The day that I married Marjorie, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. She was smart and beautiful, and ever since I had met her six months earlier, not a day had gone by that I didn’t wonder what she was doing with a guy like me. It wasn’t that I’m a loser—I think I’m a good guy and look well-enough, and the only real ding in my eligibility as a good boyfriend or husband was that I lost my job recently due to layoffs. But even that was turning around, as I’m supposed to be starting the process of getting a U.S. Customs job at the Savannah docks at the end of the month. If it all worked out, it would mean better pay and benefits, plus great retirement.
It was just that Marjorie seemed close to perfect. She didn’t have any family aside from an older brother she was close with, and she was the type to have tons of casual friends but few close ones. Everyone loved her, and I could tell when we went out all the guys (and a few of the girls) were jealous that I was the one with her. When she proposed to me three weeks ago, I was taken by surprise, but I’m not overly traditional. It never occurred to me to say no or put off us getting married.
Some of my friends asked me about it of course, wanting to make sure I wasn’t moving too fast. That I knew her well enough to know that she was the right one and this was the right time. But I just laughed at that, joking more than once that not only was I sure, but I needed to hurry up and marry her before she realized what she was getting herself into.
Initially, we hadn’t planned on taking a honeymoon for awhile so I could start this new job and we could both save up money, but the day of the wedding, Marjorie’s brother Pete surprised us with an invitation to take an impromptu trip west with him for a few days. He was a very successful long-haul trucker and had just bought a brand-new semi that he claimed could comfortably hold six people, much less three, and he was heading out to California in a few days.
I had misgivings at first. It sounded like a long and potentially uncomfortable trip, particularly for a honeymoon. But Pete explained that he had a “hot site” lined up out there and he would love for us to go.
“Hot site” was the lingo he used for places that were supposed to be legitimate locations of documented paranormal activity. Ghost hunter type stuff, though it wasn’t limited to ghosts. He had told us tons of stories the few times we had hung out, ranging from looking for bigfoot up in Canada to exploring a deserted high school for a ghost in the Midwest. He was passionate about the stuff, and while I didn’t believe in ghosts and goblins myself, I could tell that Marjorie did. And Pete was a fun guy in my limited experience, full of interesting tales and funny jokes. I had always felt comfortable around him. Accepted. And that meant a lot.
Still…the idea was to drive to California over four days, spend a week out there having fun, and then four days back. That was a long time to be traveling with a new bride and a brother-in-law I didn’t know that well. Plus, there was the financial side of it. We didn’t magically have a lot of money just because he was offering a trip.
But Pete had answers for that too. His company, which he was partners in, would cover the room and the travel expenses, including a rental car for the week when we got to California. Same went for food. When I started to object to him paying for everything, he shook his head and patted my shoulder. He said it was his wedding gift to us, and it was not a big deal. He’d write off the expenses on his taxes and appreciate the company.
And naturally, he said with a wry grin, he knew that we would want our privacy. We’d have our own room on the road every night and he knew a great hotel for us to stay at once we arrived in California. The owner was a friend of his and had already said he’d comp us two rooms for the week we were there.
It all sounded great. If I’m honest, it all sounded too good to be true. I suddenly had images from half a dozen movies I’d seen where people end up being arrested as drug mules or dissected in warehouses run by sadists or organ thieves. I was probably being overly dramatic and letting my pride get in the way of a great opportunity, but I just felt uneasy about the whole thing.
But then I saw Marjorie out of the corner of my eye. I could feel her gaze on me, and as I turned to look at her more fully, I saw the hope and worry in her face. She wanted to go–wanted a honeymoon with me and time with a brother she didn’t see as often as she’d like. I knew she’d accept it if I said I didn’t want to do it, but how could I deny her something so simple and harmless? A few days with the people she loved most, having fun and relaxing. I knew, if I was lucky, I would be stretched thin by the new job for the next few months. This might be the last chance we had to get away and do something cool for some time.
So, I said yes. She had let out a squeal and hugged my neck, and I let my misgivings and pride slip away as I held onto her tightly. We left the following Tuesday with two suitcases, a laptop, and enough folding money to cover souvenirs and emergencies.
The first day was uneventful but fun. Pete’s truck cab was truly amazing. Between its flip down seats and bed, mini fridge and television, it felt more like a small hotel room than the interior of a transfer truck. Looking out through its massive front windows as Pete drove down the interstate headed west, it was surreal seeing everything from so much higher than I was used to when driving. It was neat, but I couldn’t help but think that driving the truck must be terrifying given how easy it would be to hit something and not even realize it until it was too late.
But it didn’t seem to bother Pete. He chatted with us some and let Marjorie control the radio, and by late afternoon we were pulling into a small but nice chain hotel off the interstate for the night. Pete checked us in and gave us our key cards, telling us he was going to go get some sleep, but he’d see us in the morning for breakfast. We were excited to finally have some time to ourselves, so we didn’t leave our own room except to pay the pizza delivery guy later in the evening.
The next morning we went to meet my new brother-in-law at the restaurant across the road, and once inside we saw he was already set up at a booth near the back, two accordion folders sharing his side of the table. Marjorie rolled her eyes and groaned when she saw the stacks of papers Pete was going through, burying her face in my shoulder.
“Oh no. It’s started. My ghost hunting nerd of a brother is on the case.”
Pete looked up and gave us a smile. “Yeah, yeah. Make fun. This is good intel, and I thought I could bring you both up to speed before we start making miles today.”
Marjorie gave a light snort as she raised her eyebrow. “Good intel, huh? I didn’t realize this was a military op. Are we going to have code names when we visit the ‘hot site’?” She did air quotes on the last bit, and it was clear from her tone and expression that she was making fun of him.
This was all very odd. Marjorie idolized her brother, and short of him taking a shit on the table, I doubted she’d find fault in pretty much anything he did. And they would joke around from time to time, but not like this. She seemed mad about something, or at the very least mean-spirited in her joking. Pete just gave her a smirk and went back to looking at the papers he had, but I decided to go ahead and try to head off any further comments.
“I think it’s a pretty cool hobby, Marjorie, and if we’re going all this way, it’s good he’s done his research.” Pete grinned at me and nodded. Emboldened, I went on. “And Pete has always told us good stories about this kind of stuff before, so let’s see what he has to say.”
Marjorie shot me a dark look and flopped down in the booth. “I guess. Let’s get some food ordered first though, I’m starving.”
Ten minutes later, our order was placed and Pete had gotten his presentation organized, which really just amounted to him pulling out a few pictures to show us during his account of Wizard’s Folly. Carefully stowing away the rest of the papers and securing the covers on the accordion files, Pete began his tale.
* * * * * *
Wizard’s Folly was an amusement park that opened up in 1947. Initially it was a haunted house more than anything, as the original attraction consisted solely of the large, abandoned mansion at the center of forty acres nestled in the outskirts of the small north California town of Firenze. The town itself had been established back in 1894 by Frank Pazzi who had immigrated to New York from Florence, Italy a decade earlier before making his way west. Pazzi was extremely wealthy, and though no one knew how he had gained his fortune, he found little complaint when he poured nearly three million dollars into the town itself and another half a million into building his own nearby estate.
Firenze was small and somewhat cloistered in the expanse of wilderness Pazzi had purchased, and for a time it seemed to be the perfect community. Everyone had work, a nice house, and plenty to eat, and if Pazzi was a bit eccentric, who really cared? It was expected that such a man, with foreign ways and rarified tastes, would seem somewhat strange to the working folk who had come to the area. Once his house was finished, he only allowed a handful of people into his home as servants, and they largely lived on his grounds in one of three guest houses he’d had constructed. The only person who still lived in town was his head housekeeper, who went by the name Susanna Templeton. People said that after just a few weeks of going into that house, Templeton had changed dramatically, becoming withdrawn and quick to anger. For a time, vague gossip such as this was all the acknowledgement you would find from the townsfolk that something might be wrong. It wasn’t until around 1912 that the town started talking about the missing people.
Fifty miles from Firenze there was a small clinic called Greenheart Home that catered to all kinds of cases that were too sensitive for normal hospitals and institutions. More to the point, it was a place where wealthy families would stick family members that they had decided were too much a burden or embarrassment to keep at home or send elsewhere.
The insane, the addicted, the pregnant woman out of wedlock or the deviant man, these were just a few of the menagerie that could be found housed inside its walls. From the outside, the clinic maintained a facade of genteel civility and gentle care. But the staff cared little about the comfort of their patients, and they knew the checks would keep coming so long as their charges remained quiet. Over the years it became a black pit of cruelty and abuse where people were thrown to be forgotten. Small wonder then, that it took some time before anyone noticed that every year a number of its “clients” went missing.
During the early years, when someone in Firenze saw the white truck from Greenheart Home trundling through town toward the Pazzi estate, they would just shrug and raise a questioning eyebrow. Over time this evolved into a knowing look and a furtive whisper if you were bold. But those that spread gossip and rumors about what Pazzi was doing up there were careful to do so discreetly. It was too good a town, too good a life, to risk angering the head of their little forest kingdom.
In late 1911, there was a massive fire at Greenheart Home. Thirty-seven people died, and those that survived were sent back home or to other institutions in other parts of the country. For a time afterward, everything was quiet and nothing changed in the town of Firenze. But then people from the town started disappearing.
In the 1910 U.S. Census, Firenze was reported to have 958 citizens. By the 1920 Census, that number was down to less than 500. Now most of that wasn’t missing people of course. Those with better sense or more resources left the town before it got really bad, and that accounted for several hundred people over the course of several years. But in the ten years after Greenheart Home caught fire, there were an estimated 65 or more people that just disappeared.
Now listen closely to this next part, because it’s important. The records are spotty from back then, particularly in an isolated town like Firenze, but for the most part the journals and newspaper articles agree with the handful of eyewitness accounts that were collected by ambitious authors and reporters scavenging the area after it was all over.
When I say these people disappeared, I mean just that. Not that they were abducted from their homes by Pazzi’s henchmen in the middle of the night. Not that they were snatched off the street by mysterious figures. These were wives in the middle of a conversation with their husband and he’s suddenly not there. Children playing in a swing one moment, and gone without a trace the next. There were over a dozen accounts of different people literally disappearing in front of people’s eyes, to say nothing of the scores of other people that went missing when no one was around.
After a few months of this, the leaders of the town had gone to Pazzi, hats in hand, trying to probe him for information, help, or some clear sign that he was involved. Pazzi listened to their concern with all the attention of a disinterested king before clucking his tongue with concern and patting them on the head. He promised to offer rewards for any and all of the missing, and the next week there were several flybills up around town proclaiming $1000 for the return of any of those that had gotten lost.
Because that’s how the townsfolk that stayed in Firenze started to refer to them. “Oh, Bill Gunderson? Yeah, he got lost last spring. His wife Polly is still running the store though, and isn’t she doing a good job?” There was an unspoken consensus in the town that while concern and action would be given lip service, no one was really going to rock the boat. The flybills would be torn down until the next season of disappearances, when they would go up again for a few days. In between, people were growing tenser and more frightened, but they largely kept it to themselves.
Then Annabelle Perkins got lost. Her husband, Rudolph Perkins, had moved them to Firenze two years earlier, and while by all accounts they were well-liked and respected, it was known that Rudolph and Annabelle were both more vocal in their concerns about the periodic rash of disappearances that seemed to plague their town. Their friends and neighbors tried to mollify them, of course, and for a time that seemed to help. But when Annabelle went missing while in the middle of taking a bath one night in December of 1921, Rudolph was beyond persuasion.
He gave voice to what so many in the town knew. Frank Pazzi was the one behind the disappearances somehow. And whatever he was doing to those people, they were never seen again. It took only a couple of hours to talking to his friends to gather up a large crowd that had grown tired of living in fear and dread. Like a scene out of an old monster movie, they stormed the estate and began searching for Pazzi to demand answers.
Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found. What they did find…well, there’s not a lot that’s clear from that night. I know that fifteen people went to the house, and several of them died inside, but it’s unclear how or why that happened. They tried to question his house staff, but they were all gone as well, and when they went to the head housekeeper’s home, Susanna Templeton was dead, having hung herself from a clothesline in the back yard.
One of the survivors of that night wrote a brief account of what they found in the house. Much of it was garbled and hard to make sense of, but one thing was clear. At some point they went into the lower levels of that house and found hidden chambers no one knew even existed. Pazzi had recruited some of his builders from somewhere else, and it must have been those men that had dug out the subterranean rooms and installed all of the cages and apparatus.
To call it a torture chamber or a dungeon is inaccurate. More accurately, it was a black shrine to some form of occult worship. There were strange symbols etched into every surface, and one of the spaces included a large pit filled with the refuse from nearly two decades of human sacrifice. It was here that the account gets especially hard to follow, as it seems to be talking about the mound of bones and flesh moving or rising up against them while also talking about Rudolph finding his beloved Annabelle even as he joined the other men in a terrible scream…it’s very weird, raw stuff. The guy who wrote it died only a few weeks later, so there was never a chance for anyone to find out what he really meant. In any case, that was the deathblow for Firenze, and by 1923 it was a ghost town.
It might have just faded away forever, slowly getting consumed by the forest at its edge, if it hadn’t all been bought by a man named Wilson Tattersall. The owner of a large security firm in the east that was slowly taking business away from the Pinkerton Agency, Tattersall knew the value of grabbing up land in the West with his newfound fortune. By 1932, Pazzi had gone from having been declared missing to being declared dead. With no will or heirs, the estate and the city itself reverted to the state of California, who was more than happy to sell it cheaply to the man from Virginia who was already buying up large swaths of land around the state.
It lay fallow for several more years before Tattersall began to develop it. In 1945, he announced plans to turn it into an amusement park of sorts. Keep in mind that this was ten years before Disneyland opened, so the idea of an amusement park in the mid-forties was typically confined to state fairs or a few bigger places like Coney Island or White City. The parks had rides, even rollercoasters, but between the Depression and World War Two, a lot of them had shut down. The idea of building a brand new one, particularly in the middle of nowhere, and especially at the scene of so much horror, seemed insane to me when I first read about it.
But then I realized that no one really knew what had happened in Firenze. Aside from a few articles at the time and the journals that were found by authors and researchers in the years since, it was just never widely known or talked about. And Tattersall, for all his money and ambition, started small when he rebuilt the town. He renovated the house and estate to play up the preexisting gothic architecture, remodeling here and there to suit its new purpose as a haunted house by adding secret hallways and staff areas as well as many nasty surprises for guests. The lower levels were supposed to be off-limits, however. Whether that meant that he sealed them off or had preserved them in their original state, no one knew.
When the park opened in 1947, it was called Wizard’s Folly. This played into the new legends that Tattersall had been strategically inserting into the rumor mills of towns in the surrounding counties. Instead of dozens of dead and missing, there were only a couple of girls and a little boy that were victims of the cruel Francesco Pazzi, a vile man who considered himself a wizard and alchemist of sorts. He had allegedly taken the victims’ blood as part of some insane ritual to make a Philosopher’s Stone, which he hoped to use to convert various substances into precious metals. Instead, the ritual went awry and he wound up burning to death in the bowels of his strange home. It is said that he and his “guests” still haunt those very halls…
Or so the ads said. A bunch of bullshit, but it spread like wildfire. Most people were tight on money back then, but they were also hungry for some time away from the realities of daily life. At a penny per person, carloads of people were making the trek and standing in line to get in from the first week it was open. By the time word had spread about how terrifying the house was, how you really did need to try it for yourself, the wait to get in was over four hours.
In the following six months, the park not only grew in popularity but in size as well. This was, for all intents and purposes, an adult theme park, but the estate could only hold so many visitors at a time if it was going to be an effective haunted house. So they added a go-kart track and a tilt-a-whirl, followed by a hot dog stand that served beer. Next was a handful of booths where guys could try to win cheap toys for their dates along with a “curiosities” show that was essentially a freak show on the front end and a peep show on the back. By October of ’47, they had started building a real, honest-to-God wooden rollercoaster too.
It was toward the end of that month, just a few days before Halloween, when it all fell apart. They called it a “toxic infection caused by mold”, and it was traced back to dozens of people that had visited Wizard’s Folly. But based on some things I’ve found, that was just a cover story. Over three hundred people scattered across six states reported seeing and hearing things, vomiting, and feeling an oppressive sense of being watched. This was covered up because of the two things that they all had in common. The first was that they had all visited Wizard’s Folly at some point in the six months it had been open. The second was that all of them started experiencing symptoms at exactly the same time: 9:23 p.m. pacific time on October 27, 1947.
Whatever happened that night in October at Wizard’s Folly, it was covered up. And the park was closed permanently the next day. Since that time, it’s been abandoned and forgotten–the Tattersall company, now called Tattersall Global–still owns the place, but it’s just a relic. They have a couple of guards patrolling it, and it’s become a bit of a holy grail in some corners of the internet paranormal community because no one has ever managed to get in more than a few yards before they are caught and turned away.
Then two months ago a guy started posting on a forum I frequent. Claimed that he and a buddy of his worked as guards for Tattersall at the old Wizard’s Folly park. People immediately called bullshit, but the next day he posted several pictures online of him at the park, and it looked legit. He said that for $5,000.00, him and his buddy would “take off” a couple of hours at an appointed time, leaving the gate open for the buyer and whoever he wanted to bring. The only rules were that they didn’t break or take anything and they were out again before the two hours was up.
I wound up in a brief bidding war with a lady from Seattle, but I managed to get it for $8,000.00. Marge, don’t look like that. I’ve got the money to spend, and this is a once in a lifetime chance. But anyway…that wraps up my presentation for now. There’s more to show you, but we’ll get to that later.
* * * * * *
A look passed between Pete and Marjorie, but I couldn’t read its significance. I was kind of blown away by everything I had just heard and that it had all come from Pete. When I told him so, he smirked at me as he forked in a mouthful of cold eggs.
“Oh, because I drive a truck you think I can’t be smart? Can’t read?”
I felt my face flushing crimson. “No, no. That’s not what I meant at all. It’s just…all that information. It’s impressive is all. It must have taken you a long time to pull all that together.”
He laughed and Marjorie joined in now, her earlier anger seemingly forgotten. “I’m just fucking with you, Phil. But yeah, it took a long time, even with the internet. This shit is obscure, and some of the people you run across in these circles don’t like to turn aloose of the little nuggets they’ve found along the way. It was fun though, and I think it’ll be worth it. This one is really something. I can feel it.
I gave them both a relieved smile and nodded. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to be stuck on an awkward trip for two weeks either, so seeing them both joking and in good spirits again eased my worries. I realized I had never looked at the pictures he had pulled out at the start of his story, so I picked them up now. Two of them were old and faded black and white photos of Wizard’s Folly back in its heyday, steady streams of people headed this way and that through what looked like a cross between a carnival and a strange garden party. The last one was obviously far more recent, and it showed a chubby, balding man in a security uniform smiling uncomfortably in front of the looming face of a gothic mansion, its dark stone a stormy gray in the overexposed picture. I felt an unexpected shudder looking at that last picture, and I set them all down quickly.
Pete looked at me silently for several moments and then glanced out the window. “It’s getting late. We need to get a move on. Miles to go before we sleep.”
We were off the interstate for the most part now, Pete taking us back routes that he said would be both quicker and more scenic. And he was right. We wound our way further west across the Mississippi and into Missouri, and by eight o’clock we were pulling into our stayover for the night, an older but nice motel on the outskirts of Kansas City.
I was inexplicably tired that night, and after we grabbed a quick burger at the restaurant attached to the motel, I quickly fell asleep watching t.v. with Marjorie in our room. When I awoke, I had a moment of disorientation in the darkness of the unfamiliar room, and after fumbling my phone onto the floor, I finally woke up enough to grab it and see it was just past midnight. I reached back to Marjorie’s side of the bed, but it was empty.
My first thought was that she was in the bathroom, but when I looked, nothing. I tried texting her, but a moment later I heard a buzz from where her phone had been left on the far nightstand. The beginnings of real worry and fear woke me up the rest of the way and I pulled back on my pants, absently grabbing a key card off the table on my way out the door.
The air was cold so late at night, and I hadn’t taken time to grab my jacket, but I didn’t care. Looking around in the gravel parking lot, I saw no signs of other people, which was understandable given the hour. We were in room 103 and I knew Pete was in 108, so I headed that way to see if he knew where she was.
Something made me hesitate as I reached the door. It was only for a couple of seconds, but long enough that I heard a woman’s giggle from inside Pete’s room. My first thought was that Pete had hooked up with some local after we had went to our room, and I debated whether I should disturb them before I looked around a bit more. Then I heard the giggle again, and I recognized it this time. It was Marjorie.
I knocked hard on the door, an unpleasant mix of fear, uncertainty, and anger surging into my chest. I waited, counting to ten internally before knocking loudly a second time. There had been no further sounds from the room, and another ten count was nearly done before the door cracked open and I saw Marjorie’s face poking out of the dimly lit murk within.
“Hey, what’s up, honey? Something wrong?” Her expression was one of surprise and mild concern, but I wasn’t sure if I trusted it. It was hard to tell in the blue-tinged light of the parking lot security lamps, but she looked…flushed. Flushed in a way I was familiar with, but that shouldn’t be happening with another man.
But no. Pete was her brother, for fuck’s sake. And not that people didn’t ever lie or do fucked up things, but I had known him for months and I didn’t think they were lying about being brother and sister. And I didn’t think they were…I didn’t think they were doing anything unnatural. I pushed the thought away and forced out a hollow laugh.
“I was just looking for you. I woke up and you were gone, and when I saw you left your phone behind, I got worried.”
She smiled. “Nah, I’m fine. I just wasn’t ready to go to bed yet and I didn’t want to wake you up, so I came down to hang out with Pete for awhile. I’ll be back down in just a few minutes. Love you, hun.” I was weighing whether I should push the issue and make my way into the room, but she had already shut the door back before I could respond. Hating myself, I pressed my ear against the door and listened for further sounds or voices. I did hear something that might have been muffled whispers followed by a stifled snort of laughter, but it might have been my imagination as well. It might all have been my imagination, after all.
I went back down to 103 and sat on the bed thinking for several minutes before undressing and getting back into bed. As I was dozing off, I heard the door open. Marjorie slipped quietly into bed and gave me a hug before quickly falling asleep.
* * * * * *
The morning light made the night before seem like some kind of strange dream. I went through a mental inventory of all the interactions I had ever seen between Marjorie and her brother, looking for any sign of anything inappropriate, but there was nothing. They would joke around and hug each other occasionally, but it was just normal brother-sister stuff not much different than I had done with my own brother before he died. And as for her being in his room…Well, she wanted some quality time with a brother she didn’t get to see very often. Nothing wrong with her laughing and having a good time, and anything weird was just me projecting my own insecurities or making something out of nothing.
Satisfied, I tried to act normal through breakfast and the morning drive, and by the afternoon it wasn’t an act. Part of this was because they weren’t acting weird themselves. My fear was that they would suddenly be awkward with each other or me, or Marjorie would suddenly make a point of only paying me attention, all of which would only reignite my twisted fears. But there was none of that. Just normal talk and hanging out as the roads unspooled before us.
By late that afternoon we had made it to a small town called Brimley. It was the last planned stop before we pushed on into the heart of Utah. As we pulled into the large truck stop there, I saw it had a store that looked like a massive log cabin. After the last few days of dirty chain gas stations, something a little better cared for and homey was a welcome surprise. Pete was fueling the truck and Marjorie had ran off immediately for the bathroom, so I decided to go explore the store for a bit and stretch my legs.
The air was definitely turning cooler with each day as fall set in. We were traveling at a fast enough rate that it was actually hard to judge how much of the difference was due to the change of seasons versus the change of locale, but the feel of the crisp air as I walked to the store reminded me of autumns growing up in Virginia. The thought made me smile and glance around at the town surrounding the truck stop.
It was odd. Though it was almost five in the afternoon on a Thursday, there was next to no one else around. A couple of other customers getting gas at the pumps looked back at me disinterestedly, but the only other real sign of life was an old man frantically mowing his grass with a lawn mower several houses down a side street. A small black and white dog stood yapping happily at the man from the street, though whether it was cheering him on or heckling him, it was hard to say.
The signs of normal life, of the energetic dog, of the world outside of the truck and Marjorie and Pete—these things should have cheered me more than they did. Yet I still felt a thin thread of unease running up my spine as I entered what a sign next to the door proclaimed was “Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium”.
* * * * * *
The store seemed to be an odd mix of items you would expect to find in a truck stop, those you’d find in a grocery store, and those you’d find in some kind of souvenir gift shop. At first, I gravitated towards the souvenirs, thinking it might be funny to get a random Midwest t-shirt or shot glass, or a hat that proclaimed the greatness of Brimley. Then I realized that the souvenirs were all wrong.
They weren’t from around the area for the most part, yet they were oddly specific. Have you ever been in a store that has I love N.Y. stickers or California shirts, even though the store is thousands of miles from either? That I would have understood. But this was stuff like “I visited Tallulah Gorge. The first step was a doozy!” Or “Providence, Rhode Island. Home of Marco’s Original Pepperoni Grinder!” Weirdly specific stuff that dealt with obscure places that would have no significance to most people passing through this little town.
The next thing was that there wasn’t more than one or two of any given item. I’m not saying the store had only a few souvenirs for sale. I mean that out of literally thousands of clothes, hats, knick-knacks, cups, signs, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac, there were a few twins or triplets, but that was it. Which made the next thing a bit easier to notice.
I think all the souvenirs were used.
I don’t mean they were dirty. Aside from a thin layer of dust here and there, they were perfectly clean. But a lot of them looked worn, especially the clothes. It was almost like they had everyone that came through donate a souvenir and then the store turned around and sold it like it was new. The thought struck me as funny until I thought about the horror movie I had seen where waylaid victims’ belongings were stockpiled by the killers. As I decided I needed to move to the snack area and out of this weirdness, I ran headfirst into Marjorie.
“Ow! Man, you’re in a hurry,” she laughed, poking a finger in my chest. “You still looking around or you ready to go?”
“Sorry, baby.” I saw an extremely tall figure moving around on the far side of the food section. I couldn’t see their face or body, but the top of his head was a platinum blonde, and the way the head moved, it looked as though they were moving down the aisle with a discordant and ungainly gait. Shivering slightly, I looked down at Marjorie and shook my head. “No, no. I’m good to go. Let’s get out of here.”
* * * * * *
I had asked Pete about Brimley when we were back on the road, and he had told me this was his first time stopping there. He said he’d had to alter his route after the truck stop he used a few towns over had burned down, but the prices were actually better at Hattie’s, so maybe that was a good thing. He asked why I wanted to know about Brimley and I shrugged, saying it just seemed like a weird little town.
He laughed and nodded. “No doubt. A lot of these isolated little places are. Worlds unto themselves, I guess you could say.” He slapped me on the arm. “But no worries, brother. We’ll be in California soon enough, and after I drop off this load, it’s on to the Folly.”
The rest of that day and the next were uneventful, with no more quirky stores in weird towns or strange ideas from me about my wife and brother-in-law. I started having fun again, and by the time we had settled in at the Alpine Estates hotel an hour south from Firenze, I was actually looking forward to our trip the following day to Wizard’s Folly.
I was expecting Wizard’s Folly to be a dilapidated ruin. Tall grass and encroaching woods peppered with vine-covered skeletons that had once been buildings and stands. I half expected that we wouldn’t be able to get in at all, or if we did, we would poke around for half an hour before leaving dejected because the reality of the park fell so far into the shadow of what Pete’s story had built up in our minds.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. As incredible as his story had been, the appearance and condition of the amusement park was even more awe inspiring. We entered easily through the front gate at precisely ten in the morning, all three of us looking around for signs of security in case the plan had somehow gone awry on the guards’ end. Within moments any thought of being caught had fled however, as we were all gasping at what we were seeing.
Everything was in nearly perfect condition. The grass was cut, the buildings looked recently painted, and there was none of the expected signs of disuse or ill-repair. We had taken a rural road up to the edge of Firenze, but our route turned us left towards Wizard’s Folly instead of right towards the ghost town. Because of that, I had only a slight idea of how the town compared to this place, but the glimpse I’d had of an old gas station at the edge of town had made sense. It looked long-abandoned, with rusty, old-fashioned pumps out front and morning sunlight glowing dimly through the caved-in roof of what looked like a small attached garage.
By contrast, if I had been told this park was open just an hour earlier, I would have believed it. We walked further up the main road, passing by a hot dog stand and a small building that appeared to contain public bathrooms. Up ahead, there were more buildings and the looming shadow of a massive wooden rollercoaster off to the right.
“What the fuck…” Pete’s expression matched my own feelings. “What is this? Are they reopening this place?”
Marjorie looked over at her brother. “Are you sure it’s okay for us to be here? This place does not look abandoned. And there’s a lot more here than what you described.”
She was right. We had already passed a gift shop, a small sit-down restaurant, and five different stands housing what looked like carnival games. All of them pristine and with lights blazing. Pete stopped and turned back to us.
“I mean…we’re trespassing either way, right? But so long as we don’t hurt anything, it shouldn’t be too much hassle even if we were caught, which we shouldn’t be. But…none of this makes sense. Why would the lights be on in these places? Why would everything be so…well, not new exactly, but intact?”
I knew what he meant. None of it had the feel of things that had been recently built, but rather just maintained very well. I pointed to one of the carnival game stands where you tried to pop balloons with darts. “Look at that shit! The balloons!” My description wasn’t overly articulate, but it didn’t have to be. Once you looked at the stand, it was obvious what was wrong. There were probably fifty balloons on a large corkboard at the back of the stand, and all of them were fully inflated.
Pete shook his head. “What…those balloons had to have been put there yesterday at the latest.” He looked around, his expression growing paranoid. “I don’t know what this is, but I think they’re either reopening it or something is way different than what I was told. Either way, if ya’ll want to go, I’m fine with it.” He was looking at Marjorie, but I was the one that spoke up.
“No, let’s keep going.”
* * * * * *
We rounded a curve and saw that the park opened up before us, with multiple paths leading off toward rides and shrouded thoroughfares that wound deeper into the property. This was also our first good look at the mansion, albeit from a distance. It was strange and imposing even far away, with dark stone and black shingles swooping this way and that like the contours of a giant gargoyle just waiting for us to get closer. A large hedge maze acted as a barrier between us and the house, and when I went to enter it, Marjorie tugged on my arm.
“No, Phillip. Let’s not and say we did. I do not want to get stuck in that thing, okay?” When I nodded, she went on, gesturing towards a path off to our right. “Let’s try this way. We can see more of the park and find a way around to the house if we’re lucky.”
Pete chimed in. “Yeah, Phil. I think she’s right. We’re on a clock here, so we’re better off taking in as much as we can rather than taking time for the maze.”
“Sure, yeah. Makes sense.” I started walking with them down a brick path that led closer to the massive rollercoaster, a familiar sense of strangeness coming back to me. Why were they deferring to me so much now? Acting as though they need to persuade me or as though I was in charge? I had just been going along with whatever, which was fine, but why now did they ask my opinion? Was this some of the weirdness I was worried about? I was snapped out of my reverie by the fear and wonder in Marjorie’s voice.
“My God. I smell popcorn. I smell popcorn and cotton candy.”
I realized I smelled it too. Fear crawled up my back as I looked around, but I saw nowhere it could be coming from. My eyes met Pete’s and he shrugged. “I don’t know, Phil. I smell it too, but no clue how or why.”
My roving gaze fell on the rollercoaster again. We were probably fifty yards from the entry for the ride, which a large and brightly lit sign proclaimed as “The Hunter’s Blind”. It seemed a strange name for any ride, much less a rollercoaster, but the thought left me as I realized something.
“Pete, didn’t you say they only partially built the rollercoaster?”
He nodded. “Yeah. And you saw it in the picture too, remember? The park shut down when they were only about halfway done.”
I pointed ahead of us. “Do you see any part that’s unfinished on that thing? I’ve been looking at it, looking for a break in the track or some sign that something isn’t in place yet, but I can’t find it. It looks like the rest of the place—ready for business.”
Pete swallowed. “You’re right.” He rubbed his cheek and glanced at his watch. “Okay, we’ve got a little over an hour left. Shit, I didn’t realize that much time had passed. Anyway, what do you guys want to do? This place is weird and creepy as fuck, but obviously they have to be renovating it, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation, and this is from the guy that believes in all kinds of fucked up shit.”
Marjorie laughed nervously. “Yeah, I bet that’s it. Has to be.” She turned to me. “Phil baby, are you good with us going now? They may have more security if they’re getting ready to do something with this place, and I really don’t want to go to jail on our honeymoon.”
I grinned at her, but it was forced. I really wanted to keep going, felt driven to explore further into the park and reach the house. But I also didn’t want to disappoint her or Pete, and I could tell they were both anxious to leave.
Her brother chimed in, “It’s your call, Phil. We’ll do what you decide. But if you’re ready to head out, we are too.” Again that strange deference, that odd tension and expectation that I had never noticed before. Something about it made me want to stay in the park even more, but when I glanced back at Marjorie I pushed it down.
“Nah, it’s cool. We’ve seen plenty, and we probably shouldn’t risk it.”
The relief from both of them was palpable, but I tried to ignore it. I was teetering on just telling them to go wait in the car for me, but then Marjorie took my hand and I let myself be led back to the front gate and beyond it. Within a few minutes we were back on the road in the rental car Pete had procured earlier in the morning. I found myself looking back at the park with an odd wistfulness until its dark silhouette had slipped from view.
That night I had terrible dreams that I didn’t remember upon waking except for an acid taste on my tongue and the uncomfortable sensation of something gripping my thudding heart. Marjorie stirred restlessly beside me, but when I lay back down in the cool dampness of the sweaty sheets, she slipped back into a deeper sleep. I stayed awake, my mind adrift in a shadow sea of unfamiliar thoughts and feelings as I stared up at the ceiling I couldn’t really see. As gray dawn began crawling through our balcony window, I gave up on getting back to sleep. The rooms really were very nice, and the hotel itself was massive and far more expensive than anywhere I had ever stayed before, but I felt trapped in there. Trying to be quiet, I got dressed and slipped out of the room.
I headed downstairs with the idea that I would just walk around a bit. The area we were in was lushly forested, and between the hotel’s golf course and the series of walking paths through the woods on the resort grounds, I had plenty of options for an early morning constitutional. I’ve never been much for exercise, but I needed to clear my head, to be away from the two of them for awhile. So for the next couple of hours, I walked.
As I went, the thing I kept coming back to was that I felt we’d made a mistake not going on to the house. Or at least I had made a mistake. It seemed like one of those ephemeral moments in life where picking right or left will have major ramifications somehow. You can’t say why it’s so important, but you can feel the weight of…what, fate?…bearing down on the decision you’re making. If you make the right one, you feel a sense of harmony and well-being. If you make the wrong one, you feel utterly discordant and lost.
I felt lost. I couldn’t explain it, but I somehow knew I had chosen wrong, and the further I walked, the more I mulled it over, the more certain I became that I had to go back there. Then suddenly Marjorie was running up to me, telling me that we had to get back to the room and pack. That there had been some kind of major accident back at Pete’s trucking company and he needed to start heading back now.
She was tugging on my arm, but I resisted with a frown. “Why do we have to go back now? Can’t he just leave us and go back?”
Marjorie scowled at me. “No, idiot. We have no way of getting back then, and no money to spend on a flight or even a bus.” She put her fingertips to the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Pete’s just freaked out and so am I. Apparently there was some kind of chemical spill and three of his people are at the hospital. ICU bad. He’s worried about them, worried about getting sued and losing his insurance…he’s worried.” She reached out and touched my arm. “But that was still shitty of me to say it like that. But can we just go? He’s in no shape to drive the next several days back by himself, and he doesn’t want to risk leaving the semi here.”
I nodded, ignoring the voice inside screaming for me to stop. “Sure, honey. I get it. Let’s go get our stuff.”
* * * * * *
When we met Pete in the lobby twenty minutes later, he looked haggard and red-eyed. He apologized for cutting the trip so short and helped us quickly load our things before we were on the road and headed back the way we had came. I felt a growing sense of restless unease as we traveled east, but I kept quiet. Whatever weirdness I was going through, Pete had enough on his plate as it was. I felt bad for him—I knew he had worked hard building that business up, and it was easy to see how stressed out he was from fear he might lose it all.
The thing was…as we traveled throughout the morning and early afternoon, his worries seemed to slip away. Not that I expected him to stay in a state of high agitation and fear for hours on end, but I’d have expected some noticeable level of distress to hang around for at least the rest of the day, if not until he was at his company and had a better handle on what was happening. Instead, him and Marjorie were back to joking around, singing along with the radio, and generally acting like they were still on vacation. For the hundredth time, I found myself questioning my perceptions of things, wondering if I was just being an asshole.
When we had settled in at the same motor lodge we’d stayed at just two nights earlier, I suggested we all get dinner together, my treat. I could tell they were both resistant, but I pushed on with cheery determination until they gave in. I wanted to watch them out of the truck and see how they acted. See if Pete acted carefree or concerned. See if any quick, secret glances passed between them.
The meal was uneventful until the end. They were both acting abnormally normal, but that is such a subjective thing that I quickly began doubting myself again. It was only as I was leaving the waitress a tip that I glanced up at Pete’s face. Marjorie must have seen it a moment before I did, because she was already up and moving, pulling Pete from the booth the same moment my eyes met his and my tongue went numb.
His face was sliding off. Or at least drooping. It looked as though he was wearing a latex mask that had gotten too hot and started to melt, the eyes and nostrils and mouth drooping low and revealing something red and wet underneath. I let out a startled grunt and put my palms against the edge of the table. I shoved the table towards him, but he was already out of the seat with Marjorie’s help, so the far edge just bumped against the back of the booth he was sitting in. I went to stop Marjorie, to make her understand that something was terribly wrong, that he was a monster or dying or something, but she was already leading him away. She turned back briefly to give me distressed look.
“He’s sick, Phil. I’ve seen this before. Go back to our room and I’ll be there soon.”
Before I could protest, she had turned the corner with him, heading towards the back of the restaurant and presumably the bathroom. I considered following them, but when I saw the few other customers in the place staring at me over the commotion, I reconsidered. I wasn’t going back to the room, but I would wait right here instead.
I know what I saw. His fucking face was falling off. And now I want some goddamn answers.
“What? You’re saying what I saw was Bell’s Palsy?” I knew what it was—I’d had a dentist who had it once. But it made one side of his face droop, not look like it was falling off.
Marjorie nodded. “Yeah. Stress can trigger it, and his version of it is pretty severe and scary, but it happened once when we were teenagers. Last time it cleared up overnight, so we’ll see. He’s resting in his room now.”
I gripped my hands together so tightly that the knuckles were white. “Look, there’s been a lot of weirdness the entire trip, and I…”
Marjorie came and sat next to me, reaching over to put her hands on top of mine. “I know it. I’ve been focused on him too much, and I’m sorry. I just know we have the rest of our lives together and I don’t get to spend much time with him. And now…he’s just so upset about all this right now.”
I pulled my hands away and leaned back. “You could have fooled me.”
She frowned at me, her eyes growing harder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that he’s been acting jolly as can be all afternoon, and then all of a sudden it’s like I’m sitting across from a horror movie that you’re telling me is Bell’s Palsy and is caused by his extreme stress? I’m not trying to be a dick, but none of that makes sense.”
She stood up, tears welling up in her eyes. “Well, it’s the truth. I need you on my side on this. Do you think this is how I wanted our honeymoon to be? Stuck in a semi and going to some crappy old park? Not having any time to ourselves? But I was trying to make him and you both happy. I saw it as a way to spend time with him and to give you a trip we otherwise couldn’t afford. I’m sorry that it…”
I stood up and hugged her. “It’s okay. We’re all just stressed and tired. If you say it’s Bell’s Palsy, that’s what it is. Let’s get some rest and see how he’s doing in the morning.”
* * * * * *
The next morning, Pete looked normal aside from the sunglasses he was wearing. He said that his eyes were still weird looking but seemed to be improving. I thought about asking more questions, but decided to just leave it alone. All I wanted was to be done with this trip as soon as possible, and if I still felt a yearning to return to Wizard’s Folly, there was nothing to be done about it now.
That evening we stopped again at Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium in Brimley, and again I felt the same sense of disquiet being in the small town. I went in with the intention to just use the bathroom and then head right back to the truck, but when I made it into the stall, I stopped cold at what I found there. There was a notepad and two pictures sitting on the back of the toilet. I would have just left them alone, but I recognized them. They were from Pete’s file on Wizard’s Folly.
But how could that be? As far as I knew, Pete had never even gone inside the store last time we were here, and I knew he hadn’t beat me in here this time. And why would he leave parts of his prized file in a gas station bathroom anyway?
Forgetting my need to pee, I grabbed up the pad and pictures before leaving the stall. I almost went out to ask Pete about it, but something made me reconsider. I was tired of getting all my information through them. Not that I didn’t trust them, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to the store owners and see if they knew anything about how that stuff came to be in their bathroom or how long it had been there.
The cashier’s desk was a heavily carved oak monstrosity that curved into a long “L” with two cash registers on opposite ends. Behind the counter were two elderly women that might have been twins, their long white hair tied back in matching bushy ponytails. Putting on a smile, I approached and held up the notepad and pictures.
“Hey ya’ll. Me and family are just passing through, and I just found something in your bathroom that I think belongs to my brother-in-law.” I pointed out in the direction of the truck fuel pumps. “He’s the guy out there fueling up. Anyway, I was just in the bathroom stall and I found some papers and pictures that belong to him, but I don’t know how or when he could have left them. So I know it sounds weird, but I was just wondering if you had seen someone carry them in or if you knew how long they might have been in there without being noticed?”
The two women glanced at each other with small smiles, and the one on the left was about to answer when their eyes lifted above me and the words died in their throat. I turned around to stare into the drooping breasts of the tallest person I’ve ever seen. The woman was of normal proportions, and her face, though a bit narrow, was actually that of an attractive woman in her early fifties. But she had to be over seven feet tall, and when she looked down at me and smiled with her long, shining grin, I couldn’t help but take a step back, bumping into the counter.
“You said you had a wife, did you?” Her voice was deep but still feminine, and it possessed a tonal quality that sounded like it came from the bottom of an old stone well. The woman made a pouty expression for a moment. “That’s always such a shame to hear. Always a shame when such a handsome young man is already taken.” The women behind me murmured their agreement, but I was unable and unwilling to look away from this giant in front of me. I was transfixed—on the one hand, I was fearful of her for some reason beyond her surprising size, and on the other, I found her voice and words calming like a soothing balm. Not sure of what to do, I mirrored the smile that had returned to her face and nodded.
“Yes, I’m taken I’m afraid.” By this point, any questions about what I had found in the bathroom had gone by the wayside. I just wanted to get out of there. But then suddenly I was swept up in a tight hug, my face being buried in her cleavage as I breathed in some combination of flowery perfume and baby powder and…something else. There was something else beneath those smells. Something earthy and raw and caustic that felt like a corkscrew going up into my nostrils. I pulled back with a gasp and found my face being gently held by her large hands as she looked at me closely with dark, wide eyes.
“You are the one, aren’t you? You are, I can see it. I can feel it.”
I tugged my head backward but it didn’t budge in her grip. “Ma’am, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. But please let me go. I don’t like any of this.”
Her face grew sad and she gave a slow nod. “Of course you don’t. How could you? Lost and incomplete for so long, our Vesper, our Venus, our evening—” I unhinged my knees and let my body weight rip my head free from her grasp, scooting around her and sprinting towards the door. She screamed behind me, but it was not an angry yell. It was more of a mournful wail.
“Make them take you back, Vesper! Make them do their duty! For us all!”
If she said more, I didn’t hear it. I ran off the front porch of the store and headed to where the truck had been parked, but it was gone. New panic spread across my chest as I looked around the parking lot and adjoining streets. No sign of the truck or either of them. Throwing the notepad and photos to the ground, I dug into my pocket for my cellphone. Neither of them answered after two tries each.
It was all too much. I finally went and sat down at a concrete picnic table sitting in the small triangle of grass as the edge of the gas station’s parking lot. I needed a few minutes of quiet, a few minutes of peace to gather my thoughts and then…
I looked around to see a pair of boys, one about eleven, the other maybe thirteen, staring at me. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but I was grateful for their relative normalcy so I tried to be friendly. “Hey guys. How’re ya’ll doing?”
The younger boy giggled. “You talk funny, Mister.”
I nodded and smiled. “I’m from the South, so I probably have a weird accent to you, huh?” They both nodded back and sat down across the picnic table from me. Inwardly groaning, I turned to glance at the road again. “Hey, did y’all happen to see a big black semi around here? Just in the last few minutes?”
The younger boy went to speak but the older one poked him in the ribs before talking himself. “I did, Mister. It drove off just a little bit ago.” When I asked which direction, the boys both shrugged. “I’m not sure, Mister. But they were going pretty fast.”
I pulled out my phone again and sent Marjorie a text: WHERE ARE YOU? Though I hated it, I was already starting to make plans in the back of my mind for how I’d get back home on my own. But surely it wouldn’t come to that, right?
I looked past the boys and down the street where, just a few days ago, I had seen the small dog harassing the man in his yard. There was no sign of life down that way now. As evening continued to set in, the shadows were pooling out their stations at the bottom of trees and cars, trashcans and garages, and the air was growing thicker with the blue haze of deepening twilight. It was a lonely road, and sitting at this decaying picnic table with these odd little boys, I had never felt more alone.
Then, at the far end of the street, I saw Pete’s truck go by.
It may have been that they were heading back in my direction, but I didn’t wait to find out. I leapt up and started down the road at a full run without a farewell or backwards glance. I knew logically I couldn’t just chase down the truck, but my hope was that they were somehow looking for me, or that at the least, the big truck would have to slow down in the more narrow straits of a neighborhood. Yet when I reached the far end of the road, breath puffing out and hands on my knees, there was no sign of them. I stood back up slowly, my brain buzzing and off-balance. They had abandoned me. I saw no other answer.
I turned around with the idea of going back to the store on the off-chance they returned—fat chance I thought to myself—and to sit at the table while I called a taxi to carry me to the nearest bus stop. But I came up short when I saw that the two boys were standing right behind me. They weren’t out of breath, and honestly I had neither seen nor heard any sign of them following me. But there they were. I felt a small thrill of fear and tried to just give them a nod and move past quickly. Instead of going on their way, they fell in beside me, their footfalls loud on either side of me as we made our way back toward the lights of the Emporium.
“Hey, Mister. You sure can run fast.” It was the younger one from my left, and I just smiled and gave him a nod, quickening my pace.
“It’s probably because of his nice shoes. Where’d you get such nice shoes, Mister?” This was the older on my right, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was wearing a pair of cheap sneakers I’d had for three years, not something fancy or expensive. I decided to just ignore them and keep walking toward the lit parking lot.
“Mister doesn’t want us to know, I guess. That doesn’t seem right.” Younger one again, his voice coming closer to my elbow now.
“Well, maybe he just wants us to have these shoes so we don’t have to go looking for some. What about it, Mister? Want to give us those nice shoes?” This was the older one again, and the thread of menace underlying his words was unmistakable. I found myself afraid and angry and ashamed of both emotions. I was being bullied by a pair of children. Children that were in their own way, trying to rob me apparently. What was going on with this place? With me?
I stopped and stepped backwards, simultaneously shoving both of them forward and further away from me. “All right, you little shits. I’m tired of this. All of this. Especially you. So get the fuck out of here before I stomp your fucking ass.” I didn’t recognize the words coming out of my mouth, but they felt good. A look of uncertain fear passed between the two boys, and I felt myself preparing to attack the older boy when I saw Pete’s truck pulling into the parking lot again. Feeling a surge of relief, I pushed past the boys and ran to it.
Marjorie opened the door and gave me a shaky smile. “Hey, Phil, come on in.”
I climbed in and slammed the door behind me. As Pete began to pull away, he dropped a greasy paper sack into my lap. Looking down, I saw it was from a chain fast food restaurant. I shoved it off my lap onto the floor. “What the fuck is that supposed to be?”
Marjorie’s smile thinned as her face went red. “We went and got us all some food to save time. I sent you a text. Did it not go through?”
Glaring at her, I gave a short and bitter laugh. “No, it didn’t go through. And that’s bullshit. I’ve been calling and texting. And ya’ll were gone for nearly thirty minutes. I’m tired of all this weird fucking shit. This town, the park, ya’ll…” I pointed towards Pete, who was driving silently with his jaw clenched. “This motherfucker is still wearing sunglasses when it’s practically nighttime. Is it so I don’t see his face falling off, because I know it’s not goddamn Bell’s Pa…”
“Fuck!” Pete was coming to a fast stop, the air brakes on the truck letting out a squealing hiss as he did so. At first I thought he was going to fight back, and I relished the thought. But he wasn’t looking at me. Neither of them were. They were looking outside. Pete let out a tired sigh. “The fuckers have blocked this way too. Even with him in here.”
I didn’t understand everything he was talking about, but the “fuckers” blocking was self-evident. Spread across the road was a line of twenty or so people, young and old, small and big, all looking at the truck and waiting. Most of them had weapons of the homemade variety, though there was the occasional gun as well. And all of them bore the same look of grim determination that stated very clearly that we would not pass that way.
Marjorie slammed her fist into the back of Pete’s seat. “Just run them over then. Fuck all of this. They can’t stop this thing.”
As if in response to a challenge, there was a loud crack followed by a louder bang and a plume of smoke from under the hood. Pete cursed again as the truck’s engine warbled unevenly to silence. “Someone just shot the engine out. We’re fucked.”
I was looking back and forth between the two of them. “What’s going on? Who are these people?”
Marjorie sneered at me, an angry contempt filling her gaze. “They’re your fan club, idiot. They’re here to get your autograph.”
“And our asses,” Pete added in glumly as he opened the door to step out.
What they were saying made no sense, but I decided to follow suit and leave the truck too. As I stepped out, I saw the twin women from the store. In the shadows of a nearby sycamore tree, I saw the looming form of the woman that had hugged me and called me…
“Vesper!” The crowd cried. “Evening Star!” The mob didn’t sound angry at all, but were instead rapturously happy. “He who will save us! He who will return us to our rightful home!” It was clear that they were talking to me, and I suppressed the urge to run as they surged forward to surround me, stroking my arms and hugging my neck. Once I was in their midst, I was oddly calm, and it was only with mild and detached interest that I heard Pete and Marjorie yelling as they were pulled away from the truck and out of view.
The twin women from Hattie’s stepped forward. “What name do you go by?”, they asked in unison.
“Phillip. Phil. I go by Phil.”
The women beamed identical smiles at me. “Well, Phil, you are very important. You have a very important destiny. Those people,” they cast a glance in the general direction that Pete and Marjorie had been taken, “were meant to help you find your path, but instead they tried to keep you from it.” The women’s faces grew hard at this, but relaxed as they looked back to me. “But you are stronger than that. You may even be ready this time.”
“Ready for what?” I blurted out. “I keep having weird shit happen and no one will tell me what’s going on. And this is all starting to really freak me out.” I gestured around at the crowd, the damaged truck, the town…fuck, my entire life of late, and as I did so, I found that the tall woman had stepped forward as well. The crowd parted for her and she reached down to take my hand.
“I understand, Phil. We can come on too strong. It’s only because we are so proud of you. We love you so much and are excited to see you.”
Frowning, I shook my head. “But why? I don’t know any of you people. I don’t even know if I really know the people that brought me here.”
The tall woman glowered as she gave a nod. “They have done you a great disservice. They knew you were the one and yet I bet they tried to dissuade you from entering the house, didn’t they?
My heart started thudding faster in my chest. “What house?” When I saw the knowing smile on her face, I stopped and nodded. “Yes. They didn’t force me not to, but they worked to dissuade me without telling me no.”
The woman nodded again, and I noticed several more nods and murmurs in the crowd around us. “Yes, they couldn’t refuse you directly, not in that place, but they could trick you into leaving. If you had just gone inside, all of this would be over. You would understand and know who you truly are.” She looked sad momentarily before brightening. “But there is still time. Do you still want to go inside the house at Wizard’s Folly?”
I surprised myself by nodding again. “If it can make things better, or at least where I can understand what’s going on, yes I do.”
The woman gave me another awkward hug, though it was quicker this time and I didn’t have to free myself from her grasp when it was over. “That’s wonderful! We will start heading for it right away. By tomorrow evening we should be there.”
We traveled in a large shuttle bus of the kind I had always associated with class reunions and senior citizen field trips to see musicals. The seats were comfortable and there was food and a bathroom, but it was still hard to ride for so long after having been on the road so many days. We stopped every few hours to stretch our legs, and I saw that Pete and Marjorie were in a second identical bus traveling behind us. They looked okay physically, but neither of them would speak to me or meet my eyes when I tried to call out to them. Whether it was out of fear or resignation, they both bore the air of condemned prisoners, and after they ignored me the first couple of times, I gave up trying.
I was mildly surprised that I wasn’t scared or worried about myself or them, but as time went on and the road unspooled before us, I felt the last remnants of my old self-doubt and fear falling away. It reminded me of watching a butterfly or moth shaking off the detritus of the cocoon before taking flight. I didn’t know if a moth remembered life before the cocoon, but if it did, I imagined it grew dimmer with each passing night.
The people on the bus with me were friendly enough, but they left me alone other than to occasionally ask if I needed anything. I only drank and ate a little, and when I slept, it was only for a half hour or so at a time. Still, I didn’t feel sleepy or especially tired. Just tired of riding and waiting, waiting and riding. I was ready to reach Wizard’s Folly and the gargoyle that lay at its heart.
By dusk the following night we were there. I had held off asking any more questions during the trip, and I found myself regretting it now. I had no real idea what I was walking into. For all I knew, these people were part of some dangerous cult and were going to torture and kill all of us. It seemed I wasn’t past all fear or all doubts after all.
But they paled next to my drive to see for myself. My desire to enter the house and get rid of this terrible longing that had taken over my heart in the last few days. So I left the bus with the rest of them. We had been driven right up to the front door of the house by some route we hadn’t seen during our prior visit, and when the expectant crowd parted the way for me, I stepped forward and opened the door.
Inside was dark and cool, but not pitch black. There were electric lamps and candles at various spots, perforating the shadows enough to give a rough geography of the hall I was entering and its adjoining rooms. I felt no need to explore or wander once I was inside. The house was clean and well-furnished, as well as impressively decorated in a strange gothic style, but none of that was why I had come.
I came to meet my father.
The thought had occurred to me as I traveled past the sweeping staircase going up into the upper floors and around the corner to a smaller hallway that led to a small black door at its terminus. I opened the door and began my journey down the winding stone steps into the basement and sub-basement beyond. All of this was done without hesitation, because as with so many things now, I just knew the truth of them as they came to me.
I reached the primary ritual room, the centerpiece of which was the large pit that had once contained so much death and decay. It was empty now, but I could still feel the energy radiating from it. This pit had been my womb, and I felt some connection to it. I looked around the room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Sitting in the corner was a small, hunched man, or something that resembled a man. I wasn’t afraid, but I still approached cautiously, as I could feel great power coming from him as well.
“Father?” I didn’t know why I said the word except that it was right and true.
The figure stirred from some kind of slumber, grey rheumy eyes studying me for a moment before gleaming with recognition. “Vesper? Is that you?”
I nodded slowly, almost gingerly, as I sat down near him. “I think so. My name is Phil, but I think it’s also Vesper.”
The man smiled, the crisscross of age lines making the expression seem more like a wound across old leather. “Phil is just your name this time. The name of your outward self. Before you were Dora. You were Stephen. And perhaps more I never knew.” His eyes narrowed. “I thought I dreamed of you coming here before. Did you come here before?”
“Yes…me and my wife, Marjorie. Her brother, Pete. They brought me, but we didn’t come inside the house. I never came down here. I didn’t remember enough.” I felt a slight shame at admitting the last, but the old man patted my shoulder.
“No shame in that. They are old and crafty. I suspect they knew just what to say to confuse you, get you back away from here without me waking up.”
I jerked back at that. “Old and crafty? Marjorie? I don’t understand.”
The man sighed. “I know, and I hate it had to be this way for so long. Let me explain.”
* * * * * *
Hell is a real place. As real as this one…or more real I suppose. It is one of the chief Realms that encircle this world and an infinite number like them. There was a time that Hell was ruled by Lucifer and his fallen. It was a terrible place, but it was orderly and it served many purposes. A key cog in the machinery of Creation, if you will.
But then Lucifer was destroyed and Hell began to change. The fallen angels and other infernal demons that were left no longer controlled things, and they found themselves hunted to the edge of extinction, for the new ruler of Hell, the Hunter, was all but immune to their infernal magics and diabolical snares. With no way of fighting back, they ran.
The weaker ones hid in the shadows of the new Hell, eking out a meager existence while waiting for their turn to come as the Hunter’s prey. The stronger ones fled to other realms and worlds like this one. Over the years, some formed communities like the one you visited in Brimley. And while many appreciated the respite, and some even came to enjoy their lives on Earth, most were ill-suited for it. They felt a yearning to return to Hell not that different than what pulled you to the very place you sit right now.
So they began to work and scheme. They enlisted the aid of numerous human agents and practitioners of the black arts, and over several centuries they devised a plan. The start of that plan was put into motion when a man named Francesco Pazzi came to America and founded the town Firenze. He was skilled in black magic and had been entrusted with this plan, this last hope of Hell’s orphans.
And he succeeded. Year after year, ritual after ritual, sacrifice after sacrifice, he layered the blood and the pain and the power needed to craft a very special spell. It required not only human sacrifice, but demonic sacrifice as well, and over two dozen fallen angels were rendered in the process, as well as a tiny relic from the Hunter itself. A single strand of hair that had fallen from its head during its brief battle with Lucifer.
In many ways, this was the most important part. If something was going to be able to face the strange magic of the Hunter, it needed to possess a bit of that magic itself, as well as the magic of infernals and humans both. These three magics were never meant to be together, never meant to co-exist, so it was only through great skill and will and power that this was done. Only by all of this effort and sacrifice were you born.
The night you were born, men from the town stormed this house. Most were killed and others were taken. They have served various uses in the years since then, but one pair, one special couple, has lasted longer than the rest. Rudolph and Annabelle Perkins. Star-crossed lovers, you might say. Or rather, as you might say, your wife Marjorie and her “brother” Pete.
I know even now that comes as a shock to you. You still retain your life as Phil, and some of those old feelings are still there. But I have been sending them out to find you for decades, and I know them better than they know themselves.
When I came to America as Frank Pazzi, I had hoped my rituals would be complete by 1920. That I would gain vast power in this world and, when I eventually was forced into Hell, I would be lauded as a hero and given a place of privilege in the new infernal court. Then that fucking whore Annabelle and her stuck-up husband came to town. I had hoped that taking her would send him packing, but instead he riled the townsfolk up when you were fresh to life–and I was weak from your creation.
In the chaos of that night, you somehow slipped away. I had taken them as prizes, but I had to disappear for a time while I searched for you. By the time I found you a few years later, you were living as a young girl named Dora Wilcher outside of Omaha, Nebraska. From what I could learn, you had just shown up in town as a young woman and started living life like everything was normal. No memory of what you really were or that you hadn’t existed five years earlier.
My first instinct had been to try to force you to remember, try to make you come with me. Then I realized how foolish and arrogant I was being. I was dealing with something new, something I didn’t understand. That no one understood. So I decided to trust you and let you find your own way, develop the human side of your nature and grow in strength until you were ready.
For years I watched you while cultivating more money and power as Wilson Tattersall. I rebought my own house, my own property, and I waited. I had a feeling we would need this place of power again, and I was right. When Dora was in her forties, she started getting sick. I kept close tabs on you at all times back then, and I knew that the doctors you had seen had no idea what was wrong. Desperate, I sent two of my servants out to push you in this direction, hoping I could help you without disturbing your development.
Those servants were Marjorie and Pete. Except they didn’t call themselves that, or Annabelle and Rudolph. Back then they were Tess and Johnny, a married couple that buttered up to you and your husband for months before springing a surprise trip on you. A surprise trip to an exclusive new amusement park that had just opened up in California.
I had waited for months for your arrival, making use of the guests we had in my own small ways, but all with the end goal of seeing you walk through those gates. Because without you, all of it was for naught. I had started to lose hope—I felt that my bindings on “Tess and Johnny” were strong enough that they couldn’t betray me, but I also felt sure by that point that you needed to come of your own free will for any of this to truly work.
Then, on the evening of October 27, 1947, I saw you standing in line for the house. I have never been a romantic or even a sexual man, but you were a vision that night. I had only seen you in pictures and from a distance a handful of times over the years, but nothing could have prepared me for the excitement I felt seeing you so close to fulfilling your destiny. When you entered the house, you did remember more of yourself and your nature, but something was still wrong. You lashed out, killing several people and making others sick or insane. All of which I was happy with at the time, as you seemed to grow stronger as others fell around you. I even felt pride for my hand in it, for I had tainted many visitors in the preceding months, letting this place and you feed off them indirectly during your rampage. I thought you were finally being made whole. But then, just as quickly you were gone, vanishing into thin air.
I didn’t despair as long this time, but set others to the task of finding you again. The problem is that to most people you would just look like a normal person. People I have claimed—my touch gives them unnatural life, but it also gives them a certain sensitivity. They can find you where others cannot. Over the years, without regular influxes of power, my ability to create new servants of that sort has waned.
Annabelle and Rudolph found you as Stephen Keller in the 1970s and eventually led you back here. That time, you only wanted to talk to me, largely about my life and whether my goals were noble or worthy, and then you disappeared again. I didn’t find you again until now.
That damned couple—they have to do my bidding, but they enjoy their life outside far too much and have devised ways over the years to avoid finding you, to thwart the spirit of my commands if not the letter of them. When they ran across you, they had no choice but to come or the magic that preserves them would start to fail. But if they brought you and manipulated you into leaving before you could remember, their hope was they could claim ignorance and buy themselves another few decades of “searching”. Alas, the magic is smarter than they are, as are my demonic companions.
I set up Brimley as a waystation years ago. A place they would have to travel through if they were bringing you to me. An independent check, if you will, to help keep them honest or stop them if they decided they didn’t want the ride to end. It served its purpose in the end, and they’ll be dealt with for their treachery, if you can call their disloyalty to me treason in the first place. I did abduct and magically subjugate them, but they had a lot of good years as a result, so I can’t help but feel somewhat unappreciated.
But I digress. My age is catching up with me I’m afraid. Wait until you’re 170 years old and see how you do.
The real question is are you ready? Do you feel whole yet? I’m not trying to pressure you, and I trust you to know when this cycle of…whatever it is…is complete, but I’m running out of time. And Hell, while vast, grows closer to being wholly under the Hunter’s control every day. I’ve even heard stories of the Hunter appearing in this world, albeit very briefly, a few months ago and slaughtering quite a few notable occultists. No one on my level, of course, but still…it gives one pause.
I named you Vesper after the old meaning of the word. Evening star. The morning star has died and his Hell has been lost, but I believe you can champion a new era. With you to lead us, I think Hell can be retaken and made whole again. So what do…
* * * * * *
He gurgled slightly as I punched into his ribcage with both hands, separating his torso like a rotten head of lettuce and letting the wet halves splatter-drip onto the old stone floor. This rotting monster, this decrepit sadist, thought that I would help him? That I would help any of them?
I remembered everything now. I recalled the bloody and horrible origins of my birth. I could see my husband when I was Dora. My parents when I was Stephen. Marjorie the day I married her. And yes, I had been lied to and tricked. Manipulated and moved around like a pawn. Or I suppose more like a nuclear warhead being ferried from place to place.
But I didn’t feel anger or sadness. I felt joy and love for all the lives I had lived and the world I had lived them in. Unlike when Dora lost control and hurt people out of confusion and fear, I was past that now. The only negative emotion I was really feeling at this point was disgust. Disgust at this little mummy that wanted me to be a good dog. Disgust at the horde of foul things masquerading as humans outside.
I walked back upstairs, and even before I reached the doors, I could feel their anticipation, their corruption, flowing through the cracks like waves of heat. I think my father was right. It was time that I helped these demons find a way home.
I opened the doors wide and smiled at the expectant crowd. They weren’t stupid, and it only took moments of seeing me now for their expressions to change, for their flesh and bones to start shifting in unnatural ways in anticipation of what was coming. That was all right. It wouldn’t matter in the end.
Closing the doors behind me, I walked out into the crowd, watching with slight amusement as they shuffled back at my approach. The fear and hate in the air were palpable, and I breathed it in deeply. Scanning the crowd, I looked for any sign of Marjorie and Pete but saw none. No matter. I’d find them later. For now, it was time to show these things just what all their murder and horror had brought them. I leaned forward slightly, my voice barely above a whisper, but still resonant in the silence of the cool evening air.
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