end of this you will wish for death, but you will live if you can make it to a hospital.” Waatese kneels down and lights a small fire in the center of one of the small rings of mushrooms. “No one is coming to save you. Call his name, and the hunt begins. When this is over write about Him into your book. Maybe that will keep people out of our forest.”
He walks back into the forest very quickly and there is a small swirl of wind that kicks my hair around. I watch the small fire grow to the edge of the circle of mushrooms, but it does not spread. My throat is suddenly dry and there is a knot in my stomach.
“Moguai!” I call into the nothingness of the sky. All sounds of birds stop, and the slight buzz of gnats leaves the air.
“Moguai, the Hunter!” I call again, watching the trees.
Suddenly there is a burning pain in my left leg near my ankle, and I curse under my breath thinking the fire must have spat an ember at me. I rub my ankle and take my phone from my pocket to check my GPS. I turn until I’m facing north and begin walking.
I walk and walk, noting the oddity of silence despite extreme amounts of movement. I can feel my ankle swelling as I trudge deeper and deeper into the forest towards the ice caves. The sun has just barely sank below the horizon and there are shadows dancing in my peripheral vision.
The pain in my ankle grows and grows until I am sure it’s going to burst. I lean against a tree to pull up my pant leg and that was when I realized I was hallucinating, because I watched the skin of my leg sluff off in chunks, blackened and liquefied. My heart begins to race and I run. I’m not sure why I’m running, but I run, and I can hear footsteps behind me.
Let me tell you this, even if you know for certain that you are drugged, everything still feels so real, BUT those footsteps WERE real. I was being followed. I could feel the breath of whatever was following me, and I could feel its energy. I ran through nettles and crashed through bushes filled with thorns, but I didn’t care. I needed to get away.
I found a very old tree with a rotting trunk and climbed inside like a cat hiding from rain, and tried to catch my breath. The pain in my leg was now from my ankle all the way up to my knee and there was blood seeping through my jeans. I sat quietly with my hand over my mouth to stifle my gasping breaths and listened. The footsteps were all around me and there was no buzz of insects or calls of birds. Nothing living.
I waited in that tree until dusk, and then began to run again until I found the river. From there I only have to run north a little ways, but it wasn’t much a comfort. There, on the bank, was a single wet rock. It shimmered in the dull light of the setting sun and I felt a wind swirl around me until there was a horrible pain in my head. I fell to my knees and saw blood dripping into the grass. I touched my face and when I pulled my fingers away I could only see one of my hands- the other was covered in blood and goop.
My right eye had exploded in its socket.
I cried tears mixed with blood and clambered to my feet, looking up only for a moment to see a shadow in the water. A shadow with wings darker than the heart of a murderer and eyes brighter than the sun. He was hunting me.
I ran again, tears, blood and mucus streaming down my face, desperate to reach the ice caves and rest. I could see terrible things in my mind’s eye. All of the past men who have run through this forest, but haven’t survived. I screamed out my wife’s name, my daughter’s name, desperate to not forget that I was drugged.
But I wasn’t.
This was real.
Moguai was real.
And He was on my heels.
With only one eye my depth perception was off and I tripped over a small curve of the river, falling into the rushing waters of the Mississippi. Flailing about I couldn’t find the silt of the riverbed, so my head bobbed up and down through the surface of the water. My lungs filled with water and muck and I coughed harder than I ever have in my life. I called the name of the Maw, desperate to not drown, and suddenly I was smashed against the rocks like a boat against a cliff.
I felt every bone in my hands shatter and all I could do to pull myself from the water was crawl on my elbows. I’m not sure if it was Moguai who saved me, but I do know he wasn’t done hunting me.
I somehow made it to my feet and began to limp and hop through the trees again. The only thing on my mind was what Waatese said.
No one is coming to save me. I have to make it to the ice caves. I have to make it. If I can make it this game ends.
I don’t know how long it was that I ran. My lungs burned with remnants of water and my mouth tasted of mud and stale blood. My whole body caked in sweat and tears and drool, and my hair tangles with leaves and twigs. I could feel my broken hands dangling in their joints and my ankle bled constantly. I don’t know how I didn’t bleed out.
It was around mid-day that I tumbled down a steep snow bank, rolling head over heels and crying out as what was left of my vision rolled from snow to sky to snow again. I crashed into a pile of fresh powder and just laid there, gasping and crying. I had no more energy to run, but I hadn’t made it. It wasn’t over.
My vision was filled with blackness, but not darkness. It was that shadow I saw in the water. It was leaning over me, and when our eyes met I was filled with the most intense pain I had ever felt in my life. It started at my toes and slowly- very slowly- crawled up my entire body. I passed out around the time it reached my thighs, but according to the hikers that found me I never stopped screaming.
The doctors at the hospital told me they were in surgery for thirty-five hours, because all of my blood vessels from my toes to my navel had burst. Every single one of them. Just exploded like water balloons. One of my hands couldn’t be saved, and the other is bound tightly in a cast, my leg is gone from my shin down, and I now have a glass eye. I don’t know how I survived this; I can only assume this is the effect He has on you: to deny you death, even outside of his realm.
The hunt is over, and I’m back in Las Vegas with my family, but Moguai follows me in my dreams. He is in my nightmares.
I’m going to finish my book and send it to my publisher, then I’m going to go back into those woods and let The Maw consume me.
Even if you survive…
Death is favorable to how he leaves you.

Credit: WarmSummerRain

“I Came To Take You Away From This Place”

October 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM

“I guess it’s more like a numbness. Like when a leg or arm falls asleep. Whenever I move, there’s a disconnect. It feels like my limbs aren’t mine. Like I’m controlling a marionette version of myself, from somewhere far off.”

“What about when you try to touch something?”, he asked.

“If I try to touch anything…”

Her hand went up to his face. A thin trail of blue tailed behind it; an apparitional aura.

“… I feel nothing.”

He imagined her hand would have felt cold on his skin, but just like her, he didn’t feel anything.

He had so many questions he wanted to ask, but his mind couldn’t form a cohesive one.

“How are you, did you, I…”

She interrupted his rambling, “I understand you’re curious, but how I’m here doesn’t matter. I came to take you away from this place.”

He looked around his room. His bed sat in the corner, and his stuffed bear, Mr. Turner, was currently lying on the floor next to it. A shirt hung on the closet door handle. That was the entirety of the space. He never realized how empty it was, ‘till an opportunity arose to leave.

The walls were a plain color, and the floor was wood. Unlike the ghost’s touch, it was ice-cold on his bare feet.

Now, feeling like he was doing something wrong, he whispered, “Why?”

“Because, that man doesn’t know how to care of you on his own.”

“He’s my father. I mean, he’s our father. I can’t…”

“And because he hits you.”

“Every kid… gets punished by their fath-”

“No. Not how he does it. Don’t defend him.”

He felt tears try to escape from his eyes; To wet his face with the memory of horrible beatings his father had dealt him. He managed to hold them in, as the curiosity of his sister’s current proposition, and condition, overcame his desire to cry.

He cleared his throat to say, “Dad just misses you. He doesn’t know what to do, so he takes it out on me… I can’t ju-”

She put her hand on his face once more, as though she could actually hold his cheek in her palm.

“Do you trust me, kiddo?”, she said in a loving tone.

He had hated when she called him “kiddo”. It made him feel small. But to hear his older sister say it now, after so many months? He didn’t mind as much.

“Of course I do. You always took care of me.”

“And I plan to keep taking care of you. Come on. Grab Mr. Turner and lets go.”

He went to pick up his bear, then approached the window where she now floated. He waited a moment before realizing his sister couldn’t lift the window herself. He imagined she could probably just fly through it, but was being polite by waiting for him. Or maybe ghosts didn’t work the way he thought they did.

He tucked Mr. Turner under his arm, and lifted. She floated past him, out the opened window, and into the dark woods.

He climbed out as quickly as he could, making sure not to lose his stuffed friend while he did so.

As he started to close the window, he heard his sister tell him not to bother with it. He took the time to anyways. He didn’t want the night air cooling the house.

Regardless of his feelings for his father, he thought no one deserved to sleep in the cold.

***

The fairy picked her teeth. She hated how flesh stuck to them, but the taste was one she could never give up.

Squirrels could only keep someone satisfied for so long.

It motivated the creature to work on her projection skills. It took a lot of fungi and floral growths to cultivate a convincing effect, but she had pulled it off.

The perfect spell.

She couldn’t help but feel a little prideful. Making a shape with blue light was difficult, let alone the shape of a human.

Adults had better flesh, but children were easier to trick. Children who had suffered a loss? Even easier.

Yes, go down the dark hole, child. It’s safe. You can be safe.

The fairy laughed, then proceeded to wipe some blood from her lips.

She used her sickly, thin fingers to finish scrapping away the skin, and the blood that was drying on her needle-like dental work.

She stared at the stuffed bear that lied next to the boy. She murmured some words under her breath, and the toy burst into flames. This brought out another laugh.

Her long wings lifted her off the ground, as she mentally prepared a list of ingredients.

When she had lured the sister into the woods, she had no idea how fruitful it would be. A whole family, struck by tragedy. Sadly, only one adult.

Regardless, all this flesh…

The father would be weaker now. She would study him, like she had the boy. She was full now, so she could wait.

She was ready to prepare again.

Credit: Jordan Vanhoozer

Lord of Lies

October 27, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Note: Contains minor gore; please consider this alongside the plot setup (evident within the first sentence) as this may be a story some of you will wish to avoid.

Peter Helford hadn’t exactly planned on murdering a child. But when money came and knocked on his door, he had been all too accepting of it. After all, cash was something he was in desperate need of anyway. He was an anxious man who clenched onto every last penny he could find. While some called it greed, he called it living in poverty. In all fairness, Peter wasn’t exactly at the top of the economic chain. Every day he worked at a Shell Gas Station for a pathetic payment of minimum wage. Peter probably wouldn’t have lived in his house as long as he did if it wasn’t for the aid of the Collins family. Every summer, Peter helped out around the Collins Household and was rewarded generously. The Collins were a very rich family. Nobody knew how they got their fortune. There were rumors that they were involved in drug trafficking, but others scoffed and said their riches were simply inherited. Whatever the case, money was money. And that was exactly Peter’s mindset when Gloria Collins knocked on his front door one muggy August morning. He answered it, and found her standing there on the doorstep. She was dressed in all black, as usual, and her sleeves were long despite the heat. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to the punch, tersely asking, “May I come inside?”

“Of course,” he replied, holding open the door as she stepped into his living room and made herself comfortable on the couch. She was perfect. Her blonde hair was curled just right, her skin and clothing were both devoid of any wrinkles, and she seemed to radiate a sense of calm professionalism.

“Shut that door, Peter. We have a lot to talk about,” she ordered.

“Oh?” he said, shutting the door.

“My husband and I have been talking a lot lately.” This was fairly unusual. The Collins’s were not lovers, they were partners. There was very little chemistry in their relationship. Peter raised an eyebrow.

Gloria sighed, and for a moment she looked older than she really was. Then she took in a deep breath and let it out:

“I want you to kill my son.”

Shock should’ve been the first emotion Peter felt, but it wasn’t. Kevin Collins was an optimistic young boy who had the blondest hair Peter had ever seen. He was so skinny that he more or less resembled a pole with glasses. Even though Peter didn’t know that the little nine year old child had been a mistake, he probably could’ve guessed it. It was as simple as this: The parents did not want him around. They never had, and they never would. He was a constant nuisance to them, not because he was bad, but because he expected so much from his mother and father. Every day, a brutish Harley Collins would lumber out of his house in a business suit and drive off until seven o’clock at night. Gloria Collins, on the other hand, was a full time online student. She would rather stare at a computer screen all day than pay a lick of attention to her own child. However, Kevin wanted them so much to be good to him. Peter remembered a night last summer when he had stayed late at the Collins Residence, and heard the boy asking for a goodnight kiss. He had been dusting the room next door, and the walls were permeable to sound.

When Kevin spoke, he did so with obvious caution in his voice. He seemed to believe that it would hurt him if he raised his voice too high.

“Um… mom, could you come in here for a second?”

There was a quick patter of footsteps, then, “Yes, Kevin? What is it?”

“Do you think, maybe, you could give me a goodnight kiss?”

Gloria had simply chuckled softly. It hadn’t been a nice laugh though. It was instead the kind of laugh that made gooseflesh begin to creep up the nape of Peter’s neck. “Now, Kevin, your mother is very busy right now,” she responded, clearly annoyed. “She’s taking a course online that needs her full attention. I don’t have time for things like this.”

Just like that, Gloria had left the room. Peter was finished dusting, but he stayed where he was for just a moment longer. Just long enough to hear Kevin begin to sob.

Kevin wanted his parents to have fun with him. He wanted to play games with his parents, wanted to go to Carowinds with them, wanted to bond and grow close to them, wanted to be loved. However, Gloria and Harley Collins couldn’t care less. To them, Kevin held no more importance than a pesky mosquito that was constantly buzzing in their ears.

The first emotion Peter felt when Gloria asked him if he would kill her son was curiosity, and the first question he asked Gloria was, “Why me?” After all, he was a man who was about to enter his fifties. His whole body seemed to be gradually fading, and his hair was taking on a new salt and pepper coloring.

“Because,” answered Gloria, her icy blue eyes never wavering their piercing glare, “I know you won’t turn me down.”

That night, Peter collapsed onto his bed in exhaustion, even though his day hadn’t been particularly strenuous at all. His mind was whirling; he was ecstatic, but also strangely frightened. Gloria had offered him one hundred thousand dollars. His brain could barely process it, One hundred thousand fucking dollars! But in return, he would have to murder a child. Peter had always felt sorry for Kevin, and he could even relate to him slightly. He himself was raised in an environment where his parents didn’t fully care about him. Many of his teenage years had been spent alone, in his room, with the sweet sounds of music blocking out the arguing of his mother and father. On top of that, Kevin was incredibly innocent. He was always trying to get the attention of his parents. He was always trying to make them love, even though it was a lost cause from the beginning.

Peter thought it over. He tossed and turned all night, unable to get any sleep as he weighed the pros and cons. He would probably feel guilty for a long time, and experiences like this one were supposedly damaging, but still… money. And anyway, Gloria had told him he could do it in any way he desired. Just as long as Kevin was gone, the deal was done. It could be quick, silent, and it could be painless. He mused over the best way to do it. Maybe a bullet to the head? Quick, yes, and just about as painless as he was going to get it. But silence was at stake, and he didn’t own a gun anyways. Strangulation? Absolutely not, it would take minutes on end to cease Kevin’s breath forever. He pondered a few moments longer. What about slashing the throat? It would definitely be quick. The boy’s heartbeat would drive the blood out of the body in a matter of seconds. What about silence? Yes, making a throat cutting silent was also doable. And finally, painless: How bad could a little cut hurt? All boys like Kevin had probably skinned their knee at some point or another. The only thing different about this was that the cut would be cleaner, thinner, and it would bleed a little more. It was perfect. However, something was still wrong. If Peter was going to carry through with this, he wanted to do it in a way that would save him of some guilt. He needed to do it in a way that Kevin wouldn’t know it was he, Peter, who had killed him. Peter sat up in bed. It was useless trying to sleep anyways. He reached for his nightstand and grabbed his pack of cigarettes. When three smokes had been expended, he had it: the perfect plan to murder Kevin Collins.

It took Peter a week to mentally prepare himself for what was to come, but eventually he knew the time was right. When the time came, he was driving towards the wilderness of Scotland County. Kevin was in the backseat, and he was more excited than ever. He had known little of Peter before this, but now looked up to him with a new sort of respect. It wasn’t every day a man was nice enough to take you camping, especially if your own parents wouldn’t.

“Hey sir!” Kevin piped up from the back, “Why are we doing this again?”

“Well, Kevin, your parents need a little time to themselves. They want me to take you on a little trip.”

“A trip to where?” Kevin asked, “Oh man! I know that we’re going camping, but where? What’re we doing?”

“We’re just going to camp by the Little Pee Dee River. We’re going to get to know each other. Live like real men for a while…” Peter felt a momentary tug of guilt, “Maybe even tell some ghost stories around the campfire.”

“I love ghost stories!” Kevin squealed, and Peter felt his gut wrench. He had loved ghost stories too as a kid. Just like how he had had uncaring parents. Did he wear glasses when he was a child? Peter thought about it for a second. Yes, he had, but he had long since switched to contacts. His hand came up and touched the side of his face, as if to pull off a pair of invisible spectacles.

Peter confided in himself for a short few seconds. How was he going to go through with this if he was already feeling guilty? He told himself to be cool and collected. Everything would go according to plan. Meanwhile, Kevin was pulling out his battered copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from his knapsack.

“Whoa there,” Peter said, forcing a smile, “Let’s wait until dark before we start with that, alright?”

“Oh, okay. Sure,” Kevin replied. “Say, do you have any ghost stories?”

“Oh yeah,” Peter returned, “I certainly do.”

“Well, where’s your book?” Kevin asked, reaching for Peter’s backpack.

“Hey! Don’t touch that stuff, okay? And all the stories I know are memorized.”

Kevin withdrew his hand, and Peter let out a sigh of relief. After all, suspicion may have been aroused if Kevin had looked into his backpack and seen the latex gloves, rope, lighter fluid, and the knife. Then, Peter realized, he probably would’ve thought they were nothing more than camping supplies. He was over-thinking this by a long shot.

Peter and Kevin reached their destination soon after. They pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed their equipment, and headed off into the woods. It wasn’t long before they ran into the Little Pee Dee River. The waters were placid. To one who was looking at the body of water from a certain angle, it would appear they were seeing a large pond. It was the perfect place to dump a dead body.

It had been nearly thirty-six years since Peter had last gone camping, and Kevin was even more inexperienced. It took them an hour before their tent was pitched, and by the time they were unpacking their belongings, it was already beginning to grow dark.

“Can we tell ghost stories now?” Kevin asked eagerly.

“Well, the sun’s just beginning to go down. I think by the time we get a fire going it should be dark enough.”

“Yes!” Kevin hissed to himself, pumping his fist.

“Now the first step is to gather some kindling. Start collecting dry leaves, twigs, anything that’ll serve the basis to a good fire.”

While Peter didn’t know much about camping, he did know a thing or two about starting a fire. He had made sure of this by looking it up on the internet prior to the trip. After all, burning a knapsack full of one’s possessions takes a decent fire. Kevin was a hard worker, and in no time at all, the necessary kindling had been gathered. Taking his time, Peter arranged a few large stones in a circle, and then put the kindling in the middle. After that, he stacked some nearby sticks in a lean-to arrangement over the kindling while Kevin watched in awe. Finally, he struck a match and threw it into the mass of dry grass hidden by the sticks. In no time, a blaze was starting to flicker. The wind through the trees picked up slightly, and the fire let loose a roar as it spread, blossoming into a crackling inferno.

“Wow…” Kevin murmured, obviously impressed. Peter sat down in the dirt next to the flames. He looked at Kevin, saying, “Go on now. Get your book and read me a story.”

Kevin obeyed. He read scary story after scary story from his book until the night sky had grown black. Kevin was enthusiastic about it to say the least. Whenever he came to a scene that was particularly gory or frightening, his voice would deepen slightly, and would eventually morph into a forced whisper. There were plenty of gruesome campfire tales in his book. There were stories of rotting bodies being found, decapitated heads, corpses coming back to life, and even cannibalistic butchers. But Peter remained unruffled. He had a story that he knew would frighten Kevin to his core.

“Okay, stop,” Peter told Kevin when he was halfway through the narrative of a ghost with bloody fingers.

“What? Why? This is like, the last one!”

“Don’t worry about that. I have a good story, a true ghost story. And it takes place right here, by the Little Pee Dee River.”

“You swear it’s true?”

Peter smiled in spite of himself. “Yes, it’s true. When I was your age, my father told me this story, and I told this story to everyone in my Boy Scout troop. It scared all of them shitless…” He stopped, testing to see if Kevin would be affected by the profanity. He wasn’t. “… And so now, I think it’s only appropriate that I tell you.”

“Do it,” Kevin replied. His voice was light and breathy, like that of a young girl on her birthday who is about to receive a gift. He reached into the knapsack that was lying beside him and pulled out a bag of marshmallows. Grabbing a nearby stick, Kevin speared the marshmallow from the bottom up and stuck it over the flames.

“Alright, I’ll tell it if you can keep the interruptions to a minimum.”

Kevin nodded his agreement, and Peter began:

“This is the story of the Lord of Lies. That wasn’t his real name, of course, just a sort of nickname, like Bloody Mary, or something along those lines. Anyways, our main character in this story is a man named Joseph Thorn. If you want me to describe him, I guess he did have one defining characteristic: His eyes. Joseph had the strangest eyes you’d have ever seen. For whatever reason, his irises were bright red. Other than that he looked more or less normal. He lived up in a town not too far away from here back in the 1930’s. Every day after work, Joseph would hike down to this river with his fishing gear, and he would fish his heart out. Now, you have to understand Joseph was just an ordinary fisherman. There was nothing particularly odd about him. As a matter of fact, Joseph led a pretty good life. He was married to the most beautiful wife in town. Her name was Barbara Thorn. People said she had a laugh that could put mockingbirds to shame. But, while she was gorgeous, she was also unfaithful.

“When 1942 rolled around, America was in a state of chaos. It was decided that we were going to be entering World War II, and all men who were eligible were being drafted, including Joseph. Well, as the war raged on, Barbara became more and more lonely. There are some women who could wait lifetimes for their man to come back, but Mrs. Thorn was not one of them. In her free time, she began to visit her next door neighbor, who went by the name of Kenneth Carl. Mr. Carl hadn’t been drafted because he was an invalid, you see—

“What does that mean?” Kevin asked suddenly. “What’s an invalid? Sorry for interrupting.” His marshmallow had caught aflame, and Kevin blew on it frantically, trying to preserve some of the golden brown crispiness.

“An invalid is someone who is weak to the point where he can’t do everyday things, someone who has a severe illness or injury. This man, Kenneth, he was in a wheelchair. I can’t remember why, exactly. I think my father told me at some point or another, but if so I can’t recall. Barbara started out just assisting Kenneth. He usually had a helper around to make life easier for him, a hired man, but he had been drafted for the war. What started out as just service to someone in need soon turned to something else. Kenneth and Barbara had an affair.

“Well, when Joseph came home, he wasn’t all the same. The war had changed him a lot. He wasn’t the happy fisherman that the townspeople had come to know and love. He had grown distant. Things only got worse with the affair. In small towns, news travels fast. It wasn’t long before someone told Joseph his wife was cheating on him. Can you imagine coming home after fighting for your life, only to discover that your wife no longer loves you? It was tough shit for sure, and Joseph took it pretty hard. He stayed down by the Little Pee Dee all day long, fishing from dusk to dawn for days. Some people even say that he slept down there by the river. He was doing a little more than fishing while he was down there though: He was plotting his revenge.”

“What did he do?” Kevin questioned, his built curiosity overwhelming the need to stay silent.

“I’m getting to that. One day Joseph confronted his wife about the affair. She immediately burst into tears, as I’m sure you can imagine. While she was bent over sobbing into her hands, Joseph said to her, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.’ Then he slipped his filet knife out from his belt, reached under her arms, and cut her throat.”

There was a moment of silence as Peter let that statement sink in.

“Then, Joseph went over to the neighbor’s house. The helper had been fired at that point. Barbara had taken his place, so he didn’t have any trouble getting in. He just cut the screen on the front door, reached inside, disabled the lock and went right on in. He found Kenneth asleep on his bed. He walked up beside him, and right away Kenneth woke up. As I’m sure you can imagine, he was pretty scared, and he instantly started calling for help, but Joseph hushed him up. He put his hand on Kenneth’s shoulder, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘Calm down. I’m not going to hurt you.’ Then, real quick, he drew out his knife and sliced open Kenneth’s throat too.

“Joseph waited until night before wrapping both the bodies up in a tarp. Then he took them down to the Little Pee Dee. He found the biggest stone he could before tying both bodies down to it firmly with a few feet of rope, and pushed them into the water. He gave the fish something to eat for the next couple days.”

Kevin threw a fearful glance at the nearby river.

“Well, it didn’t take very long for someone to find the corpses. Two little boys were playing by the river. They were having a contest to see who could find the most interesting thing on the river-bottom. You dive, reach the ground, grab something, and come back up. I used to play that game myself when I was young, actually. You could find all sorts of things: Coins, glasses, bracelets, necklaces. It was really a lot of fun. Back to the story, one of those two little boys resurfaced with a rotting human finger in his hand. He went home and showed it to his mother, and the police were notified, of course. Afterwards, the entire department went down to the river, with the boy in the lead. What they saw was pretty unexpected. Joseph was there, and he was waiting for them. It turned out that he had seen the two little boys make their discovery, and he knew the police would be after him soon. None of the police actually knew that he was the murderer though. That realization would come later. What they saw then and there was Joseph wading into the river, bit by bit. The police tried to stop him, tried to warn him that the waters were being searched, but he didn’t listen. He kept walking into the river until he was completely submerged. A full minute passed, and Joseph was nowhere to be seen. They waited another ten minutes until it was determined that Joseph had drowned himself.”

Peter stopped abruptly, and Kevin stared at him expectantly. “Well come on!” he protested. “That can’t be the end, can it?”

“No. It’s not the end. Joseph’s body was never actually found.”

Kevin looked at him, eyes wide, and mouth agape. “You said this really happened?”

“It absolutely did. Some people say that the river absorbed Joseph’s spirit, and that’s why no one found his body. Do you know why they call Joseph the Lord of Lies? Have you figured that out yet?”

Kevin shook his head.

“It’s because he always lies to his victims before he murders them. Think about his last words to Barbara and Kenneth. Legend has it that the Lord of Lies awakens every time he senses someone impure camping near the Little Pee Dee. You’ll fall asleep only to be awoken seconds later. You’ll feel a cold hand over your mouth, so that you can’t scream. You’ll hear Joseph’s whisper, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be okay,’ before your throat is sliced open and your body is dragged down into the river forever.”

Peter couldn’t tell for sure in the dim light of the fire, but it looked like Kevin’s face had gone deathly pale. Peter had told the story well. No hard task, considering he had been practicing in front of a mirror for the last few days.

Kevin voiced his concerns, saying, “Sir, I’m kind of scared.”

“Hey Kid, no need to worry, it’s only a story, I promise.”

“But you said it was real!” Kevin insisted.

“Well, it really happened, but there is no Lord of Lies. I can promise you that. Even if there was, why would it be interested in you? I mean, come on, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

At this, Kevin seemed to relax slightly, and Peter faked one last smile. “It’s getting late. You should go to bed soon. I’ll be sleeping right outside if you need me.” Kevin nodded his assent and let out a yawn. He was obviously worn out.

“Goodnight Sir. See you in the morning,” he muttered tiredly, getting up and ambling into his tent. Peter sat by the fire for a second, motionless. Then he retrieved his backpack and unzipped it. He reached inside and pulled out the latex gloves. Wiggling one finger in at a time, he slipped them on. They stretched over his flesh, fitting like a second skin. He reached into his backpack once more and pulled out the other required materials. He placed the small paring knife on the ground next to his sleeping bag (it was the closest he could get to a filet knife), before pressing the start button on his stopwatch. Now he would wait.

After an hour had passed, he knew that the time had come. The most important time. Something occurred to him. He could stop this. He could go to sleep right now and pretend like this was just a regular old camping trip. Then he remembered the money. He was feeling slightly ill to his stomach, as if he was going to throw up. One hundred thousand dollars, he reminded himself. The four words became a chant in his head. One hundred thousand dollars, One hundred thousand dollars, One hundred thousand dollars. He repeated the words again and again as he approached Kevin’s tent, knife in hand. He was gripping the handle tightly, so tightly it hurt. But he continued his advance until he was there, kneeling by the entrance flap of the tent. It’ll be over soon, he thought, and then I can have my money.

Peter peeled back the opening to the shelter, casting firelight onto the sleeping face of Kevin Collins. He looked to be in the middle of a pleasant dream. His lips were curved slightly into an unconscious smile. His nostrils flared as he breathed in and out, as his chest rose and fell. Peter reached out a hand tentatively. He lifted Kevin’s neck, inch by inch, before scooting forwards, so that the back of Kevin’s head rested on his knee. Now Kevin wouldn’t be able to see him. It would seem likely to him that this was the attack of a stranger… or a murderous urban legend.

It was now or never. Before Peter could stop himself, he pushed his palm down hard over Kevin’s mouth. Kevin’s eyes shot open, and he let out a terrified scream that was lost in Peter’s grip.

“Don’t worry,” Peter growled in his deepest voice, “It’ll be alright.”

Then, with one quick movement of the paring knife, Peter carved a slit into Kevin’s throat. In his last living movements, Kevin thrashed desperately, but this only caused his already life threatening cut to widen. Blood sheeted out of Kevin’s second mouth in torrents, covering the floor of the tent in a brilliant vermillion red. He made one last incomprehensible attempt to shriek for help, but all that came out was a weak rasping cross between a moan and a whine.

Peter held him there for a good five minutes. He had a strange fear that as soon as he started to back away from Kevin’s supposedly dead body, it would jump back to life and start screeching its pain for the world to hear. After he was sure Kevin was totally deceased, he got up. Shakily, he returned to his backpack and pulled out a coil of rope, which he tossed over his shoulder. Then, Peter moved back to the tent, grabbed Kevin by the ankles, and dragged him outside. He wheezed as he exerted himself, but eventually the twosome reached the edge of the river. A rock that looked to be about half the size of Kevin’s corpse was lying a few feet away. Peter walked over to it, grabbed it as best he could, and hoisted with all his might. He managed, with some difficulty, to move it over to Kevin’s lifeless form. For the next few minutes, he fought with the rope, rock, and body. It wasn’t easy, but eventually Kevin was strapped down solidly to the stone. Once again, Peter prepared his muscles before pushing with all his gathered strength. Gradually, Kevin’s carcass skated across the mud and into the water, disappearing below the liquid glass of the river.

Peter wasn’t done yet. He retreated to the camp and began to accumulate all of Kevin’s possessions. His knapsack, sleeping bag, and his book of ghost stories were all seized and thrown into the fire. When that was finished, Peter disassembled the tent, folded it up, and pushed it into the camping bag, which was also fed to the heat.

It was over, and Kevin didn’t even know who had really killed him. Peter’s ploy had been a complete success. Of course, Peter was also disturbed by the experience. Kevin had reminded him so much of his own life as a young boy, that it was almost as if Peter had killed himself in a way. At that moment, Peter felt the urge to grab a cigarette from his back pocket and light up, as he always did when he felt stressed, but then he remembered that doing so would leave a remnant of his being here.

Suddenly, Peter felt drained. His eyes were ready to close. He realized that he needed sleep more than anything else at the current moment. After stripping the dirty, bloodstained latex gloves off his hands and slipping off his ruined pants, he slipped into his sleeping bag and curled up by the great fire. In no time at all, he had fallen into a deep sleep.

Peter’s slumber was so deep, as a matter of fact, that he didn’t even stir when the normally calm surface of the river began to ripple. Peter didn’t let out a single peep as a figure emerged from the dark depths of the dirty waters, red eyes flashing with vengeance. The fire which had sanctioned Peter was dying rapidly. The flames were shrinking lower and lower until there were no flames, only embers, which quickly went extinct. A veil of black descended over the night, and the cold crept in like a sickness. Heavy footfalls echoed off the trees until the Spirit of the River found what he was looking for.

A cold, wet, slimy hand clamped down over Peter’s mouth. He jerked awake, trying to yell out, but the hand pushed him down firmly, keeping him in place.

“Don’t worry,” the darkness whispered huskily, “It’ll be alright.”

Those were the last words Peter ever heard before he felt the rusty blade of the filet knife slide across his throat.

Credit: SnakeTongue

Creepypasta

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