The Tree

January 14, 2017 at 12:00 AM
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There was definitely something wrong with the tree, thought Casper. He was not a farmer or an arborist – it wasn’t that he worried the tree was not healthy or anything like that, as he did not know enough about trees to know the difference. What concerned him is that there was something about the tree that did not seem right. Was it too symmetrical, or not symmetrical enough? Was the green of the leaves quite the right shade, or not? Casper couldn’t tell. But there was something that was different enough between this particular tree and the other trees around it that he took notice, and he told his wife so as he sipped coffee one morning, looking out the window at it.
“Does that tree look right to you?” he asked.
His wife looked at Casper first, then out the window. “Which one?”
“Can’t you tell?”
Vera, his wife, sipped coffee as well. “No.” She looked at him again. “What do you mean?”
Casper shrugged. “I don’t know. Just doesn’t seem quite right to me. Like it’s fake or something.”
Vera furrowed her brow. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
Casper gave an exasperated sigh. “You know, fake, like the ones they use for wireless signals.” He was recalling the time he first saw one, when he was a child maybe eight or so. The funny thing was, as his parents commented while driving past it, was that they never really noticed the cell phone tower when it was a plain cell phone tower, the narrow triangle of metal decked with cylinders and antennae. It was near a church yard on the edge of the city, where the open fields gave way to the first shops and large department stores. They all drove past it a hundred times, never giving the white metal tower a second glance. But one day they noticed a team of workers swarming around the base of it. That didn’t mean much either.
Maybe a week later they made the same drive into town, and there it was. The cell tower had been dressed up as a tree, and it towered weirdly over the rest of the treetops. That was the first thing you noticed. Then you saw how narrow it was, like a skinny toilet brush, and then you saw how perfectly symmetrical it was, the fake needles giving the impression of some kind of outsized evergreen.
Casper’s parents found it to be hideous, and now noticed it every time they drove into town. Casper, however, thought there was something sublime, perhaps admirable, about it. He forgot about all this until today, looking at the tree outside his window.
But now something about the fakeness of the tree bothered him deeply. They had gotten much better over the years, dressing up this or that signal tower to look like a tree. Some would say that they had gotten so good at it that you could not tell the difference. That any normal person, looking at the latest model of artificial tree and the real thing, could not tell them apart.
Casper was quite certain that he could, standing at his window this fine spring day, and there was something else stirring inside him as well. This was something like hatred. He was suddenly angry at the tree, and angry at whoever had made it. He felt like it did not belong in the world, and that someone should get rid of it. He decided, standing there not yet in his work clothes, that he ought to be the person to do it.
“You all right, hon?” Vera asked.
“Yeah,” Casper said, taking another sip of coffee. “I’m fine.”

Now that Casper thought of it, lying in bed, Vera already asleep beside him, he was quite certain that people had been visiting his little grove of trees. Not just people, workers, like the ones who had dressed up the cell tower years ago. They must have replaced the tree. Why hadn’t he been more attentive, he thought, and he felt shame. After all, what is a man but someone who looks after his home, his property, his family. He looked over at Vera and wondered when they might start their own family. But if he couldn’t stop people from coming onto his property and replacing his trees, what right did he have to expect to head a family?
Casper closed his eyes. Tomorrow he would find an axe.

The axe was more difficult to find than he had expected. But he finally got one, and he hid it under the bed, waiting for nightfall. For some reason he did not want to explain it all to Vera. For some reason he thought she would not understand.
The moon was full, and so he had enough light. He stood before the alien tree, and whatever doubts he had melted. It was certainly not like the others. He still could not say why. He touched the bark of the tree, then the bark of another. He touched the leaves likewise. How did he know the difference? Was it that the fake seemed somehow to droop at night, or not? Yet somehow he knew.
He raised the axe and began to chop, first tentatively, because it seemed like an unnatural movement and his blows would not quite bite. But after the first random notches he landed a few in the same spot and began to make progress. With each stroke he gained more confidence, until he began to hew away, fragments flying.
He was more than halfway through when he saw the lights coming out of the corner of his eye. First in the sky, then on the ground, closer and closer and he redoubled his efforts, pushing himself through exhaustion. He knew for certain he was doing something important. People were coming. He found himself laughing, and with a crack the tree fell over.
There were two of them, dressed in black and bearing badges. They found him leaning on the handle of the axe, heaving and laughing, sticky with sap.
“Geez,” the first guard said.
“Man, we are totally gonna get fired for this,” the other said.
“Why do they always put nutjobs next to them?” said the first guard.
The second guard shook his head. “I don’t think they try. I think it just gets to them. Over time. I really think they should have kept them in museums or something.”
“They tried that. Drew too much attention. People went bonkers, kept coming after them. They thought that if they just hid them in plain sight, didn’t tell anybody…”
Casper’s laughs quieted and he looked at them. “I’m sorry. Tell whoever it is that they can’t replace my trees. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was fake.”
“Buddy…” the first guard tried to say.
“It won’t do any good,” the second interrupted. “They’re too far gone by this point. I’ve heard that.”
“Look, there’s not any left, so we’re definitely out of a job. So why not?” said the first, a little angry. “Hey, buddy, you just cost us our jobs. You’re an idiot. You just cut down the last real tree.”
Casper looked at him. “No, you don’t understand. I cut down the fake.”
The guard grabbed the axe from Casper. “Nuts to this. I’m already fired.” He swung the axe at the tree next to the sap-bleeding stump. Bark flew away until a dry sheaf of fiber optic cable spilled out. He moved to the next tree, and the next. All cables and wires.

Credit: Gibson Monk

Deleted Software

January 13, 2017 at 12:00 AM
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My life is an ideal one. Good paying job, friends, apartment, nice car, and a beautiful girlfriend. Hell, even the town I live in is great. Which is not to say there weren’t a few flaws here and there; but those don’t matter.

I’ve never really been interested in traveling, which might explain why I never left my hometown of Commune. If I wanted to go exploring, there was a forest at the edge of town-the Gaust Wilderness. An ever expansive grove of trees that seemed to stretch on for miles. Chuckling to myself, I remembered the stories we use to tell as kids.

Some said that the woods were haunted, or that Bigfoot himself inhabited them. Whatever the truth was, it was lost many years ago, just like our childlike curiosity. And soon, we were more worried about paying bills, rather than wondering what kind of things resided in that ocean of trees.

When I was younger, I had an avid curiosity for what lied beyond the starry sky. Millions upon billions of Planets and Galaxies, all coexisting with one another. Recent discoveries of stars such as VY Canis Majoris-really shows you how truly insignificant we are in the grand cosmic scheme of the universe.

Even then, it doesn’t bother me all that much. We’re born to be whoever, or whatever we want. And my dream, is to be with Evelyn, my significant other. I know, you may think of me as just another love sick person, but I feel a profound connection. Almost as if she was made for me. It all started the day she introduced herself in Middle School. It was love at first sight, and all my friends teased me. Luckily, it appeared fate was on my side that day, as she was assigned to sit right next to me.

She smiled, and greeted me. I, speechless at the time, could only nod as she spoke. Giggling at how stupefied I was, she gave me a gentle nudge. Pain flared across my body as her elbow tapped my hips-because the night before, it felt as if someone was breaking my ribs. Seemingly worried about my reaction, she asked if I was okay, to which I feigned a smile. From then on, we were the very best of friends. Talking, texting, and always hanging out. It wasn’t after our High School graduation, that I gathered the courage to ask her out on a date.

Surprisingly, she agreed to it. And it was the best night of my life. Her charming smile, infectious laugh, and personality all seemed to be too good to be true. Although it wasn’t. Two years since then, and we’re still the same, happy couple. As I said at first, it was an ideal life. Perfect, even.

Getting through the work day though, wasn’t the easiest part for me. Sure, it pays good, but sometimes the workload is a bit too much. Sorting my way through several files on my computer monitor, I overheard a few of my co-workers in the cubicle next to mine. “Have you heard? Some people have been claiming that there’ve been bears wandering into the streets.” One said. “That’s nothing to worry ‘bout, the cops can handle it.” The other replied. “Probably, but they say some of them just wait outside their lawns.”

Just as I finished printing off several documents, my boss, John, waved at me as he stood at the exit of my small space. “Hey boss, what can I do for you?” I asked, stapling the papers together. Clearing his throat, he clasped his hands together. “I’m going to need you to stay late tonight.” He said. Frowning, It took me a moment to respond before I knew what to say. “Umm, sure. Is there any reason why?” “Yes, actually. Some of your fellow employees haven’t been….” Looking over his shoulder, he leaned closer so that no one could hear him. “Diligent workers.” Bemused, I still didn’t see how I was directly involved in their affairs. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just ask them to work a double shift? How is making me do all the work teaching them a lesson.” I whined, trying to find a way to escape the extra work hours, and just head home.

“You see, I have full confidence that you’ll be able to sort out all these troubles before the night ends. Especially since you’re a hard worker and what not.” He stated. While I contemplated on how to take in his praise, he rested a hand on my shoulder, and nodded. “You’re a good man. Keep at it.” That was the last thing he said to me, before he headed back to his office.

Sighing, I threw the stack of papers onto my desk, and slouched in my seat. Great. Make me do all the work in the end, huh? Take about luck.

Around five o’clock, I dialed Evelyn’s cell. The phone rang once, then twice, before she answered. Her perky self was enough to lift my spirit up, after being dragged to the dark abyss known as “extra hours.”

Since there was no one left in the office, I was all to myself, and I know it’s not in the best for a worker to talk during their shift, but I couldn’t help it. Plus…I missed her. Cutting her off mid sentence, I began in a shaky voice, “H-Hey, I know we haven’t done anything for sometime now, but how about-” “A date?” She finished, cheerfully. Smiling from ear to ear, I nodded, even if she couldn’t see me. “Yeah! Tomorrow sound good? I mean, unless you’re busy.” I couldn’t believe this. I was still this nervous after all these years? “Of course I’m free silly.” She reassured.

“Great! Then I’ll pick you up after work. See you then!” “Okay! Remember, don’t overwork yourself.” Hanging up, I felt a strange surge of happiness rush into my being. That stupid grin that plastered itself on my face wouldn’t go away, but I didn’t care. I was exhilarated! Just thinking of being with her made me feel complete. Taking a deep breath, I focused my attention on my work, and typed away at the keyboard.

The tiny clicks of keys, and the groan of the printer as it delivered fresh sheets of warm paper filled my senses for the uneventful night. Getting up from my chair, a loud, tired yawn escaped me as I stretched out my sore elbows. It was 11:37, and I had just finished the final load for the night. Setting them each into their own portfolio, I turned off the lights, bathing the office in darkness.

On the way to my car, I sent a quick text to Evelyn, wishing her a good night’s rest, followed by several tacky emoticons. Slipping it back into my pocket, I stopped at my car door, before looking up into the brilliant night sky. Thousands upon stars all shined down on the Earth, twinkling, and flickering with light, like a candle. The ever hanging moon in the sky decorated it even more, like the cherry on top.

But that’s when I noticed this strange array of lights. They were green, and blue. Pulsing, as if they were trying to convey a message. Unsettled by this, I tried to logically identify them as a passing plane. Which wasn’t too hard to imagine. Planes fly over cities and towns in the night all the time. Delivering packages, and such. Why would this be any different? It did help knowing that the aircraft was going in a straight line. Yeah, maybe their stories just psyched me out. I really need to stop being so gullible.

Starting up the car, I drove out of the lot. Luckily for me, my apartment wasn’t so far off from my workplace. It was just down the strip of road heading for the forest. Strangely enough, it felt like I kept up with whatever was up in the sky. It only moved when I did, which was a bit unnerving.

When I finally pulled in the lot, the thing had vanished deep in the Gaust. Going up the flight of stairs, I checked my phone. She never responded.

The following day, I sat in the break room, eating away at the lunch I had prepared myself. A hot ham on cheese, which was more or less lukewarm with the help of the microwave, coupled with some mac and cheese, and water. John sat across from me, digging into his fast food while paying little to no attention to me. It was uncommon for us to eat together. Actually, it was more of a common occurrence.

As I drank from my bottled water, he looked up from his burger, and coughed. “Got any plans for tonight?” Gulping down a swig of water, I nodded. “Yeah. Evelyn and I are going out on a date. The problem is, I don’t know where to go.” I answered, smiling sheepishly. “Evelyn?”

His voice sounded curious, as if we haven’t spoken of her before. He raised an eyebrow questioningly at me, and threw in a few fries in his mouth. “She’s my girlfriend. I think I’ve introduced you to her a few months ago.” There was this look in his eyes, almost like he didn’t believe me. I chalked it up to his age and forgetfulness.

“Sorry bud, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Obviously, I was starting to get a bit irritated. I didn’t expect him to keep track of every person he’s ever met, but it’s just strange he couldn’t recall an employee’s loved one. “Whatever.” I mumbled, biting into my sandwich. I’ll just invite her over sometime just so I can remind him.

After finishing our quick meal, we went back to business as usual. The day went off without a hitch, and before I knew it, I was driving down to Evelyn’s apartment. I glanced at the phone in one of the cup holders, and noticed she still hadn’t responded to my messages. Maybe work kept her busy. Yeah, that makes sense.

Pulling up in the parking lot, I noticed that her car was missing. Must’ve been in the garage, I thought. Stepping out from my car, I walked over to her A3-her complex number. Knocking on the door, I waited outside, fixing my loose shirt, and messy hair. Pressing on the doorbell a few times, I heard the echo of the ring from within the room.
Growing tired of waiting, I peeked in from the window, to find a vacant living room. No furniture, or anything to support that someone had lived here. Pounding my fist on the door, I eventually garnered the attention of her neighbor, who glared at me with piercing, green eyes. “Quit making so much noise. Or else I’ll notify the authorities for breaking and entering.” She threatened. “No, you don’t understand. My girlfriend lives here. We were supposed to-” “What’re you talking about? No one has lived there for the past twenty years or so.”

Frozen in place, I stared at her; unblinkingly. “W-What do you mean?” Pinching the bridge of her nose, she vented her feelings of frustration with me. “Are you an idiot, boy? I’m saying that no one’s lived there for sometime. I swear, I have half the mind right now…” Grumbling, she slammed the door shut; leaving me perplexed. Did she lie to me? Surely she couldn’t be telling the truth, but her tone….

Heading back to my car, I glanced over my shoulder to see a sign firmly planted into the ground. ‘Apartment For Rent’

Apprehensive, I scrolled through my contacts only to find that she was missing from them. Dread filled my being, making my heart ache. Why? Why was she gone all of the sudden? Switching to my photo album, all I saw were photos of me, by myself at restaurants, parks, and so on. That genuine smile had disappeared altogether, and what replaced it was a somber expression. As if they knew, my past self knew; that she wasn’t there.

Even her parents numbers were deleted from my phone’s memory. All that was left in their place were random numbers I’ve never seen before. That’s it. I wouldn’t be finding the answers in town, so the last place to head out for was the forest.

I remember how much she loved that backwoods area, ever since we were teens. Saying how the wildlife was magnificent, and the plentiful berries and fruits that grew in the shrubs and low hanging trees. Had she abandoned all in her life, just to live there? It was too elaborate for everyone to join this charade then, and even more unusual that she had somehow snuck into my apartment last night, only to delete her’s, and her parents numbers.

In any case, I had to put a stop to this-and that meant heading into that forsaken forest.

Speeding down the desolate road, the setting sun barely managed to overlook the woods, streaming in light through the filters of branches and pine trees. The dirt road was rocky and uneven, making for a difficult drive through them. The cawing of ravens overhead casting a shadow as a small flock flew over the car.

As I drove deeper into Gaust, the sounds became more distant, as all life came to an abrupt part, all except for a few foxes that darted through bushes. By now, the sun was down, and I was shrouded in complete darkness. My headlights were the only source of light, but I had completely lost all sense of direction. Every turn, every subtle shift disoriented me; causing me to think that I had just ended up where I started.

She was the only thing that kept me going. I couldn’t give up on her. I know she’s out here. A bit further, and maybe I’ll-

A burst of air sounded from the exhaust pipe of my car, as it began to break down from the rough terrain. The windshield clouded with smoke as it vented from the engine in an attempt to cool down. Coming to a complete halt, I slammed my fists onto the steering wheel, and screamed. My phone didn’t have service all the way out here, and I was as good as dead by the time I make it back to civilization.

Opening the door, I switched on the flashlight on my phone, and headed straight. Deep down, I knew there was something this way. I did nothing but run. Avoiding the road, I jumped into a clearing, and sprinted down. My legs grew exhausted as I was at this for what felt like hours. All with the same end result. A dead end, barricaded by an assortment of tightly knit Great Oak’s.

Sweat dripped down my brow as I panted heavily. Waiting for oxygen to fill my lungs once again. I leaned against the sturdy wood, gazing at the stars as a gust of wind blew in from the north; tousling my hair.

Suddenly, my ears were filled with the sound of a stainless steel pot being dragged against a stove. It reverberated throughout the entire forest, shaking the trees themselves. A bright light shined from the woods, making my head shoot up.

It grew brighter, and brighter, until it closed in, and hovered just in front of my face. The object illuminated the place in the purest shades of green and red. Making me see the world for what it really was. A cruel, beautiful place.

Motionless, it suddenly hurled itself at me. The world, exploded in colors.

Waking up in my bed, I glanced at my fully charged phone to find out my alarm had went off. Groaning, I tiredly rubbed my eyes, and got dressed for work. When I finally arrived at the office building, I slouched into my seat, and stretched my arms. The loud yawning of other men and women came from over my cubicle as they were still recovering from getting up so early in the morning.

My mind was set on one thing, and one thing only. To finish my workload, and then…? “Morning” John said, in his usual chipper tone. “Hey boss, how’re you doing?” Logging in, I patiently awaited his response. I’m sure I knew what it’d be already. “I’m doing great. Say, how was your afternoon last night?”

Smiling, I opened up a document lined with links to recent company news. “I went out to the store, bought some snacks and a drink. Then I just watched some tv and whatnot.” I muttered. “Well, you wouldn’t believe what me and the Mrs. did yesterday. We went out for a night on the town. Going to a few restaurants and even watch a movie or two.” He reminisced dreamily. “Sounds nice.” I murmured softly.

Something felt wrong. When I tried thinking of last night’s events, everything became hazy. All I saw was me, driving down to the gas station near the edge of town. Near that forest. Even then, why did I go that far? Surely there were closer stores nearby. So why did I go there?

“Well, it’s time I leave you to your job.” He stated, slapping his hand on the white walls. Once he left, I stared at the bright monitor. Trying to recall what had happened. Probably nothing. I was prone to over think things. That’s what she use to tell me when we were in school. Wait, who?

A classmate, I know that much; but I can’t remember her face. All I could see was a beautiful, charming smile. Maybe it was a girl who moved away years ago. Whatever the case was, I started on my rounds that day. Chatted with my neighbors, delivered copies of important documents to my John, and even sat down to eat lunch with him and two other fellows.

They were talking about how badly whipped they felt because of their wives; which caused me to laugh at them. Not seeming to take offense from me, one turned towards me and asked, “So, how’s Lily?” Not hesitating, I responded with, “She’s great. Although she’s been getting a bit feisty lately,” John chuckled, swallowing down a bite of his sandwich. “Maybe it’s that time of the month.” He joked, taking a sip of his drink.

“Come on guys, that’s not funny.” I blushed, poking at my plate of spaghetti. Waving his hands, he soon apologized, and changed the subject to something much more appropriate. While they conversed, I felt an itch. Something, was wrong. That name. Each time I thought of it, memories would pour in. Some of carnivals, others of sweet hand holding and cuddling at home. Why did it all feel fabricated?

Like someone had force fed me this information. For the entirety of the day, I felt this sense of unease looming over me. By the end of the day, just as I was about to head home, my boss called me over to his office. It wasn’t unnatural for him to want to talk to me after work. We rather enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to stick around today.

He mostly went on about his wife, and traveling plans for the future. I wasn’t particularly interested in the conversation itself, but I didn’t want to come off as rude. “Any plans with her today?” He asked. A smile forced itself onto my lips, I didn’t want to. It felt as if someone was pulling the corner of my cheeks to fake a sincere grin. My voice was no different. In my mind, I sounded dull, and boring; yet I spoke excitedly.

Going to the park, late night walk, or movie. Those were the options that spewed from my mouth. He seemed intrigued, like I hadn’t been with anyone in months. Just as I finished, I edged ever so closely to the exit. I wanted to be long gone from this place, and just sleep.

Talking about that woman didn’t help either. It just made me angry. How can I speak so fondly of someone that I never thought of until today? Each word was a painful lie. How much I loved her, cared for her, and trusted her. I was a prisoner in his own body. My anger boiling to points I’ve never experienced.

Lily, or was it Lilith? I couldn’t pinpoint which it was. Her name was being tossed around so carelessly by me and my boss. While he was talking, I felt my phone vibrate. “Sorry, got to check who it is.” I apologized, taking my cell out of its pocket. The message was enough to make me stagger, but it was the name that made me shudder.

‘Lily’

Without so much as a word, I left. Running to my car, I drove off to the park. The sun was beginning to set in the afternoon sky. I sat down on a park bench, head back. Anguished, confused, and hopeless. My hand laid on the spot where a second person would sit, but since I was all by lonesome, there was no need for that.

The sounds of two children laughing caused me to look down for a moment. They were chasing each other, playing a game of tag as one declared loudly, “You’re it!” Continuing their little game, the girl who was giggled as she barely scraped his back with her fingertips. “You’re it!” “What?! No fair! That doesn’t count.” He retaliated, halting the game altogether. “Yes it does. So stop complaining!” She shouted, crossing her arms.

A small grin formed on my lips from their childlike innocence. Not a worry in the world. “That’s not fair, Eva!” Pushing her, the girl landed on her bottom. Her whimpering was enough to send the boy into a panic, and try to comfort her.

“Eva?” I murmured, turning my attention to the forest just a mile away from the park. Her name rang in my ears. It was…familiar. Standing up from my seat, I mindlessly approached the woods. No matter how far it was, I needed to go there. After all, she was in there.

“Who was in there?” I found myself questioning that. Oh

The forest was abuzz with life. Small animals ran amok, and even the cicadas were more lively than ever. A harmonious sound filled the woods, reminding me of a hymn. Growing louder and louder as I headed deeper into the depths of mother nature’s creation.

Coming into a clearing, I came upon a wall of trees. It was impossible to see through, and the only way to go was back into town. The dying rays of light gave the place a orange hue, making the once bright Gaust, much more sinister. The place went silent, as if all the creatures had left without a trace. A gentle gust of wind ruffled the leaves, and made me shiver. It was nostalgic.

That was until I remembered her. Evelyn. She had gone missing just yesterday, and I found myself in the same spot that everyone’s lies lead me to. This clearing.

A faint blinking light came from the far corner of the barricade, attracting me. It was a branch. With a tiny, illegible inscription. Wrapping my hand around the glowing branch, I snapped it off, and began beating it against tree.

I was angry. More angry than I had ever been in my life. She led me to this accursed forest, just so she could remind me of the life she took away?

The thin limb finally broke in two, eventually leading to pounding my fist against the great oak. Over, and over, and over again; until I heard a tear.

Falling through the tree, I felt as if I was swimming in water. Pulling myself onto the surface, there wasn’t a drop of water on me, yet something even more strange. A black hole lied on the ground, which I seemingly came out of. The reflection was that of the small clearing I was just in.

The place I was in was completely dark, save for these odd balloon like orbs of light; dimly lighting the dark void. It both amazed, and terrified me. Just where the hell was I?

“Welcome home.” A deep, enigmatic voice greeted me from all around. I spun on my heels, and found nothing but the inky shroud that was beyond my comprehension. “Who are you? And why am I here?”

A faint outline of a man materialized out of nowhere. There was no defining traits on him, aside from his voice. “It seems that the program I had installed was far too much to your liking. I’ll have to be careful of that next time.” He commented.

Glancing at the floor, I found the reflection missing. As if it had sunk back into the void. “Answer me!” I shouted, pushing me hands out toward him-only to phase through him harmlessly. “A nice projection of the sky might soothe you.” Stars matted the void from all sides. Infinitely decorating the room for as far as the eye can see. “This place, is where I watch over all that exists, will exist, and has.”

Great. Now I just need to wake from this dream, and everything will return to normal. “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m sorry to say this, but you can never return to your Garden.” Garden? Now he was just making things up.

“Why did you ever want to leave my paradise? There was so much in store for you, but you threw it all away for some rogue software?” “She’s not just some computer! Stop talking about her like she was nothing more than a program. Humans aren’t just things you can assemble.” Even with no facial features, I could tell he was frowning at me. The way a parent would do when their child was too stubborn to believe the truth.

“It’ll be awhile before you can believe what I say, but give it some time. I’ll fix you up, and-” “You can’t fix me, quit talking like I’m some sort of machine. I’m not broken,” I growled. “Of course you aren’t. Forgive me, I guess that’s what happens after spending eons observing the universe .” Eons? Just how long can one guy stay in a place like this?

“It seems like yet another failure. Just how many more times do I have to watch the same cycle of life and death? At least this time I’ll have you here.” He admitted.

My mentality strained as I refused to believe word for word of what he was saying. The surroundings, his tone, and the situation didn’t help. Was this heaven? Hell? No, it was far worse than that. It was nothing. Hands trembling, I took one last glance at my dying phone. The screen was distorted with a mesh of numbers.“J-Just…when will I wake up?” I asked, voice quivering.

Sighing, he sat down on a starry throne. “There’s no point in going back when you’ve escaped from that reality. It’s a one way ticket. In a sense, you can say that you deleted yourself, Adam.”

Credit: Nahvis

The Bog

January 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM
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From the window I can see the wide green and gold of the bogland stretching as far as the horizon. Between scattered rocks and narrow channels of peaty water some dark shape moves, or is it only shifting clouds and a trick of the dying light? I can never tell.

Gabby plays on the rug, weaving another story from drift wood and clothespin dolls. We’d been on the beach every summer day, early, before the waves washed the good stuff out to sea again. I’d spent hours in Gran’s thread box choosing colors for wrapping the little clothespins while Gabby changed her favorite color from blue to purple to lime green.

One last breath from the old sun sends a long streak of light shooting out over the marsh, turning it all to mirrors, and then it’s gray. Nothing moves. It’s dead.

“Gran?” I say, not sure she’ll be there. But I can smell cooking, lamb and potatoes in a big pot on the stove, and there she is. “Gran,” I say, again.

She looks at me with blue eyes, watery and hidden behind round glasses shining in the lamplight. Smiling, she says, “Get yourself to the basin, Jamie, and wash for supper.”

I run cold well water over my hands and think how to ask her my question. I haven’t decided yet when she’s set the table or when we’ve sat down and Gabby’s dug her spoon into the broth and come up with lumps of carrot. I haven’t decided when we’re lying on the rag rug in front of the fire, Gran in her chair, rocking and knitting long skeins of gray lambs wool.

“Tell us about the bog-men,” Gabby says.

I shiver. I hate the story of the bog-men, but Gabby loves it. I hope Gran decides she’s too tired to tell it. But she only smiles gently, clicking her needles together like a song, and says:

“On a grand soft day, your Grandfather was cutting peat out in the marshes.”

This is how she always begins.

“And as he cut, the wind began whining down and a fret rolled in from the sea, covering all the grass and red lichen on the rocks until he couldn’t see more than a step in front and behind.”

I lived in fear of those sea frets once. The sudden, wooly mists that cover the whole world in seconds used to keep me close by the weathered garden fence and well away from that trackless mire.

“But your Grandfather had lived on this island his whole life and he knew the way of it better than anyone, so he hefted his spade across his shoulders and turned once to the left and started walking. Sooner or later he’d come to the sea, if he could keep out of a bog.”

“But he couldn’t!” Gabby chimes in.

“No, not he. The bog-men couldn’t let him go. They came from their beds, long fingers in the mud, pulling themselves along with their dead hands.”

Gran makes scratchings on the arm of her rocking chair. I want to put my hands over my ears, but I don’t, because Gabby might laugh.

“And who are the bog-men?” Gran asks.

Gabby bounces on her knees. “Travelers!” she says. “Wanderers and the unwary. Lost people who sank in the mud at night.”

Gran nods, picking up her knitting again and rocking. “That’s it. They come back up in the frets and on moonless nights. The bog-men gripped your Grandfather’s ankles with both hands and dragged him down.”

“Why?” I ask.

Gran doesn’t answer. She just rocks and finally she shrugs. “Nobody knows the why of it. The marsh takes what it takes and how it takes it is none of our business.”

I say nothing. Gabby crosses the wooden floor on her little bare feet, climbs into the window and presses her face against the glass.

“You won’t see anything,” I say. “It’s too dark.”

“I can see the bog-men’s lights.”

I don’t want to see them. I turn my face away as my feet take me to the window. Gabby puts her hand in mine, taps the glass, pointing. “See?” she says.

I see little green flames, round, glowing lanterns in the dark. Blowing in the salt wind off the sea they dance and bob along the ground, close to the mires. A dozen or more.

I don’t like it. Gabby won’t let go, so I jerk my hand free. She pouts. She’s too cute to be so ghoulish. Gran puts her knitting in the cradle-shaped sewing box beside her chair and stands. “Time for bed,” she says.

So I climb the corkscrew stairs to bed, and take off my shoes and put on my pajamas and climb into the big bed that’s all mine. I wait for the creak of the floorboards that say Gran has gone to her bed. I wait for my eyes to see in the dark, wait for the wind to rise and moan around the gables.

I hear the soft pad of bare feet and the faint sigh of her breathing, standing near the bed. Most nights I would try to ignore her, but tonight she climbs in next to me, snuggling down where it’s warm, without asking.

“Gabby,” I say.

She wiggles round so we’re face to face in the dark. I shut my eyes to shut out thoughts, but memory doesn’t work like that.

“What was it like?” I ask.

“When?” She says, her high pitched whisper close to my ear.

“When they dragged you.”

“Oh.” She pauses, thinking. “It was scary. And cold. Their hands were hard and pinching. I didn’t like it when I couldn’t breathe, but then it was quiet.”

“Oh,” I say. I finally decide to ask my question to Gabby, not to Gran.

“Why don’t you leave?”

She snuggles closer, small arms around my neck. “We’re lonely outside,” She says.”You left us out there. You ran, and Gran and me couldn’t.”

****

In the morning, a man comes from the mainland. Tall and thin, wrapped up in a brown wool coat against the autumn wind, he looks like a scarecrow. He has a case in one hand, shakes my hand with the other.

“I’m so sorry,” he says.

I nod. He’s here to take me away from this place, so I’m glad of him coming. We walk up the grassy hill, along the gravel path, through the dying garden to the house.

The man comes up the steps, stops, points to our door. I painted it this summer in deep green, and I was proud of it, so I look too.

“Do you have a dog?” the man asks. “We can take him back with us on the ferry.”

I see it, then, the long marks on the new paint. Deep scratches in the wood itself.

“No,” I say. “We never had a dog.”

I know what they are, though. They come from their beds, long fingers in the mud, pulling themselves along with their dead hands.

The marsh still wants what it wants. Even when you run.

Credit: Rosemary Hamend

Kway Mool: The Monster

January 10, 2017 at 12:00 AM
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Returning from the vending machine, I would often linger outside of my grandmother’s hospital room and watch my family before joining them. Dad usually stood by the window silently looking out past the treeline. My younger brother, Son-Ook would read a weathered comic book in a chair by the partition curtain. Mom sat on the edge of the bed crying and watching my grandmother make strange hand gestures in the air and mutter garbled words under her breath. Every so often, Mom would lean towards her and say in a broken voice “Hey, 어마. It’s me. Your Han-Eul. Remember me?” But each time, my grandmother’s stare remained drugged, glassy, and fixed on her withered hands that danced above the sheets.

From where I stood, I’d ponder This is what Alzheimer’s looks like. After a certain age, a grandmother’s mind starts lying to her. It pulls the worst sort of trick, swapping out the faces and voices of everyone she ever loved for those of strangers. The trick doesn’t stop at the grandmother, though. It’s also felt by those closest to her (stoic son-in-law, ambivalent grandson, devastated daughter). With the onset of the paranoia, the bed-wetting, and the hallucinations, the helpless bystanders also begin to forget the sort of woman that the grandmother was before the disease. She too becomes a stranger.

The task, then, becomes a kind of mental surgery, a separation of the gentle pre-Alzheimer’s grandmother from her diseased counterpart or, as I like to call it, “the monster.” Only after eight long years was I able to separate the two. Until recently, I would get just close enough to remember the way she smelled or how her cheek felt against mine before memories of the monster invariably muscled their way back to the front. I blame most of these intrusions on one particular memory from a night many Octobers ago. It was the night when I first met the monster face to face.
***
I grew up in a small fishing village in South Korea called Jinhae. The town is currently undergoing a building boom as contractors look to accommodate growing numbers of men commuting to neighboring Busan for work. However, as a child, I remember Jinhae for it’s narrow shadowy streets cluttered with fishing nets, barrels, and dirty dogs. Brightly-dressed grandmothers chattered at the thresholds of corner stores, waving their arms with hands full of roots and herbs freshly-picked from the mountainsides; withered old grandfathers peeked from dark windows and smoked forlornly; and brown young men squished over the docks in pink galoshes with cigarettes between their cracked lips, sloshing sea water from buckets to wash away the fish guts. The whole village was hunkered down before an emerald curtain of misty mountains that sent regular gusts of wind groundward, relieving residents of the lingering stench of squid and mackerel.

It may all sound picturesque on paper. But when I was young, I hated it. It was boring. I often begged my mother and father to move somewhere less rustic, to a town that had an arcade or, at the very least, a movie screen. Before even opening my mouth, though, I always knew what answer I’d get: We’ve been over this Eun-Young! Your grandmother doesn’t want to move. We can’t very well leave her here alone, can we? This, in turn, would send me running over to my “halmoni’s” (Korean for “grandmother”) house where I’d ask for perhaps the hundredth time why she wouldn’t consider living in a newer nicer place. As I saw it, the case practically made itself. My halmoni’s house was tiny. It was a one story concrete tin-roofed edifice with a sliding glass door and a bank of weathered windows along the front and side. She often spent her nights in one of the three rooms huddled by a smoky old charcoal heater changing out buckets that caught leaks in the ceiling. It was a dive and I couldn’t see why she wouldn’t want to live somewhere more comfortable. But, like my parents, halmoni always gave the same answer: “Eun-Young, you know that I want you to move to a place that will make you happy. I have told your mother and father so. But I cannot come with you.” When I asked her why, she would mutter some platitudes about old people being stubborn before scuttling into the kitchen. Even at a young age, I sensed that she was deliberately hiding her true reasons for not wanting to leave Jinhae. But in Korean culture, it’s disrespectful to question an elder’s wishes beyond a certain point.

Eventually, I just stopped asking. I resolved myself to the inevitable and buckled down for a tedious life that would likely culminate with a marriage to some sad forlorn fisherman. Ok. So, I could be a little melodramatic, but from the mind of a 10-year-old, this was honestly what my prospects looked like. Day and night I thought about little else besides getting out of Jinhae, getting to that place beyond the horizon where everyone was a stranger and the neon lights buzzed ’til dawn, where women wore dresses and men smoked European cigarettes. The city. That’s where I wanted to go. Seoul. Not Busan, the closer and smaller of the two. Seoul. That was the one. The Holy Grail, the full house, and the hole-in-one all wrapped up in a million dollar bow.

I had never been to Seoul. Only seen photos. That was one of the main reasons I liked to visit my halmoni’s house, for the “Photo of Seoul.” Despite becoming a borderline recluse later in life, as a young adult, she had done a fair share of traveling. This was largely thanks to a traditional Korean musical instrument called the “gayageum.” From a young age, she had excelled at this large wooden instrument played by plucking 12 thick strings. By middle school, she was one of the top players in the region. By high school, she was one of the best in the country. It was during her junior year of high school that she won top prize in a regional contest, thereby making her eligible to compete in the national competition held in Seoul each year. In the end, my halmoni didn’t place in the contest. Yet, that didn’t stop her from becoming a sort of celebrity both within the family and around town. So proud were Jinhae residents of little Eee Seul Bee’s trip to Seoul that blown up photos of her performing on stage were plastered all over town, everywhere from the post office to the sashimi restaurants down by the docks.

This is the same photo that I’d pore over for hours whenever I’d visit my halmoni’s house. Although framed and covered in glass, she always kept it in the lowest cabinet of a large dresser in her living room. I’d pull it out and hold it up to my face, centimeters from my nose. I’d note every detail. The V-shaped cut in the end of her “hanbok” (traditional Korean dress) ribbon. The ripples, shadows, and edges of the heavy gold curtain behind her on the stage. Her fingers forming cryptic signs, captured in mid strum by the camera lens. The fragile but set and certain eyes cast downwards towards the strings. More than anything else, though, I’d focus on a hidden look of pure joy in her face. She looked nervous, yes. Excited and confident, too. But there was also the unhindered starstruck joy of a country girl who had finally made it to the city. The photo itself was taken inside a large auditorium. It could have been anywhere. But what made it a “photo of Seoul” was that look on my grandmother’s face of being young and out of her element. I’d stare into the fragmented photographic grain of her eyes and share in her joy of escape from wind and salt and mackerel guts.

From the photo, I’d wander over to a tall dark wardrobe on the other side of halmoni’s living room and squeak the ancient doors open. Pushing past the blouses, coats, and slacks, I’d come to one garment wrapped in plastic. Her hanbok. The same one she’d worn at the concert some 40 years before. The skirt was rose pink. Iridescent gusts of wind swirled across its folds. The sleeves were of soft ivory and the vest and ribbon were a milky blue adorned with geometric symbols the meanings of which I’d never know. At that age, it was the most beautiful piece of clothing I had ever seen. I was convinced that it held magic powers. Were I to put it on, I somehow knew that it would transport me out of Jinhae back to the stage in Seoul where it had made its grand debut so many years before. I never never seemed to have the chance, though. My halmoni was a generous woman, but for whatever reason, she was particularly protective towards her hanbok. I could look at it all I wanted. But like the prized figure of a toy collector, it never left its package. Still, I often dreamed about wearing that hanbok. Luckily (or so I thought at the time), I got my chance a few months later.

It was around this time when halmoni began displaying some of the early signs of what everyone thought was run-of-the-mill dementia. She’d forget the names of ingredients while cooking, wear different colored socks, and confuse relatives with one another at Chuseok (Korea’s equivalent to Thanksgiving). Nothing all that uncommon for a woman in her 60s, we thought. But then the memory loss got worse. For instance, upon visiting her one evening, my mother found halmoni sitting in a dark kitchen with the table set for two. In a dazed way, she asked “언제 우리 아빠 가 집에 올거예요?” which in English translates to “When is your father coming home?” Not such a strange question, right? The problem was that my mother’s father (halmoni’s husband) had been dead for ten years. When my mother explained this to her, halmoni’s eyes contorted in disbelief. Her head drifted downward like a birthday balloon short on air, until she glared lost and bewildered into her lap. Within a month, she couldn’t be left alone for fear that she’d set fire to the house or wander off during the night. My younger brother and I gradually took over more chores at home as my mother started living at halmoni’s place. I would still see hamoni every now and then. Only now, those eyes that had once been so pleased by my presence had grown glazed, indifferent, and at the worst moments, even suspicious. My “hi, grandma” would be answered with a prying and guarded “너누군니?” (“Who are you?”). Eventually, I started going over to her house only when my mother needed me to bring something. And even on those occasions, I wouldn’t see my grandmother. My
mother said that it was for the best until my halmoni “got better.”

It was on one such visit to halmoni’s house (delivering eggs) when my mother met me at the door, clutching a bloodied dishtowel to her thumb. She had cut it while preparing dinner and needed to run to the doctor’s house to have it stitched. Looking pale but calm, she explained that my halmoni had taken her nightly sleep aid and was now sleeping deeply in her room. “Sit in the living room,” she said. “Color or listen to the radio. Just keep watch over the house and I’ll come back very soon, ok?” Before I could say anything, she was already around the corner, clopping down the street in her house shoes.
Inside, I did as my mother had told me. I sat down in the living room and tuned the transistor to a music station. There was a creased coloring book and a rusted coffee can full of crayon stubs on the bookshelf. I pulled them down and started coloring in the the few remaining patches of white. But after about 20 minutes, I got bored. My mind drifted to the “Photo of Seoul” over in the bottom cabinet of the dresser. I took it out and inspected it as I always did, noting the long lacquered plank of the gayageum, my halmoni’s lustrous eyes, and the hanbok, that dazzling gown of pink and blue.

It was while looking at the photo that a truly blasphemous idea popped into my little 10-year-old brain. Chalk it up to all children (even the best-behaved ones) being opportunists at heart. But by combining the two factors of my mother’s wounded thumb and the sleeping pills that my halmoni had taken, I, little Eun-Young, made a startling discovery. I was alone. I mean really alone. At that moment, there were technically no adults in the house. In other words, there was no one to stop me from engaging in the one activity that was strictly forbidden in my halmoni’s house, namely, the wearing of her hanbok. Upon having this epiphany, I sat motionless for a few moments just staring in the direction of the tall dark wardrobe. It seemed to stare down at me, judging me for the crime that I was yet to commit. I switched off the radio, got up, crossed the room slowly and silently like a tight-rope walker and pulled the doors open. And there it was, already separated from the other garments, down at the end of the closet rod, in full sight, as if it had been waiting for me. After taking one long look at the door of my grandmother’s room, after listening harder than I ever had in my life for a footstep or a rustle of sheets, I unhooked the dress from the rod, pulled the plastic up over the top and slid it from its hanger. I got undressed and stepped into the hole of floor surrounded by the skirt, splayed out in rosy ripples across the vinyl floor. I pulled it up, resting the straps on my shoulders, then adorned the ivory blouse, and finally the blue vest. I tied the ceremonial knot in the ribbon on the front, then rustled over to open the bathroom door, the other side of which had a full-length mirror.

My initial reaction upon seeing myself in the glass was mixed. It didn’t fit perfectly as it had in all of my dreams. The sleeves were too long. I couldn’t even see my fingers. And the dress was pooled all around my ankles. Yet, there was still a sense of magic in wearing something so precious, so charged with memories. It had been to Seoul. The city lights had shone upon it; perhaps taxis had splashed puddle-water on its skirt. Dropping my nose to its hem, I imagined that I could even smell the steam and grime of the subway. What I’d give to go where you’ve been, I thought as I nuzzled the giant collar with my chin. With eyes closed, I swayed there before the mirror, lost in my daydreams and the –

“너누군니?” (“Who are you?”)

I spun around to find someone (or something) standing in the doorway of my grandmother’s bedroom. It wore no pants or shoes. Only a large baggy diaper and a floral shirt with stains all across the front of it. Its arms and legs looked to be nothing but bone, covered in thin layers of bruised sagging skin. And the face. My God. The bottom row of gray crooked teeth jutted out from between two cracked and scowling lips. Red scratches and brown scabs covered its cheeks and forehead. One of the eyes was blackened, making the great staring orb in the center all the more piercing. Tilting its head back, it stared down the length of its prominent nose at me with that one large eye. My breath caught in my throat. I remember thinking that it was the most frightening creature I had ever seen.

“What are you doing in my HOUSE?!”, it wailed. The final word crackled with spit. It lisped as if there was something wrong with its tongue.

My house? I thought. What does it mean by my house? At the time, I was too frightened and shocked to put the pieces together (the diaper, the familiar shirt, the past month of not seeing my halmoni even once), to realize that the thing I was staring at was none other than my own grandmother. Because I couldn’t make the connection, my young mind came to the quick conclusion that this “kway mool” (and, indeed it was a “monster”) had broken into the house. What’s more, it seemed convinced that it belonged there. Not only was it a monster. It was also insane.

It took one step over the threshold of the bedroom, never taking its eyes from mine. “What do you want?!,” it hissed. “Money?! Jewelry?!” It dragged its bare feet forward another step. Instinctively, I backed up, but the bathroom door was still open behind me. I couldn’t go any further. Another step. “My dress?!,” it screeched. “Is that what you want?!” Its large wrathful eyes drifted down and ran greedily along every line and fold of the hanbok. Long ragged breaths broke from its chest. The smell of urine and decay wafted across the room from where it stood.

It stopped for a moment under the fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling. The electric glare lit its withered limbs, but a wild nest of hair atop its head kept any light from reaching its face. Mouth, nose, cheeks, and chin seemed to disappear, leaving only the eyes…eyes that I’ll never forget until the day I die. They were the eyes of a creature that had strayed beyond the boarders of reason, sanity, and hope. Eyes that had seen hell and wanted nothing more than to do harm, to share the pain that was too great for them to carry alone.

“That dress,” it said, pointing a twitching finger at me. “TAKE OFF THAT DRESS!!!,” it roared. Mechanically, my fingers shot down to my chest and began fumbling with the knot on the front. But having never worn a hanbok before, I had tied the knot incorrectly. I couldn’t get it undone. No matter how I burrowed my fingernails under the folds, it wouldn’t loosen.

I looked down for just a second. When I looked back up, the thing had started to charge. With both arms outstretched, it ran towards me screaming. But at the last instant, I ducked to one side. The thing crashed full force into the mirror, hitting its head and shattering the glass. It bent forward, clutching its face and whining. When it took its hands away, I saw that the mirror had sliced it across the forehead. Blood dribbled down, covering its eyes, nose, and cheeks. It looked around for a moment, dazed. But when it caught sight of me, cowering in the opposite corner of the room, its bloodied face curled into a grotesque scowl. With another scream, it ran at me. Fortunately, a door leading to the back yard was just to my left. I flung it open and ran out behind the house. A path lead off into the woods to a square of cement where my halmoni kept rows of “onggis,” large earthen pots used for storing kimchi, daenjang, and other types of food. Having played among the pots for years, I knew that most of them were full. But a few particularly large ones near the back were empty. My halmoni kept gardening supplies in those.

I heard a snap of branches and a thud somewhere behind me. Looking over my shoulder as I ran, I saw that the kway mool had tripped and fallen, likely from blood running into its eyes. That gave me time to run to one of the three largest onggis, remove the heavy ceramic lid, pull out all of the shovels and gloves, and lower myself into a crouched position inside before replacing the top. From a chipped section in the lid, I was able to see out onto the path and the rows of pots in front of mine. Within a few seconds, the thing stumbled into view there on the path, in front of the onggis. Its face, hands, and shirt were covered in blood. After making a tentative glance further down the path, it turned its attention to the pots. Growling and breathing hoarsely, it began lifting lids from atop the onggis and tossing them onto the ground. There were about 20 pots altogether and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before it reached the back row and discovered me. I clasped a hand to my mouth to stifle the sobs that broke from me uncontrollably. Another lid crashed onto the concrete. And another. Wiping blood from its face, the kway mool grunted, lifted the top of another pot, and checked
inside. Crash! Then another. Crash! Another. Crash! Another.

Then there were only the three large pots remaining. I reached down near my ankles, feeling for any object that I had missed while clearing out the onggi, anything that could be used as a weapon. But my fingers came up with only dirt and sand. I prepared to spring out as soon as the lid was lifted off.

Then, just as the kway mool prepared to lift the lid of the onggi beside mine, a cry came from down the path, near the house. “어마!” (“mother!”), it screamed. It was my mother’s voice. “Eun-Young!,” it cried again. Footsteps thudded down the path. My mother arrived at the pots and screamed when she saw the filthy bloodied creature. But to my surprise, she cried out “어마!” again and ran to it. She embraced it, stroked its face with her bandaged hand, and checked the wound on its forehead. And all at once, the kway-mool that had shown such ferocity and rage moments before became dazed, bewildered, and docile. Its thin mud-spattered legs shook as if they’d give out at any moment. The diaper it wore was sagging and over-saturated. Its cold white feet matched the color of the concrete upon which it stood. Suddenly, it became the most pathetic thing that I had ever seen.

Stumbling towards my mother like a child wanting to be held, it suddenly sobbed “My hanbok! How can I compete without my hanbok?” It reached my mother and the two held one another. A cold wind whistled around them through the tall moaning trees. The orange sun dipped behind the treeline and the forest darkened. “Please!,” it begged my mother. “Bring back my hanbok! How can I win the competition without it? How can I win and get out of this horrible town?!”

At that point, in a state of exhausted confusion, I straightened up inside the pot and lifted the lid off of the onggi. My mother caught sight of me. When she saw the soiled hanbok, her teary befuddled eyes settled into a troubled stare of realization. Without being told, she seemed to know what had happened. “Are you alright?,” she asked over the creature’s shoulder. I nodded. “Then run to the house and call an ambulance for your halmoni.” And at that moment, as I clambered out of the pot, my young mind made the connection, arrived at the realization that had been blooming since my mother had called the kway mool “어마.” Before running to make the call, I stopped in front of my mother and the “kway mool.” Our eyes met. Mine and those of that shivering injured beautiful woman whom I’d known my entire life. My halmoni. My very sick halmoni. When she saw the hanbok, she crumbled into fresh sobs and pointed towards the garment with folded hands as if begging. Fingering the now dirty dress, I looked up at her. “I…I’ll wash it for you,” I said, “and return it in the morning. I know that you need it for the competition.” She nodded. Sobbing, she whispered “내”(“Yes”). And with that promise, I dashed down the path, letting the tears come as I ran.
***
My grandmother would never return home from the ambulance ride that evening. After having her forehead stitched up at the hospital, she was placed in a special facility where she’d be less likely to harm herself as per the doctor’s recommendation. She stayed there for three months. Often she’d be in a medicated state of sedation, usually following a particularly violent episode. When she wasn’t sedated, her moods would shift between two extremes. There were the fits of rage and bouts of agitation, sure. But as she approached death, her disposition during the final month became characterized more by a heavy look of loss and sadness. She’d spend hours by the window, her watery eyes squinted and darting about as if trying to piece something together. Speech eventually left her. When she did speak, it often came out as a jumble of incoherent sounds. We looked to the tone of what she said to determine its meaning. Most of the time, it was sad or inquiring. Asking a question or commenting on something or someone long since gone.

There was, however, one thing that was always sure to raise her spirits. Her hanbok. From the morning when I first brought it freshly-cleaned to the facility, until the day she died, just looking at that dress put a smile on her face. All of the anger, sadness, or bewilderment that she might have been feeling would melt away at the sight of it. Even after she lost her grasp on the names of people and things, my halmoni’s broken mind showed enough mercy to afford her one memory…her trip to Seoul. Even a week before her death, you could lean close to her lips and distinguish single soft words whispered on the air of her breath: “가야금”(“gayageum”). “대회”(“contest”) “이길요”(“win”). And as she spoke, her small thin fingers would strum invisible strings in the air over her hospital bed.

Upon halmoni’s death, my mother let me in on a secret that my grandmother had told very few people during her life: She had never really gotten over losing that contest in Seoul. She had seen it as her ticket out of Jinhae, a town which (like me), she had found a bit too small for her dreams. Placing in that contest would have meant automatic acceptance into one of the top traditional music conservatories in Seoul. It would have meant escape from the life of a fisherman’s wife, a fate that was likely to befall her were she to stay in Jinhae. She may have held her head high upon returning to Jinhae after losing the contest. But she cried at night for months afterwards over her perceived failure. With her parents having no money to pay for a university education, my halmoni did end up staying in Jinhae where she married my grandfather, a kind but close-mouthed fisherman. She gave birth to four children and, over the years, she seemed to obtain what some might call a sense of happiness or at least contentment.

But with the onset of the Alzheimer’s, my mother in particular discovered how haunted my halmoni had been most of her life by that missed chance in Seoul so many years before. “That’s why she’d never move out of Jinhae,” my mother told me, looking down. “After losing that contest, she became terrified of failure to the point where she refused to try anything new. Although you never saw that side of her, Eun-Young, she was a hardened pessimist at heart.” At that point, my mother walked over to the closet in our house and unhooked my halmoni’s hanbok from within. It had been kept there since her passing. My mother brought it over to me and laid it in my lap. “Your halmoni and I both know how much you loved it,” she said. “I think she would have wanted you to have it, Eun-Young.” It felt so heavy sitting there on my legs, so full, thick, and charged with memories and meaning.

I won’t lie. The dress also inspired a degree of fear in me. At that young age, I couldn’t help but continually associate the dress with that night, the night I had seen my halmoni deranged and deformed into something ugly and unrecognizable. Seeing the hanbok, I invariably saw the “thing” that had taken the form of my beloved grandmother. Though the memories grew duller over time, my dreams were haunted well into my teenage years by the “kway mool” and the wide watery hate of its eyes. I’d dream that it was hunkered in a dark corner of my bedroom at night, mumbling something as it slid blood clots and strands of hair between its dirty fingers. Suddenly, it would grunt and shoot a glance over at me. As it started to stand up, I’d try to squirm out of bed and realize that I was wearing the hanbok. And for some reason, the hanbok was heavy, so heavy that I couldn’t move with it on. Once it had reached its full height, the kway mool would just stand there for a moment, looking at me with those big mean eyes ringed in bruises and blood. A bestial screech would break from its lungs and it would stomp across the room at me. And just before it reached my bed, I’d wake. I never told my family about the nightmares. But for eight years, I never took the hanbok out of my closet…never even looked at it for fear that it would bring back memories of the monster.

Then, during my senior year of high school, I received a letter offering me a large scholarship to a prestigious university in Seoul. For some reason, the moment I opened the letter, my halmoni’s hanbok came to mind. And all at once, I knew what needed to be done with it. I packed the dress and brought it to Seoul with me when I moved into my dorm. On the night when my final exams ended for the semester, I took the subway out to Bukhansan National Park. There, among the pines, I gathered some stones into a circle and filled the center with leaves and branches. From a duffle bag, I pulled out my halmoni’s hanbok and placed it there in the middle. Within two minutes of lighting the kindling underneath, the ivory sleeves of the dress were winged with flame. After the gauzy undergarment of the skirt caught, the fire poured up over the vest and engulfed the entire dress.

As it hissed and cracked, I looked up above the smoke, above the treetops, and imagined a young woman starstruck and giddy, thrumming the heavy strings of a gaygeum before a stern city audience. I saw her years later as a sad gentle woman with graying hair who stole glances at a photo kept in the bottom cabinet of a dresser once her children had gone to bed. Then came a spindly old woman warped and contorted by disease and age. So mangled became she by her own mind that her own granddaughter didn’t recognize her and mistook her for a monster. Finally, I saw her withered and dying in a hospital bed with the garbled remnants of a dream murmured on her breath. To all of these women, I said, “I’ve brought your hanbok home, Halmoni. Jinhae is far behind. I have escaped that dirty old town for the two of us. And here I will live for you and me both.”

And with these words, the monster died.
END

Credit: Daniel DuBois

The Asylum

January 9, 2017 at 12:00 AM
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Far beyond the reaches of our Earth, amongst the eternal aether of the cosmos, lasts beings of true power and magnitude who lay beyond the comprehension of our minds. Beings that shape and warp the fabric of space, and distort the reality in which we live. To gaze upon their eyes is to gaze upon the eyes of infinity. To describe their figure is to describe the universe. To witness their power is to witness the power of the cosmos.

I was but only a young man when I was first stricken with the devilish fever that had previously claimed my family. I was to be considered lucky, as the great Plague of Bloodletting did not bring about my end. It was only the insanity and fear of the cosmos that came with it that ailed me, and that insanity ails me to this very day. To my kin, the true fever and pain of the Plague would be their end. My mother was the first to go, she had sliced her wrists in a fit of hysterical madness while my sister and I were away at school. It was my father who found her, falling to her body in a futile struggle that some divine interaction would bring them back together. As it turned out, that divine interaction would simply be the contact of my mother’s tainted blood.

On the night that my father expired, the swelling of blood to his brain caused, what I had first believed to be delusions, visions of great cosmic and aetherial horrors. Fearing their awesome power over the mind of man, he too took to the blade, ending his life face down in a pool of plagued blood. My sister was awoken by his fit of insanity and treaded barefoot into his room, but before the light of her candle could illuminate the void of the room, her feet felt the blood, and she knew.

I was the only one who could care for my sister, as we had no other family. Having turned fourteen the month prior, my sister was a small, frail child who could be frightened merely by the sight of her own shadow. She did not last as long as mother or father, who fought the Plague for nearly a week. My sister hardly last beyond the third day, and a part of me wishes I never witnessed the fourth.

I shall refrain from describing how my sister passed, as the brutality and gore of the event left me in such fragile mind that I was admitted to the Providence Asylum of the Insane. It was here that I first began to experience the true nature of the Universe and its unforgiving forces. As I mentioned, I was stricken with fits of madness and insanity, but not by the Plague. If such were the case, I believe this manuscript would not be here, to unleash the knowledge of horrors that it holds.

It was during the first month of my admittance into the hospital that I met an artist by the name of Joseph B. Wilcox. I never learned the reason that Joseph too was admitted to the hospital, only that he felt the need to be there to protect someone, be it himself or family. He was a tall, skinny fellow, a neatly cut head of brown hair, and a pair of delicate blue eyes. His hands were soft and slender, like that of a woman’s, a clear sign that he prefered the intellectual arts of painting and clay sculpting over the more physical and manual labours of other young men of his age.

We became quick friends, realizing that we were of the more stable bunch within the hospital. Joseph would tell stories of life in the small village outside of Providence, whose name escapes my thought, and would often gift me with small sketches to decorate the drab and numbing room in which I stayed. I would tell stories of working in the family shop behind the counter to help reach the jars of sweets that neither my mother or sister could reach, or of the kind old woman who often came to purchase candles and soaps, and how she would always find my youthful exuberance a charming quality I should not let go of so easily.
Twas the night of March 8th when Joseph entered my room, his footsteps slow and monotonous as he crept to my bedside. I did not hear him enter, I only felt has he laid one of his feminine hands on my arm and shook me. When I awoke to see him standing over me, I shot up, frightened by the scarred and blood stained face that stood before me.
In his madness, Joseph had crafted a shiv from his bed frame and carved queer sigils along his face and arms. His eyes were bloodshot and his mouth curled into a sinister smile. He placed the shiv on my lap and laid his hand on my shoulder, whispering some sort of terrible mantra into my ear. His hand drifted to the shiv and he beckoned me to join him in a Paradise lost a millennium ago. Blood drained from my face and I felt my arms grow cold as I witnessed a wretched abyss manifest beyond him, and what seemed like that which is beyond the normal world.
A rush of hatred and anger overtook me as I plunged the shiv into his gut, the gargled and raspy voice of my once-friend slowly fading as he fell limp on the molded and rotting floor. Fear overtook as I was too terrified to remove my eyes off the body before me. When I finally broke the trance and looked up, the asylum of which I was confined had warped and twisted into a vista of blackened skies and gray earth below me.

Above the vast Purgatory that I stood floated a being that still haunts me in my thoughts and memories of it, and maddens me in my dreams of it. Swirling, churning, gurgling, and writhing like a mass of blackened earth worms in a rotting corpse was the Daemon Sultan, who so repugnantly controlled the Skies and Cosmos as one. I was amongst a land of predators, and I was not worthy enough to even be thought of as prey. I felt as the frail mind of mine shattered, my eyes rotting from the sight of such an eldritch terror that no man would ever know.
The wardens found Joseph’s body and the shiv under my cot, and there was no fighting what was already apparent. The horrors I witnessed remain with me in life, and when my body shall soon convulse in the noose place around my wretched throat by the hangman, so too shall the horrors assault me in death, for Earth is not our home. Our Earth is merely an asylum of the fragile minded who are too weak to gaze upon the awesome terror and power of the Universe.

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