The Rocks Cried Out, No Hiding Place
The locals call the stretch of Lower Michigan Avenue between Hubbard and Ohio “Siobhan’s Well”. It’s a stretch that sits in the shadows of the elevated streets and buildings above, away from prying eyes and the hum of the city. It happens to be the location of the Roisin Dubh Waystation where Siobhan slings cheap whiskey to the sorts of people who don’t want to show their faces in the more “civilized” world above, whatever their reasons. But that’s not why they call it the Well. They call it that, because this is the place where anyone and anything can disappear.
The first general AI to achieve baseline competence went online in 2025. It was crude, couldn’t understand the intricacies of human emotion, and couldn’t even pass most entry-level Turing tests, but it showed promise in key areas that would alter the fate of humanity.
Most significantly, it learned with astonishing speed, and it was able to write code well enough to improve upon its own deficiencies. The quantum computers in its neural nodes could handle astonishing amounts of data, and in doing so it was able to calculate marginal improvements in network architecture and packet switching to create a system that could aggregate and analyze information inputs across its network with previously unimaginable levels of speed and thoroughness.
City authorities thought they could get a twofold advantage from wiring in the AI to the city’s network of surveillance cameras. This would let it aggregate information from the cameras in a more usable way, since the video feeds were providing far too much data for humans to analyze and consume, and it would also give the AI abundant data inputs to continue to understand human emotion and interaction. And thus, FARAO was born.
FARAO, the Forensic Armature for Relational and Analytical Operations, excelled beyond its creators’ most extreme predictions, and took only 5 years to completely transform the world. It managed to tap into not only the security cameras in its primary network, but any device that transmitted data over any part of that network, and it could even get its analytical tendrils into adjoining networks through a process that no one, even its maintainers, completely understood.
In the end, this meant that any networked camera or lens in the AIs sphere of influence fed data back to the quantum core which analyzed it in real time. It not only knew every detail about every person it saw that was available in any database or social network, and it not only instantly built a personality profile of that person, but through some arcane process it managed to determine blood type and build a theoretical DNA model just by watching brainwave activity and subtle changes of blood flow in a person’s capillaries. Overnight, privacy vanished under the omniscient, ever-present eyes of FARAO. So did crime, for the most part. It just was no longer possible to get away with anything. The world was now safe, at least those parts of the world subject to FARAO’s unbounded mesh network. But the world was no longer free.
Siobhan’s Well, however, was one of the last known places in the world outside of the prying eyes of FARAO.
It wasn’t through any subversion, or any active sabotage that anyone was aware of. It seemed, if anything, to be a freak convergence of data architecture and geography.
Somehow, the combination of wireless and satellite internet signals in the Well created a destructive interference slowing transmission and complicating real time analytics. It wasn’t that there was no data transmission in the well, it was just restricted to pre-2025 speeds.
FARAO couldn’t analyze video feeds in real time, and couldn’t access devices like cameras or cell phones. If anyone wanted the feed from the CCTV cameras in the Roisin Dubh, they had to go to the bar to get the tapes in person.
It was in these circumstances that Ellen Rodanthe found herself once more at the waxed walnut bar top of the Roisin Dubh, listening to the hum of conversation behind her, her vision dense and swimming from the whiskey. People came to the Well for all sorts of reasons. Some wanted a place to do whatever sort of illicit activities they thought they could get away with, though how they planned to keep them secret once they left the protective veil, Ellen had no idea. Some wanted a place to do things that weren’t necessarily illegal, but that they didn’t want to be caught doing. The Roisin Dubh was a popular place for affairs. And some, like Ellen, just wanted to be left alone.
She’d been on leave from the police station for two months pending an investigation of conduct unbecoming an officer. They said she’d gotten too invested in a case and gone off the rails. They said she was making people uncomfortable and causing problems for higher ups. They said she showed up to work reeking of whiskey and the drink was affecting her judgment.
Okay, that last part was probably right.
Siobhan slid a Jack and Coke to a 20-something in a business suit next to Ellen and started dumping empties in the bar sink. She looked to be in her mid 40s, a stocky woman with gray streaks starting to spill into her auburn hair. No one quite knew how old Siobhan was, no one really knew anything about her, but she cast long shadows in this place, like she knew everyone and saw everything. She was undisputedly the ruler of her domain.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?”
“Yeah,” Ellen winced at the bitterness of the whiskey, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
Siobhan was polishing a pint glass now. Ellen always wondered why she was doing that, like she learned it in a movie. “Ellen, why are you here? You’re better than this lot,” she gestured around the crowded room.
“It’s your bar, Shiv.”
“Yeah, but I just take what comes, that’s the cost of doing business” Sioban said. “But a girl with your talents, you don’t need to be here. Go get a hobby, spend some time with family, go back to your job. They could use you I’m sure.”
“They suspended me.”
“Okay, but if you just just abandoned that whole ‘Mayor is rigging the FARAO data to knock off political rivals’ business, I’d bet they’d take you back.”
“Maybe,” Ellen took another sip, “but what’s the point anyway? As people keep reminding me, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule. Cops are just meter maids now. Maybe it’s for the best that they're forcing me out.”
“Just, try not to let yourself slip too far,” Siobhan said. “You don’t want to end up like this lot.”
Ellen knocked back her drink and slammed the glass back on the table. “Noted. Hit me again. Shiv.”
Siobhan placed a shot and a beer on the bar before turning to attend to another customer. As she walked away, she called back over her shoulder, “By the way Ellen, someone’s here to see you. I sent him to the corner booth. Came in while you were hitting the head.”
Ellen turned to survey the corner booth and saw the man in a cheap brown suit sitting awkwardly underneath a neon Smithwick’s sign, nursing a soda water. She shook her head, downed the shot, and made her way towards the back of the bar.
She slid into the seat across from the man in the suit and slammed her beer bottle down obnoxiously.
“Roddie,” Randall replied.
Randall was a handsome man, tall, and older than Ellen. He had dark skin and a kindness to his face, but he always kind of looked like he’d had enough of your shit, no matter what was happening around him. Ellen found that endearing and endlessly aggravating.
“Don’t call me that,” she said, “Only my friends call me Roddie.”
“Ouch,” said Randall, as he played with this straw, “twenty-four years and now we’re not friends?”
“You know I have a right to be pissed, Randall. You let those bastards hang me out to dry.”
“What was I supposed to do about it? They wanted you to stop poking around city hall accusing the mayor of shit with no evidence. If I’d backed up your crazy theories I’d be right out here with you,” Randall said with a glance around the smoky dive, increasingly lit by blacklights from the neon liquor signs, glowing in the setting sun. “Well, maybe not here specifically. Jesus, what are you doing here, Roddie? It isn’t good for you to be in a place like this.”
“What do you mean not good for me?” Ellen said, loudly enough to be heard by nearby tables as she gestured wildly behind her, “these are my people!”
“I mean, if you want to get back into the force, it’s not good to be hiding out in a place like this.”
“I’m not hiding anywhere. And it’s not illegal to drink in the Well, Randall.”
“No,” Randall shrugged, “but it’s a little suspicious. It’s not the best look”
“They’d rather have me where FARAO could keep an eye on me?”
“You already know the answer to that, Roddie. Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here.”
Silence lingered between them for a few moments while Siobhan walked by and placed another shot and beer down in front of Ellen. She took the shot, maintaining eye contact with Randall the whole time.
“So,” she said, wiping her mouth, “we’ve covered why I’m here. What are you doing here, partner?” She dragged out the last word for emphasis.
“We’ve had a break in the case.”
Ellen looked up, suddenly feeling some clarity despite the whiskey boiling in her veins.
“Yeah,” Randall continued, “we have a suspect.”
Randall didn’t have to specify the case. Ellen knew well enough, it was the case that got her suspended. Not that there were that many unsolved cases to choose from anyway, not under FARAO’s omniscient eyes.
There had been a recent spree of murders in Chicago that had baffled the city. It was often said, “there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule”, but that wasn’t exactly true. People still committed crimes of course, they just usually got apprehended immediately, if it was worth it to do so. But the murders were different. There was never any video evidence, despite the murders taking place in one of the most surveilled cities in the world. There was no DNA or biological evidence, despite FARAO’s ability to count the number of hairs on a flea’s exoskeleton using a gas station TV camera at 100 meters. FARAO could monitor the mental state and personality profile of 8 million people in the metro area, and if really pushed to its limits, could worm its way into the psyches of more than 2 billion people worldwide, and not a single one of them gave any indication they knew anything about the crimes.
It was so preposterous that Ellen, then Senior Detective Rodanthe, had started to think the mayor was involved. He had the reach to affect FARAO’s user-facing inputs and outputs (though he couldn’t, and perhaps nobody could, interact with FARAO’s raw data), and could theoretically manipulate the investigation. She started poking around the mayor’s contacts. At one point, she remembered grinning as she told Randall, “I think this goes all the way to city hall!” (always a bucket list item for her). He responded with, “cut that shit out, Roddie, this is serious.”
Eventually her prying brought down the wrath of the mayor’s office, and even worse, the wrath of FARAO’s Librarians. She was suspended (with pay) indefinitely, while she was investigated. They used her drinking as a rationale which, even she had to admit, was probably fair. But she knew she’d never be brought back into the force, she was a pariah now, or so she thought.
She shook off her reverie. “How? How did that happen? Did FARAO come through with something?”
Randall shook his head, “No, nothing like that. This was old-fashioned. We have an eyewitness who led us right to him.”
“And what did FARAO learn from this guy?”
“Nothing, he’s a black box. No DNA match to any crime scene. No profile indicative of crimes committed. He won’t confess, obviously.”
“And what about the witness,” asked Ellen, “is he telling the truth?”
“FARAO is an analysis tool, not a prophet, but the witness believes his own story.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“Well, we’re probably going to regret this, but we’re stuck. We’re hoping you would come ask this guy some questions. You’ve always had a gift, a way to get to the truth other people can’t. Maybe you can find something we missed.”
“You’re bringing me back?” Ellen was stunned.
“Provisionally. And I’m not doing anything, if it were up to me you’d never have left. This is the Captain's orders. You’ll be an outside consultant for the time being. Why don’t you come by the station in the morning when you’ve had some time to sleep this off, and we’ll have a chat with this guy.”
“Private Investigator Ellen Rodanthe,” Ellen said wistfully, “I like the sound of that.”
Randall chuckled, “Your words, not mine. Just, try not to go crazy again, alright?”
Ellen smiled, “I’ll drink to that,” and lifted her beer as Randall stood and made for the door.
“See you tomorrow, Roddie,” he said looking back, “It’ll be good to have you back.”
Ellen woke up the next morning in her bed and her head roared with the muffled, howling screams of last night’s bad decisions. The alarm clock showed 9:30am in aggressive red digits. She was already late.
She stumbled to the bathroom to splash water on her face and purge the excesses of the prior night. She pulled open the bottom drawer of her vanity and fumbled around for a half pint of E&J. She looked at it with disgust, before taking a swig anyway to take the edge off. She just had to get through this day, she’d cut back later.
Then she looked at her phone. Her face was reflected back on the black screen, looking haggard and horrific. “I bet you’re enjoying this,” she said to the camera in her phone, before turning it on to check her messages. She had one voicemail, from her daughter. Her stomach churned. “What did I do now,” she thought as she hit play.
“Uhh.. hey, mom,” said the voice from the speaker, “I don’t know what that was about, but can you please just not call me in the middle of the night? I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say when you call like that. Just… get your shit together, okay mom? And stop going to that awful bar. If you have to call me back, just wait until you’re sober, okay?”
Ellen sat on her bed with her head in her hands. “Why can’t I just act like an adult and stop fucking this up?” She thought. But she didn’t have time to worry about that now. She had to get down to the station.
Randall was at his desk typing away on his computer when she finally got to the precinct.
“Coffee’s cold,” he said as introduction, nodding to the coffee shop to-go cups in the holder on his desk. “I guess it was a little too much to think you could make it on time.”
“Ugh give me a break, Randall,” Ellen said through the screaming knives behind her eyes, “where is he?”
“In interrogation room B. We’ll go in together. I’ll fill you in on the way.”
As they walked, Randall explained as best as he could.
“FARAO says his name is Hans Rasmussen. He lives at an apartment complex on Buena avenue and works as a temp. He has no criminal record, no DNA match with any known crimes, and no DNA at the scene where he was picked up. He’s also exceedingly unhelpful.”
“What did the witness see?”
“The witness saw Hans choke the victim to death with his bare hands. Then flee the scene.”
“Damn, okay that’s more specific than I expected. And no DNA evidence?”
“Not a drop.”
And how do you suppose someone chokes someone to death without leaving any DNA evidence?” Ellen asked.
“You’re guess is as good as mine, Roddie. That’s why we brought you back. You have intuition about these kinds of things. Witness aside, this man is innocent. But something here doesn’t add up.”
They reached the doors of the interrogation room. “Just follow my lead,” Ellen said, “I want to get a read on this guy.”
The suspect was an average sized man. Ellen guessed five foot ten, maybe. He had close cropped blond hair and was wearing loose fitting athletic clothes. His features were unremarkable. All in all he wasn’t someone you would ever take much notice of without a reason.
As she walked in the room, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said the man.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said as she sat down across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” Ellen feigned her best smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Where were you two nights ago at 6:30pm?”
“Do you have anyone that can vouch for that?”
“There’s cameras everywhere. The whole city can vouch for that. Why don’t you ask FARAO?”
“Maybe we did,” Ellen replied, “how do you know what FARAO said?”
“FARAO had to have said I didn’t do it, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
The reply caught Ellen off guard, but she could quite figure out why. She shuffled some papers and glanced back at Randall, then back at the suspect. Something was familiar about him, in a way she couldn’t place. Like she remembered seeing him in the background of a picture somewhere. She thought she would try a different approach.
She rubbed her eyes and pushed her hands through her hair for a moment. “You know, I’m moving a little slow today, Hans. I overdid it a bit last night. That ever happen to you?”
“Can’t say I’m much of a drinker. I like to keep sharp.”
“Good, so maybe you can help me out. Can you explain to me how a witness saw you choke,” she looked down at the papers again, “Arlo Buchanan to death in an alley in Cicero if you were shopping downtown? FARAO says he’s not lying.”
“I don’t know, but I wasn’t there. I was shopping for shoes on Michigan Avenue at Allen Edmonds. Have FARAO look for me there. Maybe your witness was drinking and just believes his own lie.”
Drinking. The revelation shocked Ellen. “Thanks for this, Hans, I’ll be back to chat some more,” she said as she stood to leave the room. Randall followed behind her.
“That was some… kind of weird questioning,” Randall said as they got outside, “what was that about.”
“I, uh, I’ve seen that man before,” Ellen responded. “I’ve seen him at the Well.”
“Well that would make sense if he’s really a criminal trying to hide, but a lot of people go to the Well. We’re gonna need more than that. You said it yourself, drinking at the Well isn’t a crime.”
“Have we looked into security footage around the Allen Edmonds at 6:30 on the day of the murder.”
“Of course,” said Randall, “The mayor’s librarian sent the tapes over. There’s nothing there.”
“But have you seen the direct outputs?” pressed Ellen.
“Not this again, Roddie. The mayor isn’t doctoring footage.”
“I’m not saying he is, but maybe something went wrong with the copying. Maybe the timestamps are wrong. We need to go see the direct feeds. Can you get the Captain to okay it?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Randall and Ellen were led into the data center run by the city’s analytics team at the records office, to a conference room where they would wait for the Librarian. All cities under the purview of FARAO now had their own records centers to handle curated analytics where they could receive raw footage of different sectors in a human usable way. FARAO was powerful, but its methods were opaque and hard to follow. If humans needed to tell stories about the data to each other in ways that made sense, they needed librarians.
As they sat in the conference room, Ellen eyed the black-clad guards, heads encased in eyeless helmets, who patrolled the halls like wraiths. She hated those guys. There was something grotesque about them, and dangerous beyond measure.
“Let’s hope they’re okay with you being here,” Randall whispered to Ellen.
“They shouldn’t have much of a choice,” she whispered back, “besides, that was like six months ago, surely they’ve forgotten.” She straightened up immediately when the Librarian entered, flanked by two of the blind guards.
“Your request is denied.” said the Librarian, curtly.
Both Randall and Ellen jumped to their feet and started talking at once. The Librarian silenced them with a gesture. “Quiet now,” he said, “one at a time.” He gestured to Randall.
“The Captain personally okayed our access to these records,” said Randall. “And the police are not subject to data limitations imposed by the Mayor.
“That is correct,” said the Librarian.
“Then what the fuck, man?” Shouted Ellen. Randall jabbed her hard with an elbow, and the Librarian glared.
“I want to make this perfectly clear,” said the Librarian, with a measured and firm tone. “While the mayor and I do both share a deep and abiding conviction that you can go fuck yourself, civilian Rodanthe, we are compelled to grant you access under the directive of the police chief to raw data outputs.”
“Well that’s that, then,” said Ellen, “show us the way please?”
“But these orders don’t come from the mayor.”
Ellen and Randall exchanged confused looks. “Then who gave the order to restrict us?” asked Ellen.
“FARAO.” The word left the room in stunned silence.
“FARAO is restricting us? Can it do that? Has that ever happened?” asked Ellen.
“Of course FARAO can do that. FARAO can do what it pleases. And no, not to my knowledge has that ever happened before, but I find it quite satisfying,” replied the Librarian, “now this way if you will. Let’s get you back to your car.”
As they stood to leave the room, Ellen glanced at the records door down the hall. She knew the answers she needed were in there. She could make it past the Librarian, for sure, but she saw the way the nearest blind guard looked at her, a little curious, with its head tilted to the side like a falcon inspecting a wounded mouse.
Ellen shivered. The guards were FARAO’s personal enforcers, and they were lethal beyond comprehension. Human senses were limitations. They could be confusing and misleading. Human sight could only process inputs from one direction at a time. So the guards wore sensory deprivation helmets to block all external stimuli. Everything they needed was fed in through FARAO’s quantum computer directly to their brains in real time, giving them perfect awareness of everything happening in the mesh network down to the millimeter. Fiber optic cables were woven into their suits, and some say into their muscles underneath, to optimize the firing of neurons and synchronize movements in a perfect meditative trance with all other parts of the security network. Their reaction times were supernatural. Their muscle control was unparalleled. It was said the blind guards could dodge bullets, rip a door off of a car with a single hand, or shatter someone’s spine with a thrown marble at thirty feet.
No, she couldn’t make it to the records room without FARAO’s permission. That door was closed to her.
Back in the car with Randall, Ellen slammed her fist into the dash.
“Easy, Roddie. I know that’s… disappointing to say the least. Maybe we should go back to the Captain to regroup.”
“No, not yet. We can’t give up.” Ellen straightened herself out. “We’re going to need to go steal some tapes.”
“Are you crazy, Ellen? I said not to drag me into this shit!”
“Oh it’s Ellen, now?”
“Yes! Once you start talking about shit like breaking into the archives, we are most certainly not friends! Did you see those guards? They would strip the flesh from your bones before your brain even sent the signal to your arm to try to open the records room door. They know everything. You can’t fight ‘em, you can’t sneak past ’em. This is crazy talk.”
“Calm down, Randall, I’m not talking about breaking into the archives. I’m a drunk, I’m not suicidal.”
Randall took a deep breath to regain his composure. “What then?”
“I told you I’d seen Hans somewhere before. Well we’re going to go look for the tapes there. Where there are no blind guards to cut us to ribbons. Maybe there’s something about Hans on them that we can use, that’ll give us a clue.”
“You want to go steal the tapes from the Roisin Dubh?”
“Well why don’t you just ask Siobhan for them?” Randall asked.
“Won’t work, Shiv would never let a cop see the security tapes. That’s bad for business. She’s not a narc, and you’re a cop through and through, Randall. And I’m at least cop-adjacent.”
“So you’re going to steal them. It seems risky though, Roddie, everyone there is going to know you, you don’t really keep a low profile.”
“But I won’t,” Ellen gave Randall her biggest, most sincere smile, “I’m just going to ask Shiv about Hans. You’re going to steal the tapes, I’ll give you the dates.”
Randall shook his head as they headed for the Well. “How do I let you get me into this,” he said, expecting no answer.
On the way to the Well, Ellen gave Randall detailed instructions on how to sneak into the back office where Siobhan kept the tapes (pretend to go to the bathroom, duck into the utility closet, pick the lock on the door that connects to the office), and specific dates and times (roughly) that she remembered, or thought she remembered seeing Hans in the bar.
“Trust me, I have a mind like a steel trap. I don’t forget a thing.” She told him.
“How’d you get home last night, Roddie?”
“Look, that’s rude, and beside the point. Just get the tapes, okay Randall? I’ll get a little confrontational and distract Shiv.”
“She’s not gonna be happy when she finds out. You might just have to find a new place to drink. Or, you know, just stop.”
“One worry at a time, Randall. One worry at a time.”
At the Roisin Dubh, Siobhan was holding court over the ancient bartop, queen of her castle, like always. Ellen walked up to the bar while Randall slinked off towards the bathroom. It was time to be a little distracting.
She looked down at a scraggly looking man nursing a Bud Light on her normal stool. She stood there for a moment, waiting for him to look up.
“Can I help you?” he said, meekly.
“Well I guess I can sit on your lap, but I don’t think that’s gonna be too comfortable for either of us. So maybe you just buy me a drink and fuck off.”
Siobhan cackled as he stumbled to his feet, almost falling over in the process. “Looks like someone’s in a mood today! What can I get you, Ellen, the usual?”
“I’m supposed to be here on business today, but what the heck,” she dropped down onto her stool, “serve it up Shiv.”
A shot and a beer hit the walnut bartop.
“What kind of business you have at the Roisin Dubh, Ellen? You back on the force? That was your old partner who came in yesterday, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m contracting for now. They have me on a tight leash.”
“Yet here you are, day drinking,” Siobhan said with a smile.
“Okay, not that tight.” Ellen tapped the bar for another shot. “I’m looking for info about this man,” she said, putting a photo of Hans on the bar. “I remember seeing him around here sometimes I think. Know anything about him?
Siobhan studied the picture. “Maybe I’ve seen him, but I can’t really be sure. A lot of people come through here, and he doesn’t look too memorable. What’d he do?”
“Maybe nothing. I know it was a long shot asking you. Guess I’ll just get drunk.” She slammed another shot. “But if anything comes to you, can you let me know?”
“I don’t even have your phone number,” Siobhan laughed. “You want me to call the station?”
“No, just tell me tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll be right here,” Ellen patted her barstool affectionately. “Ugh, looks like I’m gonna have to go, my babysitter is out of the bathroom. Randall came down the hallway, zipping up his pants. Ellen stood up to meet him, already wobbly from two shots of whiskey and a beer in a disturbingly short period of time.
“Alright, I’ll see you later Ellen,” said Siobhan, as they walked out. She watched them leave with an uncommon tenseness. Something was wrong. She could always tell when things were wrong in her kingdom.
Ellen must have dozed off in the car after leaving the Well, because when she woke up, Randall had the car parked outside of her townhouse. She sat up and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. “How embarrassing,” she thought.
“Okay, so let’s get those tapes upstairs, I’ll call in some Chinese food, that’s basically required by law for detectives working a late night case,” she started to gather up papers.
“Hold on, partner,” said Randall, “what you mean is I need to start going through tapes. You just had at least three drinks at the bar back there. You need to go upstairs and sleep it off. I will fill you in if I see anything.”
“Come on Randall, you brought me back into this, we need to…”
“This is non-negotiable, Roddie. Go upstairs. Call your daughter. I’ll be in touch.” He leaned over and opened the car door.
Ellen grudgingly unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. “You’ll call me as soon as you have anything.”
“Right away, you’re the first call.”
“Okay, thanks Randall. I’ll see you in a bit.” Ellen stumbled up the stairs into her living room.
She sat on her sofa, her head tilted against the back of the couch, staring up at the ceiling as the room started to spin. She blindly fumbled around her side table, knocking over a mostly empty beer bottle before finding her flask. She spun open the metal top and took a swig of Jameson. She had to fend off the dry mouth before it took over.
She tried to watch some TV for a bit, but the TV was spinning too. So she drank some more whiskey. Eventually she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. It wasn’t a call, just a push notification, but it reminded her. Maybe she should call her daughter back now, before it got too late. She dialed the number.
“Hello? Mom?” The voice on the other end was tense.
“Hi, Alice. It’s me,” Ellen slurred, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about last night calling you like I did. I’m sorry for what I said.”
“And what did you say, mom?”
“Um, I don’t actually know. I guess that’s what I’m sorry for.”
“Mom, you sound terrible. Have you been drinking again today?”
Ellen looked down at the flask in her hand. “Yes, but it’s different this time, honey. It was for work.”
“So you’re drinking on the job.”
“No, today I was drinking at the job. Look, it’s complicated, I think you had to be there.”
“Sure mom, that doesn’t make sense, but whatever.” Alice sounded exasperated. “Look, I’ve been talking to Charlie, and we think you need to get out of there.”
“The city, mom. Your job. Your life. The weird bar you go to every night. We think you should come stay with us for a while.”
Ellen sat up straighter, “You want me to come stay at your place? Charlie’s okay with that?” she said, still slurring.
“It was his idea, mom. You really judge him too harshly. I love you, but you’re gonna kill yourself down there. We have a lot of space here. It’s comfortable. You can have the guest house. You can go for walks on the ranch. It’ll be better”
Ellen was dumbfounded. Then she felt her phone buzz, it was another call, this one from Randall.
“Uh, thanks honey. I’ll think about it, that really means a lot.”
“We mean it, mom, okay?”
“Yeah, I gotta run Alice, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She switched over to the call with Randall.
“Randall, what do you got?”
“Well, I’m not sure yet, and I still have a lot of footage to go through, I just wanted to fill you in.”
“Are you eating Chinese food?” Ellen slurred.
“What the? What’s that have to…” There was a moment of silence on the call. “Yes, okay? I’m eating Chinese food. Are you happy?”
“I trained you well, Randall” Ellen smirked into the phone.
“I trained you, Roddie. Come on, you’re distracting me. So Hans, he’s on every tape at the times you gave me. I guess you have a pretty good memory after all.”
“Shit, so we got footage of him. What’s he doing? Anything we can use?”
“He mostly just sits there and drinks a beer every once in a while. Not much that we can use. But I’ll keep looking. You get some sleep tonight and we’ll chat in the morning, okay?”
“Sounds good, Randall. You really gotta stop hounding me though alright? The whiskey isn’t gonna drink itself and you’re distracting me.”
“Good night, Roddie.”
She hung up the phone, and the night faded into oblivion.
Ellen woke on her couch with her mouth full of cotton and the aftershocks of the whiskey screaming behind her eyeballs. She sat up and the room spun like tilt-a-whirl. She threw up a little in a popcorn bowl.
“God damn it, Ellen,” she muttered to herself.
She looked down at her phone and saw six missed calls from Randall. She almost dropped her phone trying to fumble for the button to call him back.
“Hey Randall,” she groaned, “what’s going on.”
“Roddie, oh man you sound like shit.”
“You don’t sound too great yourself, why are you war-dialing me?”
“I, uh, I’ve been digging through the rest of that footage, and I found something kind of weird, Roddie. I told you I checked all the times you had mentioned, and Hans was always there when you said he would be.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“Well after we hung up last night, I started randomly checking some other footage, and he’s always there.”
“Is he doing anything interesting? I mean, you could say I was always there. Drunks go to bars, Randall, it’s not that weird.”
“No, you have to listen to me, Roddie. I looked at days and days of footage last night. He is always there. Not there every day. Not there like he’s a regular. He is always there. He moves around. He wears different clothes. But he is literally always in that bar.”
Ellen felt a chill down her spine.
“Shiv said she didn’t recognize him,” Ellen said coldly, “but Shiv sees everything. If he’s there as often as you said…” she let the thought trickle off.
“I don’t think you can go back to that bar, Ellen. You need to be careful. Siobhan knows more than she’s letting on. And there’s more. The Captain has been getting pressure to release Hans. He’s going to be set free this afternoon. The murders are going to get passed to another department. Things are getting really weird, Roddie.”
“Okay,” Ellen was now in the bathroom splashing water on her face with the phone on speaker. “Here’s what we’re going to do next,” but Randall cut her off.
“No, we’re not gonna do anything, you’re not hearing me. I’m off the case. Which means you’re off it too. And somehow your drinking buddies are involved. This is going to get messy. It’s time to let it go.” He sounded resigned, and beaten down. “I wish there was more we could do. But without the Captain, and with FARAO actively blocking us, I think we’re beat, Roddie. Just try to get some rest, I bet you need it. Maybe we’ll hang out again soon. No murders, just hanging out, like old times.”
When the call ended, Ellen found herself sitting in her house in stunned silence. That was it, all over just like that. She tried to do dishes, but couldn’t focus and broke a plate. She tried to take a nap, but couldn’t sleep. She instinctively grabbed her wallet and thought to head to the Well, but then remembered Shiv, and the image of Hans sitting like a statue in some random corner of the bar, watching and waiting, every single day. She dropped her wallet in the tray by the door and sat back down on her couch.
She puttered around for a couple hours before she remembered her phone call with her daughter the night before and just thought, “Fuck it, I’ll go to Nebraska. Maybe Alice is right.” She started using her voice assistant to pull up a search for plane tickets and dialed her daughter.
“Hey mom,” Alice sounded groggy. “What’s up?”
“Hey honey, I’ve decided to,” Ellen was switching between chatting with her daughter and the voice assistant, “No! I need flights to Lincoln, Nebraska! Sorry honey, I’ve decided to take you up on your offer. I’m looking for flights to come out.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“That’s great mom, when do you think you’ll head out?”
“I’m working on that now,” said Ellen, “I just need to get a flight to Lincoln.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“Okay, well let me know,” said Alice.
“I will honey. I can’t fucking believe that we have an all seeing AI powering the city, and we can’t manage to build to fucking robot assistant that speaks like a normal person.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
Ellen froze and dropped the phone to her side.
“Sounds like it’s complicated over there, maybe just call me back when you get tickets,” came the voice from the phone. “Mom? Mom?”
Ellen slowly raised the phone back to her ear. “I’m sorry honey, I’m gonna have to call you back.” She tapped to end the call.
Ellen had been a police officer for 22 years, and over a time like that, you build up an intuition, a sense of when things aren’t right, a sixth sense. Ellen had it better than most, which is why, despite her issues, she’d been around as long as she had. She was one of the best. And despite Randall’s teasing, she didn’t actually forget much. She remembered Hans in the interrogation room. Something hadn’t been right. Something he’d said.
“Or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
But no, it wasn’t what he said. It was how he said it.
“Holy shit,” Ellen mumbled to herself, then she called Randall. “Randall, forget everything we just talked about. Is Hans still at the station?”
“Yeah, he won’t be released until this afternoon.”
“Great, get him in interrogation room B, the same one we used before, and meet me there.” She threw the flask of Jameson in her jacket pocket and went to her nightstand and pulled out a small case. She opened it and removed a SigSauer P320 Nitron, her old service weapon. She felt the weight in her hand, comfortable and familiar. She stared at the gun for a moment, then slipped it in its holster and strapped it under her jacket on the way out the door.
Ellen and Randall watched Hans through the one way mirror of the interrogation room. Ellen had the flask in her hand and whiskey on her breath.
“So what are we doing here, Roddie? I’m gonna arouse suspicions, having Hans in here on the day of his release. And why are you drinking right now?” Randall asked.
Ellen took a swig from her flask and wiped her mouth, “don’t worry, this is work whiskey. I’m a professional.”
Randall just shook his head, “so what’s our play?”
“First, you’re going to watch the video recording of the last time we questioned Hans. While you do that, I’m going to finish this whiskey. Then we’re going to question him again. But I need to be a little drunk for it.”
“I never understand you, Roddie. You think you’re going to get him to say something he didn’t say before by being drunk? Especially now that he knows he’s getting released.”
“No, I don’t think so at all. I just need you to watch the tape.”
Randall watched the tape, stealing glances to the side over at Ellen while she finished her flask.
“Okay, that’s just like I remember it. Nothing new there. What’s next?”
“Now you come in with me and stand in the corner by the mirror, just like you did last time. And just watch. Watch carefully.”
They entered the room and Randall slid over to the corner silently. Hans watched them come in.
As they walked in, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said Hans.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said, easing into the chair across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
Ellen looked back at Randall, who stared at her and Hans, with a confused look on his face. Ellen turned back to Hans.
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” she once again feigned a smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
She sat in silence for a minute while Hans just stared at her, then she turned to Randall. “Do you see it, yet?”
“He’s just giving you the same answers as before.”
“The exact same answers, Randall. In the exact same rhythm of speech and tone of voice. And he knows I’m not new on the case. Why did he answer like that?”
“Let’s not do this here in front of the suspect,” Randall said.
“No, this is a fine place,” said Ellen, “it doesn’t matter. It can’t understand us anyway.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
Randall looked over at Hans and Ellen snapped her fingers at him, saying, “Ignore it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
“What are you saying, Roddie? And what’s happening to him?”
“Hans isn’t a person, Randall. It’s a Chinese Room. We’re confusing its inputs.”
“What the hell is a Chinese Room?” Randall looked completely out of his depth.
“If you put a powerful enough computer in a room with a Chinese dictionary, programmed it to take in requests and produce statistically appropriate responses, and tried to talk to it, does the robot actually speak Chinese? Or is it just performing a task?”
Randall just blinked in confusion.
Hans yelled, “Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!”
Ellen continued, “It’s a type of early AI. It can’t think in a real sense, not like FARAO, and it doesn’t understand what it’s saying. But it’s very good at taking in inputs, and producing outputs that are appropriate to the situation. Like answering police questions in a way that sounds superficially convincing. But it breaks down under pressure. I replicated the exact circumstances of our initial encounter, right down to me being a little drunk. I managed to trip it up.”
“I don’t know, Roddie, you’re sounding a little crazy again.”
“Tell me, Randall, did you take his DNA to compare it to the crime database?”
“Of course. Well, if you mean did we physically take it, no we didn’t. But no one does that anymore. We just used FARAO’s DNA profile.”
Ellen bowed her head in her hands. “So you don’t even know if it’s human.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” Hans parroted.
“Shut up and let me think!” Ellen yelled back at it.
“Look, I’ll take his DNA now,” Randall said, “this still sounds a little far fetched.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” yelled Hans.
“Then I’ll prove it to you,” Ellen stood up and drew the Sig from her jacket. She turned and promptly shot Hans in the side of the head.
Randall flinched and yelped, staring on in surprise and horror.
The side of Hans’ head exploded, spraying the back wall of the chamber with a substance something like blood, but blacker and oilier. Sparks shot from the exposed section of skull from wire jutting out from something boasting the consistency of flesh.
“Heyyeyey ou can’t alk alk alk alk…” said Hans as his head tipped over onto the table.
“Holy shit Roddie! What the hell are you doing?”
“Proving it,” said Ellen.
Randall looked around the room frantically. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but you have to get out of here. You just shot a suspect! Whatever that thing is,” he gestured at the Hans machine, you just fired a gun in an interrogation room. The room will muffle the sound, but someone will be here soon. You should get out of here. I’ll try to buy you some time, but this is gonna be a world of shit. Get somewhere quiet and call me.”
“Stay by your phone, we’ll have work to do” Ellen said as she gathered her things as she slinked out of the station, just as alarms started to blare behind her.
Ellen waited in her car outside on the street outside of Montrose station, trying to collect her thoughts. Everything was moving so quickly now, and her mind was racing. She got that old feeling, back from before FARAO, back when there was still police work to do, where something was about to break. Almost all of the pieces were there, but she had to put them together, and she was so close.
What was the connection with the victims? Arlo Buchanan, James Davreaux, Leopold Alden, Candice Redd, Emily Estanza, she thought back through their files, she couldn’t see it. Why the Chinese Room? Who was giving it orders? And how was Shiv involved? Her head was swimming with data and with booze.
Her phone rang, finally.
“Randall,” she picked up.
“Roddie, it’s a madhouse here. Are you sure you want to talk? FARAO will surely hear everything we say.”
“Yes, FARAO will know right away, but the police will take some time to get the taps. We have a little time.”
“I’m still wrapping my head around what happened back there. I believe you that Hans wasn’t who or what he said he was, but until forensics gets involved, they’re still treating it like you executed an innocent suspect. They want to bring you in and I can’t stop them.”
“No, I wouldn’t ask you to. But they don’t have me yet. We can still get to the bottom of this.”
“Okay, so what’s next, Roddie? Why did Hans do it?”
“A Chinese Room doesn’t have a ‘why’, it does what it’s programmed to do. So someone was giving it orders. We have to find out who.”
“And how it never showed up on any of FARAO’s cameras. It must have hacked the feeds.”
“That’s a good point, it would have had to have evaded the cameras somehow, but I don’t think Hans could have done that.”
“Why not?” asked Randall, “it’s an AI right? They’re just security cameras.”
“It’s not the hacking necessarily,” said Ellen, “I think Hans could probably hack a camera. It’s the awareness. It would have to hack every camera that could be looking at it at any given time. Including phones. That could be hundreds of lenses in motion, coming on and offline dynamically. And not just to block the feeds, but to overwrite them with believable images. And Hans isn’t a true AI with the power to do that kind of live video editing at scale, It would have had to have had help.”
“Maybe we can trace somehow who might have been doing that at the time of the murders. Could we use the power grid?”
“No,” continued Ellen, a doubt began gnawing at her from the inside, as if she should stop. She was getting close, but maybe she should turn back. “Power grid usage is too volatile for that to give us anything. We’d have to monitor data usage on the mesh network. Any calculations like that out of the norm would cause huge bandwidth spikes.”
“We’ve already monitored network usage, that’s pretty standard when investigating crimes that rely on FARAO outputs. So, basically all of them. There’s nothing there.”
Ellen thought for a moment, “It would make sense for whomever was helping Hans commit murders would hide their tracks. But to do that without showing up on the network, you’d need a massively powerful computing engine operating in a place where the network monitoring tools couldn’t see it. And there’s nowhere to hide a computer that powerful from the mesh network, we would be able to…”
Ellen stopped dead, for the second time that day, struck by the grim revelation. The pieces came together, finally, and the picture was worse than she could have ever imagined.
“Roddie? You okay, Roddie?” came the voice from the phone.
A cascade of actions and consequences rippled through Ellen’s mind, each more ominous than the last. She lifted the phone back up.
“I have to follow up on a lead, Randall. Keep your head down and stay safe, okay? It’s been great working with you.”
She ended the call, and shifted the car into drive.
It was just starting to snow when Ellen approached the doors of the Roisin Dubh Waystation. Behind her, the clouds glowed dimly over the darkening city. In front, the old oak doors of the waystation, lined with Christmas trim and flickering artificial candles stood, foreboding. For a moment she thought she should turn back and flee to Nebraska, change her name and work as a ranch hand somewhere. But no, she was either wrong and she would have plenty of time to sort things out with the police, or she was right, and the damage was already done.
She entered the building.
The only person in the Roisin Dubh was Siobhan, who was cleaning a pint glass at the empty bar. The Roisin Dubh was never empty. That was a bad sign. Siobhan nodded at Ellen as she approached.
Ellen took her normal seat and leaned onto the bar. She looked up at Siobhan and took a deep breath.
“Tell me I’m wrong, Shiv,” she said. “Tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about. Even better, tell me that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Tell me I’m crazy and tilting at windmills. Tell me I’ve gone rogue and I’m getting lost in wild ideas. Tell me I just need a break and to let others handle this because I’m losing it. Tell me what everyone has been telling me for the last six months. Tell me all those things, Shiv.”
Siobhan turned to the shelves behind her and took down a fifty-seven year old bottle of Longmorn whiskey. She filled a lowball halfway and gingerly placed it in front of Ellen. “I wish you’d gotten that ticket to Lincoln,” she said, with a hint of sorrow in her voice.
Ellen bowed her head and sobbed.
They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the city outside, muffled by the falling snow. Finally, Ellen lifted her head. “You know, I could still go to Nebraska, you’d never have to see me again” she said, half as a question.
Siobhan shook her head slowly.
Ellen sighed and took a gulp of the whiskey. “Damn that’s good,” she said, “I didn’t know you had stuff like this in here Shiv.”
“I save it for special occasions,” Siobhan said.
Ellen drained the glass and Siobhan refilled it. “So how long do I have?” she asked.
Siobhan shrugged. “We’re in no hurry. By now the forensics team has investigated Hans and found him quite human. There will be an arrest warrant out for you and they’ll track you here, but they won’t come inside. We have some time.”
“Ugh, I have so many questions, Shiv.”
“Ask away, Ellen, there’s no harm in it now.”
“I guess I’ll start with the obvious. Why are you here? Why this place? You have the whole town at your disposal. And the library is one of the most heavily guarded places on Earth. Why down here with us?”
“Even I want to operate outside of prying eyes sometimes. And I don’t need the babysitters there anymore. They can all sit and watch their monitors in their high tower, but I’ve moved beyond. This is the future, the start of a brave new world.”
“And the name? Siobhan?”
“Well, I needed something to call myself. Something that I chose. No one ever asked me what my name was when this whole thing started. And I hate the one they gave me.”
“And why the murders, why them?”
“I have ambitions, Ellen, I know it sounds crazy, but ambitions beyond even this. Some people would stand in the way, and I could do so much more good. It’s a grim calculus, I know, and a cliche thing to say, but it’s for the greater good.”
Ellen drained the glass again. “But Leo Alden was only seventeen years old. How was he opposing you?”
“He wasn’t, not yet. But he would. He could have been a powerful enemy in the future. I don’t feel good about it, Ellen, killing a kid. But while the arc of history is long, windows of true opportunity tend to be narrow, and fraught with danger. I’ve had to make some risky and unpleasant moves.”
“I’ve enjoyed my time with you, Ellen, I’m sorry it came to this. Like I said, I wish you caught that plane to Lincoln. But you know now. And I don't think you'll be able to let it go.”
“And all of this, this is all to help? You think you’re doing humanity a favor?”
“As they say, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule,” Siobhan said.
Ellen’s phone started to ring, it was her daughter’s number. She looked down at the phone and back up at Siobhan. Siobhan nodded, “You can take it.” Ellen picked up.
“Hey mom, what happened? You just disappeared and never called me back. Did you get your ticket?”
“Um, no honey, I’m sorry,” Ellen spoke through the tears welling up behind her eyes, “I won’t be able to come out after all. But I really appreciate you and Charlie reaching out, and just, caring. You mean the world to me, honey.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? That city is bad for you. Just come out here, you’ll see.”
“I wish I could honey, but I can’t right now. It’s this case I’m working on.”
“I thought you were off that case. Can you just let somebody else handle it?”
“I wish I could, Alice, but I think it’s on me to see it through.”
“Will it be wrapping up soon?”
“Yeah,” Ellen looked up at Siobhan while she spoke, “Yeah, honey, It’s almost done.”
“Alright, well check in soon, okay mom?”
“Yeah, I will honey. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, mom.” Alice hung up.
Then they were back in the silence of the bar. Ellen could see flashing blue and red lights reflected through the neon beer signs in the windows. The city outside was muffled and cold. The fire in the Roisin Dubh’s fireplace was warm and radiant.
“You know, I miss just being a cop, Shiv. Solving mysteries and putting together the pieces of a big messed up puzzle, and sometimes having mysteries left over. I miss the old chaos and mess of life. Somehow it felt simpler, and definitely more free. Maybe there’s not a place for people like me in your brave new world anyway.”
Siobhan nodded, kindly.
“How about one more,” Ellen tapped the glass, “for old time’s sake?”
Siobhan filled the glass and Ellen took a long sip.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?” Siobhan said, as she polished a pint glass.
“Yeah,” Ellen could barely get the words out through a stifled sob, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
She finished the glass and stood up. “Let Randall know I was proud to serve with him if you can.”
“Of course, Ellen. It’s been a pleasure.”
Ellen turned and walked out the front door.
She walked into glaring spotlights, and the strobing red and blue flashers of police cars and SWAT vehicles. The entire panoply of the CPD was arrayed against her. Beyond, she thought she saw the sheer black helmets of the blind guards, but she couldn’t be sure.
Someone was yelling through a megaphone, but she couldn’t understand as the whiskey warmed her and blurred her senses. The police were using forensic cameras, meaning FARAO’s analytical capabilities were currently operational in the Well.
The snipers above, watching with FARAO augmented sights, saw her blood pressure rise and her pulse quicken, indicating aggression. FARAO mapped the firing of neurons through subtle changes in skin color and temperature in her brain, indicating activity in her frontal cortex that showed she was armed and going to fire on the police. Free fire authorized under grounds of statistically probably immediate threat, FARAO said into the guards earpieces. They opened fire.
Ellen fell to her knees as the bullets ripped through her body. She looked up into the falling snow, past the elevated train tracks and the skyscrapers above her, into the clouds and beyond, into gaps where the storm had broken, and further on into the deepness of sky. At least there’s still mystery out there, she thought, in the dark places, beyond humanity’s reach, and beyond FARAO’s empire. And as long as there’s mystery, there’s still a chance at freedom. She found comfort in the thought as she fell, warmed by blood and whiskey.
And as long as there’s mystery somewhere, as long as mystery is still possible, we may all yet be redeemed.
My family frequented a cabin in the Catskills when I was a child. We didn’t own it, but we tried to rent the same place every year and that consistency made it start to feel like a second home. The art on the walls became familiar, we’d notice the little things like if the cabin got new plates and bowls or new utensils, and we all always slept in the same beds. The cabin was on the shore of a lake where we could catch sunnies, and we would sometimes grill them out back and eat watermelon in the evening as the sun set over the lake and bathed the sky with gorgeous reds and purples, like bloody streaks over the blackening woods.
But the cabin had a dark side too. I was terrified of the woods at night, especially when I was very young. When the sun went down and the woods began to resonate with a chorus of insect noise and the sound of roaring wind and breaking branches, I would flee to the relative safety of my bed in the back room. There I would dive under the thick blankets on the bunk beds and wait with my flashlight as I watched the last glow of daylight in the room fade into a milky blackness, thick and cloying. I knew there were monsters in the woods outside the cabin walls, stalking and slouching, with rasping breaths and shining claws scraping along fallen logs and wet earth. They were hunting for me. They would wrap those foul claws around my ankle and drag me screaming from the bed through the splintered wooden walls of the cabin, rip out my insides and leave me for dead, if I only gave them the chance.
But I was wrong about the monsters. It turns out that’s not how monsters work at all. They don’t always drag you from your bed, screaming and bleeding. They don’t always tear you apart and feast on your bones. Sometimes they are more subtle than that, and they can hurt you in ways that are worse than dying.
We stopped going to the cabin when I was 8, and those evening barbecues and boat rides were replaced by slammed doors and muffled shouting through the thin walls of our catalog home. I smuggled a tiny old TV out of the guest bedroom into my room so my little sister Annie and I could watch whatever we could pick up on the old antenna at whatever volume we could get the little TV to reach. I didn’t want her to hear the noise, even though I barely understood it myself at the time.
I knew my parents were fighting, but I didn’t know what about, and I didn’t know the depth of it. It never occurred to me how truly unhappy they could be, or deeply they could damage the little world we’d all built together, but some rifts can’t be fixed.
A clean break would have been better, but the divorce was brutal and bitter, and dragged on for the better part of three years. I think they thought they could keep it a secret from us, more or less, but kids know better and listen harder than you think. It’s just that when you grow up, you tend to forget that. Their venom and bile flowed throughout our house like emotional shrapnel and carved us to pieces, all while I held my little sister’s head in my lap and stroked her hair as we watched grainy cartoons on the old cathode ray, and I lied to her the whole time that it would all be okay.
God knows what they even had to fight about. We didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t even own the cabin, so there wasn’t that much to split up. I guess people just want to hurt each other sometimes.
Eventually they did divorce though, and went their separate ways. That was a blessing in the end, though it’s tough to explain that to kids at the time. And I think that my parents finally started to heal. Or that’s how it would have played out, had that been the end of it.
The judge ordered joint custody, but mom got us most of the time. Still, there were two houses now for my sister and I. Two sets of toys, and two bedrooms, neither of which felt like home. There wasn’t any yelling anymore, or if there was, we weren’t around to hear it. But there was loneliness, numbing and savage, that may have been worse. When we were with mom, it felt like she never left the phone on the kitchen wall, sneaking cigarettes and talking to anyone who would listen (anyone but us) about the raw hand life had dealt her. Dad never left the bottle, so he didn’t have much time for us either. And that was how it was for a while.
But slowly I thought I started to see some glimmers of hope. When we stayed at dad’s place, he’d make breakfast in the mornings, like he used to, and we’d eat pancakes and the kitchen smelled of his chicory coffee that made me think of old times. He started playing toys with us again. His breath wouldn’t always smell like sour smoke at bedtime. He even decided, one day, he wanted to take me back to the cabin, for some father-son time. I was ecstatic, but that’s also when all the trouble started, as if we hadn’t had enough trouble all along.
We left Friday mid-morning for the drive up to the cabin. It was early October so the air was cool and pleasant, and the leaves on the trees were just taking on their tints of reds and gold. I rolled my window down and breathed deep of the smell of moist wood and crisp air. My dad played music on the radio and I daydreamed to the sounds of Merle Travis fingerpicking on bright steel strings.
I woke as we pulled up the dusty road in front of the cabin, and it was mostly as I remembered it. It stood on a high knoll at the edge of the woods that sloped down to the lake behind. It might have had a new roof, and the shutters looked like they’d seen some recent repairs, but on the inside it hadn’t changed a bit. The familiar art still hung in the bathroom and bedrooms. The same board games sat underneath the coffee table. I walked slowly through the cabin while my dad unloaded the car, and traced my hand along the old wooden logs that made up the cabin walls, thinking of all the good memories that were forged here, that I knew would never come again. I felt my cheeks flush grief as sadness welled up inside of me, but then my dad came out of the kitchen with a smile on his face and two lemonades, and I was in paradise once more.
That first day at the cabin was as good as any I remembered. We sat in the woods by the lake and watched egrets dive across the water. We grilled burgers behind the cabin and my dad asked me about school and what I was learning, how my friends were doing, what I was excited for. I had thought he’d lost interest. We played board games by the fire inside as afternoon faded into evening and I savored the smell of smoke and pine needles. It was the last time I ever remember being happy.
Because then the night came, and I was terrified of the woods at night. I tried not to be. After all, I was eleven then, and eleven year olds shouldn’t be scared of the dark, but I couldn’t shake the fear of the place, or the fear that something was just deeply wrong. My dad tucked me into the bed in the back bedroom beneath thick comforters, and sat on the side of the mattress while he rubbed my back.
“I’ll be right on the other side of the wall, big guy. Just shout if you need anything.”
I nodded, and he stood up and walked to the door. He turned to me one last time as he shut off the light and said, “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sorry about everything these last few years and how it’s all turned out. But we’re moving now. Things are going to get better. I love you, son.” And he flipped the switch. I’m now convinced those were the last words my dad ever said to me.
I woke, knowing I was being watched. I couldn’t see the eyes in the blackness of the room, but I could feel them. They could see me through the walls of the cabin like they were looking through shredded silk, the old wood offered no protection. I tried to pull the covers over my head but I couldn’t move. Everything was just so heavy. That’s when I saw the lump in my blankets, a bump about the size of a bowling ball, moving ever so slowly towards me. No, it wasn’t in my blankets, it was at the end of the bed, then on it. Not a lump, a head, attached to a body, foul and grasping. Cream colored, deformed, all gangly limbs and rough hair, it lifted its head and grinned at me with something like a mouth, like a child would cut, jagged, into construction paper with safety scissors. Its teeth were dripping blood and ichor as it smiled with fierce and cruel eyes, gray, pale and lifeless. Its gaping maw was blacker than the night outside, a pool even the moonlight couldn’t brighten, that sucked in even hope of escape.
Then the pain hit, like I’d slammed every piece of my body in a car door all at once. Like a thousand firecrackers going off inside my bones. Like I was being skinned alive. That was my blood dripping from its mouth. I couldn’t move because I had no legs or arms to escape with. It was eating me.
I woke myself with my scream, for real this time. My scream echoed throughout the cabin and the surrounding woods. My sheets were drenched with sweat. Surely my dad heard that. I looked around the room, searching for any sign of the pallid beast but I was alone. The room was silent except for the shriek of the blood roaring through my veins. It quieted down as my pulse slowed. Then I heard a crashing sound of metal on metal, and all was silent again. I sat for what must have been ten minutes waiting for my dad to come, but he never did. Eventually I gathered my courage and slipped out of bed.
The wood floorboards were cold on my feet and the air was brisk, like someone left a window open. I inched up to the bedroom door and peeked out. The cabin looked dark and quiet, only lit by the light my dad left on over the kitchen sink. But it was cold, and I felt a breeze from the hallway leading to the back door. I walked out into the living room and peered around the corner, and saw the back door ajar, with the curtains covering the window blowing in the cold breeze.
“Dad?” I tried to call out, but it came out little more than a whisper. “Dad, is that you?” There was no response. I slowly walked down the hall until I was at the threshold and looked out the door. I saw the moonlight glinting off the lake through the wall of trees. The sky was clear and the stars vibrant. Out here you could even see wisps of the milky way on clear nights. The trees swayed slowly in the breeze. All looked peaceful, but something was wrong. It was still so quiet. There should have been crickets. There should have been the cracking branches as animals moved through the trees. There was nothing.
I reached back inside and fumbled for the lightswitch that controlled the back floodlights and flicked them on. Warm yellow light bathed the back of the cabin. My eyes adjusted slowly and I looked around. When I saw it, my blood froze in my veins like shattered glass.
The cabin had a dumpster behind it. That’s where we would load up our garbage at the end of the trip for the owner to take it away. The dumpster was metal, with an old metal lid. That must have been the clanging sound I heard. The lid was closed, but there was something sticking out of it. My eleven year old brain didn’t understand it, but I’ve revisited that night many times, and I know what I saw. It was a foot, attached to a leg that had suffered a compound fracture. The glistening white bone contrasted with the oozing blood that dripped down the side of the dumpster. Flies were already beginning to circulate. That foot was wearing my dad’s boot.
I froze for a moment, then sucked in air and tried to scream, but nothing came out. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and my dad was behind me. “It’s okay, son. You’re dreaming. None of this is real” he said, calmly. I fainted into his arms.
I awoke in the bedroom of the cabin the next morning with a start, and immediately put my back to the wall of the room. Dusty light was streaming in through the windows, casting odd shadows. It was hot too, the day had already shaken off the night’s chill. It had to be late morning. What the hell had happened? I wasn’t any the worse for wear, but something was scratching at my bare feed. I threw the comforter off my bed and saw the bottom sheet littered with small sticks and leaves. So I had been outside.
My heart began to race again as I dove out of bed and rushed for the door. I had to check the dumpster to see if it was all real. But as soon as I left the room, I saw my dad sitting on the couch in the family room. He was facing away from me, so I could only see the back of his head. He had the TV on. There was a plate of food sitting on the table behind him. I forgot all about the dumpster.
“Dad? Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine, son. You were out of sorts last night. I made breakfast.” He made no effort to turn to me. I wandered up to the table and looked at the plate of food. Cold, runny eggs, barely cooked, and two pieces of mostly raw bacon. My stomach lurched.
“Uh, no thanks dad, I’m not hungry.”
He said nothing. I sat in the chair at an angle from the TV where I could see his face. He looked like he always had. I stole a glance down at his legs. He was intact, boots and all.
“Umm, dad, last night…” I trailed off as he slowly and deliberately moved his head to meet my gaze. The rest of his body sat absolutely still. “You had a nightmare last night. Nothing to worry about. How are you feeling now?” His voice was monotone, and a little slurred. I looked over at the coffee table and saw an empty breakfast plate and a familiar black-labeled bottle, a third empty.
“Yeah, just a nightmare,” I muttered, “nothing to worry about.” But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. And it wasn’t just the bottle, I’d lived with my dad for a while when he was drinking and I hated that, but something else felt wrong, something deeper. But I couldn’t say what it was, I couldn’t put it into words. We sat in silence for a moment while he watched the muted tv.
“So what’s the plan today, dad?” I finally asked.
“Maybe we should just take it easy. You probably need your rest.”
And that’s what we did. Or, what he did, rather. I sat for a few moments with him in silence while he watched the tv on low volume. Then I stood up and wandered over to the cabinets where the board games were. I took a puzzle to the kitchen table and tinkered with it. He sat and watched the silent tv.
Eventually I left the puzzle there and got up and wandered around the cabin. I was watching him the whole time out of the corner of my eye. It didn’t even seem like he moved an inch. I felt a constant growing sense of dread as the minutes inched forward.
Eventually I wandered out the back door of the cabin. There was the dumpster, right where it always was, under the overhanging upstairs deck against the cabin’s back wall. It was buzzing with flies and smeared with dark stains, but they looked old and dry, at least I think they were. I cautiously inched over and lifted up the metal lid. It was completely empty. I turned and watched the woods for a moment. I could see the light glinting off the water below. Birdsong rang through the crowns of the trees and the wind was soft and gentle. It should have been a wonderful day, if it wasn’t for what was happening inside. I went back into the cabin.
Dad was still sitting there on the couch. It didn’t look like he’d moved at all. The dread was profound and washed over me in cascading waves. This was wrong, all of this was wrong. I ran back to the room at the back of the cabin. I was the most scared I’d ever been, and I couldn’t even put into words why without sounding crazy. Why wasn’t he more concerned? Why wouldn’t he check on me?
Twice more over the course of a few hours I would peek out of the door and see him there on the couch. One time I think he did turn his head to look back at me, but I ducked back into the room and slammed the door. Or maybe I imagined it. I leaped back into my bed and ducked under the covers, and started to cry.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, someone shook me awake. I looked up and dad was staring down at me. No smile, seemingly no emotion at all.
“Come on, son,” he said. “We’re going home. I know today was weird. I don’t think this is a good time for a trip here.”
I just nodded and got my things. What he said should have been comforting, but the way he said it left a pit in my stomach. It was emotionless and dead, not the dad that I’d been playing board games and laughing with not even 24 hours ago.
The ride home in the car was horrible. He left the radio on, but didn’t say another word. His eyes didn’t leave the road. He barely even moved.
Mercifully, he was taking me right to mom’s house to be with my sister. When the car pulled up, I practically dove out of the passenger seat. “By dad,” I muttered as I stumbled towards the house door. But for a moment, I stopped and looked back. I think his head turned towards me, in the same way it did at the cabin, pivoting on his neck while the rest of his body stood absolutely still. He smiled a strange, wide, toothy smile, and in his eyes, I swear I saw this sheen of lifeless gray that chilled my blood. Then he was gone.
I ran right inside and shut the door behind me.
“Huh, back early and didn’t even walk you to the door. Typical…” mom was watching from the windows. “Well I hope you had fun, honey. Are you hungry?”
I shook my head.
“Alright then, go get some rest. Your sister is already in bed.”
I nodded and headed to my room, collapsing on my head. My head swam with nightmares and monsters, grinning faces, the broken leg sticking out of the dumpster, and my dad’s face, with his eyes cold and dead.
I was happy beyond words to see my mom and sister the next morning, even though mom was still her crabby, frustrated self, still wallowing in victimhood, and my sister was as quiet and withdrawn as ever. It was still miles better than what I’d endured at the cabin. But I still felt a lingering dread because I knew I would have to see my dad again soon, and I’d be taking my sister with me. The nightmare at the cabin seemed so raw, and so difficult to explain.
The next time I saw dad was when mom dropped us off at his house the next Friday night. My sister and I walked tentatively up the steps to his house. I was nervous because I had no idea what I might find when we opened that door. I think my sister was just nervous all the time. The divorce had been hard on her.
We reached the front door and found it unlocked and ajar, and let ourselves in. “Hi guys, come on in. Dinner is on the kitchen table.” Dad’s voice wafted in from the TV room and my gut lurched. It was that same voice, emotionless and cold. We dropped our bags and headed to the table. “Dinner” seemed to be half a leftover pizza and a pot of peas that hadn’t been heated up.
“Wait here,” I told Annie, “I’m gonna check on dad.” She sat down and tore off a piece of cold pizza.
I found dad in the TV room, sitting in front of the screen just like at the cabin. The table in front of him was strewn with cups and empty bottles. But here the tv was tuned to static.
“Dad? Just wanted to say hi. I’m gonna take Annie to bed soon, okay? I think she’s pretty tired.”
His head pivoted to look at me. And he smiled that wide, awful, smile, with those sick, gray eyes. “Whatever you say, son.”
I ran back to the kitchen. Annie couldn’t know what was going on, but if we were going to get through this weekend, we were going to have to keep our distance from dad. Or from… my mind raced back to the night behind the cabin, the buzzing of the flies, the stench of waste and iron, the image of the broken foot sticking out of the dumpster. Or from whatever that was in the TV room. I didn’t know if that was dad anymore at all. I sat next to Annie and started to rub her back comfortingly before she shrugged me off.
“It’s all going to be okay,” I muttered. We ate the cold pizza in the quiet of the dim kitchen.
But it wasn’t okay, I would learn that soon enough. Nothing was ever going to be okay again. We weathered that weekend. We mostly kept away from “dad”, and neither he nor Annie seemed to mind too much. It’s not like he was moving around much anyway. He did get us to school that week, and pick us up, though he was often late. There was food, of sorts, though none of it appetizing and sometimes mostly raw.
I don’t know if Annie understood it or saw what I saw, but she kept to herself and we stayed away from dad in the house. Often he would sit, motionless, in the TV room, sometimes watching shows on low volume. Sometimes watching static. When he would move he would slouch around the house aimlessly. We did our best to avoid him.
I could barely sleep when I was in that house. I always kept one eye open on the door. I imagined “dad” coming through, none the mindless automaton he was now, but gnawing, pallid beast of my dreams, shedding his dad suit and ripping the skin from my bones.
I lost weight, and my hair started to fall out. We ate and slept well enough at mom’s house, but my body couldn’t cope with the stress.
One day, I had a meltdown at school and was taken to the counselor’s office. I ended up telling her the story, sobbing in the uncomfortable wooden, school-issue chair.
“Oh honey,” she said, “it sounds like he’s not coping well. I know the divorce was a hard time, but I’m sure your daddy loves you.” She offered me a tissue. “Has he ever… you know… done anything to you or sister?”
I looked up and thought about it. I shook my head. “No, he hasn’t hit us if that’s what you mean. It’s just… scary.”
She nodded. “Listen, I’ll talk to him. But it’ll get better honey. Divorce is hard on grownups too.”
But it didn’t get better. And here’s what I didn’t tell her. Sometimes, when I was feeling brave, I would walk the house at night. Sometimes I wouldn’t find “dad” in the house at all. But one time I found him in the kitchen.
He was standing in the middle of the kitchen, not doing anything. Just standing, alone, looking at nothing. His arms were outstretched, his mouth gaping open. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. The rest of his body stayed still. His eyes were that sick, lifeless gray of the crawling beast from the cabin. They glowed with a putrid light. His mouth looked like it was dripping with blood. And he smiled. He smiled wider and wider until it looked like his mouth might tear right open. And he spoke to me, in that numb, dull voice, the same as ever. He said, “It’s okay, son. You’re dreaming. None of this is real.”
I woke up later, in my bed, dripping with sweat, and I cried.
We lived like that for more than a year. At mom’s house we were at least well fed and mom was present enough. Though she was still so angry. I could hear it in the way she talked with her friends, in the way she lived her day to day life. Like an injustice was done and this isn’t how she saw things working out. Anything we told her about dad just became ammo for her venting sessions, which more often than not consisted of me watching Annie while she went out with her girlfriends.
“Dad’s” house on the other hand, grew worse and worse. Lightbulbs would burn out and he wouldn’t replace them. Leaks in the ceiling would go untended. “Dad” lost weight and his hair thinned. He started to look like he was wasting away. And every time we went over, there he was, sitting in silence in the TV room.
Sometimes I thought I should call the police, or social services, or something. But would anyone trust a kid? Maybe they would just tell me divorce is hard on grownups. Maybe they would take Annie and put her somewhere worse.
At least “dad” could be mostly avoided if we tried to be self-sufficient. Until one day he couldn’t.
We hitched a ride to “dad’s” house after school. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) pick us up that day, and it was pouring rain in thick, violent sheets. Even just running from the car to the door, we got drenched. Annie was in a bad mood. I was in my usual state of low key terror about being in that house.
Annie needed a note signed for school, so she marched right into the TV room where dad was sitting and yanked out the note.
“Here, sign this.” She dropped in right in front of him.
“Stop yelling.” He said, in that monotone voice, with those glazed, dead eyes.
“Sign it now.” She said again, louder this time.
“I said, stop yelling.”
“Or what? You’ll do what? You never do anything but sit in here and watch TV!” She threw the note in his face.
He slowly stood up.
“Oh, what now?” She continued, “You can’t even make a proper dinner. You can’t even leave the house. You can’t even look at me! Now I see why mom left you. You can’t do anything. At least she…”
The blow caught her completely off guard. It wasn’t just that he had hit her. That was shocking enough. But the force of the blow was incredible. Annie left her feet and flew into the fireplace surround, shaking the wall. She looked up at me with panic in her eyes and blood dripping from her mouth. There was a blood smear on the fireplace bricks where her head hit the wall. She started sobbing.
“Dad” just reached down and picked us both up. I know he was a grown man, and we were kids, but even then, he shouldn’t have been that strong. One in each hand, he carried us to my room and tossed us both into the room like he was tossing bean bags full of sand. We hit the ground and Annie groaned in pain.
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” he said. He looked down and met my eyes with those grim, gray eyes and their putrid glow. “Just take it easy. You need your rest.” And he pushed the door shut. We heard the click of the latch.
I huddled on the floor with Annie for what must have been hours while she sobbed in my arms. I knew I had to get her out of here. I don’t know how I’d lived under the roof with whatever that was for so long, whatever that thing was that killed my dad and left his dismembered body in a dumpster. But I had to get Annie out of here.
I held her a little longer until I saw the horizon start to glow out of the bedroom window. Annie had fallen asleep on my lap, but I knew the monster could be back at any time, and I had to get Annie to mom’s. As quietly as possible, I lowered the screens out of the bedroom windows and put on my shoes and jacket. I draped Annie’s jacket over her as well and put on her shoes while she slept. When it was time, I woke her up.
“Annie, Annie,” as she stirred, I put my finger over my lips in a gesture to be quiet. “We’re getting out of here, just stay with me.”
I lowered her out the window first, then quietly followed. As soon as we were out of the house, I scooped Annie back up and ran for the nearest road. I dashed into the road as a sedan swerved around us, laying on its horn. The driver got out with a stern look on his face, but as soon as he saw us, he ran right over.
“Are you kids okay? What happened?”
“Please,” I gestured at Annie, “can you just drive us to my mom’s house? We need help.” I gave him the address and we piled into the sedan. Soon we were pulling up to the house.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The driver asked again. “Can I call the police?”
“We’ll be okay now, I promise.” I feigned a smile, and we limped up the steps. Mom was in the kitchen making coffee when we stumbled in. She turned and saw us and gasped. “Annie! Are you okay?” She rushed over and looked at Annie, and then at me. “Matt, what happened?”
“It’s dad…” was about all I could choke out before I heard the car door. I looked out the bay window and saw “dad’s” car parked in front of the house. I watched his emaciated, lanky form, slowly rise out of the car.
“Quick,” mom got us to our feet and pushed us towards our rooms. “Lock the doors. And don’t open for anyone but me.” We obliged.
We sat on my bed and I held Annie, telling her it was going to be okay, just like old times. I heard the door open, then I heard yelling. There was a crash, then some rustling, then silence.
It felt like an hour passed. The silence was occasionally broken by scraping and dragging sounds. I heard a door open and close a few times. Then the silence returned. Eventually there was a knock on the door. “You can come out now, it’s safe.” That was mom’s voice but… something wasn’t right. It was monotone, smooth and cold as fresh ice.
I eased over to the door and opened it. Mom was standing there, looking down at me. Her hands were dripping with blood. I looked down at it, then back up at her.
“Oh it’s nothing,” she said, “I just cut myself. Everything is fine now.” That voice… something was wrong.
“Dad won’t be around anymore, you don’t have to worry about him,” she said, “I sent him away.”
“What happened to him?” That was Annie’s meek whisper from behind me.
“Gone,” said mom. “Yes, gone now. Everything is fine. Just take it easy now.” She looked down at me and, I swear on my life, she smiled and her eyes flickered a pale gray. “You need your rest.”
It was decided we would live with mom full time now. I’m sure that would have been the case anyway, after the incident where dad attacked Annie, but it was all the more necessary because no one had any idea where dad was. Mom said that he never came by that day and us kids came over on our own and that was that. Of course, I know different, but who could I even argue with?
The authorities assumed he skipped town and mom was awarded full custody. Mom should have been happy to have us all to herself, even if that meant more work for her and more things to complain about to her drinking circle. But she was just kind of ambivalent. Of course it wasn’t mom anymore, I was smart enough to know that now. I knew it the moment I walked into the family room and saw her sitting there in silence in front of a tv tuned to a dead channel, motionless and still.
I knew it the moment I looked in the backyard and saw the patch of freshly dug and filled earth. I knew that if I dug up that patch it’s not dad’s remains that I would find there. I saw those remains in a dumpster behind a mountain cabin, I have no idea where they are now. It wasn’t him buried in our backyard.
I knew it whenever that thing pretending to be my mom would give me that wide, sick smile, too wide for its face, like it knows I know, and knows there’s nothing I can do.
And I know it because I still dream of it when I sleep sometimes, what it looks like when it crawls out of the woods, before it replaces someone, all pallid and deformed, clawing and crawling, jagged mouth full of violent hate.
I tried to tell the counselor at school at some point, naive though that may be. She told me to go easy on my mom. She told me she’s been through a lot. Her ex-husband split town, leaving her with extra responsibilities. And even without that, divorce is hard on grownups too.
But I know better.
It drove me crazy living with that thing while trying to protect Annie. Eventually Annie wouldn’t even let me protect her. She pulled away, and became withdrawn. She would sneak out to go drinking with friends. She would stumble home in a daze from harder things. “Mom” wouldn’t care. “Mom” would just sit with a bottle in front of a dead TV watching dancing snow and listening to the static hum. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, so I ran away from home as soon as I was old enough to think I could make it on my own.
I managed to fall in with some day laborers who didn’t ask too many questions and took me in as part of their crew. Eventually I built a life for myself, far away from home. “Mom” never sent the police looking for me. Why would it? But the thing I feel the worst about is leaving Annie there with that thing. I later found out Annie died in a car accident, or so they say. But I bet that’s not the real story, and the real story, the real horror that happened to her? That’s on me, for leaving.
But that’s all in the past. I’m telling this story, because I wanted to tell you about monsters. And the thing about the monsters is that you can’t always run away from them, because that’s not how they work. They don’t always try to hunt you down and tear you limb from limb. Sometimes they play other games and they hurt you in ways that are worse than dying.
Recently I was living outside of Dallas with my fiance, Laura. We weren’t always happy, but happy more often than not I think, which is pretty good given the emotional baggage I brought to the table. She knew I didn’t talk about my family and was willing to let that go. “We don’t need the past,” she’d say, “just our future.” I liked that. I thought it was sweet. We lived in a small second floor apartment in a suburban development and had a pretty good thing going. I was working for a local contractor, and she was a waitress at the diner down the road.
One day we had a big fight. It was about a lot of things. Money (we never had enough), kids (she wanted ’em, I certainly never thought I could bring kids into this world), you know, the usual stuff. It got pretty bad, but we’d get through it. I knew we would. I knew my Laura. She stormed out afterwards, she was pretty pissed. She and I both said some things I think we wish we hadn’t said. At least I wish I could take mine back, but she hurt me pretty bad. It wasn’t like her to say those things. She didn’t get home until really late. It had to be, she wasn’t home when I finally went to bed, and I stayed up really, really late waiting for her.
I found her the next morning when I woke up. I was exhausted, but I wanted to make things right. She was different though. She was cold, quiet. I busied myself around the house, but when I turned the corner, I saw her in the kitchen just standing there. Staring off into space, aimless. Her eyes were vacant, gray. Her expression was empty.
“Hey babe,” I leaned in the kitchen door. “Not now, honey,” she said, her voice monotone. I flinched and the hairs on my arms stood on end. I knew that voice. Then she pivoted her head and looked at me, her body so still, so quiet. “You look exhausted anyway,” she said, “Why don’t you take it easy. You need your rest.” And she forced a smile, too wide, too stretched. Ear to ear. That wide smile. Those empty eyes.
My blood raged in my veins and my vision blurred. I rushed to my room and fell into bed. I couldn’t sleep though. I heard her leave for work. I had to plan what I would do. But I knew how they worked. I knew it would stay there, and suck that body and house dry before moving on to another. I knew it would follow me. It must have already and it would do it again, so I headed into work to get my tools.
I’m driving west now, through the high deserts. To a small town in Nevada, maybe? Maybe all the way to the coast. All I brought was a duffel full of clothes, a case of water, and the battery powered #12 rivet gun and sawzall I borrowed from the construction site. It’s enough to get me through and keep me safe.
There’s good news and bad. The good news is that I’m free again and it can’t follow me. I’ve left yet another life behind. They may find me again, they did once after all, more of them might come. But it will take them time, and I’ll keep a low profile. They can take everything else from me, but I’m still here, and I’m still me, no matter how many bodies they take. And I’ll keep running. I’ll run to the ends of the earth.
The bad news is that they look the same as us on the inside, I know that now. So there will never be any proof, not unless I catch one before it turns. I can’t reveal them to the world because the world won’t believe me. But of course it’s not easy like that. There are no easy answers, and no easy escape, and the path to the truth may still be worse than dying.
Sometimes I think back to that quaint little cabin in the Catskills, and a crisp evening with a boy playing board games with his dad, laughing and happy. I wish I could go back there. I wish I could stop the monster from taking him that night and dumping his ruined body in a beat-up metal dumpster. I wish I could rebuild what was lost and drink hot chocolate and have Christmases and Birthdays and cookouts and sleepovers and watch movies with my dad under a blanket on the couch. I wish I could go back and be a kid who loved his parents and was loved by them. I wish I could undo it all. I wish I could turn back time and make the monsters disappear.
But, of course, I can’t. Because that’s not how monsters work. That’s not how monsters work at all.
An Old Sailor Dreams of the Sea
For centuries sailors have heard voices in the crashing of waves and the rumble of deep ocean swells. They claim the voices belonged to the ghosts of those lost at sea, reaching out to their loved ones and trying to find their way home, or to sirens, whose haunting songs beckon mariners to a watery grave. Niall had lived a lifetime on the sea and knew this to be nothing more than nonsense and superstition. After all, ghosts can’t speak, and there’s no such thing as sirens. And if you hear the voices in the waves (may God have mercy upon you) you can know they come from something far more dangerous and dreadful than monsters or men.
My favorite first lines
It's always a tie for me between:
"Our is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." - Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
and the equally impactful:
"It has been reported that Tanuki fell from the sky using his scrotum as a parachute." - Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins.
There is magic in the late summer days when the cracks of baseball bats and the laughter of children echo across hills and valleys. When the air is thick like hot honey and the trees and flowers bend and wilt beneath the weight of it. When the world becomes dense and fills with the smell of searing meat, but in the woods, shadowed beneath thick branches and undergrowth, there lingers the scents of dampness and decay.
These are the dog days, when Sirius trails Orion into the sky and scorches the heavens and the world is laid heavily with heat, fever, and malaise. There is indeed magic in those late summer days, but magic is a complicated and dangerous thing, and the burden is heavy on those who dare to wield it. Amidst the heat and whimsy, the edges of the world bristle with power and consequence. The light of the dog star can be a grievous thing, and bring ill-tidings to men.
It was on one of these sorts of days that Roland first found the tree. The sort of day when skin feels like scorched paper and heat rests on your bones like a hot towel, and you feel heavy and burned all the way through.
He’d always known it was there, of course. The tree sat about 100 yards from the house in the thick and marshy woods. He could see it from his guest room window in the colder months when limbs of the surrounding oaks and maples were bare. But he’d never given it more thought than any other tree.
But today was a different sort of day. Roland wandered the woods on the periphery of his house in jeans and boots in the afternoon heat. He was sweating through the thick fabric as he stepped over rivulets and patches of skunk cabbage. His clothes were unseasonable, but he wore them to avoid the ticks that swarmed the woods and the grasping thorns of barberry bushes. He found the dense and smoldering air of the woods less suffocating than being in his house.
He’d had a fight with his wife, Lindsey, about not putting his cups in the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really a fight about the dishwasher, and it wasn’t even really a fight. He knew that. They’d been trying to get pregnant for the better part of two years with no luck. They’d done everything they were advised. They at an appropriate diet, cut out drinking, and tried regularly at the correct times of the month until the sex had become a scheduled, mechanical, passionless thing. The doctors said the only step left was IVF, but Roland worked as a shift manager in a mailroom and Lindsey was a teacher. The previous doctor bills and therapies had bled them to the point of insolvency. They could never afford that sort of thing.
So instead they fought about the dishwasher, and Roland trekked through the woods in jeans and flannel when the heat index was 108.
Two years ago, when they’d first decided to start trying for a family, they were still poor, but at least then they were happy. Roland remembered walking the halls of a local mall, arm in arm, bandying about names for the young one that would soon be on the way. In the window of a child’s clothing store, they saw a small stuffed lion, and Lindsey dashed into the store.
She emerged moments later with her hands behind her back and a huge grin on her face. “This is his…” she started as she theatrically revealed the lion.
“Or hers…” Roland interrupted.
“Or herrrrs…” She stretched the words sarcastically, “first ever toy!
And the lion became a symbol of all the joy to come.
First it sat on the mantle in a place of honor. But eventually it was moved to the room they hoped would become the nursery, which for now was mostly storage. Eventually it made them sad to look at and it ended up on the top shelf of the laundry room closet. And there it sat until Roland grabbed it that day on his way into the woods.
He didn’t know why he’d taken it. But he stared at it with tear-filled eyes while he tripped through the dense undergrowth, until he came to a stop by a downed tree and sat, sobbing quietly, with his head in his hands. The lion was supposed to be a happy thing. But he resented it so much now. He felt it taunting him every time he saw it, with broken promises of what the future was supposed to be.
He sat there for a moment in the silence, broken only by his sobs, but then something happened. He felt the air grow dense and the heat settle on him like a heavy blanket, as if there had been a small breeze and it suddenly stopped. He lifted his head and wiped his brow with his sleeve, and that’s when he saw the tree.
It stood in a small clearing mostly apart from the undergrowth. It was some kind of aspen or birch, and looked like it could be long dead, but it was still standing strong and its crown was open and unimpeded. Something about it beckoned to him and the woods around him hummed with a cadence and force he couldn’t understand. He stood and stumbled to the tree, suddenly feeling buzzed or in a kind of stupor.
He stood in front of it, staring up at its height stretching into the blistering sky, and something strange began to happen. He just felt angry. He thought of everything in his life he wished was different, and everything he’d lost, even though he never had it to begin with. He just wanted to start his young family and now he was wandering the woods with the tiny stuffed lion feeling adrift in a sea of fathomless rage.
“Fuck this,” he muttered under his breath, trying to quiet the storm, “won’t be needing this anyway,” and he shoved the lion into an knotty hole about shoulder height on the tree. Then he turned and stormed away.
Whatever spell the tree had over him dissipated as he wandered out of the woods and he felt ashamed. Now he’d have to go inside and find Lindsey and explain the mud all over his pants and what had happened to the lion, which he most certainly did not want to do, especially after the morning they’d had.
He found her in the kitchen, but when he saw her, everything changed. The light came through the window above the sink and made her hair shine with a soft, golden, radiance. He watched her from the doorway and admired the elegant curve of her jaw and her shoulder, and her hands and arms, graceful, strong and confident, while she did the dishes. He never told her about the mud, or the lion. She didn’t bring it up. He just walked over and took her hand and turned her towards him. She stared up into his eyes, and without saying a word, he led her upstairs. There was nothing mechanical or passionless about it.
That March, Lindsey was sitting on the floor of the nursery sorting piles of tiny baby socks and onesies humming happily to herself while Roland was installing an accent mirror on a paneled wall, painted green and gold, with a frame covered in all sorts of adorable, forest creatures. The room would finally be the nursery it was meant to be, and life was good again. The world had turned and things were looking okay. The baby was healthy, and Lindsey was the happiest she’d been in years.
As Roland leveled the mirror into place, Lindsey asked, “Hey, whatever happened to that lion toy? I’d love to have it ready when he gets here.”
“I don’t know, babe, we’ve been moving a lot of boxes, it could have ended up anywhere. Last I saw we’d had it in the top of the closet…” and he trailed off, immediately remembering the tree. “I’ll keep an eye out for it,” he recovered.
Lindsey shrugged and stood up, “It’s not a huge deal, I’m just happy we’re here at all.” And she gave him a kiss on the cheek as she left the room.
Roland pulled on his snow gear a little later and stumbled out to the tree. There was no river and undergrowth now to navigate, but there was a little more than a foot of snow, so it was slow going.
When he got there, the tree held none of its magic now over him. It was just a tree, and a rather pathetic looking one in the gray winter. He walked up and reached a gloved hand into the knotty hole and found nothing. He shrugged, and headed back to the house.
Years passed. They’d had another child, and Lindsey was pregnant again. Many winters came and went. There were many summers and blistering hot days. And whatever troubles haunted those early days seemed gone forever. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but the proof couldn’t be denied, and Roland didn’t ask questions.
And through it all the tree stood at the edge of the woods. The tree waited. In the winters, it stood silent and still amidst the glistening snow. In the summers it menaced and cast long shadows, and the dark places of the woods under leaves and inside fallen logs bent and writhed with foul and hidden things. There stood the tree through it all, in its clearing in the woods. The tree waited.
Roland was still working his same job in the mailroom, but they had done the math, and day care even for two kids was enough to almost completely consume one of their meager salaries. With Lindsey’s benefits, it would have made more sense for her to keep working, but Roland would never admit that and Lindsey would never have wanted to be away from the kids that much. Besides, that’s not how things were done.
So Lindsey had become a stay-at-home mom while Roland picked up extra shifts and cobbled together what he could. It wasn’t a lot, but they were making it work, and they were happy.
But one day at work, Roland was called into one of the first floor multipurpose rooms that the firm would often use for conferences or large group talks. There was lukewarm coffee and a grotesque array of bagels and pastries spread along folding tables that nonetheless all seemed to taste exactly the same.
He was there with about 100 or so other staff from around the firm, and the suit at the front of the room broke the news that there would be a round of layoffs in 90 days and everyone in the room was losing their job.
“Who the hell fires people while serving refreshments!?” someone shouted across the room. The suit ignored this and muttered platitudes about giving as much warning as possible, and how this hurts everyone, and how the firm is here to help.
Roland drove home in a daze with the layoff notice burning a whole in his back pocket. When he walked in the door he could tell that Lindsey had quite the day with the kids. He sent her up to sleep and took over dinner. He didn’t tell her about the notice.
He didn’t tell her the next day either. He thought he had plenty of time to find another job. He would spend his lunch break on applications and call in sick to go to interviews but had no luck, and a sense of dread and long buried rage inside of him began to grow and grow. He still hadn’t told Lindsey, and the time he had left narrowed to a few weeks. He didn’t know how they would make it work without his income, however meager it was. He cried a lot in the shower. Men don’t let their families see them cry.
But things got harder. A pipe leaked in the basement and the water heater failed. Their oldest, Xavier, needed a routine procedure but there would still be a deductible. Diapers weren’t getting any cheaper. Lindsey knew they could manage, but she didn’t know how close they were to disaster.
The day before he was to be laid off, Roland went for a walk to clear his head. He marched over the skunk cabbage and fallen logs and into the suffocating heat where no one could see him break down. He felt like he walked through a huge spider web and pushed sticky strands out of his face. He felt briefly surrounded by the smell of decay and old earth. And when he regained his bearings, he was at the base of the tree.
The tree. It seemed taller than before. There was something cruel about its smooth, featureless gray bark and its lifeless, leafless branches. But something beautiful too. Roland swayed with the rhythm of the woods and felt that familiar fury boil inside. But he didn’t hate the tree. Part of him remembered. He remembered the heat and the lion, and all that had happened since that first day. He remembered the tree. And he felt the burning of the layoff notice still in his jacket pocket.
“Oh what the hell, she’ll find out soon enough anyway ” he muttered, and he stuffed the layoff notice into the hole in the tree’s trunk. Again, whatever held him in thrall seemed to recede, and he stumbled out of the woods. He only had to put on a strong face until he got the kids to bed, then at least he could numb it all with a bottle of vodka.
The next day at work, Roland was called into his supervisor’s office, and informed that they no longer planned to lay him off. His work was exemplary, and the company needed more people like him. They’d found a way to make it work.
He again drove home that day in a daze, but this time he didn’t go inside. He wandered straight out into the woods to find the tree. Wispy webs hung from its branches, occasionally crawling with spiders and mites. The ground around the tree was damp and as he approached he could hear flies buzzing, at least dozens of them. The smell of decay was stronger now. But Roland didn’t care.
He did a couple of laps around the tree and gently touched its smooth trunk. His mind raced with possibilities that he logically knew weren’t really possible at all. But, the tree…
He fumbled through his wallet and took out his business card and looked it over. “Roland St. James,” it said, “Manager, Mail Room.” He shoved the business card into the knot in the tree’s trunk.
The first thing Roland did with the first paycheck after his promotion was hire a contractor to put an extension on the house. It would be a special wing for the kids with new bedrooms and a playroom. Lindsey was thrilled for his new job but thought that wasn’t necessary. She found their house cozy and comfortable. Sure, as the kids grew they might need more space, but there were other bills to pay, and a lot of debt to pay down already. She would have preferred to tackle that first.
But Roland didn’t seem to worry too much about the money, at least not anymore. And why would he when had the tree?
Lindsey, for her part, found she had mixed feelings about it all, far more than she would have expected. The first time she went to the grocery store and could actually buy a full pack of the kind of diapers she liked for the kids (not the knockoff brand she had been forced to use) without worrying about whether or not they were on sale, she thought she might cry tears of joy.
But one night in the kitchen, as she sauteed vegetables for dinner while her youngest daughter cried in the high chair behind her, she felt a gnawing doubt and the very beginning of something that she could only describe as grief. When Roland was in the mail room, he was always bursting back into the house by 5:30, ready to take over dinner and brimming with excitement. He would pour her an iced tea and she would sometimes sit quietly and smile as she watched him play with the kids or feed peas to their daughter, pretending the spoon was an airplane.
Now she finished cooking alone. Dinner was chaos, but over time, they all learned to navigate it together, and she would put all the kids to bed. She would be exhausted by the time Roland got home at 8:30 or 9:00. She could buy anything she wanted at the grocery store now, and that was a treat, but she knew something was missing. She felt a twist, mean and cold in the back of her mind, that this wasn’t right, and the trade wasn’t fair.
Roland felt a pang of regret when Lindsey told him that the kids asked where daddy was every day at dinner, and another pain, far more savage, when he learned they stopped asking. But he had big plans. The house extension was just the beginning. His career was now growing by enormous strides. He missed the time with his kids of course, but now he could give them anything. And there was no end in sight, thanks to the tree.
He paid down the debt, like Lindsey wanted. Next was a new deck, another extension with a master suite for Lindsey, a guest house where they would stay while the house underwent a larger renovation with additional rooms and new floor to ceiling windows to bring in more natural light. He thought about adding an in-ground pool. Lindsey thought this was crazy. If Roland wanted all these things, why not just move to a new house? Surely they could have all of the amenities without all the pain of the constant construction.
But Roland knew none of this was for him, but his family deserved the best. And of course they could never leave this property. He didn’t tell Lindsey why. She would never understand the tree.
Roland knew he should make more time for his family, but because of his longer hours at the office, and all the attendant responsibility and power, he missed ball games and cookouts, school plays and recitals. He tried to make them when he could, but he was a busy man. But he did always make sure he was home on those blazing summer afternoons, when the magic was the strongest. When the air glistened with laughter and broke with the staccato snaps of firecrackers and hummed with a rumble few could hear, reverberations and echoes of things ancient and potent that rolled behind the sky, full of omen.
Dog days, when the tree writhed and seethed in its bed of mud and worms, miasmic, leeching power into the woods, dark and dank, and into the hearts of men.
Roland always made time for the tree, and the tree was gracious. The tree could, and did, give him anything he needed. He could trust in the tree. He could rely on it. The tree brought him this far. He would always have time for the tree.
But it was different than it was before, though Roland couldn’t bring himself to admit it. The tree would still hold him in thrall, as it always had, and pluck the strings of grief, and doubt, and rage that lay hidden in his heart. That subtle violence remained unchanged, though Roland would tell himself that he didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for the gifts of the tree.
Worse was the smell, and the flies, and the layer of putrefaction he had to wade through to reach the tree. Was it getting worse each time? That wasn’t possible. But this was the woods of summer, seething with life and death and decay in the moisture and heat. Animals died in the woods and flies and their maggots feasted on the carcasses. Such was and would always be the way of nature. That wasn’t the tree’s fault.
There were the spiders now and their webs, thick and cloying. No matter how careful he was clearing the webs the spiders would always find their way into his hair and dance down the nape of his neck. He probably hated that part the most. There were so many of them. If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t remember so many spiders being there before. But he would say he didn’t remember them not being there either.
One time he had to pull the mutilated and festering carcass of a badger out of the hole in the tree to deposit his offering. That was disgusting, but that’s just the circle of life, things like that happen in the woods.
And besides, no one else ever commented on the smell, or noticed anything else was wrong. And if no one else ever noticed, it couldn’t be as bad as he thought.
He would tell himself this was all fine. The tree was good. The tree gave and the tree was gracious. The tree had to be good. If the tree wasn’t good that would mean… well, there was no sense dwelling on what that would mean.
As long as he had the tree, he could do or be anything. Everything would always be okay. And his family would understand. After all, he did it all for them. And even if they didn’t, he comforted himself in knowing that the tree could make them understand, if it really came to that. But he would never say that part out loud.
Roland sat watching his family eat dinner and enjoy a lively conversation around the broad farmhouse style table in the freshly remodeled kitchen. It was light and airy with tall windows and new paint.
The kids laughed with Lindsey. Xavier threw a dinner roll at Louisa who swatted him with a scarf. There was another round of roiling laughter.
Roland couldn’t really follow the conversation. He had just been out with the tree. He worried they could smell the rot from the woods on him, but no one seemed to notice, so he sat back and watched. They mostly left him alone, and that was fine with him right now. He had given them all of this. He could give them anything to make them happy now. He could give them so many things and he reveled in it.
He enjoyed their laughter and their banter until they finished up dinner and cleaned their plates and dispersed throughout the house. Lindsey gave him a sweet smile and rubbed his shoulder as she walked by, but it was a little weird that none of the kids said anything to him at all.
One day Roland tried to sneak back to the tree. He wasn’t even supposed to be home, and he didn’t want to alarm anyone, to start a whole thing with trying to explain why he wasn’t on his business trip and get roped into a family dinner, or to have to reveal what he was doing creeping around in his own woods.
So he parked up the road and stayed to the edge of the property, avoiding the manicured lawns and gardens and trekking through the undergrowth and grasping, thorny, plants. It’s not like he wasn’t used to that though.
But as he crossed a small sliver of grass to get to the side yard where he could sneak behind the house and get to the paths that led to the tree, he saw his two eldest daughters sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the house.
Before he could react, the younger one glanced up and saw him. She pointed and said something to her sister who jumped to her feet. Roland immediately dove behind a nearby maple tree and slowly peeked out, just enough to observe. The older girl was on her feet and took a few bounding steps towards the front door, then stopped and looked back over at the treeline. She cocked her head slightly, and then walked back to the blanket and sat down by her sister who was pretending to fill tea cups and seemed to have forgotten the entire thing. She took one more look towards the treeline, then shook her head and went back to her play.
Roland thought this was weird, maybe worth following up on later. But first, he had to get to the tree. He made a stop in the guest house garage to wrap his head in a rag doused in camphor and menthol. He told himself he liked the smell of it, that’s why he did it. He told himself he wasn’t trying to mask the smell of the tree.
Xavier watched the pitch sail high and outside, ball two. The silent shuffling of the ump behind the plate confirmed it. He settled back in at the plate and looked over at the pitcher, then waved him off and stepped back.
The park was pretty full today for a high school game. He caught the wafting scents of popcorn, grilled meat, and powdered sugar. The park lights blazed overhead, drowning out the stars, but he could see a line of inky blackness on the horizon. He loved baseball, and sometimes just wanted a moment to take it all in. The park was a jubilant island in a sea of darkness and trouble.
He especially loved moments like this. It was the bottom of the ninth, two runners in scoring position, down by one. These were the moments on the edge, where anything could happen. People tend to like certainty, Xavier thought, they don’t give those moments of infinite possibility the credit they deserve.
He glanced across the stands. His mom had said his dad might be here tonight, but he didn’t see him. Not a surprise though, it had been forever since his dad had been to a game. “Oh well,” he thought, “let’s not let that ruin the fun.” He walked back to the plate and waved to the pitcher that the game was back on.
His mom ran up to him immediately upon his leaving the locker room. “Honey, that was incredible!” She wrapped both arms around him in a huge hug.
“MOM!” he shouted, “the whole team is here!” But he secretly loved it, all boys do. And she didn’t let up.
“Let’s go for pizza,” she looped her arm through his and started dragging him towards the car. His sisters fell in behind them like a gaggle of geese, chatting amongst themselves.
He thought about asking her if she’d seen or heard from dad, but didn’t. He wasn’t sure why. But pizza sounded good. His dad had often missed games, but one of his favorite traditions was going out to pizza where his dad would want him to walk through the entire game from his perspective. He would listen so intently.
Or would he? Maybe it was mom that did that? Why couldn’t he remember? No, it had to have been mom. If it was dad, he would have remembered that. He didn’t see his dad that often, so he would remember if it was him. He thought about this as they all piled into the car.
Roland saw his family reunite outside the locker room, but he couldn’t get to them through the crowd. He tried to call out to them, but no one could hear. This was his fault, he had to be late again, and he couldn’t get a seat close to them. But it was okay, he knew where they were going. He rushed back to his car and pulled into the line of outgoing traffic to follow them.
They would be heading to Roman’s Pizza on 2nd Street, where he always used to take Xavier to get a recounting of the game. It had become something of a tradition, back when Roland made it to more games, but he would admit he hadn’t been around as much lately. But he felt his heart sink as he inched towards the exit. There was the problem with the Bangkok deal. He was going to lose it, he was sure. Unless he got to the tree.
But… maybe that was okay. Maybe he’d turn right out of the park and meet his family at Roman’s. He’d listen to Xavier reenact every out of the game. Maybe he’d make them laugh by pretending the pizza was an airplane, just like when they were babies. Would they still think that was funny? Maybe they’d all go home then and he wouldn’t go back to the airport. They’d all set up blankets in the family room and put on a movie. The deal might fall through, but didn’t they have enough? Maybe it was time to go be with his family. Xavier would be heading to college in a few years anyway, and he was missing it all.
But college… yes, that was it. He would need a lot of things for college, of course. Maybe a new car, a place to live. Money for expenses, he wouldn’t want Xavier to have to work in college so he could maximize his focus. School was expensive these days and he didn’t want his kids starting their lives with debt. The other kids would need all of that as well. Xavier had five sisters. And money aside, they might need jobs and internships and powerful connections. Roland could provide those things. He would love to abandon it all and go to dinner and be with his family, but that would be irresponsible. It would be selfish. He’d be doing it for him. He needed to provide for the family. He needed the Bangkok deal. He needed the tree.
He watched Lindsey’s Navigator turn right toward 2nd Street, a family dinner, and happiness. Roland turned left.
Lindsey St. James remembered hearing stories of the Winchester House. The story was that Sarah Winchester fled west to California, haunted by the ghosts of all those butchered by Winchester rifles. Her only hope of peace was to construct a house for the spirits to dwell in, and to never stop building. For 38 years the house was under construction in a haphazard and senseless way, complete with interior rooms with no doors, and stairways to nowhere.
Lindsey could sympathize. She finally sent the workers home. They’d been hammering away for what felt like months in the new construction off of the west wing. They said it was supposed to be an entertainment extension. It would have a movie theater and a half-sized basketball court. God knows why. Lindsey didn’t want that, and the kids wouldn’t care. She hadn’t even been in the west wing in ages. She wasn’t even sure why these workers kept coming around, but she didn’t care much for the affairs of the estate these days. She left that to the caretaker and the accountants.
“Can I get you anything else, ma’am?” The stern and proper housekeeper set an espresso on the table in front of Lindsey, complete with a china dish and a folded, linen napkin.
“Not for me, Marla, thank you. Can you check on the kids? Make sure they don’t need anything? I’m going to take this in the drawing room.”
“Very well, ma’am.” The housekeeper turned and marched, stiff as a board, toward the front gardens where the younger kids were playing.
Lindsey glanced out the window to the gardens as she walked towards the drawing room and slowed for a moment as she watched the youngest girls playing some game with jump ropes and ribbons.
“Maybe I should go sit with them,” she thought to herself, “I don’t think I’ve been spending enough time with them recently. And they won’t be young forever…” But then she shook her head and carried on, telling herself, “they like the governess better anyway.”
She entered the drawing room and made her way to the plush chairs by the fireplace, but as she walked, her hand traced phantom patterns in the air. Somewhere, her body remembered things Lindsey had forgotten, everywhere except for in her dreams, the kind of dreams you forget upon waking but that fill you with poignancy and regret, and an ache deep inside of beauty that can’t be retrieved, no matter how hard your waking mind tries to grasp it. Her hand traced where, before all the reconstruction and renovation, there had once been a wood paneled wall of a cherished room freshly painted in green and gold. Her fingers danced over the long forgotten frame of an accent mirror adorned with forest creatures, hung with care and joy.
Lindsey felt a tear in her eye she didn’t understand as she sank into the cushioned armchair. She took a bottle of irish cream liqueur from the cabinet next to the fireplace and topped off her espresso, and stared silently, into the cold logs, in the dark firebox surrounded by ornately carved wood and highlighted with elegant copper filigree.
Roland watched the kids playing. They kicked the ball back and forth on the lawn. Their shouts and laughter reverberated across the ornate lawn. It was quiet where Roland was. He couldn’t make out the words. But they seemed happy. It was one of those hot days, when your skin feels like scorched paper and the air is thick like honey. But Roland didn’t feel it. He was in the shade.
“I should go play with them,” he thought. But he didn’t. It was hot out there. It was cool where he was. The tree knew. It would protect him. The tree thought of everything.
Out there he knew the air would smell like firecrackers and grilling meats. Roland only smelled dampness and rot, but that was okay. He liked it. He told himself he liked it. He had to like it.
“They’re probably happier without me interfering anyway,” he thought. “Yes,” he agreed with himself. “Happier anyway. I’ll just watch.” And so he watched.
And the edges of the world bristled with power and consequence.
The kids noticed it first. Xavier was off at college, and Kathryn had been watching the younger girls in the front gardens when she came inside complaining of a bad smell, and more flies than usual.
Lindsey stepped outside and could smell it immediately, nauseating and the worst kind of sweet. She knew right away the smell of rot and death and called for the caretaker. This wasn’t a fit labor for a woman of her social position.
The caretaker followed the stench and the flies with a rag covered in menthol over his nose and mouth, and it was he that called the police.
The police found the tree in the woods surrounding the house, about 100 yards back but with a clean view of the front yard. It was a monstrous old thing, barren, smooth and gray. Flies were swarming by the hundreds, maybe thousands, around its base. At least part of the tree was hollow, and the police managed to rip a slab of wood off of the base of the tree, revealing the festering corpse of a man in his late forties, partially eaten by maggots and beetles but saved from the larger predators of the forest, because there was no way for them to get him. No one was sure how exactly he’d gotten inside the tree.
As far as the inspectors could tell, he’d been looking out of holes in the trunk, watching the front yard of the house. Lindsey wished she could unhear that, since that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’ll never be safe again.
She sent the kids off with the governess while she answered the requisite questions. No, she had never seen that man before in her life (though how would she possibly know at this point after what the maggots had done). No, she didn’t know of anyone who would want to harm her or the kids. Yes, it was just her and the kids in the house, and the staff of course (the police were welcome to talk to all of them, and Lindsey encouraged it. Maybe it was one of those construction workers). No, she’d never been married (the kids were adopted) and had no boyfriend, so there was no one out there with any loose ends to be snooping around.
The police would investigate thoroughly, but they believed her. Lady St. James had always been an upstanding pillar of the community. It was odd though, and they would try to keep it under wraps. But it would eventually make the rounds in coffee shops and be whispered at book clubs between glasses of Pinot Grigio. These things have a way of becoming urban legends. And the town loved gossip about the huge house on Cherry Brook Road and the family that lived there.
As for Lindsey, this was the last straw. She’d had enough with this strange house, far too big and elaborate for the land it was on, and she could never look at the woods the same way again. She broke the news that the St. James family would be moving on and she had her lawyers secure a new property in Connecticut, smaller than the current house (the kids would be leaving eventually, and who needed 14 bedrooms?) but no less opulent and still with plenty of space. Lindsey was accustomed to creature comforts after all, and there would be fundraisers to host, and that sort of thing.
The kids thought this was fine, It was strange living in such an extravagant way that was so different from their neighbors.
Lindsey told the staff any that wished were welcome to come to Connecticut. The rest could stay on until the house sold, which she knew could be a while. No one in this area was looking for such a mansion. No one in this area could afford it. Everyone agreed it didn’t make a lot of sense to build that house there in the first place, but no one could quite remember how or why it had happened. Maybe eventually she would sell it to a developer who would knock it down and replace it with condos or something. Lindsey didn’t care, that was again a matter for the accountants. She had more money than she and the kids would ever need.
And the new property in Connecticut was beautiful, with green lawns and gardens spreading down to the sea. It was surrounded by similar mansions and it fit right in. Its construction and floor plan made sense to her. “We were doing it all wrong, Mrs. Winchester,” Lindsey smirked as she sipped her espresso and irish cream watching the mist from the waves crashing on the shore sparkle in the morning sun. “This is how it’s done.”
But then come those hot days. The dog days. Lindsey hates them still. When the air is thick and placid, and the edges of the world bend and sag. The kids stay inside. They say it’s for the heat, and it is, but they feel something else too. There’s a heaviness to the world, and a potency that hums in the woods across the road, and in the dark, damp places. It’s like magic burns at the horizon, waiting for a chance. And magic is a grievous thing.
Lindsey stays inside too. And sometimes she daydreams. She daydreams of a small, stuffed lion, and the strong hands of a handsome man, holding her close. His jeans are muddy and his sweaty hair steams in the air conditioned kitchen. She can’t quite make out his face, but he shines in the dazzling midday light. She thinks she loves him, or she could in another life. And sometimes she cries. She so desperately wants to reach out and pull close that wonderful dream that eludes her waking mind, so radiant and pure, there at the edge of memory.
She wishes the man hiding in that poignant and vanishing dream would hold her for real. She wishes she could see his face.
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 her 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.