One There were originally nine of us scheduled for the spelunking expedition, but Murphy’s Law dictated that two of the group had to pull out due to various issues. It was a disappointment having fewer members to share in the experience, but then again, there were benefits – less logistical problems, more space and so on. I, personally, wasn’t that affected by it; while most of us were close friends, I hadn’t known those two well. Our rendezvous was the cave entrance, at the crack of dawn. I was the first one there, as usual; those who knew me often remarked at my attention to punctuality. Slowly, the rest of the group arrived, parking their cars and unloading the equipment that we had organised between us. As the expedition leader, I had the emergency provisions on me – first aid kit, flare gun, GPS locator. It seemed quite odd that a flare gun would be taken into an underground location, but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. We assembled at the cave entrance. There was Jason, Alex, Karen, Samantha, Vincent, Ashley and, of course, myself. Alex and I were experienced spelunkers, while the rest had varying skill levels: moderate (Karen, Vincent and Samantha), poor (Jason) and a first-timer (Ashley). Normally it was against my instinct to take a first-timer into an unexplored cave and in such a large group, but he had promised to obey every command I gave him and had agreed to carry the most cumbersome equipment on the safe parts of the trek. The cave loomed in front of us. It was typically dark and rather foreboding. Not for the first time, I wondered why it was, according to every available record of local geological sites, unexplored. Perhaps it was the isolated location, or the fact that until recently, there had been no way for vehicles to access it through the surrounding forest. “Are you sure it’s alright?” Ashley nervously asked, shifting from foot to foot. His earlier bravado had deserted him. “Yes. You can’t change your mind once we’re in, so decide now.” I said flatly, turning around without waiting for an answer. He’d make his own mind up without any further input from me. The rest of the group followed me. After a few moments of apparent indecision, Ashley hurried in after the rest of us. Soon, the darkness swallowed us whole. Inside, the cave was quite larger than it appeared. It proceeded inwards for about two hundred metres and then sloped down quite quickly. As per usual, I ordered the group members to “buddy up,” a system in which the group divided into pairs and three’s and were responsible for keeping together. Ashley and I were partners, given that I was the most experienced and he was the least. It wasn’t as fun spelunking when you had to care for somebody else, but it was a necessary evil. Besides, he was a quick learner. Soon the sunlight from the cave mouth faded. “Flares out, everybody,” I ordered. One by one, the expedition members cracked the flares. As per local guidelines, each member carried two packs of thirty handheld flares. It may have been excessive, but the flares weren’t very strong and only provided enough light for the immediate area around the user. I took a glowstick from my pack and wedged it into the rock beside me. Only I carried these and they were quite stronger than the flares, able to last up to twelve hours with diminishing light after eight. I would use them to mark our trail back up. Slowly we continued down. The handheld flares lasted for fifteen minutes on average and soon we reached an edge. I ordered the group to stop five feet from the precipice, where the ground levelled out. As you may have noticed, I am a stickler for safety measures, but not without good reason. I didn’t want a death on my hands. “Ashley, crack a flare and throw it down,” I said, watching to see how he did it. Ashley withdrew a flare from his pack and lit it. Then, without moving, he tossed it forward, down the hole. I nodded in approval – he hadn’t moved forward from the five metre guideline. I crept forward to the precipice and looked into the abyss. Then I saw it. Descending into the darkness, barely half a metre from the cliff edge, was what appeared to be a staircase.

The hitchhiker Andy picked up on that July afternoon was one of the stranger people he had met. She had, after warm thanks for stopping, and a moment or two of silence, proclaimed herself to be able to grant a wish. The conjuration she had...

It's your first night in your new apartment. Your stuff is still in boxes. Your furniture (with the exception of the mattress on the floor) hasn't arrived yet. The utilities won't be turned on until the next day, so you're making due without. A flashlight...

September 2nd 1868 Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound. The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I'd wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading. They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I've seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of. September 8th 1868 Have crossed into the Free Territory of Colorado, after a day of the level prairie of warm wind of Wyoming, into the Front Range. This land is wild, in some... strange way, and like nothing I've ever seen. We are following a river through the shadow of two jagged peaks, and camp tonight just a few miles from the parcel of land. I requested remote, and by God, the bank man did not fail me. The Kraut and the Irishman grow demure and quiet without spirits, and I see no possibility of violence in them now, lest they suspect me of hoarding whisky. They will do fine quick labor, and return to Cheyenne to drink and fuck the profits. These are men of dust, and serve only this purpose. To think, good men like me fought and died to protect these jackals from the reach of Lincoln’s tyranny, God grind his bones. I will be free of that monster soon, and if it should spread it’s federal borders this far, then I will burn my new home to the ground and move west yet again. Sons of bitches will have to push me into the sea before I swear fealty. Found a skull just off the deer trail, when I went to make water; it was bleached white and divorced from jawbone and neck. I try not view this a portent. Tomorrow, we should reach the plot, and begin. September 9th 1868 The bank man has lied to me, the foul stuffed pig. The plot of land, clearly identified by compass and map, is not the idyllic grove his words painted, but a swamp. A sodden hollow filled with mud and grass, ringed with broken and dying pines. I would flay my guide alive if I thought his wretch of a employer might feel a sting. Am determined to homestead here, however. This may not be the land I desired, but it is mine, by God. The Irishman and the German fell trees for me, and I have found the highest place, where the earth is damp the least. I will tame this land. The hound does not like it here. He growls at the horizon and pads in small tight circles, looking always behind him. September 10th 1868 Guide has vanished in the night. He was to spend the next few days properly mapping the borders of my land, but he has fled. Worse still the Irishman and the Kraut have grown skittish at his departure, the German tells a tale of hearing screaming in the woods last night. But in morning light, the guide’s tent and belongings were packed away and gone. It shames me to admit, but my first night was filled with unease. There is something about this land, unlike any in the East. It seems to breathe and pulse around me, like it watches me with a cold intelligence. The trees sing softly in the breeze and in the smallest hours, when sleep had fled into the dark, I fancied I heard whispering voices in the breeze. I will share none of this with the laborers; they are weak and callow enough as it is. If superstition infects them, I will be left alone here while they flee.

It begins gently at first, softly falling like a child’s tears.  It is a sad thing, but not so unusual and wholesome in its way.  And the wind lightly blows, almost tenderly caressing your face.  This will not last, but it’s nice isn’t it? In the...

When thinking back to my earliest memories, nothing is concrete. A string of hazy images come to mind like random snapshots out of time, each one associated with certain feelings and emotions. They are imbued with a mystical dreamlike quality, a gift born of childhood...

They say that the hour of three A.M. is the time when spirits can become active, and I’m sure of that. My apartment was always a little too quiet for one in the city, especially at night. No drunk shouting in the street at that...

Unlike the larger circuses that dominated the railroads, the little medical show still puttered along in the old ornate wagons and trailers. This made travel much harder but allowed for the doctor to make his own curious, meandering paths. Max often wondered how his life had been hitched to every whim of this strange little man, but as Arthur reminded him, if he really cared that much they could have just quit. This particular detour had led them to a small town in eastern Iowa. A brutal drought left the fields near scorched, and summer heat made the small crowds sluggish and irritable. The morning sun had only just begun to crawl up above the treetops and already Max felt his shirt clinging to him. The Doc wore his standard three piece suit and kept time with a polished cane. The old man rarely ever showed the wear and tear of the roads. Probably because his trailer had an icebox. As they made their way on foot, DuMonde informed Max that this was a house call. He was responding to a letter mailed by a desperate family seeking help for their unfortunate child. And why had he brought the former boxing champ along? Simple a precaution, rest assured. The young man had his doubts, but the farm house they were aiming for was no more run down than any other lonesome homestead in the middle of nowhere. As they approached, a solitary donkey sounded the alarm, and his braying brought the owner of the house out the door. He was a short, stout man with a weathered face and an unnaturally tired look. Max thought he saw others peering through the windows at them, but after very brief introductions, they were lead away from the house and over to a storm cellar. “Heard about you coming to Des Moines last season,” the man explained. “Thought you might be able to do something about this.” He threw back the cellar doors and led them down into the darkness. It was difficult to see much of anything with nothing but the morning light shining in to guide them. The stench down below was unreal. The unmistakable odor of rotting meat and feces reminded him of neglected monkey he had once seen locked in a barren cage. The only thing that kept him from gagging was the fear that the smell would get into his mouth, and even the decorous doctor covered his nose with a handkerchief. Once Max’s eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he realized there was a pile of badly stained blankets near the wall to their left amidst piles of dung and fly-ridden scraps he couldn’t identify. The farmer took a rake that had been resting near the stairs and poked at the lump. The thing that shot out from beneath the blankets was such a confusing flurry of limbs that even Max had a hard time understanding what he was seeing. It was human, though really only by technicality. The boy crawled about on four twisted limbs, but a fourth and fifth leg jutted out from his midsection and right thigh respectively. Though shriveled, these forgotten appendages twitched and flexed as he scurried about. His mouth was torn by a severe cleft palette, though that didn’t stop him from hissing and snapping with teeth grown long and somehow sharp like rodent incisors. He was naked but covered in sores, growths, mud, shit, and rust colored stains Max didn’t want to think about. One eye bulged out slightly, causing it to look off in a different direction, though the odd shape to the iris raised doubts over its ability to see anyway. The boy darted wildly to the end of the rope that had been tied around his neck and presumably anchored somewhere out of sight. He nearly choked himself trying to reach for the three men, and when that didn’t work, he resorted to spitting and finally pissing at them. “Don’t have a right mind,” the farmer said as he stepped away from the spray. “It’s our second boy, but you can see why we keep it down here. Eats just about anything and doesn’t do much but raise hell. Killing it would be a sin against the Lord though.” Max had to hold his tongue to keep from asking what that made keeping the boy alive down there. “Very unfortunate,” DuMonde agreed. He kept his face covered with the handkerchief, but leaned in as close as he could without getting hit. For a terrifying moment, Max thought the Doc might actually take the boy. While he understood wanting to put it out of its misery, accepting the thing instead meant trying to integrate it into the show. And that meant Max would have to deal with it. “I am sorry,” DuMonde said finally. “While this is a very sad case, I’m afraid I have no room for such a child in my show.” “What?” the farmer asked. His look of detached exhaustion gave way to a visible wave of grief and then rage. “You said you handled this kind of thing! You take these monsters off those folks’ hands! Now take this away!” The man’s rising tone made his son launch into a frenzy of yowling and jumping. Max was more focused on the rake the farmer was brandishing, however. He stepped between the farmer and the doctor and took in a deep inhale. He instantly regretted doing so, but at least it puffed out his chest and straightened his spine. The farmer was no weakling by the looks of him, but Max was well over six feet and nothing but muscle. He stared the man dead in the eyes. “Now, the doctor said there was nothing we can do. We’re real sorry about your son, but that’s all there is to it. If you don’t mind, we’ll be going now.” Max let his words hang in the foul air between them for a moment before waving his hand for the man to lead them out. The farmer looked as though he might argue but swallowed whatever bile he had brewing and said not a word to them as they took their leave. The only response a farewell from the Doc got was a spit straight into the dust. The pair got the message and wasted no time getting back on the road and putting the house far behind them. “Such a shame,” DuMonde murmured as the safety of their tents slowly came into view. “Such a poor, poor child.” “I’m glad you didn’t take it though,” Max admitted. “I would have made you carry that thing back.” If the story ended here, I’m sure that everyone would have had a good laugh, learned a little something, and the credits could roll safely. Obviously, that’s not the case. This wasn’t nearly the last time Max and DuMonde had to deal with the Unfortunate. Their troubles were only beginning.

I was an American male on the loose in Belgium in the late 80’s. The tiny village I lived in was called Cambron-Casteau and was only a few kilometers north of the French Frontier. The town was truly nondescript and an ancient abbey remained the...