Gary missed the imaginary friends he used to have as a child in stately old Victorian home, with whom he would spend the nights making up scary stories and whispering beneath the plush blankets until the morning rustling of his parents banished his friends to silence.
When he later learned the police pulled no fewer than a dozen bodies from the crawlspaces in between the walls of the old house, Gary wept with unfathomable grief, partly out of guilt for his complicity in the crimes, however unwittingly, and partly because even now, he missed the voices still.
Hell and the Hudson River
Shadows lay long in this part of the valley even in the bright sunlight. The rolling hills and rich forests, dappled with radiant reds and golds, are carved deep and foul with secrets and grief. But the same can surely be said of all places, if you know where to look. The river is wide, undulating, and perpetual, and it traces the landmarks and tragedies of the place, writing suffering and progress into the bones of the earth. It marches, endless, into the horizon beyond rolling hills and factories, deep woods and meadows, and whispers promises of anabasis, or perhaps oblivion.
Robert sat on the damp overhanging rocks, looking out over the Hudson River, beneath a sky thick with rolling clouds, solemn and umber. He watched a barge slowly motor down the Hudson by Pollepel Island, hazy in the distance, obscured by the air thick with humidity and smog.
“It’s gonna rain again today,” he thought. The path behind him was already marked with deep grooves from days of runoff. Water from previous days’ storms still pooled in the muddy boot prints that covered the trail. He tightened the straps on his backpack and sighed deeply.
He heard footsteps and laughter behind, slowly getting closer as what sounded like a couple of teenage girls crept slowly up the switchbacks that climbed to the precipice of the mountain above him. He was sitting about 20 feet off the trail at the base of a patch of thick barberry, so he doubted they would see him. It sounded like they were in their own world.
He wouldn’t normally be here on the Stillman trail. It was probably the most, or one of the most, popular hiking routes in the area. It ran through a low valley and then slowly carved back and forth up the side of the mountain until it summited Storm King and revealed unparalleled vistas looking up the river towards Newburgh and Beacon. Storm King wasn’t as tall as the less impressively named Butter Hill just behind it, but the views were better, and it was a centerpiece of all the regional guidebooks.
That meant it was touristy, and there wouldn’t be anything to find here. If Alice or, god forbid, her body (he wasn’t ready to admit that possibility yet) were anywhere near here, she would certainly have already been found, even if only by accident. He spent most of his time looking in the deeper woods and less trafficked places, from the Highlands to Black Rock. Who knows how far she might have wandered.
But still, sometimes he climbed Storm King anyway, even if just for the views, and to feel more like part of the world for a little while. But the views weren’t great today. The air was thick with the pending storm and the smoke belching from the factories of Newburgh and New Windsor. The clouds threatened the deluge. The trees swayed in the menacing wind that whistled across water and rocks. It felt like any moment that world might drown, and sometimes he wished it would just get it over with.
The girls behind him felt the blast of cold wind and turned back down the path. He listened to their voices recede.
“Yep, it’s definitely gonna rain.” He gnawed on a piece of beef jerky as he stood and stretched. Then he resumed the hike back to the summit for one last look at the Hudson valley before he descended back into the woods to continue the search for Alice.
The clouds above rolled and surged, solemn and umber.
Jenna pulled a heating pad from the microwave and it smelled like jasmine rice. She loved that smell. She wiped the moisture from the microwave with a rag and hung the rag back up on the handle of the dishwasher. The kitchen was small, but impeccably clean. Jenna made sure of that.
The apartment was one of the few things she could utterly control. She had lost so much, and in the aftermath of the catastrophe, she’d almost lost everything. Her old house was gone, but she didn’t need that much home, not anymore. It was just her now. She’d lost her old job, but she couldn’t afford to give those kinds of hours to work anymore. She had too many other responsibilities now. She’d lost… she shook off the thought. There was no purpose now in dwelling on all that she had lost. That was a luxury. And she didn’t have the time or space for luxuries.
She laid the heating pad on her couch and sank down onto it, feeling the warmth loosen the aches in her lower back, and looked at the clock. It was 8:30pm. Early for some, but she’d had a full day, and would have another tomorrow. She’d started with the Friends of the Library pancake breakfast fundraiser which had gone on a little longer than expected, and followed it up immediately with a board meeting of the local soup kitchen. She always liked to spend the afternoons on the weekends taking food to the homeless downtown if she could, but she wasn’t as young as she used to be, and all that walking tired her out, through bone and soul.
Tomorrow she’d promised to help shuttle some women to the clinic on behalf of the battered women’s shelter, and then there was the MADD meeting in the afternoon.
She sighed and sank into the heating pad. And she let herself drift, just for a moment. She let the tension ease and her mind went quiet. But a moment was all she could allow herself. Idle hands… so the saying goes. She knew that if she thought too hard, if she gave herself too much space, the world got brittle. And on that downward slide, that’s when things started to break.
She turned on the TV to the news. The ticker always seemed to be a catalog of human tragedy. She took her sleeping pill. “There’s so much wrong out there, always so many people who need help,” she thought to herself.
The heating pad cooled as she felt sleep overcoming her. “twelve days,” she thought as she drifted off into oblivion, “twelve days, don’t think too hard about it now.”
Eva woke with a mouth full of cotton and the familiar roaring hum in both her ears. She rolled out of bed and barely made it to the bathroom of her studio apartment before vomiting the remnants of last night’s excess into her toilet. She immediately brushed her teeth but tried not to look into the mirror. She didn’t want to see what it had to show her right now.
She walked back out into the apartment’s one room. He wasn’t there, he must have left already. What was his name? Max? No, but something like that.
“Shit, I hope he didn’t rob me,” she thought, but god knows what he would take. She walked around the room taking stock until she got to the end table by the bed and saw what was sitting there.
“Ugh, that’s even worse,” she muttered as she wandered off to make coffee, leaving the $100 in twenties pinned beneath the water glass.
She munched on some toast at the kitchen island while she waited for the room to stop spinning, and managed a small, spiteful, smirk. If only her mom could see her now.
Irving had owned his place on Main Street for thirty years. In some ways it was better now than it used to be. It was safer, and he made far more money than before. He did have to upgrade the bar’s lighting and put some work into a fancy new cocktail list but the newer clientele had deeper pockets to make it worth his while.
He could hardly complain about the receipts, but something about it rubbed him raw deep inside.
A couple sat across the room at one of his new booths prattling on about the ghost tour they were going to take and all the local legends they were reading about. But the history here was deep and real and Irving didn’t like to hear it trivialized.
He remembered that incident with those kids out on the highway in the pass when their car was sideswiped by the trucker who later blew a 1.2. There were ghost stories now about that haunted stretch of road, but Irving had been at that young boy’s christening, and he’d laid flowers on the casket. He didn’t find the ghost stories amusing in the slightest.
The couple laughed and ordered another round, with the love for each other rich in their eyes. Their smiles sparkled as they read about the echoes of a pain that wasn’t theirs to understand.
“It just isn’t right,” Irving thought. He’d been a good kid. “It just isn’t right.”
Robert leaned back up against the stone wall behind him. It was still raining, but the overhang above the ruined wall sheltered him somewhat. He poked at the smoldering mass in front of him with a stick and watched what little flames he could ever get started sputter and die. The whole world was wet to the bone. The trees bowed their heads in the deluge and the horizon bent with the weight of the outpouring. He wondered if anyone would see the flickers of his tiny fire from any of the surrounding peaks and think about him, but it wasn’t likely that anyone could see anything in this weather.
He gazed up at the cracking and dilapidated ramparts behind him.
Bannerman’s Castle was once an arms depot, but was long since abandoned and fallen into disrepair. It was the kind of place Robert, in another life, would have loved to have visited. It was now normally accessible only by guided tours due the danger inherent in the structure and the risk of further collapse.
Of course, no one was there to stop people like Robert from making the crossing, and he didn’t have time for the history lesson now. And he didn’t like old places and ruins like he used to. He found them foreboding.
He had searched the perimeter of the island for any signs. How in God’s name Alice could have made it out to Pollepel Island, he had no idea. But Robert wasn’t anything if not thorough. He had promised he would search every inch of the banks of the Hudson River and he would make good.
He had seen no signs, but it was now too dark to make the crossing back, so here he sat, futilely trying to keep his little fire going in whatever protection the fort offered from the pouring rain.
He looked back at the structure behind him.
Holes in the face of the castle yawned deep and black. Surely there would be shelter in there, but Robert was repulsed. He knew somehow, though he couldn’t say how, what lay in the depths of that place, old and stagnant.
There stood, against the wreckage, old rooms and causeways, shadowed with history. Robert feared them. Charred fireboxes anchored strong chimneys over which howled the foul winds. And a black mold crept along roofs and walls like grasping lichen. He imagined it twisting and writhing there in the dark places. He heard the voices there too, calling from deeper pits, where living men weren’t meant to hear, saying things living men were not built to understand or endure. The walls themselves whispered scorn and judgment. The place had eyes and they saw everything.
Somehow he knew of the darker things that lay hidden on this island, that tourists never got to see.
Robert shivered. Better to suffer the wind in the clean air. Tomorrow he would head back to the mainland. There wasn’t anything here. There was never anything here. But there were so many places left to search. These hills were awash in secrets.
The man next to Eva at the bar ordered them another round and kept telling his story about some dumb bullshit she couldn’t care less about. His hungry eyes were on her all night. She’d take his drinks, but there was no chance she was going home with this scumbag. She could see the tan line where his wedding ring usually sat. She knew this kind of man.
After her sister had died, her mom had spiraled into a deep well of grief and despair. Eva would have expected to be left more to her own devices, but the reality had been somehow worse. She was expected to be perfect, all on her own.
She kept up with her recitals and with her classes, but now with no room for error. “Just don’t add anything else to your mom’s plate,” was her dad’s running refrain, “she doesn’t need this right now.” That was Eva’s life. Don’t make waves. Don’t ever be a burden. Her mom was grieving and needed space, and no additional worries. But that went on for years.
Her dad gave them plenty of space, though. He spent lots of late nights at work. And Eva still remembers the day her mom dragged her out to find her dad in the seedy motel room with the waitress from TGI Friday’s. So much for “don’t ever be a burden.”
She had no idea where her dad was now, but her mom had poured all that anxiety and desperation onto her as well. Eva left at sixteen.
The thing about Indianapolis was that it was big enough to get lost in, it had no expectations, and it was very far from home. “Aren’t we all just so perfect now,” she thought as she sipped her margarita, and the drunk businessman watched her with leering eyes.
Robert had left Pollepel Island that morning and was snaking his way through the rain along the base of Storm King.
Suddenly, he realized he couldn’t remember the last day it didn’t rain. The clouds continued to pour their weight down on the world and it made Robert more and more uneasy as he threaded his way back through the park.
He passed a couple of hikers who had to be crazy to be out in this weather. They said nothing. After he passed one of them turned and looked back towards him in silence, then continued on.
Up above the Stillman trail merged with other paths and curved towards the trailheads up by route 9W. The world seemed darker and heavier than it should be. Roots grabbed at his boots and the mud tried to suck him down into the earth. But he had to keep going. He could never stop with the job unfinished.
But the rain… would the rain ever stop? The savage weight pressed down harder and harder upon him.
Jenna had kept her days busy, as she always did, with the fundraisers, the board meetings, and the volunteer cleanups. But time had wound down and the day was upon her. She could never avoid its inexorable march, no matter how much she fragmented her mind to deal with other people’s problems.
That’s how years work after all. It always comes back around.
She drove slowly, probably too slowly, up 9W. She knew where she had to go, but didn’t want to be there. She knew what crippled her inside, but never wanted to face it, so she did everything else she possibly could. If things were quiet, then you were alone with your thoughts, and that’s something that Jenna never permitted herself, except for one day a year.
So she drove slowly.
Dan stood at the floor to ceiling windows and watched the rain dance off the panes, blurring the city lights around him. A woman slept on the bed in the room behind him. Not a wife, he would never allow that, he’d hurt too many people, but he didn’t want to be alone.
He’d moved halfway around the world to hide from his problems and his failings, but the problem with running is that you take yourself with you, and if you’re the cause of your own grief, there’s nowhere you can run.
He took a sip of his whiskey and stared down at his phone in his hand. It was the anniversary of his daughter’s death, and he thought he should call someone. He did this dance every year. He could never call his ex-wife. He’d hurt her too badly with his betrayal, and she was now married to her own grief and pain and wouldn’t want to hear from him in any case. He’d tried that one year, in a drunken stupor, and she’d hung up as soon as she heard his voice.
He sometimes wished he could call Eva, but he didn’t even know how. He knew she’d left home, but she left no trace. He thought of her, and hoped she’d found some happiness. And he thought of Alice, bleeding to death in the rain at the bottom of that ditch, alone and scared.
He wished that he had stayed, but he couldn’t endure that place any longer, and he knew that made him weak. But there was something dark in those woods. It haunted him when he heard the whispers in the trees at night.
“Maybe we’re all alone in the end after all,” he thought, and took another sip.
Robert rejoined the proper trail, something he rarely did. He knew there was nothing to find on trails, but the weight pressed down so hard he could barely see, and the rain thickened. The trees bent and swayed and Robert pushed forward toward what felt like the end of grief and epiphany.
Jenna parked her car at the parking area at the trailhead that led out to Butter Hill. She took her time. It was sunny today, but cold. Not like that night when they’d had the storm.
She got out of the car and surveyed the hills surrounding the crest. They were ancient and timeless. She found some comfort in that. Things were here before that day and they endured after. They would endure after she and everyone she knew slept in their graves. At least something would.
She brushed some gravel with her foot and looked at the road and the parking area. The tire skids from the truck were long gone. So was the broken glass and the blood splatter. She remembered what they looked like though. She projected her memory onto the world around her. She could almost hear the sirens and smell the smoldering rubber. She walked to the ridge at the edge of the parking lot and looked down.
There was a protective barrier there. It had been there that day too, but it hadn’t been strong enough. She saw the wreckage, what was left of it, at the base of the hill. It hadn’t been worth it to bring it all up. It was now old and rusted with age.
Her son had been parked next to the ridge with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. She knew some of the kids drove up here to make out, and she pretended she didn’t know what he was doing. He said she was the one, but young lovers always think that.
It had been raining that day, and the trucker had been drinking. When he skidded out on the turn, he hit the back of the station wagon and the car punched through the barrier and plummeted into the ravine below. They said her son died instantly on impact. But she still thought about that poor girl dying in the rain at the base of the hill, and she began to cry. She wept for the lost lives, and all the time she lost with her son. She wept for the way the cracks spread throughout her town. She wept for the trucker, even though he didn’t deserve it. She leaned over the barricade and cried with deep, heaving sobs. She only allowed herself that one day a year, so she needed to get the most of it.
Robert emerged from the darkness at the base of the trailheads and felt a chill cut through him to the bone. The rain poured down.
Above he saw the barrier that stood between the park and the highway above. Leaning over it he saw a woman crying, and for a moment, he thought he knew her, so he called out. Her head lifted for a moment and she looked around, but she probably couldn’t hear him in this rain. But then he saw the car, and that pushed all other thoughts from his mind.
The station wagon lay burning in the rain at the base of the hill, and Robert could hear the roaring sounds of twisting metal and smashing glass. The air smelled like burning diesel and ozone. There was a broken and plaintive cry coming from the car and he sprinted as fast as he could through the rain and mud to the passenger door, and there he saw her.
Alice lay in the twisted wreckage. Her right arm was broken and pinned beneath the collapsed driver’s side of the car. Her legs were crushed where the rear seats had folded over. Blood dripped out of the corner of her mouth as she screamed in the darkness, until she saw his face.
He couldn’t speak and felt frozen in place. All this time he’d spent looking, and all he could do was stare in misery and terror at his beloved Alice. They had planned to spend eternity together.
She turned to look at him as she bled out, and gave the slightest of smiles. She reached up with her one good arm and brushed his cheek with her fingertips, and then the light left her eyes.
Robert jumped to his feet and stumbled backwards into the woods. The rain and darkness swirled around him while he gasped for air, but he found only emptiness. He tried to cry out, but was greeted with nothing but silence. He slipped over a small hill behind him and hit his head on the way down into the pit.
Jenna had composed herself by the time she got home. A shadow had passed over while she wept above the car, and for a moment she thought she heard her Robert. It wasn’t the first time, and maybe that was why on this day she always came back. It offered the potential for the slightest connection, or a hint at what was lost.
But only once a year, that’s all she could abide. It was 365 days now, and there was so much to do. She heated up a heating pad and the apartment smelled of jasmine rice. She sat on her couch and turned on the news ticker. There were so many people that needed help. She didn’t have the luxury of prolonged grief.
Tomorrow she was helping out the girl scouts with a cookie sale. She popped her sleeping pill. She would need her rest.
Eva went home alone that night, but still plenty drunk.
She sat by the small window in her kitchen with a glass of gin and looked out on the city. It was cold and anonymous. Just like she liked it. It had no expectations. She could be sad whenever and wherever she wanted, and that was a sick sort of liberation.
She looked down at her phone. No missed calls, though she didn’t expect any. Still, the anniversary was always hard. Sometimes she wished someone would call, but what would she say? She missed Alice so deeply. And sometimes she even missed her mom and her dad. But the rot had set in too deeply there, and there was no coming back.
Robert woke up in a small depression not far from the trailheads and set to making camp coffee. He didn’t remember going to bed here, but sometimes everything in the woods started to look the same.
The sun was bright today, but he noticed that the shadows still lay long in the valley, and the clouds were starting to gather on the horizon. “It’s probably gonna rain later today,” he thought. But that was okay, he could handle a little rain.
He knew Alice was somewhere in these woods, and he would find her. They were destined to be together, they had made a promise. They had promised eternity.
He knew she was somewhere in these woods and he would search every inch of the Hudson River until he found her.
He would take all the time he needed.
When You See Them, They Can Hurt You
At my house, nothing is ever out of place. Things don’t sit idle on countertops. Clothes are never tossed haphazardly on the floor. Everything has its container. Everything stays out of sight. Towels are immediately sealed up in a laundry bin after a single use. Nothing is ever left out.
Everything is lit by recessed lights. There are no lamps. Nothing sits on the vanity. No pots and pans stay on the stove. I have no pets. I own no plants. I know exactly what I’m going to see when I walk into any room, with no variation.
No mess. No forgetfulness. No mistakes.
Because that’s how they get you. It starts slowly at first, a glimpse here, a double-take there. They hide in plain sight. You brush it off, but you shouldn’t. They’re always there. And most of the time, nothing happens, so you just keep on forgetting. But they’re always there. Because we all believe in them, even if only for a second… even if only in a fleeting instance.
That belief? That’s a mistake. And that gets you killed. Because when you see them… when you really see them… then they can hurt you. And they can hurt you so badly that even if you survive, you wish you were dead. Trust me, I know.
That’s why, at my house, nothing is ever out of place. Nothing sits idle on countertops. Nothing is ever discarded on the floor. Everything is enclosed where it belongs. Everything has a home. No mess, no forgetfulness, no mistakes.
Not a single mistake.
Of course it won’t happen that quickly for you. You don’t know about them, after all, not really, not yet. But you’re reading this, so you’ll know now. And they’ll know you know. Maybe this is your first mistake. So you better make sure everything is where it belongs. Make sure you know exactly where everything is. Your life depends on it.
Here’s how it happened to me.
Five years ago my wife Becca and I moved into a large old Victorian house in the suburbs of Chicago. The house was three stories with five bedrooms, counting the large room on the third floor that doubled as storage. The second floor had the other four bedrooms and one bathroom that were accessible from the landing (not counting the bathroom in the master suite). It was far more house than we needed, just the two of us, but after years of living in cramped and roach infested city apartments, the space breathed life back into us.
We had talked about getting one of those luxury condos with the brick facades, floor-to-ceiling black-trimmed windows, rooftop gardens, and courtyard grills. If you’ve ever shopped for apartments in Chicago or any major city, you know the ones (they all look the same), but the house had personality and we were so excited for something to make our own.
Its wood siding was straight and strong. It was old, but well maintained. The floors creaked but didn’t bend. The doors shut soundly. The property was spotted with tufts of evergreens and wandering shrubs and vines. It would have needed work, but we thought it was the kind of house that could be a paradise.
But this isn’t really about the house. It’s not like the house was haunted and I don’t want to give the impression that if we’d moved into the bougie apartment building that what happened never would have happened. This isn’t that kind of story.
Nothing was wrong with the house. Something is wrong with the world. And maybe it’s a little bit easier to see it in a stoic old Victorian. Or there are just more opportunities for them to be seen.
“How do we have this much stuff?” I remember saying to Becca as I hauled in yet another box of books, wiping the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand.
“How did this all fit in our old apartment?” She marveled back.
The fridge on the first floor was empty but for a six pack of Rolling Rock I’d so carefully unpacked first. I knew we’d need them cold later. I twisted the caps off two bottles and brought one to Becca.
“Yeah, it seems like stuff always expands to fill all the available space. We’ll look like hoarders in here in no time,” I said as we clinked the necks of our bottles. I dropped down on a box next to Becca and we chatted for hours about our life together and all the wonderful things we would do with the house.
I miss those days. I’d give anything just to chat like that again with her.
But all of our dreams had to get put on hold, which is pretty common with dreams sometimes.
Not a week after we moved in, Becca’s older sister announced her swift and difficult divorce. It happened so quickly, and Lori was devastated. The rest of us weren’t too broken up about it. We’d never much like Randall before all of this. Lori had been having health problems and couldn’t get out as much as she used to, so Randall sought his excitement elsewhere. When Lori found out and confronted him with her anger and disappointment, he gave her his rebuttal. So when she showed up at our house her right eye was swollen shut and she had seven stitches. Apparently that was finally enough.
She’d get the house and a decent amount of money (and a restraining order), but while all that wound through the courts she decided she couldn’t stay in the house any longer and Becca said she could stay with us. After all, we had more than enough space. We did put in a security system though. Randall was unpredictable and I wanted to be prepared.
We offered to convert one of the downstairs receiving rooms for Lori since she had some trouble with stairs, but she insisted she didn’t want to be a bother, so she took the bedroom just to the right of the stairs on the second floor. It was a burden for her to get up and down those stairs multiple times a day, but she said she could use the exercise and, well, it was her life. I wouldn’t tell her what to do.
But the house remained half unpacked, with boxes and furniture in odd places throughout all three floors as Becca took on the role of part-time caretaker.
The trouble started soon after. Lori was nervous and jittery, which naturally made sense. Now, I think that’s what made her susceptible and gave them the opening, but I certainly didn’t think much about it at the time.
I worked upstairs in my office most days. The big desk that came with the house was buried under boxes and had a cracked leg, so settled in on a folding table by the window between stacks of materials and equipment where at least I could look out on the small grove of evergreens.
I would hear Becca walking around downstairs cleaning up and putting away, as best as she could when time allowed. And I could always hear Lori’s slow walk down the steps from the second floor bedroom. They would often take tea in the kitchen and I could hear their muffled voices even through the thick wooden floor.
One day, as I sat pouring over a CAD drawing, I heard a loud crash from the kitchen below. I sprinted downstairs and saw Becca washing Lori’s bleeding hand over the sink. The floor by the arched door between the kitchen and the foyer was covered in food and broken glass.
“It’s okay honey, Lori dropped a plate and cut her hand trying to clean it up,” Becca explained. Lori was breathing heavily.
“Sorry to bother you,” she gasped. “I just startled myself. I thought I saw someone in the living room! But it was just that jacket on the coat rack by those boxes.”
I wandered over to the living room anyway and saw the offending jacket. It did kind of look like a man, I could see that. I walked back to the kitchen and got the broom to sweep up the broken glass. “Be careful, Lori,” I said, “you’ve been through a lot, you gotta take it easy.”
That was just the start, though. I saw it happen to her a number of times throughout the day. When I was downstairs making lunch, I’d see her jump when she walked into a room. I’d hear her drop things at night or yelp with alarm.
It seemed to make her even more agitated, and I don’t think she was sleeping well. Her eyes got bloodshot, she would get spacey and forgetful. Looking back, it should have seemed weirder. We’ve all had that feeling where you walk into a room and out of the corner of your eye you think you see something that’s not there. A towel or a coat becomes a person hiding in the corner. A shadow and a lamp at night becomes some sort of wild animal. Our brains play tricks on us from time to time. But it happened to Lori a lot.
I honestly thought she was unraveling due to her divorce and the strain of it all. I told Becca we should get her into therapy, and she said she’d recommend it. But the thing was, the more Lori saw things, and the more she pointed them out to me, the more Becca and I started to see things too. Not so much that we noticed at the start, it was that same feeling we all get sometimes, just a little more often.
I even joked to Becca one day, “We need to get all these boxes put away. I feel like I’m jumping every time I walk into a room! Give me another month of this and I’m gonna be like Lori.”
“Ssshh!” Becca smacked my arm playfully. “Be nice! You're right though, I keep thinking I’m seeing things, too. Lori has me all freaked out. But we do need to get this place cleaned up, right now we look like hoarders, just like you promised.” She gave a smile, but there was something… uncertain… about it.
“You okay, Becs? Is there something else?”
“It’s just…” she looked upstairs briefly, then back at me, “I know it’s silly, but Lori really does have me freaked out and I’m starting to jump at shadows too. You know that towel rack in our bathroom?”
“Yeah, of course.” She was talking about the towel bar in the second floor bathroom. You could see it from the doors to all the bedrooms on that floor, and it was a little higher up then a towel rack should be. If it had towels hanging on it, it looked a little startling at night sometimes.
“It keeps freaking me out. Do you think we could take that down and replace it with something else?”
“Sure, not a problem,” I walked over and wrapped my arms around her and she breathed a little easier. “I know it’s a lot having Lori here, especially when she’s as stressed as she is. It’s all gonna be okay, Becs.” She hugged me back tightly and we stood there for a moment and listened to Lori’s slow footsteps upstairs.
I never took down the towel rack. Things got busy at work over the next week, and then everything fell apart. Maybe it wouldn’t have if I had done what I said I would. I should have taken down the towel rack when Becca asked. That was a mistake.
The next week was incredibly busy at work for me, and I feel like I barely saw Becca and Lori, but I heard them. And when I did see Lori it was almost like she was sneaking around the first floor, still in her nightgown, moving things from place to place.
It gave me the jitters and I started trying to avoid Lori, and Becca by consequence of that. I would see her when she fell wearily into bed at the end of the night.
One night Becca collapsed next to me and let out an exhausted sigh.
“Becs, we can’t go on like this,” I said to her. “It’s getting to the point that Lori needs professional help. We can’t have her here anymore.”
“I know, I know,” Becca replied, rubbing her eyes. “I’m going to take her to the doctor tomorrow, we’ll find her somewhere else.” She sounded a little choked up, and I could tell the stress was weighing on her. “I’m sorry all this happened,” she sobbed.
I rolled over and hugged her close, pulling her face into my shoulder, whispering that it would all be okay.
I woke up to the sound of footsteps and what sounded like rustling curtains. I pried my eyes open and found Becca already awake, staring at me, her eyes radiant circles in the darkness, full of light and panic. I shot up in bed and the corners of my vision crawled with motion, with creeping hands and staggered gaits as horrors and terrors scattered in the room.
No, it was just the curtains at the window overlooking the evergreen grove, and my coat carelessly caught on the TV stand. I shook the sleep from my eyes, but there was something happening. I heard the rustle in the guest room and the plodding, irregular footsteps. The house seemed filled with darkness and anxiety, it pressed down on me like a compression band on my chest. I found it hard to breathe. The air was dense and hot. I put my hand on Becca’s arm. She was still lying down but breathing quickly, and tightly, like she was gasping for air. The house had a tension and viciousness about it.
In a moment I was out of bed and at the door of the master suite. The lights were on in the hallway and the foyer. I saw a thin shape in a white nightgown dash from the unused third bedroom to the room by the stairs… Lori. I ran across the landing into the guest bedroom.
I burst into the guest room. Lori dashed across the room like some pale spider, faster than I thought she could move in her condition. She left bloody footprints behind her, as if at some points she’d run through broken glass, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
The bed was pushed up against one wall and the floor was bare. Lori grabbed a lamp off of the dresser and flung it into the open walk-in closet where it shattered, echoing across the barren wood. The room was empty, she’d shoved everything into the closet. She sprinted to the closet and slammed the door, then she looked over at me with cold and wild eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’ve trapped them,” she whispered.
My heart raced as I backed out of the room. She inched towards me.
“Becs!” I shouted, never taking my eyes off Lori. I saw my wife poke her head out of our room. “Call 911! Something is wrong with Lori!”
“Wha…?” Becca’s quiet voice eased into the hallway but was drowned out by another crash. Lori brushed past me on her way back to the third bedroom we’d been using as makeshift storage.
“Just call the police!” I shouted, and turned to chase Lori. I followed her into the bedroom. She had started to ransack the room, throwing everything towards the closet or under the bed. I ran up behind her and grabbed her wrists and tossed her onto the bed.
“Lori! It’s okay!” I yelled directly into her face, trying to shake off whatever madness had overcome her.
She raged against me, flinging herself against the bed, but just for a moment, then she went limp and stared into my eyes silently. I felt that weight again, a black dread and anxiety press down against me as shadows flickered at the corners of my vision.
“You know they’re here,” she whispered, “let me help you, or they’ll take us all.”
I opened my mouth to answer but had nothing to say. I gasped for air in the suffocating thickness of the room, and then I heard a scream from the master bedroom.
I jumped off Lori and ran back to my bedroom. Becca was pressed against the wall by the door, the phone sat on the floor with faint voices coming through the receiver. I think 911 was still on the line. Her gaze was fixed across the room at the armoire next to the TV stand. I grabbed her arm. It felt frozen. I followed her gaze and saw the shadows around the armoire shift in the darkness, full of wrath and hate, and for a moment I froze too. The weight of everything pressed down upon me. I gasped for air. Reality around me surged with loathing and violence. It was all coming undone.
Then there was a scream from the landing. It shook both Becca and me from the spell.
Lori was standing at the top of the stairs facing the bathroom. She screamed again and tried to run, but her right foot landed wrong. She was still hindered by her illness and her body couldn’t move as fast as her mind needed.
Her ankle snapped. I watched her slip and then she was gone. The crash of bone on wood echoed throughout the house and then there was silence. I sprinted to the top of the stairs. For a moment I thought I saw a shadow move in the bathroom, but the room was empty. I turned back to the foyer. Lori lay at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of seeping blood. Her cold hand stretched out, almost pointing to me at the top of the stairs, full of foreboding. Her jaw was broken in the fall and her gaping mouth hung open at an unnatural angle, haunting and grievous, full of exposed teeth, severed bone, and dread.
Whatever the weight was that pressed down upon the house that night, all that violence and loathing, was scattered by the arrival of the police and ambulance. The strobing red and blue lights bathed the neighborhood and shook away all thoughts of monsters and ghosts, replacing them with a horror more real and traditional. Curtains were pulled back. Men peeked out of their front doors in their t-shirts and boxers. Screams were replaced by whispers.
It was one thing to be frightened by paranoia and dancing shadows, and quite another to watch Lori’s broken body loaded into the ambulance. She was dead long before the medics arrived.
I held Becca tight as she wept into the shoulder of my college sweatshirt. “This should never have happened,” I thought. “Things had been going so well until she moved in.”
The house loomed above us, empty but silent. And the evergreen trees swayed in the nighttime wind. For a moment I thought I saw something terrible dancing in the tips of the trees, hiding where vision couldn’t reach, just outside of rationality and reason, and then it was gone. But for a moment I believed. Maybe this house was haunted. Maybe we should go.
But then I felt Becca sob into my shoulder and I pressed my face against her neck. We could deal with all that tomorrow.
The wind whistled and shadows stood against the horizon, hiding at the edge of the world.
We spent the next three days at a hotel. It was mercifully sparse and empty. I tried to let Becca sleep as much as she could while I handled the probing questions from the police and hospital, but I don’t think she did. She mostly lay on the bed and stared at the wall through teary, grief-stricken eyes.
The police obviously thought there was some sort of malfeasance on our part, but ultimately they had no evidence of that, and plenty of people could vouch for Lori’s ragged mental state. Eventually they moved on and left the even more daunting task of closing out Lori’s estate ahead of us. I hired an executor for that who I thought could sort out the legal issues around the divorce and do what had to be done. Becca was in no state for it and I couldn’t bring myself to care.
But there was the matter of our house and what to do next. On our sixth night in the hotel, I came out of the bathroom after showering and found Becca sitting up on the bed in rigid silence.
“Hey Becs, how, uh… how are you doing?” I asked. What a stupid thing to say. I sat down beside her.
“We can’t go back to that house,” she whispered.
“It’s no problem, Becs. We can stay here as long as we want. Let’s just try to take your mind off of it.”
“No, we can never go back. I don’t trust it. We can never go back there again.”
“Look, Becs…” I started to say. This was gonna be our dream house, I would argue. And we just bought it, but then I stopped myself. I heard the brutal seriousness and conviction in her tone. Something bent inside of me. I sighed. “Well, maybe we’re bougie apartment people after all.”
She looked at me with the closest thing I’d seen to a smile since the incident. “Really?”
“Yeah, a rooftop grill seems kind of nice right now.”
She immediately wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me close, burying her face in my shoulder.
“I’ll make one last trip over tonight and then we never have to see that place again.”
She pushed away and stared at me in horror.
“What? I just told you, we can’t ever go back there, either of us.”
“Becs, I have some important work papers over there. There are some things I have to close out. I’ll do it tonight, I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
“I don’t like this,” she whispered, “please, just forget it.”
“It’s okay, Becs, I’ll do it right now and get it over with, I’ll be back soon.” Tears ran down her cheeks as I left the hotel room. I’ll never forgive myself for not trusting her.
I arrived back at the house at dusk. The sun darkened to a bloody auburn beneath low clouds on the horizon, casting odd shadows, strange and long. The whole vibe was eerie, but I convinced myself it was jitters that Becca had put in my head.
The house contained all our worldly possessions, and a number of expensive pieces of equipment along with their associated expensive materials that I used for work. I could send a white-glove moving company for all of that, though. I was concerned with a number of contracts and financial documents that could be sensitive and put me on the wrong side of some NDAs if I lost them. They were in a lockbox in my office on the second floor.
I entered the house and headed straight for the stairs, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched. It was like the grandfather clock had eyes, and the coat racks reached out to pull at me as I passed with gnarled, grasping hands.
I took the steps two at a time.
I opened the door to my office and immediately jumped back. Someone was at my desk, looming over it, tall and hunched. As I stared, it bent slowly up, like it was turning to look at me. I slapped the switch and bright white lights flooded the room, and I let out an uneasy sigh. It was one of my pieces of equipment, a rack on a pivot that has twisted over my desk. I collected myself, walked to my desk, shoved the rack out of the way, and raided my lockbox.
“Alright, I’m out of here,” I muttered to myself, when I heard what sounded like some sort of shuffling footsteps out on the landing. My breath turned to ice. I crept to the door and looked out. The landing was empty. I thought I’d just make a run for it. I half jogged to the top of the stairs, and for whatever reason, I turned and looked in the bathroom. I saw it there, tall and gangly, misshapen, with stringy black hair hanging down long in front of its face.
I tensed so hard my nails dug into the palms of my hands. “Okay, it’s just the towel rack,” I told myself, without nearly enough conviction. “Come on, we don’t believe in ghosts. I just forgot to take down the damn towel rack.” My breath slowed slightly.
But the thing is, I do believe in ghosts. We all do, somehow or another. Or we wouldn’t have that feeling when you wake in the night and the moonlight streams through your window casting foul, grasping shadows and you gasp for air and your blood flows like broken glass in your veins. We’ve all felt it even for a moment. We all believe.
And belief is what makes the veil thinner. It’s what gives them the chance.
“It's just the towel rack,” I said again. Then a bony arm reached up from the towel rack and parted the nightmarish black hair. It’s sloughing, pallid skin shone in the moonlight. It’s fanged, unhinged maw gaped open with a sickening smile, uneven and broken, just like Lori that night she plummeted to her death. It’s eye pits were black as coal and glowed with a ghastly terror, as piercing as the stars but with none of their light.
It lurched towards me with two bumbling steps as if it was just remembering how to walk after years trapped on the other side of the veil. I stumbled backwards onto the landing and my back dug into the banister as the creature fell flat then twisted and crawled towards me like a spider. I closed my eyes and shook my head as if to banish it, like it was the same as seeing a man in the shadow of a hanging jacket. When I opened my eyes again it was gone.
But so was the towel rack.
I turned to the stairs to make a run for it, but saw the specter at the bottom of the stairs, it began climbing up, faster than I thought it could move, grinning all the while with that empty, devouring maw. I turned and bolted to the master bedroom, slamming the door and locking it behind me. I fell backwards onto the bed as the shadow smashed the door open like balsa wood. It loomed above me now, toying with me, I had nowhere else to run. That jaw gaped as it bent over me and my heart felt like it would burst. It was prying into my mind and flooding it with horror. I felt frozen in place.
Then I heard the front door, and Becca’s voice.
“Babe? I couldn’t leave you here alone! Babe, let’s go!”
The creature stood up straight and looked to the landing, then back at me with a grotesque smile, and then it was gone.
“Oh no,” I muttered, “Becs get out of here!”
I jumped to my feet and ran for the landing as fast as I could. I heard Becca’s scream before I even made it to the top of the stairs. I half fell, half jumped down the stairs and turned towards the living room and there was the demon, bent over here in front of the fireplace. It was holding her down by her shoulders and those black eyes were drilling into her. Her eyes held a look of terror I’ve never seen on another living creature, save in Lori’s that night at the bottom of the stairs. Becca’s body was frozen in a defensive posture, as if there was anything she could do against such horror.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did the first thing that came to mind. I hit the panic button on the alarm system. The alarm blared from the house. I saw lights turn on up and down the street. The creature unfolded itself and looked over at me, and then it was gone. The aura of despair lifted away from the house. Just like with Lori, maybe it could only exist in the quiet, frantic places. The world again became too real, and the veil thickened. I heard the sirens and I rushed to Becca’s side, but her face was frozen in that scream, and her limbs were locked up in that unnatural pose like she was carved of ice. I held her and sobbed into her shoulder until the police came.
I told them it was an intruder. Naturally I was the primary suspect, but the police could never show how I shattered a thick wooden door like it was kindling, or how in the world I could have caused those sorts of injuries to Becca, so eventually I was free.
Becca survived, of sorts. I still visit her at the hospital. Her hands are clenched in permanent fists. Her mouth stays open in a horrifying grimace. Her eyes are foggy like old, dirty ice. You would think she was dead to look at her, but she’s very much not, the doctors tell me. Her brain is full of activity. I hope dearly that she dreams pleasant dreams, peaceful, kind, and gentle. But I think and dread that I’m wrong, and that what rages in that frozen mind is worse than anything I can imagine.
I look around her room in the hospital and see hooks for jackets, medical monitors attached to rolling stands and covered with flowing cords and cables, and tables full of pills and charts and gloves and whatever castaway supplies the hospital accumulates, and I hope for Becca’s sake that until she is free from this place, she stays blind. There’s too much in this room to see. And too many places for them to hide.
Not at all like my place now. I’ve learned my lesson. I know how it happens. I know how they get in. It’s in a glimpse, where you see something terrible, and yet you believe it, even if only for a second. They wait at the edges of the world, and they wait, and wait, and wait. They wait for you to see, because then they can hurt you.
So you don’t give them places to hide. You don’t leave things out. You take down the towel bar.
You keep things clean. That’s how my house is now. At my house, nothing is ever out of place. Things don’t sit idle on countertops. Clothes are never tossed haphazardly on the floor. Everything has its container. Everything stays out of sight.
No mess. No forgetfulness.
If you travel down State Route 20 in West Virginia, you’ll see miles and miles of rolling hills and mountains stretching off into the blue tinted sky. The hills and valleys are strewn with cities and towns, villages and abandoned waystations on old forest roads. History runs deep here… history and forgetfulness.
I come from a small town called Melinda. We always say it’s the kind of place you would never be able to find if you didn’t already know it was there. Your eyes would be blinded by the smoky vistas and misty overlooks and you’d miss the exit that looks like nothing more than a turn off to a run down oil-change shop. But if you somehow find it and turn down that road, you’ll find the red brick buildings, abandoned quarries, and aging schoolhouses where I grew up. It’s quaint in that Appalachian kind of way, but small and sparse.
Most travelers that do find their ways to Melinda find nothing worthwhile there. Honestly, most people that live there don’t either. There’s not always a lot worth finding in these hills, and some of the things you do find… well… maybe the better part is in the forgetting.
My name is Dave, and it’s been 9 years since I left Melinda. I spent some time working as a casual longshoreman at the Port of Philadelphia before saving up enough money to go back to school at Temple. I’ve been living off campus in a rowhouse with six other guys. They’re the closest thing I’ve had to friends since moving to the city. We’re not exactly close, but they’re good company for drinking and the occasional joint. And it’s nice not to have to fall asleep in a quiet house.
This Friday night we’re out on 2nd Street at a dive bar with a broken digital jukebox and that kind of sticky bar floor that always makes it sound like you’re walking on packing tape. Rob, Derek, and I get a seat by a closed up fireplace full of LED candles. Derek has two girls in tow, I don’t get their names, but he’s clearly playing them off each other. That seems complicated.
Rob has a little piece of eye candy he picked up at the last bar named Emily. I don’t think much about any of them, to be honest. I lean back in my chair and nurse my lager and let the hum of conversation wash over me until I hear Emily say, “Oh yeah! I’m from a small town in West Virginia called…” Then I hear her say it like we say it, “Me-leenda”. No outsider pronounces it right. I snap to attention.
“No way!” Rob shouts. “That’s where Dave is from! Man, what are the odds of that?”
I lift my glass and nonchalantly say, “Go Tigers.” She woos.
A town of 800 people and of course I run into another expat here in a dive in Philadelphia. What are the odds, indeed? I don’t want to make a big thing about it, we make a little small talk and move on. There’s not that much to say about Melinda, after all.
But an hour passes. And then Rob shows back up with a tray of Lagers and shots. Here they call that the “City Special.”
“Drink up, ladies!” he shouts as he downs the Old Overholt.
Then he drops back into his seat. They’ve been talking about the case in North Philly that recently broke where it turned out a man had kept two girls in his basement for 6 years. Somehow, against all odds, he managed to keep that secret for that long. They talk logistics. How did he feed them? How did he handle medical care? How did he get them to go to the store for him and not immediately run for help? (Derek and his two girls both seem very into true crime). That’s when Rob turns to Emily and says, “So what about you guys, ever have any action like this back in Me-LEEN-da?” He over enunciates.
Emily shoots me a glance, and for a moment a single word hangs between us in the air like a lead weight tied to both of our necks…
Then she looks down at her drink.
I take a sip of my lager. “Oh, you know every town has their shit,” I say, and I hope to leave it at that. But the whiskey is warming her up. Her head is swimming, I can see it.
“Well, we had one thing…” She begins. Farrhouse. A shudder runs through me. I don’t want to think about it.
“Outside of town there was this old swimming hole…” And she starts talking. She talks about the missing girls. The fingernails and hair that would float to the top of the pond in heavy rains. The brute that was responsible for all those murders. How they found his bloated body hugging the last girl in the flooded hole. That’s the stain of Melinda, the rot that runs deep in our little hidden valley. And some of it did happen that way. But I sigh, because I know she’s going to tell it wrong. There’s no way for her to know, of course. She’s younger than I am. She wasn’t there like I was. And she has no idea how deep the rot truly goes.
First of all, it wasn’t a swimming hole. It was an abandoned cistern. If we’re really going to tell this story, it matters to get the details right.
Schooley’s road heads West out of Melinda through the foothills of what we called Jagged Peak. You can imagine how that got its name. Look, we’re not all poets. Schooley’s runs through fields of bushy bluestem and switchgrass and rises a few hundred feet above the valley before falling back down into a lush meadow. On the Northeastern edge of the road is the river, which you can continue to follow north until at some point it merges into the Tygart.
But to the west and south of the road is the old Farrhouse property.
The Farrhouses made their money in timber and copper in ages past. But their mines eventually dried up. Meanwhile, timber got too competitive, and old man Lyon Farrhouse got too drunk, for them to keep up with the business. So they say, at least.
That left an interesting predicament for the modern day Farrhouse family. They had some 3,600 acres of land left, and the old estates, but not that much in the bank. I used to imagine them up in that old manor chopping wood to keep the rooms warm while eating fish they caught themselves. They probably could have sold a bunch of that land to live an easier life, but who knows why people do what they do.
Lionel Farrhouse still ran the family timber business. I suppose that was enough to keep the lights on, I was just a kid when all this started, so I didn’t really know about such things. The Farrhouse kids were Rory, the oldest. I think he was 7 years my senior. James was 3 years older than me, Lorelai one year older. Mrs. Farrhouse lived somewhere in Pennsylvania. They were estranged, but still married, and she kept the family name.
The Farrhouse property itself extended across a large swath of western Melinda. It covered a lot of ground, but without the money and staff to landscape and maintain it, much less use it for business purposes, a lot of it fell into disrepair. That included an old cistern that was part of a blast furnace 80 years ago not far off of Schooley’s road.
The blast furnace had long been dismantled by some combination of weather and thieves, leaving little more than burned foundation blocks and the occasional scattering of ingots. The cistern had lost its cover and the foundation had cracked open, but otherwise, acted kind of like it always had. It was around 40 feet across, and 12 feet deep. It was surrounded by a perimeter of switchgrass, and kept drained, but it would flood whenever we got heavy rains as old piping and gutters funneled water into it. The family knew this was a hazard and boarded it off. They closed up the gate and put barricades up to stop cars from getting down that road. But that would never stop kids. And they didn’t have the money to decommission it entirely.
From when I was a kid I would hear about what we called the Farrhouse Well, and how kids would sneak out there after heavy rains to swim, or in the night when it was empty to haze each other by pushing each other in and dangling a rope just a little higher than the kid in the well could reach to get them to panic. Kids are little shits. But that’s where our story really starts.
The first time I remember hearing about a tragedy related to the Well I was 10. A couple of high school girls had gone out there on a dare (or so the rumors said). Only one of them came back. Supposedly they got separated in the woods and, terrified, the other girl ran all the way home. Police searched the area and interviewed the Farrhouses but no one had seen her. They combed through the cistern and found nothing. But they didn’t expect to, of course, there had long been rumors of the Farrhouse monster and nothing had ever been found there. It was just an urban legend to most of the Sheriff’s deputies, and it had been some time since they looked as closely as they should.
Anyway, we didn’t know any of that at the time, we were just kids. We were over at Mason’s house for a sleepover when we heard our parents talking about it. We just KNEW it was the Farrhouse monster that had gotten her and pulled her into the well. We spent the rest of the night teasing each other and making up the scariest stories we could to try to see who would break first.
It turns out the truth is harsher than fiction.
The Farrhouse family hated these rumors, and worked hard to show there was no truth to them, for whatever that was worth. But every time this happened, there were the questions and the investigations, everyone seemed to turn against them. James was only thirteen at the time, and Lorelai was eleven. They responded by fleeing into their father’s arms in the walls of their estate. But Rory took in the hardest. He was a junior and almost grown, and took the brunt of the bullying. He never graduated.
Some say he killed himself, but there was absolutely no evidence or reason to think that, except that he left Melinda. It turns out he went voluntarily to a military academy in Maryland. Anything was better than staying where he was.
The next time I heard about a disappearance related to the Well I was 14. Thinking back on it, there may have been other disappearances that I heard my parents mention, but they were out of towners, and I didn’t worry too much about that back then.
I turned 14 right before my Freshman year of high school and two important things happened that year. The first was the disappearance of Valerie Parakeen, who Jeff, my best friend since childhood, had been dating at the time. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The second thing, though, was the new arrival at our school, Leslie Farrhouse.
Apparently Mrs. Farrhouse had recently moved back from Pennsylvania and brought the youngest daughter back with her. She had been the baby of the family when Mrs. Farrhouse left and had wanted to stay with her mother, but here she was, back in Melinda.
To this day I’m not even sure I could tell you what it was about her that mesmerized me. She wasn’t stereotypically gorgeous like Valerie. She wasn’t tall, she didn’t dress nice. But she was beautiful under those ill-fitting clothes and I had an irresistible urge to be close to her.
I sat with her that first day at lunch when I found her alone in the cafeteria and we got to talking. I would have sat with her every day if she would have allowed it, but she was private. And Mason and Jeff weren’t that interested in being around her. No one really was. Everyone seemed to think she was strange, but I thought she was wonderful.
I lived a parallel life for part of that year, hanging out sometimes with Mason and Jeff, and sometimes with Leslie whenever we could find the time. We weren’t lovers, or anything like that, hell we were only 14, but I wanted to spend all my time with her.
That made it all the harder when Valerie disappeared. Jeff had somehow been dating Valerie, who was a Sophomore that year. She was one of the most beautiful girls in school even at 15.
She didn’t show up to school one day. Jeff was confused because he’d been talking to her just the night before, but he figured she was sick. She didn’t show up the day after that, or the day after that. Jeff called her parent’s house, but no one really had the time to talk to him. He even tried to file a police report but they told him they were already looking into it, and besides, he didn’t have any standing to do a thing like that.
As far as anyone could tell, she hadn’t even been anywhere near the Well or the Farrhouse property. The last time anyone heard from her she was catching the bus to school, but Jeff was so sure that was where she was.
“It’s that damn Farrhouse family!” he shouted, pacing back and forth out back of the school.
“Hey, they’re not all responsible for this!” I looked down at my feet after I said it, cowering from Jeff’s glare. “I mean, you don’t even know she ended up out there like the others. And no one’s ever proven any of the Farrhouses have ever done anything wrong.” I was thinking of Leslie, her shy smile, her quiet giggle. After the latest disappearance people had turned against her more than ever.
“What the Hell are you even talking about?” Jeff screamed. “I’m going out there tonight, with or without you and Mason. Someone has to get to the bottom of this.”
He stormed off into the parking lot.
I sat shivering on the stairs.
Normally I would always have Jeff’s back. I would be out there in the woods with him all night long chasing fireflies and ghosts, but this was madness. There was no evidence this had anything to do with the Farrhouses. And I was worried about Leslie. I called her when I got home. She assured me her family had nothing to do with this. She sobbed through the phone for what felt like hours.
A storm rolled in that night, fast and vicious. I thought of what Jeff had said and called his house, but no one picked up. I watched the rain drive in sheets across my window and thought about Leslie.
“Shit,” I muttered into the window pane. “I’m coming.”
I grabbed my jacket and checked downstairs to make sure my parents were asleep. I snuck out and grabbed my bike and pedaled off towards Schooley’s. I don’t know how long it took me to crest the hill by Jagged Peak and make it down towards the boarded up turnoff to the cistern. The rainstorm was torrential and the mud gripped the tires all the way up the shoulder of the road and onto the pullover.
I ditched my bike and charged over the barricade, screaming Jeff’s name into the howling winds. It was far too loud to hear anything in return. I ran through the woods, pushing branches and leaves out of my face until I reached the cistern.
I saw Jeff sitting at the edge of the overflowing cistern and ran to his side.
“I knew it, I just fucking knew it,” he said as I stood over him. He was holding something in his right hand, running it through his fingers. I fell to my knees next to him.
“What happened, Jeff? What did you find?”
He looked up at me with hate in his eyes, and raised his hand full of thick black hair, the same color as Valerie’s. “I found this in the Well” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the wind and rain. And then he was on me.
I was never much of a fighter, nothing like Jeff, even if I was prepared. But there was nothing I could do now against this ferocity. He slammed me into the mud and kicked me hard in the ribs. “Why do you defend them! Why would you do this to me!”
I tried to defend myself but I couldn’t breath, much less speak, through the pain in my gut. I tried to push myself up when Jeff’s fist slammed into the side of my head, pushing my face back into the mud. I lay there breathing in rain and dirt as I heard Jeff’s footsteps recede. Eventually, I pulled myself out of the muck and crawled back to my bike.
The cops searched the area shortly after the storm when Jeff reported what he’d found, but they discovered nothing. I never really spoke to Jeff again, and Mason took Jeff’s side. Amidst the backlash, even Leslie retreated into herself. We still spoke on the phone occasionally, but those conversations grew fewer and farther between. High school got lonely after that.
But the worst part was the nightmares. I started having nightmares of the old Farrhouse Well. I would be running through the woods at night, as tree branches grabbed and tore at my shirt like gnarled claws. The mud would suck in my boots until I could barely move as I emerged into the clearing around the old cistern. There, stuck knee deep in the grime I would watch as tangled black hair slowly floated out of the surging well, followed by pale hands, with bloody pads where there should be fingernails.
Then I would wake. But I could swear, every time, it would feel like what was crawling out of that hole would get closer.
I was there in Melinda for one last incident at the Farrhouse Well. I was 17, and a junior then. I was also a loner, though I don’t think I had much choice. Jeff hadn’t spoken to me since the beatdown at the cistern two years ago. I think he still blamed me in part for Valerie’s disappearance, even though there’s no way I could have had anything to do with that. But Mason went with Jeff. They both played Football now, and they probably didn’t give me any thought any more.
No one did much, everyone kind of thought I was in some way unhinged. So I ate alone. I walked to and from school alone. Kids would push their desks a little bit further away from me in classes. No one liked the weird kid.
Except Leslie, of course.
But our relationship was a strange one. Leslie never recovered from the bullying over the last rumor that another girl disappeared at the Farrhouse Well. James had already gone off to college, and Lorelai responded by getting into drugs and raves. If you already hang with the rejects, you don’t have as far to fall. Leslie didn’t have it in her to head off to the academy like Rory, but she ended up being homeschooled. I didn’t often see her, but we usually talked at least once a week.
There were rumors in the meantime. Anyone who was late to school or missed a hangout or stayed out too late one night and worried their parents triggered rumors of the Farrhouse curse. But the next girl to really disappear caused quite a stir.
That girl was Rachel Morse. Rachel was pretty, and popular. She played volleyball and was in student government, but that’s not really what mattered. What really mattered is that Rachel's father was a state senator.
Senator Morse didn’t live in Melinda, of course, don’t get the wrong idea about that. No one with any kind of clout would stay in this town, but she was still his daughter, and divorce or not, blood here runs thick.
When Rachel Morse disappeared the town went ballistic. Obviously the town had dealt with disappearances in the past, but nothing this high profile. Sheriff’s deputies were out in force even before the normal 72 hour window for missing persons, and the state even lent troopers. The Senator showed up with his personal task force to help look into things.
The rumors started immediately that Rachel had been taken at the Farrhouse Well, first in the halls of the high school and the local diner, then between the adults, and eventually all the way to the ears of Senator Morse. He put the screws to old Lionel who protested most fiercely that his family was innocent of this madness and always had been. This happened every time someone went missing, and there was never any evidence that anyone had been found missing at the Farrhouse property.
Senator Morse and the police couldn’t search the property (yet again) without evidence, and they couldn’t barricade Lionel’s land, but they stationed impromptu checkpoints all along Schooley’s road leading north to the Tygart and south to Jagged Peak.
I’m ashamed to say that my first thought when I heard about the disappearance wasn’t for Rachel at all. She was beautiful, popular, and rich. I knew who she was, for sure, but she wasn’t remotely that kind of person that would even look twice at me. We had nothing in common and I knew the town would do whatever it took to get her back.
My first thought was for Leslie.
I called her as soon as I heard about the disappearance and she was already in tears.
“I didn’t do anything! I don’t deserve this!” She said through heaving sobs. “Everyone just needs to leave me alone!”
“Just keep your head down, Leslie,” I responded, “this is gonna pass.” And we talked through the night about movies, comics, and old times.
But it didn’t pass. The storm got worse. Lorelai almost got assaulted at a rave. Someone threw a brick through the window of the Farrhouse Timber offices downtown. And Leslie sank deeper and deeper into despair. Two days later they still hadn’t found Rachel.
It was a Thursday night. A great beast of a storm was rolling in in the late evening hours. I sat in my bedroom in silence on the edge of my bed thinking about Leslie. Something was wrong. I called her. She picked up. It sounded like she was pacing.
“It’s coming to a head, Dave. It’s time to sort this all out. I’m going to the old ironworks tonight.”
“But there’s nothing there, Leslie! You said so yourself. Why go out there? Tonight is going to be a nightmare of a storm.”
“Everyone says that’s where the nightmares are. That place has haunted my family. It’s time I go back and see for myself. See you later, Dave.”
She hung up, and I sat there in shock. Leslie was going to the well to look for Rachel. I don’t know why, but I knew I had to follow her.
Once again, I grabbed my bike and my jacket and followed the path I’d followed two years ago while storm clouds rolled in from the west.
This time I couldn’t go straight over the Jagged Peak crossing at Schooley’s though, I saw the Senator’s checkpoint there from the turn-off on main street, so I cut up Meadowlands road and ditched my bike by the trailhead to take the rest on foot. The climb up Jagged was steep and unkept, but I knew those trails like my own backyard.
I circumvented the checkpoint and came in the back to the grassy road that led to the cistern just as the rain began to fall. I kept off the path and crept through the undergrowth. I couldn’t risk being seen by the Senator’s men.
When I was about 100 feet from the cistern I froze. I saw a figure with long black hair crouched some way ahead of me behind a fallen tree… Leslie.
Then I looked up towards the cistern.
I saw two figures standing at the edge of the well in the increasing rain. The first I recognized immediately, it was Rachel Morse. She was in just her underwear, with her hands bound behind her back. The other figure was lean and tall, thin and shirtless with muscles like whipcord. He was holding Rachel by the neck six inches off the ground. It was Rory Farrhouse. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Rachel was shouting something and struggling with futility against Rory’s strength. Leslie was tensing up behind the tree trunk. She didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.
Just then time slowed to a crawl. Rachel had something behind her back, it looked like maybe a sharpened rock? She was sawing at her bindings. And then she was free.
In a smooth motion she released her hands and swung the rock around into Rory’s neck. He released her and she landed on the ground on her feet while he fell to his knees. She said something and raised the rock to deliver a killing blow when Leslie sprinted from the undergrowth. She had a rock of her own.
Rachel’s face was pure shock as Leslie closed the distance and slammed the rock into Rachel’s head. I heard the crunch of bone and Rachel immediately went limp. She tipped over and fell into the hole. Then Leslie was on her knees next to Rory, saying something to him. Then he slowly tipped into the hole as well.
Leslie stayed there, quiet for a moment in the intensifying rain, then she was up and running off into the woods. I sat in my hiding place in shock for what felt like an hour, then I stood and walked to the cistern. Rachel’s body was in the bottom of the well, and Rory fell on top of her. It looked like he was holding her. Next to them was a hole big enough for a person to stand in, and a sick feeling washed over me. Rory had been burying the girls up to their shoulders in the hole before rain storms so they would drown as the cistern filled. Sometimes they would try to claw their way out and lose hair or fingernails which would float to the top of the well and he would come clean up later.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
I thought about that night Jeff beat me senseless here on the edge of the cistern when Valerie was missing, and how she must have been below us that very night, shrieking for help with a voice no one could hear beneath the crushing weight of water and sin.
But I didn’t have time for this. What about Leslie? I saw the rock she used to kill Rachel, still lying on the ground covered in blood. I had to look out for her. This was our secret. I used another rock to smash the murder weapon to pieces and push it into the filling cistern. Then I ran as fast as I could home. The cops would certainly find something this time and I didn’t want to be there for it.
I ran home and showered and threw out my clothes, then got in bed. I called Leslie once knowing no one would pick up, and no one did. The next day the cops found the bodies in the well and it made all the headlines. But I was already planning on getting out of Melinda.
I left as soon as I turned 18, even before I graduated. I never spoke with Leslie again. We had a secret to keep after all. But I’d come back to check on her. Eventually she opened a flower shop in town and lived a quiet life. I was glad. She deserved that, even if I did know what she had done.
Emily is finishing her story.
“They fished Rachel and Rory’s bodies out of the hole. He was still hugging her. The police figured she’d gotten in a kill shot before he drowned her. But in the end it was pretty cut and dry. They searched the property and found an old shed with remains of the fourteen other missing girls. Rory must have been squatting there.”
“DAMN!” Rob shouts. “That’s quite a story. You knew about this Dave?”
“Yeah, man.” I say calmly. “That was a hell of a thing,” and I give a solemn nod and sip my lager. They move on.
But I knew she would tell it wrong. Not that she would know any better. She even left out that another girl has recently gone missing in Melinda, though maybe she doesn’t know that either.
But even though she’s telling it wrong, I can’t correct her. What could I do?
I can’t go to the police, it’s too late now, especially with another girl missing. I already know what they would say. They would say things like, “Why did you wait this long before coming forward?” and “Leslie Farrhouse isn’t even a real person, she never existed, there were only three Farrhouse kids,” and “What were you really doing there the night that Rachel and Rory died in the hole?”
And what could I say? I have no proof. Sure, I could lead them to Leslie at the flower shop, but she’s changed her name and dyed her hair. She pretends she doesn’t even know me, she says we’ve never met. So that wouldn’t help. And we have a secret we have to keep together after all, her and I.
So I stay silent and drink my Lager. Derek goes home with one (both?) of his girls. Rob goes home with Emily. Eventually I’ll walk home alone.
But sometimes I still make the drive down State Route 20, and I see the exit to Melinda. I always know it’s there. And sometimes maybe I’ll go check on Leslie (from a distance of course), but mostly I just drive on. I know what’s there, after all: red brick buildings that just get more run down every year, an old dynasty scrambling to redeem itself, and somewhere, a deep and rotten pit that still stands as a monument to calamity and grief.
But I hold out hope. I hope that one time I drive that route my eyes will be drawn to the blue tinted mountains in the distance and I won’t notice the old exit, or I’ll think it’ll be just an old oil-change shop, and I’ll continue on. And that will mean that the history there is no longer my history, and that I’m free, and that I’m right.
History may run deep in these valleys, but the better part is in the forgetting.
The Problem with the Mirrors
We used to think we had it hard. That was before the problem with the mirrors.
Life was always hard, of course. Money was tight, people died too soon, the wicked prospered, there were unjust wars. Sometimes you locked your keys in your car even though you were already having a really bad day and didn’t need that shit. It was never easy.
But the problem with the mirrors changed everything.
It happened so suddenly, that’s partly what made it so bad. There was no time to adapt.
I’ll tell you a story to illustrate. It’s easier that way.
Raymond woke up at 6:30am. He yawned and stretched. His wife, Joanna, rolled over and pulled the sheets back over her head. Raymond walked to the bathroom. He turned the lights on, squeezed the toothpaste onto his toothbrush, turned on the water, and then turned to look in the mirror and saw his reflection.
Joanna woke to a scream cut short by a sound like snapping branches and wet meat splattering on tile. She tore off the covers and rushed to the bathroom to see Raymond lying on the floor, what was left of his face frozen in a scream of agony. Blood was smeared on the walls and mirror. Pieces of skin and bone were plastered on the ceiling. Joanna tried to scream, but could only manage a dry rasp. Then she turned towards the mirror and saw her reflection.
Their daughter Sophie sprinted into the empty room, with panic in her eyes. She ran to the open door that led to the master bath and gasped at the ruined bodies of her parents. She fell to her knees and vomited onto the carpet. Then she ran to the phone in the hallway to call 911. As the phone rang, she looked up at the mirror that sat in the alcove above the phone.
Little Brian survived. He hid in his room. He was too short to see himself in any mirrors.
Around 750 million people died the first day, and another 112 million over the following weeks while the world figured out what was happening. We didn’t know what it was in the mirrors, but every mirror was lethal. Death was immediate, violent, and inevitable.
At first people tried to destroy them, but that just turned one mirror into many. They had to be covered and melted down, along with TVs and computer monitors with any sort of reflective screen. Getting the word out to the survivors was difficult as the world tried to contain the damage, especially with the danger of screens. There are more mirrors out there than you’d think once you start to look for them.
That was the problem with the mirrors. It was a catastrophe beyond all imagining, and it nearly brought humanity to its knees.
That wasn’t the worst of it though. We thought it was, we thought we’d made it through. We built a new world that looked very different from the old. But the thing is, the problem wasn’t just the mirrors. And even amidst the ruins, we didn’t realize how bad it really was.
I’ll tell you another story.
It was 6 months after the crisis. The world was trying to move on. Jonathan stood in his bathroom, straightening his tie as he looked at a picture of a boat drifting serenely on a Scottish loch. He didn’t need to be in the bathroom to get ready, obviously, there was no mirror in there anymore, but old habits die hard.
He pressed open a piece of particle board where he would have once had a bedroom window and checked the weather. It was a brisk fall night. He grabbed his coat and headed out onto the street.
He was going on a date. He couldn’t believe it, it felt like a crazy thing to do, after everything that had happened. But life couldn’t stand still forever. They’d met over a landline-based phone dating service. Smartphones were obviously impossible.
The restaurant was a nice place, a few blocks away. He sat down and chuckled as he looked at the table setting. Fine wooden chairs, a white table cloth, and plastic flatware. Glass was too dangerous. The restaurant had no windows, nowhere had windows anymore, but the heat was cranked up and it was comfortable. He took his coat off and sipped on his water.
His date was named Savannah. She said she’d be wearing a blue dress and a flower in her hair. He saw her come in and his heart skipped a beat. She was gorgeous, with pitch black hair down past her shoulders and eyes like golden fire. She saw him and gave a little wave. He waved back. She walked towards him and time stood still.
She wasn’t wearing makeup (how could she?) but she didn’t need it. She was beautiful,
funny, and disarming. They talked and joked for an hour. They ordered drinks, then dinner.
It made everything seem different. He gazed into her eyes and smiled. She smiled back.
Then his eyes went vacant. His skin turned grey and he tensed up. It was like he swallowed a meat grinder. His chest split open and his jaw burst in two. His guts splattered across the table and Savannah’s gorgeous blue dress. His eyes never left hers until he tipped backwards away from the table.
Then she finally screamed.
He’d stared too deeply into her eyes, that was the problem. It was never the mirrors. It was the reflections.
The mirrors we could handle. The problem with the reflections was infinitely worse.
Society was never the same after we came to realize the extent of the damage. No one could ever look too deeply in anyone else’s eyes ever again.
We tried many things, of course. Science marched on. But the damage could never be truly undone. Relationships were never the same, and the world could never be the same after the problem with the mirrors.
We just can’t let them win, can we?
The Adaptive Kill Vehicle was a simple thing by modern technology standards, little more than a guidance chip bolted to a tube of fissile material and surrounded by the nanite mesh that everyone just called “goo”, which could mimic any shape and consistency required by its mission.
This AKV was guided over the Thar Desert towards Mirzapur by Agent Cassius Jiang from his home office. It could take any form as needed, but currently it was a grey aerodynamic tube, better for ballistic flight, as it was out of the engagement perimeter of any relevant AI, and therefore any relevant civilization.
The goo had changed everything. The nanite mesh could rebuild matter at an atomic level. It was abundant, and it ended manufacturing and cost as bottlenecks. Anyone could have anything the goo could make. Unless they couldn’t afford goo, or didn’t have an AI. But then they weren’t really civilized, were they?
Cassius sipped his tea as he guided the AKV past the perimeter of the AI of Pradesh. He sneered and put his teacup down, rubbing the side in a subtle motion. The nanites in the air began reconfiguring the liquid.
Pradesh wasn’t involved in the current skirmish, but any AI that detected fissile material in its orbit would react accordingly, usually devastating for humanity. This was why humans like Cassius guided kill vehicles. If they were autonomous, it devolved into AI vs AI warfare, game theory gone amok, and the deaths of humans by the millions. War at this scale needed human overseers. Humans had logic and reason.
Cassius grabbed his glass, now a lowball, and sipped Scotch built to the molecule to match 16 year old Caol Ila of the old days. “This is fine,” he thought.
The AKV sensed the seeking scanners of Mirzapur and transformed into a desert hawk, bouncing back lasers at the right frequency for feathers and blood. But a mistake, a subtle difference in the density expected of avian bone… Mirzapur noticed. Cassius saw the AI beaming itself to orbit and firing interceptors. “Close enough, now or never,” he thought, triggering the bomb.
Houses and buildings melted into the sand in a fusion of glass and steel. The dying cry of an AI would release particles with an energy of 10TeV as its core collapsed. Cassius saw nothing more than the expected signature of a low yield tactical nuke. He sighed. The AI had escaped to orbit. Mirzapur would survive, diminished, but they’d have no more AI, no more goo… they wouldn’t be civilized.
“Target missed,” he messaged command, and spun around in his chair to face the empty room. At his desire, it turned into a billiards room. He shook his head. Then a tea room, then a cafe looking out over mountaintops.
He sighed. Everything gets old after a while.
His chair shifted into a recliner and the wall reconfigured into a TV with the news on low volume. He drifted off into a nap. Life can be exhausting.
Dust and Grace
There’s a street in my hometown that has seven churches on it. Some of these are huge, non-denominational mega-churches, the kind with jumbotrons, stadium seating, and lobbies full of Playstation 4s. Preachers alternate between fire-breathing screeds about sin and damnation, and dulcet-toned entreaties to give back to the Kingdom (it’s for Jesus after all). Just up the road, rusted cars on blocks sit in front of houses with walls of decaying stucco and hungry dogs chained to wire fencing.
All of those churches, and this town can’t find within itself a sliver of forgiveness, mercy, or grace. It’s an unkind place.
Unkind. If I had to use a single word to describe it, it might be that.
Now I grew up there, and I had a great childhood. Much of that was in spite of this town, I’m sure, not because of it, but it couldn’t have been all bad, so this place has to have its good parts too.
One day every Spring, the park across from my house would turn into a festival overnight, with food trucks, striped tents, balloon animals, carnival games, and the best street corn and funnel cakes you could ever have. On those long Spring and Summer evenings it was the kind of place you could run off with your friends and not come back until sunset at 8 at night, exhausted and happy.
And it could be a beautiful place too. Not the town itself so much. It was mostly squat blocks of concrete barely rising out of the high plains, but if you got to the outskirts of town, the sky stretched endlessly to a broad and curved horizon, and radiated hues of blue, purple and red you don’t often see.
Storms would rage across the plains, swift and furious, and the desert air, parched for water, would smell like rain for hours after they had gone.
I would ride my bike to the house of an old family friend and we would drink bottles of Coca Cola and build pinewood derby cars in the wood shop in his garage.
Those hills and plains are streaked with beautiful memories like veins of ore. But I have to dig for them.
Yet through it all it’s the unkindness that sticks with me. The streets are broad and sun-bleached, lined with street-lights shaped like alien heads and dusty banners adorned with American flags and crosses, promising freedom and salvation but offering no semblance of either. At night, it’s a dangerous place, plagued by knives and gun shots and a higher violent crime rate per-capita than Chicago.
There is destitution, addiction, unemployment, and loss. But these can be conveniently overlooked from the sloping sanctuaries and radiant stained glass. They don’t put those sorts of things on the jumbotron after all.
The town stays what it is, and likely always will. I’ve moved on, but I still think of it sometimes. I remember the broad green lawns, the barbecues, the tire swings hanging on sycamore trees, having to wear shoes in the park across the street because of the broken glass, and the time one of my best friends had to dodge 9mm rounds outside of a strip mall. Places, like people, can be complicated.
One late summer night, I remember sitting in the bed of my buddy’s F150 on the hills above town, with a six pack of Tecate and some cigarillos we bought from the Circle K, talking about the future, and our hopes and dreams. Far in the plains below, the low lights of the town flickered beneath a vast and starry sky. Out there, that far from the big cities and that high, the stars are magnificent, and the milky way cuts through the heavens.
I remember thinking that if those lights were to wink out, the panoply of stars and galaxies far above wouldn’t even notice, would not be diminished. There would still be so many lights in the darkness, so many other other places, so many other choices to make. And, just maybe, some of them would offer greater chances for mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
That Old, Old, Black Magic
There are old places in the world that keep old secrets. These groves, grottos, and hidden meadows have stood for thousands of years as humans passed through leaving legacies of betrayals, tortures, torments, and grief. They’ve witnessed brutality and wonder beyond measure, and the old places remember.
People call them magic, and maybe they are, but the thing about magic is that it’s not wands, words of power, or chants in languages long dead. It’s a subtle thing, like a reflex or a habit, a natural reaction to the weight of human emotion pressing itself upon the world. It operates in the whispers, the poignant cries of desperation, and the whimpers of the dying. It’s in the exultation of sex and wails of a parent who has to bury a child.
Words make waves in the air and carve their patterns, however imperceptibly, into the wood, and, moss, and stone, over thousands of years. Humanity presses down upon the world and marks it, building the world in our image. The old places listen, and they remember, and they keep the secrets of what they learn.
And over time, that all comes to have some power. Maybe that’s magic after all. The world is deeper and stranger, crueler and kinder than we like to believe.
The world has changed and new places have sprung up, new landscapes of glass and steel and order. These places may be magnificent, but they have a cost. There is no magic in the new world. Steel doesn’t listen, and hate and love don’t carve their plaintive cries into glass and plastic.
But there are old places in the world and they keep old secrets. There are more of them than you’d think. They listen, and they remember, and they keep their secrets still.
Johan Govic found one of these places, though he didn’t know it at the time. I won’t tell you where it is, lest you go looking for it. Actions have consequences, after all, and magic may not be something you truly want to find.
Johan sat on the well worn rock in a treeless clearing along the banks of the river, kicking his dusty shoes out over the flowing water. The clearing was about 80 yards across, made of flat stones and a soothing carpet of old moss. It was ringed by tall evergreens and old oaks that opened up to the hiking and running trails, shaded doorways to paths winding off into the woods and mountains beyond, where he spent most of his mornings. At this time of morning the sun flickered through the high branches of the trees showering the clearing with a kaleidoscope of light and shadow. He rested his sore muscles and watched the light dance on the water.
It was peaceful here, almost magical, and one of the last few places where Johan felt happy.
Life had not been good to Johan lately.
He thought back to conversation with his wife that morning with a pit in his stomach. It hadn’t been a bad morning, but he was haunted by the aching shame which hung between them like a heavy fog.
He’d gotten home from dropping his daughter off at preschool and was making coffee in the kitchen when his wife came down on her way to work. She was sharply dressed in slacks, a fitted suit coat, jewelry and makeup, beautiful as she always had been, and he felt a small twist of the knife that he knew she didn’t dress like that for him anymore.
“Hey honey, how was Chloe at drop-off?” she asked. They weren’t really even looking at each other as she put on her rings.
“She did great, I think she really likes it there. That was a good move for us.” Johan tried to put a positive spin on things, keep it light.
“So what are you up to today?” She fired off the question with a casual indifference, but that question always fell like a hammer. Johan glanced over in time to see the disappointment and the judgement on her face, just for a moment, before she put back up her mask of empathy and support.
“I’m going to shoot off some job applications this morning, I think. Then maybe go for a run, it’s supposed to be a beautiful day.”
“That’s great!” she said with a convincingly feigned smile, “I know you’ll find something soon.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and headed out the door.
Back in the clearing, Johan rubbed his eyes and sighed. His marriage was failing, but what may have been even worse was that it was failing in this quiet, heartless way. They had some fights, sure, but even the fights were growing fewer, and they felt more like roommates, where one of the roommates wasn’t pulling his own weight and was a constant disappointment. At least the fights and some fire in them.
Johan had lost his job as an auditor a few months back and was on extended unemployment. That was part of the trouble, but not all of it. Kate was still working, and he got the unemployment checks. The money wasn’t great, but they were getting by. But he knew Kate was getting tremendously frustrated by his inability to find new work, and his glumness about the whole affair. He claimed he was just being picky, he didn’t want a job beneath his skills and he knew something would come along, but so far, hundreds of applications in, nothing had budged.
It wasn’t just that he was unemployed now, though that caused issues. The tension had been building for a while, even before Johan was laid off. He hadn’t enjoyed his work and was increasingly working late and coming home in a bad mood. At first Kate would pour a couple glasses of wine and help him talk through his problems. Bad days happen to everyone, and it’s great to have a supportive partner to talk it out with. But that could only go on for so long. Occasionally there should be good days too, but he hated his job, so there were fewer and fewer of those.
The bottom line was that Johan spent a lot of time feeling bad for himself, both when he was working, and now that he was unemployed, and his wife was getting sick of it.
“Sometimes you have to make your own luck!” Kate would tell him when they chatted about it and her mask was up, “you just need to go out there and make something happen, even if it’s not ideal, it’ll give you confidence. That’s how you get back out there!”
But in the darker moments she’d say what she really meant. “A man doesn’t sit around and bitch about his problems. He looks after his family. A man provides. Are you a man, Johan?”
He stood up and dusted off his pants and breathed deep of the mountain air, holding it in his lungs until it burned and he started to see spots. Then he blew it out, stretched for a minute, and sprinted off into the woods.
As he spent less and less time on the fruitless endeavor of job hunting, he spent more and more time running in the woods, and in these woods in particular. He loved the way the light filtered through the treetops and covered with undergrowth with dappled shade. He loved the way the moss felt under his feet, and he loved running through the dust, and the rocks, and the mud. He liked the breathlessness of running uphill and looking out down the ridge line over rolling meadows and farmland, full of people doing real, honest work with their hard and honest hands. And loved running down into the valleys along the rivers that smelled like brine and foliage, and that indescribable scent of water on moss covered rocks.
And most of all he loved the clearing by the riverbank with its softly sloping banks of moss and smooth, flat stones. He’d stay there for hours if time allowed.
Johan reached the trailhead, exhausted and sweating, but with a clear head at least for now. Turning to face the woods, he wished he didn’t have to leave. The woods were a peaceful place, and the world at home was stressful and trying, but it was time to pick up his daughter, and he’d have to get dinner ready. So he climbed into his Suburban and headed to the school, leaving the peaks and valleys behind him, still and silent.
Over the next few weeks, things got worse. There were more fights, and Johan’s despair deepened. As he started to lose hope he could feel Kate pulling further and further away. She would take Chloe out to the park on weekends, or to visit with her parents. Johan wouldn’t be invited, she didn’t want him to bring down the mood. He’d stay in bed until odd hours, and he’d spend a lot more time in the woods.
The woods were always there for him.
One day, out in the clearing, he put his head in his hands and cried. “I just can’t take it anymore,” he muttered into his hands between heaving cries. “When will it get better?” The woods didn’t answer. Their leaves swayed in the breeze, the water rustled down by his feet. Everything was as it had been, but it felt good. It felt good to talk and just be heard. Sure, that’s what therapy is for, but who needed that when he had the woods? The trees and stone leveled no judgment on him. They just listened.
So he began to talk more often.
On his daily morning run he would stop in the clearing, and he would talk about his problems. He’d talk about the good days, and the bad. He’d talk about his struggles with looking for work and the problems in his marriage. He’d pose rhetorical questions and listen for the answers in birdsong and the rustling of leaves. The vibrations of his words would fill the air with their rhythm, cadence, and force. Their sound waves would carve that rhythm into the trees and stones, and waft over the running water leaving ripples like runes, too faint and fleeting for human eyes to notice. His desperation, loneliness, and pain would fill the clearing and press their weight into the surrounding forest, and the old place breathed deeply in the outpouring.
Of course the place never responded, and Johan liked this about it. He could speak freely. But the place listened. And it remembered.
Then Johan would go pick up his daughter and head home to make dinner, unburdened, for a time.
One night things were exceptionally bad. The day had actually been alright between them, but Johan was still stuck in the same rhythm of life, the same struggle with unemployment and the never-ending war against job search algorithms and online applications, and the same loneliness and failing confidence. He just wanted to talk to someone other than the trees.
So that night, as they climbed into bed and talked about their days, he let slip, “It’s just been so hard, honey, I’m starting to lose hope. I just don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.” And that kicked off the conflagration.
Kate had already had enough of Johan’s despair. She hated him going about life like he was on death row, and the last thing she needed was to be the caretaker of his emotions after all the late night talks about how he hated his job, after 6 months struggling with unemployment, after the sleeping in and the skipping days with the family. He at least owed it to the family to keep his head held high and try to let them enjoy some semblance of life, or otherwise get help for his problems. It wasn’t fair to burden everyone else when he wouldn’t do what he had to do to make things better. She told him all these things, probably not so eloquently as that, and certainly not as kind.
Johan, for his part, just wanted a little support. He wanted someone to tell him it was all going to be okay so he didn’t have to spend his days crying and talking to trees. He thought they took vows, for better or for worse, and that used to mean something, at least it still did to him. He told her those things, and he wasn’t kind either.
“I can’t even look at your face right now,” she gestured vaguely in his direction, her mouth open as if she was going to say something else, then she turned and left the room.
He would always remember being alone in the bedroom looking out the window at the SUV with Kate inside with a bottle of wine. She wouldn’t drive away, Chloe was sleeping upstairs and she wouldn’t leave their daughter alone with him. But she couldn’t be in the house either. Johan didn’t know when she came back in, he eventually cried himself to sleep. When he woke up with the sun high in the sky, he was alone in the house.
He wandered, trance-like, downstairs and picked some bacon from a leftover breakfast plate. He just wanted to disappear, maybe forever. He wasn’t prone to suicidal ideation but he couldn’t see any other way forward. He couldn’t see any path at all, except one, up the ridgelines and through arched corridors of oak and cedar and down the valleys to the moss covered banks where it smelled like lichen and dirt and old earth.
He put on his dusty running shoes and headed for the woods.
He sprinted that day through the forest trails harder and faster than he thought himself capable of. He had to exorcise the rage and the sadness and thought maybe he could do it through pain, or maybe he’d just die in the woods and that would be enough. It was hard going. The late night and the toll that grief had taken on his body made his lungs burn and his muscles ache. He fought to climb the ridgelines and cross the meadows, getting weaker by the step. The only way that felt easy was when he ran in the direction of the clearing. For some reason, that always felt like going downhill.
When he reached the clearing he ran straight to the water’s edge and fell to his knees on one of the flat stones that angled into the river, at last completely empty of energy, drive and hope. The water lapped against his pants as he cried huge, sobbing tears into the flowing water. He spoke then only to himself, almost in a whisper, between the sobs, “I can’t do it anymore. I would give anything to make this feeling go away.”
And then it did.
The change was sudden, but subtle. Less like a lightning strike and more like gauze slowly being peeled off of a wound. He felt the tears stop and the aches in his muscles cease. Like a weight was lifted off his back, his shoulder tension eased and the familiar ache in his jaw subsided. He stood up, bewildered, and a little embarrassed. How did he let this happen? What was he even doing out here? He hadn’t even said good morning to his daughter, and he felt like he’d spent most of the last year, if not more, in a haze of grief and self-pity. He looked around at the radiant blue sky and the sun shining through the treetops on vibrant greens of the leaves and the reds and whites of mountain flowers. The clearing rustled pleasantly and the branches swayed with a sense of peace and leisure. He stood for a moment, enjoying the serenity of the place and waiting for his tears to dry. Then he walked out of the woods, a man reborn.
He checked his calendar and saw that Kate was picking up Chloe today, so he went home and showered, then went back out to a coffee shop in town, part of a national chain. He had seen a sign that this store was hiring and he talked them into giving him a job as a shift manager. He was overqualified, sure, but his financial and analytical expertise would be a boon, and he was willing to work hard if there was a possibility for growth.
When he got home Kate and Chloe were already there in the kitchen. This was normally the sort of thing he would have dreaded. There was normally a cloud, viscous with anxiety and dread, after a bad fight like they had last night, but today he didn’t let it get to him. He burst in with his messenger bag and a coffee shop to-go holder full of iced coffee and hot chocolate.
“Hey guys!” he shouted as he put the drinks down on the table. He leaned over and kissed Kate on the cheek, “these are some complimentary treats from my new job!” She looked up at him quizzically. She had been prepared for a fight, or uncomfortable awkwardness, but not for this.
“Yep, I’ll be starting as a shift manager on Monday. Not glamorous I know, but it’ll give me something to work towards. I’m tired of beating my head against the wall all day with these job applications.”
“Isn’t that… beneath your skills?”
“It’s easier to get a job when you have a job,” he shrugged, “now I’m thinking burgers for dinner. Let’s fire up the grill.” And he walked out on the back porch.
As he left Kate gave him that confused look where her mouth would be a little bit open and she’d wrinkle her nose. He’d always thought it was so cute, and as he left the kitchen he may even have been whistling a little. “What happened to Daddy?” Chloe asked, as the screen doors slammed. Kate just shook her head in disbelief as she quietly nudged an overnight bag under the counter. Maybe she’d need that later, but maybe not tonight after all.
The turn for her was sudden and extreme, but not at all unwelcome. She woke, it seemed, every morning to coffee by her bed and the smells of breakfast downstairs. Johan was happy to have work in the mornings and still went on his runs in the afternoons. He took Chloe to the park and he and Kate even started having date nights again, every once in a while.
Johan worked his way up in short order to be the store manager, and then a regional manager, due to his expertise in time and inventory management. He thought maybe this could be a career.
One day when Chloe was with her grandparents, he surprised Kate with an outdoor movie and a bottle of wine. They had sex for the first time in longer than either could remember. Eventually they took a trip to Munich and renewed their vows. Kate got pregnant again, it would be a boy named Hans. And things were good.
Johan loved taking Chloe and young Hans to the woods that meant so much to him. Sometimes Kate would even tag along and see the places Johan spent so much time. They would scramble up the ridgelines and look down on the farms below. He taught Chloe how to fish in the river and clean and cook her catch over a campfire. One day she would get engaged by a waterfall in those mountains. Hans became a trail runner like his father, and Kate and Johan fell madly in love, all over again.
But he never took them to the clearing, not in all those years. He never went there himself either. Occasionally he would see the archways between the trees that would lead to the old mossy clearing, but they seemed colder and more dreadful than he remembered, not gateways to that place with the dappled sunlight and cool running water where he had been redeemed. No, that was an older and darker place now, meant for darker and more secret things.
The years crawled on and they were happy. Not always, of course, but more often than not. And when they did have troubles, they felt manageable and sane. Both kids went to college and Johan’s career trajectory went up and up, as did Kate’s. They talked of retiring early and seeing the world. They earned that after all, they had built a life they could be proud of and their foundation, though some bricks may have been cracked or damaged, was strong and firmly rooted. They felt, together, that the hard work had been done.
At least Kate felt that, and Johan wanted to as well, so he said he did. But something gnawed at him: one word he remembered saying back in those dark days.
What a humble thing to utter so long ago in a weak moment. But something was amiss and he knew it, the way we know things deep down in our own secret places where we hide things to try to lie even to ourselves. The thing was that in magic, as in life, everything has a cost. Johan was happy. But Johan was not free.
The first cracks appeared subtly, as cracks often do. Johan started to feel an emptiness. He would shrug it off, but it was always there. Not like what he’d felt all those years ago when he was hopeless, and weak, and in despair. He had asked never to feel that way again, and so he didn’t. This was something new, like he was missing a piece.
One night, out by the fire pit, he confided in his wife (they could do that sort of thing now, talk to each other about their problems earnestly. They were confident in their love).
“I don’t know, part of me just feels like something is missing,” he said as he swirled the wine in his glass. “Not us, you know, we’ve never been stronger, but something else.”
“Like you’re forgetting something?” she asked.
“No, more like a piece of me is missing. Like something is missing about who I am.”
She looked at him then with that look of sympathy, not the mask she used to wear, but true, enduring affection. “Oh honey, they call that empty nest syndrome, and it’s normal. I hear,” she said as she kissed his cheek, “sometimes people even come to enjoy it.”
He smiled and nodded and kissed her back. But in his heart he knew this was different.
That feeling of emptiness, of longing, grew and grew. He wasn’t whole, like he was hollowed out on the inside. No matter how happy he told himself he was, how many family dinners he arranged, how many date nights with Kate, there was always a feeling that something was missing.
Then things started to get strange. A baby on the street would look at him and cry. A toddler at the grocery store would stare up at him, shocked, and say “Mommy what happened to that man?”
“Nothing, sweetie, and don’t be rude,” the mom would say as she bent over, but when she looked up, Johan could see in her eyes that for a fleeting second she wasn’t so sure.
One day he went to visit his mom at the assisted living facility. There was an old blind lady on the same floor, and he stopped to help her to her room. Outside of her door, she looked up at his face with those eyes, long useless, and, holding his arm tightly said, “I’m sorry, son, I hope it was worth it.” He watched her enter her room in stunned silence.
He told Kate he wanted to take up running again. After all, the kids were out of the house so he had the time, and it would be good for his health. He wasn’t getting any younger. She said she thought that was a great idea. So he went to the store, bought some brand new running shoes and started up on the trail loop around town. It did nothing for him, it was too tame, and too restrictive. So he headed out of town the next day and tried running on the roads around the ranches through the foothills of the mountains. The air was better there, sweeter, and he could see the snowy peaks, but he still felt so empty.
One night, Kate and Johan were brushing their teeth in their bathroom and she turned to ask him a question. As she looked over he turned towards her, and she found herself staring directly into the cracked and hardened skin covered with deep grooves, oozing viscous pus and blood as thick as sap, the yawning, toothless mouth, and those vacant, dead holes where a man should have eyes. She shrieked and dropped her cup of water which shattered on the bathroom floor. When she looked back up, there was her beloved Johan, with a look of deep concern and consternation. She muttered something about nerves and ran off for the broom. Johan pressed and pressed to make sure she was okay and to find out what was wrong. She never told him.
The next morning, Johan drove off for a run in the mountains.
The air was crisp and clean, the views were pristine. He never felt stronger as he raced up the ridgelines and down the valleys. He hadn’t run those trails for twenty years but he could have done it blindfolded. It was like he remembered the location of every rock and root and branch, even though surely none of them were the same. He let the winds and the mood take him, and when he came to his senses, he was there.
He felt the river flowing at his shoes, and saw the dappled light and shadow dance across the flat rocks and moss. He was home, in the old clearing, surrounded by the old trees and the sound of birdsong. It didn’t feel ominous and dreadful. It felt like where he belonged. And for the first time in quite a while, he felt whole.
Weeks went by and Kate and Johan were still happy, and Johan ran more and more. They thought they’d found the cure for his malaise, but Johan wanted to spend more and more time in the clearing in the woods, and some distance started to grow between them.They didn’t fight and Johan never lost his confidence or his love for their family. Kate simply blamed it on getting older and new habits, but she never forgot that night in the bathroom and the face of terror that still haunted her in her dreams.
But she also remembered the dark days of late night fights and bottles of wine in the SUV when her friends told her to pack her bags. This was better than that, and those days were behind them, never to come again. She and Johan made it through that, and they could make it through anything.
Until one day, it turned out, they couldn’t.
Johan told Kate he needed to go spend a couple of nights with his brother who was going through hard times of his own. Kate knew this to be true, and she thought the time with family would do him some good, so she sent him on his way. He made her coffee that morning as did every morning, and kissed her on the top of her head as he got ready to leave.
“I love you, Kate,” he whispered, and she mumbled happily as she rolled over in the morning light. He watched for just a minute from the door. She was breathing peacefully and looked beautiful beneath the thin bedsheet. For a moment all he wanted to do was crawl into bed with her and go to sleep, then wake up in the late morning, make pancakes, and plan their retirement adventures. But it was just for a moment, and then the emptiness returned and he didn’t want that at all.
He piled into his car with his bag, but didn’t drive towards his brother’s house. He drove towards the mountains. He missed that feeling of calm he felt in the clearing, and he just wanted to spend a little more time there alone and see if it helped with everything he was feeling, and maybe more importantly, all of the things he wasn’t.
A few days at the most, and with any luck Kate wouldn’t check in at Aaron’s house while he was supposed to be there. He could set things straight later, but he would have a few days on his own. From the trailhead he hitched up his pack and started into the woods. Packing thirty pounds with him, he wasn’t in the mood to run, but he wasn’t in any hurry either, so he enjoyed the walk and the growing feeling of serenity as he moved towards the clearing.
He took a few detours to see the familiar sights of the forest and stopped by a waterfall for a leisurely lunch. It was late afternoon by the time he reached the clearing. He set up his tent and filled a thermos with water from the stream to make some coffee on his camp stove.
While the water came to a boil he sat by the side of the water on a patch of comfortable moss and dipped his feet in the stream. He felt the sadness and the emptiness flow out of him, and then more than that, he started to feel himself empty of the hidden pain and remorse and anger he didn’t even know he was carrying. Slowly that empty place in him began to feel less important, and his thoughts calmed.
He leaned back with his arms behind him and sank his fingers into the cool earth and looked up at the afternoon sun. Such a weird thing, he never looked directly at the sun with unprotected eyes before, but it wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it, and the burning was brief. He stretched his fingers further and further in the damp soil, further than he thought possible, and thought “yes, this is what I needed. I would give anything just to stay here a little bit longer.”
And so he did.
Kate didn’t call Aaron that night, she figured the drive was long and Johan must have been exhausted. When she didn’t hear from him the next morning she called to check in, and of course Aaron knew nothing about the visit. She called Johan, then texted, then called again. She called her kids, they hadn’t heard from him. Then she called the police, who told her she had to wait until 72 hours to open a missing persons investigation. She paced along the patio with a glass of gin to calm her nerves, then stopped suddenly. She put her drink down on the table and called the forest service.
She knew of Johan’s old trails, and some of his favorite places, and she was able to point the rangers in the right direction. It didn’t take long to find his car, and with the help of a helicopter, find the clearing. There they found Johan’s tent, a camp stove with a spent fuel canister and a cold pot of water, and a backpack leaning up against an old tree on the riverbank, reaching its thick branches up towards the sun and its gnarled roots into the river. They marked this as ground zero and sent search parties out in every direction. The helicopter stayed airborne for days examining every inch of forest it could see, but they never found him.
Kate, to her credit, pushed as hard as anyone could be expected to push, and she drove the rangers as hard as they were willing to go. She brought in the news to put pressure on them, and offered a handsome reward. The kids came to help in the search, so they said, but they were really there to comfort her as she went through the stages of grief.
They had been through so much together, which made it all the more brutal. They had raged at each other and endured unimaginable pain, and been through the heights of joy and ecstasy watching their two kids grow. They had reached the reward, as she saw it, the time to enjoy each other, to fall in love all over again, and again and again, and travel the world in each other’s arms. Of course he had to disappear now. The world is crueler than we like to believe.
At the end, Kate drove the SUV to the trailhead and marched toward that dreaded spot by the river. She stomped on the moss and flowers as she walked toward the center of the clearing and shouted over the rustling water, “GIVE HIM BACK TO ME!” She fell to her knees, shaking. “I wish these trees could talk,” she sobbed, to no one in particular, “I’d give anything to see him again.”
She never would. And the story ends there, because that’s not how magic works. It’s in the whispers and the habits. It’s in the repetition, and the stories we leave carved into stone and root and branch as we write our legacy on the fabric of the world. The world doesn’t bend simply when you ask it to.
And, of course, the trees can’t talk, so they couldn’t answer Kate even if they wanted to, even if wanting was something they were capable of doing.
No, they can’t talk, but they listen. And they remember, and the old places will keep their secrets still.
Hateful is the Heart
Anger is like a water leak. It doesn’t burn or smolder. It doesn’t consume, like wrath or rage. It can be a subtle thing in the beginning, but a lethal one. It seeps inside and leaks into the vulnerable places. It takes the path of least resistance and drips into the chasms and holes, accumulating, and soaking through everything in its path. It spreads on the inside, slowly, but thoroughly. From there, it rots everything it touches. And usually, by the time you notice it, the damage is already done.
The delivery man parked his van at the dusty clearing at the top of the hill where the path snaked down to an old cabin nestled into the hillside and dug through his packages while the soothing sounds of AC/DC thumped in his AirPods.
“Last one, thank fucking christ,” he mumbled to himself.
It was his last delivery of his shift and he was sore from a day in the truck carrying so many boxes of other people’s shit, he just wanted to get home to his couch and a six-pack. He stumbled a little down the steep walk and escorted the package up to the front door. He rested the box between his thigh and the doorframe as he reached over to ring the doorbell. He thought he heard some shouting, and maybe someone dropping something heavy, then quiet.
“Fucking weirdos out here, I’m out of here” he mumbled again. He set the box down and was just about to turn away when the door opened and he found himself facing a manic looking man with an untamed mop of red hair and a crazed look in his eyes. The house smelled terrible and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for months.
The delivery man was just about to raise the electronic pad for a signature when the man shifted, in a subtle motion at first, then in a blur, and he felt the axe blade slam into his head.
Well he didn’t ACTUALLY feel it. That’s the funny thing about head wounds sometimes. He felt the pressure and he felt himself land on his back on the front porch. He felt the blood start to trickle down his face and tried to wipe it away with his left hand, but his body was already useless. He didn’t feel any pain, though, just shock and fear. The man picked up his feet and began to drag him into the house leaving a trail of blood behind. Through the hallway and wreck of a living room they went, and down the stairs to the basement.
Thump, thump, thump. The delivery man’s head bounced off each step and he was carried to a stop in front of an old well pump. He was grateful then, as grateful as you can be with an axe in your head, that whatever that blade had done had removed his ability to feel pain, because the red-haired man ripped the axe out of his skull and started to go to work. Disassemble the body, make it just a pile of meat. It makes an easier job for the chemicals and it’s easier to look at if it’s not looking back. Easier on the eyes, easier on the soul. He started with the feet and worked his way up.
The last thing the delivery man saw and heard was the red-haired man pausing his gruesome work and looking up, across the basement with wild eyes, and shouting, “BE QUIET! LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO! JUST BE QUIET!”
Then he fell to his knees, gagged, and vomited a thick stream of steaming red liquid on the basement floor. It mixed with the growing pool of blood and seeped into the french drains around the basement. The delivery man’s eyes rolled back into what was left of his head, and the world went dark.
Andrew Dobbs used to have a great life, or at least that’s what he wanted everyone to believe, and what he wanted to believe about himself. He was a writer in New York and lived in Brooklyn. He went to artsy bars and sipped craft cocktails and dated a model. When he went home for visits, his family would love to hear about his latest stories and the gossip from the city. He loved this last part best of all. His parents had always been hard on him, expecting great things, and he relished their impressed smiles when he casually told them about his girlfriend’s modeling gigs, or which celebrity he ran into at the neighborhood bar.
But as those old adages go, “you have to love yourself before others can love you,” and “confidence is king.” Dobbs loved nothing but the image of the lifestyle he was living and how it made others look at him. The problem was that most of it was a lie.
The only things Dobbs had ever successfully published were two poems in the monthly leaflet of a local coffee shop, so if that makes him a writer, he was a bad one, and he never actually made any money doing it. His day job was as a tutor and proctor at a test prep company where he spent his days getting talked down to by rich kids and their obnoxious parents.
He did live in Brooklyn and drink fancy cocktails, but most of the money came from his girlfriend who had a brief but successful modeling career. But she knew that wasn’t a long term position and was now working as a paralegal and was planning to use a chunk of that money for law school. Since she’d left the industry she’d also gained some weight. Not a ton, and she was still beautiful by any stretch, but that’s not what Dobbs had envisioned when he cultivated this story of his life.
Dobbs was a shallow man and cared deeply for that image. But when you scratched the surface of the image, the deep flaws underneath became clear. The problem for Dobbs was that life didn’t just scratch at the surface. Life sawed deep through skin, muscle, and fat, and dug right into the marrow.
At first, he brought it on himself. His dad was a real man’s man, and he was raised to care deeply about what the old misogynist thought of him. His dad loved that his son dated a model and showing off his girl wasn’t the same now that she wasn’t a size 0. He started to push her a little about letting herself go. But unlike Dobbs, she was confident in who she was, and didn’t tolerate that for a second. She dumped him then and there and changed the locks. There went the craft cocktails and the apartment in Brooklyn. He couldn’t afford to live in New York on a tutor’s salary.
Drip, drip, drip.
With her went most of their friends. He had to move across the river into Jersey, and even the friends that weren’t pissed at him were harder to hang out with. He had to commute back to Secaucus at the end of each day while they drank in swanky bars and comedy clubs. At first they took the effort to invite him, knowing he could rarely come, but even that eventually slowed down. They were forgetting all about Dobbs.
Drip, drip, drip.
He stopped going home, it was harder to maintain the charade. All he wanted was to impress his parents, he loved them in his damaged kind of way, and hated them. But he wanted them to love him too. But it was harder to impress them with his new life. He didn’t want to come crawling back until he righted the ship.
That made it hurt all the more when he learned that the colds they’d had were more than colds. The novel virus had sickened them and claimed them both within twelve hours of each other. In his anger and bitterness he hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.
He looked around at his dingy Secaucus apartment and decided there was nothing more for him here. His parents had left him their cabin and a decent amount of money. And all that was waiting for him in Secaucus and New York was anger and betrayal. So he packed up and moved home, this time alone.
The cabin, nestled into the hillside, was small but well maintained with sweet smelling gardens and mountain views. “I can reinvent myself here,” he thought, but then the nights came, and with them the loneliness. He would spend them drinking and calling his old friends, inevitably venting about his problems and all he had lost. At first they heard him out. Friends would stay on the phone long into the night, but after time they would stop taking his calls, or cut him off short. They got compassion fatigue and didn’t have the time for him that they used to.
He probably should have moved on with building his new life, and left the old wreckage behind. But he just got more and more angry, and more and more resentful. “Nobody cares about Andrew Dobbs”.
His rage built and built, and perhaps not surprisingly, he actually started to do some pretty good writing. He lost weight, and not in a healthy way. He lived off beer and cheese sandwiches and his pen issued wrath and violence onto the page. It didn’t calm him, and he felt ever more the victim. He got tunnel vision, and his world started to blur.
One day he was nursing a bottle of Shiner Bock on the phone with unemployment. He hadn’t applied to jobs, and they informed he was going to lose his unemployment benefits. He still had some money from his parents, but this was a huge loss.
“Fuck!” he screamed as he slammed the phone to the ground. He walked in a couple of loose circles as his head swam with rage. “FUCK!” he scream again as he slammed his fist against the wall of the cabin. It went all the way through up to his elbow. He pulled his hand out in pain and stared in surprise at his bloody knuckles, then at the hole in the wall. Behind the wall was a gap between the sheetrock and the exterior wall, at least 18 inches deep. “Maybe it’s for the pipes, or electric?” he thought.
He reached forward and pulled a piece of drywall off the damaged wall, just enough to be able to fit his head in and get a look around. It was dark inside and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but it looked to be just a gap for plumbing and electrical, though larger than he would have expected. He looked to the left and saw nothing, then looked to the right and saw … what? He jerked his head out of the hole, banging it on the drywall on his way out. As he rubbed his head he tried to calm himself. He could have sworn he saw a person inside the wall. A woman, impossibly thin and pale, slinking inside the walls of his house. Her hair thin, black, and stringy. The way she moved was wrong. He had to have imagined it. He felt sick to his stomach.
He noticed then the growing pain in his hand, and the swelling was already starting. He was dripping some blood on the floor. He grabbed his beer and headed off towards the bathroom to clean it, but not without taking one last suspicious look at the wall. He’d fix that hole tomorrow.
The next time he saw something, it was a few days later. He’d been having vicious nightmares and his sleep was troubled. One night he was thrashing in his dreams and rolled out of bed onto the hardwood floor. He jolted awake in pain and as he rolled over he looked under his bed. On the other side, standing up, he saw pale white feet, veiny, with signs of rot and decay. He thought he was still sleeping but the pain in his back and his hand let him know he was awake.
The feet started to walk towards the edge of the bed. He quickly got to all fours and crawled to the end of the bed and looked around just as the feet should be turning the corner, but he saw nothing. The room spun and he felt sick again. He wretched once and threw up on the floor, mostly liquidy water and beer, but mingled with blood. He stood up slowly, looking around his empty room, and wandered off towards the kitchen. That would be enough sleep for tonight,
He saw things more often after that. One morning while sipping his coffee he looked out the windows on his back deck and saw, just for a moment, a pale woman in a white nightgown in the distance hanging by her neck from a tree, at least 60 feet up. He blinked and shook his head. When he looked again she was gone. While showering he washed the soap out of his eyes and opened them, looking through the glass shower door and saw the woman in the nightgown with her stringy black hair standing in the middle of the bathroom, looking at him, blurred out by steam and soap. When he wiped away the accumulation on the door, she was gone.
Dobbs felt alone and scared, but most of all he felt angrier than ever. He was already betrayed and abandoned by everyone he knew, and now he couldn’t even trust his own mind. When would life give him a break?
But it all came to a head about a week later. Dobbs was drinking more and more to bury his feelings, and hide the visions of the pale woman who was always lurking in the corner of his eye. And one night, after a particularly vicious bout with a bottle of Cutty Sark, he called his ex-girlfriend, and for whatever reason, she picked up.
He paused for a moment, dumbfounded. He hadn’t expected to hear her voice. What we wanted to say was “I’m so sorry for how I treated you. I know how I tried to undermine your confidence and how much that must have hurt, I’m just a flawed man, dealing with a lot of trauma, but I always loved you.”
But, the anger…
What he really said was, “How could you fucking do this to me? After all I did for you! Just cast me aside and ruin everything? How fucking could you?!!”
She hung up immediately, and he turned and in a fit of rage threw his phone through the sliding glass door over his deck. Breathing heavily, he turned back around, and there she was, in plain view.
She wore only a ripped white nightgown. Her skin was white and lined with blue veins, stretched tight over her bones except for the areas where it was swollen and darkened with wet gangrene. Her arms were longer than they should have been, stretching to her knees. Her chest rose and fell with wet, rasping breaths. Her mouth was a ruined mess, with a few remaining teeth putrefying in rotting gums. But it was stretched into a vicious smile, wider than should have been possible. She smiled ear to ear, as if she was thrilled by his rage and misfortune. But the worst part was her eyes. They were dead and rotting, but her gaze pierced through him all the same. Those eyes were so full of hate, hate, hate. A deeper hate than he had ever seen.
He stumbled backwards over the coffee table and fell. She inched forward with those wheezing excited breaths. Hate, hate, hate. And relish. He got up and ran to the bathroom where he collapsed over the toilet, vomiting red liquid. When his stomach was empty he looked back up, but there she was, in the doorway of the bathroom, watching him, with hate in her eyes.
She was always there from then on out, and Dobbs’ world crumbled more and more. She whispered to him, though he couldn’t make out her words. His vision was always blurred and he constantly felt the hum of her presence. It used to be that there was blood in his vomit, now he was throwing up pure red at least once a day.
She would follow him around the house. When he tried to call someone on the phone, she would put her face right next to his the entire time, watching him with those hate filled eyes. When he woke up from whatever sleep he managed to drink himself into the night before, she was crouched on his dresser, her legs splay out and her arms hanging between them almost all the way to the floor. Always with that fucking grin. Always with the hate.
The trees and grass around the house withered away to nothing. Everywhere there was a stench, and sickness, and death.
One day, Dobbs couldn’t take it anymore, and he went to the shed to get his father’s axe to put an end to this. He stumbled back into the house with the axe and walked straight to the living room where she was crouching in that horrible pose on the coffee table. He walked right up and swung the axe at her with all his strength.
The axe crashed right through the coffee table as the woman chuckled, now crouched on the back of a rocking chair swaying slowly back and forth.
Dobbs looked down in dismay, then lifted the axe in front of his face and looked directly at the blade. Maybe this wasn’t for her after all. Maybe it was for him the whole time. Could he kill himself with an axe like this? How? He couldn’t swing it at himself, but he could slit his throat.
He started to lift the axe to his neck as the woman wheezed and cackled and watched with those hateful eyes. The pumping of his blood and the laughter was deafening and he felt the bile rising in his throat again, and then everything was interrupted by a loud buzz.
Dobbs stopped and looked at the woman, still smiling, but not laughing. The doorbell? He dropped the head of the axe which hit the ground with a loud thud. And looked back at the hall. Someone was at the door. He walked slowly to the door, dragging the axe behind him. He stood in front of the door and suddenly the woman was to his right, so close her nightgown almost brushed his arm, never taking her eyes off of him.
He ripped the door open and stared at the obviously startled delivery man. There were a few beats of silence as he started to raise his electronic tablet, and Dobbs slammed the axe blade into his head.
There was a streak of blood, and the man twitched and fell flat on his back, spasming as his nerves fired aimless, useless signals.
“Wha … why did I … what did I just do?” Dobbs gasped to himself.
“Yeessssssss, yeeeeesssssss,” wheezed the woman.
“I ... uh … I have to get rid of this.” Dobbs paced the hallway for a few frantic laps and then picked up the delivery man’s feet and dragged him into the house and down into the basement with the axe still protruding from his skull. He had barrels and lye down there. He could make this go away. He dragged the body to the corner, put his foot on the man’s chest, and ripped the axe from his skull.
Too big for the buckets, gotta take it apart. Disassemble the body, easier to dispose of meat.
He went to work with his axe. Then he looked up and she was back in the corner of the basement, her smile wider than ever, her joyous wheezing absolutely deafening.
“BE QUIET!” He yelled. “LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO! JUST BE QUIET!” Then he fell to his knees and felt the familiar retching. He bent over in the growing pool of blood and vomited out a pure stream of liquid hate onto the basement floor. It mingled with the blood and seeped into the french drains. Death spread around the cabin.
Of course, the delivery man’s van had a GPS tracker, and when he didn’t check in, the company reported its location to the police, who arrived to find the cabin a house of horrors. Everything within 50 yards of the cabin, every tree, every blade of grass, was dead. Inside they found the cabin coated in refuse and a red liquid. And down in the basement they found two barrels full of dissolving body parts, and a scrawny red-haired man, who looked more like a wild animal than a person, shivering alone in the corner.
He made no fight as they took him away. He was eager to go. He just looked between them as they dragged him away, where only he could see the woman now clinging to the ceiling, staring back at him, her head twisted around 180 degrees. All he wanted in the world was to be rid of her.
That didn’t happen though. He wished it was the house that was haunted, but that had never been the case. He was obviously incompetent to stand trial, so they committed him to a mental hospital and locked him in a small white room. And the woman was there at the foot of his bed when he awoke and she watched him through the small window in his door as he paced the room. And he hated her. He hated her so much. And at least once a day he vomited pure liquid hate into the drain in the corner of his room.
When he had been in the cabin, the damage had been contained. The cabin was on a septic system. So when the hate leached out from the septic field it could only harm what it could touch. But the hospital was on city water, where it would be cleaned, reclaimed, and reused. Water spreads easily, and so does anger.
Like a water leak, Dobbs’ contagion spread.
A water leak takes the path of least resistance. It seeps into the vulnerable places first, and some places are more receptive than others.
Sophie sits her water glass down on the counter and leans her head over the sink, breathing deeply. Her three kids scream behind her, falling over the sofa and throwing plastic toys. She tries to drown out the cries of “Mommy! Mommy!” but her head is swimming. The kids have been more difficult of late, needier, and she could just use a few moments to herself. Her youngest runs into the doorway with his plastic sword and yells to her and she shouts, “Shut up! Everyone be quiet! Mommy needs a minute!” And there is silence. Her kids stare at her from the living room before running off. She wouldn’t normally shout like that. She doesn’t know why the stress is getting to her this way, but her heart is racing. She shouldn’t yell like that, and she’s embarrassed. She’s a good mom, and she knows they won’t remember. She coughs up a bit of blood into the sink and stares at the glass of Pinot Grigio. Maybe it’s time to cut back.
Dave sits at the neighborhood bar after a rough shift. His arms and legs are burning, he feels like he’ll always have dust in his eyes. He’s glad work is done but he feels like there’s a rage just simmering beneath the surface and he doesn’t know why. He wishes he could just relax, but he watches the blood pump in the veins in his hands. As he raises his beer a man in a soccer jersey bumps into him and he spills it on his shirt. “Sorry mate!” the man shouts, but Dave spins around with rage in his eyes and grabs the man by collar. His friends try to pull him off, but Dave’s muscles are carved like stone after 25 years of hauling rebar and positioning I-beams. He throws the kid down and empties his gums before his friends pull him away. Weeks later he’s coughing up blood into his handkerchief in his lawyer’s office as they settle out of court.
Ronald sits in his car watching the hookers on the street ahead of him, his hands twitch with trepidation and fear. He’s got chloroform, zip ties, and a snub-nosed revolver in the passenger seat and a bone saw and a roll of plastic sheeting in the trunk. He’s not sure he should go through with this, but he can’t stomach his anger anymore. There’s too much profanity and depravity in the world, and those responsible need to suffer. Later, after he’s dumped the plastic wrapped pieces into the swamp, he falls to his knees and vomits up a stream of liquid hate, turning the swamp toxic.
There’s no apocalypse, no mass destruction. Society doesn’t break apart, but it bends, and more and more people are crushed in the bending.
Eventually, politicians and activists will wonder “how did we get here?” They’ll propose campaigns and community engagement, but it’s not that simple. It drips, and drips, and drips.
Dobbs will never be free again. But he sits in his room and he listens to the radio the orderly plays on his desk outside in the hallway. He hears about the violence, the neglect, the rape, and the murder. And he smiles. He smiles so wide he thinks his mouth might tear open. He smiles wider than he should be able to, and he feels the burning hate behind his eyes. Because Dobbs may still be angry, he may be angry forever, but he knows he’s no longer alone.
Eventually Dobbs will be gone, but he will never REALLY be gone. And one of these days you or someone you know might get so angry you feel like your world is ending, and you’ll punch through a wall and you’ll see a face there staring back at you, pale and decayed, with a mop of red hair, a hideous grin, and those eyes full of hate, hate, hate.
Maybe you can turn back at that point. Or maybe not. After all, you’re feeling the drips now, and by the time you see the signs, the damage is already done.
What’s Past is Prologue
The date is March 20th, 2023. The date is always March 20th, 2023. It’s an inflection point. A fulcrum. A liminal event. Like the crucifixion of Jesus, the fall of the Roman Empire, the assassination of an arch-duke, or the completion of the Manhattan Project, but more than all of those combined. It’s the sort of event where every single thing that came after is different from every single thing that came before. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe nothing is different. Maybe nothing will ever be different again and that’s why this is so horrifying. It’s not an easy thing to understand, but we’ll walk through it together. The date is March 20th, 2023.
Rachelle’s story goes something like this.
Rachelle Faraday is a physicist (no, there’s no relation, but it probably didn’t hurt in her field to let people think that) working at the Black River Particle Accelerator and Center for Applied Sciences. She is the lead researcher working on a project to generate Higgs fields in an attempt to produce broken symmetries and create four dimensional crystals whose structures reach through time. The idea is to try to poke holes in thermodynamics and test the possibility of reversing entropy, and in doing so produce limitless free energy through perpetual motion. Of course this is impossible and she knows that. But don’t the best ideas start out that way?
It’s March 20th, 2023. She wakes in her bedroom in her nice colonial house in a quiet neighborhood called Buena Vista Ridge. She eats an egg white omelet and a spinach smoothie, grabs her keys off of the entry table, gets in her Chevy Volt and drives to work.
She gets stuck in traffic on 206. There’s work being done on a new construction off of the highway and it looks like a piece of heavy machinery broke a water main. The foreman is yelling something at his workers when he almost falls in the hole, but his workers catch him. Rachelle thinks that’s pretty funny, because the incident hasn’t happened yet, so things are still funny sometimes.
She gets to work late so she has to park at the back of the lot. It’s strangely hot for March and she walks through the humid heat, sweating through her blouse by the time she reaches the gate. Her ID card gets rejected at front doors, but she waves to the guard, Mike. He buzzes her in and waves back with a smile. She’s an hour late by the time she’s in her chair and in a bad mood. Or she thinks she’s in a bad mood. She has no idea, not yet.
She chats with her best friend Henry, who’s also the other primary physicist on the project, from across the room and flips the switch to activate the accelerator. The BRPA loop begins accelerating particles at an energy of 11 TeV in each direction preparing for collisions in the late stage of the experiment. They chat as it happens, waiting to review the results. Of course they don’t really know what “it” is. No one does, but they stop talking when they hear the hum, and the crack, and then see things no one has ever seen before. The wall near the accelerator loop pixelates, and doesn’t so much break as it does just stop being a wall.
Henry is closer to the chamber so it hits him first, moving outwards like a wave. Other things also stop being what they are, well, were, as they are hit by the wave. A desk. A coffee cup. Then Henry’s arm. It swells, then withers in an instant and dies on his shoulder, decaying into a stump. Rachelle falls out of her chair and backs up as Henry screams. The effect spreads down his right side. He doesn’t even bleed as his body is disassembled, it’s not that kind of injury. Rachelle backs into a cabinet and slams the door, watching through the gap by the door as half of Henry crawls toward her in agony before he stops being Henry. She has just moments to watch as the reaction speeds up and the world around her dissolves. She finds herself shrieking in unbelievable agony, but just for a moment, because then she stops being Rachelle.
Then she wakes up in a cold sweat in her bedroom in her nice colonial house in a quiet neighborhood called Buena Vista Ridge. It’s March 20th, 2023. What a strange dream, she thinks to herself. But she’s still shaking a little as she makes her egg white omelet.
She can’t shake how real it all felt as she drives her Chevy Volt to the office. But she gets terrible déjà vu as she watches the construction foreman fall into the hole by the water main. Was that part of the dream?
At the front doors Mike seems distracted, but he buzzes her in anyway when her card doesn’t work. She sinks into her chair in the control room and chats with Henry, but neither of them seems to have their heart in it. They don’t really know why they’re going through the motions. Something just feels off. Rachelle flips the switch, and Henry screams. She’s in the closet. Henry’s body is breaking. The world dissolves.
Rachelle wakes up in her nice colonial house and something is wrong. It’s March 20th, 2023. Did she have the same dream twice? She wants to cry. It can’t be true. But she has to go to work, it’s a big day, even if she feels terrible. She makes an egg white omelet. She doesn’t want it, but she doesn’t have a lot in the fridge and she needs to watch her cholesterol.
She watches a construction foreman fall into a hole, but it’s not funny anymore.
She’s at the front door. Mike is uneasy. His hand shakes as he buzzes her in. In the chamber, Henry asks her about her commute through gritted teeth. She smiles, but her eyes are afraid. He can’t take his eyes off the switch. Maybe she shouldn’t do this. Maybe she should let this experiment shut down. But the funding is important. She looks at Henry and he returns her gaze, shaking his head. She flips the switch anyway. The world dissolves.
Rachelle wakes up. It’s March 20th, 2023. Everything is wrong and she cries in the shower. She makes an egg white omelet and a spinach smoothie and hates every second of it, but she can’t stop it. She has to eat. She’ll skip work today, she thinks. Maybe watch some Netflix. But then she’s in the Chevy Volt.
There’s terror in the foreman’s eyes, but it’s not about the fact that he’s falling into the hole. The workers that catch him look at Rachelle with abject terror but she can’t save them, can she?
At the door, she begs Mike with her eyes to not let her in. She shakes her head and mouths the words. His eyes are like dinner plates. He tries to stop himself, but his shaking hand hits the button and the door buzzes. Rachelle despairs.
Henry is holding the arms of his chair with white knuckles, as if he wants to get up and run, be anywhere but here, but he can’t. His eyes are pleading.
Maybe I won’t flip the switch today, Rachelle thinks. I don’t need to. The world holds its breath. She looks at Henry, and flips the switch. The accelerator pushes particles to 11 TeV, and she’s back in that cabinet watching Henry’s ruined half body drag itself across the ground and the world dissolves.
So many days, so many mornings, so many flips of the switch. She watches the fear in their eyes every day, like they know. Because they do. They all know. Everyone knows what’s coming every day. And yet no one stops it. Egg whites. The foreman falls in the hole. Mike hits the buzzer. Rachelle flips the switch. The terror persists and no one can stop it. A hundred times. A thousand? The date is March 20th, 2023. The date is always March 20th, 2023. A liminal event where it’s not that nothing will ever be the same, but that nothing will ever be different. It will be March 20th, 2023 forever.
Until one day it isn’t.
Rachelle wakes up and it’s a Sunday, March 19th, 2023. The world seems different. Oh she remembers everything, the eternity of terror she’s endured. But it seems different. Because it’s March 19th. She gets to go to church and then have brunch with her friends. They know too, they remember. She’s sure of it. She can see it on their faces. Is it weird no one brings it up? She laughs for the first time in ages. It feels strange to laugh. It’s a fun day, but everyone is haunted, and no one knows what to do. But they don’t talk about it.
It’s a different world now, but the wounds are raw. They were just there and they saw the devastation, so many times. After brunch she calls Henry. He’s … lighter… but nervous. After all, today is March 19th. But that would make tomorrow…
March 20th, 2023. And it’s worse with the reprieve. They all think it will be different, but it won’t. Rachelle makes egg whites. Mike buzzes her in. She flips the switch. The world dies in agony.
But time is flexible and it seems, on a long enough horizon, it will begin to heal, in its own kind of way. Eventually it’s March 18th, then March 16th, then March 13th. Rachelle goes shopping to pick up food for the week. She’s trying to eat healthy for her cholesterol. She’s afraid but she can’t quite remember what she’s afraid of.
It always ends in the cabinet watching the half-Henry die, but the start is flexible, and the memory gets fuzzier each time. The destination is the same, but it’s harder and harder to chart the course. The memories fade as time decompresses.
It’s March 1st, 2023. Rachelle has an uneasy feeling. She doesn’t think this will be a good month, but her project is nearing completion, so she tries to put on a happy face. Sure, eventually it will be March 20th and she’ll flip the switch, and the world will disassemble itself amidst unspeakable pain, but the memory is transient and fleeting. Can you even remember something that hasn’t technically happened yet? She thinks it’s her imagination. But it’s not. It ends in the cabinet, watching her best friend’s body be destroyed by forces beyond human comprehension. It always ends in the cabinet.
It’s April 2008. Rachelle Faraday is at a house party in Back Bay. It’s not a party for her, but her friends are treating it that way. She’s graduating this year from MIT and she’s gotten a coveted research fellowship at CERN. She has high hopes to make the world a better place through clean energy, and her future looks bright. They drink late into the night beneath bistro lights and a starry sky. 15 years later she flips a switch and the stars dissolve.
It’s July 8th, 1974 and Amanda is working as a waitress. One day she runs across a man with a broken arm and she’s going to get in his Volkswagon to drive him to the hospital, but she doesn’t. She gets a bad feeling and walks away. Years later her friends will marvel about her close encounter. How lucky it was she didn’t get in that car. But it wasn’t luck, because she has to fall in love with John Faraday and 12 years from now give birth to her daughter Rachelle. If she gets in the car, then Amanda gets murdered in the mountains of Utah and there is no Rachelle Faraday. Then Rachelle can’t die in a supply cabinet watching the world burn. And it always ends in the cabinet.
Time stretches and heals.
It’s November 11th, 1918, and the world is euphoric. They know times will be good from here on out.
It’s 1352, no one knows the month, because that’s not important. The plague doesn’t care about time. What’s left of humanity knows this is God’s judgement and the world is ending. But it’s not. Not yet.
It’s January 10th, 49 BCE and a general leads his troops across the Rubicon.
It’s 3050 BCE and Hor-Aha unites the upper and lower kingdoms. This is the kingdom of a God on Earth and it will last forever.
A tetrapod crawls out of the ocean and gazes up at the sun through a hazy sky with primordial eyes.
A ring of dust floats in the void, cold and silent.
Maybe the switch worked after all. Entropy reversed.
All is silent and still. Then there’s a spark. And from that spark there is heat and pressure beyond humanity’s ability to conceive with logic and mathematics. Particles scatter in a mosaic of fire and plasma, for a brief moment, in a cosmic sense, expand faster than the speed of light. They condense and ignite in a beautiful dance that none can ever witness, here at the start of all things. They burn until they run out of fuel, then explode and seed the fledgling universe with copper, cobalt, tin, and carbon.
In the distant cosmos and band of stone and metal circles a young star and begins to condense and clear its orbit, and become a planet that will change the course of time itself. There will be blue skies and oceans. Bistro lights and particle accelerators. And a group of once primates that believe themselves to be giants.
And through it all there winds a thread. Subtle and faint, but inexorable. The thread traces the contours of history from the merging of the first gluons all the way through humanity’s discovery of fire and the taming of the atom. The thread that leads forever and always to one place: a storage cabinet. It has to, because that’s where it ends.
It’s March 20th, 2023. Rachelle Faraday makes an egg white omelet and is late to work. She flips the switch. Time condenses into a crystal and creation is unmade.
But maybe this time it’s not. Maybe two particles in that early conflagration will pass harmlessly through each other instead of colliding, and the thread will be cut. Maybe that little yellow star won’t have enough mass to achieve fusion and the Earth stays a sterile ball of dust and iron. Maybe, just maybe, the mass of the Higgs Boson will be a little bit different this time around, and when Rachelle Faraday flips that switch, she finds nothing at all.
It could happen, because there’s a lot of time between now and March 20th, 2023, and time is a precious thing. There’s so much left to happen, and maybe this time it’s different. The nascent universe is young and free, and brimming with endless possibility.