Tales of the City, Part Six: Burnt Offerings

April 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM

“It’s last call.”

“Hey, like in that poem you know? ‘Hurry up please, it’s time!’ …sorry, I’ve had a lot to drink.”

“We all have. And I, for one, don’t really feel safe going home after everything we’ve heard tonight.”

“But all those stories can’t be true. Even if you believe in that kind of thing, there can’t be one city with so many secrets.”

“Maybe it’s not the city that’s really the problem. Listen closely: What do you hear?”

“My pounding head.”

“The bartender throwing us out.”

“My boyfriend leaving impatient text messages wondering where I am.”

“Underneath all of that, I mean. Do you hear it? The ocean.”

“But that’s miles away?”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ve got the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, and the straits connecting them. We’re surrounded by the sea; you can’t get away.”

“So what?”

“Maybe the ocean is the reason so many strange things happen here. Maybe there’s something in the water. Here, we have a little more time before this place is really closed; let me tell you about it…”

***

“My mother told me he went off to become a frogman.”

The stringer stopped writing, certain that she had misheard the old woman. They sat in a small, pretty house just a few blocks from the Ruins, a house that smelled persistently of cat despite no cat being evident. The old woman (her name was Marie Wayland; she was in her sixties but looked much, much older) had a voice only slightly more pronounced than silence and the stringer could never be completely sure that what she had written down was anything close to what the old woman had actually said.

“A frogman?” the stringer asked.

“That’s what they used to call a deep-sea diver in the old days, on account of the flippers and the wetsuit. And the goggles.” She mimed goggles over her eyes. “He always said that’s what he’d wanted to be when he grew up, so when he ran off that’s what mother told me he was doing.”

The stringer nodded and continued writing, without comment. The conversation was going on forty-five minutes and the frogman thing was the most coherent comment she’d gotten so far. She checked the time and found that the light would waning outside. She would have to hurry if she wanted to shoot the Ruins today. She skipped to her last question:

“I understand that he was an artist, but no one ever exhibited his work?”

“That’s right,” Marie said. “In fact, here.” The old woman stood; she was not a little old woman, despite her tiny voice. She was tall and thick-limbed. She reminded the stringer of a huge bird, a crane or a stork. The old woman brought out a flat package a little over a foot on each side, wrapped in brown paper.

“You mentioned that on the phone and I thought your magazine might like to use this in the article. It’s a charcoal sketch he did. Go ahead and keep it, I’ve got plenty more just like it. Hundreds, maybe. Mother kept them all, after he left.”

The stringer accepted the package, feeling as if she were receiving an unwanted Christmas gift from a relative she barely knew. She left with the package under her arm and her camera around her neck, glad to be free of that clinging cat odor. Forty plus minutes of conversation had yielded less than a page of notes, but with the sun at just the right angle on the horizon it was not too late to get some good shots of the Ruins; the day needn’t be completely wasted.

The smell of the salt breeze coming from the beach stung her nostrils. The stringer had never particularly liked the ocean. She’d rather have lived anywhere but a coastal city, but the city was where the work was. She’d had a regular position as a staff photographer at a decent magazine for a while, but now she was back to being a stringer, living off of freelance work and making it by job to job. The assignment about the Ruins had been a lucky break, but breaks were fewer and further between all the time. She crested the hill and started down the hiking trail, toward her destination.

The beach that served as the fringe to the city’s westernmost side terminated on the north in a series of rocky pools particularly hazardous to anyone traversing the coast, by land or by sea. But the spectacular views of the waves crashing against the shore had always encouraged developers to build on the bluffs overlooking the area, which is why, a hundred years ago, the old mayor built his theater palace here. People in the city would come all the way out to the beach complex for circus acts and dancing shows and the indoor pool and whatever else the wizards who owned the place cooked up. They’d even had a museum of ancient Egyptian artifacts. But in the ’50s it fell on hard times and the family sold it to an outsider, George Wayland, who closed it ten years later and then skipped town. No sooner was he gone than the whole thing burnt to the ground.

Wayland himself disappeared, apparently never disembarking from the ship that carried him away from the city. He left behind a wife, a daughter (now an old woman who lived just a few blocks away in her cat-smelling ho use), and a legacy of unanswered questions. And the place where the pool and circus and the museum once was sat untouched for decades, slowly falling apart, filling in with water and silt and wild plants until it resembled an ancient ruin. And that was what people called it: the Ruins. It was never fully torn down; folks decided they liked the look of it. The crumbling stone walls and enormous, water-filled pits alongside the beach and the coastline looked more like the remains of a Roman village than anything a turn of the century showman built. The city decided they were beautiful. Although, the stringer reflected, as she set her tripod on a hill, to her the place had always looked creepy as hell. Even when she and Randy played down here as kids, she’d never liked it.

But she couldn’t afford to only take the jobs she liked. It was fifty years since the fire and since George Wayland disappeared, and his legend had only grown, so the magazine editors decided to run a big piece: “George Wayland, Man and Myth.” It didn’t matter that there was nothing new to write about it or that the stringer’s photos would be just like any others that anyone had taken in five decades; people liked the mystery, and the mystery would sell magazines, which meant the stringer could sell photos.

She spent an hour shooting. She caught the Ruins at sunset and the Ruins at twilight and even the Ruins at night, when it was really too dark to still be shooting but she kept shooting anyway. By the time she put her camera away the only light, besides the moon, came from the hotel on the cliffs to the south. It was just enough light to see Seal Rock by, although the stringer decided that at this time of night it didn’t really look like a rock at all. It looked like some giant whale just offshore was sticking its head up to get a good look at the city. A whale, or something else.

She went home. There was a note on the door; Sam had stopped by. She’d forgotten they had plans. That explained the flashing voice mail indicator on her phone as well. She ignored both, going inside and uploading the new photos. She missed the days of her old film camera; digital just wasn’t the same, but it was cheaper and faster. Another compromise she’d made with the world. She studied the twilight photos most closely, scanning every square inch of the image. Nothing unusual was there, but she kept looking anyway. After two hours, she gave up. Another wasted day. She flopped onto the couch, picking up the magazine off the table. She turned to the most well-worn page, and there was a smiling picture of George Wayland and the headline: “George Wayland, Man or Myth?”

The magazine had gone to stands two weeks ago. She’d turned in the photos for it a week before that. The money from it had already been spent. She should have been chasing other leads, should have been getting after editors for more assignments, should have been paying her bills, but instead she kept going back to the Ruins day after day, taking more worthless photos. Hitting up the old woman had been a desperation move, and she’d felt bad about lying and saying she was there on assignment (the old bat was so senile she didn’t even remember reading the finished article when it came out), but it was the only lead she’d had. Now it was a dud too. She should give up on it. But she couldn’t. There was something about the Ruins only she knew. Something she couldn’t let go of.

Thinking about the old woman reminded her of the sketch. She’d left it by the door, still wrapped in brown paper. She retrieved it. When the package was open she flinched; it was, as promised, a charcoal sketch. It depicted a mirror-flat expanse of ocean disturbed by an anomalous sea creature breaching the surface, foam spraying from its jaws and water streaming down its huge body. It was impossible to tell what the animal was actually supposed to be, but it made her think of some kind of dragon, bristling with flippers and fins. It was impossibly ugly. A few human swimmers were added for scale; they were tiny next to the monster, so small they were practically stick figures.

The stringer frowned; why the hell would Marie Wayland give her this? Then she chided herself; the old bird was nuts, what did she expect? And what had she said? That her father had done hundreds like this? She suddenly wished she’d had it before the story went to print. The editor probably would have loved it. It would have gone great with that one ‘graph toward the end, how did it go? She picked the magazine up and read:

“Urban legend persists that Wayland himself set the fire that destroyed the pool complex. Not as an insurance scam, but to destroy the evidence of the secret, ritual murders he supposedly committed there. No serious historical evidence suggests any truth to these rumors, but local kids still sneak down to the Ruins late at night in hopes of hearing the ghostly screams of those said to have died there.”

The stringer snorted. All bullshit, of course. But people in this city loved their ghost stories. Randy had, too.

She went back to the sketch. Something about it was bothering her. On a hunch, she opened the back of the frame and removed the delicate paper. In the lower right hand corner something was written. She thought at first it was Wayland’s name or initials, but now she saw it was a word she didn’t recognize. The closest she could decipher it was:

“Aspidochelone.”

Curious, she went the computer to look it up:

“Aspidochelone is a fabled sea monster, variously described as a large whale or vast sea turtle. It was supposedly so large as to be mistaken for an island, its great shell appearing like a rocky outcropping. In some traditions, Aspidochelone is believed to be the Bible’s ‘great fish’ that swallowed the prophet Jonah. Other myth cycles persist that it was an avatar of the devil.”

The stringer frowned. She held the sketch up to one of her photos of seal rock by night: the sea monster’s humped back was in the exact shape of the stony island. Then she looked more closely at the swimming figures Wayland drew; at first she’d thought they must be fleeing the creature, but now it seemed they were actually swimming toward it. And they did not appear entirely human; they were bulky and shapeless things, though the tiny scale made it hard to determine their exact form. Even so, a little thrill went through her. She turned to the computer and clicked the file right in the middle of her desktop. A picture of the Ruins popped up; not any of the pictures she’d taken today and not any of the pictures she’d sold to the magazine. This was a picture only she had seen, a picture taken three weeks ago, just at dusk.

Everything was there as it should be: the crumbling walls, the deep pools, the shore, the surf, the rocks. Nothing seemed out of place at first glance; she’d almost missed it herself the when she’d uploaded the photos. But there, in the deepest pool right in the center of the Ruins, just beneath the surface, there was a shape. The water was dark and the light was poor, so it was hard to tell, but it looked remarkably like a person swimming to the surface. No, not a person; not quite. Just something a little like a person. Something that might live in the water and stay out of sight of normal people, until night came, when it could come to the surface without anyone seeing…

This picture was the reason she kept coming to the Ruins. This picture was the reason she’d interviewed the old woman, and the reason she kept reading and researching about George Wayland. This was the reason she hadn’t worked or seen Sam or any of her friends in weeks. This picture, and the memory of something splashing in the water behind her as she folded up her tripod and left that day, and an older memory, one of Randy, and his frightened voice in the dark.

She held the Wayland sketch next to her monitor. The shape in the photo was ill-defined, and the figures in the sketch were tiny, but they looked alike. Didn’t they? She flipped back and forth between her photos: The rock, and the back of Aspidochelone; the swimmers, and the shape in the pool. Yes, they all matched. And that meant…

What did it mean? The stringer wasn’t sure. She rubbed her forehead; it was late, and she hadn’t slept enough all week. She turned the computer off and flopped into bed, not even bothering to take off her shoes. Outside, the wind was blowing. The branches of the trees scraped her windows. Her water bill was due tomorrow. Her rent was due a week later. She didn’t know where the money would come from. She told herself she should not spend tomorrow afternoon at the Ruins again and should not spend tomorrow morning at the library or the historical society, looking for any new information about George Wayland. She should look for work instead. But she knew that she wouldn’t. She couldn’t let this thing go. She felt like she owed it to Randy. Poor Randy. After all these years…

As she slept, she thought she heard rain splashing on her window. But she couldn’t be sure.

***

In her dream, she was six years old again. In her dream, her older brother was waking her up in the middle of the night. In her dream, she rolled over and said, “What is it, Randy?” And her brother sounded frightened as he said:

“It’s the man. The man from the beach.”

She sat up under the covers. She could not see Randy in the dark, but she knew he was right by her bedside. “What man?”

“The one from last night, when we snuck down to the Ruins. Remember, I told you I saw him in the water?”

In her dream she was frightened, but she didn’t show it. She knew Randy was only trying to scare her. “I remember calling you a liar. You didn’t see any man in the water.”

“I did. But he wasn’t really a man; he was all scaly, like a fish, and he had a horrible face.”

“You didn’t see any man,” she said. But her voice cracked. “Go back to bed.”

Randy was quiet for a second. She said again, a little louder:

“Randy? What’s the matter?”

In the dark, Randy shivered.

“What’s the matter is…he’s outside our window…”

The stringer was screaming. No, someone else was screaming. No, that wasn’t a scream, it was…the phone?

She sat up in bed (her feet ached; really should have taken off her shoes before she fell asleep…) and groped for her cell phone on the bedside table. The tiny, shrieking ring cut off as she pushed the button. “Hello?” she said.

“He came and talked to me,” said a tiny voice on the other end.

The stringer blinked and sat up. She checked the clock: four in the morning. Then she looked at the call number: it was Marie, George Wayland’s crazy old daughter. Never should have given the old bat my phone number, the stringer thought. “Who talked to you?” she said.

“My father.”

The stringer jolted awake. She almost dropped the phone, but stopped herself. After swallowing the lump in her throat she said: “Your father?”

“Yes,” said Marie. Her voice was even softer than usual, but it was brimming with enthusiasm. “We had such a nice talk. And he gave me a message for you. He told me to call you right away.”

“Marie, your father would be…” She did the math. “A hundred and four years old, and missing since 1966?”

“I know. He looked really good for his age.”

The stringer laughed; she couldn’t help it. Kicking her shoes off, she rubbed her sore feet. “So what did he tell you that couldn’t wait until morning?”

“He said to tell you that the fire was the important thing.”

“What does that mean?”

Marie sounded confused. “He said you would know.”

“Not a clue.” Now that she was fully awake and the residue of her dream was fading the conversation seemed a bit more real. She wondered if Marie had been dreaming too; or maybe there wasn’t much difference between waking and dreaming once you went that nuts?

Then Marie said: “Randy was here too.”

The stringer almost dropped the phone.

“Oh, he had a message for you also,” Marie said. “He said for you to remember what he told you about Obie.”

This time the stringer did drop the phone. When she picked it up again Marie was saying goodbye. “Wait!” the stringer said, but the call ended.

She considered calling back, but instead she set the phone aside and stared at the window, stunned. “Remember what he told you about Obie?” Impossible. The old woman couldn’t possibly know about that. The stringer racked her brain trying to remember if she had ever mentioned her brother’s name during the interview. Of course, she hadn’t; why the hell would she? She wanted to call back right that second and demand an explanation. It took her a moment to realize why she wasn’t: She was afraid.

She went to her computer. The fire was the important thing, huh? She pulled up all the notes she’d gathered about the fire at the Ruins. She read it all again. She even watched the old newsreel footage of it the fire as it happened. She gathered no particular insights from it. She sat at her desk for another hour, lost in thought. When it was late enough in the morning, she picked up the phone and dialed a number she knew by heart by now. A voice on the other end said: “Western Neighborhoods Project.” She asked for the director by name. They were one of the oldest and busybodiest historical groups in the city. If they couldn’t tell her what she wanted to know, nobody could.

She was afraid she might go to voicemail, but eventually the woman she wanted answered. “Hello Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I had another research question for you.”

“About the Ruins?” Olmstead said. “I thought your magazine already ran that story?”

“They did, but I’m doing a little follow up.” She paged through her email as she talked; no paying offers, although there were plenty of blogs who wanted permission to run her photos. None were offering any money. “I was just wondering, about the fire…” She hesitated.

“Yes?” Olmstead said.

Not entirely sure why she was asking, the stringer said, “I was wondering…is there any truth to the rumors that human remains were found in the wreckage?”

“None at all,” Olmstead said. But she said it too fast. As if she’d been expecting it and had that answer prepared.

“I see,” the stringer said. “I thought that…well, it’s just, I have a lead that there was something unusual or…important about the fire itself, and I was just wondering if there was anything that wasn’t already common knowledge?”

“I don’t think so. I’m afraid I really have to go, Miss—”

“What about the name Aspidochelone, do you know anything about that?” It was a shot in the dark, but as soon as she said it the stringer knew she’d hit the mark: Olmstead gasped. She covered the phone so that the stringer wouldn’t hear, but she was too slow. The stringer’s scalp tingled with the excitement of a new lead. “Doctor?” she said. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, but I…let me call you back.” Before the stringer could say anything the line went dead. She set the phone down, deciding to give it twenty minutes before she called back. After eighteen, the phone rang.

“I’m going to give you a name and a phone number, and then that’s the last thing I want to hear about this,” Olmstead said. The stringer didn’t argue, grabbing her notepad and a pencil. “The man you want is named Allen. I’ve already spoken with him and he has time for an appointment today. He lives here in the city.” The stringer wrote down the name and the number when Olmstead gave it.

“Thank you, Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I really appreciate—” But by then Olmstead had hung up again.

The stringer stopped to lock the door on her way out. As she did, her eyes fell across something on the floor, a wet spot on the hallway carpet. She frowned; the stain hadn’t been there the night before. Whatever someone has spilled, it smelled back, gray and briny. It reminded her of the ocean. If she turned her head, it almost looked like a footprint, although not a print that would be left by any normal foot…

She hurried down to the elevator and out into the street. Her appointment was in an hour. She could just barely make it.

***

The door said: “Z. Allen,” nothing else. It was the kind of nameplate you usually saw on a college professor’s door, but it was fixed to the front of an ugly little house on Laguna Street. It was so out of place that it made the stringer hesitate before knocking, and before she could work her nerve up again the door opened on its own. She was greeted by a bald, pop-eyed man, probably the same age as Marie Wayland. He smiled and greeted her by name. “Dr. Olmstead said you’d be stopping by. Let’s talk in the library.”

The library turned out to be a spare bedroom converted into ad hoc office, though there were a great many shelves full of aged books. There were two pictures on the wall, one of a young woman holding a baby and one that seemed to be a much younger Z. Allen, surprisingly wearing a fireman’s uniform. The stringer sat in the spare chair, notebook at the ready, and then she realized she actually had no idea what she wanted to ask. Allen came to her rescue:

“I suppose you want to know about the Dagonites?”

“I do? I mean, yes, I do.”

“Old Olmstead sounded annoyed when she called. She hates people pestering her about the Dagon thing, but I love to talk turkey about it. Or tuna, as the case may be.” The stringer could tell she was supposed to laugh at this, so she did.

“Are you on the board of the Western Neighborhoods Project?”

“No, I’m just someone they keep on call. Amateur historian. With my own peculiar specialties. In this case, the Esoteric Order of Dagon. What do you know about it so far?”

“Um, not much.” She scribbled the words “Esoteric order dgn” on her pad, the unfamiliar “Esoteric” spelled in full so she would not mistake it later.

” I guess you’re too young to remember the Summer of Love?”

“I’m more of a winter person.”

“Yes, there’s not too many of us original flower children left. What people don’t realize is that the counterculture wasn’t just free love and walking barefoot down Haight Street. There were all sorts of…well, I hesitate to call them cults, but let’s say, new and alternate religions and belief systems that were popping up around that time. Especially here in the city. Krishnas, the People’s Temple, Scientologists, hell, even the Church of Satan.” He made a vague gesture.

“And the Order of Dagon?”

“Indeed, the Order of Dagon. Although according to them, they weren’t exactly new. They said they were thousands of years old, maybe tens of thousands. The Dagonites were something else. A special case even in a time of special cases.”

“What did they believe?”

“Hard to say. They were very secretive. And there weren’t very many of them, maybe a dozen in the city altogether. The came from back east somewhere.”

“Why’d they come here?”

“Religious pilgrimage. They said this was a sacred site. They worshiped the ocean, you see. No, not the ocean exactly; an ocean god. They called it Dagon, but sometimes other names: Cetus or Tiamat or—”

“Aspidochelone?”

“Yes, that was one.” He looked at her strangely for a moment. “They said that it was an ancient sea creature older than the world and they took just about any myth about a sea monster to be a story about their ‘god’ by some name or another. They were all completely nuts, of course; even back then we could tell.”

The stringer pondered for a moment. “What does this have to do with the Ruins?”

“Haven’t you guessed? Before he disappeared, George Wayland was rumored to be a convert to the Esoteric Order of Dagon.”

“So the urban legends about human sacrifice…?”

“Related. The Dagonites didn’t practice human sacrifice, of course. But they did have a peculiar ritual that made people ask lots of questions after Wayland disappeared.”

The words scribbled in her notebook jumped out at the stringer: “The fire is the important thing.” She bit her lip.

“They gave burnt offerings to their god, didn’t they?”

“That they did. Sea creatures were best, but apparently anything would do: a dog, a chicken. The bigger the better, as long as it was dead already. You could burn objects, too, if they were important enough to you.”

“The bigger the better? Say, an entire building?”

“Now you’re getting it. And with Wayland believed to be associating with Dagonites, and all of them disappearing around the same time he did, and then his complex burns down…well, you can guess what people thought.”

The stringer was writing faster than she could keep up with. “And this was an important ritual for them?”

“The most important of all. A burnt offering at the right holy site was supposed to awaken Dagon, or Aspidochelone, or whatever you want to call it. And then…”

The stringer sat forward. “Then what?”

“Well, no one else ever really could figure that part out.” Allen sat sideways in his chair a bit, looking at her in his peripheral vision. “All they would ever say is that after that you became ‘One with Dagon.’ But they’d never say exactly what that meant.”

The stringer put her notes down. “And they all disappeared?”

“In 1966, virtually the same day as the fire.” Allen folded his hands and arched his eyebrows, seemingly inviting her to draw her own conclusions.

“‘One with Dagon,'” the stringer repeated. “Is there anything else?”

“Not much. Here,” He handed her a thumb drive. “I have a special file on it, for when people come asking.”

The stringer blinked. “Do people ask about this a lot?”

“Not a lot. But often enough.”

“I’ve never heard anything about it.”

“Well, they don’t usually share what they learn.”

“Why not?”

“You’d have to ask them. Although truth be known I understand that most of them usually leave town for one reason or another. I’ve never talked to the same person twice about it, except for Dr. Olmstead.”

“But why—?”

Now Allen’s face told her she shouldn’t ask anything else. Taking the thumb drive, she thanked him and left.

***

Sam had left another note on the door: “We have to talk.” The stringer ignored it. She stepped over a pile of bills overflowing the mail slot, going straight to her computer, plugging in the thumb drive and not even bothering to check her email for the job offers that wouldn’t be there. This was more important. She poured over Allen’s notes, but in truth she didn’t really need them. She’d figured it all out. They’d given her all the answers that morning: “The fire was the important thing,” and “Remember what he said about Obie.”

In her mind, the stringer was six again, and her brother was waking her up, scared, in the middle of the night, and pointing to the window. “It’s the man in the water,” he said. “He says I have to go with him.”

She looked at the window for a split second, but then looked away. Was there really something there? She didn’t want to know. Instead she hugged the covers tighter and said, “You’re fibbing. If there’s really someone there then go get Dad.”

Randy shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t’ want him to know…” His voice faltered for a second. “I did a bad thing,” he said. “I…I dug up Obie.”

“What?” she’d sat all the way up then, too angry to still be afraid.

“I’m sorry!” Randy said. She could tell he was crying.

“He was my cat, mine!”

“I know, I know! But I’d heard, I mean, they say that if you take something, you know, something dead, and you burn it at the right spot—:”

“Burn it? You mean you…?”

“I’m sorry! I just wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to have something to show you when we snuck out. And now…now he says I have to go with him.” And Randy pointed to the window again. And she had looked. And as much as she’d tried to, she never really forgot the face she saw there…

She’d run then, screaming, into Dad’s room, and he said that it was just a nightmare. But when they got back to the bedroom, Randy was gone. The window was open, and there was water on the floor. And nothing was ever the same again.

She never told anyone what Randy said about Obie. And she never told about the face at the window, though for a long time she’d only ever remembered it in dreams. The photo made her really remember again. That shape in the water, just a little too familiar, just a little too human…

Her phone beeped; she started. Hours had passed, and it was dark out now. She assumed the message was from Sam and she was about to turn the phone off, but then she saw that it was an unfamiliar number. The message said:

COME 2 MARIES. HURRY.

And beneath that:

RMBR OB

That was all she needed. She was out the door in a flash. She barely had the presence of mind to bring her camera. She ran two red lights crossing town. What would the tickets matter? They could pile up, unopened, with the rest of the bills. She came to Marie Wayland’s house. The door was open, so she let herself in. That strange cat odor was gone. It had been replaced by something else.

She found Marie at the foot of the stairs. She must have taken a nasty fall. Or perhaps, the stringer couldn’t help but think as she observed the wet and misshapen footprints still visible on the carpet, a nasty push? It didn’t matter. The stringer wrapped the body in a blanket and then lifted the ungainly, long-limbed corpse and hauled it outside. Dear God, she thought, what if the neighbors see me? She hastened to get the body in her backseat as fast as she could. She searched the garage and came up with a gas can that had a slosh of liquid in the bottom, and she took that too. And then she was driving to the Ruins.

There were no tourists, no joggers, and no kids around this time. That was lucky. The trail leading down was steep and she had a hard time with her arms full of the old woman’s body, and dragging the gas can along too. She wondered, briefly, if she really had to go this far with it, but the text message had made it perfectly clear for her George Wayland had needed to burn this whole place down to do the trick for himself and a dozen other Dagonites. Randy had only needed a cat, but he’d been eight years old. The bigger the better, Allen had said, so the stringer wasn’t going to take any chances. She suspected you only got one shot at this.

The ocean wind was particularly cold that night. There was no moon, but she could see the great rock off the coast anyway. Was this the right spot? It had to be. Where else was there? She set the corpse down in the rolled up blanket and doused it with gas. She hoped no one from the hotel was watching. She only needed a minute without anyone interrupting to do this right. The box of matches rattled in her trembling fingers; it took four tries to get a match that stayed lit even with the wind. She held her breath, looking at the bundle on the wet sand. Was she really going through with this? But then the match dropped from her fingers and a WHUMP! of heat and black acrid smoke hit her square in the face, and the decision was out of her hands.

The fire burned out fast, but the heat was intense. Sickening fumes from the blanket’s synthetic fibers mingled with even less pleasant odors. She held her breath as long as she could, and retched when she couldn’t. Nearby, the waves crashed against the rocks over and over again. She watched as the body burnt down to bones and the bones burnt down to ashes. She expected at any moment for someone to come along, for her to see flashing lights and hear sirens, but it didn’t happen. Nothing else happened either. When the embers were out, there was just a black spot on the sand and a lingering stench. The stringer wiped at her eyes; was that it? Had she not done it right? Or was it that she’d been wrong? That there was nothing to the stories? That she was going—

Movement. Out there, somewhere? It was dark, but she could still swear that the huge rock, the small island just offshore, was moving? But that’s impossible, she told herself, the water here isn’t deep enough for anything that big. Unless most of it is buried? Buried in the ocean floor for thousands, maybe even millions of years, only stirring when someone made the offerings, when someone was ready to become One with Dagon? And that’s when she saw the lumbering shape coming toward the shore. The man in the water. And not just one. Lots of them were coming. Lots and lots, drawn by her signal fire. They paddled toward her, scaly flesh dripping with brine. She was glad it was dark; she still remembered that childhood face at the window. She did not want to see faces like that again.

But she knew that one of those faces would be the one she was looking for. And then she’d finally be able to say that she was sorry. That she missed him. That she loved him. That she’d done all this just to see him again, one last time, no matter how.

And then? The great rock (not a rock at all, of course) was still moving out in the surf. And those things coming to shore would not just leave when she wanted them to. She had made the offering; she had signaled that she was ready to become One with Dagon. She suspected that Dagon was not the type to take no for an answer.

At her feet, in the tide, something splashed and slithered and slid through the muck on its belly. She saw something like a hand reaching up for her. If not for the wind and the surf, she would hear a roaring and crashing just off shore. It was time. It was time.

Oh God—!

***

“…wait a minute, where did everybody else go?”

“They left in the middle of my story. It’s just been you and me here for a while.”

“Wow, geez, the place is closed. Chairs up and everything. Weird that I didn’t even notice…”

“You were paying a lot of attention to me.”

“I guess I was. So, is it true? I mean, did you really, you know, with the old woman’s body, and everything?”

“Does that frighten you?”

“Not really. I guess it should; it’s pretty awful. But for some reason it doesn’t. So what happened then?”

“Oh, lots of things. Do you remember what I said, that some people think Aspidochelone is the fish that swallowed Jonah in the Bible? Well, everyone knows Jonah was in there for three days, but when he came out again he might not have been quite the same anymore.”

“Isn’t that the point?”

“I mean, he might have changed more than you think. That’s what happens when you become One with Dagon.”

“But you look perfectly normal?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once. My friends can tell you more about it.”

“What was that? It sounds like something splashing…”

“Those are my friends. They’re coming here now. They want to meet you.”

“But the bar is closed?”

“That doesn’t matter to people like us. Can you hear them on the stairs?”

“Yes…”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. But don’t worry; they’ll all like you. And they have lots more stories to tell. They’ve been around for a long time.”

“I guess it’ll be okay then. …it will be okay, won’t it?”

“…no.”

Burnt Offerings 1

Burnt Offerings 2

Burnt Offerings 3

Credit To – Tam Lin

Tales of the City, Part Five: God of the Fields

April 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM

“I just wanted to say, none of you have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“What’s that, lady?”

“I couldn’t help but overhear—”

“How hard did you try?”

“Don’t give her a hard time. She looks like she has a story.”

“I do. It’s not a story you’ll like to hear, though.”

“Try us.”

“I’m just saying, you all talk like you know these big secrets about what goes on in this city, but you don’t know shit. There’s only one secret. Only one secret that matters, anyway.”

“Are you going to tell us what it is?”

“I am. Not because you deserve to know it, but because listening to you talk made me angry. This story is your punishment.”

“You hear that? We’re going to be punished.”

“I, for one, am petrified.”

“Should we beg for mercy?”

“Ignore them, Miss. I’m very interested in whatever you have to say.”

“It was a few months ago, just before Christmas. It happened because I was the last one leaving the theater. And because I had been Antigone…”

***

It was opening night. For the understudy, it was also closing night.

She would still have a part in the chorus, of course. But tomorrow Evangeline would come back and claim her rightful place as the lead and the understudy would go back to being, well, an understudy. Learn the lines, watch the lead, perform your own small role, and wait, that was the game. Still, the understudy thought, at least I got one night in the spotlight.

Not that they could afford decent lights. They couldn’t even afford a real stage, just an empty room with a performance space marked off. The house manager had added another row of seats in an act of delusional optimism (they could barely fill the ones they had) and now the chorus couldn’t move without elbowing each other. And the costumes didn’t really fit and there was no money to pay any of them and the heating in the old theater did not work anymore, leaving players and audience alike shivering even with as tightly packed in as they all were…

But people still showed up, and the show still went on, and even the understudy couldn’t help but smile a little when she saw the Xeroxed playbills: “Antigone,” with the director’s name right under it and Evangeline’s right under that and the understudy’s own name (in much smaller print) toward the bottom. It was a good show, in spite of everything. A classic.

The understudy was the last cast member to leave. Everyone else had gone out to celebrate, but she found she wasn’t in the mood. She carefully folded and hung the bits of her costume in the single communal dressing room so that Evangeline would have nothing to complain about when she came back from whatever “emergency” called her away on opening night. Glenda, the house manager, was waiting at the door and the understudy thought she might be annoyed at the holdup, but then the older woman smiled and whispered, “There’s a man here to see you.” As if were the most amazing thing in the world.

The understudy picked up her purse and headed for the back door, but Glenda added: “He says he’s a critic.” The understudy stopped. “He says he won’t leave until he meets you. I think he really liked the show…” There was a note of pleading, and beneath that a note of insistence. The understudy wavered for a moment and then turned back toward the front. She tried not to notice Glenda’s smug, pleased expression as she did.

As advertised, a man was waiting in the lobby. He wore a shabby suit of indeterminate color, and a brand new fedora hat. He was not a handsome man; in fact he was profoundly ugly. But when he saw her he grinned in a way that made him look, for a second at least, tremendously appealing. He fanned himself with his playbill and pantomimed a swoon. “Antigone,” he said, enjoying each syllable. The understudy told him her real name, but he waved it off. “Tonight, you’re Antigone. The finest Antigone I have ever seen. I first saw the play in 441, at the Dionysia in Athens, and you were a better Antigone tonight than I saw there, or anywhere since.”

She gave him a non-committal look. He smiled again. “Can I walk you out?” he said.

The correct answer, the safe answer, was no, because simply because a man claimed to be a theater critic (of no particular publication that he had mentioned, she noted) did not make it a good idea to wander off down Taylor Street with him in the middle of the night. And no was the sensible answer, because she had to rest after the premiere and because she felt a headache coming on. And she opened her mouth to say, “No, thank you,” but, somehow, it came out as, “Yes, that sounds lovely.”

The strange man took her by the arm. Outside it was cold and the sky was that distinct shade of black that it only gets in December in the city. The uneven rows of tall buildings with their dark windows pushed higher and higher over them. Lights flashed here and there. The critic began walking downhill and the understudy (for some reason) went with him. He was still talking about her performance. She blushed, but feigned modesty. “I’m only the understudy,” she said. “Our real lead will be back playing the part tomorrow.”

“No she won’t,” said the critic. “Evangeline will never play Antigone again, or any other part.” He said it with such conviction that the understudy was briefly speechless. She felt cold and afraid all of a sudden. Eager to change the subject, she said:

“You haven’t told me your name.”

“Pan,” the man said. He kicked a bottle into the gutter.

“Like the Greek god?”

“Not like him. I am him.”

They stopped walking; the street was deserted, though on the cross street below she saw the glare of headlights and bumper-to-bumper traffic. She gave him another sober look. “Where are your hooves?” she said.

“In my shoes.”

“And your horns are under your hat, I suppose. It’s not a very good line. Anyway, you told Glenda you were a critic; I thought Pan was a nature god?”

“The god of the fields, and of the summits, and the streams and the forest. The god of the shepherds, and the flocks, and the leaves and the grass. The god of the beasts and the spirits and the great far wild places where men are afraid to go but feel compelled to journey anyway. The god of the shadows under the boughs of the trees and the secret places in the furrows of the earth.”

The understudy had been about to laugh at him, but when he was done speaking she found she couldn’t.

“But,” he said, smiling again, “also the god of theatrical criticism. So you see, I am a critic. The first and the best.”

“God of theatrical criticism? I’ve never heard that. What sense does that make?”

“Because in those days plays were dedicated to the great god Dionysus, and I was his favorite companion, so who better to judge which playwrights were worthy and which were not? And because before the Athenians built their theaters the first actors gathered on the slopes of the green hillsides where I spent my days, and they wore the skins of goats, and they would drink and dance and sing in divine ecstasy and pour libations in my honor, and I liked that very much, and blessed their revels.”

He was standing very, very close to her now. The long shadows of the winter night had not improved his unhandsome features, but he had a certain quality (perhaps his voice, perhaps his expressive features, or perhaps just what they call je ne se qua) that made him compelling to watch and be near. He even cupped her face in his rough palm, and she did not object.

“But you don’t believe I really am the Great God Pan, do you, little Antigone?”

“No,” said the understudy.

“Then I’ll prove it to you.”

“How?”

“Come with me.”

It was a stupid suggestion. Stupid, unsafe, illogical, insane. Anyone in their right mind would say no.

She said yes.

The man(?) took her by the hand and drew her away with him; not in the direction they’d been going but down the side street, and then down an alley. It was pitch black but he knew his way. In the dark it seemed to the understudy that his legs were twisted in some unearthly manner, making his gait long and wide. They encountered no one in the trash-strewn alley. The buildings they passed were just dark, blank shapes, black against black overhead. The understudy felt drunk and addled, somehow. Her mind could not focus on any one thing, and the world swam in front of her eyes, as if a film covered everything. It seemed they were moving very fast. When he finally stopped, she was out of breath. He pulled her close (his suit seemed to be made of some coarse hair, and it had a barnyard musk about it) and said, “We’re here.”

She looked around and gaped; she recognized this place. It was the grove. But that was clear on the other side of town, miles away? How could they get here on foot, and so quickly? The leaning trunks of those huge, primeval trees offered no answers. The man with the crooked legs led her down the crooked path as she wavered on her feet, dizzy and uncertain (crooked of mind, she thought). He took her to the place with the stage. In the spring there was a music festival here every year. In the middle of winter it should be empty, but now torches lit everything with blazing orange light. The man sat down and actually pulled her onto his lap. She did not object.

“How is my Antigone feeling now?” he said. Under the brim of his hat his eyes appeared very strange. The understudy groped for words and came up with:

“‘In just spring…when the world is mud…'” She was reciting something from memory, but she did not know what. She giggled, then, uncontrollably. Her head throbbed. She felt as is she’d drunk a great deal of wine.

“That’s good,” said the man. “Now we’re going to see a play. You showed me such sights on your little stage tonight that I thought I should return the favor. This play is called, ‘The Cyclops.'”

“I know that one!” the understudy blurted out. “By Euripides. It’s a satyr play.”

“Yes, and here are the satyrs.” He pointed to the stage with a gnarled finger and the understudy saw shapes converging there. They were men in costumes (at least, she thought they were costumes) of animal hide, with hooves that tromped the boards. They wore masks, but not masks like the understudy had ever seen; though simple painted wood, these masks had faces no human mind could conceive. The chorus (for that’s what the satyrs were) gathered at center stage and, at the strange man’s signal, they began to dance. Not just dance, but cavort, and leap, and even writhe, wretched and mad, heads wagging and eyes rolling. The understudy did not like the way that they moved; it was not natural. She particularly disliked the way that their legs bent. It hurt her eyes to look at them, but the strange man did not let her look away.

“‘It’s spring, when the world is puddle-wonderful, the little lame balloon man whistles far and wee …'” he whispered to her. They were not the lines of the play, but lines from something else. The understudy knew them but could not remember where they came from or why they seemed important just now. The strange man shifted under her, and she felt the coarse hair of his bent legs rub through the fabric of her jeans and heard the stamping of his hooves as he kicked his shoes away. Onstage, the chorus finished their dance and then the chorus leader stepped forward. The understudy knew the play’s the opening lines:

“Unnumbered are the toils I bear, no less now than when I was young and hale…”

And the chorus joined him: “Here we have no gods, no roll of drums, or drops of sparkling wine. Dear friend Dionysus, where are you while we do service to the one-eyed cyclops, slaves and wanderers we?”

When the understudy had seen “The Cyclops” before the satyrs had been funny, even when they complained, and the chorus leader had been old, fat Silenus, baldheaded and hapless. But these satyrs wept real tears and gnashed their (sharp) teeth and tore their hides with their twisted fingers, and the understudy did not like to look at them, or to hear them. Their voices were hollow and full of pain. Pain, and anger.

“This is how the play was performed in the old days, before the theaters, before the Athenians, before Euripides gave it a name and wrote it on his scrolls and gave the parts to mere humans in masks,” the man said, whispering in her ear. “But this is still not, yet, the greatest truth you will see. Watch.”

The play went on: Odysseus and his crew washed up on shore and met the satyrs, and gave them wine, and laughed as the satyrs got drunk and rowdy. The understudy would have thought the Greeks would not be as frightening as the satyrs, but their masks, though fully human, show faces line and creased with fret and grief, livid with anger and bitterness, or wan with utter despair. They were the faces of those who had suffered so much that they hated living. And though the understudy saw the strings that held the masks in place and the empty holes where the actor’s eyes peered out, it seemed, in the flickering torchlight, that the features the masks moved…

The satyrs were warning the Greeks that their master was coming, but Odysseus was not afraid. “For surely the ghosts of Troy will moan in their graves if we flee from a single man after standing with shields steady against the fifty sons of Priam,” he said. “If we die here we will die a noble death, or, if we live, we will maintain our great renown.”

And then there was a voice that made the understudy scream and cover her ears. Even with ears covered, she heard the words boom like thunder:

“What means this idleness, your Dionysian revelry? Here have we no Dionysus, nor roll of drums. One of you will soon be shedding tears of blood from the weight of my club; look up, not down.”

And now the trunks of the trees were shifting as if a huge wind were blowing them around, and now a great shape was stepping through, too huge for the whole of it to be seen in the light of the torches. The satyrs all scattered and the Greeks took up their spears, but most of them fell to their knees or clustered together, shaking and crying, as the cyclops loomed over them with its one huge eye and opened its great mouth to reveal rows of gore-spattered teeth. When it took a step the world shook and the understudy screamed again and shut her eyes and the universe was spinning and mad, and the Great God Pan caught her in his arms. When she opened her eyes, the stage was empty; the men and the monsters were gone.

Pan whispered vile words in a language she did not know but still understood:

“Don’t you like my play?”

He no longer seemed even remotely human, and even the twisted, goat-like legs and horns were gone. Now he was a dark, slithering, shapeless thing, twisting and reforming around her all the time. The understudy blinked through tears. “What are you?” she said.

“I am Pan; my name means ALL, for the Hellenites knew that I was no simple god of the fields. I am the heaviest rocks at the bottom of the earth and the tallest peaks at the edge of the sky. I am the deepest roots of the oldest trees that will never die and the beating hearts of the great beasts that swallow eons in their jaws. I am the long hour between day and night when nothing is real. I am frenzy and madness and death. I am a world that doesn’t care, that dashes your minds and bodies against the rocks and watches you break, and calls it good.

“And when they began to fear me they cut down my forests and plowed under my fields and cut my rocks into columns and roofs and statues. And when Thamus reached Pilodes he told them, ‘The Great God Pan is dead,’ but it was not true. You have paved me over and cut me down and tried to drown me in the poison from your machines, but I can never die. I have always been here. And now I will show you the future of your wretched race. Look.”

He pointed to the stage again. Pale, wretched figures, hairless, eyeless things shimmered into view, things that twitched and writhed, blubbery skin rolling across their bones as they danced. Pan whispered more:

“What you are seeing is a piece called the Dance of the Nephilormus. They reenact the great battle that will take place on this spot, ten thousand years from now, between the human race and the nephil, which for them is ten thousand years in their past. Your kind will suffer and crawl the face of the earth and curse their enemies in that war, and they will call out to me to save them, but I will not. I will only do what I always do: endure.”

“Take it away,” the understudy said, sobbing. “I don’t want to see the nephils.”

“The nephils?” Pan laughed, and it hurt her ears. “These are not the nephil that you see. These are the humans!”

And he laughed while she wept and the vile dancers flopped their shapeless limbs across the stage, worshipping Pan with their suffering. And she wondered, is this real, is this happening, or is this a dream? Did I leave with the others and drink too much and now lie, sweating and afraid, in the back of someone’s car? Or has my whole life up until now been a dream and this is finally the waking?

The dancing went on and on, and soon the whole world spun in a mad circle in front of her eyes, blurring into nothingness, and she was left with just the same words, repeating over and over again in her head:

“It’s spring and
the
goat-footed
balloonMan
whistles
far and wee…”

***

“…”

“Jesus!”

“Lady, what are you on? Where can I get some?”

“Go ahead and laugh at me if you want. It doesn’t matter.”

“Miss, are you all right? Do you need a doctor, or a place to stay tonight?”

“I’m not insane. And I’m not on any kind of drugs. What would I need them after what I’ve seen?”

“Well I think she’s full of it.”

“But I don’t understand; what even happened?”

“Pan liked my performance, so he tried to reward me. But the things that a god calls a reward are the things that humans might call a curse. He showed me the truth about the world.”

“And what’s that?”

“That time and place are illusions. That what we call reality isn’t any more real than a play on a stage. If you were smart enough you could see the seams in everyone’s costumes and the frayed edges of the scenery, like he does, and like I can.”

“So where’s Pan now, then?”

“Hey, don’t mess with her. I don’t like that look she has.”

“He’s in me.”

“What?”

“He’s in all of us. His name is ‘Pan,’; it means ALL, because he’s everything. We’re just nsects pretending that we matter, until the day comes when he’ll…”

“Swat us?”

“Something like that. Anyway, that’s all I had to say. I’m leaving. You can all stay, and drink your beer, and tell your ghost stories.

“And pretend that it matters.”

 

God of the Fields 1

God of the Fields 2

Credit To – Tam Lin

Tales of the City, Part Four: The Last Stop

April 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM

“That reminds me of a story.”

“What does?”

“What she just said about being late to catch the train.”

“Me? I didn’t say anything?”

“Well, I’m sure I heard someone mention it, and that reminds me of a story that scared the hell out of me. Do you remember that subway drver last month who went nuts?”

“Remember it? I was on that train.”

“Do you want to tell the story about it then?”

“What else is there to tell?”

“A lot. Plenty of rumors around dispatch about that one. Not that I believe any of them, mind you, but the way I heard it, it happened like this…”

***

That voice was really starting to get to the driver.

“We will depart shortly. Please wait.”

They’d been hearing that for twenty minutes now. The train was stalled two miles into the Transbay Tube. It wouldn’t budge an inch, but the driver’s console showed that everything ought to be working, so it must be a problem with the tracks. She’d called it in, then assured her passengers everything was all right, and then waited. It wouldn’t be so bad if the PA didn’t seem to be on the fritz as well. Every few minutes a woman’s disembodied, mechanical voice chimed:

“We will depart shortly. Please wait.”

She couldn’t turn it off. She didn’t remember ever hearing that announcement before; but then, she’d never had a breakdown like this before either. The train hummed on its electric rails, sealed up inside a steel tube submerged 130 feet below the surface of the bay. Her ears were stopped up from the pressure the water above them. Up ahead, all the driver could see was darkness, the occasional lighting fixtures doing nothing except demonstrating precisely how pitch black it really was down here. She’d made this trip six times a night every night for seven years, back and forth across 30 miles of track between SFO and Bay Point, which meant back and forth through the underwater tunnel six times, and never before had she stopped to consider the crushing weight of all that water. She thought she could hear bolts straining and water dripping somewhere. Just her imagination, of course, but still…

“We will depart shortly. Please wait.”

She toggled the PA switch again; it hadn’t done anything the last five times, but she could help trying nce more. She checked the security monitors; the passengers seemed calm enough, considering the circumstances. Her four-car train held only seven people as they came up on one o’clock in the morning. Two were dozing and one was pacing the aisle. All but one had white earbuds snaking into the sides of their heads, and they would nod now and then to whatever they were hearing. She envied her rider’s calm. If it just weren’t so dark out there she might not be so frazzled. The tunnel looked like it went on forever. And if they had stopped anywhere but under the water. And if that damn voice would just knock it off…

“We will depart shortly.

“No one can hear me but you.

“Please wait.”

The driver blinked. What was that? She toggled the switch again, but of course, nothing happened. Up ahead one of the lights winked out. Or was that her imagination again? She fanned herself with her clipboard; the stalled train seemed hot and stuffy all of a sudden. The air conditioning was still on, according to her diagnostic panel. Perhaps it was just the confinement wearing on her. Would dispatch ever tell her what was going on? She thumbed the call button again.

“Any word on that track problem?” she blurted it out, not even bothering to identify herself first. The only answer was static. She frowned and hung up. She began to sweat, and she pinched the ridge of her nose, eyes squeezed shut. A headache was coming on.

“We will depart shortly, please wait” the automated voice whirred. Then: “They’re already inside. Look at the riders.”

The driver’s eyes snapped open. What did it say? She looked up and did a double take. She grabbed a Windex-soaked rag and rubbed the monitor screens, but nothing changed. Something must be wrong with the cameras? Cars three and four looked fine, but in car two both of the sleeping passengers looked like indistinct, grey blurs. In car one (the same car she occupied, in the driver’s carriage up front) the pacing man looked perfectly normal, but the woman in the backseat with the earbuds in also appeared blurry and distorted, as if a film of cobweb or a tiny fog bank covered her body. The driver looked over her shoulder, peering into the car through the plastic divider; the woman was still sitting there, staring at the blank tunnel wall outside her window, nodding her head to whatever was streaming through the wires in her ears. She looked perfectly fine. The driver chuckled a little at having scared herself, then rubbed her temples. The annoying recorded voice pinged again:

“We will depart shortly—

“No we won’t. We won’t leave until what’s keeping us here lets us go. You are not watching the riders.”

This time the driver was sure of what she’d heard. What the hell? She reached for the toggle.

“You can’t turn me off. No one can hear me but you.”

A tingling sensation crept across the back of the driver’s neck. Her hand froze halfway on the switch. Her fingers trembled.

“Look at the riders again,” the voice said. She hesitated. “Look!”

When the driver looked she squinted and then leaned in, as if being closer would somehow change what was there. Two more of her passengers had lost definition on the video feed, leaving only two still showing up clear. The driver tapped the screens. What the hell? The sight of those blurry figures gave her chills, for some reason. Their images seemed to wriggle and writhe, as if a cloud of tiny insects were crawling over them.

The two sleeping passengers woke and, walking in unison, moved up to the first car. She expected to be able to see them clearly once they’d moved, but the grainy blur stuck to them as they moved. She looked over her shoulder again; both of them were in her car now. One was a teenager, short and fat, the other an old man, gray and thin. They sat side by side in the front seats, though they’d been separate before. The pacer didn’t seem to pay them any mind, but he did finally sit down. The driver watched as he fitted in white earbuds.

“It’s spreading. They’re inside. You have to get out of here,” the train’s voice buzzed at her.

“Shut up,” the driver mumbled. She looked at the monitors again: More passengers had moved up; four were in the second car now. They all sat rigid in their seats, and they all faced forward. None of them spoke. She called dispatch again, but this time there was not even static, just dead air. Outside, the tube lights were turning out one by one, and the train’s lights were flickering too.

“Help won’t come in time,” said the train. The PA warbled’ it was losing power as well. “You have to run. They’re in the wires.”

Now everyone was crowded into the lead car. All seven riders sat side by side in the front-most seats, staring at her. Their unblinking eyes looked flat and painted-on in the flickering florescent lights. She tapped on the plastic divider. “Folks,” she said, working hard to stop her voice from trembling, “they’ll be here to help us any moment. If you could all just head back to your original seats. We shouldn’t crowd the lead car in case…in case of an emergency.”

No one answered. No one moved. The man nearest her removed his earbuds and looked at her. Her CCTV monitors were failing one by on. The faithful voice of the PA buzzed in her compartment, barely audible as the train’s electrical systems slowly died. “They’re turning everything off,” it said. “They’re…sorr—…tried to warn…they’re in the wires. They use the wires to…”

The seven passengers all stood up. The driver went to open the door to her compartment, then thought better of it and locked it instead. Only the emergency lights were on now, and the passengers were dark blue silhouettes in the gray electric haze.

“Folks, just return to your seats. Return to your seats and…and…” Her mouth went dry.

“—oo late.” The PA was overwhelmed by static. “—ired in…—just voices.”

The static cleared for a moment:

“The dead are just voices, but we can travel through the wires, into machines, even into bodies, through the wires, through—”

Seven shapes crowded around the window. The driver tried to shrink back, but there was no room in the tiny compartment.

“The eight want new bodies. I told them not to do it but they wouldn’t listen. I tried to warn you. I tried. I—”

The PA went dead. The consoles were all dark. Outside, the tunnel was a long black passage to nothing. Inside, only one light was working. The driver heard fleshy palms slapping against the divider. Someone was pulling on the door. The flimsy lock jiggled. The divider broke in half and fell in, and then hands were grabbing her, pullin her, dragging her out. They were cold hands. She was screaming now, but with two miles of empty tunnel on either side and 130 feet of water overhead there was no one to hear her. They held her down. “Let me go!” she said. She felt cold all over. She felt something that made her think of the icy belly of a snake slithering across her body. One of the passengers leaned in.

“It’s okay,” he said. Cold breath tickled the driver’s ear. “It’s okay,” the passenger repeated. “We’re not going to hurt you.

“We just want a ride.”

***

“…and then what?”

“That’s it. I mean, someone finally showed up to evacuate the passengers from the trapped train, and when they did they found that driver curled up in a corner, screaming that she wasn’t herself anymore.”

“Wasn’t herself?”

“Yeah, you know, that there was someone else living inside her head now.”

“Oh God, that’s awful. I’m never riding at night again.”

“Man, this whole city’s going crazy.”

“Is it just craziness, do you think?”

“That’s a good question. I mean, look how many strange stories we’ve found right here in this bar. Maybe something terrible really is going on. Under the surface.”

“Like I said, it’s all just rumors. Hey lady, you said you were on that train, right? Did my story…wait a minute, where’d she go?”

“Lady?”

“Ma’am?”

“…huh. That’s funny. She snuck out?”

 

The Last Stop

Credit To – Tam Lin

Tales of the City, Part Three : Schism

April 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM

“You want to hear the scariest story I know?”

“Sure.”

“Is it scarier than the last two? If it is then I don’t want to hear it. In fact, I think I’ll head home. I’m sure I’ve had enough to drink already.”

“Don’t mind him. The rest of want to hear.”

“Wait, is this going to be about more ghosts or vampires or whatever? Because I’m not buying into all this.”

“It’s not like those other stories. I don’t believe in all of that bullshit. But there was something about it that reminds me of those ones…well, just let me tell you how it happened. This all went down only a few blocks from here, actually…”

***

She was a cutter.

She was the only surgeon in the city who didn’t have to worry about keeping her patients alive. By the time they came to her, they were already dead. Her job was just to find out why.

She was good at it. Every fresh cadaver had secrets; by cutting, she discovered them. And she knew as much about the human body as any other doctor. She knew hearts, for example; how they fit together, how they worked, and most importantly, how they could be hurt. The cutter would say that she understood the heart. In a certain sense, she was right.

She knew about brains too, and about circulation, and the metabolism. She knew enough to be sure that the man tied up on the motel room bed had not had enough flunitrazepam to kill him, and that if she waited for long enough he would wake up, though he’d probably feel fatigued, have a headache, and suffer some short-term memory loss. Flunitrazepam, also known as Narcozep, Rohypnol, and Primum, was illegal in the United States, a class of psychoactive drugs commonly referred to as “roofies,” or simply “the date rape drug,” and she had employed it in the most common way, by slipping it into the man’s drink at a bar. She disliked the association with sexual assault, but it was simply the quickest and most convenient way to render a person unconscious.

The man on the bed was also a doctor, a psychiatrist. His name was Walter Graham. He was fifty three, twice divorced, and had no children on account of a vasectomy his first wife encouraged him to get. He was very respected in his field, widely referenced in medical journals for one remarkable case he’d treated. He lived in a condo on Vallejo Street with a beautiful view. He abused prescription painkillers, watched rugby on the weekends, and liked cats. These were the things the cutter knew about him.

In a way, they were alone together. Anyone else who walked in would see only two people in the room. But the cutter saw a third, another woman, a woman who stood in the corner and watched. This other woman (who was not, the cutter knew, really there in any tangible sense but who seemed no less real despite that certainty) would sometimes respond to the cutter’s questions by nodding or shaking her head. Other than that, she did not do much besides watch.

The motel room, which the cutter had paid for in cash four hours earlier, was on the third floor of a dangerous-looking rattrap squeezed alongside nicer buildings between Mission and Valencia Streets. The carpets were filthy, the walls dotted with graffiti, and the rooms had no windows. The black and white television in each room played only two local affiliates, pornographic films, and static. It was a good place to stay if you liked the idea of being murdered without anyone noticing. She’d picked it because it was the kind of place where no one asked questions, even if you came in out of a cab with an unconscious middle-aged man slung over your shoulders in the middle of the night. All they cared about here was taking the money and minding their own business.

Dr. Graham was secured to the bed frame by four pairs of novelty handcuffs that she’d bought in a sex shop on Folsom Street, where she went so that she’d run the lowest odds of running into anyone she knew. She waited for him to wake up. It took a long time. Flunitrazepam, she knew, could last up to twelve hours, but she was the patient type. Patience was a good quality in a cutter. When Graham took the first unsteady steps back into consciousness she sat down next to him. The stained mattress was thin and the bad springs creaked under her weight. He would be confused and prone to panic, and she didn’t want that. She looked at the other woman, who stood in the corner, watching without blinking. “Are you sure this is the best way?” the cutter said. The other woman nodded.

Whispering, the cutter explained where he was and what had happened to him. She warned him that the restraints she’d used probably wouldn’t hurt him but he still shouldn’t struggle. And she assured him that she did not plan to kill him.

“Trust me,” the cutter said. “I’m a doctor.”

Graham, for the most part, kept his head. He licked his lips and when the cutter saw they were dry she gave him a sip from a bottle of water. The first thing he asked was, “Who are you?” She told him her name. He had heard of her. Some of his patients were police officers; one of them was struggling with feelings of guilt over his constant infidelity and as part of an exercise Graham had asked him to list all the women in his life he felt uncontrollably attracted to. The cutter’s name was the first he came up with. Graham told her all of this in one long run-on sentence, babbling and obviously not sure what he was saying by the end of it. He was not yet fully sober. He did not, she noticed, ask him what she planned to do next. Perhaps he knew better. Or perhaps he was too afraid.

The cutter took a sip of water to wet her own lips and then said, “I want to talk to you about another one of your patients. Do you remember Cleopatra?”

Graham blinked, brow furrowed. And then he laughed, too loudly. The cutter shook her head.

“Maybe you’ll remember her if I show you a picture.” The cutter took a folded photograph out of her wallet. The only light in the room was the grainy, unreal blur of TV static, and Graham was still be dizzy from the drugging, so she had to hold it in front of his face for a long time before he made the soft little “Ah!” sound that indicated recognition. “You mean Jane,” he said.

The cutter looked at the other woman in the room, the one who Graham couldn’t see even though she was right in front of him. The other woman nodded. So the cutter hit Graham in the face. He grasped. “Her name,” the cutter said, as Graham winced from the split lip she’d just given him “was Cleopatra. You killed her.”

“What? No!” Graham tried to sit up, and the restraints rattled against the cheap aluminum bed frame. “First of all, you have it all wrong. Second, that was years ago. Third…third…” He paused, unable to focus for a moment, muttering nonsense before his train of thought reconnected. “Third, how do you even, I mean, what’s it to you?”

The cutter unfolded the photograph. There was another woman in it, with her head on Jane’s (Cleopatra’s) shoulder, smiling. It was the cutter.

“We met in medical school,” the cutter said. “Well, I was in medical school. She only said she was. That turned out to be…not a lie, exactly. More like a misunderstanding. Like a lot of things about her and us. Including her name. I guess you think the name Cleopatra is funny? It wasn’t to me. I loved that name. I loved her.” She folded the photo and put it away again. “Until you took her away from me.”

Graham didn’t say anything for a while. The cutter was quiet as well. In the room next door, someone was making a lot of noise. Graham seemed to be preparing his next words very carefully.

“I realize that these are strange circumstances,” he said. “But as a medical professional you should already understand what’s happened here. The woman in that photograph was—is—named Jane Cohen. She suffered from a rare psychiatric disorder, a disassociative identity. ‘Cleopatra’ was the name of an alter ego her subconscious invented. There was no way you could have known this when the two of you met.

“Jane came to me because she said she was suffering from depression. She was wholly ignorant of her real problem, and it was two years before even I began to suspect it. Real disassociative personalities are very rare. In Jane’s case the psychosis emerged gradually; people invent alter egos and fantasy lives for themselves all the time. In Jane’s case it manifested itself in the most extreme way possible. I spent nine years treating her, restoring her to a single functioning identity with—”

“I’ve already read your essays in the journals, Walt,” the cutter said. She stood up. “You’ve done very well for yourself with the story of how you helped poor ‘Jane.’ But you never gave a thought to woman you got rid of. Cleopatra was not an alter ego to me, not just part of some other woman. Even after she left me I still loved her. I spent years trying to find her again after college. And when I finally did, I discovered that she had no idea who I was. She didn’t remember a thing about me. Because the woman I knew was gone.”

Graham tried to sit up again. Next door, it sounded like someone was hitting the wall over and over again. “Listen to me. I knew that Jane had romantic partners under her alternate persona. Part of the treatment was reconciling her primary personality with the actions and relationships of her alternate one. If I’d had any idea that the two of you…that is to say, if we’d known—”

“I know,” the cutter said, nodding. “You did what any responsible physician would do. That’s why I’m not going to kill you.” Graham looked relieved, although she had told him so once already. “Still, you took something away from me. You think you made ‘Jane’ whole, but what you really did was cut her apart. You picked one half of her and you cut the other half off and threw it away. So it’s only fair that I take something from you too. What do you call that in your line of work? Reconciling the schism?”

“Now wait a minute,” Graham said, raising his voice.

“Do you think much about dying, Walt? I do. I’m told that most people in my field rarely do. Makes it easier not to internalize your work. But I think about it all the time.” Graham was saying something, but she talked over him. “Sometimes I think about the soul. I didn’t think there even was such a thing until recently. I’ve been cutting people apart my whole life and I’ve never once found anything that looked like a soul anywhere in them. But now I think there really is such a thing. And I think that even people who aren’t real can have souls. Even someone who didn’t exist can be a ghost. That’s what I think. What do you think?”

Graham didn’t seem to know how to answer, but she hadn’t really been talking to him anyway. From the corner, Cleopatra watched. When the cutter looked at her, she nodded. The cutter turned the television from static to another channel and put the volume all the way up. Human voices through tinny speakers at full blast sounded like shrieking, wordless ghosts. She ducked down, getting something from under the bed. She heard Graham moving, trying to see what she was doing. When she stood up he started to scream; not words, just screaming. The cutter put a finger to her lips, motioning for him to shush.

“I’m pretty sure I can do this without killing you,” she said. “You know the old joke about being a cutter, right? ‘I’ve never lost a patient yet.’” She pointed to his legs. “Do you want me to cut above the knees, or below?”

Graham was beyond answering now; he was just screaming. The cutter hoped that his commotion would not throw her off when she made the first incisions. She was noted in her field for her steady hands. But then again, she thought, as she pulled the chord on the chainsaw and felt it come to sputtering, grinding life in her hands, this was not exactly her normal precision tool.

“Now don’t worry,” she said, pausing with the whirring saw blade just above Graham’s legs. “I’m a doctor.”

From the corner, Cleopatra smiled.

***

“…as it turned out, someone in another room did overhear, and did call the cops, but by then it was way too late to stop her. When we got there…I’ve never seen blood like that. In my line of work you think you’ve seen it all, but that call was the worst I’ve ever been on.”

“Are you a cop?”

“Paramedic. I’m the one who saved the guy. She did a pretty good job on him, all things considered, but he’d still have bled out if we hadn’t gotten there.”

“I remember reading about that when it happened. Two years ago, right?”

“Me too, but how do you know all that other stuff? I never read anything about why she did it.”

“She told us. She hurt herself with the saw so we had to take her to the hospital too. I rode the whole way with her and she told us the entire story. She wouldn’t stop telling us, in fact. Messed my buddy up real bad in the head. He had nightmares for a while. He thought about going to see a shrink, but under the circumstances it seemed…”

“Ill-advised?”

“Ha, yeah, something like that.”

“So you told you about Cleopatra and everything?”

“Yeah.”

“And was there really, you know, anyone else in the room with them?”

“Not when we got there. She did keep talking to someone else in the ambulance, someone she said was there but we couldn’t see. Sometimes I think…no, no, it was all bullshit. That lady was nuts. But she talked a good game, you know?

“So if wanted to know all about ghost stories, well, now you know what’s been haunting me.”

“And I thought I had rough days at work. What do you do after a thing like that?”

“Drink. Speaking of which, anyone want another?”

Schism

Credit To – Tam Lin

Tales of the City, Part Two: Suburb of the Dead

April 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM

“Do you know what the problem is when it comes to ghosts in this city?”

“Chains are last season’s look?”

“All the cool ghosts moved to Portland?”

“I’ll think our waitress is a ghost if she doesn’t hurry with those drinks.”

“Scoff if you all will, but I’m making a point here: To have ghosts, first you need the dead. And nobody is ever dead in this city.”

“You must not read the police blotter.”

“I never said nobody dies here, what I said is that no one is dead. We get rid of the dead right away, and we all know where they go.”

“Oh god, I hate that town.”

“It creeps me out too.”

“And it should. But it’s even worse than you think: There are probably some things none of you know about the dead. Living here, you wouldn’t have many opportunities to learn. And what’s where my story comes in…”

***

It was, as it happened, a dark and stormy night. The dead man could hear the rain, even, as he was, trapped in a cold box under the ground, smothered by the weight of the earth. He was tired, but he felt a potency in his dead limbs and a sudden, unexplainable sense of urgency that allowed him to press the lid open and drag his aching bones up through the dirt and out into the fresh air and the black night and the world of the living again. The dead man left his grave and he knew where he was: the city.

No, not quite, he corrected himself. He was in the town ten miles south of the city. They buried no bodies in the city itself. A hundred years ago the city passed a law against any new burial sites and they even moved the ones they had, evicting the dead, and this town sprouted like a mushroom on the city’s southern border to hold all those dear departed who no longer had a place in the city itself. It was a town of cemeteries and mortuaries, a town of coffin makers and embalmers, a town of mausoleums and headstones, where the city’s dead migrated for their eternal rest. A town with a thousand occupied graves for every one occupied house. The north became the city of the living; the south became the city of the dead.

For the most part the two kept to their respective cities and existed in peace. But tonight the city in the south was sending an emissary: the dead man. And his mission was to increase the population of the dead city by one. There was someone in the living city who did not deserve to be there. The dead man sensed his target and knew, instinctively, who it was: his killer. The dead man remembered everything about his killer: his voice, his face, even the way his killer smelled. Death could not rob him of this knowledge. He would find him.

Tentatively, the dead man tried to walk. His legs were stiff and tired after so many years in the grave. The cold rain felt good on his face. One step at a time the dead man learned to walk again and when he was ready he walked down the hill, away from his headstone, through the little cemetery gate and out onto the highway. Yes, this road he remembered. He could follow it north the whole way. The dark night and the rain would hide the dead man’s face from what few drivers and pedestrians there were.

As he walked he tried to make sense of things. He remembered dying in a far-off city in another state. His parents must have had his body shipped back and buried here, close to home, close to the city he grew up in. Were his parents alive now? Should he look for them? No, he decided; best that they not see him like this. Best that they never know. The dead man understood (with the same ingrained, reasonless certainty that directed him northward) that his killer was both alive and nearby. That was enough to worry about for now. He would have business with no other living person.

The dead man had left his own cemetery behind but others dotted the roadside. If he strained his ears he could hear them, the other dead men and dead women down in their graves. Most of them snored away an eternal slumber, occasionally shifting to a more comfortable position in their coffins. Some of the restless ones muttered to themselves, or even had smothered conversations with those buried nearest them. A few talked about coming up, like he had, but no one else seemed ready to do it tonight. He suspected they often talked about such things without actually doing them.

The dead man did wonder, though, whether he shouldn’t pause for a conversation with a few. Why, right over there Joe DiMaggio was buried. Imagine the talk they two could have. And over there was Wyatt Earp’s grave, and over there was Turk Murphy, and Vince Guaraldi. Doc Barker had been buried out here somewhere too, after he died trying to escape from Alcatraz. Lily Coit, Charles De Young, even Emperor Norton himself, they were all here, and surely they wouldn’t mind trading a few words with the dead man? Surely they were just as lonely as he was…

But he had no time. Revenge was too precious, and had been too long coming already. So the dead man slogged on, through the rain, past the graves, toward the city lights reflecting off those great shining glass towers like lighthouses for the fates. The dead man had always loved those great buildings. They made him feel young again.

Something appeared then, a long, snaky, blazing apparition screaming its banshee wail into the night as it flew through the air. The dead man fell, panicked, terrified, scrambling for a hiding place while the impossible thing slowed and then seemed to hover overhead. He clung to a concrete column, praying it did not see him. He tried to hold his breath only to realize it was now not only impossible but unnecessary. There was a snapping sound, and then a ball rang, and then, strangely, the sound of feet tromping overhead, like a column of soldiers marching on thin air. He dared look up and then realized what the glowing specter really was: an elevated train. The column he hugged supported the tracks. Late-night commuters filed onto the platform twenty feet overhead and when the doors slid shut again the entire shrieking assemblage streamed off into the night.

The dead man felt foolish. Clearly things had changed in the years since he died. Once his embarrassment wore off, he realized the rail-line was a boon for him; it would lead into the city, and if he followed underneath it he would encounter fewer late-night pedestrians than on the main highway. Staying close to the lights on the tracks he followed them, into the heart of civilization, and closer to his prey.

The pouring rain made rivers and streams of everything. He was glad that it seemed to be relieving him of the grave smell. The city by night was a strange thing: dark and vacant but still teeming with artificial animation, with the glare of electronic lights and the low whine of tires on asphalt. He did not belong here; the people of the dead city kept in their place. It was the unspoken law of the dead. But tonight the rules bent. The dead man scampered beneath overpasses, through alleys, along ditches and across vacant lots. Those few people who saw him took him for another homeless vagrant in his shapeless, foul-smelling clothes. The heavy rain hid face from them. He was tracking using senses he did not realize he had. Maybe it was the spirit of revenge itself that guided him. He came to one block, one street, one house. It was one of the tall Victorian homes that they called the painted ladies. Yes, this was the sort of house his killer would live in. His killer was a rich and powerful man, so powerful that he was never punished even though everyone knew he’d killed the dead man.

The dead man crept up to a window streaked with rain and squinted into the soft yellow lamplight inside. The living room was filled with boxes, and the floor lined with newspapers that suggested painting project. Of course, the dead man thought, that explains why I’ve come back tonight: My killer has only just come to live here in the city. The dead man smeared the glass with his blackened fingers, rage welling up in the hollow of his chest where his heart once sat. There was movement in another room. He clamored over a fence and into a side yard, creeping up to a bedroom window. Yes, there he was! The dead man felt poisonous joy at the sight of his enemy.

The killer wore a faded blue bathrobe as he picked through the rooms of his new house, feeling the stacks of boxes with his hands. But how old he was! He’d become gray and bent in the years since the dead man last saw him. And what was this? The killer’s hands moved over everything with such delicate care, and a faithful dog trotted at his side at all times. He’s blind, the dead man realized, blind and all but helpless. But why the lamps? Then the dead man spotted the tire tracks in the wet driveway. Someone else lived here too. A caretaker, or a wife? Whoever it was, they surely wouldn’t leave the old man alone for long. The dead man wanted to break through the glass and seize the old man, to break his bones and twist his limbs (his body was tired and clumsy but strong, terrifyingly strong.)

But no, he had a better idea: He’d get the old man to open the door for him. Yes, open the door and invite him in, never realizing that he was bringing doom into his home. The dead man went to the front door and knocked as loudly as he could. The door opened, just a crack, and a voice (his killer’s voice! Old and frail, but the same voice that the dead man knew so well!) said:

“Who’s there?”

For a moment the dead man wasn’t sure he was capable of speech, but when he opened his mouth the words came, though they sounded garbled and strange. “Sir,” the dead man said in his voice like brittle leaves, “I’m a poor man with nothing in the world, and the rain has wet me to the bone. If you don’t mind, I’d like permission to rest a while here on your porch, and hopefully dry out a bit.”

The slim yellow line that indicated the door opening wavered for a second, as if the house itself were pondering. Then the door opened and the old man (the killer) beckoned him in. “Can’t have you freezing out there. Come in and dry yourself off properly.”

The house was warm. The dead man felt the change in temperature vaguely, as if it were happening to someone else and he was only observing it. “You must excuse me,” said the killer. “I have not moved in yet.”

“The first night in a new house is always the loneliest,” said the dead man, following his killer deeper inside. The old man walked with two canes, one to hold himself up and the other to find his way. Even the dead man walked faster than his killer did.

“That’s very true,” his killer said. “But when you get to be my age, any night can be a lonely one. I find I’m loneliest of all when someone is with me.”

“It’s the same with me,” the dead man said. He dripped rainwater on the hardwood floor, water black and green with the residue of his body. The rain, he knew, would cover the smell of his moldered flesh even to the blind man’s sensitive nose, but not for very long. That was all right. He would not need long. The old man’s dog crouched near the door, tail between its legs. It looked at the dead man with head cocked to one side. The dead man put a finger to his lips as a signal: Shhhhh. The dog ran away.

The killed grunted. He’d reached a chair and was doing his best to sit in it. He told the dead man his name. “And who are you?” his killer said.

The dead man told him.

The killer was quiet for a moment. Then he said: “I’m sorry. I don’t think I heard you right. What’s your name?”

The dead man said it again.

The killer dropped his cane. Somewhere, the dog was crying.

The old man began to shake. When he opened his mouth no words came out. The dead man stood over his killer’s chair, dripping rain. It was a long time before the old man spoke. When he did the only words he said were: “I’m sorry.”

“You murdered me,” the dead man said.

“No!” said the killer, and the dead man’s anger boiled over. He screamed:

“Don’t lie! You murdered me, you bastard!”

“You don’t understand,” said the killer. He was crying, feeble old man’s tears.

“No, I don’t,” the dead man said. “Because I’ve never killed anyone. But I’ll understand soon.”

“But I had to do it,” said the killer. “Don’t you see? It had to be done.”

The dead man touched his killer’s cheek, gently. “Answer a question,” said the dead man, “and I may let you live.”

The killer’s old, blind eyes looked up at him.

“How many?” said the dead man.

“How many what?”

The dead man wrapped his fingers around his killer’s throat. “How many people did you kill?” Outside, the rain was loud, like a thousand wet, clammy hands beating on the walls and windows. “Do you even know how many there were? Tell me that our lives meant at least that much to you, and I may let you go.”

The killer blinked. He furrowed his brow. He stammered: “I…I…”

And he started to sob.

Slowly, very slowly, the dead man reached for the lamp. He turned out the light. In the dark, there was a sound like the last bit of water swirling around the drain. In another room, the dog began to howl, and then he began to cry.

And then everything went quiet.

***

They read about it, as the saying goes, in tomorrow’s paper:

A blind retiree was murdered in his home late Saturday night, stunning this quiet residential neighborhood, and police say his assailant is still at large.

“His wife had gone out to the store. They just moved in and there was no food in the house,” a police spokesperson told reporters. “She came back to find the door open and her husband dead.”

Police identified the victim as Martin Coughlin, 79, a former assistant district attorney from Reno. Coughlin had been both strangled and bludgeoned. Police said there were no signs of a break-in and it appears that Coughlin opened the door for his attacker. Coughlin was blind due to complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor two years ago.

During his career as a Washoe County prosecutor Coughlin tried over 700 homicides. He achieved national notoriety after petitioning for the death penalty in the case of Dante Riggs. Riggs was accused of abducting and murdering a seven year old girl while on a gambling trip. He was executed in 1995, but the conviction was overturned posthumously when new evidence was discovered. The public outcry against Coughlin’s handling of the prosecution prompted his retirement.

“We came here for a fresh start,” said Martha Coughlin (70), who made a brief statement to the press. “It’s hard to know what to think. I guess I’d really hoped that, in this place, maybe, after all these years, we could finally be free of the ghosts of the past.

“But now it looks like the ghosts are all I have left.”

***

“…and that’s why we’re the only city in the world that banishes our dead.”

“Wait, why? I don’t understand what that has to do with the story?”

“When the dead stay too close to the living they always want to come back up and cause trouble. If you put a little distance between the living and the dead, it means that only really important business can get them back up again.”

“Well I don’t think I understood it. He wasn’t really even a ghost, was he?”

“And if you’re saying this story was true, then how do you know about it? Who told you?”

“Who do you think? I work in one of those cemeteries. The dead get chatty sometimes. They don’t have very many occasions to talk, you know, so when one comes along they’re hard to shut up. They’ll tell you almost anything.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“I don’t expect you to believe me. But you’ll all understand, someday. None of us can stay in the living city forever. Sooner or later we’ll all take that trip south. And then you’ll see.

“Anyway, that’s my story. Does anyone have another?”

 

Suburb of the Dead 1

Suburb of the Dead 2

Suburb of the Dead 3

Credit To – Tam Lin

Creepypasta

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