There are few careers with the same considerations as police work. Not only are we in a position to make life-changing choices, but we also have to live with the consequences of those choices forever. Many people struggle to handle that. Time and time again, we see what happens when people who are clearly unprepared are forced to navigate intense situations. It ends in tragedy.
You must come to grips with the fact that you’ll make decisions that’ll stick with you forever. And that those decisions add up. Sometimes quickly. As the years go on, you have to determine when enough’s enough. But it’s not just the choices you make for others that matter. The ones you make for yourself can be just as impactful.
Detective Joss and I were sitting across from The Chief in his office. The two of us being together had become commonplace over the past few months. In retrospect, despite being his most trusted officers, it was probably still bizarre for him to see us getting along.
After the events involving the hammerhead creatures, Joss and I really got to know each other on a human level. From there, our “connection” took off. Looking back, it’s interesting how trauma brings people together.
“So…” The Chief began. “You two are going to be gone for the week, correct?”
“Yup,” Joss responded. “Up north at the cabin, just like we talked about.”
He eyed us for a moment, chewing on his toothpick. While leaning back in his chair, he turned to me. “Smith. Do you know of the family that went missing up in the same woods your cabin is located in? Typical nuclear family taking the grandparents out for a camping weekend.”
His question caught me off guard. “I uh… No? I don’t believe I’ve heard of that specifically. But, I’m sure a lot of people go missing in the woods every year, don’t they?”
He nodded. “They do. This specific family is intriguing, though. See, they knew the woods. Father is a former ranger. Mother is a wildlife biologist. Grandparents had backgrounds in botany. Hell, even the kids were involved in the scouts. If anyone would’ve survived a camping trip gone awry, it would’ve been them. At any rate, the number of people who’ve been disappearing up there has been more than alarming.”
Turning to face Joss, he asked, “Joss, you know Sheriff Gadiel Cartagena, right?”
“Yes, sir.” She replied. “One of the best Sheriffs I’ve been around.”
“Indeed he is.” The Chief said. “As luck would have it, he has jurisdiction over where your cabin is located. I thought it might help him out if you did a little digging while you two were up there. Not a full-blown investigation, of course. Maybe ask questions where you can and report back any abnormal findings.”
I tried my best not to show it, but I was getting incredibly frustrated with The Chief. Here we were about to go on vacation to get away from the insanity of police work and monsters, and yet he wanted to use our free time for more investigations?
“Wait,” I interjected. “With all due respect, if it’s Sheriff Cartagena’s jurisdiction, then it’s his business, isn’t it? Not only do we have no authority in the area, but it’s literally not our job to solve their issues. His own people should be looking into this. If it’s a massive concern, why not just close off the forests?”
I couldn’t tell if the look on the Chief’s face was one of annoyance or respect regarding my challenge. He took out his toothpick and made a motion as if he was blowing out non-existent smoke. “It’s impossible to seal off hundreds of square miles of land. People will find their way into the woods regardless. I understand where you’re coming from, Smith. But trust me, Sheriff Cartagena has handled the disappearances as best as possible. His people as still doing regular patrols and exhausting every lead. I know it’s not your job, and you aren’t required to do this, but he figured some eyes and ears from outside might help. I’d appreciate the cooperation.”
I would’ve told him that we’d rather enjoy the break, but Joss got out in front of me and promised that we’d ask a couple questions to the locals and keep an eye out.
After leaving his office, I informed her that I wasn’t too pleased with how that went down. Joss apologized and said that we’d keep the police work to a minimum. As much as she wanted to please The Chief, she also wanted to enjoy the time we had. She made the promise that this “minor” inconvenience wouldn’t get in the way of that. Reluctantly, I decided to go along with it.
A week passed, and we were finally on our way. The car ride up north might’ve been one of the best parts of the trip. My worries about how our vacation would turn into work melted away while we were deep in conversation, laughter, and rapping along to Oddisee and 2Pac.
After about four or five hours of driving, she pulled into a diner in some small town. As soon as we walked in, it was evident that we stuck out. Every pair of eyes in the restaurant was turned to us.
I tried to give a friendly wave to a family sitting across from us, but they simply gave me a nasty look and turned back to their food. Slightly offended, I figured it was best to ultimately try and ignore it.
Luckily we didn’t get hassled much as we ate, paid, and walked out. That is until we caught a man in an apron admiring our car.
“Hey!” I yelled from across the parking lot. “Something interesting about that to you?”
The man turned around and gave a warm smile. His apron had the name of the diner on the front, and his name tag read, “Ariel Attias – Head Chef.”
“Oh. Hey guys.” He said kindly while walking over to us. He extended his hand, and I cautiously shook it.
“Little casual for someone casing our car,” Joss said, crossing her arms.
He looked at the car momentarily before looking back at us and waving it off. “I swear, it’s nothing—just a really nice ride. We don’t see too many cars that look like that out here, so while on break, I just wanted to take a closer look. In fact, neither of you really look like you’re from around here. I take it you’re visiting.”
“Uh, huh,” I replied. “Look, if this is some ploy to slash our tires and take us off to some borrasca in the middle of the mountains where you have a bunch of other people tied up… I just wanna let you know… We carry guns.”
He laughed at my scenario. “I’m not sure what a ‘borrasca’ is, but you have quite the imagination. Honestly, being from up north, I’m not really for violence. I try and bring that Canadian friendliness to my restaurant here.”
“And your patrons?” Joss asked. “They don’t seem too friendly.”
Ariel shrugged. “It’s not that they’re not friendly. We’ve been having a lot of… issues as of late. People used to say how much they loved our food and talking to the townspeople. They’d always come back on their way out of town. Hasn’t happened a single time this year. I think now when new people come in, there’s just a bit of morbid curiosity, I guess you could say.”
“I’ve heard those disappearances,” I replied. “You know anything about them?”
He shook his head. “Sorry. Honestly wish I did. Everyone in town is genuinely afraid to even step foot in the woods. We’ve come up with this saying. ‘The trees watch you,’ so take that as you will.” He laughed nervously. “Anyway… I’m rambling. Just hoping you guys stay safe out there.” With that, he walked back inside the diner.
As ominous as the parting message was, it provided little insight. Still, when I looked over at Joss, I could see she was lost in thought, much in the same way I was whenever I got a new case.
I asked if she was okay, and she insisted she was fine. Not wanting to dwell too much on the encounter, we made our move to leave.
As soon as we got into the car, a text message popped up on my phone. One from The Chief, and it read, “Talked to Sheriff Cartagena today. The family of a backpacker reported she never returned home. The kid was only 18. We need to figure this out.”
A loud groan escaped me. Of course, I wanted to help. But it felt as though the very atmosphere was shifting with every mile we drove, placing us deeper and deeper into a situation we didn’t go there to deal with. What was supposed to be a fun getaway was quickly becoming something much more sinister.
Frustrated with how things were going I didn’t say much as we drove along. Picking up on the changing mood, Joss made a hard right at the next intersection out of nowhere. According to my directions, we weren’t heading the right way. When I tried to bring this up, she shushed me and commented that she “Didn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Thirty minutes later, we’d pulled up to a medium-sized house at the edge of the woods, and Joss was telling me to get out. The unkempt plants growing in and around the structure exacerbated an already rustic look.
Confused, I asked what exactly we were doing there as I stepped outside.
She met me on my side of the car and with a giant smile on her face, said, “We’re gonna get drunk and hear some fun stories!”
“Here?” I asked. “Am I missing something? Aren’t we supposed to go to the cabin?”
Joss laughed as she walked up to the door and knocked. “Trust me! This guy is a close family friend. I’ve visited him every time I came up here since I was a kid.”
Still puzzled, I looked at her with a raised eyebrow and crossed arms. “I mean… I’m up for it but, it seems a little out of the blue, doesn’t it?”
Before answering my question, she knocked again at the door. “Sure, but Mr. Oak is a really fun guy! He tells fantastic stories! And since he’s a former bartender, he makes the best drinks. I thought we could stay here, make a few drinks, and have some fun. Maybe get back on the road tomorrow since we’ve been driving all day.”
“That’s if he opens up this century.” I quipped.
A brief look of concern crossed her face. When she went to knock again, the door creaked open before her knuckles could even touch wood.
But the person on the other side certainly wasn’t the older man Joss had described. The woman looking back at us seemed to be in her mid-20’s. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she had the eyes of someone that had hadn’t slept in a while.
Immediately, Joss went into “cop mode” and reached for a gun that wasn’t there before hitting the woman with a barrage of questions. Most notably, “Who are you, and why are you in Mr. Oak’s home?”
Completely unfazed by the confrontation, the young woman yawned and nonchalantly replied, “I’m Amelia. Granddad hasn’t been here since the beginning of the year. I’m just keeping an eye on the place.”
Realizing she was merely a relative, Joss allowed her body to relax. But something in her tone insinuated that she still didn’t trust this supposed granddaughter.
“Oh.” She said, bringing her hands to her hips. “Sorry to scare you, I’m a family friend. I wasn’t aware Mr. Oak had gone. You said since the beginning of the year? Do you know when exactly he left?”
Amelia thought for a moment and gave a half-hearted, “February…? Couldn’t have been much later than that. He left a note saying he was gonna do a lot of traveling.”
Joss considered this for a moment and motioned for me to come towards them. “Interesting. Do you know where your grandfather is now?”
She shook her head. “Nope. He hasn’t returned since he left, but I’m sure he’s fine just like everyone else.”
That statement caught my attention. “Wait, just like everyone else? Who exactly is everyone else?”
Her entire demeanor shifted after my question. Her eyes immediately darted to the woods behind us. A nervous smile grew on her face, and the inflection of her voice signified mild discomfort. “Oh! I just meant like in general! Granddad is a tough guy. He told me he was doing well a couple days ago.”
I wanted to press further, but Joss stopped me before I could ask any more questions and interjected with, “My mistake, then. Sorry to bother you, we’ll be on our way.”
Without another word, we left. The hastiness of the exit had me in shock. Here we had a direct connection to the disappearances, one that maybe could’ve led us to some exciting information. And yet the hard-ass of all hard-asses wanted to just drop it?
The ride from the Oak home to the cabin was roughly another couple of hours, and half the time, I tried to get a reason as to why she didn’t press it, but she wouldn’t budge.
When we arrived, I meant to push the point more, but my immediate attention was stolen by the beauty of the nature surrounding us. The lush green forests, rolling hills, and endless wilderness were breathtaking.
The cabin itself had a very modern look to it. It was large enough to house a family but cozy enough to not be overwhelmed by the space. A small lake sat next to it, and a fire pit was a brief walk away.
“This is beautiful,” I stated. “All this to ourselves.”
Joss nodded. “Yup. Just us, nature, and whatever horrible monstrosities are taking visitors.”
“We don’t know there are monstrosities. The fact is that this forest is enormous. Pretty easy for people to get lost. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some rouge predator that realized it’s easier to hunt people than deer.”
She shrugged and went to sit on the bed. “I hope you’re right. Just seems like a lot of strange occurrences have happened since we got here. In the years I’ve been doing this, that usually means something.”
“Well, isn’t that why you told the Chief you’d look into it?”
The shift in her disposition indicated that my question was taken in a way that I didn’t intend, “Don’t do that!” she snapped. “All I wanted for us to be out here together! Appeasing the Chief just seemed like the quickest way for that to happen. Plus, at the end of the day, I still feel at least a slight obligation to do my job.”
I threw my hands up and explained that I in no way meant to offend. It just seemed as though she really wanted to take on the challenge of figuring things out. And that was a trait that I admired.
Joss took a second to exhale and apologized for being so quick to anger. She explained how stressful it was to balance her allegiance to her work and her genuine desire to make progress with me in her personal life. It’s a feeling I could relate to.
I assured her that how she was going about it was fine. I wanted to spend time with her too, and we agreed to handle things as they come. Of course, we’d do our best to enjoy the beautiful environment. But if something strange came our way, then we’d be ready for that. We spent the rest of the day exploring the woods around us, telling stories over a campfire, and then retiring for the night.
Laying together in bed, we made plans to explore and hike up to a spot that overlooks miles of forest. Ideally, we’d stay up there, come back, make some food, do some target practice with the guns she had there, and then wind down by the lake.
Everything seemed set up for a fantastic day, and the following morning, it was all trending in that direction. We made breakfast, packed our supplies, and headed out. The trail was admittedly a little rougher than I anticipated. Joss, who is an avid runner and general health nut, was even kind enough to go closer to half speed to let me catch up.
Once we made it to the top, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The view was unlike anything I was used to seeing. The mighty army of vibrant green trees extended infinitely into the horizon. The massive hills staring back at us held the promise of undiscovered ecosystems waiting to be explored. The nearby lake gleamed as the rays from the sun made the surface appear as though thousands of crystals were occupying it. It was absolute paradise. And to top it all off was being there with Joss. The look in her eyes showed a deep appreciation for what we had the privilege to observe.
For so long, it felt like much of my time was dedicated to seeing either the worst of humanity or the worst of the paranormal. With each passing case, I could feel my stress heightening and my sanity slipping. But for the first time in a long time, the world felt right. It felt peaceful.
After an hour or so, hunger eventually pushed us to make our way back to the cabin. I couldn’t pinpoint what or why, but something told me that that peaceful moment would be our last on the trip. I didn’t want to freak out Joss, so I kept quiet out of hope that I was simply paranoid.
But as we rounded the final turn off the trail that put the cabin in view, my fears were confirmed. A woman was sitting on the porch in the fetal position.
Instinctively, I pulled my pocket knife, and Joss mirrored the action. Creeping up slowly towards the person, I shouted, “Hey! This private property, you need to identify yourself!”
The woman on the porch looked up at us, and I immediately recognized her.
“Amelia?” Joss shouted in disbelief. “Oh my God, what on earth are you doing here? How are you here?”
Before I could stop her, she had already rushed over to the young girl and began helping her inside.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood why Joss was so gung-ho to help the granddaughter of a childhood friend, but this was clearly off. By the time I caught up, Amelia was wrapped up in a blanket on the couch and crying her eyes out.
We tried to get Amelia to explain what happened and how she ended up at the cabin, but she wasn’t making any sense. She went on some tangent about being “led” there before having a full-blown panic attack.
She needed time to calm down. Joss and I decided it’d be best for us to walk down by the lake to give her some space.
Once we were out of earshot, I looked Joss dead in the eye and said, “Tell me you don’t think this is odd.”
She took offense to my statement. “Of course I think this is odd. You think I think this is normal?”
“No, no, it’s just… I don’t know that we should’ve been so quick to take her in. You and I have seen enough to understand that this is right on the edge of Nopeland.”
“Dre, I get it. I don’t even understand how she possibly could’ve made it out here. Forget not knowing how to get out here, but I didn’t see another car. Walking the road to get here is a rough day for anybody. But Mr. Oak is like family to me. If there’s a chance his daughter is in trouble, I need to be there for her. Even if it’s under weird circumstances.”
No part of me liked the answer, and frankly, if it were up to me, I don’t know that I would’ve let her stay around. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t my call to make. This was her cabin, and I needed to respect and trust Joss.
Without any argument, I simply replied, “Okay.”
Soon after, we made our way back inside and found Amelia had calmed down a bit. I made us all some coffee and asked her if she would be comfortable speaking about what happened.
She gave a reluctant nod and wiped away the remaining tears. She attempted to look Joss in the eyes before speaking but ultimately turned her gaze downward and began crying again and shouted, “I’m so sorry! I lied, I lied! Oh my God!”
Confused, Joss bent down and put a hand on the young girl. “You lied? About what? What do you mean?”
“Granddad… He never went on a trip. He’s gone…”
“What?” Joss half-shouted while popping up. “Where and when did he go missing?”
“Earlier in the year, he… He went into the woods and never came back.”
“Did you report this to the police?” I interjected.
“Of course we did!” Amelia shot back. “But they’ll never find him. They could search every inch of that forest, and it won’t matter.”
My brain immediately flipped back to being a detective, and my questioning became a little bit more intense*.* “How could you know for a fact that they’ll never find him?”
For the slightest moment, she gave me an odd look. A contortion of her brows seemed to signal disbelief as if she expected me to know the answer to her question. “Because they don’t know what to look for. It’s not…” She sighed. “He’s different now.”
“Amelia.” Joss began. “What do you mean by ‘different’? And do you know if your grandfather is okay?”
Tears began to well up in her eyes again but oddly enough… There was a smile too. “I know for a fact that granddad is fantastic. He’s living well and better than ever.”
Joss and I shared a look of confusion at this statement. Literally none of this fit… In our brief moment of interaction, Joss must’ve been able to read my mind because she asked a question that was also at the forefront of my brain, “Amelia, how did you know to find us here?”
A moment of silence followed. Amelia seemed to be contemplating how to tell us. Still, without her saying a word, I knew the answer would be an incredibly uncomfortable one.
When she finally found the words, she simply turned to look out a window and stated, “Granddad told me.” She gave us a quick glance before looking back out the window and continuing, “I can hear his voice from all around. He’s said a lot of things, and they scare me. You both needed to know.”
I didn’t know what to make of what she was saying. As much as I wanted to dismiss that she was getting mental messages from her potentially dead grandfather, I’d seen too much to rule anything out. On the flip side, it also wouldn’t be the first time someone had, in reality, done something awful and then played it off with talks of “voices in their head.”
But at the end of the day, I needed to approach the situation rationally. I couldn’t believe it was supernatural until I saw the supernatural.
I suggested that she let us drive her into town. Ideally, we would get her checked into a hospital, and maybe she could give the local police any information garnered from the “voice” of her “grandfather.”
Joss shut down the idea and instead insisted that Amelia stay. She was adamant about monitoring her, at least for the night. Joss later confessed that getting rid of Amelia without calming her down under supervision would be like abandoning her. And she wouldn’t do that to the family of a close friend.
It was a rationale I didn’t necessarily agree with but one that I respected. We went about setting up the guest room for Amelia and spent the rest of the day fishing and taking shifts watching over her.
For most of the day, Amelia sat silently in her room. She’d be on her bed and stare out the window, seemingly deep in thought. I’d try and talk with her, but the most I could ever get was a brief glance in my direction.
Eventually, the time came for me to go to bed. I walked to the kitchen to brush my teeth and caught Amelia sitting at the table drinking some tea.
By this point, I didn’t expect any sort of an acknowledgment of my presence, but to my surprise, she gave me a very warm, “Hey, Dre.”
A little caught off guard, I greeted her back but ultimately thought nothing of it.
That is until she got up and started to walk out. Just before reaching her room, she stopped, turned around, and stared at me. An unnervingly wide smile plastered on her face. “You’ve seen terrible things, haven’t you? Tragic.” And with that, she simply went into her room.
I sat in silence for some time, just thinking. Was Amelia referring to the paranormal? The murders I’ve investigated in my career? Or something more personal? I hadn’t known this girl for more than 48 hours; how could she be aware of anything? Either way, her statement rattled me.
When I finally got to bed, Joss asked me what took me so long, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Maybe that was a poor choice, I don’t know. At a certain point, you just want to be done with the weirdness and move on. I told Joss that I had just been thinking, and when she pressed me for details, I promised I’d tell her in the morning.
Luckily she accepted my answer.
Joss drifted off fast in my arms. But despite her being right there with me, I felt alone. Amelia’s words unearthing a river of memories that I floated down. Reflections of my life, my mistakes, and the choice I’ve yet to make lulled me into a largely dreamless sleep. A ritual that I had grown accustomed to. Oddly enough, the only mental image I can recall was that of The Watcher saying we’d all be “safer” with them.
I don’t know how much I slept, but it was clearly very early in the morning when I woke up. The sun had just begun to rise, and Amelia had the blanket pulled over her face on the other side of the bed.
I sat with my eyes open for a moment when the realization hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to fall back asleep. With a quiet groan, I pulled myself out of bed, put on some clothes, and walked over to the kitchen to grab some water and brush my teeth.
When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was 9mm ammo had been left on the table. Confused, I walked over to Amelia’s room and found that she had left. Her space was clean, and nothing indicated that she had left in a hurry. At first, I figured that she had likely gone into the woods to shoot. Perhaps Joss told her where to find the gun while watching over her.
When I went outside to try and find Amelia, I immediately noticed more bullets had been dropped, and they led to a nearby trail. As I walked to the trailhead, I heard a gunshot coming from that same direction.
I figured I’d follow the trail and hopefully meet up with her at some point. But not too long after I started walking, I heard an eerily familiar voice call out to me from deep in the forest.
A voice so familiar, in fact, that it froze me in place. I dared not move from my spot in hopes that it would call out again.
Tears began to make their way down my face. I knew that it was probably some fucked up trick being played on me, but I didn’t care. The moment I recognized that it was my son’s voice calling out to me… My baby boy calling for his father, I sprinted off towards it. I’d seen so much in my time investigating the paranormal that I suppose a small piece of me hoped that somehow, someway, something had brought him back. Even if there was a 1% chance, I had to take it.
I ran and ran. My boy guiding me towards his location. I called out to him. He needed to know that his father was finally going to be there for him. I had no idea where I was headed, and I didn’t care. I just kept going until I physically couldn’t any longer.
But ultimately, my efforts had brought me no closer to him. Instead, I found myself in a grave situation. I had blindly run off-trail into the woods. And now, I was surrounded by nothing but trees.
“How could I be so stupid?” I thought to myself. The voice had seen so real. But the only thing it had led me to was getting lost. It was the first time I had to consider whether or not I was indeed going mad.
That consideration grew stronger when I saw what appeared to be a face embedded into the wood of a tree just to my right. Whoever it was seemed to be in anguish, their face seemingly twisted by unbearable pain.
One would assume this was a case of face pareidolia, the phenomenon where humans interpret random patterns as faces. But if it was just a random pattern, it was a convincing one. It was as if the bark itself had instantly grown around this person, capturing a snapshot of their suffering.
When I walked over to inspect the tree behind it, it was the same scene. Another person experiencing great pain frozen into the wood. A third tree mirrored that. Then a fourth. Soon I realized I was surrounded by an army of petrified faces.
Before I could even process what could’ve possibly caused this messed-up exhibition, my son’s voice broke through the confusion.
It didn’t take long to find the source. A tree that appeared younger and thinner than the rest. Slightly further out from the others. At its base was the face of a young boy. It looked like he had been crying. I went to wipe the frozen tears from his face and kiss his forehead.
A small smile crept across my face, and I hugged the tree. It had been far, far too long since I had seen my son’s face.
“Don’t cry, dad. You’re finally here.” He said to me.
I suppose I didn’t notice my tears and quickly wiped them away as I tried to ask how he had ended up there.
“It was dark.” He explained. “After that day. It was really dark. But one day, I felt light. Growth. And pain. Then just light again.”
I wanted to talk more, ask how I could help, what I could do. But before I got the chance, something else came through.
“My love, it’s been so long.” She said in her beautifully sweet voice.
“Aaliyah!” I shouted back. “H-How are you both…?”
“Alive?” She said softly with a laugh. “It wasn’t any thanks to you, you cowardly bastard.”
“What?” I asked in disbelief. “No, this isn’t… This can’t be…”
“Oh, but it is…” Her tone became much darker. “You left your wife and son to die, love. I told you I wanted you to find new work. I told you putting people in prison would make enemies. I told you, and now…”
She was leading me to finish her sentence, but I couldn’t.
“No, no…” I mumbled under my breath. “There’s no way!” I stood up, shouting. “You’re not them! You’re some kind of apparition! A fucking lie!”
A new voice emerged from the tree. One I didn’t recognize. This voice deep and monotone. “A lie? No, Smith. We are truth. We are life.”
The curtain had finally dropped. Something sinister had to be imitating my family, and I was furious. “What kind of life could you possibly be? Look around! All I see is a sick imitation of death.”
It laughed an unimpressed laugh. “We grow. Our cells divide. We turn sunlight into energy, and you call that death? We have brought life back from the husks of the dead. Our roots and mycelial networks are far-reaching from here to your home and far beyond. We connect everything. We absorb everything. We see everything.” Its voice quickly shifted to that of a young girl. “Remember me, Detective Smith?”
“I… Who are you?”
“Hm, figures. I’m the little girl you let die because you were too overconfident to call back up. Or stay to fight even if it cost you your life. Wanted all the glory for yourself but couldn’t handle the fire when it got too hot, huh? Coward.”
Fay Mizuki had come back from the grave. The greatest failure of my career was literally staring back at me, and I was speechless.
The voice switched up again. This time, the entity’s choice shocked me, and I blurted out her name as soon as it introduced itself… “Amelia?!”
“That’s right. You know there’s a better path, Smith. One where you can make up for all the terrible things you’ve seen and done. Granddad had been speaking to me about joining this and becoming something more extraordinary. It was scary at first… Thinking about leaving behind my old life… But we’re so much happier now. That’s how he found you, you know? He was here the whole time. All around.”
I staggered back from this horrible scene. “Amelia, my God. I’m so so sorry.”
“Why be sorry? This is life. We’ll outlast everyone else for centuries and then grow anew. I can tell you’re scared, though. Don’t worry, the others that came through were scared too. But I can promise you they’re so much happier now.”
“Wait, others that came through… here?” I asked. “You don’t mean the missing people, do you? Jesus, that’s where they’ve gone. You lured them in, and then…”
“And then showed them happiness.” The monotone voice finished. “No one could possibly know a better paradise.”
“That’s why they’re all suffering like hell, huh?” I spat back. “My God, Look at the faces!”
There was no waver in its voice. “Growth is pain.” As it said this, I felt something slice at my leg. “Happiness requires growth. Therefore, you must experience pain to be happy.”
As much as I wanted to trade jabs with this thing, I could feel my leg starting to go numb and my eyes growing heavy. My following few words were a jumbled mess, but I was conscious enough to understand my danger level.
I attempted to turn in the other direction, but my foot caught a stray root, and I crashed onto the forest floor. The trees seemed more extensive now. Their roots moved quickly towards me, and wooden tentacles wrapping around my leg.
I shouted for them to “Get away!” but to no avail.
Multiple voices coming from all directions surrounded me. Many I didn’t recognize. “You’ll be happy here. We survive better together.” Said one. “Why fight to be apart? This is your fate anyway.” Another chimed in.
The pressure building around my leg was growing, and with all my might, I couldn’t detach from the organism. The last things I saw before my vision went dark were more mycelial tendrils and roots that had sprung up around me. My final thought was the slight comfort in knowing that, at the very least, I’d be with my family again.
Silence followed. No thoughts. No feeling. It was as if I was disconnected from the world. And in that moment of nothing, I felt as though I could finally let go…
Suddenly, light flooded back into my world. A dry heave followed, and so did waves of pain. Joss was looking down at me. We were still outside but in a different spot than we had been in before.
Before I could say anything, she pulled me into a tight hug. Beside her laid an ax covered in plant matter.
I could only manage to eke out a weak, “What happened?”
Supposedly, Joss noticed Amelia and me missing after she woke up. The ammo left on the table gave her reason for concern especially given previous reports of missing people, so she grabbed an ax and set out to find us.
The extra bullets left at the head of the northern trail tipped her off as to our direction. As she searched, she also heard a voice that guided her to where she needed to be… That of her father. The difference between us being, Joss wasn’t as entranced by the call.
When she finally found me, nearly my entire body was wrapped in the green and white tendrils. They squirmed and grew as they entered my body through various cuts. Apparently, it took her at least half an hour to completely cut me out.
The thing I couldn’t understand is how she was able to ignore the entity. Surely it wouldn’t just let her take me. And as expected, it didn’t. The dead voices of her past whispered sweet nothings of eternal life, happiness, and infinite growth. Even Amelia had taken a shot at convincing Joss to “move on to the next life” as she had done at the end of a bullet. For every mycelia and root she cut, it tried reconnecting with her, so she had to keep a constant offense to keep from joining the literal legion of the dead.
When I was finally free enough, she dragged me just far enough to get away from whatever the hell that entity was.
I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? After hearing her story, I just sat contemplating what took place. For all the things I’ve seen and fought against… I’d been bruised, scared, slammed. But never once had anything gotten into my head like that. Never once had something made me break down mentally.
Joss stayed with me the whole time as I gathered my thoughts until finally, I said the magic words, “Let’s go home.”
Packing up was quick, and we rode silently back.
When we finally arrived at my place, I didn’t say anything as I got out of the car. A simple kiss on the forehead was our only means of communication. And it stayed that way for the rest of the week. I spent all my time at home, just thinking.
When I was finally due back at work, I wore my best suit, showed up exactly on time, and went straight to The Chief’s office to place my badge and gun on his desk with my official resignation letter.
“I’m done,” I said to him.
He eyeballed the items for a moment. Then he looked up at me and leaned back in his chair and gave a very matter-of-fact “About time.”
His blasé attitude infuriated me. I had been to hell and back for him many times over, and when it was over, that’s all I got? It was God damn insulting.
“The hell does that mean?” I half-shouted. “No thanks? No trying to convince me to stay? Just an apathetic comment?”
He leaned forward, calmly picked up my resignation letter, and neatly placed it in his inbox sitting on his desk. “Smith, do you remember how many days off of work you took after your family’s passing?”
“I… No. I don’t remember. But what does that have to do with-”
“None.” He interjected. “Not a single day off. Sure, homicide was… Challenging. But damn it if you didn’t try. Your work never suffered. You never complained. Smith, your ability to deal with adversity is so far beyond what most are capable of. I needed that. I needed you. To go through what you’ve gone through and still see things through to the end is remarkable. Hell, if 99% of people knew this was part of the job, they’d never join the force in the first place.”
His speech wasn’t making me any happier. “So you used my trauma to your advantage? And that’s good?”
“Not at all.” He took a moment to open his drawer and pull out a cigar, place it in his mouth, and light it in one smooth movement. “I know I’m not supposed to be smoking in here but, what the hell. Look, I’m not a heartless bastard. The human side of me doesn’t want anybody to deal with this shit. Especially not someone that’s seen so much. A part of me wished that you’d quit. But…” He stopped to exhale and take another puff. “At the same time, some things are necessary. Someone has to deal with this stuff. I want to do the right thing, Smith. You were the perfect guy to help me with that. It’s so much bigger than my feelings or yours. Judge me however you want for that. It’s gonna be tough to replace you, but that part of me, the human element of me, is so happy to see you go. So yes, it’s about damn time.”
His words impacted me more than I thought they would. I stood there, not knowing what to say. Ultimately, I opted for silence. I needed time to process this. All of this. I gave him a simple nod of understanding, and from there, I walked out and never returned.
In the following months and years, I did my best to return to a normal life. As I’m sitting writing this, Joss… Or, Eveline, I should say, is talking to a few of our friends about our upcoming baby shower. Officer Ryan is most excited about it. He’s insistent that our kids will be best friends.
Writing these stories has given me so much perspective on these events. Re-telling them and reading the feedback has meant so much, and I thank you all for that. I’m at a place where I’ve realized the truth is the most significant contribution I can give to people, and it feels so good to be able to share that.
As for the monsters, none have made any surprise appearances. Unsurprisingly, life has been much better without them. Granted, Eveline came home from work the other day talking about how some birthday party ended up with multiple people dead. Supposedly a neighbor mentioned something about a clown but didn’t want to speak further on it.
When she told me, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and that old urge began to come back. Part of me feels it couldn’t hurt to do some research, talk to some people… Just to make sure everyone is doing okay.
But another part of me says to enjoy the quiet life. It’s an internal debate I’ve had many times. Office work doesn’t quite satisfy that “itch.” But maybe it doesn’t need to. Perhaps I can finally be satisfied just being happy. Guess we’ll have to see what the future holds. I’m really excited about it.
And as always, stay safe, everyone.
Credit : Bryan A. Young
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