On Partisan Political Polarization

Around four in the morning, I was woken up by a light in my bedroom. It was my fiancée’s cellphone. She was reading poll numbers from the most recent American presidential election. She was terrified at the prospect of the new American President and not necessarily how it will affect us, but how it’s going to affect so many of the Americans that his campaign targeted. We talked for a while about what this is all going to mean and what we think is going to happen. She was able to fall back asleep but I was awake for another couple of hours with my mind racing.

I did the worst thing I could possibly do in this situation. I checked Facebook. A lot of the anxiety that my fiancée was feeling was reflected in many of my online friends. I stared at my phone, continued reading, and felt myself getting more and more worked up over the new leader of a country I don’t even live in. And as I kept reading posts and news stories and comment feeds on news stories, I realized that what was worrying me wasn’t necessarily the new guy in power.

The new American President in-and-of-himself is actually nothing new and his novelty is something of a misnomer. As pointed out by commentators such as Adam Conover, the new President’s crudeness is light compared to that of Lyndon B. Johnson’s bathroom meetings and recorded phone conversations discussing his private regions. Even some of the new President’s political stances, such as his hard stance on law and order, simply echo the likes of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. There is a historical precedence with this most recent American presidential election but the precedence has less to do with the candidates and more to do with the electoral body itself.

The Republican nomination was won by a salesman. He sold himself and he sold some ideas to warrant being named on the ballot. But the ideas he sold were by-products of opportunism. He isn’t actually interested in the work that this office requires. He’s interested in the title. And to gain the title, he marketed himself initially to a base population, which then spread over time. The ideas of closed borders and racial profiling he presented during his campaign weren’t the scariest aspect of this election. The fact that the American population heard these ideas and said, “Yes, this is what a free country should look like,” is what’s actually scary.

This is where the historical precedent steps in. The population let itself be swayed by the kind of anger and ferocity that typically warrants itself to an all-caps Facebook post, and then forgotten. It was the creation of a non-existent conflict, the “us vs. them,” that made for a more hard lined voting mentality that eschewed logic and reasoning and let emotional reactions be the dominant driving force. And this isn’t to say social media itself is bad or shouldn’t be used as a forum for political discourse. But it’s not being used to its fullest potential.

The typical posts seen around any political discussion are anger based messages pointing out what’s being done wrong. The discussions that follow tend to either be in agreement of the anger or be an anger-fueled opposition. This doesn’t encompass the entirety of online political discussion, but the vast majority tends to look like this. During 2016’s Presidential race, that anger manifested itself outside of online discussions and surfaced during rallies and protests. Not since 1968 has there been so much violence directly associated with political rallying.

And this is where I start to get worried. Many of the posts I keep reading blame either side of the political spectrum for the violence, the disconnect, the crude tactics, and point to themselves and their stance as the solution. For a lot of what’s being argued, it’s all non-partisan issues. But non-partisan issues are being labeled with partisan offenders. And mostly, the non-partisan issues being blamed have more to do with common human decency than they do with any political stance. Both sides of the spectrum have a lot more in common than most people give credit for.

For a long time now, I’ve believed that the political spectrum is no longer a useful tool in political discourse. It simply no long reflects the complicated political realities. But more and more often, I’m seeing people hold on to their political affiliations as stringent parts of their identities and any challenge to their beliefs is a challenge to their character, which results in only more anger. This is something that has only gotten louder as more people adopt social media as their main course for stress relief. It often brings up the question whether we as a species are mature enough to handle the weight and responsibility of something like social media. Clearly, people read the things being posted, take them to heart, and act on them.

The social media discourse also tends to dwell on leaders as opposed to the local representatives who actions and decisions will actually directly affect people. The focus on leaders has actually developed a new level of celebrity typically reserved for the likes of the Kardashians. Watching and reading about the election has started to feel more like reading up on TV gossip than it does about the progress of politics. This is probably why qualifications and aptitude have become subservient to personality and entertainment.

The greatest frustration I personally experienced during this entire election process was witnessing everything unfold fully knowing that no matter what anyone said, the decision would remain steadfast. Nothing was going to break the decisions that the American public already made even before all of the pertinent information about what either presidency would look like was available. Great tyrants have proclaimed that reason is passion’s slave and no election has better illustrated this.

The ramifications of this election have yet to be felt. If the negative outcomes so many of us are nervously anticipating do come to fruition, the political leaders will receive the brunt of the blame. When in actuality, the American public has nowhere else to look than their own social media feeds as to why things have developed in this way.

In no way am I advocating for any sort of censorship or even abolishing the concept of social media. It exists and society has developed around it to the point where careers can be built entirely on social media platforms. What I am wondering is if we can be better with this constant open forum. Perhaps our political discussions can be more solution driven than blame driven. Instead of getting angry when things turn sour, we can use these online vehicles to discuss how things went wrong, what corrective measure can be taken, and what the hopeful outcomes can be. It’s still important to hold those in power to task for their actions. But constant open criticism and calls for impeachment over every small indiscretion does nothing for the political process except create blockades and deadlocks, completely halting the political process. And when the political process is halted, it’s the publicly funded projects, those we’ve collectively deemed essential enough to warrant government funding and oversight, that suffer.

I’m often called a misanthrope and my tendencies towards a frustration with people typically amplifies when I spent a lot of time reading through posts and comments. But my frustration isn’t actually rooted in a distaste for people. Quite the opposite. I really like people. And I have a lot of confidence in people to be kind, forward thinking, and motivated by only the best intentions. Even the results of this election, I can empathize where the American public truly think they’re working towards what’s best for them as a country. But their aim is misguided. They’ve been misdirected and a salesman saw an opportunity to take that misdirection, amplify it, and use it for his own gains. And that’s why we’re here today, reading a constant barrage of think pieces as to why things turned so ugly followed by cruel comments from people we will never meet and never interact with beyond the glow of a screen.

In a few days, I’m going to be an uncle. This addition to my family is bringing up my own questions about bringing more life into this world. On one hand, I have hope for people. That hope is illuminated whenever I read about amazing feats of engineering, breakthroughs in medical research, and imaginative discoveries about the potential of intelligent life on other planets and it gives me hope that my potential child will be a part of what drives progress forward and makes the world an amazing place. The other hand though is weighing heavier and heavier every day as I see people become so much more angry. Everything is an outrage and cause for outbursts of hate.

The American people made their choice and as a non-American I don’t have much choice but to accept their choice and hope for the best. But as I watch my own Facebook feed fill with more messages of anxiety and worry, I continually remind myself that people are capable of better. When we act out of fear and hate and anger, we make rash decisions whose consequences we can’t always anticipate. When we act out of logic and hope and compassion for each other, we make awesome decisions, leading to such cool discoveries who ramifications change the world for the better in ways we could never imagine.

I know we’re capable of so much more than this.

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I’m Fat Chris

So, apparently I’m fat Chris. I don’t even mean amongst the group of people I know. This isn’t a nickname to help distinguish me from the multitudes of other Chrises who were all born in the ’80s apparently (seriously, if you were born in the ’80s and grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, chances you are know like a thousand Chrises; we’re fucking everywhere). No, being fat Chris is distinguishing me from the multitudes of different versions of me throughout the multi-verse. Seriously, there are an infinite number of me from all different universes with slightly different histories around them, and I am literally the only one who’s fat. Fuck my life.

I found this out from physicist Chris. Yes, apparently in one alternate history from an alternate universe, I become a physicist who solves the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. There’s also engineer Chris who met physicist Chris and they worked together to build a machine that somehow transcends time and space and allows them to travel between versions of the universe. I keep asking them how it works, but they keep insisting I won’t get it. They’re not even trying to explain it to me and giving an advisory at the start that this is going to be difficult for me to understand. They just flat out shrug and tell me I won’t get it. Really snarky and condescending like too. I have to wonder if this is how I come off when someone doesn’t know how to make a verb and a noun agree in proper English.

“So, ok, you won’t tell me how this works,” I say. “Tell me this, at least, why travel through alternate realities to meet different versions of yourself. Or, myself, I guess.”

You would think with this line of questioning I would be journalist Chris. After all, I have had a pretty decent career as a freelance writer for a few local magazines on top of my public relations job at a not for profit. But, journalist Chris is apparently a Pulitzer Prize winner who became famous for exposing a few political fundraising scandals. I’m not even public relations Chris. He runs a multi-million dollar firm that represents a lot of major political players and earned an reputation as being the master of burial after he helped these major political players cover up their fundraising scandals. Funny how the multi-verse works. In one reality, I’m exposing the criminals. In another, I’m helping them and making a fortune off of them. Funny indeed.

“Why?” physicist Chris looks at me. “Why do we do most things in science? Downright curiosity. I mean, what better way to experiment with a discovery like this than to basically look at yourself and see what you could have become?”

Engineer Chris and physicist Chris are tinkering with the machine that opens the passageway between the dimensions. The machine kind of looks like a mix between a car battery with a laptop plugged into it and what would have happened if Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor had a baby with a microwave. They argue back and forth a little about readings and measurements before the portal opens up again and another Chris walks through into my world. Well, into my garage, but it’s the garage that’s in my world. And this is like the twelfth Chris they brought into my garage in my world. I don’t know why engineer Chris and physicist Chris chose my garage as the multi-universal Chris convention space. But here they were. I’m actually kind of worried about my neighbours having a lot of questions about what’s going on.

This new Chris that has stepped in looks fairly normal. I mean, in comparison to the other Chrises. They all look really good with their shirts tucked into their pants, and you can actually see their belts around their waists, and none of their shirt buttons are pulling and ready to pop off. But each Chris that has stepped through has had something very visibly special about them. There’s no tattoos Chris who was actually able to afford his university education without student loans. There’s Chris who can actually grow a real beard. There’s Chris who was charged with bestiality. There’s receding hairline Chris. There’s military fighter pilot Chris (who just had to come over in his pilot’s uniform, like that’s all that pilots ever wear and they never wear normal clothes). There’s astronaut Chris (that guy came in a space suit solely so that we all knew he was an astronaut). Even physicist Chris and engineer Chris were in lab coats. And yes, out of all the Chrises here, I was the only fat one.

“Which Chris is this?” I ask as the seemingly most normal Chris walks through my garage.

“This is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” engineer Chris says. Everyone in my garage must have heard him, because they all gave off a long “ooooooooo” at the idea that somewhere, Chris owned a Kia Soul before my wife Gillian did.

“Yeah, we’re all pretty jealous of Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” physicist Chris says.

“Wait, so in every version of our existence that you encountered so far, we’re all still married to Gill?” I ask.

“So far, yes,” physicist Chris says. “It’s like the one constant we’ve been experiencing throughout this experiment.”

“And Gillian has owned a Kia Soul before we have in every instance,” I point to the newest Chris in the garage, “except this one?”

“Pretty much,” engineer Chris nods.

“And she reminds all of you that she owned a Kia Soul before you?” I ask to the audience of Chrises.

They all nod in unison.

“Well, do you pick on Gillian because you owned a Soul first then?” I ask the only Chris this would be relevant to.

“I mean,” he smiles and blushes a little bit. “You know, relationships shouldn’t be a competition. But let’s be real. Sometimes relationships are straight up competitions.”

All the Chrises start nodding and muttering small agreements.

“Have there been any universes where Gillian and I, or us I guess, don’t really work out?” I ask.

“Kind of,” physicist Chris says. “There are quite a number of dysfunctional marriage Chrises. Usually a substance abuse problem on our end. Booze, meth, cannibal pig swill.”

“What’s cannibal pig swill?” I ask.

“If you don’t know,” engineer Chris chimes in. “You don’t want to know.

“We should get this meet and greet moving,” physicist Chris stands up and walks to the middle of the garage. “Everyone, in case you haven’t figured it out. This,” he points at me. “Is fat Chris.”

“I kind of resent that,” I snap back. “I mean, fat Chris? It’s not like my entire physical being is made up of lipids.”

“Shut up Chris!” physicist Chris chuckles a little bit. “You know what I mean. Even Chris who is entirely made up of lipids isn’t as fat as you are.”

I look down and see a gelatinous mass wearing thick rimmed glasses and with facial hair I could only guess is trying make a chin strap beard. He waves an appendage at me, I could only guess it was supposed to be an arm, and he calls out a cartoonish, “Hellooooo.” I don’t know how I missed that one coming into my garage.

It’s this moment I realize physicist Chris is kind of a dick. I mean, a pretty big dick actually. I decide he’s the Chris I hate the most. He made me face the fact that in all of the universes that could possibly exist, I am the only fat version of me. That’s hard to accept. Especially because I’ve been a big guy all of my life. I’d been bullied for my size by anyone who saw an open shot to take at me. And now that I’m a somewhat functioning adult who shouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore, he’s making sure I keep dealing with it. Maybe physicist Chris was fat all his life too and he somehow found the time to start working out more and eating better while working toward his PhD. And maybe physicist Chris is still a little insecure about the fact he was fat and now that he sees me, the Chris who is still fat, he feels like if he doesn’t take those open shots, then he has to deal with being fat again too. Maybe that’s what all of these Chrises are dealing with.

The Chris I hate the second most is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first. Fuck that guy.

“You know what, fuck it,” I say. “I dig being fat Chris. I’m owning that shit. Every one you mother fuckers are just skinny Chrises with different jobs or odd criminal records. I’m the multi-verse’s only fat Chris and if I wasn’t here, all the Chrises would just be skinny Chrises. So fuck you, I’m fat Chris.”

“OK, Chris,” physicist Chris sighs. “Whatever helps you rationalize that bag of Doritos you’ve been working on since we got here.”

I start sucking the powdered cheese off my fingers as I tell all the Chrises that the tour of my garage is over. The mass of Chrises all start moving towards the inter-dimensional doorway. While I watch them leave, I feel a tug at my leg. I look down to see Chris who is entirely made of lipids looking up at me and smiling.

“Way to tell those jerks off,” he says in his inexplicably cartoonish voice. “You show those skinny motherfuckers who’s boss. Now, you gonna hook me up with some of them Doritos?”

I start dropping chips down into his mouth and decide of all the Chrises I’ve met, I like this Chris best.

“Hey dude,” I say. “You want to hang around for a bit? There’s a pretty killer taco place not too far from here we can check out.”

Chris who’s made entirely of lipids smiles even bigger as he chews his Doritos. “Fuck yeah, bro. Let’s hit it up.”

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Meth Mouth

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” he said, smiling through his crooked yellow teeth. I never realized how bad his teeth were until that moment. There’s a nickname for the way his mouth looks: meth-mouth. His gums have deteriorated exposing a good chunk of the few teeth he had left lining the front of his mouth. The teeth that were missing either left gaping black hole embedded into his gums or were broken at the root, leaving a small nub of a tooth still sticking out of his rotting gumline. I was so fascinated by how bad his mouth looked I completely forgot his name. To this day, I can only refer to him as Meth-Mouth. If he knew this is how I still refer to him, he’s either laugh heartily and agree with me, or stab me. More likely the latter. After all, he didn’t wind up with meth-mouth because of gingivitis and loss of enamel. It was meth. Meth’s fucking gross.

At this moment, though, he wasn’t offering me meth. In the name of total honesty and transparency, yes, I’ve done meth. Once. And I hated it. I dug drugs that mellowed me out. Relaxed me and helped me sleep or made sex feel better. Meth didn’t do any of those things. The high reminded me closer to the one time I did crack. Again, just one time, never again. But that weird buzz like you just swallowed twenty shots of ultra concentrated espresso just wasn’t fun to me. That wasn’t an experience that opened up my mind and helped me reflect on my own existence or helped me appreciate how awesome Pink Floyd or Salvador Dali is. It wasn’t my bag and I always tried to make sure Meth-Mouth knew that. So whenever I went to buy LSD or Molly from him and he tried to introduce me to something new, I asked a lot of questions about what he was telling me to snort or shoot or drop or smoke. And he always fed me that fucking line about modern science. Fuck modern science.

“Don’t give me that shit,” I told Meth-Mouth. “Seriously, what the fuck is that shit? What kind of high does it give you?”

“It’s your bag man, I swear,” Meth-Mouth nodded, his greasy hair brushing back and forth along his shoulders. The weird sores on the top of his head started to gross me out too. I swear one was open and pussing out while I was talking to him. At this point, I decided it was best to finish this conversation without looking at him. I looked over my shoulder, back and forth, and tried to make it look like I was looking out for cops. No cops every came through this neighbourhood, though. I had no idea if Meth-Mouth knew that, but he didn’t seem to pick up on that I thought his face was fucking disgusting. Someone really needed to take a shovel to that fucking face. Would have done it some good.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “That’s what you said about the fentanyl. I was in the hospital for a week after that shit.”

“You can’t deny it was a good high,” he said. “And that shit was your bag, man. I bet you never slept better than you did when you took the fentanyl.”

“That’s cause I was in a fucking coma,” I spat back. “I’m surprised no one’s tried fucking ending you for selling off that shit as a mellow stimulant.”

Clicking. Around some of the buildings we were standing in front of I heard clicking. In this part of town, that’s the last sound you want to hear. The clicks come from the doors. Lookouts. They watch over the pusher in case there’s an unruly customer. You hear the clicking, you knew that doors were unlocking and being opened a crack. That was your first warning. Your second warning is the red laser dot, usually on your shirt. Sometimes on your forehead. Sometimes on your arm if they want to make you suffer. I had a red dot on me once. I got the message really quickly. I haven’t had a red dot on me in a long time now.

“Alright, anyways,” I mellowed out, making sure that the lookouts knew that no red dots were required. “What’s this new stuff do?”

“Buddy, you want to talk about mind expanding?” Meth-Mouth started to get excited. “You’re going to see shit you never knew existed. I swear to god, one guy told me he saw a colour he had never seen before. Couldn’t even described it to me. Said it wasn’t on the colour spectrum. I had no idea what the fucking guy was talking about. But he seemed to love it. He’s like you, into all that weird shit. The books and fucking shit.”

The flicking of a cheap lighter told me Meth-Mouth was lighting a cigarette. This was the procedure Meth-Mouth went through. Every time. Step by step. You asked for your PCP or H or whatever, he tells you about what new product he has, gets you interested, lights a cigarette, then tells you the price. Every time.

“Alright, how much?” I asked.

“For you?” he blew out a cloud of smoke that danced past me like a stripper looking for a dollar. “First hit’s free. You’re a repeat customer, I knew you’ll be back for some other product, even if you’re not into this new shit, I like you, and really, you’re probably right about the fentanyl. It was a dick move. You got off easy, though. Had a few kids OD on that shit. Damn shame. They bought a lot of grass. High markup too.”

Meth-Mouth never gave anything away for free. Somehow, this shit was different. He was acting different. I should have said no, I didn’t know anything about this shit. But it’s hard to say no when it’s free.

“What’s the shit called?” I asked.

“Dalek,” he said.

“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked.

“No clue,” he said. “Some people said it’s some combination of letters from the periodic table. The mix of chems or whatever. Some people said it was some sci-fi shit. With all the books you read I figured you would know.”

“Nah,” I said. “Don’t really like sci-fi. Not believable. No metaphors.”

“That just means you read shitty sci-fi,” he said.

“And what fucking sci-fi have you read?” I asked. “You don’t come off like the book reading type.”

“You’d be shocked,” he said. “I was super into Dune during the ’80s. Loved the idea of the spice. Control the spice, control the world. Or whatever the fucking line is. It’s a pusher’s mantra.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t figure dalek’s from Dune,” I said. “Anyways, how do you take this shit? Do I need a sober person to watch over me?”

“Nah,” he said. “Do it in a room by yourself. Preferably an empty room. Not even any furniture around. Totally empty room, place one dalek on your tongue. Close your eyes. And you’ll be in a totally different world.”

Following the advice from a guy dubbed Meth-Mouth might seem insane. Well, typically it is. You’re literally taking advice on how to best get high on something you’ve never tried before and you have no idea what’s going to happen to you or your body when you take it. But, at least when it comes to getting high, Meth-Mouth is pretty trustworthy. He explained to me one time that if he screwed over his customer, gave him a bad high or caused him to OD really bad, it would be bad for business. Either the customer would be pissed and not buy from him ever again (and frankly, would probably try to beat the shit out of him, he only ever had protection when he was pushing; the rest of the time, he was as fair game as anyone else), or they would be dead and wouldn’t be buying anymore. So it was in his best interest to give good highs. I honestly believe he didn’t mean to give me a bad high with the fentanyl. But still, the damage was done and I was apprehensive.

“OK, I’ll take one tonight and let you know how it is,” I said. “I hope this shit doesn’t kill me.”

“No kill guarantee,” he said, smiling. I looked back over to his face and it was even worse than I remembered it those few moments ago when I looked away. He was in his 40s, or so he said. But he looked closer to 60. Meth will do that to a person. “I can one hundred per cent say no one who has tried it has died yet. As harmless as a joint.”

Back at my apartment, I didn’t exactly follow Meth-Mouth’s advice to the fullest. I moved all the furniture out of a room, but I wasn’t alone.

Earlier that day, I got the last voicemail I would ever get from, well, I’m not going to use her name. In the case of Meth-Mouth, I honestly don’t remember his name. In her case, though, she doesn’t deserve to have her name written or spoken or thought or anything. As far as I’m concerned, this is her fault. If she didn’t leave that voicemail, I wouldn’t have been willing to try something from Meth-Mouth that he was giving out for free.

“Curtis,” the voicemail said. “This is the last time I’m going to try and get a hold of you. You’re avoiding my calls, but you knew this was coming. This weird perpetually 22 years old thing you have going on isn’t healthy. And you refuse to see that or try to grow or see things any other way. You can’t be in a relationship, a real serious relationship, if this is how you’re going to act. Especially at your age. You throw away so much, so many opportunities, and why? I don’t know. You don’t think it’s legit? Or something? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be around it anymore. I’m changing my number after this call. I’m moving to a friend’s place for a while. I’m not saying who. I’m not giving you my new number. You and those gross people you hang out with and buy drugs from scare me. I don’t want this. I’m done. Goodbye, Curtis. Deep down you’re a decent person. And maybe one day when you realize that and you grow up a bit, maybe then you can have a really great relationship with someone. I know you’re better than this. And that’s why I’m done. Goodbye.”

That last part hurt the worst. It’s her way of trying to make me feel good or motivate me to do something she wants me to do while still driving in there’s no fucking hope for us anymore. Whatever. Fuck her. I’m not changing for her. Never will.

Which brings us back to the room. No, I’m not alone in there. And no, her dead body isn’t lying in the room with me while I get high. I’m not a completely sick fuck. Though, it might make for a more interesting story. But no, she’s alive and well. As far as I know at least. Couldn’t tell you if she’s been hit by a bus or anything like that. One can only hope, though.

I had a few extra bucks after I scored from Meth-Mouth. And, well, narcotics aren’t the only thing that’s easy to find in that part of town. I mean, I already mentioned that the drugs I take make sex far better. If this new thing Meth-Mouth gave me was going to be my thing, then a few hours (full disclosure, probably more like minutes) with a hooker would be magical and help get rid of all my troubles. Or at least forget them for a bit.

Though she wasn’t keen on leaving her part of town. With good reason. Once you left this little slice of criminal heaven, every street corner for the next hundred kilometres in every direction had CCTV cameras set up. Wonderful selective security surveillance. Can’t say it doesn’t work. Pretty much all the crime stays in one area now. The one area with no video feeds to law enforcement and government agencies. Easier for everyone to manage.

Can’t say I remember much about the hooker. Teased bleached blonde hair. I remember that much. I think she had sunglasses on too. Probably coming down from her own decent high. I knew she needed the money for her next fix. She had track marks all along her arms. Fresh ones too. She was a regular user and would be easy to drag out of the shady area of town and back to my place. I was only ten blocks away. And the amount I walked in and out of that part of town, I still haven’t been questioned or arrested for anything. No one’s paying attention to me and no one’s about to. She finally shut the fuck up and followed me back to my place.

She wasn’t too sure while she watched me move all the furniture out of my bedroom. I didn’t have much in there, a bed and a bookcase. But she watched me with a constant expression that read, “What is this fucking weirdo doing? What the fuck is he into? What the fuck did I get myself into?”

We’re lying on my floor and I’m working my pants open. She told me it’s extra for her to take her clothes off. I figure I don’t need her to go that far. All I really wanted was a blowjob anyway. I’m lying on my back and she’s sitting up, leaning to one side and watching me get my pants open and pulled down. I tell to her to wait a second while I popped the dalek. It was a small pink pill, but it wasn’t grainy like ecstasy. It was really smooth and I could see through it, like a round pink ibuprofen. I popped it on my tongue and waited for it to melt.

I closed my eyes, waiting for her to start working me so I could find out what the body sensation was like. My limbs started feeling dumb, like when I take PCP. And the ground felt like it dissolved from under me, and I was floating in mid air. Then, like when you have a dream that you’re falling, I felt a sudden drop and the shock through my body when you have that sleeping sensation. Only I’m not waking up. The shock keeps running through my body and all I can think about is how fucking Meth-Mouth fucked me over again with another bad high. I couldn’t even feel the hooker. It was a total waste. I thought I might have been convulsing.

But I’ve had seizures before and I know you’re not cognizant enough to wonder if you’re having a seizure when you’re having a seizure. This was something else. For a moment, I thought I might actually have been falling, like the hooker threw my doped up body out my window so she could rob me. But there was nothing around me. No room, no light, nothing. Just black and falling.

“And… and I think he’s coming around,” I heard a voice say. “DK112 is coming to. Mark that on the charts at 3:08 a.m. He’s been out for a while.”

Shit was blurry. I couldn’t make out where I was. I knew I was lying down still. But I definitely wasn’t in the same room I started out in. And the hooker definitely wasn’t around either. My vision started to clear up and I saw two guys in white coats, each of them holding a clipboard and writing things down on them. Beside me were medical machinery. I recognized some of the same machines from having my tonsils out when I was a kid. None of that weirded me out; it must have been a pretty bad high. Maybe the hooker called an ambulance when she noticed something wrong. All of that would have made sense, except for one small detail. Well, pretty big detail. I was in completely different clothes. It wasn’t even as if I was in a hospital gown or even something else I recognized from my closet. I was in completely different clothes. I was in a fucking tuxedo. I’ve never worn a tuxedo in my life. Not even at my high school grad (mainly because I didn’t go). What the fuck was I doing in a tux lying in what I could only assume was a hospital bed?

“What day is it?” were the first words to finally escape out of my mouth. I don’t know why I asked that. I knew the time, it was around three in the morning (the one guy in the white coat just said that). But asking what day it was just seemed like the right thing to ask. Like it was the first step to figuring out why I was in a tux.

“Thursday,” the one guy in the white coat said and smiled. Perfect white teeth. This guy probably never even had a cigarette before in his life. He was clean shaven, his dusty brown hair hug just over his eyebrows, his glasses were a thin wire frame. The guy must be a doctor or something, I figured.

“Thursday?” I blurted out. “I bought that shit on Monday. Holy fuck, I lost three days!”

“Oh, you want to know in relativity to how long you’ve been, well…” he stuttered and shrugged. “Well, put it this way, it’s August now.”

I bought that shit in May. “Three months!?” I screeched. “I lost fucking three months?! How the fuck does that even happen?!”

The doctor guy put down his clipboard and walked over to me. “Ok, I know this seems scary, but I can explain and it will all make sense soon,” he said. I didn’t really believe him. I knew he wasn’t lying, but the way he told me he could explain I didn’t believe. He said it like everything was about to make perfect sense. Nothing about losing three months of your life will ever make any sense.

“So, you’re familiar with the drug’s name, right?” he asked.

This was the first point when I realized that the dalek I took and this guy were somehow deeply connected. I realized I wasn’t in a hospital, but a lab. I realized I wasn’t a patient; I was an experiment. “Wait, you made that shit!?” I spat. “What the fuck was that shit? What did it do to me?”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” he continued. “But, again, I have to ask. Do you know the name of the drug you took?”

“Dalek,” I answered.

“Right,” the doctor smiled. “Do you know what a Dalek is?”

“No,” I shook my head

“Well, Daleks, the drug’s namesake, aren’t real,” he explained. “Have you ever watched Doctor Who?”

“What the fuck is that?” I asked.

“Longest running science fiction show in history,” he said. “Been on the BBC in some form or another since the 1960s. Anyways, I wasn’t expecting you to know this reference, so far none of the subjects have. In short, Daleks are one of the main bad guys in the show. The show’s namesake is a time traveller, he comes from a race of time travellers, and one of the only other races in the show that are known to time travel are the Daleks. Please, bear in mind, this is a very gross over-simplification of a very sophisticated show.”

“Uh huh,” I grunted. “So, why the fuck is the shit I took called dalek then?”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “So, well, we developed a drug that works within the brain’s pineal gland to actually stimulate a whole other gland that we didn’t even know existed. We don’t even have a name of it yet. With any luck, we’ll call it the dalek gland. Anyways, when stimulated, different people do vastly different things. The typical reaction to this gland being stimulated is seeing things that aren’t particularly there. It’s why when we released it to public commercialization, we marketed it as a hallucinogenic –”

“Released it for commercialization?” I sat up. “You gave it to some drug pushes. You’re using junkies as guinea pigs. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I know this can seem very bad,” he stammered. “But believe me, we’re on the path to something really fantastic. The next stage in human evolution. I know this all seems quite trite, but believe me, you got to be a part of something very important. Especially because your reaction to dalek was categorized in the anomaly group.”

“How am I a fucking anomaly?” I grunted.

“Of our one hundred-fifty international subjects, so far only one per cent have exhibited your same reaction,” he said. “Transcendence of time and space.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I scowled.

“It means, you travelled in time and through dimensions,” he said, smiling. “Like a fucking dalek.”

It sounded like some shitty sci-fi b-movie, but there was something in this guy’s voice that told me he wasn’t messing around. I just lost three months of my life and I needed to know where the fuck they went and what happened to me in those months. Things around me made less and less sense and I didn’t know whether to believe this guy or whether to chock this up to a bad trip I would wake up from soon. But I wasn’t about to wake up from anything. I was stone cold sober at that point. All I could do while lying on that bed was keep asking questions to try and make sense why all of this was happening and how I fit into it.

“So, uh…” I had no idea how to ask this. I just went for it. “So, where did I go?”

“What do you mean?” the doctor asked me.

“Well, if I travelled through time and in like other dimensions over the past three months, I obviously went somewhere,” I said. “Where did I go?”

“Oh…” the doctor stammered. “Oh, I see, well…”

“You kind of just wound up here,” the other guy in the lab said. He was a lot bigger than the doctor that first spoke to me. He was tall, big all around, had a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a hooked nose. I got the impression that this guy wouldn’t be as polite or excited as the first guy to talk to me. He seemed more annoyed that I was in his lab. “Typically, our one per cent of experiment subjects remember where they wind up when they travel in time and space. The fact you just woke up screaming about losing three months tells me you just jumped from whenever you dropped dalek right to here. Which is odd.”

So all I did was jump three months into the future. I think. They didn’t exactly specify any actual year or anything. Now that I think about it, I probably should have asked that. I probably should have asked a lot of things while lying there. Your brain does odd things when it tries to process things like… well, however the fuck you would categorize this. Shit you never knew was real, I guess? I guess this is what they mean when people talk about having your mind blown. But I never imagined there would be this much panic to go along with that feeling as well.

“So,” I tried to get my next question in order. I had a lot on my mind. I decided to try and keep my questions simple, knowing there won’t be a single simple answer. “Where am I?”

“Our lab, of course,” the first doctor said to me.

“Obviously,” the second guy said.

“OK,” I nodded. “But where is your lab? What city am I in? What country? And who are you guys?”

“Ah,” the skinnier guy hopped up. “All very good questions. All great pieces of information that my associate and I tend to forget to tell people who wind up here, even though they’re probably the most basic building blocks to understanding everything going on around you. I’m Doctor Douglas, and my associate here is Doctor Ericson.”

“I figured you both for doctors,” I said.

“Why?” Doctor Douglas asked.

“The lab coats, I guess,” I shrugged.

“What an odd thing to assume,” Doctor Douglas said. “I’ve had this same lab coat since I was an undergraduate, years from my doctorate.”

“Mine’s pretty new,” Doctor Ericson shrugged. “And I do feel more doctory in it.”

Doctor Douglas gave a long sigh. “Anyways, to pull us back from our tangents, you are in our lab. Our lab is located in Hammerfest, Norway.”

“Where the fuck’s Norway?” I asked.

“Seriously?” Doctor Douglas’ eyebrow shot up. “Northern Europe. The Scandinavian region. Next to Sweden and Finland.”

I had no idea where the fuck this was. I could put together what generally this country was probably like, log cabins and giant beer steins and bar wenches with giant tits. Neither of these guys seemed to be the types to wear those goofy yodeller outfits. “None of you guys have accents,” I said. “Why here?”

“Killer research grants for one,” Doctor Ericson chimed in. “And Hammerfest sounds totally metal.”

“But mainly the research grants,” Doctor Douglas interrupted. “Plus it only has a population of around seven-thousand, which means our cabin laboratory on the mountain remains quite undisturbed.”

“OK,” this, sadly, was about as normal as our conversation would get. “You said, only one per cent of people who take dalek actually travel through time. What happens to the other ninety-nine percent?”

“Mainly they just see stuff,” Doctor Ericson said.

“Not just stuff,” Doctor Douglas piped up. “They see things not of this dimension. You see, the pineal gland that dalek stimulates actually helps the brain to perceive a sort of doorway to other dimensions. Or, more simply, they see into that other dimension. I haven’t heard of anyone seeing beings or creatures or anything like that. Most just talk about all the colours they see and how they can’t really describe them. Which is why most people chock up dalek to being just a strong halluncinogenic. But, those rare and wonderful people like you, can actually walk through it. And once you enter in, time actually flows differently for you. It’s quite marvelous in fact. It’s like being next to a black hole. All of relativity becomes completely warped. It’s just fantastic!”

“But most people who fall into this category actually remember walking through it,” continued Doctor Ericson. “Either it was so traumatic for you that you don’t remember a thing or, and this is the more likely answer and remains my quasi hypothesis about you, you actually walked straight through from wherever you took dalek to our lab. Which, like I said, is odd.”

“Does everyone who takes dalek wind up here?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Doctor Douglas answered. “For the ninety-nine per cent, we just monitor the online chatter. You’d be shocked at the number of social media groups already forming to talk about what it was like to take dalek. With no consideration for putting all over the internet that they’ve been taking illicit and, from what they can tell, hallucinogenic drugs. Humans are fascinating, aren’t they?

“But, the one per cent-ers,” Douglas continued. “Well, we didn’t discover dalek first. The first thing we discovered, which spurred all of this research, was that.”

Douglas pointed to a door. It looked like a completely normal wooden door. But as I looked at it I realized that the door was in the middle of the door. I could see either side of the door. By my own eyes I could see that the door kind of went to nowhere. But just looking at the thing made me uneasy. Like I was staring at a face that had all been rearranged. It just wasn’t right. My brain kept trying to put it together and make sense of it. But it just wasn’t right.

“What’s through there?” I asked.

“We have no idea,” Douglas said. “Not exactly. I’m part of the ninety-nine per cent group. But Doctor Ericson here is part of that majestic one per cent. He’s walked through that doorway. If I tried to walk through that doorway, even if I was on dalek, I would just walk through. When Doctor Ericson, and evidently when you walk through, you wind up somewhere else.”

“What did you see when you went in?” I asked Doctor Ericson.

“Just colours, actually,” he said. “Blinking colours. But not normal colours. And not just random blinking either. Every colour blinked in a succession of prime numbers. One, two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, and so on. Those are all very specific numbers. It wasn’t happening by accident.”

“We think the colours blinking are a form of communication,” Doctor Douglas continued. “It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky guess on our parts, but right now it’s our best guess. Whatever exists on the other side of that doorway may not be a physical form like we understand it. We have five sense to perceive our surroundings and communicate with each other. This other dimension may not actually exist in a physical space the way you and I understand physical space. Doctor Ericson even talked about how he wasn’t even sure his body was wherever the doorway took him to. And when the dalek wore off, he was back in the lab.”

“So why out dalek out on the streets then if you just want to figure out what’s in that doorway?” I asked.

“So we can get more people to walk through it,” Doctor Douglas answered, shaking his head like I just asked a dumb question. “Why do you think we’re telling you all this? Seems like a pretty big dump of information if all we wanted to do was get you kind of high, don’t you think? Obviously we want you to go through there and let us know if your experience in any different from the others.”

The others. The idea of there being others was suddenly all I could think about. I looked all around the room, got up from the table and started wandering around, looking everywhere I could. It was only three of us in the lab. The entire lab was only a one room cabin, rounded in shape with the freestanding door in the middle of the room. I could see through every window to outside, where all I could see was snow.

“You said there were others,” I said. “Where are they?”

The two doctors looked at one another. Neither spoke. Neither blinked. It was as if they were playing a mental game of paper-rock-scissors to see who would continue the conversation.

“They walked through the doorway,” Doctor Douglas said. “And they didn’t come back.”

My mind raced to try and keep up with the information being thrown at me. I thought about how if dalek makes you travel through time and space, then how do you walk through a doorway after you take it? I thought back to my experience taking dalek, that feeling of weightlessness that started to take over and was the last thing I remembered before ending up in that lab. Were those few moments of the drug taking effect enough time to walk through that doorway and enter another dimension? Or were these two simply playing with something they had no clue about and were just throwing as many guinea pigs into the hole that they could find just to see what would happen?

This is when I decided I would perform my own experiment. I wasn’t about to be some lab rat for a couple of mad scientists. But I had to make sure they thought I was going along with everything.

Doctor Douglas dropped another dalek into my palm, but this one was blue. I asked if there was any difference between this blue one and the pink one I dropped before. Doctor Ericson laughed as he stood by the doorway, saying something about how I took some of the old stock and that this new batch was a lot more potent.

“Really gets that pineal gland moving,” he said, as he typed a few things on his laptop. He was standing by one of those ergonomic stand-up desks, peering up occasionally to look at the door they were expecting me to walk through.

I took stock of the room as I prepared to drop some of this new batch of dalek. My eyes peered between all the pieces of lab equipment, the computers and monitors all showing graphs and stats and wavy lines. Finally, I spot it. It was right behind me on the far side of the lab. Another door. The only other door I’ve seen. The way out.

I popped the dalek into my mouth, and then I turned and ran for the door out of the cabin, away from the door into the other dimension containing who knows what kind of nightmares for me. I could hear both doctors shouting at me, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I was just running for that door.

Then the door swung open. Someone was coming in. All I saw on the other side though was a mirror. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection as I started to feel that weightless feeling again. The dalek was kicking in. And it was in those couple of moments I realized that my reflection looked shabbier, beaten down like he had been lost in the woods for weeks. I thought this may have been what I looked like now, seeing as I was missing at least three months of my life. But my reflection wasn’t running either. He stood there, and stared at me. He was watching me run. And it felt like I was a single step away from his face when my surroundings all around me completely changed.

It was quicker than a blink. Like a camera cutting from one scene in a movie to another. My brain adjusted to the surroundings and immediately, simply processing that now I was standing by a creek on a sunny and warm afternoon. Part of my brain knows I was just in a cabin in the middle of Norway with nothing but snow outside. But now, I was watching the water flow past through a few smooth rocks and listening to birds chirping and the wind rustling through leaves as if I had always been standing right in this spot.

Running alongside the creek was a trail. Dust floated in the air as if someone had just walked across it. I wasn’t sure if these were my own forgotten footsteps, for all I knew I had wandering around these woods for hours and only just now started really perceiving and understanding my surroundings. Or, was this dust kicked up by someone else who just walked past or away from me? I looked in either direction down the trail and decided to follow the trail to the right, where the dust was still dancing highest.

The sound of my own footsteps drowned out any footsteps I may have heard ahead of me. I kept looking all over, peering between the trees and staring across the creek, trying to find any semblance of another person who may be nearby. As I continued walking, I noticed the trees were changing. Changing colour? I think so. Were they getting darker? Maybe. It’s hard to piece together what I was seeing. I know the trees weren’t the typical spring green I remembered from walking through woods when I was a kid. I stared at the trees, tried to give a name to the colour I was looking at. I thought back to the wooded area behind the house where I grew up, where I would walk on my own for hours on end, thinking constantly because there was no one else to talk to. I could grasp what colour those trees from my childhood were. That bright popping green. Fresh and alive looking. These trees? The ones in this new woods I found myself in, following a trail next to a creek. I wish I could say what colour they were.

“Hurry up!” a voice echoed out. I couldn’t tell from what direction. I looked back out across the creek and noticed the water was moving differently. It was flowing in the opposite direction now. Before, the water flowed in the same direction as the path I was walking down. But now it rushed the other way. It looked like it was rushing harder and faster too. Like the water was panicking and running back where it came from before it was too late.

“Come on! Keep going!” the voice echoed out again. It still had no direction. It was like it was being dropped directly over top of me and surrounding me all over. I didn’t know which way to look to follow the sound and I just kept looking all over as the trees and the grass continually changed colours around me. All colours I had never seen before.

“Curtis, let’s go!” I heard her voice. It was coming from directly in front of me. Suddenly, the forest was gone and I was in her apartment. She was staring at me. No, glaring at me. That look she gave, when I was thinking about something and she just wanted me to say something or go somewhere or do something, that look that told me how little patience she really had for me, that was the look. It was definitely a glare.

She was wearing a dress. A black slip. I remembered the last time she wore it. I remembered how her freckles looked along her shoulders, sticking out between the black straps. I remembered the cut she had on her shoulder from the glass vase that fell off the top of her fridge and broke on her. She was trying to get it from the shelves above the fridge and it slipped out of her hands. She was too short to reach it. I was tall enough, but didn’t bother offering to help. She was lucky that the cut on her shoulder was all that she got. It could have been so much worse.

As I stared at her glaring back at me, looking at her dress and thinking about that last time, I saw the cut on her shoulder. The same cut. Still fresh. Not bandaged, it had healed up enough to leave open. But still as red as her hair. I wasn’t remembering the last time she wore this dress, this was the last time she wore that dress. I was reliving it.

“What were you thinking about?” she said. “Whenever you get lost like that you’re always thinking about something. What was it?”

“I… uh…” I tried to remember what I would have answered then. And whether it was the right thing to say. And if I could fix it. And how if maybe I said the right thing now I maybe could have saved whatever we had. Maybe then she wouldn’t have left me with only a voicemail. Maybe this time, she’d have the decency to leave me after a face to face conversation.

“Are you high again?” she said. I realized that I was thinking about this for way too long. “I thought you were done that shit!”

I don’t remember if I was high during this situation. This second time around, I knew I was high. I was still reeling from the effects of the dalek. Part of me wanted to tell her I wasn’t high, I was just thinking, that’s all. But I would have been lying. In either case, or point in time, or time this happened, or however the fuck you rationalize living out the same moment again only on a different drug this time. And maybe lying was the worst thing I could have done at this moment.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“No you’re not,” she said. Her tone dropped. Monotone and defeated. “Whatever, let’s just get going. Try to act fucking normal. This is important to me.”

I don’t remember where we were going. This was important to her. But apparently it wasn’t that important to me. At that moment, I never felt more like a shitty person.

We walked to the door and it wasn’t the same door I remembered in her apartment before. Her door was white with a peephole too high for her to see through. It had a chrome handle that she hung a vintage cafe sign from. I loved that sign. We found it together at a small town antique shop. I don’t remember what town or if we bought anything else from the shop. But I always remembered that sign. And it wasn’t there.

The door was plain and wooden. At least, my brain registered it as wooden. It wasn’t the colour of wood I had ever seen before, at least not since I took dalek. And as we walked closer, I recognized this door. It was the door from the lab. The one that Dr. Ericson walked through to that other dimension. The one where so many other people on dalek walked through and didn’t come back from. I wasn’t about to go through at door.

“Why are you stopping?” she asked. “Seriously, are you having a bad trip? Today, of all days?”

I stood petrified, not moving and not speaking and I don’t even think I was breathing. All I knew was I wasn’t about to walk through that door.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?” she said. But she wasn’t her anymore. And as I looked to her to try and answer, I saw that she wasn’t her. But brain tried to hold on to the idea that it was her. But it wasn’t. It was my mom now. And we were sitting at my family’s kitchen table. Like we always used to. For family dinner. I locked eyes with my mother, her eyes were so light blue they almost looked silver. She shook her head as she spun the spaghetti around her fork. “You’ve been staring off into nothing since you sat down. What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

She’s smoking still. She hadn’t lost all of her hair yet to the chemo. She even had her wedding band on still. This must have been a really long time ago. Judging by the giant black box of a TV I could see while I peered into the living room, I’m guessing this was back when I was still in high school. Or maybe earlier. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where in time the dalek was taking me.

My best guess was that it had something to do with whatever thought came across my mind at any given time. When I was back to that time I was stoned and about to go out to that very important thing that I still can’t remember, I was thinking about my mom and how her nagging kind of reminded me of her. And then there was the voice that voice calling out to me in that forest. The voice sounded like her voice. But I was having trouble placing where that forest was. Where in my timeline was that forest? When would I have been wandering around the woods like that? I’m not exactly a nature loving type. I tried to think about what I was thinking about while I tried to run out of that research cabin. I remembered seeing myself. And how odd it felt to look at yourself. Not a reflection, but another version of you, stepping in front of you and staring into your eyes. It feels incredibly weird.

“Curtis, I swear to god!” my mom belted out. “Are you stoned? You’re staring out into nothing like you’ve never seen your own damn kitchen before! What’s gotten into you?”

I was getting really sick of people asking, or rather accusing, me of being stoned. I mean, I was stoned, I had no idea how long the dalek was going to run through my system for, so I guess it was fair to ask or accuse me of being stoned. But it didn’t feel great. People always judge that kind of shit. They need to shut the fuck up. It’s no worse than eating shitty food or not exercising.

“No, I’m fine,” I finally answered. “Sorry, just a long day I guess.”

“Hm,” she grunted as her attention moved away from me and back down to her plate of spaghetti. As she rolled some noodles around her fork, I continued trying to place that forest. It started to feel like somewhere important. Like I should have known it. Like when you watch a cartoon that you saw when you were a kid. Part of you remembers seeing it, and you start to remember the house you grew up in and the couch that was in the living room and even what the spoons were like when you ate cereal on Saturday mornings. Everything around it comes back, but the specific thing that brought on all these memories and emotions kind of eludes you. The cartoon itself isn’t very important, you’ll probably forget about it again by next week. But everything around it feels so right.

“Hey mom,” I decided to break the silence. If anyone would remember something happening in a forest, it would be her. “Did we ever visit a forest while I was growing up? Like for a picnic or something?”

She continued spinning her spaghetti. Like she didn’t hear me. Like I wasn’t even in the room anymore. Just kept spinning and spinning.

“Mom,” I barked over to her. “Hey, Earth to mom. Over here.”

Part of me thought she was trying to teach me a lesson about zoning out by zoning out herself. But then I looked at her fork. The wad of spaghetti wasn’t getting any thicker. By now it should have been huge. It started to remind me of a CD skipping. My mom’s head nodded as the noodles wound around her fork, in a perfect hypnotizing rhythm. But it was just the same motion over and over again. Like an endless loop of a single insignificant moment.

I looked down at my own plate and noticed that most of my noodles were being eaten by maggots. They crawled all over my plate, squirming in the sauce and I could have almost sworn I heard them making noises. Not just the noises of their movements. But almost like cries or screams. The sound filled my ears and made me nauseous and I was ready to puke right there. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tight, almost feeling like I was screaming too.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and there was Meth-Mouth. Looking more like a rotted corpse than ever before. Standing in the same alleyway he always stood in. By the same windows he always stood by. He looked at me, but it almost seemed like only one eye was moving or looking at me. The other floated, staring off into nothingness.

“You okay pretty boy?” he asked, chuckling at his occasional nickname for me. “Coming down from a good time?”

“That shit you sold me,” I said. “That new stuff. It’s really fucking me up.”

“Which?” he crooked his head. “The fenatyl? I haven’t even sold it to you yet.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “That other stuff. That dalek stuff. It’s got me all whacked out. I think I’m time travelling.”

He chuckled a little bit more. “Maybe I shouldn’t sell you the fenatyl,” he said. “Looks like you’re right fucked up already. I don’t think you need it.”

“Seriously,” I snapped back. I waited a moment, for me to calm down and to make sure no red dots were about to appear anywhere on me. It seemed ok, Meth-Mouth looked more worried about me than he did scared or angry at me. Odd, a dope slinger with a conscience. “The last time I saw you. You sold me something called dalek. It was something new. A psychedelic or stimulant or something. You said it was new and that I would like it.”

“Did I?” Meth-Mouth scratched his head. “Never heard of anything called dalek. You sure it was me? You sure you’re not buying from anyone else? If so, I’d be real sad about that. Loyalty means a lot to me, y’know.”

Loyalty meant a lot to Meth-Mouth. I may not still be able to remember his name, but if I know anything about this pusher, it’s that loyalty is important. He doesn’t like competition, mainly because he’s convinced everyone he sells to are his friends. And if his friends are buying from other people, in his eyes he sees it as the buyer not taking the friendship seriously. Which Meth-Mouth takes personally.

I nervously shook my head and repeated over and over, “No, man, I’m not buying from anyone else, I promise. I swear man.” Meth-Mouth wasn’t hearing it though. He raised two fingers, like he was giving the building behind him the peace sign. Then two red dots appeared on my chest. Just before I took the two slugs to the chest, I wondered if my changing how this simple drug deal went would change how all the rest of these things turned out. I know things seem like they started when I tried the dalek, but really they started when I bought the fentanyl. That’s when I lost control. That’s when she left me. That’s when I went back to tell off Meth-Mouth about the fentanyl, ultimately leading me to trying dalek. Maybe these two slugs to the chest would be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Despite how traumatizing it probably is to be shot, I don’t remember what the bullets felt like. I remember feeling like I got pushed back, hard. Like a hard shove right in the centre of my body. I kind of always imagined bullets burning as they tear through your skin. I don’t remember feeling that. I remember feeling pushed, falling back, and landing on the concrete. I only had a second to process lying on the concrete before I blinked and found myself lying in some overgrown grass.

Sitting up felt good, like I just had a long nap in the sun. The fresh air that hung around me was cool and the smell of dew wafted through my nostrils. I was back in that same forest. The same one I was in when I first ran through that door out of the lab.

The creek was directly in front of me. It was rushing in one direction. No more changing and flowing every which way. Just smooth elegant, flowing like how nature intended it. I stood and walked to the creek to get a closer look. What I saw told me exactly what I needed to know about where I was. Where in time, at least. That the reason I don’t remember ever being here before is because I never was. This is the first time I stepped through to the future. What would will be, or had will be, and would should be, or something like that. But some iteration of my future, whether I had taken the dalek or not.

How did I know this was the future? Because she was there. She was in the creek. Bobbing, somewhere just below the surface of the water. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything. They were frozen open, constantly staring in one direction. This was her body, but she wasn’t there anymore.

I don’t know if I just didn’t see her in the creek the last time I went through the forest or if me taking those two slugs in the chest somehow changed this future moment, leading to what I can only assume is me killing her and dumping her into the creek. Either way, despite what I might think of her since she decided I wasn’t worth the effort anymore, she didn’t deserve this. And I needed to change this.

Without even me blinking, I felt the icy wind blow past me and I was in the middle of a snowy field, with nothing but white all around me for as far as I could see. In the distance I could see the side of the mountain and a small brown spot. I walked toward that small brown spot. I knew what it was and that’s where I wanted to be.

The wind blew harder and it cut through me and I felt sharp pains all through my body. I couldn’t stand this cold anymore and so I ran as fast and my freezing legs would take me through the snow. My body wanted to collapse but I pushed it as hard as I could. My back seized and my arms stiffened, but I kept pushing. I knew there was a better future for her and I wanted to give it to her.

The brown spot grew larger and larger and finally I could tell it was the same cabin I was in before. I finally made it to the door and threw it open and caught a glimpse of my own face. It was the me that first took the new strain of dalek. And as quickly as he was there, he was gone again. But it wasn’t just him that was gone.

Stepping into the cabin wasn’t what I was expecting. I expected the machines and equipment and the two doctors still working and possibly curious and excited about my arrival. But they weren’t there. No one was there. Nothing was in that cabin. Nothing except for the door. It was still standing in the middle of the room. I walked around it, looking at it from both sides. Everything about it told me it was a simple door. But there was a reason why it was the only thing that was left in this room. And it scared me.

I had a second thought about going through the door. I looked around the room to find anything I could bring in with me. Just in case. Just to have some piece of the reality I know in my hands while I walked, or floated, or existed, or whatever it was I was about to when I went through that door. As I looked around, I noticed that the door I walked through to get back into the cabin, the from door that led outside to the frozen mountains, was gone. As I thought about my hesitation, I realized my choices that this point were either go through the door or spend an eternity sitting in this room, alone, until I died. Or if I ever died. For all I know, those rules around existence and reality had totally changed.

But then I thought about her. I thought about her face under the water in the creek. Her eyes staring off into nothing. And how wrong it felt to see that. And how she deserved better. And how maybe my no longer existing in this plane of reality would help her to live a normal and fulfilling life. Something she almost completely lost being with me and something I know I can never have anymore. Not after taking dalek. Not after all that I had been through since taking it.

I stepped up to the door, grabbed the handle, and twisted it. The door swung away from me to open. It looked only black inside. I wanted to stop and look in before I took my first step, but it was as if my legs were reacting to a reflex I never knew I had. I immediately stepped forward into the darkness. And I could have sworn, for a moment, I could see stars.

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” I heard a voice say before I knew where I was. And I immediately knew. It was even the exact same smile as he was giving me before. Seeing his crooked yellow teeth. Having that moment of realization as to how bad his teeth were. Everything about this moment was the exact same. Even as I didn’t answer him and just stared at him, not knowing what to do next, like a perfectly timed script, he continued. “It’s your bag man, I swear.”

The same alleyway, the same drug deal, the same crooked yellow and rotting smile. I wondered for how long I was going to be repeating these points in time. I wondered when the dalek was going to finally wear off.

 

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The North

The only people more powerful than those who have been elected to the World Council of Governments, those politicians writing and passing the laws that keep the world in working order, are those who buy each of those elected seats and ensuring the right person is sitting in the right seat, passing the right laws. It’s amazing how once, millions and millions of dollars were spent into lobbying, trying to keep things legal, without any clue as to how much more value you add when something becomes illegal. Take cigarettes. Once, a pack of cigarettes were ten dollars. And that was a pack of twenty-five cigarettes. Ten dollars. You can’t buy a drag from a cigarette anymore for ten dollars. The cigarette manufacturers are happy. They produce less and make more money while at it. And who was it that pushed to see cigarettes banned by the World Council of Governments? Well, a health organization of course. A health organization who receives a great deal of charitable funds from generous philanthropists. Never mind where the philanthropists’ money comes from. It went into something important. It changed the world. Cigarettes are illegal now. People are healthier than ever now, right? And everyone keeps making money.

Shortly after the World Council of Governments banned cigarettes, they looked into the issue of human cloning. It was a hot button issue at the time. The technology and the means were readily available, but an order to halt any research into human cloning came down from the World Council. There were ethical issues to look at. Were we devaluing human life? Did a life mean less because we could replace it with an exact genetic copy?

The fearful rhetoric was written in all the right ways to get public opinion fearful of genetic cloning. Even I was worried. This was the direction genetics research was headed, what was to become of my career if human cloning was banned across the World Union? But anyone who understood how human cloning would actually work knew the rhetoric was coming from a place of ignorance. The clones are exact genetic copies but they’re still their own person. They don’t carry the memories and experiences of the original person. And we don’t even guarantee that they’ll be physically or mentally similar in any way at all. All we can guarantee is that the genetics will be the same. Which begs the question, how much do our genetics dictate our lives?

In my experience, a great deal. In fact, I’ve had a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. The exact genetic copies begin thinking and acting like their source human within years of life. For only guaranteeing genetic accuracy, it’s impressive that so many become the very person they’re a copy of. It’s good for business.

Very early on into my business, I was assured that the World Council’s bill to ban human cloning across the World Union was going to be a good thing for me. “Think about cigarettes,” my first client said. I knew what he was saying. I set my price. No one has ever tried to negotiate it down.

Sure, I still run my own genetics health clinic. We’re subsidized by the World Union and provide genetic mapping to patients so they can plan their healthy futures. People are healthier than ever. Living longer than ever. Even the clones have nice, long lives. They grow and age the exact same as any other person. But like all people, they still die. Everyone still dies.

My clients know they’re going to die. They have invested interests in billions and billions of dollars’ worth of assets across the World Union. They don’t want to leave it to just anyone after they die. Good successors are hard to find. They can’t even trust their own children. Most were raised spoiled and left stupid anyways, no amount of education could save those invalids. Like my five per cent of failed clones, those children head to the north once they become adults and they realize that nothing is going to be left to them once their father dies. And it’s always a father. Always an old man with white hair and a belly hanging over their belt in their suit whose jacket can’t quite close. In all my years of cloning, I’ve never had a woman want to copy herself to take over her business. It’s always men.

I’m thinking about opening a second clinic. Keep it in the south where my current clinic is. The weather here is so nice. Great golf courses. Business is great.

*****

The guy lying next to me isn’t breathing. There’s no steam coming out of his mouth. The steam from my mouth hangs in front of me, assures me I’m still alive and I’m still sitting on the cold concrete. I can’t even feel my ass anymore I’ve been sitting here for so long, trying not to freeze to death.

I tap the guy’s shoulder, hoping he just stopped breathing for a second while sleeping. He just toppled over, smacking his head against the frozen concrete. The cold got to him. He was getting old, too. Not a lot of people around this far north with that much grey hair. This was the first time I had ever seen this guy too. I just sat next to him, hoping to get a couple of hours of shut eye. He didn’t look like the type who would try to rob or grope me while I was asleep. You can tell those types really quick. Especially if you’ve been in the north for as long as I have.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I slept next to a dead guy, but for some reason this guy’s really bothering me. Something about the way he was coughing when I sat next to him, then the way he stopped breathing and just toppled over when I tapped him felt off. It didn’t sit right and I didn’t want to keep sitting.

I stand and brush the bit of snow and dust that’s clinging to my pants before reaching down and grabbing my backpack. I step out of the alleyway and back onto the sidewalk and look back and forth, trying to figure out which way is my best route to try and find somewhere to sleep tonight. The nights out here have been bitter cold lately, colder than I ever remember nights here being. I see a couple of people walking together on the other side of the road and duck into another alleyway. There aren’t any tank treads across the road which means they haven’t driven down here while on patrol for a while but might be heading this way soon. They usually don’t bother any of us, but if we’re standing in the middle of the road, they don’t slow down.

The tank’s rumbling can usually be heard for a few blocks and there isn’t a sound around all through the empty streets where I’m standing. I walk across the street and poke into the alleyway, looking around for whoever just ducked in. You never know what kind of people are hanging in the alleyways at night, but one thing’s for sure, everyone right now is looking for warmth and comfort, and if that’s where these two are headed I want to know where that is.

The alleyway looks like most other alleyways. It’s a narrow space between two red-brick buildings about five stories high each. The sides of the walkway are littered with abandoned blankets and the walls are stained with blood. You can’t see the blood so much on the red bricks but the smears are clear when you look at the grey cement between the bricks. Security forces are supposed to prevent violent attacks, that’s why they patrol in tanks, but they don’t do anything to keep anyone around any safer. We would be safer without the patrol. One fewer thing to worry about when you’re running for your life.

I hear whispering behind a dumpster and what sounds to me like a muffled whimper. I peek around the dumpster and see two men holding down a woman, one of the men is holding a knife, and the other is saying something about keeping warm tonight. The woman’s eyes fix on me and the two men notice she’s looking at something. They look in my direction and immediately spot me. The one holding the knife smiles and moves his knife away from the side of her neck and points it at me.

“Looks like we’re both keeping warm tonight,” he says. The other starts laughing and the woman tries to scream, but her mouth is still covered by his hand. They’ve both done this before, I can tell by how confident they are. I fix my eyes on the man with the knife. He’s looking up, not noticing me drop my extendable cattle prod from out of my sleeve. I flick my wrist and it extends, automatically turning on with a couple of crackles coming from the charged tip. He barely has a chance to look down and see it before I hit him in the hip with it. He screams and twitches in pain while I reach back and swing the side of the cattle prod across his head. He drops to the ground like a bag full of body parts. My eyes move from him to the man still holding the woman down.

He stands and starts raising his fists, getting ready to fight. I press my cattle prod against the knocked out man, letting the electric current run through his body, cooking him from the inside out. The man still standing got the message. He turns tail and runs to the back end of the alleyway, I assume back out into the streets.

That’s when my cattle prod died. The crackling of the electric current through the man’s body suddenly stopped. He’s not convulsing anymore and he groans in pain. He’s still alive and I don’t know if these are his last breaths or if he’s about to get back up. I decide not to gamble on that and start walking back out of the alley the way I came in.

“Wait!” a voice from behind me calls out. It’s the woman I helped. Her voice sounds shaky, like she’s terrified to move from behind that dumpster. “Thank you,” she mutters.

I don’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t trying to save her. If those two didn’t spot me, I would have just left. All I was trying to do was make sure I could get out of this alleyway and find somewhere to sleep. She just happened to be there.

Ignoring her, I keep walking back out into the cold streets. The alleyway is a bit warmer, but if that guy comes back, he won’t be alone. And I need new batteries for my cattle prod. God knows where I’m going to find those.

A hand grabs my arm and I turn, ready to kill whoever’s touching me. It’s the woman. She won’t catch the hint that I’m not here to save her, that I’m not her friend, and that this is where we part ways. I’m not sure how to make it clearer.

“Where did you get that?” she asks.

“I stole it,” I answer. “Patrolman wasn’t looking. Probably still has no clue it’s gone. Probably would have killed me on the spot if he did notice. It’s dead now, though. Totally useless.”

“You hit that guy pretty hard with it,” she says.

“Not hard enough,” I reply and try to walk away. She grips my arm even harder.

“Wait,” she whines. “Wait, you look… You look so familiar.”

She hasn’t notice that we’re standing in front of a darkened window. The lights of the street security lights are reflecting against the darkened window, turning it into a mirror. I’ve noticed, and I know why she thinks I look so familiar. I look exactly like she does.

######

Rumsfeld Hadderton walks into the clinic. Before I see him and before I hear him, I smell him. His smell is incredibly distinct. He wears half a bottle of cologne to try and mask his body odour. But the man sweats profusely and constantly. So the smell he gives off is a mix between sweat, musk, and whatever sweets or pastries he was just stuffing into his mouth. The way he sweats, the way he eats, and how much weight he carries while he walks must mean his resting heart rate is at 170 beats per minute. He can’t walk five feet without being out of breath.

“I want to see the doctor!” he yells before hacking all over my receptionist. “And now! You little bitch!”

“Rumsfeld!” I call from the entrance to the back of the clinic. I tilt my head, motioning to him to follow me. He glares at my receptionist for a moment before waddling over to me. We walk through the hallway, past all the private patient rooms, and into the back room reserved for these special cases. Neither of us say a word before we’re in the room.

He tries to get a word out, pointing his pudgy sausage finger at me, but I grab him by the shirt with both hands and slam him against the wall. I can feel the blubber giggle as his body’s inertia starts to rest against this wall.

“You never talk to my staff like that again you fat fucking piece of shit,” I say between clenched teeth. “Or so help me god, your next clone will have a heart defect that you’ll know nothing about until he drops dead and your estate will be left to you next of kin.” I let go of his shirt and walk to the sink to wash the sweat and leftover food off of my hands. “How is your son, by the way?”

“Fuck you, Doc,” Rumsfeld says as he plops down onto a chair and pulls a napkin from his pocket, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. “You damn well know he’s in the north. Hopefully fucking froze to death, the useless piece of shit.”

“And I’m sure we want to keep it that way,” I continue. “So, what brings you by, Rumsfeld?”

“I’m checking to see how my next properties are coming along,” he says. “I want to make sure you’re not going to fuck this one up like you did all the others. I have a lot invested in this and it has to be completely right or it’s worthless to me.”

I have a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. Rumsfeld makes up most of that last five per cent that haven’t worked out. The clones come out as perfectly fine humans, completely genetically exact to Rumsfeld. But he always finds something wrong. Now he wants to babysit me while I work.

“It’s coming along fine, Rumsfeld,” I explain. “The synthetic-uterine process is exactly on schedule. Your new property, as you put it, should be birthed within a few weeks.”

“Are we running into any of the same problems we’ve run into before?” he asks.

“Impossible to tell,” I answer. “Too early in the growth phase. But we’re monitoring it.”

“Doc, I want you to monitor it very closely,” Rumsfeld pipes up. “And the minute we run into any of these same problems, I want you to genetically modify it so it comes out right. I don’t have the time to deal with these mistakes of yours anymore.”

“Genetic altering while in the synthetic-uterine device is very tricky,” I explain. “I’ve done it before but it carries a massive risk. I have to charge extra for that service.”

Rumsfeld’s face turns even more red and the sweat dripping from his forehead starts pouring. He grips the arms of the chair he’s sitting on and leans forward. “You fucking piece of shit!” he screams. “It was my influence with the World Council of Governments that helped keep human cloning illegal and helped you build your business to what it is today. Your money, your practice, your more than comfortable lifestyle is thanks to me. How dare you speak to me like I’m one of your common genetic mapping clients off of the streets!”

“Don’t give me that shit, Rumsfeld,” I quip. “You kept it illegal to ensure it would be as exclusive of a service as possible. After all, you didn’t want just anyone cloning themselves, right? These common people, as you put it, don’t deserve what you can get. And if you ever dare act like I owe my practice and my research to you ever again, I’ll make sure any clone you walk away with has genetic defects that won’t show until you have one foot in the grave. Then the World Council will have to find your son in the north to take over your business. Is that what you want?”

Rumsfeld got really quiet then leaned back in the chair again, patting the sweat off of his forehead and running his tissue along his face, wiping all the excess moisture. “How much extra,” he says, in a very quiet and low voice.

“We can negotiate prices later,” I say. “For now, just know your successor is in good hands and I’ll make sure he’s perfect this time.”

*****

“Do you have a name?” she asks. She’s trailing a few paces behind me, looking around for any signs of patrols while I keep my eye out for anywhere we can hunker down for the night. It’s only getting colder and the winds are picking up, cutting through the thin jacket and ripped jeans I’m wearing. I can only imagine how she feels. I wrapped her in one of the blankets back in the alleyways where I found her. Most of her clothes are still ripped open. She’d freeze to death without the blanket.

“No,” I tell her. She shouldn’t question that too much. A lot of the people in the north tend not to have names. Sometimes they do have names but don’t tell them to anyone. Sometimes they were left in the north to fend for themselves and whoever they bunked with never gave them a name. I decide she doesn’t need to know my name. I hold back my teeth chattering. I don’t want her to know how cold I am. “How about you?”

“Um,” she stutters. “I get called Blondie a lot. Probably because of my hair colour. I guess that doesn’t help you much. We have the same colour hair.”

I don’t know if she saw what I saw in our reflections. I heard rumours before about this kind of thing. People running into themselves. On the outside at least. Inside, they’re their own people. They grew up in different parts of the north, have been part of different tribes and groups, sometimes even have different voices or scars. But the faces. The faces are always the exact same.

“You’re hair’s a little darker than mine,” Blondie points out. “Mine’s kind of pale, but yours is really pretty and bold. Like gold.”

“Call me Goldie, then,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. I look back and see her smile.

We come up to an intersection in the road and on one of the street corners is an old church with a long cross with one of its arms on the side broken in half. It points high into the grey sky, like a beacon to follow. I know this area. I spent a lot of time in this area. We should be safe here.

“Wait,” Blondie says, holding my arm. “This is tribal territory. I think the ones who paint their faces white with all the black lines live around here. They won’t let us pass through.”

“Yes they will,” I reply. “And we can stay here tonight. We’ll be safe. I promise.”

A low rumble echoes out in the direction we’re heading. I know this rumble all too well. From the look on Blondie’s face, she knows it too. Patrolmen. I rush ahead stop by the church, keeping my back against its outside walls as I slowly start to creep over, looking in the direction the tribe is where we heard the rumbles.

There are patrolmen standing around, talking to one another. I see three tanks and behind that there are a few fires, bigger than any trashcan fire people sometimes light to try and keep warm. Then there are two patrolmen carrying the body of one of the tribesmen. He throws the body on the fire. I understand what I’m looking at now. This is a full on raid. There have been some rumours about patrolmen trying to eliminate all the tribes and groups. I didn’t believe it at first. The tribes tended to have a lot of people in them, more than there are every any patrolmen in the north at any time. The patrols always seemed to avoid the tribes, knowing how outnumbered they always were. I guess they started seeing the tribes as enough of a threat to finally start getting rid of them.

“Can you believe how much extra pay we’re getting for this?” I hear one patrolman say to another. “I might have enough for a clone. Can you believe it?”

“Clone, you know those are illegal,” another patrolman says.

“Sure, but you can still get them, you just need to know where to find them,” the first says.

“And what are you going to do with a clone?” the other continues.

“Teach him baseball,” the first laughs. “I lost a huge scholarship after blowing out my knee. It’s like it’s going to be my second chance. Imagine, all the skill I used to have in baseball and young again. It’s brilliant. I don’t know why cloning is kept illegal. It’s just so brilliant.”

I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Blondie.

“What’s a clone?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yeah, can you imagine two of our appetites kicking around on this world?” a third patrolman says. “We would literally have two of you running around. We would run out of food. The south is already predicting food shortages because we have to feed these northern animals. Last thing we need to feed is another one of you.”

The three men laugh, and the meaning of that word starts to come to me. Clone. It’s a copy of a person. It’s why Blondie and I have the exact same face. Are we copies of each other? Copies of another person? For the first time I’m feeling a need to know my own identity. Before my only concern was just surviving. Learning as much as I could so I could be smarter and better than anyone coming after me. Now, I want to know why I’m here. How did I get here? How did Blondie get here? Who are we?

I feel another tug at my arm. “We can’t stay here,” Blondie says. “Where are we going to go?”

“South,” I answer.

#####

I’m grateful Rumsfeld didn’t get a chance to look at his next potential protégé before I finally kicked him out of my office. It’s growing fine, almost already looks like a human. But I always check the readouts whenever I go into the room where the new humans are growing. These readouts didn’t look great, especially for what Rumsfeld wanted.

The readouts show me all the copied genetic code as it forms into a new human. I check it to make sure no genetic defects or mistakes wind up getting copied into the new human. No one wants a defective human and I’m already losing enough money because of this asshole. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to recopy his genetics and try to grow his successor. I feel like I’ve been trying and failing with this guy for decades.

The readouts tell me this new human is running into the same problems all the other ones had. I don’t know how or why, but the cloning process keeps copying an extra X chromosome. This makes no sense because the cloning process involves copying everything, right down to mapping the two chromosomes and ensuring they’re an exact match in the new human. Every time it misses the Y chromosome and copies an extra X.

I finally decide to review Rumsfeld’s mapped genome. Thousands upon thousands of genes I’m reading through, trying to figure out what’s going wrong and how can I fix it to stop this from ever happening again. I’ve had my failures with other clients and the mistakes were sent to the north like they always are, but I can usually spot my mistake right away and adjust it. Somewhere in these more than 20,000 genes mapped out that make up Mr. Rumsfeld Hadderton is the answer as to why his clones never turn out exactly as he wants.

And then I spot it. It’s as clear as day why his chromosomes aren’t cloning right. And it puts into perspective so much about this man. He paid for the extra genetic monitoring and it’s too late to adjust the chromosomes in this new human. She’ll go to the north, like the rest. And I have some bad news for Rumsfeld. Something that was never in his original agreement with me. Something I can charge a lot extra for.

*****

All you have to do is face the south to feel its warmth against your face. The frozen north has its icy tingle that clings to your face, but all you have to do is face south to be reminded that it’s warm somewhere. And we’re going where it’s warm. Even if it kills us.

Blondie is behind me as we approach the border. She did a good job keeping quiet as we snuck around the buildings and streets that make up the north. I’m proud of her. There were some close calls, but we made it through without any patrol noticing us. But the border won’t be so easy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the border. When people in the north are arrested, they bring them to the south for a public execution. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard the patrolmen talk about it. They laugh about how the northerner they caught squirmed and tried to scream as they were hung. Members of my tribe were taken to the south. I never heard about their execution, but I followed them to the border when they were arrested, hoping there was something I could do to stop it and free the people who raised me and fed me and taught me to survive. I don’t know if I could stand hearing about it. Knowing that ours death gives them entertainment makes me hate them so much more. But it always feels like I can never do anything about it. Maybe making it to the south will change all that.

The border looks the same as it did when they took my tribe. A large stone wall with guard towers lines the border for as far as I can see. Armed patrolmen and their large dogs stand around and keep watch, one hand always on their rifles. Openings small enough for single vehicles to pass through break up bits of the wall and are blocked by thick steel doors that need to be opened by two people. I got us this far but I have no idea how we’re going to pass through here.

Blondie taps me on the shoulder and says, “I think you need this a lot more than I do. I think you have some sort of plan or something and I want you to succeed. You saved my life. It’s time I pay you back.”

I don’t even get a word out when Blondie runs out, both arms waving yelling at the guards. I don’t hear what she says but she has the guards’ attentions. And they’re all smiling. I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to her, but I don’t want to let her diving out into danger like that to go in vain. Once I see the guard at the nearest gateway run toward Blondie, I sneak out and run and I don’t look back and I don’t look anywhere around me. I’m just gunning for that gate. And I’m praying Blondie’s going to be ok.

#####

Rumsfeld came into my office with his face beat red already and sweat pooling under the thick fleshy fold around his face. He wasn’t even sitting when I finally came into my office. He was pacing back and forth and it felt like every step he took hit the floor harder than the last.

“This better be fucking important,” he spat. “I don’t know why you called me here, but it better be fucking important.”

“Are you familiar with Klinefelter syndrome?” I asked.

“Why the fuck would I know what that is?” Rumsfeld drooled down his chin and quickly wiped it with his hand. “You’re the fucking doctor. What, does one of my products have it or something?”

“Not quite,” I answered. “Actually, you have it.”

“What do you mean I have it?” he furled his brow. “You gave me every fucking medical test known to man before we started this goddamn song and dance. Wouldn’t you have spotted it then?”

“We don’t test for it,” I said. “Since selective genetics came into fashion, it’s become extremely rare. Hell, before selective genetics it was a one in five-hundred chance of being born with it. It wasn’t exactly common before and it’s virtually unheard of now.”

“So how the fuck did I wind up with it?” he slammed his fist onto my desk.

“Your parents must have missed it when they were reviewing your genetics before you were born,” I said. “Even I missed it. Again, this shouldn’t exist anymore.”

“So, how do I get rid of it?” Rumsfeld began pacing again. “You said it yourself, it’s virtually non-existent now. What’s the cure?”

“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” I sighed knowing this would be nearly impossible to explain to a simpleton of this magnitude. “It’s an error in your genetics. Most people have two chromosomes, women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y chromosome –”

“Yeah, old news,” Rumsfeld blurted. “Get to the part where we fix this.”

“There is no fix,” I tell him. “It should have been corrected before you were born, while your genes were still be edited. It should have been easy to spot. It would have come up when the doctor who worked with your parents figured out what sex you are. You’re a man and you should have an X and a Y chromosome. Instead, you have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome.”

“And that’s affecting my clones?”he asked.

“It’s duplicating both of your X chromosomes,” I explained. “Now that we’ve spotted this, the next one will finally be perfect.”

“I don’t have time for this shit!” Rumsfeld screamed. “Just kill the fucking bitch in the test tube and get the next one going already!”

He turned to leave my office, but before he could leave I called back out to him.

“There are a few other things you should know about your condition,” I said.

“Like what?” he stood in my doorway.

“One symptom is being an insufferable prick,” I felt the corner of my mouth peak into a smirk. “The other major symptom is sterility. I was wondering why it was so easy for you to send your kid to the North.”

“Well, like you just pointed out,” he said. “The bastard isn’t even my fucking kid. So fuck him. I hope he freezes to death and the savages up there use his body for food and warmth. It’s the only good that human waste will ever do anyone. Now get to work. I’m not paying you to tell me how fucked up my life is. I know that already.”

*****

I feel the temperature difference as soon as I cross into the South. It’s warm, like there’s a constant fire going all around and there’s space for everyone to stand next to it.

I’m still shocked as to how easy it was to cross into the South. I ran through the gateway and to the other side without any plan for what I would do once I got across. I didn’t even know what was waiting for me on the other side. It could have been a hundred more guards or patrolling troops. But there’s nothing. It feels emptier than the North does. But I feel the warmth and it draws me in.

There isn’t any frost on the ground and I don’t see any concrete. The grass is trampled though and there is more dirt beneath my feet than there is any plant life. The sky is still grey, just like the North, but there are breaks in the clouds in front of me. It looks close enough to touch but part of me knows it will be hours or even days of walking before I stand underneath where the clouds actually brake.

A single jeep rolls up next to me while I’m walking away from the North. There is a single guard inside, driving the same direction that I’m walking. My first instinct is to run, but I can tell by the way he looks at me he isn’t interested in bringing me back.

“Heading South?” he asks through his smile.

I nod slowly, waiting for him to open his pants or order me to take off my top. But he does neither. He just opens his door and invites me into the jeep. He smiles as I crawled in and that’s when I noticed his smile, his yellowed and chipped teeth, and the blonde stubble growing around his face. The guards never had any facial hair and their teeth were always perfect and as white as the frost that covers the windows of the buildings around the North. He’s not a guard.

“How did you get out?” he asks. I look over to him but didn’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about Blondie yet and what she did. I feel like if I talk about it, I’d want to turn back and try to find her. “Not a complicated question,” he smiles as I realize how long I have been sitting in silence. “For example, I was able to kill a guard and steal his uniform and his jeep. I’m one of the few Northern residents who knows how to drive, I was born a Southerner after all. One of my daddy’s staff taught me to drive. And ever since I’ve been helping folks who’ve escaped the North find their ways to the South. There’s a small shelter accepting Northerners, giving them food and new clothes and place to sleep before folks can start heading further South and making their way in that part of the world –”

“I don’t want to go there,” I interrupt him.

“Go where?”

“The shelter, I don’t want to go there.”

“Where are you headed then?”

I hand him the sheet of paper I found. He smiles and nods. “I know this place well enough,” he says. “You might not like what you see. I know I didn’t. Keeps me away from that place. My father too. Been wanting to kill that son of a bitch for a long time now. But that clinic freaks me out.”

“I have to,” I say. “I have to go to this place. It might explain…” I hesitate to continue. I look over and find him staring at me intently, barely keeping an eye on the road. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” he answers. “You just look familiar, that’s all. Funny enough, we very well could be related. Especially if this is where you’re headed, there’s a very good chance of that.”

#####

Getting past Rumsfeld’s little problem is a pretty nasty challenge. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. I’ve never doubted myself like this either. I’d be willing to tell him that it’s impossible and turn him away and instead focus on clients I know will be easier money. But he’s paid me already. He’s paid me a lot. And I’m not in any position to pay back that much money. I just have to keep working at it until it’s right.

The sound of gunfire rings out in the clinic’s lobby as I check Rumsfeld’s newest copy. My first thought is that the old bastard has lost his mind and he’s out for blood now. I always knew he was unstable. My gut told me not to take him on as a client the first day I met him. He was so off that day and he hasn’t acted any better since. He’s only been more and more unbearable. I remember him almost being twitchy. He bounced his knee while he sat in my office, drumming against his legs and looking all over the room, like a little boy waiting for his Christmas presents. Only little boys sit in anxious joy and happiness. Rumsfeld sneered the whole time he was in my office. Like he was ready to fight while having a panic attack. To this day I’ve never dealt with anyone like him. Most of my clients are calm and assertive professionals who know what they want and how they intend to get it. Rumsfeld knows what he wants and he’s ready to punch anyone in the face to get it.

My attention stays fixed on my specimen while I hear more shots ringing out, louder this time. He’s getting closer. I better have some good news for him. I can’t afford to have a bullet in me, not while I have this much work to do.

I check all the vitals and everything seems normal. I take a deep breath before I read the gender. I’ve never been this worried reading one of my specimens before. Even my first wasn’t this nerve wracking. And with a long exhale, I read the gender.

Another girl. My mind goes directly to the fact I need to get a hold of my contact for transport to the North and I barely register how loud the shots are getting.

And that’s when the door to my office finally opens.

*****

The jeep pulls up to a building with lights coming out of the windows, which haven’t been boarded up or marked as territory by anyone. The driver smiles at me again, looks at me in a way I haven’t been looked at since my tribe were still alive. It feels good. I can trust him.

“Are you sure you want to go in there?” he asks.

“I think I’m sure,” I answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go in. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for. I just know that whatever reason I exist is in this place. And I need to know what it is.”

He nods slowly, like he’s appreciating what I’m saying. He might not understand it, I don’t know if he has a tribe or if he knows where he came from or if he’s just sure enough of himself that he just doesn’t need to know any more about himself. “Alright, but don’t go in empty handed,” he says as he hands me a pistol. It feels heavy in my hands. The cold metal tingles through my fingers and I get a shiver along my arms. Like I forgot what one of these feels like.”You ever use one of these things before?”

“My tribe had one,” I say. “It looked different though. It was smaller. I learned how to shoot on it. I shot more can than anyone else in my tribe.”

“Well, this one will probably have some extra kick the one you used before didn’t have,” he says. “But it’s generally the same principals. I think you’ll handle it well.”

“What should I do with it?” I ask. “I mean, is there anyone who I shouldn’t shoot?”

“In my humble opinion,” he smiles. “No. Take it from someone who grew up in the South and was sent to the North against his will. No one in the South deserves to live. They don’t understand what people like you and me have had to go through in the North. And no one down here appreciates anything they have. They throw away food and never know what it’s like to starve. They’ve never felt the cold and the desperation to keep a fire going. They know nothing, especially about the North. They don’t deserve to keep going.”

I let his words absorb into me, like they were made of liquid and seeped into my skin. I feel his words travelling through me, and then they become part of me. My heart races and my hands shake. For the first time in a very long time, I smile.

“Will you be here once I’m done?” I ask.

“I have something to tend to,” he says. “I have a sweaty fat bastard to take care of. But I’ll be back. And I’ll take you back to the camp, you’ll meet some of your fellow escaped Northerners, and we’ll prepare to take the South.”

I get out of the jeep and walk towards the door. I look back one last time, for one last boost of confidence. He isn’t looking at me. He’s driving away already.

#####

I can’t say I would have ever seen this coming. She has blonde hair and her skin is cracked and creased, but she’s not old. These aren’t wrinkles. It’s frost burn deeply embedded into her skin. She stares at me, both of her hands are wrapped around the gun’s handle. It’s pointed directly at me. She’s silent for a long while. I stay frozen in place.

“Who am I?” she finally breaks the silence.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yes you do!” she shouts. “I know you do. Just because I’m from the North doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I know what you do. I saw another girl who looks exactly like me. She’s dead now. She died so I could get here and find you and find out who I am. Now, who am I?”

“Looks exactly like you?” I smile. “Only one? I’m surprised. Your eyes, your nose, your cheekbones, everything about you is him. It’s uncanny. Even your temper apparently.”

“Who?” she snaps.

“A client who’s been far more trouble than he’s worth,” I explain. “A real fucking nightmare.”

“You don’t know nightmares,” she says, her hands start shaking. “You get to wake up from them. Mine’s never ended.”

“How would you know?” I ask. “I mean, I imagine you don’t know any other life than the North. I know I sent you there even before your incubation was complete. I’m shocked you lived. God knows how many died from the cold –”

“Shut up!” she screams. “How many of me are there? How many times was I cloned?”

“Technically, you weren’t cloned,” I explain. “You are the clone. Guessing by your age, probably one of the first. The first in a long stream of mistakes.”

“Why were we all mistakes?” she asks, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s the one common denominator here?” I say. “You, the other girl who you saw, and, well, I guess this is your sister. I mean, you have a lot in common. But the main thing is that your, well, kind of father but more of a root genetic sample, he wanted a man.”

She looks at the specimen. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Well, my client thinks you’re all dead, that I kill you once the gender is identified and you’re no good anymore,” I say. “But I don’t kill you. I send you to the North. I let nature take its toll. If you survive, well done. If not, well, you were never really meant for this world.”

The tears streaming down her face drench her cheeks. I’m hoping to keep her distracted enough to make a run for it. I know she’s not interested in any of my equipment, she wouldn’t know what to do with any of it with her savage and primitive brain. If I break her, make her hate herself enough that she’s no longer paying attention to me, I know I’ll be safe.

“Give her to me,” she says.

“I can’t do that,” I say. “She won’t live. She’s incubating still.”

“Then you’ll stay until she’s ready to be born,” she says.

“Ready to be born?” I laugh out loud. “Stop pretending this is a human. It’s human-error.”

Then she opens fire.

*****

I hold onto her tight as I sneak outside. The sun is down now, but it’s still far warmer than any day in the North. The jar that she’s in is hard to grip with only one hand. I drop the gun, I’m out of bullets anyways, and I look up and I see no one waiting for me. The dark streets are empty in front of me and it starts looking like the North all around me.

I wrap both of my arms around her as I continue walking. I feel my body shaking but I hold it in my chest and try not to let my arms shake. My legs can barely hold me up as I keep trying to walk forward. I trip and fall, but use one of my hands to stop me from falling all the way and my other hand holds onto her tight.

I don’t know how far I walk before I feel my legs give out again. I fall on my side, still holding her and trying to protect her. The concrete feels comfortable and I roll onto my back and I feel myself start to drift off.

The sun’s glare wakes me up. As soon as the light cracks from between my eyelids, I shoot awake and check on her. I’m still holding her. She’s still the same as she was last night: tiny and floating in place. I stare at her and start to make out her features: I see her eyes and they’re closed tight like she’s in a deep sleep. I make out her small mouth. Her arms are bunched up around her. She looks comfortable. She looks safe.

“Holy fuck, you’re alive,” I hear a man’s voice. I recognize it. Only it’s not making me feel comfortable or safe this time. “I seriously thought local police would have shot you as soon as you walked out of the building. You didn’t wait at all to start shooting.”

He’s standing outside of the jeep with his arms folded and a smirk across his face. “I’m glad you served your part. I don’t think things could have gone better for me.”

“Why weren’t you there?” I ask.

“Because you were supposed to be dead,” he chuckles. “Do I have to spell it out for you? You were supposed to keep the authorities busy while I took care of my business. You see, I was sent to the North, but it was technically an illegal transfer. The fat prick who called himself my dad paid a few people to take me to the North. I’m still a citizen of the South. And because my transfer was illegal it was easy for me to get past that big scary wall and waltz back to my home. But crime in the South is sparse. One gunshot and the entire local force would be on you before your sweat could run down your cheek. Multiple gunshots, though, like the little party you had? Police would have been so distracted with you that no one would have noticed me popping a few into that tub of lard.”

“But…”  I stutter trying to find my words. “But the camp.”

“Doesn’t exist,” he smirks. “No one’s ever escaped the North.”

My stomach twists and I feel like I’m about to throw up. I look down at her and back up to him again. “How did you know I would come out and find you and want to go to that place?”

“Believe it or not, I was lucky,” he says. “I didn’t set anything up. Running into you was a pure fluke. I put the plan together on the fly as soon as you climbed into the jeep and showed me that clinic’s brochure. Honestly, I would have been happy to find anyone and improvised it any which way. I never targeted you hun. You’re simply not that special.”

I stand up and glance behind me and my eyesight draws a path I’ll be walking down, away from him. “Well, it was worth it,” I say as I look down at her. “It was worth it for her.”

“Did you really disconnect that from its life support?” he chuckles. “Hun, I don’t know how to tell you this, but that thing died the minute you grabbed it and walked out of that clinic. You didn’t save anything.”

I don’t believe him. I know she still has to be in there. I know she’s still growing and getting ready to enter the world. My heart beats faster than it did when I was holding the gun. My palms start to sweat and I struggle to keep holding on to her. The tears run down my face and I can’t control them.

“Sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news,” he says. “I know it’s nice to think you’re a hero. But you’re nothing but another piece of human error that should have died in the North.”

I keel over as I start to wretch and I feel my empty stomach push up against me with each heave that escapes my body. I keep holding onto her, though. I’ll die before I drop her.

“Why?!” I cry out.

“Are you actually asking me?” he answers. “Sadly, I wish I had some grand explanation. I almost wish the resistance I convinced you exists was real. It was money. The old piece of shit dies, I get his money and his company. I’ll sell the company, never work again, live the easy life, and never think about any of this again.” I can hear him laugh. “You know, it’s funny. I’m not even actually his son, and I’m more like him than you are and you’re an exact genetic duplicate of him. You have to admit, that’s funny.”

#####

My hand if covered in blood when I wake up. I have two bullet holes in me and I’m bleeding profusely. I lift my shirt and inspect the wounds. Falling asleep is the worst thing I could have done, even if it was involuntary. The wounds have been open for too long. There’s no quick repair. And no paramedic will get here in time. If they haven’t got here yet, they’re not coming. I have to get ready.

I try to stand but it hurts so incredibly much. I’m actually looking forward to finishing out and being done with this shit. But I can’t go quite yet. I have one last thing I need to do.

Pulling myself  across the floor, I reach the back of my lab, to my restricted office. I barely reach the door handle, but I open it and crawl in. The four cryogenic chambers have frost covering the outside. But it won’t take long to thaw one. I reach the control of the first one I find and enter the passcode to unlock it. It starts heating up rapidly, and then the airlock releases and the hatch opens. I forgot how awkward I looked when I was this young. Tall, skinny, and the cryogenic chamber hasn’t done much for my skin. Or I guess his skin.

He walks out and the sudden look of horror on his face takes over as he spots my wounds. “You’re hurt!” he says.

“Don’t fucking bother,” I say. “Just save whatever tissue you can and start up the replacement.”

There have always been four in the cryogenic chambers and four in stasis in incubators on the other side of my restricted office. He has the same look on his face as I did when I came out of my cryogenic chamber. Part fear, part exhilaration, part impatience waiting for the old model to finally die. He has that same look on his face. Part of me is glad this will be the last thing I see. Knowing that my work isn’t finished, but the best possible candidate will continue it.

He kneels down next to me, inspects the wounds, and then smiles. “I guess I got some work to do.”

I said the same thing when I came out.

 

 

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Maps of the Stars

I’m always a little sad

That I can never see the stars at night

There’s always cloud cover and street lights

And even on the clearest nights

The sky never seems to have those bright lights

I keep maps of the stars in my pocket

I hold them up to try and see what I’m missing

Find the planets and the constellations

The satellites constantly circling

Match the names to the ones I hear

From people with telescopes and star atlases

Cutting through the cloud cover

And disregarding the street lights

Pinpointing the source of those bright lights

Those lights that take years to reach our eyes

Questioning whether what we can see

Is actually still in the night sky

Or just an image from thousands and millions of years before

Of something that isn’t there anymore

I want to see these things

See them with my naked eye

Before we ever know

If the lights in our sky

Are actually still illuminating the night

Or if it’s just a trick of the light

Fooling us into thinking

That our night skies

Aren’t actually completely empty

And we’re all that’s left

Circling alone in the darkness

Circled by satellites

Staring into a sky that’s empty

Anders went too far

A single fist punched through Brant’s door and quickly pulled out to reveal a deplorably ugly face peeking through. Its lower jaw jutted out and its bottom teeth sat atop its top lip. Its small eyes were shadowed by its heavy brow, though Brant could tell it was looking directly at him and it wasn’t happy to see him.

Behind Brant, Calder was running through the house in a panic, screaming about never seeing anything like that before. Brant tried his best not to be terrified and not to let his fear and panic overtake him, but when its second fist came through another part of the door followed by its foot kicking down the door off of its hinges, he knew that if there was ever a time to panic over anything, this would be more than a suitable time.

“Why are you kicking down my door?!” Brant shrieked. “What are you doing?!”

He wasn’t sure why this thing was breaking down the door into his house. His house wasn’t anything particularly grand to marvel at. It was a typical house for Delswynn, a town that Brant had spent his entire life in. He grew up here, worked his first job on one of the farms fields, watched as more and more of the small cottages began popping up all over town accompanied by men selling goods all along Delswynn, and mostly in front of the taverns. Brant wondered if he had ever encountered this behemoth beast at one of the taverns, maybe said a sentence or two wrong to upset the intruder. This often happened to Brant, but he normally paid for it with a swift hit to the face or (in the most extreme circumstance) an arrow to the shoulder.

As he looked closer at the beast, he realized he never encountered it before. He would remember something this ugly. And large. Quite large, really. The beast almost had to duck down to walk into Brant’s house. This made Brant think of his roommate and how he often would have to duck down a bit to walk through the basement. Then he realized he didn’t hear Calder’s manic desperate shrieks anymore. This worried Brant a bit, but not enough to try and run from the slightly green-hued skinned monster now standing only a few feet away.

“Why did you do that to my door?” Brant continued wailing.

“Where are they?!” the beast growled back.

“Where’s what?” Brant tried to reason. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

From behind the beast came a cloaked figure, which Brant at first mistook for a man. The figure removed the cloak and Brant saw its pointed ears and its sharp-edged eyebrows. Delswynn didn’t see much of any race that wasn’t a human. The odd few ugly men (and some women) were often mistaken for trolls. But Brant was looking at two, bona-fide non-human creatures. Both were in his house and both had a look about then that told Brant he may not live through to see the end of this day.

“A couple of items you stole,” said the one with the pointed ears. “Our employer wants it back. Where are they?”

“I haven’t stolen anything,” Brant continued to wail. Brant would hope that his tears would either be hidden from his assailants or that his tears would look more like the brave tears of a fierce warrior about to face his death. Sadly, he brushed his cheek with the side of his hand and felt how soaked it was. He knew he was bawling. He tried convincing himself he didn’t feel the dribble out of his nose either. But it was clearly there.

“I found them!” the beast yelled and pointed toward Brant’s table. It stomped forward and picked up a cloth that Brant had bought from the market earlier that day. The beast then picked up Brant and carried him outside in his hand that wasn’t holding the cloth. He was carried outside and dropped a few feet outside of his house. He looked up to see a man (a human man, Brant told himself to try and comfort his racing thoughts too no success) wearing a black robe with gold markings all over that Brant didn’t recognize.

“I found them!” the beast grunted. “He had them.”

“Very good,” the man said. “But where’s the other?”

The beast tilted his head like a dog unsure of a command form his master. He looked at the cloth in his hand and then looked back at the man again.

“Anders, there’s only one there,” the man continued. “There’s a second. A lavender coloured one. I need that one too.”

Anders looked at his hand again at the turquoise cloth and back to his apparent employer. “There’s two here,” he said.

“Yes, but it’s actually only one,” the man enunciated slowly. “It looks like it’s been ripped. Did you rip it, Anders?”

Anders shook his head.

“Then go back inside, bring this little one with you, and find the lavender coloured one as well,” the man said, leaving Brant feeling a little insulted being referred to as, “this little one.” If there wasn’t a giant beast he, Brant may have scolded this man quite thoroughly. Brant thought about it further and decided that he probably wouldn’t have actually scolded the man. He wouldn’t know how.

Brant felt himself lifted off of the ground again and carried back into the house. He was dropped on the ground and saw Calder underneath the table, hugging one of the legs, and crying much worse than Brant had been crying (or so Brant hoped).

“There’s a second cloth you stole,” the one with the pointed ears pressed on. “Where is it?”

“We didn’t steal it,” Calder bawled. “We bought it at the market today, we swear!”

Anders growled low. “You’ll take us to where you’re keeping it!” he yelled. “And you’ll bring shovels with you so you can dig your own graves and if you’re lucky I’ll let you kill yourselves before I leave you there to rot!”

“Whoa! Anders!” the pointed ears one interrupted. “Too far!”

At this point, Calder was crying so hard and loud that it was hard to tell what he was saying, but it sounded something like, “In the forest… In a cave… Don’t kill us… We didn’t steal… I’m so sorry… Where’s my dad…” over and over and over again.

The two intruders began talking between themselves and didn’t notice Calder slip off. When they looked back, Calder was back by the table with something in his hand. The two were startled and both reached for their sheathed weapons but stopped when they saw what Calder was holding.

“We don’t have any shovels,” Calder mustered out between sobs, his right hand shaking as he held out the small garden trowel. “We have one of these though! Please don’t kill us!”

Still sobbing, Calder and Brant escorted the two to the small cave where they hid the lavender cloth. It was maybe two or three miles outside of the town and easily found along a small trail that had been walked along many times before.

The cave itself was actually kind of large. The opening stood about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, but was also quite shallow. So it didn’t take long for Brant to notice the two lurking figures inside of the cave.

They were fairly large creatures. They had to duck down to walk in and out of the cave. They were even uglier than Anders was. They both carried clubs that fit nicely in their hands but were about the same size as Calder and Brant were. The creatures noticed Brant, Calder, and their two assailants fairly quickly as well. One of the beasts stepped out of the cave and nodded towards Anders.

“Thems those kids,” the monster grunted. “They hide it in here. We want it. Give us kids and you live.”

Calder wailed hard enough to grab Brant’s attention. Brant looked over and saw a small puddle building up around Calder’s feet from the steady trickle that ran down his leg. Anders’ gaze didn’t shift from the enormous brute that was approaching him, but the one with the pointed ears (whose name was Neville, Brant later discovered) stared at the growing puddle and crooked an eyebrow before taking a large step back from Calder.

“What makes you think we’re going to let you live?” Anders shot back.

The hulking beast chuckled. “You so little,” it said. “You no match for us. All five of you going to die unless you give us those kids.”

Anders looked behind himself and back to his challenger. “There are only four of us,” Anders said.

The behemoth’s brow furled, this simple math obviously had him very confused. “It no matter,” it continued. “You too small to fight us.”

“Your mom didn’t think I was too small,” Anders said as he unsheathed his sword and readied for a fight.

This was the point when Calder passed out. Brant thought it may have been from dehydration. Calder lost a lot of bodily fluid through the leg of his pants the past few minutes.

Brant peered back up to see what Anders’ next move was. But all Brant saw was a rock being hurled at him. It was a relatively small rock, or at least Brant had assumed. A larger rock would have killed him. This rock only knocked him unconscious long enough that when he awoke, he was being carried by Anders in one hand (Calder was slumped over Anders’ other shoulder) and Brant quickly realized there were no other beasts in sight.

“Ah, he awakes,” Anders said. Brant looked up and saw Anders smile a bit. “Those two were big but threw rocks like tiny humans. I could have killed you with a rock half that size.”

“Where are we?” Brant muttered.

“A fair distance from your home,” Neville replied. “Despite poor throwing skills, they still got away with the lavender cloth. We can’t return to the town, our former employer will have our heads for losing that cloth. You and your friend can’t return, our employer will be waiting for you as well and will probably kill you solely out of sport or frustration or small laughs. We figured our safest plan would be to get you and ourselves as far from there as possible.”

“Why did he want those cloths?” Brant asked. “I was going to use them to dry dishes. The turquoise one, at least, the lavender one shimmered weird, so we hid it in cave just in case it was about to do something crazy.”

“Good instinct,” Neville said. “All we know about them is that they both have some kind of magic engrained into their threads. We don’t know what. It wasn’t our job to ask. Our employer knows, that’s for sure. He’s typically not one to want something without knowing quite a lot about it.”

“Wait, why are you doing this?” Brant blurted out. “Why not just leave me and Calder to be murdered by your boss? Why carry the extra weight?”

Anders shrugged. “I felt bad. Especially the digging your own grave part. I went too far.”

“So, then, what’s the plan from here?” Brant asked. “Where are we heading and what are we going to do?”

“Not sure,” Neville said. “I think there’s another town with a decent tavern about a day’s walk in this direction. From there, Anders and I are looking for work. You and your friend? You’re on your own from there.”

Brant nodded slowly and thought about all he had been through in the last few minutes (or hours, he still wasn’t sure how long he had been knocked out for). He knew this was the best course of action. His home was gone now because some greedy eccentric decided he wanted a couple of cloths that Brant and Calder bought at the local market for barely the cost of a pint. He also knew he and Calder would be useless trying to continue following these two adventurers. They lived in a completely different world than where Brant and Calder live in. All he and his friend could do now was make a new home in a new town and try to build their lives again.

“You’re handling all this well,” Anders commented.

“I don’t have much of a choice,” Brant said. “How are you going to explain this to Calder? I mean, he pissed himself. He apparently doesn’t handle stress well.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Anders said. “On the bright side, I doubt he could smell any worse than he does now. Believe me, he didn’t just piss himself.”

Atticus ate my Headphones

I had a hard lesson re-taught to me not too long ago: if it’s on the floor, the puppy will chew it. This reminder came as I got ready for bed one night, excited to relax, listen to a podcast or some music, and slowly drift off to sleep. I reached under my bed for my headphones. My wonderful, beautiful sounding, comfortably fitting, $100 Sennheiser headphones (don’t get me wrong, I know $100 isn’t actually that expensive for headphones considering I’ve seen some go for a few thousand dollars, but that’s a lot of money for me). Well, I found one ear plug, then a bit of chord, then one of the rubber bits that slide onto the ear plug for comfort, then looked under my bed and saw my chihuahua puppy Atticus with a little piece of black chord hanging from his mouth.

Puppies chew everything, and I should have known this by now. I grew up with dogs all my life and they have chewed plenty: from baseboards to homework (yes, I had a dog once actually eat my homework, but I didn’t bother bringing that excuse to my teacher and instead just took the detention, figuring one lost lunch hour was easier to deal with than literally trying to argue that my dog ate my homework) to even my Dark Vader action figure, puppies chew everything.

Why did I just go on for almost 200 words about this? Well, I tend to be hard on people for what I perceive to be not thinking. I pride myself in having a lot of foresight and taking the time to see any and all possible confrontations, complications, confusion, and consequences. This sometimes makes a decision as banal as picking out soup at the grocery store an extended chore, but I can firmly say I have never regretted a single can of soup. But, despite my own hubris into my own foresight and my disdain for those who don’t demonstrate this same skill, even I forget something as simple as puppies will chew anything and everything left on the floor. I’m not perfect, despite my occasional excessive vanity, arrogance, and narcissism.

This imperfection illuminated especially bright recently when I was laid off from my job. I won’t go into where my job was or any of the specifics about my job, but I will say I worked in communications (fancy business way of saying a writer) for a university research department. In short, I was assured that my position being dissolved had nothing to do with performance and was only a result of some issues with research grants and workloads. My supervisor even offered me a reference before I asked for it and went on to say that working with me was a pleasure. Part of me felt like it was sincere and just crappy circumstances and the result of being bottom of the totem pole. But part of me also felt like if I was good at my job, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a blow to the ego and one that I’m having some difficulty recovering from.

I spent some time with my future mother-in-law who’s a certified life coach to help me with some job interview skills and sprucing up my resume. The career coaching session quickly turned into more of a therapy session where I explained a lot of the anxieties I have been experiencing since losing my job. She referred to these anxieties as Gremlins for the way they constantly hang around and start pinching and nudging us when we start to feel good. The best thing she told me was that having Gremlins, especially after getting laid off, was completely normal. Accepting I’m not perfect suddenly became a little easier: I’m not perfect, I’m human.

A lot of what my future mother-in-law said echoed a lot of the things my therapist has been telling me as well. I started seeing a therapist back in August after I noticed my work-life balance turned more into haunting anxieties. As I’ve been going through sessions, I realized two things: first, I should have started this a lot sooner, and secondly, I’m obsessed with control. From my day to day work to social situations, I want to control everything. Everything has to be perfect. This isn’t healthy.

In fact, I discovered that a lot of what I was trying to control in order to save or preserve it was causing significantly more damage than any good. My control issues even rooted into why I avoid a lot of social situations and even have a difficulty in meeting and connecting with new people sometimes: my guard is up, I don’t feel like I can control how things are moving, so instead I completely cut it off. It’s not a good way to operate and I’m slowly learning to let things go and move how they move. But it’s been difficult. I’m making progress and I take some solace in that. But I’m also trying to make sure I don’t become controlling over how I’m not trying to control everything anymore. It’s been really difficult.

Of all the things said to me the past while, one thing has struck a particular chord that’s ringing true to me. My future sister-in-law said, “Progress over perfection.” Really simple. But it encompasses everything I’ve been struggling with. Not everything will fall exactly where I want it, but at least I’m working to get it closer. And that counts for something.

I find I’m getting less angry at people all the time. I’m not frustrated when I hear stories about silly or dumb things people do and how they clearly didn’t see what was coming. I shrug now, laugh a bit if it isn’t too tragic, and realize people have all kinds of things on their minds all of the time. Living day-to-day isn’t easy. And sometimes you just don’t see what’s in front of you.

I didn’t get mad at Atticus for chewing my headphones. I gave the headphones their proper burial in my garbage and thought about all the awesome stuff I listened to on them. I had a pair of backup headphones, not nearly as nice sounding as my Sennheisers, but they do the trick until I get a new job and am able to afford another pair of higher-end headphones. I thought about my Darth Vader action figure and my homework from when I was a kid, early victims of the family poodle. And I laughed. And I’d like to say I haven’t left anything on the floor since.

Hollowshire House

The house was to become more of a tourist attraction than anything that should have actually worried anyone. The rumours that spread around our little town made their way out and into the surrounding towns and into the bigger cities. People used to not care about our town. Suddenly, after a viral video and a few memes, people flocked to Hollowshire to see the house at the end of town.

On first glance, you’d think nothing of the house. Most people who drove past figured it was just an abandoned old house that could be a decent fixer-upper if the right investor came to town. No one around town cane quite pinpoint when the house was built, town hall doesn’t even have any records on the place.

When I first started investigating the house, I remember asking the one of the record keepers at the town hall why there was no record of the house being built. He shrugged and pushed his glasses back up from the tip of his nose. “It might be because it’s technically outside of the town limits,” he said. “A lot of the farms around here have no records either. Unless the city annexed the land when the property was built, there would be no record.”

Despite Hollowshire’s borders still not reaching all the way to the house, it was still close enough to the town that a quick bike ride north would see you landing in front of its door in about twenty minutes. I still remember the first time I rode to the house. I was maybe ten years old. I rode on my bike to the house, hearing the odd few rumours around school about it. We were maybe two weeks into the new school year, the leaves on the trees had just started turning gold and red and a few trickled down slowly as if dancing in the wind as I rode past on my bike.

I stopped at the bottom of the front porch. My bike fell to its side as my eyes fixed on the front door. I stepped towards the house, daring myself to climb that first step on the porch. The wood under my foot creaked loudly as I pushed myself further towards the door. I looked down and saw the step was rotting and the paint had almost completely chipped away. I planted my second foot on the first step and held the pillar that held up the porch’s overhang. A gust of wind blew by and I started shaking. The cold tingle of the autumn air crept along the back of my neck, standing the hairs along my arms on end. I stared at the front door. Then my eyes moved to each window on either side of the front door. The drapes swayed slowly, as if a draft was moving through the house. I couldn’t see into the rooms, though I leaned forward thinking even an inch of a closer glance might give me a better view inside.

A small hand then reached between the drapes and the fingers ran up and down the sheer fabric, as if to test how soft it was. The hand pulled one of the drapes aside and a woman wearing white stepped to the window. She was pale, blonde, very pretty. Her white dress covered her shoulders and hung loose all the way down her sleeves and well below her waist. She spotted me standing on the first step of the porch. She smiled and held her finger to her lips, beckoning my continued silence. Then she let go of the drape and she vanished behind it. I ran to my bike and rode home without stopping once and without looking behind me. There was a terror that shot all through my body that someone was following me. I didn’t dare look behind to see who, or what, it was.

Small town rumours tend to evolve into legends and the legends around the house lasted a long time, well past when I was in school. I left Hollowshire when I got accepted into journalism school in Toronto, but came back when the Hollowshire Gazette was the only paper that would give me a regular writing job. I lived with my parents for a few months when I returned to Hollowshire, moving out of province and back again is a tough ordeal even on a young college graduate. I was still living at home when the viral video exploded and was assigned to talk with the kid responsible for uploading the video and with house’s new owner.

My research started at the town hall trying to find any record of the house and coming out with nothing. The next part of my research was watching the viral video. It was filmed like most of the ghost hunting shows on TV. It was shot in the middle of the night, everything was dark and all the images had a green glow from the camera’s night-vision setting. The kid who filmed the video was alone. The video felt like you were watching everything unfold through his eyes. He walked through the house, explaining each room as he walked through, taking short guesses at what each room might be used for. The first few minutes ran pretty slow. He explored the main level and the upstairs, giving his brief impressions of each room. “This looks like it would probably be a bedroom,” he would say. “I think this is probably the master bedroom… Um, yeah,” the camera panned around the room. “Yeah, this room is bigger, so I think it’s the master.”

It wasn’t until the basement did anything interesting happen. The basement door was just off the kitchen, towards the back end of the house. The video shows the kid’s arm reach down and open the door. It swung open and the rickety, wooden steps glowed green, but the rest of the shot was completely black. He took one step on the stairs to the basement, moving slowly and carefully. The stairs creaked loudly and camera shook as the kid lost a bit of his balance. He quickly regained it and stepped down to the second step, with an even louder creak.

The camera was looking down when he made it to the third step, then quickly panned up to see a woman standing in the darkness. Her long, flowing white gown glowed green under the night vision. Her eyes looked like they had no colour in them, just beaming white orbs in her face. She smiled at the camera, held a finger to her face, and gave a long, slow, gentle shush before stepping backward and disappearing in the darkness. The cameraman screamed and ran out of the house, cursing and gasping heavily as he ran across the house and made it outside. He dropped the camera once he was standing by his car. The camera captured him as he leaned over, heaving and swearing. He threw up a bit before finally grabbing the camera and shutting it off.

Most people suspected the video was a hoax. The whole reason he video went viral was because people thought his panicked reaction was funny. But I recognized the woman. A decade and a half later, she looked the exact same and she was still in that house.

The kid who filmed the video’s name was Lessard Cormac. He was an eighteen year old aspiring filmmaker who was ecstatic that his short video had gone viral so quickly and figured this was his ticket to making movies for a living without having to go to school for it.

“It’s funny, I just saved myself like four years of my life a few thousand dollars,” Lessard said as we began our interview. “Maybe I’ll start getting paid to go into creepy places and filming it.”

Through most of the interview, he talked about what inspired him to try and go into the house and film around the inside. He said he wanted to expose the local mystery and figured maybe he would hear a sound or two in the distance but didn’t at all expect to see the woman in the basement.

“So you didn’t set up the scare at the end of the video?” I asked.

“I know that’s what everyone is saying,” Lessard continued. “But I swear I did not set that up.”

“Have you ever heard about anyone seeing the woman around the house before?” I asked. “Like, in local legend or anything like that.”

“No never,” he replied. “Even when anyone local leaves a note in the comments section, they never write anything about her. I even asked in the video’s description for any information on anyone who might have lived in the house and no one seems to know anything. Have you ever heard anything about her before?”

“No,” I shook my head and stared down at my notepad. “No, never heard anything like that before.”

I tried continuing our conversation, but the kid sat silent slowly shaking his head and not even blinking. “You’ve seen her too, haven’t you?” he asked.

There was no convincing this kid otherwise. He knew what he saw in the basement and he immediately knew I saw it once as well. There was no point in even trying to dance around the fact that when I watched the video I immediately recognized the woman.

“It was a long time ago,” I began. “I was a kid and – ”

“I knew it!” Lessard jumped up. “I knew someone else somewhere had to have seen what I saw. Were you in the basement too?”

“No,” I answered. “No, I was outside. She came to the window. She did the exact same thing as on the video. She locked eyes with mine, held her finger to her lips, and then just vanished in the darkness behind her.”

“How long ago was this?” he asked.

“I was maybe ten,” I answered. “So, probably fifteen years ago.”

“What did she look like?” he pressed on.

“The exact same,” I said.

“You’re sure there’s nothing different?” he leaned forward.

“You don’t forget something like that, even if you are only a kid,” I continued. “The face, the eyes, even the gown she’s wearing is all the exact same.”

His jaw hung open and he sat frozen in place. I don’t know if he was trying to believe what I was telling him or if he was trying to collect his thoughts. He finally blinked and looked up at me.

“It has to be a ghost,” he said. “Why else would she be the exact same? And hiding in that creepy house. And – ”

“Let’s not jump to any rash conclusions,” I interrupted. “Let’s think about it. She could be the daughter f who I saw when I was a kid. They could be squatters living in that house. Her mother could have given her that dress – ”

“You said yourself that she was the exact same,” he stopped my rambling. “You said you never forget an image like that and even after fifteen years you still remember every last thing about what you saw. Why is this so hard to believe?”

I shrugged. “It seems so unbelievable,” I said. “When I was a kid, I’d always hear about other kids going there and walking around on the grounds. You’re the first I ever heard of actually going into the house. But of all the kids I’ve known to go to that place, why are we the only ones who ever saw anything there?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “But a lot of other people are seeing it now. And there’s a lot more interest in Hollowshire House than there ever was before.”

“Hollowshire House?” I questioned.

“Yeah, that’s what it’s being called now,” he explained. “Suitable name, I think.”

“Even though it’s technically outside of the town bounds?” I chuckled.

“It’s putting us on the map,” he smiled. “It even got someone to buy that creepy house.”

“I heard about that,” I said. “How was it bought? I thought no one technically owned it.”

“Don’t know,” Lessard smiled. “All I know is she’s turning it into some tourist money trap now. Are you talking to her for your story?”

“She’s my next interview,” I said. “Know anything about her?”

“No,” Lessard shook his head. “Just some anglo-dreadlocked chick. I saw her moving some stuff into the house the other day. Doesn’t look too old. Maybe a little older than you.

“Hey,” Lessard’s eyes suddenly widened. “Can I come with you to the interview? I think it would be pretty cool to meet her. After all, she’s about to make a ton of money because of my movie. And it would be awesome for your story too. Imagine getting the exclusive first look at the viral filmmaker meeting the new home owner. I could give her some spooky advice about the house or something. Get some cool quotes, it’d sell a ton of papers. What do you think?”

If it was any other kid I was interviewing for any other story, I would have instantly said no. The kid had a point about being able to tell the story of the viral video maker meeting the new homeowner. He was off about the story selling papers. Small community papers like the Hollowshire Gazette were put in everyone’s mailboxes every week and given away for free at local grocery stores and gas stations. But the more people open the papers, the more advertisers will pay for space. A good story like this could get a lot of people opening the papers, and could up my salary.

Not to mention this is the only other person who, on record, will ever admit they saw the same woman I saw at the house. I wanted to know he saw her too. Was she selecting people? Was there a connection between me and Lessard that neither of us knew about? I didn’t know how to find answers to these questions, but bringing Lessardm with me to the house might have given me some answers. It was worth whatever risk may have accompanied bringing the kid along with me.

That afternoon we visited the Hollowshire House and met its new owner. Lessard was right about the dreadlocks. Her roots were graying and the small black tattoos on her shoulders were faded from spending too much time in the sun. All this told me she was well into her forties but still trying to hold on to her alternative lifestyle from her twenties. She met me at the door, we scheduled the interview a few days back and was expecting me. She wasn’t expecting to see Lessard.

“You’re the kid who filmed the video?” she asked. “Very interesting. I’m glad you’re here. I had no idea this house even existed, I have you to thank for putting it online.”

She introduced herself as Miss Penny Abigail and walked us through the house. The smell of dust and dried out wood filled the air and was complemented by the sounds of the creaking floor beneath our feet. Light shot through the opened windows, illuminating the house like it hadn’t seen sunlight since it was last inhabited. I still don’t know when would have been the last time the curtains had been pulled away from the windows, letting the house absorb the full sunshine. Even with all the sun pouring in, the house still felt more like a graveyard than it did a home. Something about it felt dead.

She led us into the living room first. Boxes littered the ground all over. She smiled and shrugged, saying she was still just getting everything in order. I expected some evidence of whoever last lived in the house to still be present but there wasn’t even a picture on any of the walls. I asked Penny about what was in the house when she arrived. She said there was nothing and that even the representative from the city mentioned that after the house was annexed by the city, they were all shocked that there wasn’t a single thing in the house, aside from the curtains.

“Pretty much what I saw too,” Lessard piped up. I had completely forgotten he was there for a second. If he didn’t say anything at that moment, I may have left him at the house. “I thought it was pretty weird that there wasn’t any, like, furniture or like a fridge in the kitchen or anything.”

Penny chuckled. “A house this old wouldn’t have had a fridge,” she said. “But what I immediately noticed as oddest of all was that there wasn’t a stove. A house even this old would have had a stove. It’s how whoever was inside would have kept warm.”

“Know a lot about the house already?” I smiled. “Practicing your guided tour script already?”

“A little bit,” her dreadlocks bounced as she nodded her head. “I’m actually hoping to start tours in a couple of weeks. Get the Halloween tourists while they have ghosts on the mind.”

“So that’s all this is to you?” I asked. “Just a grab for a quick tourist buck?”

“No, that’s not all,” she answered. “Believe it or not, I am quite sensitive to the spirit world. I just decided to use my special gifts and interests to help me pay for the mortgage, that’s all. I have to ask, why such an evident non-believer in ghosts and the beyond would be so interested in writing a story on this place and my buying it? For a quick buck, obviously. You’re no different than me.”

Lessard chuckled. “This guy isn’t a non-believer,” he said. “He saw the ghost like fifteen years before I got to film it. Isn’t that right?”

“Wait, you saw it too?” Penny asked. “So the kid’s video really wasn’t a fake? I mean, I could feel a ghostly presence here, I knew something was haunting this house, but they don’t usually pop up on film so clearly. You usually get an energy orb, sometime a faint sound recording, but never a picture of a full on person.”

“Wait, if you thought the video was doctored, why buy the house?” I asked.

“Like I said, I could feel something, and I need to pay the mortgage somehow,” she said. “Unowned haunts are hard to find. I figured it was my turn to cash in, even if the viral vid was a fake.”

“It wasn’t a fake” Lessard chimed in. “I bet we’ll see her in the basement again right now.”

Penny looked over to me. “Did you see her in the basement too?”

“No,” I said. “She was standing in the front window.”

Penny looked back toward the kitchen area. “Well, I haven’t been down to the basement since I got my stuff in here,” she said. “Why don’t we all take a look?”

The living room connected directly to the kitchen, which was as empty as all the other rooms were. A few boxes were stacked on the counter space but that was the extent of anything present in the room. It had the same dried out and cracked wooden floor and same yellowed white walls as the rest of the house. On the far end of the kitchen was a door to the back yard. On the wall adjacent to the back door was another door, which led to the basement.

Penny opened the door and all I could see through the door was a set of old, rickety wooden stairs and cramped looking walls surrounding the walkway. As we walked down the stairs, it felt like the walls and roof around me were getting smaller and smaller. We finally reached the bottom of the steps and Lessard and Penny both walked forward with their eyes glued to whatever it was in front of them. I quickly saw what had them so enthralled.

In short, the dimensions of the basement simply were not possible. I counted an even dozen steps to the basement, but as I looked up above me, I could see the ceiling reached up maybe fifty feet. I looked down to my feet and saw the ground was dirt and rocks. The only light all around us came from the stairwell we just walked in from. I looked back and saw the stairs through a doorway surrounded by what looked like dark rock, like we were inside of a mountain.

I finally put my attention forward and walked out to where Penny and Lessard were standing. It was on the edge of what I could only describe as a cliff. The dirt and rock ground simply ended. Below it was what looked like and endless blackness. I picked up a fairly large rock and dropped it down, and waited for the echoes of it landing. But I heard nothing.

“I didn’t look like this when I came down,” Lessard said. “It was a normal basement. Like, wooden floors and I could see the studs in the walls and I could tell the roof was only like a foot from my head. It wasn’t like this. How did we end up here?”

“Did it look like this when the city rep showed you around?” I asked.

“No,” Penny shook her head. “It sure as hell wasn’t like this.”

“Do we tell someone about this?” Lessard asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “I don’t think there are any city officials that handle anything like this.”

We turned and headed back out the way we came in. Through the narrow stairway, through the kitchen and living room, and out the front door. We stood at the bottom of the front steps, staring back at the house. I don’t know what Lessard and Penny were thinking, but I know I was completely lost at what to do next. The logical part of my brain kept telling me to turn tail and run, that nothing good to come of what we just saw in that basement. There was another part of me that wanted to go back down, look around and figure out exactly what it was I just saw.

“Neither of you set this up, right?” Lessard asked. He was breathing heavily and his eyes shot back and forth between us, like he was waiting for one of us to make a move against him. “Like, this isn’t some elaborate lesson because I snuck into this house?”

“No, not at all,” Penny said. “I swear on my own life that basement was not like that yesterday. I don’t know what the hell that was.”

Then they both looked at me. I realized I was far too quiet. Most people panic outwards. They talk and they pace and they swear and they sweat. I panic inside. The quieter I am, the more I’m panicking. I just get lost in my own head, trying to rationalize and reason with whatever I’m panicking about. I know it’s hard to read and when other people are panicking they get suspicious of the quiet one.

“I had nothing to do with this either,” I said.

“You’re a fucking liar!” Penny screamed.

“How? How am I a lair?” I yelled back. “When would I have come here to open a giant cavern in your basement?”

“I don’t know,” Penny shook her head. “But you’re the only one who said he’d never been down there before. You had something to do with that.”

“I seriously had nothing to do with that,” I tried to reassure them, but I knew the more I talked, the worse I would look. Instead I looked over to the house, and saw her again.

She stood at the window, just like she did the first time I saw her. She looked exactly like how I remembered her. White dress, long blonde hair, skin so pale it was almost translucent. She stood completely still at the window and stared at us, not moving. It took a couple of seconds for Penny and Lessard to read the expression on my face and loom toward the house as well.

“Holy shit,” Penny said. “You really didn’t make that video up. There she is.”

The woman in the window then looked over to her right. We followed suit and looked in the direction she was staring. All we saw was a hill covered in dead grass and fallen leaves. It wasn’t a very tall hill, maybe six or seven feet with a steady incline up, the kind of hill you could run up to the top in about thirty seconds. There were a couple of trees at the top of the hill, both almost completely bare of any leaves now. We watched the hill for a moment, then looked back to her.

She pressed her finger up to her lips and mimed a gentle “sshhh,” before disappearing back behind the curtains again.

“What was she looking at?” Penny asked.

I didn’t delay to try and answer. I just marched toward the hill and in half a dozen solid lunges I made it to the top and looked down the other side. Beyond the hill was a field, vacant of any housing or development. A few trees jutted out from the ground and the yellowed grass was covered in fallen leaves, but there weren’t enough trees to call the area a woods or a forest. It was just empty land.

The sounds of stomping and crushed leaves crept up behind me and I looked back to see Penny and Lessard catching up to me. They were both out of breath from the short sprint up the hill and they looked down to the empty land.

“See anything down there at all?” Lessard asked.

“Nothing,” I answered. “Nothing that jumps out at me right away.”

“Should we take a closer look?” he asked.

“That’s my gut feeling,” I answered. “Something down here caught the attention of whatever’s in that house. And I need to find out what.”

“I think I see something,” Penny piped up and started her jog down the hill toward one of the trees. She stopped and knelt over to inspect the tree’s bark. From where I stood, it looked just like an old tree. But Penny saw something.

I followed her down the hill and Lessard followed after me. I stopped in front of the tree that caught Penny’s attention and looked down to see what she was inspecting. I quickly saw it. Something was carved into the bark, but I couldn’t tell what. It looked like an X with a cross drawn through it and an arrow sticking out of the bottom.

“I found another one over here!” Lessard yelled out. I followed Lessard to the next tree and saw the same symbol, only with arrows pointing in different directions.

“I have no idea what we’re looking at,” Penny said. “I have a lot of books on different symbols and in the occult, but I have never seen anything like this before.”

“What makes you think it’s occult?” I asked.

“Markings in trees near a haunted house?” she listed off. “If the shoe fits, I guess. All this screams occult to me.”

“Even though you don’t recognize any of these symbols?” I asked.

“There are a lot of cultures we know nothing about,” she continued. “Could be from an undiscovered aboriginal tribe, foreign settlers we didn’t know landed here, any of which could have practices western culture would consider occult.”

“Can you tell how old these carvings are?” I asked.

“No, that’s one thing that’s not in any of the books I have,” she said. “I don’t know who would be able to tell how old these carvings are. Maybe an anthropologist? Or a plant scientist? I don’t know. All I know is I don’t have a good feeling about these carvings.”

I inspected a few other trees and noticed the same symbol all with different pointing arrows. The directions the arrows were pointing were all in different directions, but followed a logical path. I followed a few different ideas on the arrows and quickly realized that these weren’t just symbols, they were directions back to the house. I ran back up the hill and checked the two trees. And there they were, the symbols again both pointing directly to the house. I felt stupid for a moment for not seeing something so obvious and sitting right beside me, but I realized I wasn’t looking at the trees when I went up the hill, I was looking down on the other side.

“What do you think this means?” Lessard asked. “Why point toward the house?”

“Something over there,” I pointed out toward the other side of the hill, “needs to find its way over here, but why would it need reminders? Why not just memorize the path?”

“Maybe it’s not one it but many,” Penny suggested. “And some memorize the path while others have to learn it fresh and new. And these markings help them learn the path.”

“Like a multi-generational thing?” Lessard asked. “I heard about some of that kind of stuff in school. Like how some elders in tribes taught younger people how to hunt and where to find the nest fishing. Maybe whoever carved that stuff is long dead but they have, like, successors who need to follow the same path now.”

What Lessard was saying made an odd amount of sense. The symbols on each of the trees did make a mind of map that went directly to the house. But what were they looking for in the house? And how was the woman we saw connected to all of it? And what we saw in the basement? I kept trying to put the pieces together, but I knew I didn’t have enough. Part of me also knew we weren’t safe where we stood.

I trekked back down the hill and straight for my car, not telling Penny or Lessard where I was going. I’m sure they knew I didn’t care where I went as long as it was far away from this house. My curiosity quickly turned to fear and I needed to get away and never look back.

“Wait!” Penny called out. “Wait, goddamnit!”

Waiting wasn’t an option for me. There was only one option, and that was run. Run and forget all about this house, pretend I was never here, pretend I never saw the woman or the cavern in the basement, it was becoming too much and too weird and I couldn’t handle it. I came back to Hollowshire to get a grip on my life again and figure out where I was going wrong and why I had to live at my parent’s house again. This was supposed to be an easy community newspaper job that barely paid my bills, made a dent in my student loans, and built me some sort of cushion so I could leave again and feel secure that I wasn’t about to drop an atomic bomb on my entire life. I never signed up for this bullshit.

“Where are you going?” Penny yelled. “What about the story you’re writing?”

“Fuck the story!” I yelled back. “And fuck this! I don’t want to write about any of this. I’ll do a short piece on the viral video, on the house becoming a tourist spot, handing it in, getting my paycheque, and never thinking about this fucking place again.”

“Look, there’s something seriously wrong with this place and I can’t handle this shit on my own,” Penny said.

“Not my fucking problem,” I spat back. “If I knew there was actually a ghost in that house and there was some crazy fucking occult shit going on I never would have come here. Burn the house down, get some insurance money, and fucking move on. There, I helped you out. Now get away from me and never contact me. I want nothing to do with this shit.”

“Fuck you and bullshit!” Lessard yelled. “You told me in our interview that you saw her too. I know you need to know who she is and why is she in this house. That’s why you took this story, that’s why you wanted to interview Penny, don’t try to bullshit me or yourself into thinking you just want to do a quick story and be done. You wouldn’t have even needed to talk to us if that’s all you wanted. You want to know as much as I do and as much as she does what the fuck is going on. We all have a stake in this. My video, her house, your past. Now come on.”

I let what Lessard said sink in for a moment.

“Fuck off and die,” I broke the silence. “Not my problem. I don’t fucking care. Leave me alone.”

My keys were in my hand and I was one step away from my car when I heard Penny say, “Oh shit.”

Her voice was trembling. Something had her terrified. I looked back and saw Penny staring up the hill. My eyes travelled up and I spotted what she spotted. Three people, two men and one woman. The woman was in white, but she wasn’t the woman we saw in the house. She had long dark hair and the sleeves to her dress were loose at the cuff and laced all through the collar and shoulders. Her dress was more modern than the dress on the woman inside the house. She was darker too. If the woman inside the house was a ghost, then this woman was most definitely alive.

The two men with her were both big. One was tall and broad with thick arms. The other slouched and had a gut that jutted out. Both were wearing green aprons over their white tanks tops and blue jeans. Both had pig face masks on, and I wasn’t sure whether the masks were made from real pig’s heads or not. Each man had a cleaver in their hands. The one with the huge gut was breathing heavily, his shoulders raised and dropped violently with each breath.

“What do we do?” Lessard whispered.

I pulled out my cellphone and only realized for the first time that where we were had no reception. We were running out of options fast and as little as I wanted to do with any of this right now, I knew I was knee deep in it and I couldn’t leave these two behind.

“Get in the car,” I said, my heart racing and palms beginning to sweat as the panic finally sets in. “Get in the car!”

I get the doors unlocked all three of us climb in. I get the doors locked and jammed the keys into the ignition. I don’t have a chance to try and turn the engine before I hear the passenger side window crash and a giant arm wrap around Penny as she’s pulled out from my car. I lean across and grab her legs, trying to pull her back in, but I look up and see the man pull a ten-inch butcher’s knife and thrust it into Penny’s chest. He dragged the knife down through her torso, like he was carving a pattern into her body. She screamed and wailed and started to choke as the blood filled her mouth and shoot all over her face with each hard heave. I let go of her leg and go for the engine again, twisting the key and bringing my car to life as the window beside me smashed and I felt an arm wrap around me and pull me out of the car. I slip out from the arm’s grip and fall hard on the ground head first.

The pain from my landing shot through my body and blurred my vision. As it cleared, I saw Penny from underneath my car. She wasn’t moving and the blood had pooled up all around her as she laid on the yellow grass and dead leaves. Through the dreadlocks that fell in front of her face, I could see her eyes, still open and staring at me.

The vomit flew out of my mouth before I had a chance to roll onto my stomach. I rolled and let the chunks from inside my stomach drip off my face and heaved twice more before my stomach simply had nothing left to spill. A hand grabbed my hair pulled me. I crawled along on my hands and knees to wherever I was being pulled and stopped by the front steps of the house. I fell back and looked up, finally seeing the man’s pig mask was actually made from a real pig’s head. The smell of the meat in the pig’s face rotting filled my nostrils and made my head pound worse than it already was. He was breathing heavily. Either his attack ran him out of breath or he was excited at the prospect of me lying helpless in front of him.

He was the broad shouldered one. He wasn’t breathing heavily before like the fat one was. Pulling me out of the car wouldn’t have exerted him. He was excited. He slid his knife back into his belt with the other knives that surrounded his waist, grabbed a handful of my hair, and reached far back with a closed fist.

I woke up lying in the kitchen in front of the door to the basement. I was alone. I could hear some talking in the basement but couldn’t make out any voices or words. The sound of loud shrieks shot up the stairs but were abruptly silenced. That must have been Lessard screaming and now he was probably dead like Penny.

My arms and legs weren’t tied up, they probably weren’t expecting me to wake up so soon. I slid my arms under my body and pushed myself up to my knees. The sounds of the voices were getting louder now. It was my turn next.

Ssshhhhh…” I hear a voice beside me whisper. I look over to see the pale woman. Our eyes meet and she smiles and with one hand she gestures for me to follow her. I push myself to my feet and creep behind her, trying not to make a sound.

She leads me to the living room and stops next to a wall near the window. “I have a hiding spot,” she says. “It’s safe. They don’t know about it.” She places her hands against the wall and tries to push, but nothing happens. “You push,” she continued. “I can’t. I feel so weak.”

“How long have you been hiding?” I ask her.

“A long time,” she nodded. “They haven’t found me yet.”

I press my hand against the wall where she had her hands and push. The wall slid open, revealing a hiding compartment. It was shallow. Just deep enough to fit a person with their back against the wall. We slid into the compartment and I slid the wall back into place. And we waited silently.

“Do you see him?” the voice of a man yelled from the kitchen.

“No, he must have run off,” another man’s voice called back. “Car’s still outside, he couldn’t have gone far.”

Heavy boots stomped through the living room and the front door swung open and shut again. In the distance, I could hear the back door do the same. There was no sound all around the house for a few moments when I finally broke the silence.

“How did you find this spot?” I whispered. I waited a moment for an answer, but was met only with more silence. I look beside me to where the woman was and saw her looking down. There was just enough light creeping through the hidden doorway that I could make out what she was looking at. A full skeleton was sitting up in the corner, arms wrapped around itself. It wore a tattered floral dress that looked just like the one she was wearing. She just kept staring at it.

“No one else has been in here,” she said. “Just me.”

“Could have been from before,” I said.

“No, no,” she shook her head. “This spot was empty when I first found it. No one else has been in this house since I started hiding. Just the kid and then that woman. I tried warning them both, tried to get them to hide too. I knew they would be hunted just like I was.”

“This happened to you too?” I asked.

She nodded. “My friends and I came here to camp. We lived a few provinces over. Didn’t tell anyone. We just wanted to vanish for a bit. Figure things out, you know? It was supposed to be our trip of enlightenment. Get our lives together and go home not afraid of our futures anymore. All my friends were killed right in front of me. I hid.” She looked down at the pile of bones. “I guess I’m still hiding.”

“Why are they doing this?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” she answered. “Whoever they didn’t kill outside of the house they dragged inside and to the basement. That’s the last I saw of any of my friends.”

The front door swings open again and boots stomp through the living room. The woman and I both stop talking and I move in close against the sliding door to listen.

“Where the hell could he have gone?” one man’s voice says. It’s rough sounding, like a smoker’s voice with a dry throat. When you live in a small town like Hollowshire, you can identify anyone in the town by voice alone, especially a voice as distinctive as the one I was listening to talk. When everyone knows everyone in a tiny community, anyone can be identified in one sentence. I had no idea who the hell this person was.

“He’s probably running back for Hollowshire,” a woman’s voice said. I didn’t recognize this voice either. She sounded young, no older than Penny was. Whoever was walking around Hollowhsire House wasn’t from Hollowshire. “The address on the kid’s license was in Hollowshire. Our missing man is probably from there too.”

“Should we clear out?” the man asked. “He might come back with cops.”

“I want that gate open,” the woman answered. “I don’t care whose blood opens it.”

A loud pop followed by a hard thud rings out and I realize that I just heard my first gunshot. I hear the man’s voice weeping and cursing, complaining about his leg.

“Drag this tub of shit to the basement,” the woman barks.

Another set of heavy boots marched into the living room and the man howled harder and louder as I heard him get dragged away. A moment later, I could hear more loud thumps coming from the kitchen, and one final crushing sounding landing. It was followed by the second gunshot I ever heard.

I pressed against the sliding door, preparing to open it, when the woman beside me who saved my life with her permanent hiding spot said to me, “Are you going to run?”

The question bothered me. I did want to run. They already thought I was gone. Their attention is in the basement now. It would be easy for me to run and not look back. I decided not to. Penny and Lessard were right. I wanted to know what I saw in that basement. I wanted to know why this poor girl died hiding in an empty house. I wanted to know why Penny and Lessard were both murdered. This time my curiosity was overtaking my fear.

Without looking around, I walked through the living room, through the kitchen, and back to the stairs to the basement. I stand in the opening for a moment before making myself take the first step down. And then the next, and then my legs did the rest without the tight feeling in my stomach slowing me down.

The basement opened up to a room with low ceilings and concrete floors. The wooden studs in the walls were exposed, just like how Lessard described it. Three bodies laid on the ground: Lessard and the two men who wore the pig’s faces. Lessard’s back was carved open, exposing his spine and his ribs connected back. He was drenched in blood everywhere except his face. His eyes were still open, staring out into nothing.

Around Lessard were the bodies of the two other men. Both with gunshot wounds in their legs and long gashes across their chests. Both men’s mouths were still filled with blood and the fat man still had a long butcher’s knife still stuck into his gut. It was the same knife he used to carve Penny.

The woman stood in the middle of the basement, her gun still in her hand, and she slowly turned and spotted me. She aimed her gun at me and pulled the trigger. Only a light click noise came from the gun. She quickly realized it was empty. This was the luckiest I had ever been in my life.

She chuckled. “Well, I guess you want to know what the hell is going on,” she said.

I looked around quickly. “The basement didn’t look like this when I came down earlier,” I said. “What the hell did I walk into before?”

“It was open?” her eyes bulged open. “How did you get it open?”

“I didn’t open it,” I said. “It was already open.”

“The woman who bought the house must have opened it then,” she continued.

“She was as clueless as I am,” I said.

“No, no no no no,” she rambled. “No, my father’s book said that bloodspill here would open it up. You had to kill a wanderer, someone who wasn’t from around the towns so no one would notice they were dead, and when the blood hit the ground, it would open the gate to the next world. He did it once. He said it worked. He killed some kids, he and his brothers. Their blood opened it. It’s how it works.”

She looked down at the floor. I can only imagine she was looking at all the blood and then around the room, trying to figure out where she went wrong.

I don’t know if I stood there for an hour or if it was only a fraction of a second, but all I remember is blinking and suddenly we were in the cavern. My eyes only left the woman for a second to take in my surroundings and let my brain process where I was. I looked back to her and she was smiling like she was about to dance in freshly fallen snow.

Neither of us had any time to say anything before we felt the ground rumble. I lost my balance and fell to my knees, my hands dug into the rock covered ground as I dropped hard and I felt stones dig into my palms. Along with the rumbling ground was a low moaning noise that echoed all around the enormous cavern and filled my ears until I completely lost all balance and fell over onto my side. I felt nauseous and started throwing up what little was left in my gut. I couldn’t get my eyes to focus and figure out where the woman went.

Something wrapped itself around my leg and gripped me hard and started pulling me toward where the cavern dropped into nothing. I don’t know if my ears adjusted or my body’s equilibrium kicked in, but my vision started to focus and I saw what was wrapped around my leg. It was black and long, its end came to a point and got wider and wider the further down it went. It felt wet and sticky against my leg. The smell of something putrid filled my nostrils. Like rotting meat left out in the sun for weeks. Or rotting fish.

What should have been suction cups along this tentacle acted more like fingers, grasping my leg all around and holding on as it tried to pull me down. I caught a glimpse of the woman, who had a tentacle completely wrapped around her. One of its grabbers had a grip on her face. She flailed, trying to break herself loose, but I knew it had her and it wasn’t going to let go. And I wasn’t about to let it grasp me completely and pull me into whatever netherworld it came from.

I reached out and grabbed a rock, the biggest one I could find within my reaching distance, and with both hands I drove the rock down into the tentacle that grasped my leg. The moan raised to a high shriek with strike I gave it. I hammered as hard as I could, even bruising my own leg in the process, but nothing was loosening its grip. It pulled me closer to the edge and I could see down the pit, into what still looked like complete blackness. But then something moved in the black. Something shifted and then something opened because suddenly an enormous eye was staring up at me.

An arm reached underneath my arms and around my torso and began pulling me back, away from the pit and toward the door out of the basement. I looked up to see the woman in white, the one saved me with her clever hiding spot in the wall, was  pulling me to safety. She grunted and moaned, pulling with all of her strength. She then reached across and from somewhere pulled out a jagged edged rock and threw it down into the pit and directly into its eye.

The shriek screamed even higher and I was the eye close again and the grip around my leg loosen. I scrambled to my feet and ran to the basement door. The woman who saved me from whatever was in the cavern was close behind me. I looked into the cavern one last time to see the woman who wanted to see my death still gripped by the tentacle and pulled down into the pit. Once I couldn’t see her anymore, I ran back up the stairs and out of the house.

I didn’t stop until I was at my car. I stood by the driver side window with my keys in my hand, waiting to open the door. I waited for the woman who saved me.

She came through the front door and walked down the steps. She stepped slowly and carefully, like she was trying to walk across a room with shards of broken glass on the floor. Her final step was in front of me, and she hesitantly looked up and into my eyes.

“You’re not dead,” I said. “You wouldn’t have been able to save me if you were.”

She looked around confused. It was getting dark outside. The night was silent and still. Not even the leaves rustling made a sound around us.

“Come with me,” I said. “I can get you out of here. I can get you home. I can get you far away from here. You can start your life again. You don’t have to hide anymore.”

“I remember you,” she said. “You didn’t look like you do now. You were smaller, on a bike. I was still hiding. I thought they would find you too.”

Like ashes falling from a burning tree, small bits and pieces began falling off of her. One small flake after another, she decomposed in front of me. First her face wasted away to nothing. Then down her arms turned grey, rotted, and fell away. She reached out to me and the tips of her fingers wilted and fluttered away, dancing off in the wind. She rotted until she was nothing but bones standing in front of me, then the bones dropped away and all that was left in front of me was a pile of dust and ash floating in the wind.

The police investigated the house after I told them what happened. I didn’t tell them about the basement or what I saw in the cavern. Just that some people from the other side of the hill came across and murdered Lessard and Penny. The police’s investigation found four bodies: Penny, Lessard, and the town men wearing the pig’s faces. The men were identified as a couple of farmer’s from a few miles outside of Hollowshire. The story around the precinct was that the farmer’s were mad about some of their land being annexed by the town and blamed the online fame of the house for their loss and tried to take it out on whoever was there when they just happened to walk over for revenge.

I asked if they found a fifth and sixth body belonging to two other women. I told them about the hiding spot in the wall and about the other woman who was responsible for the deaths at the house. The police reassured me that they checked all over the house and only found the four bodies. I then asked about the basement and they said that it was gruesome down there and those two men didn’t deserve to die that way. Nothing about a cavern or a pit. Whatever appeared in front of me, tried to kill me or pull me into whatever plain of existence it was from, was gone. At least for the time being.

I never got to write a story about Hollowshire House. My editors told me I was too close to the story now and that they had a freelancer coming in from out of province to cover it. They said he would be covering the whole incident for a few different magazines and that he was interested in interviewing me. I didn’t know what to tell him, whether I should stick with the official story from police, or tell him what I really saw. In the end, I told him nothing. I told him it was too traumatic of an experience for me to relive so soon. I didn’t want to lie and no one else was ready to hear about what really went on there. Either that or everyone would think I was nuts, that the murders brought on some psychotic break and I created an elaborate story to somehow deal with what happened. Either way, it was for the best I didn’t say anything.

I did go back to the house. I walked through the living room and the kitchen, not taking in anything from either room, and went right for the basement door. I ducked my head a little as I took the steps down into the darkness underneath the house. Through the doorway I stepped into the massive cavern again. Here it was, present without any bloodshed or sacrifices. Just here for seemingly no discernible reason. Just like so many freak accidents in nature, from existence to evolution, it was just here and it didn’t need to explain itself to anyone.

My footsteps echoed through the wide open cavern with each step I took to the edge of the platform. The same dusty dirt and rock ground beneath my feet. I found another rock, bigger than my fist and difficult for me to pick up with on hand. But I lifted it and I hung it over the seemingly endless empty chasm, for just a second. It felt like a thousand thoughts ran through my head, all questions about what was in front of me. Is it still there? Does it care that I’m here? Does it have a concept that I escaped it? Does it only appear sometimes, like the cavern itself? I thought about the woman in the wall, hiding until she wasted away to nothing. I didn’t want to hide. I didn’t want to run away to figure something out. I wanted to face this and ask my questions and get my answers.

I let the rock go and watched it drop down into the nothingness and waited to hear it land.

The Wolf I Feed

I tell myself I recognize this place. I know it because it’s where I always wind up when I’m having a stress dream. The last time I ended up here was when the lawyers first dropped off the divorce papers in my mailbox. I wasn’t even home when they were dropped off. I came home to an empty house and a notice that the person who said would be with me until death suddenly had second thoughts. The house never felt so empty. It wasn’t even that the couches were gone and my TV was propped up on a couple of milk crates I was using for vinyl before I found myself alone. Those papers gave a sense of permanence to my loneliness and my house’s emptiness. I fell asleep early, but I didn’t sleep well. I was in that same place I always wind up when I’m having a stress dream.

The place is a small mountain lodge my parents would always bring me to when I was a kid. Every summer, we would spend at least a week there. It consisted of two buildings, one reception building that had the kitchen and restaurant and a hot tub and a ping pong table in its basement. The other building was where the accommodations were. Two floors, each with maybe a dozen rooms. My parents always told me they thought it was a good idea to bring me there each summer. They wanted me to make friends and thought I would have an easier time making friends there than I would at school with all of its added stresses. I think they felt guilty for not having any other kids and just having me all on my own all of the time. I never even spoke to another kid until I was about six years old. This is at least what they kept telling me.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I found out it was the only place that ever saved their marriage. All year, the two of them would be on the blink of destruction, ready to murder each other. But for a week or two, they could go to the mountain lodge and patch up their marriage and spend another year trying not to kill each other. I don’t even remember the name of the mountain lodge. But I remember every last tree that surrounded the rooms, the taste of the dinners we ate in the room watching the grainy TV, the smell of the small pond across the field behind the accommodations building. And I keep winding up back there when I have stress dreams.

This time is different though. The trees are all decrepit and dying. The green shrubs that encased the lodge is now brown and frail and full of holes that should allow me to see right through to the highway. But it’s all just black and endless as I try to peer through the bare branches. The lodge buildings look empty and abandoned. The wood siding on the walls are cracked and split, the windows into each room are covered by unmoving dirty curtains, and where the sounds of birds chirping and crickets calling once filled my ears, only the ringing of dead silence accompanies my uneasy steps along what should be familiar territory.

One thing stays the same. That feeling of isolation. I always remembered feeling completely trapped and alone whenever I stayed at the lodge. The kids I was supposed to make new friends with over the couple of weeks in the summer never showed up to the lodge. In fact, we were often the only family there. The only other people I would see were the hotel’s staff, the cleaners, the cooks, and the one girl who worked at the reception desk.

The feeling of isolation got worse when I would stare into what felt like endless amounts of trees that surrounded us. I would look up and see the mountains and I knew the highway was close by, just behind the trees and shrubs. But it all felt so far away. And I wondered what else stood between me and the mountains and highways beyond the trees.

There were days when I would stare for what felt like hours at the trees, into the trees, and through the trees, and I swear I sometimes saw eyes staring back at me. I remember asking the receptionist once about bears and wolves in the area. She shrugged, not even raising her eyes from her magazine, and mentioned that there were one or two people on staff who were pretty good with hunting rifles. This didn’t reassure me at all as I wondered about the eyes I saw. Did I even see the eyes? There was a part of me that was convinced I made up the eyes in my imagination. But the eyes are there every time I have a stress dream about the lodge. The eyes are in every gap between the trees. I look around at the dead shrub and wonder if I’ll still see the eyes.

In the corner of my eye I catch one of the curtains swaying. It’s swaying so easy and calmly that most probably wouldn’t have noticed the movement. But there was no wind moving, and the curtains had stood so still for so long just a moment ago, even this small bit of movement sends a barrage of messages through my brain about what’s there. Shocks of fear shoot through my arms and down into my fingertips as I stare at the slowly swaying curtain, wondering if I’ll see what’s standing behind.

It almost feels like I stare through the curtain and into my own bedroom as I wake up. I can feel the dried gunk gathered in the sides of my eyes and I rub into my tear ducts to move the flakes out. I roll over and take stock of the few things left in my bedroom: the mattress on the carpet, the white shear curtains covering the sliding doors to the back deck, my cell phone lying on the ground with the charger plugged in and connected to the wall. My damp hair clings to the side of my face and I look down at my pillow and see the enormous yellow sweat stain against the white cover. I know I won’t fall back asleep again tonight.

My bedsheets are still wrapped around me as I roll out of bed and step out into the kitchen. I look into a cupboard for a bowl and I look at the sheets wrapped around me and I chuckle at both being last minute department store purchases the day the divorce papers arrived. It was part of this moment when I was hit with the stark realization that I would be coming home to quite literally nothing. I never had a lot of my priorities straight but when it came to making sure I would survive on that first night totally on my own, I knew right away what I was going to need. It was like a survival instinct, all the steps I needed to follow to make sure I wasn’t pounced on by a predator.

I fill the bowl with what’s left of a bag of pretzels and I click on the TV and the glow from the screen illuminated my empty living room, casting odd shadows through the milk crates it’s sitting on. The noise of the TV fills some of the empty space and I’m not paying attention to anything on the screen. My tastebuds absorb the salt and I immediately look for a glass to fill with tap water. While I’m taking my first sips of water, quenching the dryness in my mouth, I look at the TV screen and see the mountain lodge. I slowly place the glass down and walk towards the TV, wondering why the mountain lodge, the very same mountain lodge I spent my summers as a kid, is staring back at me through my TV screen. I turn up the volume, but the empty mountain lodge stays as quiet as it was in my dream.

The mountain lodge on my TV screen isn’t like the one I visited when I was a kid. It’s the one from the dream I just had. It’s dark, the lodge is abandoned, and only one curtain in all the windows I can see is swaying, slowly.

Behind the swaying curtain a shape steps forward. It’s the shape of a person. Everything about it tells me it’s a human being standing behind the swaying curtain. It steps closer and I can tell the person is quite slim and tall. The curtains through to the room are thin enough that I can tell the hour-glass shape of the person. It’s a woman. And she pulls back the curtain and looks out and I can see her face.

She’s pale and gaunt. I can trace the lines from the cheekbones down to her jawline from where I stand looking in through a TV screen. She looks back and forth, and then stops, and stares directly into what I can only assume is the camera. I tell myself over and over again that she’s staring into the camera. There is no way she can be staring directly at me.

Another curtain begins swaying. It catches my attention for only a moment and I look back to the room with the woman standing in front of the window. She’s smiling now. Her mouth is closed tight, she doesn’t show her teeth, but she is smiling, pressing her cheekbones high up against the bottoms of her eyes. I hear a rustling of the bushes behind me. I try to remind myself that there are no bushes behind me, I’m in my kitchen, but I hear the rustling and the image of a wolf pops into my mind.

The tap water running along my hands draws my attention down as I realize I’m still pouring my glass of water. I look up at the TV and see a documentary about wolves. The camera cuts to different images of wolf packs trudging through the snow, hunting for prey. My mouth is still unbelievably dry. I take a long drink of water before I go back to bed.

Sun breaks through my shear curtains and I realize it’s morning and I don’t think I slept since I got up for a few pretzels and a glass of water. I pull back the curtains and look out on my back porch. The barbecue’s still there, at least she had the decency to leave that with me. But my back yard needs to be mowed. The summer’s ending and I won’t have many other chances to keep up appearances in my front and back yard before the snow falls again. I decide work’s not worth going to today and call in sick. I make a hot pot of coffee to try and kick the exhaustion that I’m trying to carry with me. I may have slept, but I didn’t rest.

The doors to my back shed are locked with a combination lock and have a chain wrapped around its door handles. The chain and the lock were both last minute purchases as well but not from the same day as when the legalities to my being abandoned arrived to my door. Instead, I bought them last week, when I tried to undo my being abandoned. I didn’t think I would have needed them, but when I realized I did I wasted no time finding the strongest and thickest chain I could find and the best combination lock that I could afford. No one needs to see what’s in my shed anyways. No one except me.

All the gardening tools I have, my shears and my shovels and my handsaw and my bags of fertilizer, sit on a table at the back of the seemingly small shed. The lawnmower sits just in front of the table. Behind the table is a curtain. I lost about half of my shed space when I hung up that curtain. It’s worth it though. One fewer thing I need to be stressed about.

The lawnmower can barely roll through the thick grass I obviously left for far too long. I pull its string and its motor revs, trying to start up, but with no luck. I check the gas and see that it’s full. I pull the string five more times with no luck to starting the mower’s engine. I step back from the mower, trying to assess what can be done about it, and I look around at the long grass and the thick brush lining the yard. The brush looks brown and decrepit, like they’re much further along into fall than the calendar would suggest. I turn to look at my house and instead see the accommodations building to the mountain lodge from my dream. I look all around and see that I’m there once again, only now my shed is on the grounds as well.

I step back and click the lock around the chain to the shed’s doors before I look to the accommodations building and see now that every window’s curtains are swaying. Swaying slowly, like fingers are running along them, playing them like harps. I wait for whoever is behind the curtains to step forward and show themselves, but my attention is grabbed by the rustling of the shrubs behind me. I move away from the shrugs and dart past the buildings and behind where the pond once was. It’s dried up, leaving only a massive crater in the ground. I hear heavy breathing and low growling from behind me and I try not to look back at whatever is stalking me. Hunting me. The growl grows louder and louder and I don’t dare to look back.

I look down and see the lawnmower has started. The low rumble of the engine and the bit of black smoke let me know that there was a small clog in the fuel line, but it’s working fine now. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and see that I’m soaked and my hair is even damp and sticky. There are a few thuds coming from the shed. I look around and reassure myself that none of the neighbours are home and no one can hear the sounds coming from my shed. But someone will hear soon and I can’t risk that. I’ll need to clean out my shed tonight. But for now, I’ll need to find a way to keep it quiet in there. I check the drawers inside my shed’s work table and find the last syringe I used. There’s a little bit left in it. Enough to keep her quiet.

The rest of my day is spent in front of my computer, looking up different nearby bodies of water or demolition sites. Curiosity captivates me into looking up the old mountain lodge and finding out if it’s even still there. The photos on the website show that the lodge looks the exact same as it did when I was a kid. Nothing about it has changed at all and is apparently becoming a more popular family vacation spot. I wonder why it was so empty when I used to go.

The sun starts to set and I peer out the window to see if any of my neighbours have come home yet. I look out and I don’t see my neighbourhood, but instead I see the registration building to the mountain lodge. I look around my surroundings and see I’m in one of the rooms. In fact, the same room my family stayed in every time we visited. The two queen sized beds are unmade. I place my hand on one and feel its warmth and realize someone has recently slept in it. The TV perched up on the dresser at the front of the room is tuned into a channel only giving off static and snow. The light in the bathroom is on and inside the bathroom is a slim, tall figure. The same slim and tall figure I saw in the window in my dream before. She turns and walks towards me. I try to speak but she places a single finger against my lips, hushing my instantly. She smiles again, still not showing any of her teeth. But she smiles like she has a secret that she knows I’m dying to know but she’ll never tell me. Her long blonde hair looks dry and damaged, like it’s more hay than hair now. Her pupils look cloudy and pale, like she has cataracts. Her lips are dry and cracked all around, like they’ve been frost bitten. I follow the lines along her cheekbones and realize that this woman shouldn’t be standing in front of me. She’s supposed to be in my shed.

I blink and I’m staring at my closed curtains again. I check my surroundings and see I’m back in my living room and standing in front of my front window. I pull the curtains open again and see that two of my neighbours are home now, both living right across the street from me. I’ll have to wait until it’s dark now before I can move anything.

It’s dark before I doze off again and find myself back at the mountain lodge. I don’t know why this keeps happening. Even for a stress dream, I’ve never had them come this often to me before. I’m not even stressed about anything. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to move something out of my shed. But maybe somewhere deep inside I know that this one is more important than the rest. The rest I just kind of found, standing around on street corners or walking along on the highways or even hanging out outside of their schools. Those were easy. But those were all practice runs. Maybe something deep inside me knows that this time it has to be perfect.

It’s pitch black and all my neighbours’ lights are out before I head back to the shed. I click open the lock, slide out the chains, and open the doors before walking in, crawling over the lawnmower and pulling out my work table. I pull open the curtain and see she’s still lying completely motionless with her eyes closed. I can see her breathe, so I know she’s not dead. I guess the dose I gave her knocked her out pretty good.

Her hair feels like rough straw. I run my fingers through her hair, trying to remember how soft it used to feel when we laid in bed together. A part of me feels like I’ve ruined her now. Her hair isn’t soft, her skin is caked with dirt, she smells of sweat and urine, she simply isn’t as pretty as I like to remember. Part of me knows she ruined herself long before I ever put her in my shed. Maybe the reason her hair feels like straw and she smells like sweat and urine is because I know how truly ugly she can be. She deserves this, I tell myself. I am the wolf now. I’ve come out of the shrubs and I’ve caught my prey. I hunted her well.

Now comes the hard choice. Do I try to move her while she’s still breathing or do I end her breath first? I’ve never tried to move any of them while they were still alive. But she’s special. I want to make sure she’s treated just right. I think about the wolf documentary I watched last night, how the wolves will carry their dead prey in their mouths to their pack to be shared. The wolf pups will lick the blood from their parents’ mouths. They do this because it’s easier to move prey once it’s already dead. I think I subconsciously always knew that. It’s probably why I always end them before I try to move them. I know how I want to move her now.

There are just enough garbage bags in my shed to cover the floor beneath her and fill with her parts. She’s so doped up, I don’t even bother to end her before I start taking her apart. Piece by piece, off of the body, and into the bags. The garbage bags beneath her collected the blood well and all I had to do was roll them up and put them into one of the bags with her parts. Not a drop of blood is left on my shed floor. I keep getting better and better at this.

I spread out the parts enough so that each bag isn’t too heavy. I have five bags in total and I can carry them all in just my two hands. She was always very light and the time in the shed made her lose that much more weight so she was no heavier than a dog. Very easy to carry. The others were very light to begin with and needed far fewer bags to carry out. I feel like the other bled more. There was always a mess for me to clean after I took care of them. But she’s special.

I push the shed doors open with my foot and walk outside to find myself back at the mountain lodge. I’m standing right in front of the accommodations building and I see a figure in each of the windows, staring down at me, watching me, still and silent. They’re all pale, gaunt, slim, and their eyes look like they have no colour in them. They all have long blonde hair. One of them, the one in the first room that I saw, looks away and over to the shrubs. No one else moves, it’s only her that looks away. I hear a rustling in the shrubs and I look behind me. I hear the low grumblings and growls. I see the glowing eyes. The steam from its breath carries up in thick clouds. I drop the bags and I turn and run to the accommodations building, knocking at each door, trying to twist the knobs and screaming for help. No one moves. They all keep watching me, except for the one watching whatever’s in the shrubs. I start kicking at one of the doors and it doesn’t budge. I kick so hard I fall back and roll towards the bags. I pick the bags up and throw them into the shrubs, hoping whatever’s in there will be satiated by her parts. The rumbling and growling only gets louder as I keep throwing in the bags. Finally, it howls and I know I’m no longer the wolf.

There’s a thumping noise coming in from the accommodations building. Each of the people standing in the windows is hitting their open hands against the windows slowly and rhythmically, as if chanting something. I turn to run and I look deep into the window, the first window I looked into, the first window where someone came to watch me.

I stare through the window and into my own bedroom as I wake up. I can feel the dried gunk gathered in the sides of my eyes and I rub into my tear ducts to move the flakes out. I roll over and take stock of the few things left in my bedroom: the mattress on the carpet, the white shear curtains covering the sliding doors to the back deck, my cell phone lying on the ground with the charger plugged in and connected to the wall. My damp hair clings to the side of my face and I look down at my pillow and see the enormous yellow sweat stain against the white cover. I know I won’t fall back asleep again tonight.

I hear a noise in my backyard. I look over to the shear curtains and I can see through into my yard. The noise gets louder. Like a gallop. Louder and louder. Or rather, closer and closer. I barely have time to process how close the galloping sound is getting. I realize it’s not a gallop, it’s a charge. I barely catch a glimpse of the wolf as it charges through the window and pounces on top of me while I’m still in my bed. I always thought a wolf would stare down at you for a moment, give you a fighting chance before it carries you back to its pack. I barely register its hot breath before it bites into my throat. I tried to feed the wolf but now it feeds on me.

The Ultimate Weapon

The rickety carriage’s squeaking wheels dug into the muddy ground as the horse drawn caravan arrived into the village. It was mostly peasants in the village. Many didn’t even have any work to call their own. They still paid whatever taxes they could to the kingdom, leaving them little more than enough to feed themselves with. And the village didn’t host many travelling visitors either. To see a caravan such as this arrive into the village was a strange sight indeed.

The caravan halted and a man stepped out from the rickety carriage that took the lead on the caravan. Behind the caravan were boxcars, each watched over by one armed guard holding mighty large axes. The guards watched the incoming crowd of villages, who were only curious as to who it was that came to visit them. The guards were stoic and silent. But a voice called out from the front of the caravan. The man standing by the rickety carriage was smiling with his arms wide open. We wore a long black jacket and held a walking stick in his hands.

“Hello, hello my friends!” he called out. “Hello and thank you all for greeting us as we arrive from our very long journey to bring you something especially special.”

Everyone in the crowd looked around, baffled and confused as to what this man was talking about. Why did he make a long journey to this village? There’s nothing in this village but a few peasants’ huts. There weren’t even any kinds of services around, no markets or inns or pubs.

“Though, I must ask,” the man continued. “When we do decide to continue on, I may need some help in pushing my caravan out of the mud.”

“That’s not mud!” a voice called out from the crowd. Everyone else in the crowd laughed as it became evident that this man had no idea where he was.

“Oh my,” he muttered quietly before looking back out into the crowd again. “But yes, something special for all of you! I have with me today a marvel of modern mechanism. A devious device that would make the deities decide simply to die because they could not create something as excitable and extravagant as this. I have, with me today, and available to all of you, the ultimate weapon.”

The crowd’s chuckles hush to barely a whisper as the idea of an ultimate weapon crept into their minds. They had their weapons, a few axes and swords and some even had pitchforks from back when they still tried to farm the soil they stood on that produced nothing more than a few weeds and even those died as quickly as they sprouted up. But what could this weapon be? An explosive projectile made from materials even the kingdom isn’t familiar with? A magic incantation to summon beasts only told in legend? The audience’s imaginations tried to conjure what this ultimate weapon could possibly be.

“That’s right, the ultimate weapon,” the man repeated. “I have it here today, with enough stock for everyone in this village, all readily available to you for only five gold pieces.”

“Let’s see the weapon!” a voice cried out from the crowd. Everyone applauded and repeated the request to see the weapon.

“Very well!” the man gestured to one of his guards, who handed him a round object in a pale green colour. You could tell its leaves were layered thickly and it looked quite fresh. The man held the pale green leafy ball over his head and proclaimed, “See now! The ultimate weapon!”

The crowd’s silence was complemented by the blank faces on everyone watching the man. They were even more confused now than they were when the caravan first pulled in.

“That’s not a weapon!” a voice from the crowd called out. “It’s a bleedin’ cabbage!”

“No, no no,” the man interjected. “It merely looks like a cabbage, but it is so much more. It is… the ultimate weapon!”

“I know a cabbage when I see one,” the voice continued. “It’s almost all I bloody eat. It looks fresh though. Might be quite tasty. Don’t know if I would pay five gold for it, though.”

“No, I insist,” the man said again. “It is, the… ultimate…”

“Yeah, yeah,” the voice interrupted. “The ultimate weapon. We heard you the first time. But, seriously though, how do you get your cabbages to grow so nicely?”

The man began looking quite annoying. He pressed one hand against his hip while his other hand continued holding the accused cabbage. The man tapped his foot impatiently and said, “Sir, perhaps you can insist me with a demonstration?”

“Only if I can have the cabbage afterward,” the voice called back.

“Fine, fine,” the man said. “Now please sir, join me up here.”

The crowd’s lone heckler was known around the village. Derby Potts, a fat man whose hair was falling out in large chunks. Everyone in the village knew the village had a distinct smell that many outsiders found fowl. Derby Potts smelled even worse than the rest of the village. The villagers got used to the village smell. No one ever got used to the smell of Derby Potts. Even as he approach the caravan, the look on the salesman’s face turned from a pleasant smile to a cringing mess. He often looked away from Derby Potts to take in breaths. The salesman quickly learned what the rest of the village had already been doing for years.

“Now, sir,” the salesman began. “This is but a cabbage, according to you, correct?”

“Yes,” Derby nodded.

“And cabbages are quite dense, yes?”

“Yes, sir,” Derby nodded again.

“But if I were to hit you with a cabbage, the cabbage would break and crumble, yes?”

“Absolutely, sir,” Derby continued nodding.

“Alright then, here is my proposition. I will strike you with the apparent cabbage. If you are still standing after I have struck you, it will have proven you correct that this is indeed nothing more than a cabbage. I will award you with the cabbage, and three more cabbages just as fresh as this one is if you are still standing after I strike you. Makes sense?”

“Yes,” Derby nodded.

The salesman reaches back with both hands, the accused cabbage high over his head, and drives it down into the skull of Derby Potts. The sound the apparent cabbage made when it struck Derby was a loud, hard whack! Clearly much harder than any actual cabbage. Derby stumbled a bit, trying to keep his footing. A small gash opened at the front of his head and blood slowly dripped down as he teetered and tottered in place, trying to still stand. The crowd imagined how much Derby wanted those cabbages, watching him fight to stay standing with all that he had.

But all he had wasn’t enough as Derby lost his footing and fell off the caravan and crashed to the filthy ground. The crowd’s eyes were locked on the unconscious Derby. Then their gazes moved over to the man standing on the caravan, who was now slowly unfolding the leaves of the cabbage to reveal a pale grey brick inside.

“Ladies and gentleman,” the salesman began. “Imagine one day the tax collectors visit your village and you no longer have anything to offer the kingdom. They demand so much, after all, and what you live off of so little. When you finally have nothing, they will try to take your children, your food right off your table, your beds, your clothes, whatever they can take they will. Now, imagine having one of these ultimate weapons to defend yourself against the corrupt kingdom and its tax collectors. Well, those tax collectors will wonder why you’re attacking them with cabbages. And once they realize they’re so much more than cabbages, it will already be too late, won’t it?”

The crowd’s silence now complemented the looks of intrigue on everyone’s faces. What the salesman spoke of made sense. But should they act on this idea?

“I’ll take two!” the first order was yelled out from the crowd followed by a frenzy of orders from everyone. Sooner than he knew, the salesman was out of his ultimate weapons and the crowd dispersed, talking amongst themselves about how they will use their ultimate weapons.

Once everyone had all but gone, the salesman walked over to Derby Potts, who was still lying on the filthy ground. Derby popped open an eye and asked, “Is everyone gone?”

“Yes, sir,” the salesman nodded.

Derby sat up and grabbed the side of the carriage and pulled himself up off the ground. The smell was dreadful to the salesman’s nose, worse than Derby had probably ever smelled before.

“You really do must clean off this ground one day,” the salesman commented. “The soil clearly isn’t absorbing the waste you’re dumping onto it.”

Derby said nothing but instead his eyes fixed on the salesman. A half smile creeped along the sides of Derby’s mouth, like an excited young boy about to receive a sweet for a task well done.

“Twenty per cent of the day’s take, was that the deal?” the salesman pulled out his bag of gold.

“Twenty-five,” Derby nodded. “You said you’d pay more if I bled.”

“So I did,” the salesman smiled as he handed Derby his well-earned gold coins.

Just as the salesman was about to climb back into his carriage, he felt a hand tap him on the shoulder. It was Derby, still standing in the same spot with the same smile creeping along the sides of his mouth.

Derby held out a hand full of coin and said, “Three cabbages please.”