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.”

Mordecai’s Surrender

The last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen fell just a few feet in front of him. Mordecai immediately removed his helmet and dropped his sword. With both hands in the air, he called out, “I surrender! I surrender!”

But as he looked forward to where the enemy army once stood, all he saw was a single soldier, the one who just struck down that last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen. Mordecai looked all around, trying to find the rest of the invading army, but all who was left was the last soldier standing in front of him.

The last soldier removed his helmet, revealed a bright red beard, long and braided. He looked around too, trying to find the rest of Mordecai’s army. When it dawned upon him that Mordecai was all that was left, he locked eyes with him and called, “Wait, you surrender? What do you mean you surrender?”

Mordecai knew exactly what he meant. His army negotiated the release of many of its soldiers from the enemy’s captivity. And from what Mordecai’s heard, the enemy’s prisoner camps are actually really nice. He heard of straw beds twice as comfortable as the thin cots the soldier slept on. The enemy’s territory to the south was well known for its array of fruits, so the prisoners were fed with sweet exotic flavours they never tasted before. And the weather at the prisoner camps always seemed bright and sunny and warm. It was raining on this day on the battle field. Mordecai could see his breath as he heaved each of his breaths, anticipating his capture.

“I mean I surrender,” Mordecai continued. The mix of battle sweat moisture in the hair clung to his dark beard, making it feel heavier and heavier. He was exhausted. All he wanted was to rest on a soft bed made of straw. “You have clearly defeated my army, I anticipate your reinforcements are on their way. I surrender.”

The soldier with the red beard looked behind himself, then back to Mordecai. “No no,” he began. “No reinforcements. But I can see by your grand armour and your well crafted weapons that you could easily best me in one-on-one combat. I surrender to you, good sir.”

Mordecai couldn’t believe that this man was trying to surrender to him. He had never seen his army’s prison camps. He imagined the strict admirals of his army constructing the camps to be complete with the most grueling labour any man could endure. He pictured enemy soldiers sleeping on jagged rocks and eating nothing but the dust and mud caked to their boots.

“Sir,” Mordecai said. “You don’t want to surrender to my army. Our camps are the kind of living hell that could be only imagined by the most perverse of damaged invalids. You are much better off returning to your general and fighting another day.”

The man with the red beard crooked his head to the side and squinted his eyes, as if he were attempting to read an abacus. “Have you ever actually seen your camps?” he asked. “Believe me, when we negotiate for the release of our captured troops, they re-enter battle with the energy and vigor of a month’s long rest. We know of the fine meats and spices your farmers produce in your area to the north. And that’s exactly what you feed your prisoners. Believe me, this is most beneficial for both of us. If you bring me in as a prisoner, you will receive ranks of valour and I will get the kind of rest I have been craving for years.”

Mordecai felt for the man. He knew of the pain and exhaustion this war was causing. But Mordecai didn’t care about a rank of valour. That would only mean more battles, more frontlines, more troops to command, more work. But after talking with this man for a few moments, he knew he didn’t want to put him through the same thing. There had been enough bad blood and blood shed during the many years of this war anyways. There had to be a way they could both be captured by each other.

“I know!” the man with the red beard yelled. “How far back is your general?”

Mordecai had to think about this for a moment. “A few yards to the north,” he answered. “Why?”

“Mine is just a few yards to the south,” the man with the red beard said. “We could go to each other’s generals, say our entire armies had been defeated, and surrender that way. I mean, I imagine this is why you tried surrendering first and have been hesitant to take on my offers.”

“Indeed,” Mordecai replied. “But won’t the generals have a few questions as to why we’re just walking up and surrendering? I mean, if either of us were all that’s left, wouldn’t we just return to our own generals?”

“We could say we got lost,” he explained. “And we knew the only way we could find our ways home would be through the mercy of our enemies and the generosity of our admirals. They would have to take pity on us then. Besides, the leverage of a captured troop is worth a lot in this war. Did you know my land’s population is half of what it was when this war started?”

“Really?” Mordecai was shocked at this. The admiral’s messages had always been that the south’s armies had only been growing stronger and that they needed more troops. This is why Mordecai joined the war effort. “I wonder what our population numbers are now.”

“But you see what I mean,” the red bearded man continued. “Our generals would absolutely take each other prisoner, we would both finally get some rest and relaxation time, and our admirals would absolutely negotiate for our safe returns. This will work.”

From there, the two men nodded to one another and, without another word, walked past each other in opposite directions to their opporite camps where their opposite generals stood waiting for either victorious troops or news of defeat. Mordecai came over a tall him and deep within a valley stood a small camp. There were maybe twenty men standing around, some were sharpening weapons and hammering plate metal armour. Others were huddled over tables reading maps and placing figurines determining strategy.

There was a moment when all work at the camp ceased and twenty or so pairs of eyes all fixed on Mordecai. His immediate reactions was to raise his arms, demonstrating defeat, and calling out, “I surrender!”

Mordecai walked slowly down to the camp. The men around formed a group in front of him, all staring at him. None of them were armed or ready to fight. They knew he was easily outnumbered and there would be no point in making any sort of move of aggression. The men gathered and watched more out of curiosity then out of any need to defend their base.

Another man with a long red beard walked to the front. Mordecai assumed correctly that this was the general. He was more portly than the man with the red beard Mordecai met on the field. His voice bellowed a much lower tone as well.

“Did you say you surrender?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mordecai answered.

“Where are the rest of my men?”

“All dead, sir. I’m the last to remain alive on the field.”

“Then why not return to your general?”

“Dead as well, sir. The battle front moved very far to the north. Your men did quite well in the fight. We were all along the battle fields, the next thing I knew, the battle moved to our camp. The enxt thing I knew after that, everyone was dead except me,” Mordecai quickly lied, recalling the conversation he had with the man on the field and adding his own colour to the tall tale.

“I see,” the general remarked. “And I imagine that surrendering to me and letting your admiral bargain for your life and freedom is your best bet of getting home?”

“Indeed, sir,” Mordecai said. “Though I’ve heard quite terrifying things about your camps. I’m quite fearful of what I will encounter.”

The men around the camp laughed, as if they all had the same discussions that Mordecai had with the man on the field. They knew he was looking for a quick vacation, and appreciated the way he played up the situation to make it not seem so sneaky that he was looking for a nice rest.

It was three weeks before the exchange for the two prisoners finally took place. Mordecai spotted the man who he discussed his plan for a quick vacation from the war with. They were both standing in front of their opposite generals. A few other infantry stood behind the generals, as was the custom for a prisoner exchange.

The man with the red beard nodded at Mordecai. “How was your rest my friend?”

“It was wonderful!” exclaimed Mordecai. “I haven’t felt this energetic in months. Did you know the straw beds in your prison camps have bits of cotton between the straw? It was like a real mattress.”

“Really?” the red bearded man answered. “That’s fantastic. Did you know your prison serves three hot meals each day? Each meal with a different meat. I have only been eating cold oats mixed in milk for years now. It was really wonderful.”

“Do you know where you’ll be assigned next?” Mordecai asked.

“I believe there’s an Eastern front lacking a few soldiers that I’m headed to,” he explained.

“Oh yes, I know of that one as well,” Mordecai answered. “I’ll be joining that front in about one week.”

“Excellent,” the red bearded man said. “Do you know how many troops?”

“Around 200,” Mordecai replied. “Our forces are running thin.”

“Indeed,” the red bearded man said. “Our numbers are dwindling as well.”

There was a moment of silence, then Mordecai piped up and said, “There’s a large forest near that front, isn’t there?”


“Lots of trees and brush,” Mordecai continued. “Two men could easily get lost in there, even during a battle.”

“Quite,” the red bearded man nodded, understanding what Mordecai was thinking. “Could get lost there for the duration of an entire battle, couldn’t you?”

“Indeed,” Mordecai smiled.

“See you in a week,” his smile glistened through the red follicles around his mouth.

“See you in a week,” Mordecai smiled.

The Tavern

Vorak walked through the tavern doors, stopped at the doorway, and looked around the open room. He saw a collection of different things: a few dwarves, some elves, and a lot of men. There were only a small handful of other orcs in the room, making Vorak a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to seeing his orc brothers sitting with dwarves, elves, and men, drinking ale and regaling stories. Dwarves, elves, and men were meant to be smashed.

He walked slowly through the tavern, staring at each thing as he walked by. No one in the room paid much attention to Vorak, not even the other orcs. Instead, the other orcs kept drinking, spill bits of ale down their chins and onto their still blood soaked chests. The orcs smiled as the men, elves, and dwarves spoke. The ocrs’ crooked and sharp teeth jutted between their lips as they smiled. Normally the sight of an orc bearing his teeth would bring Vorak great joy and excitement. But this wasn’t battle, and it made Vorak sick.

He grabbed one of the other orcs, wrapped his hand around the other orc’s tied back hair, pulled his head back and Vorak drove his fist into the other orc’s face, pummelling him off of his chair and onto the wooden floor.

“You drink and be merry with the enemies!” Vorak cried. “We haven’t been out of battle but minutes and already you betray your own blood!”

The orc on the floor chuckled, then the rest of the tavern began laughing loud. Vorak looked down at his prey and saw that there was no mark on his face. Vorak had crushed other orcs twice his size with half as hard of a punch. Why had this orc not even have a scratch, not even dust from the floor on his face.

“Aye son,” the orc said. “You have no clue where you are, do you?”

The tavern began shaking with laughter again. Vorak looked around and saw all matter of creature in the tavern all sharing the same laugh at his expense.

In a rage, Vorak grabbed a table with a single hand threw it against the wall. Only for the table to never connect to the wall. Instead, the minute it left Vorak’s hand, it vanished. And in the same instance, it reappeared in the spot he picked it up from.

Once again, the tavern shook with laughter.

The other orc took his seat and wrapped his hand around his ale stein. “Best talk to the barkeep, young lad,” he said. “I was the same as you when I first got here. The barkeep will set you drink and send you off with a pint.”

“What magic has cursed this place to never be destroyed?” Vorak sneared.

“Just, talk to the barkeep,” the other orc repeated. “Oh, and make sure he doesn’t pour you any of that stout shite. You won’t be used to it.”

“Why not?” Vorak asked.

“No blood,” the orc replied. “Will never taste the same without the dwarf blood in it.”

“Funny,” a pudgy, red-haired dwarf at the table interrupted. “I always preferred my stout with goblin blood. You gotta boil those suckers for a long time before you can put them in the barrels though. You don’t know a burning arse-hole shite until you’ve drank raw goblin blood!”

The tavern erupted with laughter and the dwarf drove his hand to the table with every breath of laugh he let out. Vorak watched all the creatures share the laugh as he walked over to the barkeep. He was human, small, with scraggly long hair and a thick dark beard. Vorak locked eyes with the barkeep as he reached the bar.

“What kind of sorcery is this?” Vorak demanded.

“No sorcery at all, good sir,” the barkeep replied, smiling. “Just the best tavern there is for folk like us.”

Vorak grabbed the barkeep by the scruff of his hood. “Don’t play with me, wizard,” Vorak grit his teeth. “Nothing can be smashed. Nothing can be destroyed. You have cursed this place.”

Vorak lifted the barkeep and threw him against the wall. He saw the barkeep hit the wall lined with bottle of liquor, and then drop to the ground. But no bottle moved, and as the barkeep stood back up, he straightened out his top and chuckled.

“I assure you,” the barkeep continued. “It’s not quite what you think.”

“Then what is it?” Vorak barked.

The barkeep let out a long exhale, as if he had to explain this so many times he was taking the time to think of a new way to explain, just to keep himself entertained. “Let’s start with this,” the barkeep began. “What’s the last thing you remember before arriving to this tavern?”

“Being in battle,” Vorak didn’t hesitate to answer. “Our armies were smashing all of your kind. Hundreds of men slaughtered in the fields.”

“And then what?” the barkeep continued.

Vorak thought for a moment. “There was a little one,” he continued. “One of those ugly, small creatures with the large, hairy feet.”

“Halfling,” the barkeep interrupted.

“That’s it!” Vorak cried. “Me and some of my orc brethren spotted a Halfling, and we began stalking it.”

“Did you kill the Halfling?” the barkeep asked.

“Of course!” Vorak yelled.

“Did you, really?” the barkeep continued.

“Well…” Vorak hesitated. “Not right away. The Halfling spotted us and began throwing rocks at us. But then we crushed him!”

“I see,” the barkeep nodded. “And you specifically remember crushing this Halfling, you remember crushing him, or driving your blade into him?”

“Um…” Vorak hesitated. “Yes, of course! The orcs are mighty!”

“Do you really remember?” the barkeep asked.

“Well…” Vorak paused. “Well, I must have. Orcs are mighty! Halflings are small! What else?!”

The barkeep nodded again. “Well, we have a lot of creatures here with similar stories to yours. The dwarf with the red hair, when he arrived, the last thing he remembered was fishing and catching a relatively small fish and throwing to the ground in anger. He didn’t remember stepping on the slippery fellow and falling back onto a rock. Or the elf on the far side of the bar? Was adjusting his crossbow. When he arrow wouldn’t fire, he started to inspect the stirrup, right at the tip of his crossbow. Sadly, he forgot to remove the bolt before the stirrup started working properly again. I even have a troll outside who got into a headbutting contest with a brick wall and still insists that he won the contest because the brick wall collapsed before he did.

“So you see, you belong here,” the barkeep smiled as he poured an ale. He slid Vorak the stein and continued, “Fresh ale. I always remember that no orc ever likes my stout. Hard to come by dwarf blood here, on a count that no dwarf here can actually bleed. I’m rather proud of my stout, though.”

Vorak took the stein without a word and took a chair at the table with the red-haired dwarf and the orc with the tied back hair. He sat down, placed his stein on the table, then hunched over looking at each of the creatures he had for company.

“Well,” the dwarf began. “What did you in?”

Vorak hesitated, then mumbled, “A hobbit threw a rock at me.”

The table was silent for a moment, then the orc began chuckling, then the dwarf, then the entire room was laughing harder than a group of jesters huddled around a campfire.

“No fucking shite!” the dwarf yelled. “A hobbit? I thought the fish was bad. Barkeep! Make sure this boy’s stein is never empty. He needs as much ale as he can get!”

The Thief in the Woods

“You better hold it right there,” Steven said, aiming his weapon directly at Sam. “Drop your weapons, your goods, and any coin you have and I’ll let you be on your way.”

Neither men knew each other. They didn’t even know each others’ names. But Sam could tell a lot about Steven from first glance. Steven was obviously an experienced thief. He wore a black cloak and his boots were dusted on the sides and caked with mud underneath. Steven obviously spent a lot of time in these woods, hunting any traveller that comes through. Threatening them with his ultimate weapon he held firmly in his hand.

There was a lot that could be inferred about Sam on first glance as well. He dressed well, wore a shirt and jacket made from the finest of materials. His boots were polished as if this were the first time they were worn. Steven figured Sam for a wealthy landowner. Probably oversaw a farm outside of a large village where trade was good and the harvests were thick.

“You better listen,” Steven continued. “I’m not afraid to use my arms and I must warn you that I am quite experienced with them.”

Sam looked at Steven’s hand and saw the odd object that Steven held. Steven held it the same way a hunter would hold his crossbow. Only Steven’s armament had no trigger. There was no indication that it projected anything.

“You have no idea what it is your holding, do you?” Sam inferred.

“What?” Steven quickly replied. “Of course I do! I’ve used this for years! Robbed many with it. Even killed a few.”

“Not holding it like that, you won’t,” Sam smiled and started chuckling.

“What do you mean?” Steven cried out. “Why is it that you insist that I don’t know how to use my own weapons?”

Through his chuckles, Sam answered, “Well, you have the damned thing pointed right back at yourself.”

Steven looked down at his arms confused. He tried to see what Sam saw. But he saw nothing.

“Look,” Sam began. “How about this, let me go free, and I’ll show you how to use it. It is, in fact, quite a deadly weapon. Very vicious indeed. You could lead an army with what you’re holding. But you need to know how it use it first.”

With a nod, Steven agreed and handed the thing over to Sam. Sam inspected it briefly, looked back at Steven, and raised the thing over his head like how a woodsman would hold his axe to cut a log in two. He held it a moment and said, “Now, you best better empty your pockets and hand over any coins and good you may have.”

Steven cocked his head to the side and squinted his eyes. He stared at Sam, holding this object over his head, attempting to grit his teeth and look threatening. And very much failing.

“My god,” Steven said. “You have no idea how to use it either.”

Sam lowered his hand, still holding the thing. He looked down at it, back up Steven, and shrugged. “You’re right,” Sam said. “Not the damndest idea. I don’t even know what it is.”

Steven approached Sam and stood next to him. Both men looked down at the thing. Sam turned it over a few times trying to look at it from every angle. Neither man had any idea what to make of this strange thing that they both previously insisted they knew how to use.

Finally, Steven pointed to a small hole on one of the thing’s sides. Sam brought it closer to both their faces for a better look. A thick, black smoke shot out from the small hole and covered both men’s faces in a black soot. Both men coughed and hacked, trying to catch their breaths. They could feel their throats closing as they gasped for air. Then, one after the other, they both fell to the ground and died.

A rustle in a bush gave entrance to a small woodland imp, maybe a fifth of the size of either of the men. He drug behind him a large sack. He stopped by the bush, looked in both directions for anyone else oncoming, and then ran right to the two men’s bodies.

As he emptied all of their coins and valuables into his sack, he said to himself, “Well, at least one of us knows how this thing works.”

The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.


Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”


The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.


Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.


The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.

The Meat Freezer

The warm feeling of my breath against my frozen hands was what woke me up. My eyes were barely cracked open before I heard the screams. The blood curdling type of screams that immediately sends your body into panic mode. The adrenaline surge from my flight-or-fight instinct got me wide-awake and immediately assessing my situation.

I was handcuffed and the cuffs were wrapped around a steel bar that usually holds meat hooks. Between me and the next hindquarter hanging, there were two support beams that ran from the freezer’s floor to the roof, giving me only a small range to slide the cuffs across. My feet were barely touching the ground.

The sound of more loud screams pierced through the walls. I leveraged myself on the tips of my toes and started sliding the chain of the cuffs back and forth as hard as I could, hoping some steel on steel friction could get me loose. The scrams got louder and closer, and I started rubbing harder and faster. I didn’t know who that butcher was taking care of next but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me trapped still.

The chain of the cuffs snapped and I fell to the ground, knocking the hanging cow carcasses that surrounded me. The carcasses continued to sway as I stood up and noticed that the screaming stopped. And it was too quiet.

The freezer door clicked as I pushed against it and slowly slid it open. I peeked through the crack, checking to see if anywhere was down here with me. The room was dark, but the stairs leading back up to ground level were illuminated still by one small, glowing orange light.

My foot slipped as I took my first step out. I didn’t fall, but it was enough of a slip to catch my attention. A long red streak ran from the freezer door right to the stairs. I followed the trail and saw more smears along each step. When I finally made it to the ground level where the butcher shop front was, I found the butcher and his two employees.

One employee was sliced open from his collarbone to his groin. His chest was opened up like a book and his ribs protruded out like stalactites in a cave. His intestines were pulled out and wrapped around his throat and then tied to a longhorn hanging above the meat’s display case. He swayed back and forth like the hindquarters in the freezer.

At first, it looked like the other employee only had a screwdriver punched through the back of his head. The back of his skull fragmented and mixed with the brain and blood and matted all through his hair. As I got closer, I could see the screwdriver came out the other side and lodged itself into the butcher’s chopping block. He guy had both of his hands stapled to the butcher block with two of the longest knives in the shop. This was an execution.

I found the butcher by the cash register. When he was alive he was easily four-hundred pounds and had a belly that practically hung to his knees. The belly was split open like a cantaloupe. His legs and shoes were drenched in a blood and fat soup mix that has the consistency of a thick mud that stuck to the bottom of your feet. Both of his shoulders had knives stuck into them that popped out the other side and stuck into the wall behind him. There was also a pair of garden sheers stuck into his mouth and opened up. The sides of his lips wrapped around the blades started splitting and bleeding where they lay against the metal, looking like a large jester’s smile.

This was a slaughter and all I could think was that either whoever did this was still there and waiting for me, or bolted and left me to take the blame.

I ran for the back door and kept running through the town’s industrial park and ran into the first payphone I saw. The sun was about totally set and the shadows of the warehouses and factories loomed over me while I crunched myself into the glass box and picked up the receiver.

I called my editor.

“Jumping fucking Christ, Harmond,” he said to me. “You sound like you just saw a dead body.”

“Three actually,” I replied, barely catching my breath. “The butcher and his two staff. Fucking slaughtered, man. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Holy fuck.”

“Shit, you’re fucking serious,” he muttered back, sounding like he barely believed what he was saying let along what I was saying. “Who the fuck… Just fucking… It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Christ no!” I yelled back. “The fat fuck locked me in the meat freezer. Handcuffed me next to hanging beef carcasses.”

“How the fuck did you wind up there?” he asked.

“The butcher didn’t like me snooping around,” I answered. “Got really mad when I asked about his daughter’s disappearance. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in a fucking freezer with a killer headache.”

“Wait, did you say you were handcuffed?”


“Either this guy’s got some freaky fetishes or the cops know what he’s doing,” he sighed hard. “Careful with these fucking small towns. Everyone knows everyone. This butcher probably played football with half of the police force. If he was responsible for anything, the cops probably know and are trying to cover it up as much as he is.”

“Do you think one of the cops could have killed the butcher?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just be fucking careful. Look, I’ll wire you some money. Whatever you need. Just get the fuck out of that place.”

“Do I really want to gamble with having that psychopath wanting to follow me back home? What if he’s hunting me right now? He didn’t kill me back there, but what if he was waiting for me. What if he’s watching me right now?”

“Get a fucking hold of yourself!” he yelled. “What if he didn’t know you were in that freezer? Besides, staying in that shit-hole town isn’t going to help.”

“But if I do have this psycho’s attention, at least it stays here and doesn’t follow me home,” I checked my pockets for any semblance of money other than the change that butcher didn’t take out of my pocket. “Well, my wallet’s gone, which means no money. Even if you wire it over, I’ll be fucked. The hotel room’s paid for the next few days. I’ll try to lay low there for a while and nothing happens in those few days, I’ll head back.”

“Does the car work still?”

“Knowing my luck, the butcher sunk it into the bottom of the lake. I have no idea where it is.”

“Alright. I’ll drive in. Just lay low. No cops, they’ll think you were responsible, or worse, try to finish what the butcher started. Don’t talk to anyone until I get to town, then we’ll get the fuck out of dodge. Alright?”

“Ok, thanks Sam.”

“A dead writer is no good to this magazine, Harmond. Don’t do anything fucking stupid.”

Sam hung up before I did and I heard the phone click. The wind picked up and blew hard against the glass box I was crunched into and was the only sound I could hear.

The walk back to the hotel was long and it was only getting colder outside. My breath hung lingered in front of me and the fog got thicker the further I walked. I could feel myself stepping against the concrete harder with each step as I hurried to back to the motel, jumping at every shadow that moved and every branch that rustled in the wind. It felt as though every street light I walked under, there was a second shadow just steps behind me. Like in every shrub there were a set of eyes watching me as I walked by.

The motel was one of those two storey roadside stops where out of town businessmen stopped at to strangle hookers. My room was on the second floor, and as I walked up to the door I could see through the window that there was a light on. I stood close to the door, tried to hear any voices inside, when the door swung open and there stood a brunette with hair that waved down just beneath her shoulders. Her green eyes were hidden behind a pair of round glasses. She had one of my black button-down shirts on. The tops three buttons were undone.

“Fuck, is this your room?” she said to me. “Look, the door was unlocked, I’m just hiding out here from a john who decided to bring a rope and some chloroform to the party.” In one smooth motion, she pulled out a switchblade knife, the blade clicking out just as it reached the front of my face. “I cut his balls off and I wouldn’t hesitate to cut yours off too. But you don’t seem like the type to try and hurt someone for kicks. You actually looked damaged. It’s the normal ones you gotta look out for.”

I pushed my way back into the room and shut the door behind us. “How long have you been hiding in here?” This was my only gauge to know how long I’d been out for.

“Just a couple of days,” she replied. “No one’s come knocking. Place was a fucking mess though. You gotta keep better care of your stuff. This was the only shirt that wasn’t on the ground and stepped all over.”

No one came knocking because they had already been by even before she got into the room. At least two, maybe three or more, days that I had been out. No wonder Sam seemed so excited on the phone. I usually check in with story progress every day. I was only supposed to be there for a day, maybe two. I wasted a week trying to track down the fucking butcher, spent three days locked in a meat freezer, this story was way more trouble than it was worth.

“Hey, what’s your name,” the girl asked.

“Harmond,” I answered.

“Oh, you’re that writer guy snooping around about Grace’s disappearance.”


“Small town. Everyone knows what everyone is doing everywhere and all of the time. Probably not used to that in the city where you came from. But once the population drops below a ten thousand, you’re at the scrutiny of all your neighbours, and all their friends, and all of their family.”

“So you know about me being locked in a meat cooler then?”

“Shit,” her eyes bulged and her head tilted. “I knew Maurice had a temper, but that’s over the top.”

“The fat fuck was going to kill me.”

“No he wasn’t,” she stood pointing her index finger at me. “He was probably trying to scare you, but he could never hurt anybody. Be it a nosey reported or his own daughter, he could never kill anyone.”

Then I remembered what I just ran from. She didn’t know. And now I had to tell her.

She didn’t take it lightly. She sobbed so hard I could barely make out what she was saying. I guess he was a customer once or twice. He actually treated her decent. I guess that’s rare when you’re in her business.

Against my better judgment, I left the room to get some ice and a couple cans of soda. The ice machine grinded like a table saw about to fall apart. The pop machine shot out cans that were actually hot. I had to wait a couple of minutes before I could pick them up.

Then I heard it again. The screaming.

I dropped the ice bucket and ran back to the room. The door was open when I got there and I looked in to see the top-half of the brunette lying on the bed, her arms spread and her eyes still open. Her bottom half was on the floor beside the bed. Her legs were crumpled, like a cripple’s when he falls out of his wheelchair.

On the wall above the bed, in red smears painted on with that looked like a pallet knife, was written, “Tag, you’re it.”

With barely enough time to finish reading what was on the wall, I could see the red and blue flashing lights coming through the window. I ran to the bathroom, but the window wasn’t big enough for me to jump through. Two officers were already in the living room when I stepped back in. Their guns were drawn and my hands were up.

I got down to my knees as the one cop started to cuff me. He laughed when he saw the cuffs with the broken chain still on my wrists.

This wasn’t my first time being arrested. Hell, it wasn’t my first time being arrested for something I didn’t commit. Comes with the territory I guess. I write about crime, I wind up walking in on crimes, I wind up getting blamed for crimes. I wonder if this happens to other writers who do what I do.

I knew the routine well. They read me my rights and I chose to shut up. When they asked about a lawyer, I said not yet. It always looks bad when you lawyer up right away. It’s right up there with refusing a breathalyser.

The room they stuck me in was a touch bigger than a broom closet with a single table in the middle of the room and two chairs on either side. Two detectives, one perp, one lawyer. Made sense. The fluorescent light fluttered a bit every few minutes. The walls were painted a flat white, like an insane asylum.

The detective came in and unzipped his blue track jacket. He sat across from me and started reading a file, flipping papers, trying to look like a ton of ground work was done before he even got there.

“What are you reading?” I asked. “And be honest.”

He sighed. “The Sunday comics. I keep them on me when something gruesome comes up. Around here though, we don’t see much of this. Dead animals, for sure. Hunters killing off season, maiming animals’ bodies for kicks. But murders….” He sighed even heavier. “I’ve never actually had to investigate one.” He looks up at me. “You’ve had to look into a lot of these. They usually this brutal?”

I shook my head. “Nothing I’ve ever written about has been this… creative, I guess. Usually gang wars, drive by shootings, some sort of surface explanation as to why it happened. These have absolutely no rhyme or reason.”

“Except that you were at both scenes when they happened,” the detective interrupted.

“I was…” I dropped my head, hoping the detective wouldn’t see me getting choked up. “What… what was her name?”

The detective looked up at me like I just asked him where’s Santa Clause. “Who? Oh, the girl in the room? Grace something or other. Well-known hooker in town.”


“Sir, how well did you know Maurice the butcher?” I asked.

“Uh, I dunno, not that great. Most of us working on the force here only arrived when we got our jobs. This is one of those towns where the population is so small that the province actually sends police from other towns to full the precinct. I’ve only been here six months or so. You hear some crazy shit, but I don’t let if faze me.”

Sam wasn’t usually wrong about things. But he was way off on this. The butcher came at me when I asked about his daughter because he knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. He had no ties to police, and you can buy handcuffs anywhere. Sam had me thinking so much about this town and a looming conspiracy that I had no time to think about the murders happening around me.

“The way you’re talking to me gives me the impression that I’m not being charged with anything,” I pointed out.

The detective nodded his head. “Witnesses at the scene say they saw you by the ice machine when they heard the screams. And there’s no way to place you at the butcher shop either.” He smiled at me. “Getting one hell of a story out of us, aren’t you Harmond? You came here for a missing girl case and now you’re sitting in a town where the murder rate just shot up four-hundred per cent. I gotta ask, what was so interesting about this case? The missing girl?”

“I wanted to look at the effects crimes and tragedies have on smaller communities,” I explained. “I’m always writing in the bigger cities. Murders there are as common as popping zits. I wanted to go somewhere where losing a life still had meaning.”

The detective nodded his head. “You came to the right place.” He stood up and adjusted his belt. “Well, like you said, you’re not being formally charged with anything. I’ll get you your release papers, I’ll need a couple of signatures from you and you can be on your way.”

The detective left the room. I could see him stop for a moment in front of the door. There was a small window in the door at about head length. I could see the detective’s head through the window. He nodded a bit, then there was a pop and all I could see on the window was a large, red smear.

The lights started to flicker and then we were cloaked in black for a second. Then the emergency power generator kicked in, lighting everything in crimson. I walked up to the door and saw that someone drew two eyes and a smile in what was left of the detective’s brains.

Peering through the doorway, opened just a crack, I could see that no one was in the hallway: alive or dead. Another red trail smeared along the white floor made a map of where the detective may have been dragged to. I started following the map when I heard another scream and saw a woman running towards me. She wasn’t in a uniform. She wasn’t armed. She was crying and screaming as she ran, coughing and losing breath.

She stopped and grabbed me. “They’re all fucking dead!”

She looked over her shoulder and kept running. Down the hall where she ran from, I could see someone walking toward me. Tall, broad shouldered, dressed in a black jacket, black gloves, and his face was covered with a simple, plain black mask off of a Halloween costume. He had a gun in his right hand that he raised and pointed at me.

Click Click…

Like a robot processing a simple command and not moving his head, he threw the gun to the side and drew a knife from a belt holster and continued walking towards me.

Someone grabbed my arm and I turned.

“Run mother fucker!” screamed the woman who ran by me before.

We start running. I peer over my shoulder and see the tall man in black is still just walking, his knife swaying with each step he took.

“There’s a… back door… just down… this hall,” she huffed out. “My car’s back there…” And she started coughing again, losing her footing and falling. I stopped and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up. And we kept running.

We made it to her car and I jumped into the passenger seat. She kicked on the ignition and started driving toward the parking lot’s entrance. Standing there was the tall man in black. Standing completely still and waiting.

And she sped up. “Not today, mother fucker!” she yelled as she floored the gas pedal, hitting the man in black straight on. His body exploded like a water melon with a stick of dynamite stuck into it. Blood smeared her windshield and I could hear his head rolling across the roof and smack the back windshield where his mask got caught on her roof rack.

She pulled over. “Ha! Nailed that son of a bitch!” she blurted out as she stepped out of her car. She walked to where the mask hooked onto the roof rack. “Let’s see who this cocksucker is.”

She pulled off the mask to reveal the detective. His head wound was still fresh and bits of the skin off of his head flapped as she slipped the mask off. The head dropped and hit the concrete, splattering more of his blood and brain on the ground and leaving trails of hair as it rolled.

I was too busy staring at the detective’s head to notice her dropping her lunch on the concrete with a cough and a heave. She was wiping her mouth with her sleeve as I looked back. “Holy fucking Jesus Christ what the fuck is going on,” she sobbed. “Was detective Ramirez that psycho?”

“No,” I replied. I walked over and tilted his head to show the gun wound that opened his head up like a split cantaloupe. “He was dead well before you hit him. I have no fucking clue how he got him to stand there like that.” I reached down and picked up the head. There was a metal wire embedded into the back of his head, like a sculptor would use for a life-size piece. “When the fuck did he get time to do that?”

Her steps clicked slowly as she walked up behind me. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “But I feel like I need to call my editor now.”

We start driving to a near-by payphone that she knew about. On the way, she told me her name was Sandra. She only just got hired this police station a few weeks ago. She was working on the police website.

I called Sam and told him everything that happened in the police station.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” he said. “And you saw all of it?”

“Saw it? I had to fucking survive it!” I yelled back. “What the fuck did you get me into sending me to this goddamned place? I’m being stalked by a guy now who likes turning dead bodies into action figures.”

“Are you sure he’s a guy?” Sam asked.

“Broad shouldered, tall, walks slowly, a little bit of a limp. He as hunched over a bit too,” I explained.

“Either a guy or one butch woman,” Sam laughed.

“I’m not fucking laughing, Sam,” I snapped. “Are you still coming into town? I don’t think I can take this girl’s car to get out of here.”

“Be there in a couple of hours,” Sam answered. “Meet me at the elementary school. The doors should be open. No one locks shit in a town like that. Stay inside, stay safe and I’ll drive up to the front door.”

“You know the elementary school here?” I asked Sandra.

“Yeah, everyone who grew up here went there,” she answered.

“That’s where my editor is picking me up,” I said. “Can you drop me off?”

She agreed, saying that the school was only a few blocks away.

We get there in about ten minutes. Orion Elementary School is written in bold letters above the front door. Every window is dark and the trees rustled against the chain linked fence lining the schoolyard. The wind was getting colder and flakes of started floating by.

“Alright, thanks for the ride,” I said. “I don’t know what you should do, but I really need to meet my editor. He’s going to get the fuck out of here…”

“You think I’m just leaving you?” she interrupted. “Nu-uh, whoever the fuck that was in the freaky-ass mask probably knows who I am. Everyone knows everyone in this town. He’s probably in my house now waiting to cut me up. Until this gets figured out, or I find another police station where everyone isn’t dead, where you go, I go.”

We walked into the school together. Sam was right; the doors weren’t locked. The two of us walked through the hallways and peered at all the class photos hung on the wall.

“So, you didn’t grow up here then?” Sandra asked.

“No,” I replied. “Grew up in the big city. My graduating class in high school was more than two-thousand kids. Nothing like these thirty kids in a class.”

“What got you writing about murder and all that?” she asked. “Have some traumatic childhood story where your work is helping you deal with some emotional scarring?”

“Believe it or not, I grew up completely normal,” I answered, reading a class photo. “I write because people will read it. People thrive off of fear. It helps move the economy. People are scared of bad men, so they buy houses in suburbs far from where the bad men live. They buy home security systems to help them sleep at night. They buy dogs to bark whenever strangers walk by and they buy food to feed those dogs and keep its loyalty. Fear is the oldest human emotion and it drives the market. And people need to remember what to be afraid of. And that’s where I come in.”

“Awfully cynical, don’t you think?” She asked, and I doubt she was actually looking for an answer.

“They’re paying,” I replied. “And so long as they’re paying, I’ll keep writing about gunned-down drug dealers, missing teenage girls and slaughtered humans. It sells magazines, it sells ad space and lets me live a certain lifestyle I do happen to enjoy.”

“Really? How do you deal being around death every day? Day in and day out you live in the utmost worst in humanity. Aren’t you scared you’re glamourizing it a bit? Doesn’t it ever get to you?”

“They’re subjects, that’s all. You can’t get invested in it. You can’t even recognize they’re human. That’s when you start losing sleep. You start worrying about every dark corner you have to turn. I just keep it out of my head when I don’t need it. But even I have my house in the suburbs and my dog and my home security system.”

I started walking down the halls of the school as Sandra kept looking out the window, waiting to see who would pull up. I scanned by the class photos, each from ninth grade, the last grade any of these kids spent in this school. I noticed a familiar name as I scanned by: Samuel Gibson, my editor. I had no idea that he was from this town. He never gave any indication that he had any connection to it at all. It might be why he was so adamant that I check out this story about the missing girl. My beat was usually inner city crime, murders and drugs and gangs. This was the first time I investigated a small town crime like this. I guess Sam thought this would be a good entry point for me to start writing about it. Get the people in the suburbs scared too. Get them upgrading their security systems, buying property in the gated estates, and most of all, get them buying magazines still. Remind them that there are things to be afraid of all over.

A couple of photos over from Sam’s was another face and name I recognized instantly: the fucking butcher. Sam knew him, went to school with him, I wondered if they were close. I kept scanning through and placing faces with people I met throughout the town: the butcher’s assistants, Grace, even Sandra. They all went to this school, they were all connected. One photo bothered me the most. It was a name I didn’t know, but a face I knew but I couldn’t place. He left this school the same year as Sam and the butcher. I was inspecting the photo closer when I heard Sandra yelling for me.

I ran to the front door and saw through the window a black car pulling up. Only the car didn’t stop, it sped up. Drove right for the front door. I grabbed Sandra by the waist and pulled her back as the car crashed through the front door. One of the larger blue metal doors slammed into us as we tried to run back. Bits of stone wall and ceiling dust covered us as we dug our way out from under the door. The car’s door opened and out came a man dressed all in black. I was almost too panicked to notice that he was walking straight, no limp.

He pulled out a gun from behind his back and aimed it at us. He started laughing as he pulled his mask off. I knew the face right away. This is the third time I’ve seen it now: the first time was in the motel when the girl was slaughtered, the second time was on the graduation photo. The one fucking cop in this town who grew up here turns out to get his rocks off hunting and slaughtering people.

He didn’t say a word. Just aimed and smiled. I had to distract him, even for half a second.

“What, no knife? No theatrics like the rest?” I asked him.

He started breathing heavier, like a panting dog waiting for a stick to be thrown. “I got some theatrics for ya,” he answered. “Got some nice metal bars in the back of this car to put the two of you on display once I’m done here, like two little dollies who never had a chance when big brother came by to cut off all their hair and take apart their limbs. I got a special pose for the two of you.”

From outside, someone starting yelling, “Harmond? You in here? What the fuck is going on?”

With his head turned for that half second wondering who’s yelling, I kicked out the back of the cop’s knees and he crumbled to the ground, dropping his gun on the way down. The gun rolled toward Sandra while the cop pounced on top of me with his hands around my throat. He pushed down against my trachea, he grip was only getting tighter and I started trying to push him off me, kicking out my feet and pushing against him. I was losing air fast and losing strength when I heard a bang and my face was suddenly soaked. His grip loosened as he toppled over and landed on top of my face. I pushed him off and scrambled my way back onto my feet and looked back at Sandra, holding the cop’s gun. I coughed while wiping his blood out of my eyes and looked down to see a tennis ball sized hole in the back of his head.

“Holy fuck, what the fuck happened here?” I heard from behind and saw Sam walking in through the rubble. Sam looked up at me and his jaw dropped, practically hitting the floor. “Christ man, is that your blood?”

“No,” I coughed out. “His. She’s a good shot. You got here quick.”

“Yeah, traffic was light,” Sam replied. “Is that who… uh, you know… has been killing…”

“I guess so,” I answered, still trying to catch my breath. “This is how the guy in the police station was dressed. He talked about putting us up on display with metal bars, just like the detective.” I considered my next words carefully. “Uh, apparently you know this guy.”

Sam walked slowly over to the body and turned it over. “Roger Bates. Haven’t seen him since high school ended. He was pretty fucked up while we were in school. Was the type who shot BBs at birds and when he killed one, would tie a rope around its neck and hang it from a tree. I heard he got counselling for that shit but I guess it takes a lot more than that to fix a psychopath.”

“You knew the butcher too,” I blurted out.

Sam looked back at me. “Yeah, I did.”

“And you weren’t going to tell me that you grew up here. That you were connected to all of this?”

“I was worried it would compromise the story. Small town crimes can be really juicy and I’ve never had one fall into my lap before. Seemed too good to pass up.”

“And you had me accuse the butcher of killing his daughter even though you damn well knew he wasn’t capable to killing anyone. He was violent, but he didn’t have it in him to kill.”

“It’s the whole reason you’re alive,” Sam chuckled. “Whatever, you’re alive now, we’re sitting on a gold mine of a story. Seriously, first hand survival of a small town serial killer. This magazine is going to sell insanely. Especially once you write down all those juicy details in that beautiful style of yours, horror movies won’t be half as scary or gory as this. It’s going to be great.”

“You misdirected me the whole time,” I said. “This was the only cop who had any ties to this community. The rest all come from different areas and are assigned here. You grew up here, you knew that. Why did you have me paranoid over the cops like that?”

Sam looked around for a moment, as if having a sudden urge to go down memory lane. I had no idea how long it had been since Sam had stepped into that school. But he just kept looking around, then back at me. “I was just scared, that’s all. We’ve never been this closely tied to a story. I just wanted to make sure you’d stay safe. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Sam walked past me and back toward the broken through the front door. I watched his walk.

“Sam,” I called out to him. “How long have you had a limp for?”

Sam stopped and turned back to me. That’s when I noticed he was wearing all black, including gloves. He wiped some sweat off of his brow with his wrist then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a nine-inch blade, the kind that could slice a man’s gut open, spilling it all over his legs and shoes.

His eyes were fixated on me, he gripped the knife’s handle like a white-knuckled driver in a road rage fit, and bore his teeth as he started heaving heavily. He took one step towards me when I suddenly remembered that Sandra was still standing beside me, and she hadn’t dropped the gun yet.


Sam took five slugs to his chest and fell back, thudding against the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes. I walked up to Sam and saw his eyes staring out into nothing. The knife was still in his hand, he was still gripping it like he was still on the hunt.

I reached down and gripped his wrist, trying to get him to let go of the knife, he his other hand hit my throat and wrapped around. He rolled me over and got on top, the holes in his chest dripping on my like loose faucets. I kept my grip on his wrist, keeping the knife away from me, but he grip on my neck was too strong.

I could hear clicking and Sandra crying realizing the gun was only a six-shooter.

“What do I do?!” she screamed. “What do I do?! What do I do?!”

Sam started bleeding from his mouth and it dripped, drooling like a mad mastiff. His eyes bulged and he heaved like he was fucking out of hate.

Then his grip loosened. He toppled over. He was still breathing, but he was weak.

I coughed and gagged, threw up a little blood, when I looked over at him and looked at my fist, drenched in his blood. The bullets were finally taking their toll. Sam laid there, his chest bouncing with each breath, and then with one gasp, finally stopped.

I felt the bruises on my throat and looked back at the black car, still running. I walked to the driver-side door and saw it was still open, the keys were still in the ignition and there were six metal bars in the back seat, just like the ones in the detective.

Sandra walked up to me. “Are you ok to drive?”

“Yeah,” I spat out a bit of blood. “I’ll drop you off at the cop station, you can figure out if there are any cops left in town. I gotta get going. I got a story to write.”


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