Category Archives: Short Story

Lost in the Woods

“Lost in the woods,” was a phrase my father used a lot. When I was young; should we be out in the world and witness someone acting out in any way,

“That boy’s lost in the woods,” he’d say, shaking his head in that parental disappointment sort of way, even if they weren’t his child.

When I reached my early teens, struggling to find my place amongst my peers,

“You’re lost in the woods, kid,” he’d say, in a far more sympathetic and compassionate manner.

I endured some hard times over the years, while I tried to find where I belonged in the world, but my dad was always there for me. Though I wasn’t exactly an outdoorsy type, his words were always reassuring, even if I hoped to never be caught dead in a forest, let alone lost in one.

We would inevitably talk about my problems after he would diagnose my symptoms in his own special way, but I learned to understand how the same saying would read differently, depending on the situation.

Even during those last few weeks, he battled against the cancer devouring him from the inside out, he too was ‘lost in the woods’. I like to think that when he passed; when his suffering reached its end, he finally saw what lay beyond the trees.

I suppose it was only fitting that it was as I drove home from his funeral that I found myself in a far more literal version of his all-purpose metaphor. Over that time, I became certain I would be joining my old man outside the borders of the forest, so soon after he made the trip himself.

I had chosen not to ride with my mom and stepfather, Dale, as I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t have a problem with my mother’s husband; he’d always treated me well enough. My parents had remained close after the divorce, as they both agreed they were always better friends than lovers.

Dad got along with his replacement better than most under such circumstances, but it always felt like Dale tried a little too hard when my old man was around. It may have been nothing more than the inherent jealousy a man feels towards his significant other’s ex. Maybe he had some insecurities about the situation, but Pop and I would laugh about it when we were alone.

I was always tight with my dad; far more so than anyone else in my life. With him being the one I would turn to when I needed to talk, I wanted to be alone on this one. I think I needed to. Had I ridden with my mom, Dale would’ve likely tried his damndest to get me to talk about how I was feeling, which was not remotely ready to do.

Even when the rain began to pour down from above, I was mostly mentally checked out as I guided my car from one road to the next. The spot in which my dad wanted to be buried was some miles into the next state over; the one he grew up in before relocating, back in the day. While the path I traversed that day was somewhat unfamiliar, my subconscious was able to focus on the road while my mind drifted beyond the confines of my old Chevy.

I suppose that’s why it took me a moment to register the truck ahead of me, sharply veering into the other lane. By the time I noticed where the road had split, opening a wide fissure in the tarmac, I didn’t have a chance to miss it. The collision, for lack of a better term for skidding into a large gap in the pavement, happened so quickly that I was only vaguely aware of what was happening before everything went black.

The heavy rainfall we had been experiencing, off and on, for weeks, had led to a few of these fissures forming across the state. Be it from poorly maintained roads or simply years of water seeping between the cracks, I couldn’t say. It wasn’t exactly my area of expertise or anything.

I remember my dad saying, sometime over that previous month or so, that the cities would be buried beside him by the time the dust settled. Maybe it was the medication talking, but he feared that Hell itself may be reaching through the cracks; stretching its tendrils through the very foundation of reality, to claim this world for its own, one stretch of road at a time.

When my eyes blinked back to awareness, my dramatic shift in surroundings caught me off guard, at first. While I had been at the helm of my old Chevy when I blacked out, the fact that I found myself laying splayed out on the floor of an unfamiliar forest took me a moment to fully grasp.

The rain had stopped, leading me to believe I must have been out of it for a while, but when I pressed my palms to the ground to find it wasn’t even damp, I began to question my sanity.

“You’re lost in the woods, kid,” I heard echoing from the back of my mind as I hesitantly raised from the dirt to trembling and weakened legs.

Attempting to rationalize my relocation while I slept, I assumed that someone must have pulled me from my likely crumpled car, before dragging me into the middle of the woods that stood beside the road I was traversing. Why anyone would do this, I couldn’t quite fathom.

“Maybe,” I thought, “more cracks opened up, so someone carried me in here. Perhaps they thought the road wasn’t safe, so they dropped me off before going for help.”

Not the most likely rationalization, but it was something.

While I gazed around my newfound surroundings, seeking out any indication of which direction would lead me back to the road, I became more aware of the unsettling silence. Being the middle of winter, the bare, skeletal trees, and dead leaves lining the forest floor didn’t feel out of place, but I could find no evidence of anything else alive out there.

Glancing upward, the blank and gray sky appeared as lifeless as the world around me. I couldn’t even feel a breeze. While I still wore the suit I donned for my father’s funeral; one that wasn’t exactly made for winter weather, it wasn’t as chilly as I would’ve expected. It wasn’t warm either, mind you, but everything felt wrong, somehow.

The colors looked muted, in a way. The bark of the trees was an almost sickly, grayish brown. The discarded leaves scattered across the ground were more yellowed and diseased looking than what I would’ve expected. Even the drab sky felt more like a ceiling over the woods, than a vast emptiness, adding a strange sense of claustrophobia to my already scattered senses.

While all I could hear was my heartbeat against the inner walls of my ears, the crunching beneath my feet when I finally took a step almost caused me to recoil. Being out in the wilderness, surrounded by such emptiness and quiet was far more unsettling to me than how I ended up here in the first place.

I was in a daze while I trudged onward in no particular direction. With only more stripped-down trees being all I could make out in any direction, I had no way of knowing which potential path would be the right one. Regardless of my uncertainty, I knew I had to keep moving. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had the strangest sense of urgency, assuring me that I must reach the border of this forest as quickly as possible.

The scenery remained unchanging, even after walking for what felt like a few hours. At the beginning of my stroll, I’d fished my phone out of my pocket, only to see the broken screen and the absence of any backlight or life behind the shattered glass. Given that the last thing I remembered before waking in this place was crashing into a damn hole in the world, it wasn’t hard to accept that my device had not survived, even if my body was somehow unscathed.

I have no idea how much time had passed when the humming sound began. That’s about the best way I can describe it; a hum that started soft, growing steadily louder, as if something was approaching. Had it not been for the almost suffocating quiet of my surroundings, I likely wouldn’t have even noticed it until it engulfed me, if that was indeed its intent.

For all I knew, the unsettling vibration that accompanied it, was something good; something I should approach, rather than run from. Ultimately, I wasted no time deliberating the options, opting to transform my stroll into an outright sprint for my life. With the noise originating from behind me, I could only hope that speeding away from it was the right call.

To fully illustrate where my head was at the time, I think I assumed that I had landed in some sort of purgatory, somewhere between life and death after the accident. Being that I saw no sign of the road I had quite literally crashed into, it seemed a reasonable assumption.

With that working theory, that I must escape these woods to reclaim my mortal shell, my immediate fear was that the sound belonged to that which would send me to whatever afterlife awaited me. That, or it was something far more sinister, perhaps intent on leading me to the gates of Hell itself.

When a subtle mist joined the ambient and elevating hum, gently caressing the forest floor beneath my quickly tiring legs, I grew far more certain I had to escape whatever was happening. While I ached from head to toe; something that somewhat contradicted my theory of being absent of living flesh at the time, my frenzied thoughts were interrupted by the ground shifting to a steep downward slant.

For the briefest moment, I felt weightless as my feet found nothing to land on, slipping on the dried leaves when they finally did make contact. I was so caught off guard, having been otherwise occupied by both my surroundings and the oncoming storm, for lack of a better term, my mind fought as much as my flailing limbs while I tumbled towards more uncertainty.

If nothing else, when my fall came to an end, with my body splayed out, face down on another unfamiliar bed of dried leaves, the humming vibrations felt further off, again. My mind fought to remain conscious as the dizziness of my quickly paced descent caused the world to spin around me, but I could not allow myself to pass out here, not with whatever was pursuing me.

As I pushed my palms against the ground, struggling to get somewhat upright before the darkness could swallow me whole, something happened that most certainly brought my wavering consciousness back to my dire circumstances.

“Stay down, friend,” the stranger, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere said, pushing me back down by the shoulder.

Regardless of his encouragement, I landed hard, having completely lost my footing being surprised by the unexpected touch.

“What? Who the fu…”

“Shhh,” he said, crouching down beside where I now sat, “just let it drift on by.”

I followed his gaze back up the steep hill I had tumbled down, to see that dense, white fog lining the woods above like a cloud.

While I had assumed the unusual mist to be something chasing after me, the full weight of that irrational thought didn’t sink in until I watched it shift directions, some thirty feet above. While it was so thick, it almost reassembled an enormous, sentient, cotton ball, it had ripples throughout, like waves running against the direction of a stream, spiraling endlessly as it hovered in place.

It was somewhat confusing to look upon, the way it jerked one way, with the bizarre rapids flowing backward, but it was clear that some sort of consciousness guided it. After it pulled to the right and left, swaying this way and that, it finally came to a halt, spinning around and around, as though waiting for something, or someone, in this case.

While I didn’t know whether or not I should trust my new companion, his reassuring grip on my shoulder helped more than I could understand at the time. Though I hadn’t looked at him yet, just having someone by my side, after hours of solitude, trudging through this seemingly never-ending forest, encouraged me to remain as still as possible.

We both continued to glare upwards, even after the fog began to dissipate, before drifting back the way it came. For some minutes after its retreat, I was scared to move a muscle, even after the stranger let his grip on my shoulder slip free.

“Should be okay. For now, anyway,” he said, lifting himself back from the ground.

“What was that?” I asked, getting to my feet.

Finally having the opportunity to take in the appearance of this man, I felt a little more at ease, noticing the uniform he was wearing. It was similar to a police outfit, but one I recognized as more of a Park Rangers garb. I hadn’t spent a lot of time in such places over the years, but I was certain that’s what it was, plus it fit, considering our location.

He looked a little older than me, thin, but in decent shape. He pulled his wide-brimmed hat from his short, brown hair, wiping his sweating brow with the back of his forearm. He had a neatly trimmed beard, a few shades darker than his hair, and stood a couple of inches taller than me.

“Nothin’ you wanna get caught up in,” he said, placing the hat back in place, “that’s a damn fact.”

He looked back at me, giving me a small smile. It was then that I noticed that his eyes were an almost translucent, sky blue. Though I assumed he was likely wearing some sort of novelty contacts, or something, they were still almost mesmerizing.

Of course, given the fact that everything around us was so lifeless, drowned in muted, depressing colors, it may have been nothing more than the stark contrast of something so lively amid everything else appearing so lifeless and cold.

“Tucker,” he said, holding a hand out, “Maxwell Tucker; Ranger Tuck, ’round these parts.”

“Nathan Solomon, um, Nate,” I replied, shaking his hand.

“Nice to meet ya, Nate. Let’s get movin’, yeah?”


The more we talked as we walked onward, continuing in the direction I was going; something I wasn’t entirely sure of, considering that my tumble had potentially altered my trajectory, the more I felt comfortable with the guy.

His voice had a friendly tone. There was something warm and inviting about it, like I was chatting with an old friend, rather than someone I had only just met. He spoke of strange occurrences in these woods; woods I had apparently been alongside when the road swallowed up my car.

While I didn’t want to get into said strange occurrences, being that I was already freaked out by everything, I still couldn’t figure out how I had ended up here, so far from my likely totaled Chevy.

“Likely,” Ranger Tuck said, “it dragged you in here, deep into the heart of it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“It? I mean, it, who?”

“Folks ’round here just call it the Gray. It seems to enjoy messin’ with folks; the ones it don’t finish off right away, anyway.”

“Wait,” I said, stopping in place, “so, some guy screws with people, leaves them for dead, or just straight out kills them!?”

He just tilted his head with a shrug.

“And that’s okay? Like, the police won’t do anything about it? You Rangers just let it continue? Some sick bastard is loose out there, and you guys…”

“Never said it was a man. It ain’t exactly somethin’ that fits into normal conversation, y’know? Naw, friend; this ain’t nothin’ natural, sneakin’ through the cracks. Can’t say what it is, but it ain’t bound by our laws.”

“Okay,” I said, attempting to push aside my disbelief for the time, “why all this then? Why drag me, God knows how far into this damned place, only to leave me to wander around?”

“It likes games, for whatever reason. It enjoys the hunt, the chase. We’ve been able to save some, but most end up the same way, whether it does it right off the bat, or after makin’ them think they got a chance. S’pose it depends on what kinda mood it’s in at the time. Could be you just got lucky.”

“Lucky? Are you serious? I crashed my car, ended up in the middle of this dismal freaking forest, and damn near broke my legs running from a cloud, which I can’t even believe I’m saying with a straight face. What the hell should I feel lucky about!?”

“You found me,” he said, with a smirk and a wink, “so, you ready to get outta here, or what?”

While I can’t say this especially put me at ease, his carefree expression did make me feel better about things. Yes, it would seem I was only one of many to fall victim to ‘the Gray’, whatever the hell that was, but Ranger Tuck had seemingly witnessed what this thing was capable of and lived to tell the tale. I had to believe I was in good hands.

I still didn’t speak much as we plundered onward, but I did feel hopeful that I would see the other side of this. Given that neither the accident nor the tumble down the hill left me as beaten and bruised as they could have, maybe my wandering companion was right; perhaps I was lucky.

That’s what I began to believe, anyway, right before the fear took hold of me once more.

“Run!” Tuck said, having noticed the approaching fog before I did.

When I grew aware of that humming sound once more, my heartbeat quickened faster than my feet, at first.

Though we did as he demanded; both of us sprinting as hard as our legs were capable of, those smoky tendrils began to wrap around our surroundings, weaving between and around the trees on both sides. It almost felt as though it was attempting to flank us; to force us forward, rather than allowing us to veer or separate.

“Don’t slow down!” the ranger called out, noticing the power behind my strides dwindling.

I was doing everything I could to force one leg in front of the other, but when the sound of the thick bark cracking and splitting reached my ears, it took everything I had to remain upright, let alone continue charging onward.

I felt the fingers of my companion wrapping around my wrist, as he pulled me alongside him. How he still had so much strength in his extremities, I had no clue, but his encouragement and support succeeded in filling me with more purpose and drive to keep charging toward the hope of freedom.

“Don’t let up,” he said, not so much as glancing from the path ahead, “we can make it, just keep pushin’! You can rest when we get outta here.”

Regardless of his determination, the sight of those wispy tentacles now weaving themselves around the trees ahead assured me that our options were running out.

As the misty fingers entwined before us, sealing the path ahead shut, we both practically skidded to a halt, falling back to the forest floor. The white smog formed a dense, misty wall in a circle around where we lay, leaving only the ground and sky free of its grasp.

It was over.

Whatever game it had been playing had reached its conclusion. The time had come for it to claim its prize.

There was nowhere to go; not unless the ranger who already saved me once, had a set of wings or a fast-acting shovel he hadn’t informed me about.

“I’m sorry, friend,” he said, glancing back at me as we lifted ourselves from the ground, preparing to meet our shared fate.

As the flowing rapids within that ivory smoke continued to spiral around us, I felt my heart racing so quickly, I feared I may pass out any second. While the idea of not being conscious to experience whatever was to happen next did seem an almost welcome sensation, my mind and body were scattered to the four winds at that point.

“It’s not your fault, Tucker,” I said, attempting to fend off the trembling in my voice, “if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead already.”

The cylinder of dense fog began to shrink, closing in on us from every angle, stopping its approach only feet from where we stood.

“You’re not followin’ me,” Tuck said, slowly drifting his head all around.

It looked as though wispy feet were stepping from the fog, as though a ghostly army was hidden away within. More mist flooded upwards, forming some sort of spiderwebbed dome above us. As legs began to trail out, followed by almost translucent bodies, the smoke peeled away between each one, like cotton candy being separated.

“That ain’t what I’m sorry about…”

As the arms reached from each misty torso; every one of them with elongated fingers, ready to snatch us up from where we stood, my companion moved so quickly, my mind hadn’t a chance of understanding what was happening.

“I’m sorry I can’t go no further with you,” he said, gripping my shoulders in his hands, “just keep runnin’, and don’t look back…”

Before I had a chance to protest, or otherwise argue against it, I felt my feet lifting from the dried leaves, as my body was launched through the gap ahead, tearing through the already torn strips of dense, stringy fog.

“GO!” I heard screaming out from the strange ball of wispy energy, as a light began to illuminate from within.

While I wanted to fight back; to free the one who had thrown me to freedom as effortlessly as if he were tossing a towel into the laundry hamper, I wouldn’t even know where to start. While the ripples of smoke encased him, the high-pitched, shrill squeal that accompanied the vibrant glow damn near turned my hair white.

“GO!!” his now almost tortured voice shrieked once more, sounding as though he was experiencing a pain I could barely fathom.

Whether it was simply my desire to escape that inspired me to do as he commanded; to get off my ass and run even harder than I had before, or just that I knew there was nothing I could do to help him, I can’t say, but I was ashamed of my actions, nonetheless.

Not only had he saved my life twice by this point, but I had to believe he was sacrificing himself to save me. Given the tortured howl that wailed out from behind me as I sped onward in search of safety, I was certain this was the fate met by those other poor souls who encountered the Gray.

When the agonized scream bled into an explosion, sounding as though it fragmented those trees surrounding where the Ranger made his final stand, the shockwave tossed me back to the forest floor like a ragdoll.

As I lay there, feeling my consciousness slipping back into the black, I couldn’t tell what sort of condition I was in. My mind slipping, I tried to push up from the dirt and dead leaves, but that concussion had drained every ounce of strength I had left.

Before my eyes closed, dropping me back into almost blissful darkness, I heard a familiar voice; one that was almost surprising enough to keep me from drifting away.

“You’re gonna be alright now. See you ’round, friend.”

The hospital bed I awoke in felt heavenly after passing out in the woods, or so I thought anyway. When my mom came running up to my bedside, with Dale smiling down at me by her side, I was still out of it. Be it from whatever they fed into my veins to take the edge off the pounding in my head, or simply whatever damage lay beneath the gauze around my scalp and forehead, I had no clue.

We talked a little while we awaited the doctor, my mother trying to fight back the tears that streamed down her face, with my stepfather’s arm wrapped around her midsection. Though what she told me didn’t quite match up with my recollection of things; that it took the firefighters and paramedics some time to pull me free from the wrecked car, halfway swallowed up by the fissure in the road, I didn’t fully register the implications at the time.

When my doctor arrived, stating that he was confident the surgery performed on my cracked skull had been a success, I still assumed the injury to have been caused by the shockwave, throwing me to the forest floor. The cast around my left leg, as well as the bandages around my left wrist and both hands, would take less time to heal than my fractured dome, but he felt certain I would make a full recovery in due time.

Over the months that followed my short stay in the hospital, I went through a good deal of work to retrain my broken body and mind, once I had healed enough to do so. Before long, I was cleared to return to work, having made a full recovery from my injuries, as the doctor had predicted.

The three-inch scar across my hairline isn’t too noticeable, and neither are those across my wrist, but the marks on my hand from the mincemeat left in the wake of my windshield crashing down on it, stand out like a literal sore thumb. Still, some battle scars are a small price to pay, all things considered.

Once life returned to normal, I took a short trip one weekend, back to the woods I had crashed alongside. It took me a while to locate the Ranger station, but I had to find out if Maxwell Tucker was real or just a figment of my fractured mind. While I hoped this could provide some answers about what I truly experienced that day, I also wanted to be able to thank him for what he did for me.

When I pulled up beside the quite lovely log cabin that appeared to house the Rangers of this slice of the forest, a uniformed man and woman, leaning on one of the jeeps gave me a wave. While I thought about beginning with a little small talk, as I climbed out of my dad’s old truck to approach the two wearing friendly smiles, I thought it best just to get right to the point.

“Hi,” I said, tipping the brim of my baseball cap, “would you happen to know if Ranger Tucker is around?”

“Tucker?” the tall, broad-shouldered guy asked, glancing at his associate.

The woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, or early forties, with her dark hair tied into a ponytail beneath her wide-brimmed hat, formed a strange sort of scowl as she blinked from her colleague to me.

“Only Tucker we had around these parts ain’t around anymore,” she said, squinting her eyes as she studied me.

“Oh. Maxwell Tucker? Is that him? Ranger Tuck?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, giving me a very strange look, “he used to work with us, some fifteen years back.”

“Oh, wow! I could’ve sworn he was around my age,” I said with an awkward laugh, “do you happen to know where he is now?”

“Same place he’s been for a decade and a half, son,” she said, gesturing to the left with a tilt of the head.

When I turned to see the small cemetery, up on the hill, I felt all of the blood drain from my face, my legs giving out beneath me.

“Woah, now,” the woman called out, she and her partner catching me before I hit the ground.

After they carried me inside, laying me on a lumpy, yet comfortable couch, the tall man fetched me some water, while one of the others laid a wet towel across my brow. After my heartbeat regulated, Ranger Angie Temple, who had helped me inside, accompanied me on a stroll up to the old boneyard.

We talked a good deal over the hours that followed. While I was hesitant to tell her about how I met Ranger Tucker, she told me a good deal about the man who consequently saved both of our lives.

She was still ‘green around the gills’ back then, with Tuck being her trainer. One day, some six months after she joined the Rangers, they responded to a call about an attack out in the woods; those that ran alongside the road that swallowed my car.

Assuming it to be a bear, or some other wildlife having jumped some innocent campers, they headed out to the scene, armed and prepared.

“I felt like my damn heart was about to burst through my chest, but Tuck looked just as calm as if he was walkin’ to the kitchen to fetch a snack,” Angie said with a chuckle, running her hand across the tombstone bearing his name.

When they arrived to see a large, shaggy-haired man with a pistol trained on the crying teenage girl he held, and a butane torch in the hand wrapped around her, she was uncertain if this was something they could handle. The boy around her age laying on the ground, bleeding upon the leaves, looked like he was long gone, but all of this was enough for the fear to almost paralyze her where she stood.

Again, Tuck still wore that carefree smile as he tried to calm the situation, attempting to convince the disturbed man to release his hostage.

“For a second there, I thought he was gonna pull it off,” Angie said, a tear leaking from her right eye, “but when the big guy raised the gun, pointing it right at me, pushin’ the girl he held to the ground, I knew I was done for.”

She lowered her head, still caressing the gravestone like a dear friend. The sadness etched into her gaze almost inspired my own eyes to leak as hers did, but I tried to fight them back.

“As soon as he raised that pistol to me, Tuck jumped right in front of me, knockin’ me outta the way. How he knew he didn’t have time to get a shot off before the gun on me discharged, I’ll never know, but it all played out in seconds, right in front of me.”

“When the bullet dropped him to the ground beside me, I’d already fired off three rounds myself. At least one of the shots hit the canister the bastard held, blowin’ it apart and lightin’ him up like Joan of Arc in seconds. He still tried to fire off the shots he had left, while he screamed out from the well-deserved pain. I jumped towards the girl, to pull her away before she got caught up in the flames or the gunfire, but It was too late for Tuck. He was gone before he hit the grass.”

We stood in silence for a moment, both of us staring down at the headstone. When she spoke again, I once more found myself lost for words; bewildered by everything she shared with me.

“The man we took down that day turned out to be one foul son of a bitch. Seems he’d been killin’ folks for years until Tuck and I put an end to him. If nothin’ else, I take some solace in knowin’ that Tuck was the last victim of Jeremiah Gray.”

“Gray?” I said, almost more to myself.

“Yup,” she said, crouching down to wipe some dirt from the tombstone, “won’t see no grave for him, though. Don’t know what they did with what was left of him after the fire died down, and don’t give too much of a damn either. He took Tuck away from us, and he deserved that agonizing end. When the law arrived, all that was left was a crispy frame billowing plumes of thick, white smoke.”

“Accordin’ to Stacy, the girl we saved that day, Gray had kidnapped her about a week before. He tortured her some, over that time, finally settin’ her loose in those woods. He told her he’d let her go free if she got to safety, but if he caught up to her, he’d put her through hell.”

“The boy bleedin’ on the grass was the one who called it in, havin’ witnessed what was happenin’ while he was takin’ a hike. Poor kid didn’t know what hit him when Gray got there before we did.”

I never told her the full story about how I came to meet Maxwell Tucker, nor the implications of what or who we perhaps both faced between those trees. We talk a lot since I joined the Rangers soon after that meeting. We still talk about Tuck, as well. While I may never have had the opportunity to really get to know the man who saved me from a potentially grim fate that day, those who knew him in life have shared with me a great deal about him.

Over the years that followed the death of both Maxwell Tucker and Jeremiah Gray, there had apparently been some strange occurrences out in that forest. Someone would go missing from time to time, others would turn up dead. Now and then, though, one of those presumed dead would turn back up, confused about what happened.

Even after they closed that section of the woods to the public, it wasn’t easy to keep those curious enough to enter from sneaking in. A forest isn’t something easily blocked off completely, but they still did what they could.

While those who survived these strange occurrences had no recollection of how they made it out alive, I know how they reached safety, or who led them to it anyway. Whatever the case, ever since my encounter with the Gray, these unsettling events seem to have come to an end.

I like to think that Tuck finally finished that son of a bitch off for good, that day. While I want to believe that this may have allowed him to move on to whatever lies beyond this world, I have a feeling he’s still out there watching out for us.

I spend a lot of time out in those woods. It’s a strange sensation, how vibrant and alive everything appears on this side of the looking glass. Still, should I ever have an opportunity to thank Maxwell Tucker for what he did for me, my best chance would be out there. Plus, if he is still out there, it’s only fair that I keep watch on this side, just in case our old friend returns.

I still miss my dad. I suppose I likely always will. That’s the nature of loss, after all. Now that I feel like I’ve finally found my place in this world, I just wish I could tell him, you know? I wish I could let him know that his son is no longer lost in the woods but found where he belongs within them. I doubt that either of us could’ve predicted that one.

The Remedy for What Ails

I should be asleep, but I’m not.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t sleep much these days.  I’m constantly tired to the point of passing out at random intervals throughout the day, but when it comes to actual deep sleep at night, I rarely have that luxury.  I lay down in bed, get comfortable, and then… nothing happens.  I simply stare up at the ceiling wondering if sleep will ever come.  When it inevitably does, it’s always only a couple of hours at most before I need to be up.

So that’s what I’m doing as the light appears: just staring up at the ceiling wondering when my body will let me rest tonight.

I turn my head towards the window.  I have heavy blackout curtains, but there’s an odd white glow managing to seep into the dark room from around the edges.  With a sigh, I get out of bed to see what’s going on.  It’s probably just some asshole’s car headlights pointed at my house.

I open the curtains and immediately shield my eyes.  The light is brighter than I thought it would be.  It’s also not coming from the ground level like I had assumed.  It’s coming from up in the sky.  A helicopter searchlight, maybe?

Curious, I quickly put on some jeans and a sweatshirt before heading downstairs.  I slip on my shoes before opening the front door and going outside.  If I’m not going to be able to sleep, I might as well find out what’s going on.

I look up into the night sky and freeze.  The light definitely isn’t from a searchlight.  It’s huge.  It fills the sky from end to end; it looks like it covers at least the entire town, if not more.  The white light is so bright that it’s almost like it’s daytime, but the color makes everything it touches look pale and washed out.  The shadows in the spaces it doesn’t reach also seem much darker because of the contrast.

I have no idea what I’m looking at.  There’s no sound coming from it, just the cold white light.  There is, however, an odd…  The best word I can use to describe it is ‘pressure’.  I can feel whatever is up there that’s generating the light.  It’s like it’s pressing down on me just enough that I can feel it.

I tear my eyes from it and look around the neighborhood.  Apparently I’m the only one that came outside to investigate.  That seems strangely implausible.  Sure, it’s the middle of the night, but at least a few other people had to have noticed whatever the hell this is.  

There’s no one, though.  Everything is also eerily quiet.  It takes me a few moments to realize that the power in the neighborhood is out.  The streetlights are dark, and there isn’t any light coming from any of the houses.  I look over my shoulder and see that my own porch light, which I turn on every evening, is out.  It’s like everyone shut things down and abandoned the street without letting me know what was happening.

No, it’s more than that.  The air is completely still.  There’s no breeze blowing through the leaves or bushes.

I’m trying to wrap my head around what’s happening when I hear a shrill shout.  It cuts through the silence and echoes off of the nearby houses.  It’s the sound of a baby crying.

I turn towards the noise and see a small shape in the middle of the road.  My eyes go wide, and I hurry over to it.  There’s no way that someone would-

My suspicion is proven true.  Wrapped in a front-facing baby carrier, a small pink hat adorning its head, is an infant.  It looks terrified, and it’s crying for all its worth.

Not sure what else to do, I carefully slide the child out of the carrier and hold it up.  I frown.  I recognize this baby.  Four months ago my neighbors across the street, the Aldermans, had a daughter.  I had seen her a number of times as her mother pushed her down the sidewalk in a  stroller.  I try to remember her name for a few seconds before it comes to me.  Samantha.  Her name is Samantha.

She stops crying and stares back at me.  There are still tears in her eyes, but it seems like the human contact has comforted her a bit.  Her face and fingers are cool to the touch, and I hold her closer to help keep her warm.

Something has to have happened to her parents.  I don’t know them well, but even the few interactions I’ve had with them is enough to know that they love their daughter.  They wouldn’t just abandon her in the middle of the road like this.

I carefully reach down and retrieve the carrier.  It’s mostly made of cloth, and it has two straps that are designed to go around each of the parent’s arms.  Moving slowly so that I don’t scare Samantha, I put it on before setting her down inside.  She immediately places her head on my chest before letting out a few hiccups.

“Come on,” I say to the baby in what I hope is a soothing tone.  “Let’s go check on your parents.”

My footsteps sound extremely loud in my ears as I cross the street.  I’m feeling both scared and nervous, which seems perfectly reasonable given the situation.  I avoid looking up at the mysterious light.  There’s nothing that I can do about it, so there’s no point in worrying about it.  Instead, I stay focused on the task at hand.

I also try to avoid looking down at Samantha more than I need to.  There was no way that I was going to leave a baby abandoned in the middle of a road, but at the same time I’m not really comfortable holding her.  Not her specifically, but babies in general.  Doing so makes me think of things that I really don’t want to think about.

I reach the Alderman house and stop at the base of the porch steps.  The house is dark and silent, just like all the other homes on the block.  It’s somehow intimidating.  Maybe it’s just the way the light above makes the shadows look deeper or how it emphasizes each imperfection in the wood and siding.  Whatever it is, it’s got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

I turn my head to one side.  I would swear that I just heard something.  It was off in the distance so I can’t be completely sure, but it sounded like… jingling?  Is that the right word?  It was like the sound of coins clinking together.  I listen closely.  There’s only silence now.

Returning my attention to the matter at hand, I ascend the porch steps and go to the front door.  There’s something taped to the small glass window towards the top.  Frowning, I knock on the door and wait.  There’s no response.  I try again, but it leads to the same result.  After a brief hesitation I attempt to turn the doorknob.  It’s locked.

Not knowing what else to do, I reach up and pull the object free from the window, making sure not to jostle Samantha too much.  It’s a note.  No, I correct myself.  Not a note.  It’s a folded picture.  The paper stock is glossy to the touch.  There’s a note written in black pen on the white backing.

Gone to the Coplings.

I know that the Coplings are a family here in the neighborhood, but I’m not sure which house is theirs.  I look down at the baby I’m carrying, and she stares right back up at me.  Was her family on the way to a neighbor’s house when they had left her in the road?  That didn’t make any sense.  I can’t imagine that they’d just abandon their child for no reason.  Had they been taken against their will?  If that’s the case, why wasn’t Samantha taken with them?

I have no way of knowing the answers to those questions, or even if they’re the right questions to be asking.

I unfold the picture and step back out into the light to get a better look at the image.  It’s in black and white, and I’m not really sure what I’m looking at.  It kind of looks like one of those sonogram pictures that are taken of a woman’s womb when she’s pregnant.  This one doesn’t really show anything, though, except for a dark empty space in the center.

Folding the paper once again, I retape it to the window.  There’s no point in bringing it with me.

“Let’s go back to my house,” I say to Samantha.

I don’t know where the Coplings live.  With the power out, it’s not like I can go online and look it up, either.  However, I’m pretty sure that I have a phone book buried in one of my kitchen drawers.  If that’s actually the case, there’s a chance that I can find the address there.

I come to a stop on the sidewalk.  There’s that noise again.  I turn my head towards it.  This time I see something down at the far end of the block.

There are two figures approaching, one shorter and thin and the other tall and massive.  The smaller one is holding what appears to be an old lantern.  The glowing orange flame inside looks very out-of-place in the washed-out colors of the world around it.  The person holding it is a woman, and although I can’t make out many details due to the distance, I can tell that her hair is pulled back in a tight bun and she’s wearing a long black dress that is buttoned up almost to her chin.

The other figure is a man.  He’s the largest person that I’ve ever seen, easily seven feet tall and built like a tank.  He’s wearing a long black leather coat that just barely avoids touching the ground, and his gloves and wide-brimmed hat are made of the same material.  A strip of leather covers his mouth and nose.  The shadow from the hat completely covers his eyes in darkness.

Wrapped around his right arm is a thick metal chain.  It clinks as he walks.  It must be the source of the sound that I’ve been hearing.  I take a step back at the sight of it.  The light from the lantern is glinting off of something woven through the links.  It’s barbed wire.

The sight of the hideous chain is enough to make my stomach churn.  The way he carries it makes it clear that he intends to use it as a weapon.  There’s no reason I can think of for him to use a chain wrapped in barbed wire over a more efficient tool except to cause as much pain and damage as possible.

Instincts take over.  I hurry back into the shadow of the house and continue into the side yard.  Placing my back up against the siding, I crane my neck around the corner so that I can watch the two figures.

The woman is speaking to the man.  Normally I wouldn’t be able to hear what she’s saying at this distance, but the silent world I’m now in lets her voice carry.

“Can you feel it, Father?” the woman says in a flat tone.  “He is here.”

The man does not answer, but she silently regards him as if he is saying something that only she can hear.

“Of course I’m sure.  After all, Mother knows best.  He’s here, as expected.  I can feel his self-loathing and smell his despair.”

They stop walking.  The woman, Mother, holds up the lantern and looks around slowly.  I duck back behind the side of the house as her gaze turns towards the general area where I’m hiding.  There’s no way that she can see me from that distance and in these deep shadows, but I’m not taking any chances.

Are they talking about me?  I don’t know why they would be looking for me.  I’ve never seen either one of them before.  They have to be searching for someone else.

“Wait,” Mother said abruptly.  “There’s someone else here, too.  Someone…  A girl.  An infant.”

I look down at Samantha.  She’s staying silent, but she’s beginning to squirm and I’m guessing that means she won’t be quiet for long.  Her life is supposed to be one of calm and comfort, not being carried around by a stranger as he stumbles around in fear and confusion.

“We’ll take the child first,” Mother is saying.  “Every moment she’s with him is a moment that she isn’t safe.  He’ll inevitably fail her.”

The words cut through me like a knife.  While I still don’t know if I’m the one they’re searching for, it feels like what she said was intended for me.  Samantha makes a protesting sound.  I quickly pat her lightly on the back and tell her that everything is okay as quietly as I possibly can.

I watch as they draw closer.  Mother stops at the mailbox in front of my house and examines it for a moment.  She nods.

“This one, Father,” she says.  “This is his home.”

Without a word, the giant brute stomps up the short path and onto my house’s porch.  The wood groans under his weight, and I hear a loud snap as one of the boards breaks.  He stops at the door for a few seconds and looks it up and down.  Seemingly satisfied with what he sees, he continues forward and walks through the door.

I stare at the hole in shock.  Father didn’t open the door or even pull it from its hinges.  He simply walked right through it as if it was no thicker than a piece of paper.  He didn’t even bother to raise an arm as he did so.

Crashing noises echo around the neighborhood as he moves through my house.  A part of me wonders if this is what people feel like when they watch a tornado rip through their homes.  This man is a force of nature that seems determined to destroy anything in his path.

There’s a sharp crack as the house visibly leans to one side.  He’s going right through the support beams.  I really believe that the entire structure is going to fall.  Before that can happen, though, he emerges through the shattered doorway.

“So he is not home,” Mother says.  “He’s somewhere nearby, though.”

She looks around the surrounding homes slowly, the lantern raised and her eyes narrow.

“You can hear me, can’t you?” she calls out.  “You’re out there somewhere, hiding like a coward and not knowing what to do.  Again.”

Mother lets Father walk past her before she goes up to the front door of my house.

“You have a decision to make, Christopher,” she says, leaving no doubt now that she’s speaking to me.  “Reveal yourself and turn over the child to us, or flee from us to try to save your miserable life.  Which will it be?”

I stand still with my mind racing with confusion and fear.

“No decision,” Mother says with a disappointed shake of her head.  “Of course not.  Once again, your indecision causes your life to burn to ash.”

Without warning, she throws the lantern into the house.  I hear the glass shatter before flames immediately begin to fill the entryway.  The fire is burning impossibly fast, and everything that it touches is consumed.  In less than a minute the entire structure is aflame.  Mother calmly walks back over to stand next to Father.

“There’s no hiding this time, Christopher,” she yells over the roar of the fire.  “Your reckoning has come.”

She raises one hand and points directly at me.  Without hesitation, Father begins to advance towards me.

I immediately start to run.  I only take a few steps before I remember that Samantha is still strapped to me.  Using one hand to support the back of her head as much as possible, I run into the backyard with the intention of crossing through the connecting yards to escape.

My plan is immediately screwed as I find that the backyard is surrounded by neighbors’ fences on all three sides.  I stop and turn around.  Father is already in the side yard, and he’s headed towards me with surprising speed.  Not having any other options, I hurry over to the other side of the house and work my way back towards the street.

Father can follow me around the house, or he can simply turn around and go back to the street on his side.  Either way, I won’t have much time.  I need to figure out a way to lose him for just a few minutes.  I need time to think and come up with a plan.

There’s a booming sound to my left.  I barely manage to duck my head down as a large hand breaks through the side of the house and reaches towards me.  I swear loudly.  Instead of waiting to chase me when we both reach the street, Father has instead gone straight through the building.

Samantha cries out in fear and begins to cry.  I don’t have time to comfort her.  Father has almost fully emerged from the wall.

I just keep running.  There’s nothing else that I can do.  I reach the street and immediately continue on to the east, leaving both Mother and the burning remains of my house behind me.

“You can’t run forever,” Mother calls after me.  “This is what you want.  This is what you need.”

I have no idea what she’s talking about.  I reach the end of the block and turn down an alley.  The road here is narrow; it’s a one-way street that’s only meant for residents to reach their driveways and for waste collectors to pick up the trash.

My legs are starting to feel heavy, and my lungs are burning.  I’m not a very active person, and my body isn’t used to this level of exertion.  I need to find a place to stop and rest.  Turning into the nearest driveway, I hurry up to the house’s backdoor and try to open it.

Miraculously, the door is unlocked.  I dart inside and close it behind me before locking it.  Samantha is still crying.  Trying not to panic, I soothe her as best as I can.  The tears continue to stream down her cheeks, but at least she stops yelling.

I’m standing in a small laundry room.  Hanging from a rack is a small washcloth.  I grab it and give it to Samantha.  Her little fingers wrap around it, and her crying stops as she begins to play with it.  She sticks one of its corners into her mouth and gums it contentedly.

A large shadow blocks the light coming through the door window.  I practically throw myself down next to the washing machine in an attempt to hide myself from view.  Less than a second later Father steps up to the door and peers inside.

This isn’t going to work.  He must have been closer than I thought when I had left the alley.  He saw me go into the house, and now he was going to force his way inside and kill me.  I looked down at the small baby in the carrier.  Kill us.

He turns away from the door and leaves.  I blink as I stare at the window in incomprehension.  I can’t believe what’s happening.  He hadn’t seen me after all.  I let out the breath that I hadn’t known that I was holding.  I’m not sure how long I just sit there before I finally get back up.

We’re safe, if only for a little while.  I walk through a doorway into the house’s kitchen.  Turning on the faucet, I’m relieved to see that the water is still working even though the other utilities aren’t.  I retrieve a glass from one of the cupboards and fill it before drinking the water down in seconds.  I do this a second time, and then a third before turning off the faucet and placing the glass on the counter.

As I’m doing so, I notice a block of knives near the sink.  I select the largest knife in the set and pull it out of the block.  I doubt that I’ll be able to do much damage to Father with it, but it’s better than nothing.

I slowly walk around the kitchen, bouncing Samantha softly as I do so.  There’s a pile of mail on the table.  I idly flip through it as I try to regain my strength.  According to the envelopes and mailers I’m in the home of the Franklin family.

I come to the last letter and pause.  This one has a different address on it.  It must have been delivered with the rest by mistake.  I slide it out of the pile and take a closer look at it.

It’s addressed to Melinda Copling.  I glance down at Samantha.  The note at her house had said that her parents were going to the Coplings.  I hadn’t known who that was at the time, but now through sheer dumb luck I have their address.  248 Tall Elm Drive.  It’s as good a place as any to go.  There might be more people there, and if we’re going to survive what’s happening we’ll need as much help as we can get.

I last saw Father prowling out in the alley, and I definitely don’t want to leave the house that way.  Leaving the kitchen, I go out into the next room and head towards the front door.

A picture on the wall causes me to pause.  Inside of a silver frame and under a thin piece of glass is a sonogram photograph much like the one that was taped to the Alderman house.  It isn’t exactly the same, though.  It’s difficult to tell for sure in the dark, but this one seems to have a gray shape in the center.  I lean in closer to get a better look.

“This is what you wanted,” Mother suddenly says, shattering the silence.

I spin around in surprise and terror, but there’s no one there.

“You laid awake in your bed every night and asked for this to happen,” she says.

I can’t tell where she’s speaking from.  Her voice seems to be coming from both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

“You even prayed for it.  Imagine, a man like you actually praying.  How absurd.  You begged a god that you have never believed in to help you, to take mercy and pity on you.  But you and I both know that it’s not mercy and pity that you need.  It’s not what you deserve.  Father and I are here to do what truly needs to be done.”

“What are you talking about?” I demand, my anger and frustration temporarily replacing my fear.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she snaps.  “You may not be willing to admit it to yourself, but you know.  It’s about them.  Everything is always about them.  You need to be punished for what you did.”

The floorboards above me creak.  She’s on the second floor.

I don’t even consider trying to attack her with the knife.  Samantha’s carrier is still strapped to me, after all, and I doubt that I could hurt her anyway.  I have the feeling that she’s every bit as durable as Father, if not even stronger.

Instead, I unlock the front door and go back outside.  I audibly gasp as I see flames all around me.  The fire that consumed my house was now working its way through the other homes.  Shaking my head to clear it, I hurry down the sidewalk towards the address I had found on the letter.  Hopefully the fires haven’t already gotten to it.  For her part, Samantha remains obsessed with the washcloth.  

To my relief it’s in a part of the neighborhood that remains untouched.  Looking around quickly to make sure that I haven’t been followed, I practically leap up the front steps to the door.

Without warning, Samantha is gone.  One moment I’m feeling the weight of her carrier against my chest, and the next both she and the carrier are simply not there.  I look around in a panic.  That’s not possible.

A faint sound catches my attention.  It’s the sound of the baby’s crying.  I close my eyes and listen closely, trying to figure out where it’s coming from.  It seems to be in front of me, but also… below me?  The basement.  It must be coming from the house’s basement.

Not bothering to knock, I fling the door open and go inside.  I’ve never been inside this particular house before.  I’ve never even met the people that live here even though it’s just a few doors down from my own house.  I’m not usually a very social person.

I’m standing in an entryway.  In front of me is a staircase leading up to the second floor, and to my right is the kitchen.  To my left…

Sitting in a small chair in the tackily-decorated living room, her hands folded in her lap, is Mother.

My grip tightens around the knife, but I don’t move.  She doesn’t, either.  Instead, she simply sits there, her eyes locked on mine.  There’s something different about her now.  I’m not sure what that something is.

I hear Samantha cry again.  It’s closer now, less muffled.  Setting my jaw, I step through the archway and into the living room.  Mother remains in her chair as she silently watches me.  As I come to a stop in front of her, her eyes slowly lower down to the knife.

“You don’t need that,” she says.

There’s none of the earlier menace in her voice.  If anything, she sounds defeated and tired.  The change in her demeanor makes me feel unsure of myself.  It doesn’t make any sense.  First she’s trying to kill me, and now she seems like she’s completely disinterested.

“You can’t take it in there with you anyway,” Mother continues.  “Just set it on the table.  Nothing here is going to hurt you.  Not in a way that something like a knife will protect you from, anyway.”

Above the chair she’s sitting in is a large portrait.  Inside of the frame is another of the black and white sonogram pictures.  I stare at it for a long moment before dropping the knife onto the carpet.  I recognize this one.  Something in my mind clicks into place.  I’ve recognized all of them.  This one is forcing me to admit that.

The womb in this sonogram is full.  I can easily make out the fetus within, the curve of its head and the shapes of its arms and legs.  Part of me, a big part, wants to break down and weep as I stare at the child.  Whatever dam there is inside of me continues to hold, though, and the tears don’t come.

I jump as something touches my hand.  I look down to find that Mother has taken it in her own and is staring up at me.  There are dark circles under her eyes, and the expression on her face makes it seem like she’s carrying a great weight.

“Soon,” she promises.  “You understand now why Father and I have come?  It has to be this way.”

I look at her without answering.

Samantha’s cries bring me back to what I was originally doing.  Slipping my hand out of Mother’s, I cross the room to a closed door at the far end.  I take one last brief look at her over my shoulder.  

The baby’s wailing rises to almost deafening levels as I reach out towards the doorknob.  My fingers stop less than an inch from the metal.  I know what’s waiting for me beyond the door.  I shouldn’t, but I do.  It terrifies me far more than anything else that’s happened.

Taking a deep breath that catches in my lungs, I open the door and go inside.  The crying stops.

I’m no longer in the house.  Instead, I’m standing in a dark hospital room.  A bed sits against one wall, with a number of machines standing next to it.  I recognize the room immediately.  It was the place that I had spent the worst moments of my life.  I stand inside this room every time the nightmares come when I sleep, and the nightmares always come.

She’s not in the bed.  Instead, she’s leaning against the wall and staring out the open window.  The curtains flutter gently as the night breeze pushes against them.  She’s dressed in a white hospital gown, and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail.

“What do you think it is?” she asks without turning around.

The sound of her voice cuts through me.  I haven’t heard it in so long.  I’m convinced that even if she was standing in the middle of a giant crowd I would still be able to distinguish her voice from all the rest.

“The light over the town,” she prompts, pointing out the window with one finger.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” I answer after swallowing hard.

“I wonder if anyone does.”

“Is…”  I swallow again.  “Is this real?”

She turns away from the window and looks at me with those large brown eyes.  “I don’t know.  I doubt there’s any way to know for sure.  I want it to be.”

I join her at the window.  The hospital room is a few stories up from the ground floor, and the white light shining down on Harvest End looks somehow different from this vantage point.  It looks curved, almost rounded, with the highest point above the direction of the center of town.

“I wish you could see her,” she says.

“See who?” I asked in confusion.

“Our daughter.  She’s beautiful.  I know all parents say that about their children, but in this case it just so happens to be true.  She’s got my eyes, but she has your nose.”

“She’s… with you, then?”

“Oh yes.  Did you really think that anything in this world or the next could have kept me away from her?”

“No, I suppose not.”  I pause.  “Molly, I’m sorry, I-”

“You were told to make an impossible decision,” she cuts me off firmly.  “A decision that no one should ever have to be asked to make.”

I look away.  “I did make it, though.  I said to-”

“Chris.”  She puts her hands on the sides of my face.  “It doesn’t matter.  You were told that you had to choose between your wife and your child.  There was no right answer.  No wrong one, either.  I don’t blame you for making the choice that you did.  That’s not really the problem, though, is it?”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

“The problem is that you blame yourself.  No matter what anyone tells you, you continue to blame yourself.”

“It is my fault,” I tell her.  “I was told to make a choice, and by the time that I did it was too late.”

She shakes her head.  “You’re leaving a pretty important part out.  The doctor told you that only one of us could be saved, but even then it would be extremely low odds.”

“If I had made it faster…”

“It wouldn’t have mattered.  We both would have still died.  There was too much bleeding.  You know that, at least intellectually.  That brings me back to your problem.  You might know the truth, but you still feel like you did this horrible thing that you should be punished for.  Not just punished, but almost… ruined.”

I don’t have to turn around to know that Father is standing just inside the doorway.  Mother steps out of the shadows to stand next to Molly.  Both of the women’s faces are distraught, and there are tears in their eyes.  Mother places a hand on my wife’s shoulder.

“I wish there was some other way to convince you that you don’t need to torture yourself anymore,” Molly says.  “Some other way for you to move on with life instead of being stuck in this cycle of self-loathing and numbness that you’re in.  The way that you’ve chosen, though… either you come out the other side of it able to move on, or you die.”

“I’ve always been a bit of a stubborn asshole,” I reply with a small smile.

She half-laughs, half-chokes.  “That’s an understatement.  How do you want to do this?”

“I…  I guess over by the bed.”

I walk over to it and run my hand along the thin sheet.  I remember the feel of it against my skin from when I sat at Molly’s side and held her hand.  She had been so happy that it was finally time for our child to be born, and despite the physical pain and exhaustion her happiness had been infectious.

My mind turns to the moment that the bleeding started.  I had first seen it as a single drop falling onto the sheet.  The dark red liquid had absorbed into the material, slowly spreading out from the middle like a flower blossoming.  It had been an odd moment of beauty before the ugliness.

I take off my shirt and bunch it up before setting it down on the bed.  Kneeling down on the ground, I fold my arms under my head and use the shirt as a makeshift pillow.  My back is fully exposed.

Molly surprises me by lifting my head and taking away the shirt.  She sits down on the bed in front of me and crosses her legs before setting my head back down in her lap.  She gently strokes my hair.

“I don’t want you to do this alone,” she says softly.

I don’t answer, but I don’t have to.  She knows that I’m grateful for the comfort.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer.  “I have been for a long time.”

I feel the air shift as Father steps up and looms over me.  His presence is just as strong as it had been, but there is something different about it now.  While I’m nervous, I’m not consumed by fear like I had been.  I feel the fingers of his leather gloves touch my back.  Tears begin to well up in my eyes.  There’s no doubt that he’s going to do what I’ve desperately needed to have done.

The fingers pull away from my skin, and I know that it’s about to begin.  Molly whispers to me in words too quiet to be heard.  Her voice gives me strength.  I close my eyes and wait.

The wire-wrapped chain comes down across my exposed back.  I cry out in pain as the metal makes contact so hard that it nearly knocks me to the floor.  The agony is indescribable.  I feel blood running down my skin before it drips onto the hospital room floor.

It’s not over yet.  I grip the side of the bed tightly as Father pulls the chain free.  The barbs from the wire rip and tear at my flesh.  I scream, a primal sound with no words.  Stars float in front of my eyes as my ears are filled with a loud rushing noise.  I began to slip towards unconsciousness.

“Not yet,” Molly murmurs.  “Almost, but not yet.”

She’s right, of course.  If I black out now I won’t be able to finish my penance.  I grit my teeth.  There’s so much pain, but in a way it’s a vast relief to experience it physically instead of the mental torment I put myself through every day.  This is real and tangible.  It’s a brutal therapy that I have to see through.

I don’t know how many times the dreadful lash comes down.  Each time it does there is an explosion of agony, followed by pain that is less intense but much more sustained.  In the moments between I feel a sense of relief that goes far beyond corporeal comfort.  It’s the breaking of the shackles that I had put around my own soul the moment that I had lost my family.

At last, long after the period of I’m suddenly outside in the front yard of my house.  I’m on my knees in the grass. The pain in my back is intense, but nowhere near as much as it should be.  I was beaten and flayed open just moments before.  Now I just have nearly-healed scars to show for it.  The memories of the beating are clear in my mind, though, and with little effort I can remember exactly what it felt like as the chain wrapped in barbed wire was brought down on my back.

It’s cold, and I shiver against the winter wind.  My shirt is sitting on the grass next to me.  I put it on and stand up.  As I do so, the white light in the sky goes dark.  That feeling of something pushing down on me disappears, and as it does so I have the distinct impression of an impossibly large object moving away.  As my eyes adjust to the night I notice something else above me.  The stars have returned.

I take a deep breath of the chilled air.  It smells sweeter than any breath I have taken in a long time.  Feeling much lighter and more free than I have in many years, I turn to go back into my undamaged house.  I need my sleep, after all.  When the sun rises it will do so on the first day that I’ve been alive in a long, long time, and I’m determined to experience every moment of it in full.

The Wolf Below and Above

I don’t need to watch to know where the woman has decided to hide.  It’s always one of three places, and out of those three it’s usually one specific spot.  It’s all so… predictable.

I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t absolutely need to.  If I could avoid it, I would.  That’s always the case.  The problem is that I can’t.  Not when my condition reaches this point.

I really thought that I was going to make it this time.  That happens more often than you might think.  I managed to get through the past two cycles without having to resort to this.  I was so damn close to making it this time as well.  Yesterday my hands started shaking, though, and that was soon followed by the sensation of itching in the back of my skull.  I knew then that I was out of time.

There’s no point in lamenting what isn’t to be.  I retrieve the pair of knives from the table.  The blades bob up and down in the air due to my shaking hands, but I will just have to make them work.  I slowly walk down the stairs leading into the main warehouse storage area.

This would not be my choice of hunting grounds.  Much of the space is taken up by crates and storage containers, and all the doors and windows are chained shut.  It creates a claustrophobic environment that offers no chance for escape, which in turn takes away any potential thrill and makes for a tedious experience.  Unfortunately, it can’t be avoided.  I can’t take any unnecessary risks, even if that means that everything has become repetitive and dull.

There was a time that I would have tried to drag this out for as long as possible.  That was back when I still believed that I could make all of this mean more than simply fulfilling an unavoidable physical need.  I thought that I could force satisfaction from it through ritual.  Maybe there was a time when that did work, or at least when I could make myself believe that it did.  Now, though, there’s no point.  I just want it to be over with.

I make my way over to the large stack of crates with the opening between the bottom ones.  This is where the majority of people choose to hide once they realize that escape isn’t an option.  If she isn’t here I’ll move onto the storage container with the broken door, and from there to the small office near the large metal doors.  Those are the only three places in the warehouse where hiding makes sense, so inevitably one of them is chosen.  All so damn predictable.

I don’t have to check the other two hiding spots, because I can see the woman crouched down in the shadows between the crates.  I sigh.  Of course she is.

This isn’t some random woman.  She is the chef and owner of one of the best restaurants in town.  I stopped in to dine there earlier in the evening, and the pork I had eaten had been exquisitely prepared.  The meal had been the highlight of my evening.  I had hoped that I would be able to spare her.  She had sent her staff home when she had closed the restaurant for the night, though, and she had stayed late alone to do the final bits of cleaning.  With no time to find someone else, my hands had been tied.

She looks up at me with wide-eyed terror as I approach.  It doesn’t have to take long or be overly painful.  I’ll finish this quickly.  I owe her that much for the pleasant meal.

Television shows and movies would have you believe that people start screaming at the top of their lungs or try to fight back when their would-be killer approaches.  I’ve found that’s not typically the case.  Oh, it does happen from time to time, but usually they behave the way that this woman is.  She is frozen in fear, her mouth moving but no sound coming out.  I suppose that this kind of reaction should make me feel powerful, maybe dominant.  It does nothing for me.

I hunch over slightly to enter into the small opening.  She’s whimpering now, but I ignore it as I raise the knives.  The shaking in my hands is worse now, and it’s all I can do to keep my fingers wrapped around the wooden handles.  I need to get this done quickly.

The knives plunge into her body, and for the first time she screams.  I swear loudly as blood leaks out onto my hands.  The blades haven’t gone into the points that I intended them to.  I had tried to make the stabbing lethal so that she wouldn’t have to suffer.  Now I have to do things the messy way.

I pull the knives free.  I’ve waited too long, and my hands are shaking uncontrollably now.  I have to forget the original plan and improvise.  Tossing one of the knives back behind me, I wrap both hands around the handle of the one that I’m still holding.  This is a bit better.  I definitely have more control over the weapon even if I can’t hold it perfectly steady.

The woman is still stunned from the initial attack.  I don’t think it’s registered through the shock that she’s been stabbed.  She stares at me blankly as her hands press against the pair of wounds.  Before she can recover, I thrust the knife forward and this time my aim is true.  The metal slides into her chest and I feel it pierce through her heart.  I make sure to remove it instead of leaving it in.  That way the bleeding will increase and death will come faster.

I sigh again as I back out of the space between the crates and walk away.  She’s not dead yet, but she will be in just a few moments.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know when a wound is fatal.  There’s no point in standing around and watching the inevitable.

I hold out my hands in front of me.  They’re still shaking, but the tremors are smaller and easily managed.  The itching is gone from the back of my head.  It’s an improvement, albeit a minor one.

It’s just so fucking unsatisfying.  It never feels the same way that it does during that incredible final night of the cycle.  My dissatisfaction is quickly being replaced by anger.  Why the fuck can’t it ever feel the fucking same?  One night of an incredible indescribable unmatched high, and nearly a month of rock bottom and just trying to exist until the next one.  How in the fuck is that fair?

I force myself to calm down.  The answer is that it’s not fair, but there’s nothing that I can do about it, either.  Besides, the end of the cycle is almost here.  I just have to make it until tomorrow night.

The smart thing to do would be to clean up the mess that I have just made and go home to get some rest.  I know from experience that I won’t be able to sleep, though, and I’m not in the right headspace to make sure that I take care of my crime scene properly.  Both those things will just have to wait.

Pulling a set of keys out of my pocket, I remove the locks from one of the doors and pull the chains free.  I toss them off to the side in a small pile and go outside.  The cold winter wind immediately assaults me, and I grit my teeth as I wish that I hadn’t left my coat inside.

Before I leave, I go around the side of the warehouse until I reach a spigot.  I turn the valve and freezing water starts pouring out of it.  As quickly as I can, I wash the blood off of my hands and dry them on the legs of my jeans.  I let the water run long enough to allow the ichor to flow into a nearby storm drain, then close the valve once again.

A light drizzle begins to fall as I walk towards town.  The warehouse that I use is located at an old dockyard that hasn’t been in service for years.  I don’t own it, and the various cargo items inside of it aren’t mine, but somewhere along the way the actual owner stopped caring about it and left it to rot.  I look around at the other buildings that I’m walking past.  They’re all in various states of decay.  I often wonder what happened here to make so many people walk away at the same time and leave so much merchandise behind.

Having such a large area to myself, especially one that includes more contained sections throughout the site, has been extremely useful.  No one is around to hear any noises from either myself or my guests, and there’s no security that might accidentally stumble on my activities.  It’s basically the perfect environment.

I grit my teeth.  Except it isn’t perfect, is it?  If it was, maybe I wouldn’t feel so hollow when I treat my condition.  Maybe I need a challenge, and this place is making everything all too easy.

I shake my head firmly.  That isn’t it.  I know that it isn’t.  The abandoned dockyard gives me safety when I otherwise wouldn’t have it.  I’m just irritable and lashing out.  Another wonderful side effect of my condition.

My car is parked at the edge of the dockyard.  I ignore it and continue on foot.  I’ve found that the best way to prolong the effects of a treatment is to remain active.  The physical activity helps to distract from the return of my symptoms, at least for a short while.  I check my watch.  About twenty hours left.  Fuck.

The road leading away from the docks is empty.  That’s no surprise, as there’s nothing else out this way.  There’s no reason for anyone else but myself to be here.  I walk down the middle of the road instead of off to one side.  In a very real sense, this is my own personal domain.

I walk for over two miles before I reach an intersection.  I continue forward without so much as a glance to either side.  Both the left and right paths lead to highways.  The direction I’m headed in goes into town.  Before it does that, though, it leads right past a smaller diner that’s open all night.  That’s where I’m going.

After another mile I arrive at the diner.  I’m pleased to see that there are only two cars in the parking lot.  I go inside and sit down at a booth in the corner.  I’m alone in the eating area.  The cars must belong to employees.

Speak of the devil.  A woman comes out of the kitchen and gives me a smile.  I see the smile slip a bit.  It wasn’t by much, but I definitely saw it.  Do I still have some blood on me that I missed?

“Looks like you got caught outside in this lovely weather,” she says to me.  “Did your car break down or something?”

“Truck, actually,” I lie easily, my worries dissipating.  “Just down at the 219 ramp.  I called it in, but I can’t get anyone out until morning.  I had to walk here.”

I wasn’t born a good liar.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I was terrible at it as a child, and every time that I attempted lying I would be caught.  I’ve developed the skill over the years.  It’s been a necessity that I do so.  Now I do it as needed without even thinking about it.

I order a cup of coffee to start before asking to see a menu.  I smell a fresh pot brewing somewhere nearby, and my walk through the cold and rainy night has chilled me to the bone.  I avoid caffeine most of the time, but I’m willing to make an exception on this particular occasion.

When the waitress returns with my drink, I order something off the menu.  It’s some sort of sandwich, but I’m not sure which one.  I just point at a line and she nods before going back to the kitchen.  I’m not actually hungry.  I know that I need to eat, though.  My body needs as many calories as possible during the final phase of the cycle.

The coffee helps get the chill out of my body.  That, combined with time having passed since the kill, makes me feel more like myself than I have in days.  It won’t last, it never does, but for the moment I don’t want to focus on that.

I sit in the uncomfortable booth for a little over an hour, slowly eating my rather mediocre chicken sandwich and drinking progressively worse cups of coffee.  Eventually it’s time for me to go.  The diner is only a few miles from the dockyard, and I don’t want to leave too much of an impression on the waitress just in case something happens down the line.

The waitress brings me the check, and as she does she offers to give me a ride back to my non-existent truck.  I give her a smile and politely decline, telling her that I’ve been stuck inside it all day and it feels good to be able to walk around and stretch.  She glances out at the still-falling rain and asks if I’m sure.  I assure her that I am.

As she’s walking back towards the kitchen, I feel the familiar itching in the back of my head.

No.  This is too soon.  I’ve never had the itching come back just hours after making a kill.  It’s always a few days at the very least before I start to notice it.

I sit still in the booth, the pin-like pricks working their way up and down my skull.

Something is very wrong.  Usually the itching starts out so faintly that it’s barely noticeable.  Over the course of two or three days it gradually increases in intensity until it’s so strong that it pushes me to the point of insanity.

That isn’t happening now.  The sensation is already intense, and I can feel it growing steadily as each second ticks by.  I don’t understand.  This doesn’t make any fucking sense.


Did I do something wrong, change something about the kill?  I shake my head.  That doesn’t make sense.  There’s no ritual or anything like that.  Make the kill, satisfy the need.  That’s all there fucking is to it.  It’s not goddamn rocket science.

Calm down.  Breathe.

Maybe there was something different about the woman that I had chosen.  All that had mattered before was the killing, but I guess that it’s possible.  There’s no way to know for sure.

Focus.  Fucking focus.  None of this matters.  What matters is what I do now.  There’s no way that I’m going to make it until the end of the day.  I look at the clock hanging on the wall.  The sun won’t even be up for another hour.

At the rate it’s going, the itching will reach its peak soon.  When that happens, the pain will begin.  It will feel like spikes being hammered into every inch of my body.  I’ll be so blinded by the agony that I will no longer be capable of rational thought.

The last and only time that it got to that point, I regained my wits in the family room of a house that I didn’t know.  The remains of three people, torn apart and barely recognizable as being human, surrounded me.  Every inch of me was covered in hot blood.  All my symptoms were gone, but I had no idea what had happened and where I was.

It had solved one problem and created a multitude of others.  I can’t risk that sort of thing happening again.

There’s an odd thumping noise.  I dismiss it as noise coming from the diner’s ancient-looking heating ducts.  It continues, however, and it doesn’t seem to be coming from above me.  I look down and find that my hands are shaking so violently that they’re banging against the top of the table.  I stare at them for a long moment.  I hadn’t even noticed that they were trembling.  I wrap my fingers around the edge of the table and grip it as tightly as I can in an effort to stop them.

I’ve come to a decision.  I don’t know when I started working my way towards one, or how I had arrived at this particular conclusion, but I know what needs to be done.

Taking my wallet out of my back pocket, I pull a few bills out and place them on top of the check the waitress had left me.  I know that she’s watching me through the small window that looks out from the kitchen into the dining area.  After all, I’m the only customer.  I’m not going to be ordering anything else, and she’s already earned whatever tip that I decide to leave.  At this point she’ll just want me gone so that I’m out of her hair and she can go back to doing nothing.

I allow myself a small imperceivable smile as she immediately comes out of the kitchen.  Some people are just too easy to read.

I don’t have a plan.  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t need one.  I’ve taken so many lives over the years that it’s instinctive at this point.

She reaches the table and puts her hand out to pick up the check and money.  As she does so, my arm lashes out like a snake and my fingers dig into her brown hair.  Before she can react, I’m slamming her face into the edge of the table.  Her scream is silenced almost as soon as it begins.  She slides to the tile floor, unconscious.

I know that she’s not dead.  Instead of tending to that, I slide out of the booth and immediately head towards the kitchen.  The waitress isn’t going anywhere, and even if she wakes up she won’t be in any condition to leave or present a threat to me.  There’s one more person in the diner, though, and I can’t take the chance that they heard her short cry.

The door to the kitchen begins to open just before I reach it.  I grab a steak knife out of a basket of silverware behind the counter before kicking the door back towards the person emerging from the other room.  There’s a loud grunt as it smashes hard into someone.

Pressing my momentary advantage, I throw open the door and thrust the blade at the large man standing behind it.  The knife isn’t nearly as sharp as the ones I keep at the dockyard, and the slightly serrated blade is designed for cutting rather than stabbing.  I wasn’t expecting the person to be quite so tall, either.  The knife digs into his flesh, but it’s not much more than a flesh wound.

Ducking my shoulder, I ram it into his chest to knock the wind out of him.  He really is big.  He’s got at least six inches and fifty pounds on me.  This is the danger of not planning things out before killing.  I find myself in situations like this where I can’t fully control what’s happening.  At the end of the cycle this wouldn’t matter, but until then these kinds of risks are extremely dangerous.

He’s temporarily winded now, though, and he’s been wounded.  Judging from the expression on his face, he’s also unsure of what’s happening.  I can work with that.

I take a quick glance around me and my eyes fall on a skillet on the stove to my right.  Its contents are sizzling from the heat underneath it.  I pick it up by the handle and swing it like a tennis racket at the man’s head.  

It impacts hard with his forehead.  There’s a sickening crunch of bone, followed by a crackling noise as the hot metal burns his flesh.  His mouth opens, but he doesn’t scream.  Instead, he makes a gurgling sound as bloody foam spills out over his lower lip.  Thick red fluid also starts to drip from his ears and the corners of his eyes.

The skillet makes a sucking sound as I pull it free from his face.  It tears skin off as I do so.  It sticks to the pan like burned leather.  I swing the skillet for a second time, and he immediately slumps over onto his side.  His right eye has come free from its socket, and it lays across the bridge of his nose with the optic nerve trailing back into the gap.

He’s almost done.  I have to give him credit for surviving the two blows with the skillet, even if he did so with quite a bit of brain damage.

I allow the skillet to fall to the floor as I step over the man to reach a microwave sitting on a shelf.  Unplugging it from the wall, I carry it over to him and take one last look at him as he twitches and convulses.  I raise the heavy appliance up over my head before bringing it down as hard as I can.  His damaged skull provides little resistance, and his body goes still.

There’s a sound from out in the dining area.  I hurry out through the kitchen door, worried that a customer has walked into my kill zone.  Instead, I find the waitress struggling to get up.  She’s leaning up against the side of the booth’s seat, the salt shaker she had knocked over with her hand lying shattered on the floor next to her.

I get another knife from the silverware basket and cross the distance between us.  She looks up at me with glazed-over eyes, and I doubt that she can even see me.  I adjust my grip on the knife and cut her throat.  Blood bursts out from the gash.  The small piles of spilled salt on the ground become sticky and clumpy as it covers them.

The itching has stopped.  My hands are as steady as rocks.  I sit down on a stool at the counter and sigh in relief.  For the first time since the symptoms started this cycle I feel human.

With the relief comes a familiar bitterness.  No matter how satisfying a kill is, it never has the same pleasure and overwhelming satisfaction that one does during the final night of the cycle.  It’s infuriating.  It’s like some higher power has decreed that I’m only allowed to be happy one night each month.  Twice a month every two and a half years or so.

I allow myself a minute to sulk in my anger and disappointment before I force myself to put it aside.  There’s a pressing matter to attend to.  I’ve got two dead bodies and all the mess they created to deal with.  It won’t be long before people start to arrive for breakfast.  I have to figure out what I’m going to do before that happens.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that I’ve made a hell of a mistake.  No matter what I do, this place is going to end up being a crime scene.  Since it’s only a few miles from the dockyard, the police are bound to search it.  When they do, they’ll find the woman that I killed earlier, likely along with evidence of previous kills as well.  I don’t have any choice but to abandon the dockyard and move on to somewhere else.  Probably another state entirely.  I look up at the ceiling.  Definitely another state.

Fine.  If that’s what I have to do, it’s what I have to do.  Going back around the counter, I open the cash register and take the small amount of money that it contains.  I also go into the kitchen and take the money from the cook’s wallet, as well as a set of car keys from his other pocket.  It doesn’t end up being much in total, but it’s better than nothing.

I just have to make it through the day.  If I can do that, I can end the cycle tonight in a different place before continuing on my way in the morning.  I just…  I just have to make it through the day.

The kitchen provides me with the answer I need for covering my tracks.  There is an exposed gas line that runs through the kitchen.  Covering my mouth, I break a section of the line before quickly making sure that the pilot light in the stove is still burning.  Good.  I’ve broken a secondary line, not the main line.

I leave the diner through the front door.  There’s still no one in the parking lot, and there isn’t any traffic on the road, either.  I try the key that I took from the cook in the small white car first, but it doesn’t fit the lock.  It slides easily into the driver’s side door of the red pickup, though, so I get in and start the engine.

The rain has stopped, and the first hints of the rising sun can be seen in the distance as I turn out onto the road and head away from town.  After less than a minute of driving, I see what appears to be the light of a second sunrise in the rearview mirror.  I nod to myself.  It won’t be long before the fire at the diner is completely out of control, if it isn’t already.  At the very least it will take the authorities a couple of days to dig through the rubble and ashes.  Even if they somehow manage to find enough evidence to piece together what happened, I’ll be long gone before then.

The only thing working against me is the truck that I’m driving.  It won’t take the police long to figure out that it’s missing.  If they do that fast enough, they’ll be able to get word out across the state with the make, model, and license plate number.  That could lead to disaster.

Luckily, I don’t have to stay in this pickup for long.  I drive back towards the dockyard, going as fast as I dare on the slick pavement.  I reach my destination without incident and pull the truck up to the edge of one of the concrete docks before putting it into neutral and getting out.

I try to push the pickup off the edge of the dock, but I’m barely able to get it to budge.  I get down lower and press my back up against the tailgate as I push as hard as I can.  It eventually starts rolling forward.  There’s a crash of metal as the front wheels go over the edge.  I nearly fall as the weight of the front end does the rest of the work for me.  The truck slides into the dark water and sinks below the surface.

I give myself a few moments to rest before dusting myself off and hurrying over to the car that I had parked at the dockyard earlier.  It’s a black four-door sedan, the kind that countless people drive in every city in the country.  I check to make sure that my backpack is still in the passenger seat before opening the trunk and retrieving a duffel bag.  I change out of my bloodstained clothes and into fresh ones before getting into the car and leaving the dockyard.

This time, I turn right at the four-way intersection instead of continuing towards town.  My plan is to put as many miles between here and me that I can by mid-afternoon, then find a place where I can complete the cycle.  I fish my cellphone out from the car’s glove box and bring up the Map app.  The phone is a pre-paid one, of course, and I purchased it under a fake name.  There are half a dozen other ones in the car trunk and one in the backpack, all of which are still in their packages and are listed under different names.

The map confirms what I already thought.  If I stay on the highways and don’t make any stops, I can be out of Minnesota and into North Dakota by one o’clock.  That should give me more than enough time to get myself oriented and figure out where I would spend the night.

So that’s what I do.  Ignoring the fatigue that creeps in, I drive towards the state border, making sure to keep my speed at or under the limit to avoid the possibility of being pulled over.  I have to resist the urge to go faster.  While I know sticking to the speed limit is the smart play, I’m anxious to reach my destination.

I almost nod off twice during the drive.  Now that the symptoms of my condition are gone, at least for now, my body is more relaxed than it has been in quite a while.  It isn’t helping that the roads in this part of Minnesota are mostly just trees and open land with nothing to break up the monotony.

It’s with more than a little relief that I reach the state border.  There is a sign for a rest stop a few miles past the line, and I gratefully follow it into the parking lot.  I need to get out and stretch for a bit, get some fresh air.

I’ve never been to this part of the country before, and I’m surprised to see that the rest stop isn’t one of the standard ones with just a few bathrooms and vending machines.  This one is quite a bit larger, with a cafeteria-like section housing five or six chain fast food restaurants.  There’s also a small arcade, as well as a side room with a dozen leather massage chairs.

I’m mostly interested in a kiosk just inside the doorway.  It contains racks of maps and brochures, both for specific landmarks and for North Dakota in general.  I take a few of them and tuck them under my arm before I buy some lunch.  Once I have my burgers and drink, I pick a table in the corner away from the other people and open one of the maps.

I’m looking for a town to use for the night.  It has to fit some specific criteria, though.  It needs to have a large enough population to be worthwhile, but also not so large that it has a major police presence.  The police aren’t a concern during the final night of the cycle.  I’m worried about what could happen the next day.

I also prefer towns that are isolated.  The more that things are contained, the better.

There don’t seem to be many options that meet my needs.  I’m starting to think that I’m going to have to go with something less than ideal.  I’ve had to do that in the past.  Never on this short of notice, though.  I don’t like going into something blind.  It’s not looking like there’s a choice, though.

Wait.  There.  A small town about a hundred miles from where I’m at, with enough clustered streets on the map to imply at least a decent-sized population.  I pull the town up on my phone and confirm this is indeed the case.

Broken Bend, North Dakota.

Finishing my food, I toss the wrappers and maps into a trash can.  I make sure that I have directions to my new destination before I leave.  As I hold the door open for an elderly man, I notice a newspaper rack off to one side.  The story on the front page of the newspaper on top had the title ‘The Planets Align’.

I fish fifty cents out of my pocket and buy the newspaper.  I return to my car and open it.  According to the article, over a roughly eighteen hour period the Earth will be going in and out of alignment with multiple planets.  It’s extremely rare for this to happen; normally three or more planets align for a short period of time, then move along their orbits until they’re no longer in a line with one another.

This is different.  Because of where the planets are at in their orbits around the sun currently, the Earth has been and will be moving in and out of different alignments with different planets.  Two of these events will involve the moon as well.

That has to be it.  That has to be why my symptoms returned so quickly.  I’ve always known that the lunar cycle is tied in with my own.  Something about these planetary alignments must be throwing things off.

There’s nothing that I can do about it.  I toss the newspaper into the backseat before getting back out on the road.  It doesn’t really change anything anyway.  I still need to reach Broken Bend and get myself situated before dark.

The path to the town that I’ve chosen takes me off the main highways and onto smaller state routes.  The roads are in much worse condition on these, and I have to slow down to make sure that the car doesn’t bottom out in some of the larger potholes.

The forests are much thicker along these roads as well.  The trees are taller and closer together, and their tops reach out over the road like a canopy.  Even though it’s the afternoon on a sunny day, I have to turn on the car lights to see where I’m going.  It’s like I’m driving through a tunnel.

Two hours after I leave the rest stop, I pass a sign with the words ‘Welcome to Broken Bend’ painted on it.  Just beyond it is a wooden bridge that spans over a river.  The car bounces uncomfortably as it passes over the boards.

A few minutes after leaving the bridge behind, the trees thin out and I arrive in town.  I’ve found that most towns this size tend to look the same, and Broken Bend is no exception.  The downtown area is comprised of local businesses, a couple of churches, a few government buildings, and a gas station on both sides.  As I drive beyond that, I find that most of the older homes are on fairly large properties, but there are also some newer-looking developments with the houses much closer together.  Past the residential areas are parks and nature preserves.

I smile slightly.  This is perfect.

I begin to make plans.  There’s a closed construction site just outside of downtown that I can hide my car in overnight.  It’s in both walking distance to the various shops and businesses, as well as at least two of the housing developments.  I can park the car, go into town until dusk, come back to the car to get ready, and head for the housing developments as night falls.

I pull the car into the construction site and maneuver it around the equipment to park it behind a long trailer.  I take a moment to make sure that I have everything that I’ll need.  It isn’t much.  Since I’m going to be coming back to the car before nightfall, I only really need my wallet.  I get out of the car and feel the cold air against my skin.  Correction.  My wallet and a coat.

I open the trunk and retrieve my heavy coat.  While I do so, I also take out a large pocket knife.  Typically I don’t carry a weapon with me.  As strange as it sounds, it’s safer that way.  I don’t have to worry about metal detectors or, as has happened a few times in the past, being frisked.  Besides, it’s not like I really need it.  I can be quite creative when it comes to figuring out ways to hurt people.

This is a new town that I’m not familiar with, though.  It doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.

My short trip into downtown Broken Bend is uneventful.  Only a few cars pass by as I walk along the side of the road, and none of the drivers pay much attention to me.  I’m not in any particular hurry.  At this point I’m just looking to waste time until sundown.

When I reach downtown, I slowly walk past the various businesses and shops.  A number of pedestrians greet me as I move down the sidewalk.  I nod and smile at them in turn.  These people have no idea what is coming for them tonight.  That thought causes my smiles to become even wider.

It’s been a long day, so it’s a relief when I come to a bar.  The painted window proclaims it as The Rockcreek Tavern.  I open the door and head inside.

That’s where I spend the next couple of hours.  The food is surprisingly good, the beer is pleasantly cold, and the patrons leave me alone.  I’ve had worse afternoons.

I’m struck by the need to go to the bathroom.  As I stand up to head to the restroom, I check the time on my phone.  It’s just past five.  That’s plenty of time to do my business, have one last beer, and start back towards the car.

It’s a single toilet bathroom.  I lock the door before I relieve myself.  Once I’m finished, I wash my hands and look at myself in the mirror.  I’m feeling a bit warm.  I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s been a long day, and I’ve been on the road for most of it.  It’s either from the stress or the beers.

I look at myself closely in the mirror.  I definitely look tired.  My eyes are a bit bloodshot, and there are dark circles under them.  I’m also looking a bit pale.  Sighing, I run a hand over my face.

I stop.  My hand is shaking.

I force myself to stay calm.  The shaking doesn’t matter.  I’m only a few hours away from the end of the cycle.  I can make it until then.  There isn’t even any itching at the back of my neck.

Sweat begins to drip from my forehead.  I’m getting warmer.  Gripping the sink with both hands, I lean in towards the mirror and take a closer look at my eyes.  The black of the pupil is no longer circular.  Instead, it resembles a blot of ink that has run out across the blue iris.

It’s happening.  The end of the cycle has arrived.  The change is beginning.

This shouldn’t be possible.  The change shouldn’t happen until the moon begins to rise.  The sun isn’t even all the way down yet.

I remember the newspaper story about the strange planetary alignments.  There must be something about them that’s not just causing my symptoms to return faster, but also forcing the change to happen earlier.

I need to leave the bar.  If I hurry, I might be able to get to the car before-

There’s an audible snap as my right cheekbone breaks in half.

I gasp at the sudden blossom of pain.  It’s too late.  It’s happening now.

As quickly as I can, I strip off the clothes that I’m wearing.  I normally have time to pack away any clothing so that I can come back for it after the night is over, but I doubt I’ll be able to retrieve them this time.  It’s still best to take them off.  The less restrained my body is during the change, the better.

I feel pressure in my upper back.  This signals that one of the worst parts of the change is coming.  I sit down on the bathroom floor and slide my belt out of my pants.  Putting it in my mouth, I bite down on the soft leather.  Mere seconds later, my arms slide forward in their sockets before dislocating completely.  It’s terribly painful, but not as bad as what comes next.  I lean back against the wall and close my eyes.  My jaw presses into the belt so hard that my gums hurt as my leg bones jerk out of place.

I nearly black out as my spine pops and cracks, creating a steep curve near the top.  Saliva and dark blood are leaking out around the belt from my mouth.  More of it comes pouring out as the front of my skull starts breaking into pieces and my ribs pull apart further.  I feel like I’m on fire, but I know that the worst is almost here.

During this part of the change, my pain is doubled.  This is because I have twice the amount of nerves in my body, the ones running to my current shell, and the ones attached to what’s emerging.  All of them are screaming in agony as they’re stretched and mangled and torn.  There is no thought or reason.  There is only the torture, deep and infinite.

I’m so lost in this void of torment that I can no longer register the individual changes that are happening.  Everything is merely a part of the overall torment.  I float in the agony as it engulfs me.  Moments pass.  Years, maybe.  It’s impossible to tell.  Time has no meaning now.  Only pain exists.

Suddenly, mercifully, there is relief.  My outer skin tears open as my new body emerges from underneath it.  The belt falls from my mouth as I pant heavily.  It’s like an unbearable pressure has been released.  There are small stabs of discomfort as the change is completed, but it’s barely noticeable when compared to what I’ve just gone through.

The last of my bones lock into place.  I can feel my rational mind beginning to slip.  In moments it will be secondary to instinct.  I never lose my mind completely.  I’m fully conscious of what I’m doing.  It just doesn’t matter.

I get to my feet.  Everything feels so different now.  Powerful.  I can’t believe that I ever managed to stand on my weak human legs.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  The face of a wolf stares back at me.  It is thin and gaunt, the skin stretched tight against the face and muzzle.  The black fur is matted down with blood.  I pull a loose strip of ruined flesh off of the bottom of my jaw.

Movies.  Television.  Books.  Legends.  They’re all wrong about werewolves.  There’s a resemblance to wolves after the change, yes, especially in the face, but that resemblance only goes so far.  My body is far more skeletal and thin than the popular interpretations.  Certain parts of me like my clawed fingers appear almost delicate.  I don’t have a tail, and my long muzzle contains multiple rows of teeth.

It’s my eyes that tell the true story.  They are completely black, with pinpricks of red light barely visible in their depths.  To look into them is to know fear.  It’s to know death.

I hear movement out in the bar, and I turn away from the mirror.  My senses are heightened far beyond what a human is capable of.  I hear a stool pulling away from the bar.  I can smell the scent of beer wafting in from under the door.  I can see every crack and imperfection on the tiled bathroom wall.  I feel alive in a way that I never do except when the wolf comes out to play.

I take one last look around the bathroom.  There is blood everywhere, and pieces of my human skin cover the floor.  Even though it’s my own blood, the smell of it excites me.  I bare my teeth as I turn back to the bathroom door.  Finally.  After all this time, the hunt is finally here.

The door explodes into a shower of splinters as I burst through it.  There’s a man standing nearby in the short hallway, a half-filled glass in his hand.  His eyes grow wide with shock.  Before he can say or do anything, my right arm is swinging towards him.  The claws slide through skin, muscle, and bone as though they offer no resistance at all.  His body splits into two pieces and falls to the ground in a heap.

Oh fuck yes.  My heightened senses enhance every moment of the kill.  It’s a pleasure that goes beyond the effects of any drug.  More.  I need more.

There are screams coming from the main room.  Bar patrons are staring at me in surprise and horror, and some are fleeing towards the door.  I take two strides forward before leaping over their heads and landing between them and the exit.  No one leaves.  This is my moment.

One of the customers swings a clumsy punch at me.  I open my jaws to expose my rows of teeth and bite down into the flesh of his arm.  The razor-sharp fangs sink in deep.  With a twist of my head, I tear off the arm and fling it up against the far wall.  The blood running down my throat tastes incredible.

I’m a flurry of suffering and death.  Throats are torn, limbs are severed, lives are ended.  Each kill increases my need for more.  I revel as I rip apart the bar patrons.  I am the god of the hunt, and it is my purpose to reap the prey.

The man behind the bar has a gun.  He brings it up and fires once, twice, a third time.  All his shots are true.  I feel the impact of the bullets as they strike my skin.  The metal is hot, and it singes the tips of my fur.  My mouth opens slightly as a grin spreads across my face.  The sheep believes it can harm the wolf.

I jump onto the bar and snap my mouth around the sides of his head.  For a moment I let him struggle, my teeth piercing his skin as he tries to free himself.  Now he understands his place in the order of things.  His struggling ends as I clamp my jaws closed.

Music plays from the jukebox in the corner of the bar as I survey the room.  The Rockcreek Tavern is now a monument to carnage.  The scent of death fills my nostrils as I bask in the pleasures of the kill.  I raise my head towards the ceiling and howl triumphantly.

A werewolf’s howl is not like a wolf’s.  It is an inhuman sound, a deep guttural call that spreads fear to all that hear it.  It is the sound of Hell’s gates being opened.

I need more.  The hunt has just begun, and I intend to make the most out of every second.

I go out the front door and into the streets.  People immediately begin to scream, but I ignore them for the moment.  The sun is just beginning to set in the distance.  The sky is filled with splashes of red and thick purples.  I’m momentarily frozen in place.  I’ve never seen the sunset before, not with these eyes.  The charge has always happened after nightfall.  Even through my frenzy the beauty of the scene before me is striking.

The spell is broken as I smell the blood on my fur.  It’s time to continue what I’ve only just started.

A car is beginning to pull out of the parking space in front of me.  Baring my teeth, I jump through the passenger side window and into the vehicle.  In one motion I wrap my claws around the driver’s neck and throw both him and myself through his door.  We land hard on the concrete.  I crush his throat before looking over my shoulder to watch the car crash into an oncoming truck.

A man and a woman are running down the sidewalk away from me.  I race after them and catch up to them before they even realize that I’m following.  The woman falls as my claws and arm push through her back and out of her chest.  Grabbing the man, I lift him up over my head and rip him in half, his blood and entrails pouring out of him.

I drop the body and narrow my eyes.  The wind has brought a scent to me, one that isn’t the sweet coppery smell of blood or one of the common smells associated with a small town.  This scent is much different.  For the first time, not just during this change but for the first time ever in this form, I feel uneasy.

I don’t recognize the smell, but I do understand what it means.  Someone else, something else, has already marked this town as its own.  I’m in claimed territory.

It doesn’t matter.  I only get this opportunity once per cycle.  If another creature has claimed Broken Bend, it’s more than welcome to come try to defend its territory.

Most of the people have abandoned the street.  They hope to hide from me, or at least put some distance between them and me.  It’s a futile hope, and I suspect that some part of them knows that.  I’ll hunt out those in the small downtown area, then move onto the housing developments.  Before the night is over, I’ll slaughter as much of this town as possible.

I hear sirens begin to blare from less than a mile away.  It isn’t often that I encounter the police while under the influence of the full moon.  Normally I make sure that I’m in less public places than this when the change takes place to avoid that.  The changes to my cycle from the planetary alignments is making this night far more complicated than it usually is.  I bare my teeth, unable to contain my excitement.  It’s been so long since my prey has tried to resist its slaughter.  I’ve missed the thrill of it this so damn much.

The first of the police cars comes around the corner.  I grab a nearby mailbox and tear it free from the heavy bolts attaching it to the sidewalk.  With one arm, I fling it into the approaching car’s windshield.  It shatters the glass and smashes into the upper body of the driver.  The car veers wildly to the right and crashes into the side of a store.

The sun has set now, and the sky is growing darker.  A second police car comes into view, its red and blue lights flashing and its siren shrieking.  It stops a block away from me and two officers get out, using their car doors as shields as they pull their guns free from their holsters.  I begin running towards them, my jaws gnashing and my claws flexing eagerly.

I get about halfway before I stop.  The air is full of the smell of the other creature.  It’s stronger now, no longer the lingering scent of something that had previously passed through but instead the fresh odor of something approaching.  I ignore the officers and inhale deeply.  It’s coming from upwind.  Either this creature doesn’t know that I’m here, or it doesn’t care that it’s announcing its presence to me.

There’s something about the scent that makes me feel unsettled.  Even though I don’t recognize it, it’s like some primal part of me, some past memory buried in my werewolf biology, knows that it means danger is near.

I know that there are other unnatural beings out in the world.  I’ve encountered a few over the years, but none of them had triggered this sort of response in me.  I was the alpha predator.  Nothing was above me in the food chain.

The hairs along my back stand up as the smell continues to grow stronger.  I try to tell myself that these feelings are only a result of the unusual circumstances surrounding tonight’s change.  My instincts know that this isn’t true.

The officers begin to fire their guns.  I barely noticed as some of the shots strike me.  I concentrate on the smell, trying to decipher what I can from it.

Thoughts begin to flash through my head.  No, not thoughts.  More like… impressions.  The scent makes me think of the dark cold waters of the deepest oceans, the still and silent darkness down far below the surface.  At the same time, I am reminded of the vast night sky, of the black emptiness between stars.  The images flash through my mind quickly like single frames of movie film in a projector.  There is madness in them.

Fog is starting to fill the streets.  It is cool and thick, and it makes my skin feel greasy.  It has come out of nowhere and is rapidly becoming too dense to see through.  It smells the same as the approaching creature.

The police officers have stopped shooting at me.  I turn my head towards them and find that they are no longer pointing their guns at me.  Instead, they are standing perfectly still, their faces blank as they each point the index finger of their left hands towards me.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.

People that had been hiding from me inside of the businesses are now coming back outside.  Each of them has the same blank look on their faces as the officers, and they’re all pointing at me in the same way.  I growl at them in warning.  All of them no longer smell human, and instead reek of the scent of the fog.

My instincts scream at me that I need to abandon my hunt and escape.  Whatever is coming for me isn’t just unnatural.  It’s not of this world.

I shake my head in frustration.  This is my night.  This is my hunt.  It is my right to spill blood and feast on flesh.

I hear the creature coming.  It’s close; if it wasn’t for the fog, I would be able to see it already.  It sounds…  I don’t know how to describe it.  The closest word I can think of is wet.

I look around at the gathered people as a realization comes to me.  This isn’t just some other creature’s territory.  The territory is part of the creature.  I’ve come to a long-conquered town.  All of the citizens are extensions of its will.

My bloodlust melts away.  If I remain, it will take me as well.

I run, moving on all fours to get away as fast as I possibly can.  The scent of the creature rapidly fades into the distance; it’s not following me, at least not at any significant speed.  Its smell is still around me, though, and it’s closing in from both the sides and in front of me.  The fog is expanding outward, and more people are coming out of their shops and homes.

The otherworldly creature doesn’t believe that it needs to personally come for me.  It thinks that it can tighten a noose around me with its followers.

If I was human, I could get back to my car and drive out of town.  In this form I don’t have that option.  Instead, I plunge into the woods at the edge of downtown.

There are people waiting for me just inside of the treeline.  These aren’t just standing and pointing, however.  Each of them is armed, most of them with knives and the rest with various tools.  They swarm towards me in a semicircle, looking to cut off my escape.

I howl as I charge directly into the middle of the crowd.  Their master may make me afraid, but these are just humans.  With teeth and claws I tear into their bodies.  There are no screams or wails of pain.  They are completely silent as they stab at me with their knives before being torn apart.  As the last one falls I pause to catch my breath.

The creature’s scent is closer.  While the people weren’t able to stop me, they were successful in delaying me.  I continue on.

Something slams into my side hard, and I lose my footing.  I strike a tree before sliding to a stop.  I reach down with one clawed hand and touch where I was hit.  I’m bleeding.

A man steps out of the brush and into view.  He is soon followed by one woman, and then another.  They are all holding heavy-looking rifles.  Bullets don’t typically hurt me, but these are large caliber weapons and pack far more of a punch.

I regain my footing and keep running.  Shots are fired, but none of them manage to hit me.  I’m moving slower than I was just moments earlier.  The round that pierced me must have hit something important.  I’m having a harder time breathing, and my right leg is slightly numb.  I ignore these things and push on.

I don’t stop until I reach the river marking the edge of town. Without pausing, I plunge into the water. It is freezing, and the cold causes my wound to hurt more. More gunshots sound from behind me. I hear some of them slap the water, but nothing comes close to me.

I reach the other side of the river and pull myself up onto the bank. I hurry into the cover of the nearby trees before stopping to look back the way I’ve come. There’s no sign of either the townsfolk or the fog, and I can no longer smell the creature’s scent on the air. I’ve made it out of its territory.

I look down at the blood dripping from my wound. It will soon heal. I raise my head to look back at the other side of the river, feeling shame as I do so. Something unholy has claimed Broken Bend, and it is the true alpha.

The Addiction

I knew that I was in trouble the moment that I pushed on the door.

I had entered the store less than ten minutes earlier, slipping in quietly as another customer was leaving.  A few more shoppers had come and gone in that time, just like I had hoped.  They had kept the man behind the counter busy with sales and given me plenty of time to locate a few small items that could be slipped into my pockets without anyone noticing.  Once I had procured four or five objects that I was sure that I could sell elsewhere, I had waved pleasantly to the oblivious owner and waltzed right out the way I had come in.

That had been my intention, anyway.  No matter how hard I pushed on it, the door simply wouldn’t budge.

“I took the liberty of locking the door remotely,” the man called over to me from behind the counter.

I gritted my teeth and pressed my forehead against the glass.  He hadn’t been nearly as unaware of my actions as I had thought.  Sighing, I turned to face him.

“I take it that you aren’t much of a connoisseur of antiques,” he continued, his tone neither angry nor gloating as I would have expected.  “In my line of work it is a requirement.  The items that you pocketed are worth twenty, maybe thirty dollars total.  I keep them on hand for individuals that want something that looks fancy but can’t afford the real thing.  The truly expensive items are inside the displays on the other side of the store.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept my mouth shut.  Years of hard living had taught me that I was liable to make a bad situation worse if I spouted off without thinking things through.

“Do you see this coin?” the man asked, pointing down into the glass case he was standing behind.  “If I walked into this particular store with the aim of stealing something, this is where I would start.”

He motioned for me to come closer.  I hesitated for a moment before slowly walking over to the case.  It wasn’t like I could leave, and besides, it might make it easier for me to convince him to let me go if I played along with his little game.  I looked down at the coin he was indicating.  It was badly damaged, and the corners were bent inward.

“It really isn’t much to look at,” he said as he voiced my unspoken thought.  “Looks can be deceiving, however.  It’s pure silver, and it was minted centuries before any civilization known to man ever dreamed of doing such a thing.  An ancient currency for an ancient civilization.  That alone would make it priceless, but there’s even more to it than that.”

I found myself being drawn in by the man’s words.  His voice had a certain cadence that was almost hypnotic.  I glanced at him when he wasn’t looking.  He was tall and thin, and he was wearing a gray suit with a black tie.

“The society that this coin comes from was class-based,” the man told me.  “The modern world is much the same, of course, but this particular society took things even further.  Each class had different currency issued to them.  Brass for the lower class, iron for the middle class, and gold for the upper class.  Silver was used by members of the priesthood.  They were the only ones given money that bore the image of the god the people worshiped.”

It was difficult to see any of the image imprinted on the coin, but I could just make out a vaguely humanoid shape.  There seemed to be a number of limbs or growths extending from the body.  I resisted the urge to shudder.

“Take my property out of your pockets and put it onto the counter,” he instructed.

I slowly removed the objects in question from my coat and placed them on the glass.  He watched me silently as I did so.  When I had finished, he picked them up and moved them to an empty shelf on the wall behind him.

“Thank you for not insulting me by trying to keep one or two of them hidden,” he said.  “That gives me hope that we can be civilized about this whole thing.  Now then, I am Silas Pembrook.  Your name is…?”

I stared at him but didn’t answer his question.

He sighed.  “Perhaps I was wrong, and we need to get the authorities involved.”

“Chloe,” I blurted out.  “Chloe Bennington.”

“There we are.  Ms. Bennington, I would like to offer you a choice.”

“What kind of choice?” I asked, blinking in surprise.

“The kind of choice that may benefit us both.  Your first option is for me to handle this incident as the petty theft that it is.  I call the police, and you are arrested and charged.  I would imagine that this wouldn’t be your first time in their custody.”

I chewed on the inside of my lip.

“Ah, I see that your time around the local authorities hasn’t been pleasant.  I have to admit that I don’t have a very high opinion of them myself.  Were you arrested for theft?  No,  that’s not right.  You are clearly too clever and careful for that.”

“Apparently not clever or careful enough,” I muttered.

“You’re not being fair to yourself.  You had no way of knowing that you had chosen the absolute worst mark you possibly could have.  Back to your criminal record.  Based on the slight shaking of your hands, your low body weight for your height, and any number of smaller things, I’m going to hazard a guess that you are addicted to crystal methamphetamine.  What a shame.  Your previous arrests must have been related to that.”

I stared at him in shock.  “How could you have possibly-”

“I know how to use my mind to think through things, but that isn’t important right now,” the man interrupted.  “What is important is the second option that I’m about to give you.  I can call the police, or I can give you something in exchange for your promise to never set foot in my store again and you can be on your way.”

Not waiting for my answer, he reached into the display case and removed a small vial.  It was only a few inches tall, and it appeared to be made of real crystal.  A silver liquid filled it up to just below the halfway point.  He set it down gently on the glass and tapped the stopper with the tip of his finger.

“This,” he said with the faintest trace of a smile on his lips, “is what I believe you addicts refer to as the ultimate high.”

I reached out for the vial to examine it closer, but he put his hand over top of it to stop me.

“I came across it at an estate sale that I was in charge of.  That’s where all of the items in the store have come from.  They’re items that I acquired from the families at a discounted rate.  Anyway, the chemist that first created this didn’t give it a proper name, but I’ve heard it referred to as nostalgia in a bottle.  I prefer the other name that it goes by: Remembrance.  When you take it, you relive the best moments from your life.  I don’t mean that you simply recall them.  I mean that it’s like you’re really experiencing them again.  You’re not, of course, but it certainly seems that way when it’s happening.”

He picked up the vial and held it out towards me.

“So, do we have a deal?” he asked.

I nodded.  It was better than the alternative.

“I’m afraid that isn’t good enough.  I need to hear you say it.”

“Okay, yeah,” I said with another nod.  “We have a deal.  I get this, and I never come back.”

“Good.”  He gently put the crystal bottle into the palm of my hand.  “A pleasure doing business with you, my dear.  When you want to use it, put three drops on the tip of your tongue.  No more, no less.  Three drops.  Now run along.”

With a final look at the store owner, I turned and hurried out the door.  I quickened my pace once I was out on the sidewalk, and I was practically running by the time I reached the end of the block.  People on the street were giving me strange looks.  I ignored them.  All that mattered was putting as much distance as I could between me and that damn store.

I turned down an alley and followed it as it wrapped around behind a group of businesses, feeling the small vial that I was clutching tightly.  I didn’t believe that the silvery liquid did what the man had told me it could.  Over the years I had taken a lot of different drugs, and none of them came close to doing what he had described.  It didn’t matter, though.  All that I cared about was that he had let me out of the store without calling the cops.  I couldn’t afford another arrest.

Coming out the other side of the alley, I slowed my pace and walked across the street.  I was outside of the small downtown area now and heading into the more residential sections of the town.  I followed a concrete road down into a trailer park.  Normally this was one of the louder neighborhoods, but at this time of day it was quiet as most of the residents were either at work, asleep before heading to their third shift jobs, or simply passed out from heavy drinking the previous night.  My footsteps were loud in my ears as I walked across the lot to a rundown gray trailer that looked barely habitable.

I opened the door and went inside, expecting to be alone in the trailer.  Instead, I found my boyfriend Jared sitting in a chair in a shirt and boxers, sniffing loudly and rubbing at his nose.  I frowned.  His shift at the grocery store was supposed to have started an hour earlier.  Seeing the expression on my face, he held up a hand and smiled at me crookedly.

“Hey, don’t worry, it’s okay,” he said, his words slightly slurred.  “I’m not late to work.  I told the manager to fuck off.  That job sucked shit, you know?”

“Oh, you’re too good for it, you’re saying?” I asked, rolling my eyes.  “Too good to pay your half of the rent again?”

“Ah, come on, babe, you would have quit too if you knew how bad it was.”

“Yeah, bagging groceries and stocking shelves is fucking rough, right?  Dammit, Jared, I can’t ask my mom for money again.  You need to get out there and find another fucking job.  Like, right the fuck now.”

He nodded slowly.  “Yeah, I will.  I just had myself a snort snort, though.  Once I come down I swear I’ll go fill out some applications and shit.”

“Sure you will.”

“What’s that you got in your hand?”

I looked down at the vial I was holding.  “It’s this new thing called Get a Fucking Job or Get the Fuck Out.  Heard of it?”

“Nah, seriously, what is that?  Ecstasy?”

I sighed.  “No, shit-for-brains, it’s not ecstasy.  It’s…  A guy gave it to me in town.  Says it’s something called Remembrance.”

“Oh yeah?”  He leaned forward in his chair.  “What’s it do?”

“It’s supposed to make you remember happy memories or something.  I don’t think it really works.  I think the guy was just trying to get rid of me.”

Jared’s expression was hungry.  “Okay, yeah, but what if it does work?  We should try it and find out.  What’s the worst that can happen?”

“You mean besides poison us or fry our brains?  Fry them more, in your case.”  I tossed him the vial.  “Go ahead and try it if you want.  The guy said to put three drops on your tongue.”

I watched as he took out the vial’s stopper.  He stuck out his tongue and, after a brief hesitation, carefully tapped out three drops onto it.  He put back in the stopper and set the bottle down on the chair armrest before reclining back and closing his mouth.

“I don’t feel anything,” Jared said after a moment.  “I guess you were right about him being full of…  Wait.”

Jared’s eyes rolled back in his head slightly as his body relaxed.  A broad smile spread across his face.  I had never seen him like this.  He was normally skittish and high-strung, and even when he was on a heavy dose of downers he didn’t loosen up this much.  Retrieving the vial, I held it between my thumb and index finger.  Had the store owner actually been telling the truth?

There was only one way to find out.  Going further into the trailer, I tossed my coat onto the table and kicked my shoes off.  I laid down on the uncomfortable bed and took the stopper out of the bottle.  Taking a deep breath, I placed three drops of the liquid on my tongue, set the bottle next to the bed, and crossed my arms over my chest.

For a pair of heartbeats nothing happened.  I was just beginning to wonder if the drug hadn’t worked when a loud whooshing sound filled my ears.  The world went black, and I felt a momentary panic as the thought that the drug had blinded me entered my head.  My mind was set at ease as the light quickly returned.

I was no longer laying down, and I wasn’t inside of the trailer.  I was sitting in a wooden box-like structure.  Thin beams of light penetrated through the small gaps in the slats, and I could hear the sound of leaves rustling a few feet above me.  A brown piece of canvas, thin enough for me to see through, was directly in front of me.  I was in the old hunting blind that I had used with my…

I turned my head to face the bearded man sitting next to me.  My father.  I felt a lump form in my throat.  He had died suddenly from a blood clot six years earlier, but there he was, exactly like I remembered him.  He was dressed in that tattered flannel shirt that my mother had hated, and his head was adorned with that ridiculous flapped hat that he insisted on wearing whenever he took me hunting.  I had always suspected that he only wore it because he knew that I thought it was funny.

“There it is,” he said quietly, pointing towards the mesh.

I forced myself to look away from him and at what he was indicating.  Less than fifty feet from the blind was a large deer.  It was a buck, with long antlers extending out and up from the sides of its head.  The animal was sniffing the air.  They were downwind, however.  It wouldn’t be able to pick up their scents.

I remembered this particular day.  It was the day that I had killed my first deer, less than a week before my twelfth birthday.  I hadn’t been sure that I would be able to do it, as I had been conflicted about taking the life of an animal.  I had managed to pull the trigger, and the look on my father’s face had been all the reward that I had needed.  He had been so proud of me that he seemed like he might burst, not because of the kill, but because he had known how much it had meant to me.  It was one of my happiest memories.

The Remembrance had worked just like the store owner had claimed.  Everything seemed so real.  I could feel the soft cloth of my hunting jacket against my skin and the stock of the rifle on the tips of my fingers.  Not only could I see my father, I could actually sense his presence as if he was really there.  It was like nothing that I had ever experienced before.

“Are you ready for this, kiddo?” my father asked.

I picked up the rifle and held it in both arms.  I watched as the deer moved closer to the blind.  It was eating the grass, seemingly satisfied that there was no danger nearby.  I nodded once.

“Yes, Daddy,” I replied with a smile.  “I am.”

I was suddenly back in the trailer.  There was no transition.  One moment I was in the hunting blind with my father, and the next I was back on the lumpy mattress looking up at the metal roof and smelling old cigarette butts.  I quickly rolled over and reached for the vial in a near panic.  I needed to get back into that memory.  I wasn’t ready for it to be over.

The bottle wasn’t where I had left it.  I got out of bed and found that Jared was in the process of sitting back down in his chair with it in his hand.  Hurrying forward, I snatched it from his grasp and wrapped my fingers around it tightly.

“What the fuck, Chloe?” he demanded.

“Stop stealing my shit,” I snapped back.  “I let you have one hit.  That doesn’t mean you can take the rest.”

“Come on.  That shit is fucking fantastic!  It was like I was really hanging out with my friends back before the city tore down the skate park.”

“No.  It’s mine.”

“Yeah, right.”  Jared stood up and took a step towards me.  “And just how did you get it, huh?  You don’t have any money.  What did you do, suck the guy off for it?”

“Fuck you,” I snarled.  “Get the fuck out and don’t come back.”

“Not gonna happen.  Give me the damn bottle, Chloe, or I’m going to take it from you.”

My anger flared.  I didn’t have time for this, and I would be damned if I was going to let this asshole take the Remembrance from me.  Without pausing to think things through, I reached over and grabbed a knife from the counter of the trailer’s kitchenette.  I closed the distance between the two of us and plunged the blade deep into Jared’s stomach.

He stared at me in shock, his mouth moving but no words coming out.  I pulled the knife free and slashed it across his throat.  Blood spurted out from the wound.  He attempted to cover it with his hands, but the thick hot fluid continued to ooze out between his fingers.  Staggering backward, he tripped over his chair and fell onto the trailer floor.  I was on him within seconds, bringing the knife down over and over again into his body.  He stopped moving long before I stopped stabbing.  Finally, my arms shaking from exhaustion, I dropped the weapon and sat back against the wall, panting as I tried to catch my breath.

I looked at the ruined body with detachment.  I didn’t feel remorse for killing Jared.  I didn’t feel much of anything, really.  He had tried to take the Remembrance from me, and I had made sure that he didn’t.  That was all.  A small part of me was telling me that I had just murdered my boyfriend and that should mean something.  I ignored it.  All that mattered was the Remembrance.

I looked at the crystal vial.  There was blood on it, and I used my thumb to wipe it off as best as I could.  Each dose was three drops, and there wasn’t much of the silver liquid left.  I lashed out with my foot and struck the side of Jared’s ruined face.  The worthless prick had cost me one precious trip to the past.  I would have killed him a second time if it had been possible.

I would need more Remembrance after just a few more doses.  There had to be a way to get more of it that didn’t involve going back to the antique store and begging the owner.  I knew every dealer in town.  One of them had to know how to get their hands on it.  I’d ask around later.  For now, though, all I wanted to do was to go back to the memory I had experienced.  Without bothering to move out of the expanding pool of blood, I used three more drops and closed my eyes.

There was the whooshing sound and the blackness again, but when it faded I wasn’t back in the hunting blind with my father.  Instead, I was sitting in the back seat of a car with a boy about seventeen or eighteen years old.  I was wearing a red dress, and my long hair was pulled back into a braid.  The boy’s hand was on the skin of my thigh and was slowly moving upward.

It was the night of my senior prom.  The boy was Brian Keller.  He hadn’t started off the night as my date, but about halfway through the dance we had ditched the people we had come with and snuck off to his car.  I had been carrying a major crush for him since middle school.  It turned out that he had felt the same way; it had all come out during a conversation while their dates had been in the bathroom.

I closed my eyes as his hand reached the top of my thigh.  It wasn’t the memory that I had expected the Remembrance to take me into, but it was a welcome one.

“Come on, Brian,” I heard myself say.  “Make my night.”

The statement had come out without me intending to make it.  It took me a moment to realize that it was because I was reliving a memory.  Things were playing out the same way that they originally had.  Although it didn’t seem that way because everything felt so real, I was just an observer.

The boy smiled hungrily and lifted up my dress to fully expose my lower half.  He carefully pulled off my panties and dropped them on the car floor.  As I gripped the seat, he bent over and put his head between my legs.

I was back in the trailer.  I immediately let out a scream of frustration.  The drug simply wasn’t lasting long enough.  I needed more.

My pants were completely soaked through with blood, so I stood up and stripped them off as I stared at the crystal vial on the floor.  The store owner had told me very specifically to only use three drops.  That clearly wasn’t working.  Whether it was because the drug wasn’t potent enough or because it wasn’t as effective on me because of my past use of other narcotics, I wasn’t being given enough time to see the memories all the way through.

Fuck that guy.  Coming to a decision, I scooped up the vial and sat down in the nearby chair, ignoring the body next to it.  Nodding to myself, I put four drops of the silver liquid on my tongue and listened to the now familiar whooshing noise as things faded to black.

I was standing in the trailer with Jared directly in front of me.  My hand was gripped around the handle of the long kitchen knife, and I pushed it into his stomach before cutting open his throat.  He fell to the ground, and just as I had earlier I got on top of him and began to stab him repeatedly.

“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” a voice said from behind me.

I turned my head slightly and saw my father standing a few feet behind me.  He placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently.  I felt myself smile.  His approval meant everything to me.

“Be sure to puncture the lungs,” he instructed me.  “You don’t want it to cry out and alert the other animals.”

I nodded and did as I was told.  Blood bubbled out of Jared’s mouth, but I barely noticed.  I was already covered in his red ichor, and a bit more of it didn’t matter one way or another.  Leaning over him, I watched as he stopped struggling and the light faded from his eyes.

I felt arms wrap around my waist.  I didn’t need to look to know that Brian Keller was behind me; I recognized his touch as he explored my body with his fingers.  A soft moan escaped from my lips as he pushed himself inside of me.  I smiled down at the mangled corpse and matched his rhythm.  The blood and gore smelled intoxicating, and it seemed to excite him and make him more eager than I had ever known him to be.

When my mind returned to the real world, I felt both loved and satisfied.  I was the happiest that I had ever been.

The feeling didn’t last.  Within an hour I began to come down from the emotional and physical high.  I brushed the hair out of my face and wiped the sweat from my forehead.  Four drops had definitely been the way to go, even if it had mixed memories together instead of letting me experience more accurate ones.  I glanced down at Jared’s body.  That same voice that had told me that killing him was wrong was screaming at me that it wasn’t normal to have thoughts of sex while in the same room as his remains.  I once again ignored it.

I picked up the vial of Remembrance and felt my body grow cold.  I had used the last of it, and the bottle was now empty.

“Fuck,” I said in panic.  “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!”

I got out of the chair and hurried over to the trailer’s small shower.  I had to go get more, but I knew that I couldn’t go outside covered in blood.  Quickly cleaning myself up, I got out, dried off, and put on clean clothes.  Jared’s blood had soaked into my white shoes, and since those were the only pair that I owned I was forced to fish out a pair of sandals from one of the drawers.  Being careful not to step on the body or the red pools around it, I left the trailer and hurried towards the trailer park exit.

One of the local dealers lived just a few blocks away.  As I dashed up the three steps leading to the old house, I felt around in my coat pocket for my wallet.  I always kept some emergency money on me, money that I had been careful to hide from Jared.  It wasn’t much, but I hoped that it would be enough.  I knocked on the door and waited impatiently for a few seconds before it opened, revealing a tall woman with short hair.

“What?” the woman demanded shortly.

“Yeah, Traci, it’s me, Chloe,” I answered.  “I need to see Doug.”

“Oh, yeah, hey, Chloe.  Doug’s not here.”

“Fuck.  When will he be back?”

“Next Tuesday.  He went to Vegas for his cousin’s wedding or some shit.  You looking to score?”

I nodded.  “Yeah, I’m looking for something specific.”

“Come on in.”  Traci opened the door wider.  “I’m handling things until he gets back.”

I sighed in relief and went into the house.  The door was closed behind me, and I was led into a small living room.  Half a dozen people were seated throughout the room, each of them looking like they were stoned out of their minds.

“Don’t mind them,” Traci told me.  “Some of Doug’s regulars.  They come in, shoot up, and leave a few hours later.  They’re harmless.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Listen, I’m looking for something in particular.  I think it’s new.  It’s called Remembrance.”

“Remembrance?  Never heard of it.  Upper, downer, psychedelic, what?”

“I…  I’m not sure.  You take it, and your best memories come up.”

Traci tapped her lips with her finger.  “Doesn’t ring a bell, but Doug’s got a ton of weird shit stashed away.  Tell you what.  Wait here and I’ll give him a call.  You can pay, right?”


“Then give me a minute.”

She left the room, and I found myself alone with the stoned people.  There was nowhere to sit that wasn’t already occupied, but I doubted that I could have relaxed anyway.  My entire body was shaking.  It didn’t feel like withdrawal.  It was more like I was extremely anxious and impatient.  I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.

On a long table in front of one of the customers was an open baggie of cocaine.  There was quite a bit of it, and judging by how out of it the guy was there must have been a lot more to start.  He wouldn’t even notice if I went over and did a quick snort of it.  It just didn’t seem all that appealing, however.  A week, hell, a day earlier I would have jumped at the opportunity, but now that I had tried Remembrance I no longer had a taste for lesser drugs.

Next to the cocaine was a razor blade.  It was covered in white powder, proof that it had been used to cut lines for snorting.  I stared at it for a few seconds before grabbing it and sliding it into my pocket.  I wasn’t exactly sure why I did so.  It was just something that I felt that I had to do.  Now that I had the blade a small bit of my anxiety subsided.  I kept my hand in the pocket with it, the metal feeling good against my skin as I rubbed my fingers against it.

Traci came back into the room as she hung up the cellphone she was holding.

“Doug says that there’s no such thing called Remembrance,” she said.  “Not that he knows of, anyway.  He says that maybe it’s a nickname a dealer gave it or something.  From what you say it does, he thinks it might just be an amphetamine.  We’ve got those.”

“It isn’t fucking Adderall,” I replied, more sharply than I intended.  “This was different.  It was like I was actually there.”

Traci shrugged.  “Sorry, hon, I don’t know what to tell you.  Are you sure it wasn’t some cocktail?  Could have been an amphetamine mixed with a psychotropic.”

I took a deep breath to keep down the irritation that was threatening to overtake me.  “It wasn’t a mix.  Look, can I just take a look at what you have to make sure there isn’t any?  I’ll know it if I see it.”

“No can do.  That’s not how this works.  Besides, Doug knows what he’s got and what he don’t got.”  Traci paused.  “Besides, you don’t look so good.  Maybe you should lay off for a few days.”

I couldn’t control myself any further.  I lunged forward and tackled the other woman to the ground.  Traci cried out for just a moment before her head struck the hard floor.  Her eyes looked unfocused as she struggled to draw in a breath.

Having no intention of letting her recover, I pulled the razor blade out of my pocket and cut a deep laceration across Traci’s long neck.  I had never so much as punched another person in my life, but I had now cut the throat of two people in one day.  As I pushed the blade deeper into the windpipe I idly wondered why I wasn’t horrified by that.  I wasn’t experiencing revulsion, but I wasn’t experiencing satisfaction, either.  This was simply an action that I was performing, nothing more and nothing less.

That sense of indifference stayed with me until the moment Traci fell still.  Once that happened, I was shocked as the feelings I had experienced during my last Remembrance trip washed over me.  My nerve endings blazed as I was filled with a loving warmth greater than any I had previously felt and physical satisfaction beyond any orgasm I had ever experienced.  I fell to my knees and cried out with pure joy.  In that moment everything was right with the universe for the very first time.

I don’t know how long it lasted, but the feelings eventually began to fade.  They were replaced by panic as I tried to hold onto the last shreds of the incredible happiness.  It was impossible, though, and I was left feeling empty and hollow.

My head snapped towards the stoners zoning out in the room.  There was no indication that they had registered that anything had happened.  They were so far gone that I could have set them on fire and they wouldn’t have noticed.

I looked down at the razor blade on the floor next to the dead woman’s neck.  Retrieving it, I slowly stood up and moved towards the nearest of the addicts.  It was a rail-thin man with pale skin and countless needle marks along both of his arms.  For the first time I felt a twinge of unease.  This was somehow different than killing either Jared or Traci.  This person was completely defenseless and hadn’t done anything to set me off.

I thought about the incredible high that had consumed me when I killed the drug dealer, though, and suddenly nothing else mattered.

I went down the line of addicts, slitting each throat one at a time.  I would bask in the pleasure the killing brought with it for as long as possible before moving on to the next person.  After the third person the razor became too dull and slick with blood to continue using.  I searched around in the kitchen until I located a sharp butcher knife.

As I turned around to continue with my work, I noticed an object on the counter next to the sink.  I picked the gun up and looked at it curiously.  Using it instead of a knife would certainly make the process easier, but I was hesitant to do so.  I didn’t know if shooting someone would still trigger the post-killing high.  Deciding that it wasn’t worth the risk of losing a potential fix, I set it back down and gripped the knife tightly.

Two hours later, I was standing over the final addict when I saw him begin to stir.  His eyes started to flutter, and he licked his dry lips as he grunted.  Before I could react, he started to try to stand up.  He was much larger than the other people in the room, and if he managed to get his bearings and see what I had done I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to finish the job.  Thinking quickly, I snatched up a nearby vase and smashed it as hard as I could against his temple.  He fell back onto the couch and I managed to slice the blade of the knife across his throat before he recovered.

The sensations that came from the kill were even more intense than the others had been.  I writhed on the floor in pleasure, moaning more than once as it coursed through my body like an electric current.  The man had been the most difficult of the kills so far, and for some reason that made it even more satisfying.

When it finally subsided, I pushed myself up off the floor and took a moment to collect myself.  I was exhausted, and all that I wanted was to go home and pass out.  Now that I was past my craving, though, I was beginning to realize the reality of my situation.  There was a body waiting for me back in my trailer, and there were seven others right in front of me.  I needed to leave before someone else came by to make a purchase, and I couldn’t go back home until I figured out what to do with Jared.

My mind was working through the situation with cold detachment.  I still didn’t feel any hint of guilt or remorse.  In fact, each murder had been easier than the one before it, and at some point I had even stopped seeing them as human.  They were simply what I needed to get my fix.

That didn’t mean that I wasn’t worried, however.  Where there were bodies, there would be the police.  Maybe they would attribute the carnage I had caused to an insane junkie or a rival drug dealer.  It was also possible that they would perform a full and thorough investigation and that they would find evidence that I had been there.  If that happened they would want to question me at the very least, and that could lead them to Jared’s body.

The prospect of being arrested for multiple homicides was bad enough, but what worried me most was that whatever was causing me to have such powerful reactions would eventually wear off.  I knew absolutely nothing about the Remembrance I had taken, not even how long it would remain in my system.  If there was one thing that I knew after years of using a wide variety of drugs, however, it was that the ride eventually stopped no matter how good the stuff was.  I needed more Remembrance, and unfortunately there was only one place where I might be able to find some.  I had to return to the store I had gotten it from.

I was once again covered in blood, and this time I wasn’t at home to be able to get changed.  I looked over at Traci’s body.  Not into my own clothes, anyway.  Quickly stripping down to my underwear, I washed the blood off my hands and face before digging around in the kitchen cabinets until I found a box of garbage bags.  I packed my bloody garments into one of the bags and carried it over my shoulder as I searched the house for Traci’s room.  I found it on the second floor.  When I opened the closet I was relieved to see both shirts and pants hanging from the rack.  The hooded sweatshirt and jeans that I chose were a few sizes too big, but they would have to do.

Now that I was dressed, I left the house through the back door.  I emerged into a weed-filled yard that obviously hadn’t been tended to in quite a while.  I made sure that none of the neighbors were watching before I threw the trash bag over the far side fence and climbed over after it.  Retrieving the bag, I hurried down the block, hoping that I would go unnoticed until I reached my destination.

I managed to make it to the small grocery store that stood at the edge of downtown.  I had approached it from the rear, and I was able to cross the distance to a blue dumpster without incident.  It was roughly half full, which was perfect for my needs.  I tossed the garbage bag inside and moved a few of the other items around to cover it.  I nodded to myself.  Just another piece of trash.

The sun was setting in the distance.  Hoping that the antique store wasn’t already closed, I walked down the sidewalk, the hood from my sweatshirt pulled up over my head.  A number of people passed me going in the opposite direction without so much as glancing at me.  Each time I thought about how incredible it would feel to kill them right then and there.

I reached the antique store and stopped at the door.  The sign was still displaying Open, and I knew that I needed to go inside.  The problem was that I had been banned from doing so earlier that same day.  I blinked.  Had it really been less than a day since I had gotten my hands on Remembrance?  It seemed impossible.

I jumped slightly as the store door opened.  The owner was standing directly in front of me, his expression unreadable as he looked down at me.  I took an involuntary step backwards.  There was something about the guy that intimidated me.  I hated feeling that way.  Nobody intimidated me, and yet he did with just a look.

“Come in,” Pembrook said, stepping aside to allow me to pass.

I hesitated before crossing through the doorway.  He closed the door behind me and changed the Open sign to Closed.  Taking a large key out of his pocket, he locked the door and flipped off the switch to the right of the frame.  The lights in the front of the store turned off, casting a gloom over the items on display.

“I see that you went against my instructions and took more than three drops,” he observed dryly.  “If there’s one thing that you can count on an addict to do, it’s to always want more.”

“I need more Remembrance,” I said, ignoring the thinly-veiled insult.  “I can pay.”

“It doesn’t matter if you have money or not.  There isn’t any to be had.  I gave you my only bottle.”

“You have to know where to get more.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “You’re assuming that there’s more out there to be procured.  Remembrance is one of the rarest substances in the world.”

I felt a twinge of panic.  “What about the person you said made it?  The chemist or whatever?  Can they make you more?”

The store owner didn’t answer immediately.  Instead, he slowly walked to the other side of the store and retrieved something from a high shelf.  Whatever it was, it was wrapped in soft black cloth and was about the size of his forearm.

“Remembrance isn’t a typical drug,” Pembrook told me as he came back over.  “It’s quite… parasitic in nature.  As I said, there isn’t any more.  The only way to trigger the effects now is through the… other method that, judging by the blood on the tips of your hair, you’ve already discovered.”

I regarded him in surprise, my mouth moving but no words coming out as I reached up with one hand to touch my hair.

“There’s a very good reason that I told you to only use three drops,” the man continued.  “Doing so causes you to experience old happy memories with vivid clarity, but it also doesn’t cause a permanent change in you.  The effects, while quite strong, are temporary.”

“But when I took four drops…”  I trailed off.

“You’ve caught on.  Good.  Four drops in one dose changes you.  It rewrites you, makes you into someone else, something else.”

“Am…”  I swallowed hard.  “Am I going to die?”

He waited a moment before answering.  “Not as long as you either continue on your little killing spree or take a very specific antidote, which I just happen to have on hand.  Tell me, did you kill your first victim before or after you had taken the four drop dose?”

“Before,” I replied automatically, immediately realizing what I had admitted to.  “Wait, fuck, I mean-”

“Before,” he repeated, ignoring my feeble backpedaling.  “After a normal dose, correct?  It’s very rare for someone to be that compatible.  The euphoria you experience after killing must be indescribable.”

Not trusting myself to speak, I didn’t answer.

“I gave you a choice earlier today,” Pembrook said.  “Now I’m giving you another one.  I can give you the antidote that I mentioned.  It’s still soon enough for it to reverse what’s happening to you.  You’ll be able to continue living without killing, although you’ll no longer be able to achieve the, shall we say, pleasure you have experienced today, either.”

No!” I practically screamed.  “No, I can’t do that.  I…  I need it.”

The man grinned broadly.  “I know that you do.  That’s why I believe you’ll jump at the second option I have for you.”

He handed me the object that he was holding.  I took it from him in confusion, not sure what he was getting at.  I slowly unwrapped the cloth and found that inside was a wooden mask.  It was intricately carved, and the wood was smooth to the touch.  It had two ears and a snout with sharp teeth extending from it.

“It doesn’t look like much, does it?  Looks can be deceiving, however.  With it, you’ll become a true predator, a killer that lives her life in blood and ecstacy.  I can show you how.”

“What will it cost me?” I asked, feeling a sudden stab of fear.  “Are… are you the devil?  Will this cost me my soul?”

“The devil?  Oh, no, my dear, I’m something much different than that.  And you’ve already given up your soul today of your own free will.  I want something else.”  The man’s smile turned vicious.  “So tell me, Ms. Bennington, are you ready to make a deal?”

Love, Life, Zombies

So you want to know what it’s like to be crazy.

No, no, don’t try to deny it.  You and I both know that it’s true.  After all, dear reader, why would you be wasting your eyeballs’ finite amount of energy absorbing the words on this page if you weren’t seeking something?  Continuing that train of logic before it horrifically derails, the question then becomes what could you possibly be seeking that would lead you to me?

You can’t possibly be wanting something as boring and mundane as answers as to why I’ve done what I’ve done.  I have far more faith in you than that, my friend.  Just in case my faith in you is misplaced, fine, let’s get that out of the way so that we can continue onto more interesting matters.  Why did I do that crazy voodoo that I did?

Are you sure that you’re ready for my answer?  I promise, it’s going to blow your mind.  Blow.  Your.  Mind.

Okay?  Ready?  Here’s my answer.

Why not?

The cops always seem to hate it when I give them that reason.  They get all pissy, and the blood rushes to their faces as they scream and spit and snort that they want the truth.  Well, chief, I just gave it to you.  I do the things that I do because they amuse me.  They take away my boredom and fill me with something else.  Anti-boredom, if you will.

All the killing, all the spilled blood, all the lives shattered.  All done because I couldn’t find anything interesting on Netflix that day.

The shrinks tend to come at things from a different angle.  They word it as, “What happened in your life to make you this way?”  They try to take a deep dive into my psyche to scoop up bits of information about my childhood and formative years to find what they’re looking for.  There has to be something, right?  An abusive parent, perhaps, or maybe a trip to the zoo that resulted in an escaped kangaroo doing naughty things to me.

If you want to experience someone truly getting angry with you, go see a psychiatrist and laugh at whatever conclusions they come to.

I can’t help but find shrinks amusing.  They try to shove my squirming brain into some category that a dead German who wanted to sleep with his mother came up with, all while holding notepads firmly in their grips so that they don’t miss a single opportunity to record their own brilliance for posterity.  My particular type of nuttiness (the scientific term for my condition) seems to elude all the best efforts at categorization, however.  That drives them crazy, and believe me, I know crazy.

I find that to be kind of cool.  It makes me unique.  A lone wolf.  A rebel without a cause.  The Lone Ranger without Tonto.  A burrito without a colon.

Do me a favor.  Catch whatever analogy I was trying to make if it goes springing past you.  I seem to have let it get away from me.

Cops and shrinks, two peas in a pod carefully constructed from equal parts stupidity and misunderstanding.  They try to get a peek behind my curtain, bless their hearts they really do, but they’ll never see me for who I really am.

I just am.  That’s all there is to it.  I am.  As far as I can tell, nothing made me this way.  I came into existence this way and someday I will shuffle off this mortal coil with the same craziness inside of me.

I’m a storm brewing over the dusty emptiness of the desert.  I’m the sea crashing against the rocks.  I’m a wild animal that can’t be tamed or brought to heel.

I’m the dog that bit you when you were eight years old that has made you terrified of miniature poodles ever since.

Remember that time that you were in the kitchen and you burned your hand while making spaghetti?  You had done it a hundred times before, but somehow on this particular occasion you managed to scorch a layer or two of precious skin off.  I was the heat.  More than that, I was the coin God flipped when he was deciding whether or not to teach you a lesson since you really looked like you needed a lesson and don’t you ever do what you did again and I don’t have to tell you what you did because you know what you did you fucking asshole.

I am a random act of violence in the night.  The terrified shriek that echoes off the walls of an alley.  The drip drip drip of blood on the pavement.  I am a part of this universe with no rhyme or reason or definition.  I simply am.

So back to your original question that you didn’t ask but I was kind enough to ask for you.

What’s it like to be crazy?

It’s not bad.

There’s cake.

In all seriousness, or with as much seriousness as I can manage, I imagine that it’s quite a bit like how it feels for you to be normal.  Well, not you, but other people.  Because you’re really not all that normal, are you?

Oh, come on, you can be open and honest with me.  You and I are going to be the closest of chums, after all.  Tell Uncle Screwloose all about how you don’t really feel that your life’s thread fits all that well into the tapestry that makes up the world.

It’s okay to feel that way, you know.  It’s perfectly natural to not understand what the hell your biodonor parents got you into when Daddy convinced Mommy that, since it was his birthday, the universe demanded that they dispense with the condom and go rawhide for the evening.

This is partly why you and I are destined to be the absolute best of friends.  I’m you.  I’m you with the volume turned all the way up.  My inner music is blaring so loudly that I can feel my teeth rattling in my gums.  The sound pushes my skin flat against my skull.  It digs its hooks into my muscles and pulls hard.

I guess being bonkers is a lot like sitting next to the speakers at a Korn concert.

You know those self-help commercials that used to come on television around four in the morning that preached about how they could help you become a better person and show you how to like who you are?  I take that to a whole new level, and it won’t even cost you twenty-six easy payments of $19.95.  Admittedly I don’t give out a free set of steak knives with every purchase, but hey, what can I say?  You didn’t call in before the commercial was over, so you don’t deserve to have those knives.

I’ll make it quick and painless for you.  Someday, if you’re very very good, you can go insane like I am.  At this exact moment, though, you’re just an asshole.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.  It’s not my fault that you’re an asshole.  It’s your fault.

Don’t believe me?  What kind of person shackles themselves to rules and regulations that they didn’t come up with themselves?  Society tells you what it takes to be normal; we’ve already established that you’re not normal, however, so what kind of person would think that you have to go along with a society that you’re not really a part of?

I’ll tell you what kind of person would do that: an asshole.

Thus, mathematically-speaking, you’re an asshole.

Oh, whoops, wait, I forgot to carry the three…  There.

Good news!  You’re still an asshole.

Me?  I’m a multitasker.  I manage to be an asshole and not be one at the same time.  I’m an asshole in the sense that, yes, I would find it absolutely hilarious to pull down my pants and take a leak on the grave of your dead hamster Fluffy.  I’m also not an asshole because I don’t try to hide who and what I am.

Fear not, my stalwart companion!  As your bestest buddy in the whole wide world, I won’t let you be doomed to a life of assholiness.  I want you to rise up from your mundane life in which you, an asshole, currently reside and become so much more!  I will be your guide through the Land of Asshole, help you cross the deep Asshole Gorge, and show you the way to the complete and total freedom that I so enjoy myself.  Won’t that be great, pal?  Just you and me against the world.  Amigos.  Compatriots.

I promise you won’t feel a thing.

But hey, first things first, right?  Since you’re reading this, you’ve managed to find yourself a small corner of the world to hide in.  What a very special corner, too, because it just happens to be the one that I left this record of events in.

Quite the little issue the world is experiencing, isn’t it?  Fucking zombies.  I have to admit that I did not see that one coming.

It’s not a complaint, though.  In a way, I was tailor-made for this Brave New World that we live in.  I loved the act of snuffing the life out of some poor sap, but if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t get any enjoyment out of knowing that I had killed someone.  Since I’m being so open with you, I don’t even mind telling you that there were fleeting moments where I’d feel the tiniest pang of guilt about what I’ve done.  The actual killing was what made my pace quicken and my day brighten.  The results that came from the killing were a separate matter.

See what I’m saying?  Clear as mud?  Excellent.

Oh, but this zombified world that we live in now.  How glorious it is!  I can ply my craft in so many ways without the taking of a single human life!  In fact, I’m often in the company of honest-to-goodness living human beings, and they not only tolerate me, they even seem to like me.  Acts that were considered terrible in the old world are praised as being heroic now.  It gives me a nice warm feeling in the cold cockles of my heart.

You probably haven’t run across many people that are actually thankful for the undead hordes covering the surface of the planet, have you?  Ah, see, that’s something else that makes me a rather special and unique acquaintance.  You’ll tell your grandchildren stories about me someday when you’re old and gray.  Well, assuming that your face hasn’t been devoured by the living dead before you have a chance to reach that age.

Now, if you already happen to be old, hey, congratulations!  You’ve reached a point that ninety-nine percent of humanity won’t ever achieve.  Have a drink on me!

I have no answers about how all of this started.  I’m just as much in the dark about the origins of the zombie apocalypse as everyone else.  I’ve heard some rumors, of course.  There was one about a secret laboratory in Iran that accidentally released a plague.  There was a guy that swore up and down that this was part of the Rapture as detailed in the Bible.  I suppose either of those is possible.  My personal opinion is that it’s something man-made.  I base this on my belief that, if there is a God, I can’t believe that He or She would completely rip off George Romero instead of coming up with something a tad more original.

You probably know more concrete details about what’s happened than I do.  When everything started, I was locked away in a comfy padded cell.  The only reason that I didn’t rot away locked in that room was because the warden had a bit of a conscience.  As the walking dead arrived at the asylum, he ordered that the cells be opened to give us a chance at survival.  I had always rather liked the guy, although I was obviously far too manly to ever tell him that.  It was a shame when he ended up sprawled on the entryway floor.

To be more accurate, half of him ended up on the entryway floor.  The other half went the way of cheap gas station sushi down the throats of the dead.

Most of the other convicts, or ‘patients’ as they used to call us, attempted to run screaming and hollering out the front gates of the asylum.  This meant that they came face-to-face with the undead horde.  It was like a scene out of an epic movie.  A small band of crazies, armed only with their soft-soled shoes and a whole basketful of nuttiness, standing strong against completely overwhelming odds.

For roughly eight seconds.

I, on the other hand, was not really made of the same determination and had ignored the main gate.  Instead, I opted to explore the private parking lot reserved for the asylum employees.  I managed to find a car to hotwire (Hotwiring Cars 101 is a required course during the first semester at the University of Psychopath), and I drove it right around the mass of zombies and into the nearby town.

The entire town was mostly abandoned by the time that I got there, and it was relatively easy to rummage through the empty homes for clothes and a modest stockpile of supplies to put into my brand new used 1976 Chevy.  Sucked for the homeowners, but worked out well for me.

My first real up close and personal encounter with someone of the zombie persuasion happened when I accidentally kinda sorta on purpose kicked in the kitchen door of a house while in search of food.  I walked through the broken doorway and there he was, standing on the other side of the breakfast table and looking right at me.  A good portion of his skull was missing, and his lone remaining eye swiveled in its socket.  It was something of a shame, really, as all the gore had ruined the rather expensive Italian suit that he was wearing.  Such a finely-tailored garment didn’t deserve that horrible fate.

Okay, fine, you dragged it out of me.  I’ll confess that I was indeed a bit frightened at that point.  Are you happy now?

Earlier that day I had been perfectly content leaning against my cell’s soft white walls and waiting for my daily mixture of blue and purple pills.  Now I was standing smack dab in the middle of the end of days.  Proof of that was standing not ten feet away from me, and he seemed to be taking far much of a liking to my admittedly tasty-looking flesh for my comfort.  In that moment I needed a hug, and not the kind of hug that this undead man was looking to provide me with.

I set my jaw and stared the abomination right in the eyes, erm, eye.  What was there for me to be afraid of, really?  He was a rotting corpse brought back to life to devour humanity, sure, but I was a fucking serial killer!  When I had finally been arrested, all the papers had said that I was ruthless, cold, and twisted.  I had a reputation to maintain, dammit!  Some undead freak wasn’t going to show me up.  This was my yard, and I’d be damned if I let a rotting puppy come in and force the Big Dog out.

He began to lumber towards me, apparently attempting to go through the table instead of simply around it.  Not the brightest bulb in the knife drawer.  I looked around the kitchen to get a sense of my surroundings.  I had always loved kitchens.  So many sharp objects to poke with.  So many blunt objects to thump with.  So many hot objects to burn with.  The average home’s kitchen was a playground for someone bursting with my particular brand of creativity.

In the time it took me to blink, I had over a dozen different ways worked out to make this zombie rue the day he had ever stepped into my kitchen.  The odds were pretty good that I had actually stepped into his kitchen since he was already inside the house when I had entered, but you get what I mean.  None of the options that I came up with really called to me, though.  They all seemed so… mundane.  I only got one shot at my first time killing someone that was already dead, and I wanted to make the occasion with something special.

My eyes fell on the cordless blender sitting on the counter within easy reach.

Bingo.  We had a winner.

The zombie didn’t seem to be able to move very fast.  He propelled himself with an odd cross between a walk and a shuffle, his arms stretched out towards me as a constant moaning sound escaped from between what used to be his lips.  I struggled to remember why I had felt afraid only moments before.

I allowed him to get almost within arms’ reach before I shattered the thin plastic casing of the blender and jabbed the blades dead into the empty eye socket.  The moaning seemed to change to a more questioning tone.  I flipped the switch and the noise stopped completely as his brain was pureed.  I turned off the device and whistled happily as I went back to searching for supplies to take with me to… well, wherever the hell I was going.

The few newscasts that I had seen about the Crisis…

Christ, remember when the news stations were calling this whole thing a ‘Crisis’?  They made it sound like it was a power outage or a stock market crash.


The few newscasts that I had seen about the Crisis while in the looney bin had talked about how the undead didn’t seem to have the ability to put together a coherent thought.  They just had a compulsion to kill and devour the living.  The zombies didn’t communicate with one another, and they barely registered that others of their kind were nearby.  The news had also heavily emphasized that they were slow and easy to outrun, and that a calm retreat was the best way to handle an encounter.

Well that was all fine and dandy, but retreat to where?  If the swarms were everywhere, where was there left to flee towards like a scared child?  To complicate matters, it wasn’t like I could simply find a place to hide and stay there forever.  I would eventually have to emerge if for no other reason than to acquire more supplies.  There had to be a more long-term solution.  As I navigated my Chevy over a series of speed bumps (speed bumps that moaned and reached out for me before they were flattened to the ground), I put my always present but never dull mind to work on the problem.

The first conclusion my brain came to was that I would need to track down other survivors.  There was safety in numbers, and having a few chums around would open up opportunities for not only safety, but playtime as well.  This would mean that I would have to swear off the kind of murdering that had always been second nature to me, but that wasn’t really a problem.  I genuinely enjoyed the company of other people, and besides, it wasn’t like there weren’t plenty of the living dead out there to give me a quick buzz if needed.

My second conclusion was that I needed to be smart in how I went about meeting these people.  It’s not like I could hop on Twitter and send out a call for banding together in 250 characters or less.  I knew that the public’s attention span was right up there with a fruit fly’s, so I wasn’t concerned about someone recognizing me from my rather public trial.  The end of civilization as we know it could be a stressful time, though, and that would cause most people to stop thinking straight and go right to making bad choices.  I didn’t want to get accidentally shot by some Joe Schmoe who panicked and thought I was a zombie.

I also didn’t want to hook up with people that were, to put it bluntly, fucking morons.  Other people being stupid and getting me killed wasn’t exactly high on my priority list.  I needed to find people that I could count on and that were willing to count on me.  I was pretty sure that took a number of southern states right out of consideration.

Lastly, I needed to get my hands on some weapons more substantial than those I could find sitting around the various kitchens of the world.  In addition to those weapons, I also needed equipment that would allow me to survive on the move if necessary.  I had no idea how long I would still be able to find gas for my trusty and recently-acquired car, but inevitably I would end up on foot.  I would need something to carry supplies and weapons in, like a backpack or a duffel bag.  Camping gear also wouldn’t be unwelcome.  The easiest places to find such things would be one of the large superstores that dotted America’s landscape like puss-filled boils.  I figured that those would be something of a buffet for zombies thanks to everyone else that had the same idea, though.  A Walmart was the last place I wanted to die in.

Ah, but what was this?  On the dashboard of my completely legally-obtained Chevy sat a GPS unit, one of the fancy kinds that allowed you to search for different kinds of restaurants and stores as well as provide you directions.  Keeping one hand on the wheel, I keyed in a search for the nearest sporting goods store.  I was pleased to find that I was only a couple of miles away from one.  As a bonus, it was located away from the main roads.  The streets were cluttered by abandoned vehicles and the shuffling undead.  It was probably a good idea to get off the busier streets sooner rather than later.

I still hadn’t seen another living person since the brave lunatics had participated in the charge at the Battle of Shady Grove Asylum.  I began to wonder if anyone else in the area had managed to escape.  If it turned out that I was the only person still alive, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about that.  I would be proud of being better than the rest of the global population, sure, but I would also feel downright embarrassed to be part of the human race at that point.

I reached the sporting goods store, aptly named John’s Sporting Goods.  I pulled into a space near the front door.  Notice that I made it a point to park in a space rather than next to the curb, and while you’re doing so, also take note that the space was not reserved for the handicapped.  Just because society had collapsed didn’t mean that I should ignore proper driving etiquette.

I got out of the car and looked around.  It was relatively silent in the parking lot, and the only zombies that I could see were quite a distance away and not headed towards the store.  To be on the safe side, I popped the car’s trunk and rummaged around for a few moments before producing a tire iron.  I knew from experience that a tire iron isn’t nearly as hardcore of a weapon as television dramas would lead you to believe.  It was, however, better than nothing.

John’s Sporting Goods was abandoned.  Not even John himself walked the aisles.  The store had already been picked over by looters and fellow survivalists (not that there was much of a difference), but I managed to find a large hiking backpack underneath a tipped-over display.  I also scrounged up a long length of rope that I figured might come in handy.  I glanced longingly at a display case that, according to the sign, had once housed a wide assortment of guns.  Those were, of course, all gone, and the shelves were devoid of any boxes of ammunition.  I walked over to the door marked ‘Office’ and eased it open.

Low and behold, there was John himself!  Apparently he wasn’t a religious man worried about where he would end up after death, as he had put a pistol in his mouth and found his own way around the threat of becoming a zombie.  I tell you, some people just aren’t cut out for the undead rising from their graves.  The gun was still gripped in his hand and, since Johnny Boy wouldn’t be needing it any time soon, I liberated it and checked the clip.

There were still five rounds left.  I searched the office for a few more minutes and managed to find a carton containing bullets in the top drawer of his filing cabinet.  All-in-all it had been a fine shopping experience, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the thoughtful staff of John’s Sporting Goods for really going that extra mile to help fulfill my needs.  I’d be happy to fill out a customer satisfaction survey at any time.

I returned to the car and found that some of the zombies that I had spotted before going inside were now a lot closer than they had been.  Time to be going.  I got back behind the wheel, gunned the engine, and headed off in search of a good time.

I finally started encountering other survivors as I continued down the road.  At first it was just a few individuals, but the further I went the more I saw people walking down the side of the road or frantically inspecting broken-down vehicles of all shapes and sizes.  Despite my newfound ‘Don’t Kill the Nice People’ philosophy and my desire to find companionship, I didn’t really pay these people much attention.  Part of the reason was that I had no way of knowing for sure if they were infected, but mostly it was because I didn’t want to saddle myself with people I wasn’t absolutely sure would be an asset.  Not so much for my survival as much as for theirs, if you catch my meaning.

I had been driving for about four hours when I reached a ramp leading down onto the freeway.  Instead of turning onto it, I continued on for a few hundred feet and brought the car to a halt.  I was now parked on a bridge that went out over the highway.  I figured that getting an eagle’s eye view of the situation down below couldn’t hurt.  If things weren’t completely gridlocked I could get on for a few exits.

I wasn’t heading to any place in particular.  There was, however, a nagging thought in the back of my head telling me that I had to get out of the general area soon or bad things would happen.  I had learned a long time ago not to ignore that little voice.

The moment that I opened the door, I knew that getting onto the freeway wasn’t a good idea.  The air was full of screams that echoed through the evening like a serial killer’s wet dream.  Well, not my wet dream.  I didn’t really enjoy making someone scream, and most of mine involved Kristen Bell in some capacity, but you get where I’m going here.

The sky was ablaze with the glow of fires and the occasional explosion.  Any number of other noises were audible, everything from the shriek of metal on metal to children crying, but above the cacophony was a constant moaning that seemed strong enough to shake the bridge.  Unless there was a troll down there having a massive orgasm, there was a huge group of the undead nearby.

I stepped up to the guardrail and peered down.  It was like I was looking at a cross between Hell and downtown Los Angeles after a Lakers title victory.  Cars and trucks were bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see.  Some people were still inside these vehicles, either because of sheer terror or because they simply couldn’t get out due to the close proximity of other cars.  Men, women, and children were dashing between the vehicles and up onto the embankments in an attempt to escape the nightmare that was coming to them.

There must have been over a hundred thousand zombies slowly making their way down the freeway.  The mob only stopped to swarm under any motorist that didn’t manage to get out of the way in time.  Every so often a car’s fuel tank would erupt and send a plume of fire and smoke up into the sky; there were more than a few zombies that were completely engulfed in flames.  They just continued on their merry way like it was a Sunday stroll in the park.  These blazing undead torches would only die (re-die?) when the entirety of their bodies were incinerated.

I heard a dull thumping in the distance.  I turned in time to see a news helicopter rise up over a hill.  For a moment I wondered if the pilot was actually going to attempt to get an interview with the zombie horde, which admittedly wouldn’t have been the stupidest thing I had ever seen a reporter attempt to do.  It took me a moment to realize that I was seeing an act of attempted heroism.

The helicopter’s pilot brought it in low over a family that was trapped on the roof of their minivan.  He opened the side door to allow them to get in.  It was brave and commendable, but it was also foolish.

The pilot hadn’t counted on the sheer insanity of the crowd.  I know a little something about insanity, and even I cringed at the look of desperation that I saw on each and every face.  I have to tell you, it’s an odd experience for a convicted serial killer and certified nutcase to feel like the only sane person left on Earth.

The family got in the chopper, but twenty or so other people also lunged at the open door and landing skids.  The pilot gave it everything he had as he fought the stick in an attempt to gain altitude.  The added weight was too much for the craft, though, and it slowly but surely lowered down towards the ground.  People screamed as the rotor blades tore through the crowd, tossing parts of people in all directions.  Something that I couldn’t see caught the fuel line.  There was an odd popping sound, and it was quickly accompanied by a loud roar as the helicopter detonated.

I ducked behind the guardrail instinctively even though I knew logically that the flying debris wouldn’t reach where I was standing.  A number of nearby cars also went boom as the flames reached them.  The explosions tore through both the living and the dead.

All that the scene lacked was Bruce Willis diving away in slow motion.

I glanced around to make sure that I was still alone on my little slice of heaven.  Confirming that this was indeed the case, I walked across to the other side of the bridge.  Now, I’m not what most people would consider to be an emotional man, but let me tell you friend to friend, mano et you, what I saw made my blood run cold.

Entirely too close for comfort was a second mass of the undead that was at least as large as the one that I had been watching.  The people down on the freeway were trapped between two armies of zombies that were looking to make them all identify in the past tense.  The concrete walls of the highway were too high and steep for most people to climb over.  There was going to be a massacre and, even if the crowd somehow saw it coming, there wasn’t anything that they could do about it.

There was nothing that I could do about it, for that matter.  I briefly toyed with the idea of picking off a few of the zombies nearest to my vantage point just on principle, but what was the point?

I turned back towards the car to continue my journey to… wherever.  I knew that I should probably figure that out before I went much further.  The sense of foreboding that I had felt was likely due to the gazillion undead converging on the immediate vicinity and I needed to get the hell out of Dodge (ironically in a Chevy) before any of them realized that I was right above their heads like a rack of lamb displayed in a butcher shop window.  I still needed to take some time to plan out what my actual gameplan would be so that I wasn’t running around like a moron.  A handsome moron, but a moron nonetheless.

I snorted as I considered that the asylum I had left earlier in the day would have been the perfect place to try to ride things out.  That was before the zombies had overrun the place, obviously.  Heavy security doors, multiple layers of secured areas to barricade, its own water supply, and enough food to last for years.  Truly it was an oasis in the desert.   Again, before the undead visitation had happened.

Where was somewhere else that offered a similar degree of safety?  A prison?  Probably not the best idea; I had enjoyed a small vacation at both of the closest penitentiaries when my section of the asylum was being renovated, and there was a decent chance that one of the guards would recognize me if they had remained.  There was a military base a few hours away, wasn’t there?  It was a thought, but there was no guarantee that even if the base wasn’t overrun by now that it wouldn’t be on total lockdown.

Even if I did manage to gain access to the base, there was always the ugly possibility that they would run an identity check on me.  I had no idea if the military did that sort of thing during times of crisis.  There didn’t seem to be any perfect options available to me.

Well, if there wasn’t a perfect place to take up residence, I would simply have to make do with an imperfect one.  Keeping my eyes peeled in the non-literal way, I drove on and put the freeway behind me.  Despite the noise of the road and engine, I could still hear the moaning of the zombie hordes for quite some time.

I suppose that sound would have been terrifying and rather intimidating to most people, but I found it to be rather pitiful.  It must suck to have such a limited vocabulary.  How are you today?  Uhhhh.  Where did you get that new shirt?  Uhhhh.  Would you like one lump or two with your tea, sir?  Uhhhh.  You’re not going to tell my wife, right?  Uhhhh.

Maybe zombies don’t actually hunger for human flesh.  Maybe they’re just jealous of those of us that have retained our communication skills.

I’m not sure what made me think of a museum.  It just randomly popped into my head.  You may not notice when you walk into one since odds are you aren’t paying attention to these particular details unless you’re an international art thief, but many larger museums are built like fortresses.  There are thick steel gates and screens that can be dropped to cover doors and windows.  Any number of objects can be used in a pinch.  There are multiple levels, so even if one is compromised you can move onto the next one.  The cafeteria is stocked full of food and water, both perishable and non-perishable.

Best of all, if there’s still power, the guard stations can be used to see every nook and cranny of the place.  It would be easy to make sure that you aren’t caught with your pants down.  If some other people in the building decide to drop their pants, though, it’s an added bonus that you can zoom right in on that action from multiple angles.

Secure structure, plenty of supplies, the chance for naughty voyeurism…  When it was put like that, I would have been stupid not to head for a museum.

The downside to the plan was that I would need to head into a heavily-populated area, which meant that the undead would be everywhere.  The safety of a museum wouldn’t mean anything if I got turned into a tasty treat before I managed to reach it.  If the freeway was any indication, the streets of every major city would be nearly impassable.  Unfortunately, it appeared as if my awesome idea was equal parts stupid.

Ah yes, awesome and stupid, the most bitter of all cocktails.  Throw a little vodka in there and you’re guaranteed to get sloppy drunk and pay for it the next morning.  There’s no telling who you might wake up next to, or what a doctor might find floating around in your bloodstream afterward.

“Maybe the destination is wrong, but the features are right,” I muttered to myself.

What, you’re surprised that I started talking to myself?  I’m a wackjob, remember?  Just be glad that I wasn’t trying to read messages in my alphabet soup or having sex with dead ducks to see the future.

“Where else has everything that I’m looking for?” I asked myself, not really expecting a response.  I surprised myself by replying, “Pretty much every high school nowadays.”

Ah yes, the public school system, also known as the educational prison.  A high school in even a low population town had the potential to be turned into Castle Greyskull.  It would probably be even more secure than Castle Greyskull since Skeletor wouldn’t be spending all his free time trying to get up in my business.  I would have the power (and yes, that’s the third He-Man reference in as many sentences) to shape my own destiny in a place where so many lucky teenagers managed to flush their destinies down the poorly-maintained urinals.

I opened the car’s glove compartment and dug out a map.  To answer your question, yes, I was surprised that someone still kept a map in their car as well.  A glance out the window told me that it would be a poor decision to stop the vehicle while I worked my destination out; zombies were going from house to house on both sides of the road, and being a stationary target right in the middle of things probably wouldn’t work out well for me.  It took a while, but I eventually managed to work out where I was and find the sort of town that I was looking for without crashing into too many obstacles.

Haven, Ohio, you were about to stock up on your quota of crazy.

No, wait, that sucked.  Absolutely sucked.  Let me try again.

Ready or not, Haven, here I came.

Bah, that one was even shittier than the first.  One more time.

Haven, wait until you got a load of me.

Okay, you know what?  I couldn’t come up with a good line then, and I can’t come up with one now.  I’m just going to stop trying.  Those writers that spend hours thinking about every single turn of phrase and what sequence of words sounds the best out of all the possible iterations can bend over and accept the presence of my boot deep inside their now-exposed rectum.

I was going to a small town called Haven in Ohio, and I was going to find a place to crash and kill some shit.  Lots of shit.  Mountains of shit.  I was going to enjoy every single second of maiming and killing anything undead that either got in my way or I just happened to spot and think, “Hey, you know what, I want to kill that one.  Yeah, that one right there.  No, no, not that one.  The one next to it.  The one wearing the thing.  Not that thing.  The other thing.  Yeah, that one right there.  The one in the place by the thing.  I’m going to kill that one.”

As I turned down a side street, I found myself staring directly at a pair of zombies walking down the middle of the road towards me.  One was a tall college-age girl with a chunk taken out of her side, and the other was an old man that appeared to be relatively untouched.  They were just wandering around until they spotted the car lights.  They raised their arms slightly and that familiar moan began to flow from their blood-covered mouths.

Running them over seemed like a good way to blow a tire or crack an axle, so I stopped the car and stepped out into the road.  Something in an overturned trash can had caught my eye, and sure enough, when I examined it I found that my eyes hadn’t deceived me.  Sitting on the top of a pile of newspapers was a discarded frying pan.  It was time to go old school.  Three Stooges old school.

The girl reached me first, her neck twisting in anticipation of the gnawing that, sadly for her but happily for me, would never come.  I swung the frying pan as hard as I could and was rewarded with a wet yet solid crunch.  The zombie went down hard and remained motionless.

I turned my attention to the old man.  The frying pan was the kind that was made of cast iron.  The things lasted forever.  There was barely a scratch on it from its impromptu use as a Whack-a-Mole hammer.  That’s why I wasn’t really all that surprised when the zombie’s head smashed inward in a shower of blood as I struck it.  Quick, simple, and efficient.  Just like the Stooges would have wanted.

I drove on in my trusty Chevy while ignoring the need to eat, sleep, urinate, and weird combinations of the three until around two in the morning.  That’s when necessity forced me to take a slight detour.  Necessity, and also the glowing light on the car’s dash indicating that I was almost out of gas.

I was basically in the middle of nowhere.  To my left was corn.  To my right was corn.  If I tilted my head up and looked into the night sky I would likely see corn.  As much as Nebraska is associated with the stuff, Ohio has more than its fair share of corn-based farmland.

It took me about half an hour to find a gas station.  My streak of good luck continued, as the station was abandoned but still functional and not yet picked clean.  I was able to fill the car’s gas tank and empty my own pee tank in peace.

As I was making my way back to the car after presenting my golden offering to the side of the building (I may be crazy, but I’m not insane enough to use a gas station bathroom), I made a quick u-turn and went into the convenience store.  The door was surprisingly unlocked, and, having been a person responsible for a number of highly-suspicious scenes myself, I knew better than to chalk that up to pure dumb luck.

I pulled the pistol from my belt and checked to make sure that the safety was off.  I knew that I should just get back into my car and continue onward, but holy shit did a Slushie sound good at that moment.  I moved forward and out of the doorway.

I reached the counter where the cash register was mounted and stopped to listen.  The only sound that I heard was my own breathing.  Despite my misgivings about the situation, my pulse began to quicken.

That sort of thing really got my blood going.  I didn’t feel anything resembling fear.  Au contraire.  If anything, I was feeling exhilaration.  I was the hunter, the predator, the non-accident-prone Wile E. Coyote.  If there was a road runner anywhere in this gas station, I was going to find it, and when I did all the painted-on tunnels in the world wouldn’t help it escape.

To my delight, there was a sudden rustling from behind one of the aisles.  Without pausing, I lunged around the corner and brought my gun’s barrel to bear on…

Wait, what the hell was I looking at, exactly?  A woman in her mid-twenties, garbed in a police uniform and very much alive despite the amount of blood covering her, was hunched down in the middle of the aisle and brandishing what appeared to be a broken mop handle.  An open bag of chips and a half-consumed bottle of water were on the floor at her feet.

“Oh, I apologize, I didn’t realize that I was interrupting your meal,” I said pleasantly, making some show of putting on my gun’s safety and pointing it away from her.  “I hate it when people come calling when I’m eating.  I’ll leave you to it.”

“Wait!” the woman nearly shouted as I began to turn away.  “Wait, please.  You’re good, right?  I mean, you’re not bitten or anything?”

I shook my head and gave her my most charming smile.  “I’m very much alive and unbitten.  As alive as you are.  Although judging from your clothes you’re a lot closer to not being alive than I currently am.”

She lowered the ever-so-threatening mop handle.  “None if it’s mine.  It’s been a fucking nightmare of a day.  Those… things are everywhere.  It’s been one long running fight, moving from place to place in an attempt to save as many civilians as we could.  I’m…  I’m the only one left.”

“The only person in your squad left?”

“The only person period.  The other cops, the civilians we were trying to save, the National Guard troops that got called in… all of them are gone.  Turned into the same thing as those fuckers out there or fucking eaten.  I got away when they overturned our SWAT van.  I just started running.  I ended up here.  I was exhausted.  I needed to eat something or I was going to pass out.”

She said the last part in an almost defensive tone.

“Hey, officer, no need to worry about me turning you in for Grand Theft Gas Station Food,” I assured her.  “It’s the end of the world.  Nobody is going to care about a bag of Doritos and an Aquafina.  Where are you headed when you leave?  Is there some place that’s safe?”

She stared at me for a long moment, and I was surprised at how old she suddenly seemed.  “I don’t think there’s anywhere safe.  We lost all communications towards the end.  Nobody responded on the police or National Guard frequencies.  We couldn’t pick up any military traffic, or even anything from the Emergency Broadcast System.  I…  I think the people that are left are on their own.”

In the olden days, also known as the day before that one, I would have taken advantage of this unique opportunity to see exactly how many times this brave officer’s body could take having a cooler slammed down on it before it stopped moving.  I was a changed man, however.  Completely and totally reformed.


I felt something welling up in my chest, something warm and inviting.  I reasoned that it must be that compassion thing that I’d always heard so much about.  It had to be that fuzzy feeling you get from helping out another human being in a time of need.  What other possible explanation could there have been?

I belched.

Oh, well, never mind, then.

But hey, she was still one of the kinds of people that I had wanted to join up with.  She was holding up pretty well for having just gone through quite the massacre, and as a cop she had to be at least passable with a firearm.  Hadn’t she tried to fend me off with a broken cleaning device when she had first seen me?  That showed that she was inventive and had a keen survival instinct.  It wouldn’t have worked on a human unless there was some sort of tripping incident that ended with impalement, but it likely would have been enough to take down a zombie.

“I’ll tell you what, officer,” I said.  “Why don’t you come with me?  I’ve got a car outside with a full tank of gas, and we can load up enough food and water for the both of us in the backseat.  Oh, and toilet paper.  Should really get some toilet paper.”

“Why should I trust you?” the officer asked warily.

I shrugged.  “If I were in your shoes I probably wouldn’t trust me.  You could be a homicidal maniac or something.  If you want to stay here I certainly wouldn’t blame you for that decision.  It’s up to you.  I’m going to grab a box of Ho-Hos and a Slushie, and then I’m going to head out.  You’ll need to have decided by then.”

She immediately dropped the mop handle and nodded.  “Okay, I get your point.  Where are we headed?”

“Let’s talk about that when we’re on the road.  You can be my navigator.  I’m not the safest driver in the world when I’m swerving all over the place while trying to read a map.  You wouldn’t believe the look on this deer’s face earlier when I almost plowed into it.”

We gathered up as much of the food in the store as we could, focusing on non-perishable products as opposed to things that would quickly go bad.  Once everything was tossed into the backseat, I made one last trip back inside and finally poured myself a sweet, sweet Slushie while the cop gathered packs of toilet paper.

The Slushie was cherry, of course.  It’s a classic and, if we’re honest with ourselves, the people that say they prefer the blue raspberry flavor are either living in a dream world or have fallen victim to the blue marketing machine.  It’s true.  It’s all part of a giant conspiracy engineered by the people that invented the godawful blue raspberry flavor to make our youth think it’s an acceptable taste.  It’s not just blue drinks, either.  It’s the blue agenda.  It started with when they tried to make people believe that The Smurfs was an entertaining show, and now it’s reached into even our frozen drinks.  That puts blue Slushies right up there with Roswell and the Grassy Knoll.

The cop was leaning against the passenger side of the car and looking around nervously.

“Can we get going now?” she almost pleaded.

I’m a good judge of character, and I knew right away that she would prove to be a capable and brave individual.  On that particular night, however, she had clearly been pushed past her limits.  If I was something closer to normal I probably would have been, too.

“Sure,” I replied, taking a drink from the godly nectar that is a cherry (not blue raspberry) Slushie.  “I never did catch your name, officer.  If we’re going to road trip together we should probably know what to call each other.”

She opened her door.  “My name is Heather Davenport.

I walked over to my side of the car and got in as well.  “Well, Heather Davenport, my name is James Pool.”

It was a fake name, of course.  James Pool was the name of one of my classmates in high school.  It didn’t seem prudent to give my real name to a police officer even if the police itself didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Besides, with my desire to make the lives of human beings go bye-bye gone now, it was kind of like I was starting a new life, right?  Going from that line of reasoning, it only made sense that I would begin to do so by first removing everything from my old life, including my name.  So here I was, embarking on a new life in a new world with a brand-spanking new name.  Hello, World, my name is James Pool, and I’m a reformed serial killer.  Well, not so much reformed as refocused.  The point still stands.

I pulled hte car out onto the road and told Heather of my plan to become King of the School in Haven.  She almost immediately agreed with my assessment.  She disagreed with my actual choice of location, however.

“Haven is a small town that is, or rather was, populated by mostly rich and upper middle class families,” she explained as she poured over the map.  “The high school there isn’t set up to be locked down prison-style like you can with an inner city school in a poorer neighborhood.  This part of Ohio is mostly farmland and country folk.  We won’t find any buildings designed to handle vandals and gangbangers.”

I had to admit that she had a point.  My old haunts were almost all in large cities.  The thought that some schools didn’t have to armor up at night hadn’t occurred to me.  It seemed that I had been right to bring her with me instead of leaving her at the gas station to threaten undead tormentors with half a mop.

I wondered where the other half of the mop had gone.  I thought about asking her where the actual cleaning device side of the handle had gone, but I decided that it wasn’t important.  It was something that I could bring up way down the line when we were old and sitting on a porch discussing how kids these days didn’t know how to kill zombies, and even if they did they really needed to get off our lawns.

“I’m open to suggestions,” I told her.  “If you know a better place, I’m all ears.”

There was a long silence before she answered.

“I’ll be honest, James, I can’t think of anywhere around here that’s going to work,” she said finally.  “Nothing is going to be as secure as we need it to be without being in a heavily populated place.”

There was another silence, but I was the one to break it this time.

“I suppose that you’re right,” I conceded.  “Turn on the radio and see if you can get a signal.  Maybe the Emergency Broadcast System is back up and running again.  We need more information about what’s going on.  If there’s a safe zone set up, I can drop you off there if you want.”

“Why wouldn’t you want to go to a safe zone if there is one?” she asked, looking more than a little confused as she turned on the radio and began to slowly turn the dial.”

You’re probably asking yourself the same question, aren’t you?  Well, be patient, because I’ll answer both of you…


“Put yourself into the shoes of one of these undead things,” I said.  “If there’s a place where humans are gathering en masse in an effort to protect themselves, where’s the place that you’d want to be?  Where has all the food been conveniently collected into one spot?”

“How would they-” she began.

“How would they know about the safe zone?  They wouldn’t.  But the humans would, which means…”

“The zombies can just follow the fleeing people to the safe zone,” she finished for me.

“Exactly.  This whole thing started, what, a week ago?  Maybe a week and a half at most?  And it’s been in this area of the country for a couple of days?  It would take an awful lot to convince me that the government has managed to set up places that can hold up against huge groups of zombies this quickly.  Sure, they might be able to stay safe for a little while, but beyond that…”

“Not to mention the logistics of it.  If you have every single person for hundreds of miles around packed into one place, you have to be able to feed and clothe them, as well as provide them with shelter.”

I glanced over at her.  “I think that Katrina proved that kind of logistics isn’t our government’s strong suit.  Besides, we’re assuming that there’s enough of a government left to do anything.  You’re almost at the end of the radio frequencies and there hasn’t been anything but static.”

“So what do we do?”

“That depends.  You’ve been up close and personal with these things more than I have.  What can you tell me about them?”

Heather leaned back in her seat and rubbed her eyes wearily.  For a moment it seemed like she wasn’t going to respond, so I took another glorious sip of my Slushie.  She surprised me by opening her eyes and nodding to herself.

“They aren’t alive, which you already know,” she began.  “That means that they don’t function the same way we do.  They don’t even breathe.  At first we tried tear gas.  That did exactly two things: Jack and shit.  They just kept coming.  Even worse, the smoke ended up making things even more difficult for us because it made it hard to see them clearly.  Next we tried the Shockwave.  Do you know what that is?”

I shook my head.

“It’s this… well, it’s kind of like this large series of boxes mounted on top of a tripod.  You press a button and the boxes each shoot out a taser dart.  It’s used to take down multiple targets with non-lethal force.  You know, for crowd control and riots.  Anyway, it didn’t even phase them.  I’ve seen the voltage from just one of those darts take down a four hundred pound drunk guy on steroids in under a second.  That means electricity doesn’t work on them, either.  It has to have something to do with how their nervous systems function.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Destroying the brain seems to be the only thing that kills them for sure.  I saw one zombie get its entire chest torn off by a shotgun blast and it kept coming.  If you take out a leg, it will just keep crawling towards you.  Even if you cut the damn thing in half, it just keeps coming.”

“That makes things difficult,” I observed.

“Once we figured out you had to aim for the head, it made things a little easier.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to hit a headshot on a moving target, though?  It’s one thing to do it at a practice range when you have all the time in the world and no pressure on your shoulders, but in real-world conditions, when it really counts, it’s goddamn hard.”

“I imagine so.”

“Most of us ran out of ammunition by the time our positions were overrun.  We had to resort to our nightsticks.  It was easier to hit the head, so the sticks proved to be pretty effective.  It was a lot more tiring, though, and when you’re that close to the bastards there’s no room for error.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said slowly, which was an odd phrase to use after she had told me several things already.  “They’re graceless.  They move slowly, and they can’t really climb over anything more than four or five feet tall.  If there are enough of them, they can still get over walls by piling on top of each other, but a single zombie isn’t a huge threat.”

I started to say something, but I was cut off when she kept talking.  I thought that was a bit rude, especially since she had just gotten done stating that she was only going to tell me one thing.  It’s not nice to lie like that.  I’m sure that you, my faithful reader, are above telling little white lies like that, but evidence indicated that Heather was not.

“Does any of this help?” she asked.

Oh, okay, she wasn’t actually telling me anything else.  She was, in fact, asking an interrogatory.  Well then, it appeared that I had been wrong about one Ms. Heather Davenport.  Completely ignore what I said in that last paragraph.  I would cover it up with liquid paper if I happened to have some, which I don’t, but crossing out a section just looks so ugly and amateurish.  So I guess you’ll just have to forget what I wrote.

Go ahead.  Forget it.  I’ll wait.

Heya!  Welcome back.  We now join our regularly scheduled program already in progress.

“It definitely does,” I said with a nod.  “Them not being able to climb means that we’ve got a lot more options for places to stay, even if those places are just temporary.  If it comes down to it, we could always destroy the staircase in a house or something.  We just need to-”

I slammed on the brakes.  Heather cried out in surprise and threw her hands out onto the dashboard to keep herself from smacking into it.  See, you never know when the maniac at the steering wheel is going to bring the car to a sudden and complete stop.  This is why you should always wear your seat belt.

“What the fuck!” Heather demanded as she looked at me with wild eyes.

Without saying a word, I motioned with my chin towards the windshield.  Blocking the road completely was a large group of the undead.  I did a quick count and stopped at thirty.  The full number was at least a hundred.  Probably more than that, as the headlights could only penetrate so far into their ranks before the bodies blocked the light.  For a moment we looked out at the zombies, and they looked right back at us.  As one, they began shuffling towards us with that now-familiar moan.

“Let’s just turn around and head back,” Heather suggested quietly.

“I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” I informed her, opening my car door and stepping out.  They’re coming out of the cornfield behind us.  We’re cut off.”

I popped open the trunk and went around to the back of the car.  She joined me there after a few seconds.

“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” she asked, obviously already knowing the answer.

“Looks like it,” I confirmed, pulling my hiking pack and putting it on.  

It was fairly heavy at this point.  I had shoved a good amount of supplies in it back at the gas station, including a pair of flashlights that I had found behind the counter.  I had made sure that it was still light enough not to impede my movements.

“Oh, shit,” I swore suddenly.

“What?” Heather demanded.

“I almost forgot my Slushie.”

I reached back into the car and snatched up my tasty drink.  The zombies were within a dozen yards of the front of the car now, and the ones coming up from the rear weren’t much farther away.  There was clearly no communication or rudimentary cooperation going on between the two groups, but as luck would have it, they had managed to cut off the best escape routes.  On a whim, I snatched up the tire iron that I hadn’t had a chance to use earlier and shifted the pack on my back a bit.

“Well, no helping it, I suppose,” I muttered as I turned to Heather.  “Into the corn we go.”

Running through a cornfield is nothing like it seems in movies.  The stalks are hard and don’t bend easily, and there’s the always fun “Smack the People in the Face” game some of them enjoy playing.  Holding hands so that we didn’t become separated, we moved deep into the field.  There was an almost deafening crashing noise behind us that said louder than words that the undead were pursuing.  We pushed onward.

We had only been fleeing for a few minutes when the face of a suddenly suddenly appeared between the stalks to our left.  Without breaking stride, I swung the tire iron and connected with the side of its head.  It fell back out of view.

After what seemed like forever, we reached the other side of the cornfield.  We were standing near a chain link fence that blocked us from going any further.  In the bright moonlight I saw that on the other side of the fence was an embankment leading down to a highway.  After what I had seen happen on the freeway earlier, I was understandably skeptical about our chances down there, but the noises behind us were growing louder and I was even more skeptical about our survival if those zombies reached us.

“We’re going to have to climb the fence and cross the highway,” I whispered to Heather.  “We need to stay as quiet as we can.  Who knows how many of them are down there.  Got it?”

She nodded, and we began the tiresome activity of climbing the fence.  She reached the top first and climbed down the other side.  Burdened by the weight of the pack I was slower going up, and I can’t begin to describe how thankful I was that there wasn’t any barbed wire stretched across the top.  Finally, I reached the other side and we continued forward cautiously.

The highway was much like the one earlier had been: abandoned vehicles ran as far as the eye could see in both directions, and bodies (along with their various detached parts) were everywhere.  The car drivers and their passengers seemed to have put up a better fight here, though, as for every human casualty there were three or four deanimated (I’m assuming that’s the word to use, as ‘unreanimated’ just sounds so clunky) zombies.  Hey, good for them.  If you’re going to go down, go down swinging.  Give ‘em hell, cowboy up, all that jazz.

We had just reached the first of the cars when a loud crash followed by the sound of metal groaning in protest came from behind us.  The zombies had reached the fence.  There was nothing that we could do about it, though, so we continued on at the same cautious pace as we stepped out onto the highway.

That little voice in the back of my head was screaming a warning at me.  Apparently it had managed to find a megaphone somewhere in my head, because its already loud voice had been amplified further.  I scowled and firmly told it that I got the point.

Heather spotted something on the ground and held up her hand to call a halt.  She reached down and picked up what appeared to be a revolver.  She quickly and professionally checked the rounds remaining and nodded her head in approval.

I barely noticed this, however, as I was too busy exchanging my now oddly-shaped tire iron for an aluminum baseball bat I had discovered in the back of a pickup truck.  Now this was more like it.  Great reach, good weight.  It was everything that a would-be bludgeoner could ask for.  I took a practice swing and licked my lips.  Oh yes, this would do nicely.

We continued on.

With all the moaning coming from the horde, I barely heard the crunch of glass being crushed nearby.  Heather apparently had better hearing than I did, as she spun around and fired a single shot into the forehead of a zombie attempting to grab us from between two cars.  There was movement from the other side, but with a swing of my mighty beatstick and a satisfying explosion of undead skull it stopped rather abruptly.

Now the moaning was coming from all around us.

“Forget the subtle approach,” I said.  “We need to get the fuck out of here.  Now.”

She nodded as she put down another of our would-be suitors.

“There’s probably a fence on the other side,” she pointed out.  “I think I see an off-ramp to our left, though.  We’ll have to make a break for it.”

Ah, our first carnage-filled race against time with each other.  I remember it fondly.  It was a magical evening.  The moon was full, the stars dotted the sky, and we were as one as we moved steadily towards our only hope of escape.

It seemed like they were coming from everywhere at once, moving towards us from between vehicles and sometimes smashing their way out from inside of them.  When Heather’s revolver was empty, she flipped it around in her hand and used it to bash in the skull of one of our dance partners.  She discarded the weapon and replaced it with a piece of piping lying on the road before joining me in my brutal ballet of blunt beatings.

Truth be told, I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.

When we finally reached the off-ramp, we found it strangely absent of the undead.  Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, we picked up the pace and jogged up to higher ground.  The top of the ramp was clear as well.  I looked back down towards the highway and realized that we weren’t going to be alone for long.  Between the group that had chased us through the cornfield and the zombies that had already been on the highway, we had at least three hundred zombies begging for our attention.

It was Heather that spoke first.  She looked strangely radiant in the moonlight as she stood there covered in blood and various other fluids.

“Let’s go find a car and get the hell out of here,” she said.

And that’s what we did.  We ended up finding an abandoned farmhouse to stay in, and that’s where I’m writing this record of events now.  How amazing it is that both you and I managed to find this same place to seek refuge in.  It’s like the fates themselves decreed that our destinies would be linked.

Heather and I are about to head out, so I’m afraid that this must be goodbye.  Fear not, however, as I will continue to leave these messages at the various places we end up.  Great thoughts such as my own must be saved for posterity, after all.

I leave you with this famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, a quote that I think applies to what has happened and believe will give you strength in the days to come:

“Hey, asshole, try not to die out there.”

The Night I Met Santa Claus

It has been said that you should never meet your idols. It was the Christmas of 2005 that I came face to face with mine; someone the majority of people don’t believe in, after a certain age, of course. I was ten years old at the time and still held on to my beliefs, regardless of the inherent mocking it would earn.

Joanna, my older sister; Jo, or Jo-Jo to her friends and family, outright laughed at my insistence the man in the hat was real, but she was always a logical thinker. Even when she was much younger, while I was only three or four, she rolled her eyes at my excitement about the arrival of Jolly Old Saint Nick, having never bought into it even when she was just a little girl, according to our dad.

‘That’s fine,’ I thought, ‘don’t matter if you believe in him, ’cause he believes in you.’ Not the most well-thought-out inner argument, but it was good enough for an imaginative kid who couldn’t stand the thought of his sister ending up with a stocking full of coal, even if she was being a jerk about the whole thing.

When that December dragged by at a snail’s pace, or so it felt to a kid eagerly anticipating whatever new goodies may be awaiting him on the morning of the 25th, I forged together my plan to prove her wrong, once and for all. Sure, I can’t deny that the satisfaction of having a well-deserved ‘I told you so’ to greet Jo on Christmas morning wasn’t at least a little bit behind my motivations, but I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet the fabled jolly man in the red suit.

My dad chuckled at my insistence that I would be camping out in the living room that night of the 24th, while my mom only shrugged with a smile.

“Just be sure to get some sleep, kiddo,” dad said, still laughing at my eagerness mixed with exhausted yawns.

I held the small camera I’d received a Christmas or two back clutched in my hand beneath the blanket, prepared to take a few shots as soon as St. Nick made his appearance, but as the house fell still, I found it far more difficult to keep my eyes open. While the couch wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my bed on the second floor, the excitement of the season, along with a good deal of playing out in the snow, left my eyelids far too heavy to battle against.

I can’t be certain how long I was out for, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the living room around me, but when the creaking of the floor and jingling of the decorations hanging from the tree caused me to stir back to awareness, I instantly felt my fingers tingle with anticipation. For my plan to prove fruitful, I would have to keep up the act of a sleeping child; one fully unaware of the visitor I could vaguely see through my half-shut eyes.

From the angle I was laying in, I could only make out from the waist down of the man who fished goodies from his hefty bag, laying them gently beneath the tree, but I had no doubt I was witnessing the actions of the very man I hoped to see. With his back to me, I softly, but hastily searched my fingertips around for the camera which had fallen from their grip, after I knocked out, but I attempted to keep my actions unnoticed.

I slightly gasped aloud when my hand wrapped around the plastic shell, causing the man by the tree to spin in place, almost catching me red-handed. I snapped my eyes back shut, rolling them from side to side beneath their lids to imitate the rapid eye movement I had read about online. Whether or not I was overdoing it, acting as though I were erratically scanning them in every direction while still firmly closed, I had no way of knowing, but when I felt the air shift as the man drew closer to where I lay, I found it more difficult to hide my excitement.

I breathed in the scent of freshly baked cookies and peppermint, convincing me that I truly was in the presence of the fabled gift-giver himself. There was something else beneath the more inviting smells; something musty and aged, but I assumed the big guy had worked up quite a sweat, given his laborious profession. After a few moments, I felt the oxygen around me regulate as the light footsteps sounded as though they moved away from me again, so I took a chance on cracking open my eyelids.

Sure enough, the man in the red suit was hunched over by the tree again. I knew I had to make it quick, or I would lose this small window of providing evidence to my sister. In one swift, but silent motion, I pulled the camera free from my blanket, aimed it at the man who still faced the tree and snapped three pictures, back-to-back, moving my finger so quickly I didn’t have time to register the bright flash.

I felt my breath catch in my throat as he spun to face me; something I could barely make out through the lingering effects of the blinking bright lights on my eyes, which had grown accustomed to an otherwise darkened room.

“That’s against the rules, little boy,” his deep voice said with his posture unchanged, from what I could tell.

“I-I’m so sorry,” I stuttered, feeling my eyes well up, “I j-just wanted to prove….prove to my sister that you’re real!”

“You’re not the first…unlikely to be the last, but it is still forbidden, I’m afraid.”

I could see the silhouette rising back to his feet, with the blotches of lingering light still blocking most of my view. He moved closer to where I lay, only slightly raised with the camera clenched between my trembling fingers.

It wasn’t fear that caused my extremities to shiver, but that sensation of guilt and embarrassment from being caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Were this any other man, I would likely be so scared that I couldn’t even form the stuttered words I managed to utter, but I was comfortable in the fact that Father Christmas would never harm a child, regardless of how naughty they were acting.

“Give it to me,” he said, holding his padded mitt just beneath my face.

I gently raised the camera, placing it in his waiting hand, keeping my guilt-ridden gaze fixed on my wrinkled blanket.

“There’s nothing to feel bad about, my boy,” he said, sliding the camera into his pocket with one hand and tousling my hair with the other, “go back to sleep now.”

“B-but…will I…I mean, does this make me naughty?”

“No, young mister Cobb, you have graced my nice list exclusively for years,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “I was a curious child myself once, so very long ago.”

Finally feeling comfortable enough to raise my eyes to meet those of the man who stood beside the couch, I found my voice silenced when I met his smiling face. While things were still somewhat out of focus from the lingering effects of the camera flash, what I saw through the haze was far from what I expected.

Whether it was the fact that the skin tone of the left side of the face was not the same as the right, the green and red threads holding the mismatched flaps of skin together, or the two different colors and sizes of the eyes were what caught me more off guard, I didn’t know. Whatever aspect of this crudely priced together thing, for lack of a better term, I was certain that this could not truly be who I had expected a visit from this snowy Christmas morning.

As my jaw fell open; a scream caught in my throat as the creature in the red suit swiftly and firmly placed a hand over my mouth.

“Now, now,” he said, smiling so widely that a few stitches popped where his mouth was hemmed on the left side, “there’s no sense in allowing your curiosity to wake everyone else in the house.”

I was frozen when the sight of this patchwork man caused my guilt to be replaced with a fear I had never known. My whole body trembled as the one green and one hazel eye glared into mine. Tears were streaming down my face and over the padded glove that rested over my mouth while my mind fought to wrap around what I was looking at.

“There’s nothing to fear, my boy,” he said, winking the brown eye; his words now accompanied by a whistle through the gap on the side of his mouth, “I may not look as you imagined, but I assure you I am who you sought to meet this night.”

“Wh-what are you?” I asked, pulling the hand from my mouth with my shivering fingers.

“You know who I am, Edward.”

“No…you can’t be…” I shook my head almost violently as I pushed my shoulder blades against the back of the couch, as though this would somehow grant me freedom from this hideous thing.

The smile faded from the patchy bearded face as those opposing eyes glared down at me. While he hung his head, turning away from me, he strolled to my father’s recliner, which sat diagonally across from where I lay. When he spun again to face me, lowering himself into my dad’s favorite chair, we just glared at one another; my eyes still filled with terror and his with something resembling shame.

“I have been doing this for a long time, Edward,” he said in a strangely compassionate voice, “immortality, I can assure you, does not come without cost.”

“You can’t be him…I won’t believe it,” I said, still shaking my head in denial.

“I am, young Mr. Cobb. I am so sorry that I am not what you expected, but I assure you there is no need to be afraid…I would never hurt a child.”

“N-not even the n-naughty ones?”

“Not even…not when they’re still young enough to change, anyway.”

“Even if…if they’re really bad?”

“No. Not ever. Never a child; not if I can help it. Besides, that’s what the train is for.”

“Th-the train?”

“Nothing to concern yourself with, my boy; I can promise you that much.”

Again, we gazed at one another for so long that my eyes began to burn from my refusal to blink. Not only was I still so horrified by what sat across from me, but I dreaded to think what he might have done if I took my eyes off him for a second.

My whole body continued to tremble while I still forced my back against the plush cushions of the couch, with my blanket pulled up to my quivering lower lip. Every fiber of my being was in complete denial of what I was looking at, regardless of the fact he clearly had no ill intentions at the time; a fact I grew steadily more uncertain of after what came next.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he said, barely louder than a whisper, both sides of his uneven brow pinching tightly on his upper eyelids.

I didn’t stop; I couldn’t. I had no control over it at the time. He may as well have asked me to levitate three feet above the cozy sofa with how much I was able to manage what my body and mind were going through at the time.

“Stop it!” he repeated, leaning forward to lean his elbows on his knees, “Do you have any idea what I have endured over the centuries!? Do you have the slightest semblance of appreciation for what I put myself through to continue to give you ungrateful children a happy Christmas!?”

I shook my near-spasming head; not in response to his question, but in further denial of what I was witnessing.

“I turned myself into an abomination, for you! You and all of the other kids out there! Is that not good enough!?”

I turned away from him, finally allowing my gaze to drift from his.

“LOOK AT ME!” he shouted, reclaiming my unyielding attention, as he practically leapt to his feet, whipping the hat from his scalp and tearing open his coat.

The scars and stitched together, mismatched shades of flesh across his emaciated chest almost caused me to scream out so loudly, I may just wake the dead, as well as my sleeping family. The stringy and matted, patchwork hair and mangled scalp looked as though the thread holding it together would pop apart any second, unzipping the seams to reveal little more than the skull beneath.

“This is what I had to become to continue on my chosen path,” he said in a cracking voice, pulling his coat back shut, “I became this…monstrosity…for you; for all of the children of the world.”

He paced closer to me again, inspiring me to attempt to force myself deeper into the cushions. As he crouched down to look directly into my eyes, my tears let loose, transforming from the trickling stream to a veritable hurricane.


He gripped his fingers around my shoulders so tightly, I thought he planned to claim my arms; to stash them away for a rainy day. While I became aware of the fact that one of the hands felt so much larger than the other; far stronger as well, that only drove the madness of it all so much deeper into my brain.

“Look at the wonders I brought you,” he said, removing one hand to gesture to the pile of neatly wrapped presents, “is it too much to expect a little gratitude?”

The mismatched scowl softened to reveal his own glassy eyes, glistening in the soft illumination of the festive lights upon the tree. In that moment, even through my horror-stricken vision at the time, I could finally make out the melancholy and hurt-filled expression of the kind face, hidden away behind the grotesque patchwork flesh.

“Th-thank you,” I said, my tears finally dissipating, “and I’m sorry…sorry I got scared. It’s just…”

“No,” he said, his grip softening on my shoulder, “it is I who should apologize, my dear young man.”

His hands fell limp to his sides, tracing his padded gloves across the carpeted floor. As he hung his head, shying his eyes away from mine, I let the blanket slip from my fingers, raising my hand to his cold and wrinkled cheek.

“It actually feels kinda neat,” I said, running my no longer shivering digits across the seam holding the upper flap of his face to the lower, “does it hurt?”

He just shook his head, still seemingly studying the floor beneath his knees.

“Only at first…goes numb after a time…”

“I bet that’s a good thing when it’s really cold out,” I said sincerely, shifting myself closer to him, “I played in the snow today, and my skin felt like it was on fire after a while.”

“Is that right?” he said with a chuckle, raising his eyes back to meet mine, “it has been a long time since I felt anything like that.”

“It really sucked, ’cause I wanted to stay out there, but I couldn’t even make my fingers move, they were so cold! When I came back inside, I got crazy pins and needles!”

Though the smile he returned seemed to lighten up his face, a few more stitches popped loose on the side of his mouth, almost reawakening the fear I had begun to bury away. When he raised a gloved hand to the loose thread, I could see that shame returning as he turned his gaze from mine once more.

“Want me to help you fix it? My mom showed me how to sow a bit when I kept tearing up the knees of my pants.”

“No,” he said, with a half-smile on the side of his mouth that wasn’t affixed with thread, “but I certainly do appreciate the offer, young Edward.”

With that, he got back to his feet, smiled back down at me once more, and walked back to where his bag lay beside the tree.

“I’m afraid I must be going, my young friend. Many more children on my list, before the sun rises.”

I pulled back my blanket, jumped to my feet, and approached the man in the red suit, no longer afraid of what he had in store for me.

“I really am sorry, Santa,” I said, feeling my back tense again from my guilt.

“No, my boy,” he said, turning to face me, “it is I who owes you an apology. It has been many years since I have allowed…this,” he held his hands to his face, “to be seen by anyone, aside from those I work alongside. I almost forgot how jarring it can be to the unsuspecting.”

I reached up to wrap my fingers around the puffy mitten of his left hand. He winced at first, as though shocked by this act, but when I tightened my grip to reassure him, I felt my heart skip a little when my hand closed around the empty section of padding.

I looked up at him, as though wordlessly asking if it was alright before I slipped the glove from his hand. I felt my jaw fall loose when my eyes met the sight of the three missing fingers, leaving only a forefinger and thumb in their stead.

“W-what happened?” I stuttered; not from fear this time, but from the sadness awakening within me.

“A small accident some weeks back,” he said, almost dismissively, “nothing to worry about, young lad.”

“Can you get new ones?”

“Soon enough, my boy…I just need the right donor,” he replied with a warm smile.

“But…you said you wouldn’t hurt nobody…” I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken again.

“I would never hurt a child, dear Edward,” he said, pulling the mitten back over his hand, “but a few lumps of coal are not quite as effective to a naughty adult.”

With that, he gave me a wink, tousled my hair again with his fully fingered right hand, and picked the large bag back up again.

“You had better get some sleep now.”

While I was still pretty freaked out by everything that night had presented me with, I no longer felt afraid of the patchwork man in the red and white suit. Before I walked back to the couch, I wrapped my arms around him, apologizing one last time for acting like such a jerk. He just laughed, gently returning my hug.

“Merry Christmas, Edward Cobb,” he said with a slight crack in his voice.

“Merry Christmas, Santa,” I replied, finally releasing my grip to head back to my warm blanket.

When I climbed back under the covers, I glanced back to the tree to see no trace of jolly old Saint Nick, but I think I expected that. I heard no hooves stomping across the roof, high above, no jovial chuckles as he rode out of earshot, only the silence of the house at rest.

By the time I awoke the following morning, greeted by my loving parents, excited sister, and a good many presents to open up, I had already convinced myself that I had eaten far too much junk food the night before. That was always a safe enough explanation for my more bizarre and far-out dreams. I even found my camera hidden away beneath the blanket, with not even one picture having been taken.

After Christmas morning proceeded like normal; well, normal from what I had experienced over my handful of years by that point, my father received a phone call. He looked almost puzzled when he glanced at the caller ID before answering, but the confused expression on his face quickly turned to something more concerned and uneasy.

He whispered to my mother words I could not make out, causing her face to mimic his at the time, but he turned down her offer to accompany him as he threw on some warmer clothing, almost sprinting out the front door.

“Where’s dad going?” Jo asked, turning her attention away from her new iPod for the first time in hours.

“He has to go meet your Uncle Bob,” mom replied, appearing uneasy about this rendezvous.

I had only met my father’s brother once, some four or five years before that Christmas day, if memory serves. Even back then, I could tell that my mom didn’t think too highly of the man, but he was only at the house for maybe ten to twenty minutes at most.

I overheard my parents arguing that night, with my mother insisting that dad’s brother was not welcome in our home. While dad seemed pretty agitated by her words, he didn’t put up as much of a fight as I expected, but the more they talked, after the yelling calmed down, the more I understood.

I would find out some time later that Robert Cobb, who was two years older than my dad, cared more about the bottle than his brother’s family. He prioritized his addiction over his own wife and kids as well, for that matter. Having only met him that one time, I had no idea I had three cousins: a boy around my age and two daughters, three and five years my senior.

With those facts in mind, when my dad showed back up two hours later, accompanied by Uncle Bob, I could understand why my mom looked fit to burst. As my father looked back at her with his eyes quivering with burgeoning tears, she looked completely lost for words when Robert threw his arms around her, apologizing for being such a terrible brother-in-law.

It was at that point, while I was completely distracted from all of the goodies I had unwrapped that morning, gazing up at the adults who were acting so strangely to my youthful eyes, that I noticed something that caused my breath to catch in my throat again.

Some minutes later, Bob would explain the bandages wrapped around his left hand; how he had awakened that morning with a wide red ribbon where the gauze now sat. Being still hungover from the binge drinking of the previous night; the same way he had ended just about every day since his wife left him, taking their children with her, he had no memory of how he had lost those three fingers, nor why he had encased the bloodied stumps in a festive ribbon.

Seeing this as a much-needed wake-up call to finally put in the work to attempt to get his life back on track, he headed straight to the hospital, placing the call to my father when he arrived. When my parents escorted him into the kitchen, pretty much ordering my sister and me to stay put, we couldn’t help but listen from the other side of the door.

Though I was still far too young to truly understand a lot of what was being said, what Uncle Bob was confessing to, Jo attempted to explain it to me later in more child-friendly terms. Essentially, Robert admitted to the abuse he had inflicted on his wife and children. While he had only gotten physical with his spouse, he was just as ashamed of that as the years of verbal abuse.

Over the following months, my father stood by his brother’s side while he fought to get clean, with the full support of my mom. Sometime down the line, his estranged wife gave him a second chance. Ultimately, they could not save their relationship, but remained friends, even when she remarried. He would; however, become far more involved in the lives of his children, as well as his niece and nephew.

To this day, Uncle Bob keeps in touch. I don’t see him as much as I used to; him or my cousins, but that’s just part of getting older, I suppose. We all still get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the latter being more important to my uncle than any other holiday, as that is the anniversary of when he realized the monster he had become.

Oftentimes, I allow myself to believe that the memories I still hold of the man I met that early Christmas morning are nothing more than an especially vivid dream that sticks with me to this day. The fact that the patchwork individual in the red suit was missing the same fingers my uncle lost track of some hours after that bizarre dream, I just chalked up to that unexplainable coincidence of a strangely prophetic flight of fancy of the sleeping mind.

Of course, there are those other times when I fully and truly believe that I did uncover the truth behind the mythical saint of the season; the extreme measures he took to be able to continue his mission through the centuries. Not only that, but I think it is very likely he had a fully fingered left hand by the time the sun set on that Christmas day.

Though I never saw him again after that night, I believe it was that experience that drove me to at least attempt to grow up to be a good man; that, as well as the lessons my parents taught me. Yes, there have been hard times that almost inspired me to stray from that path, as life does tend to toss a few curve balls at even the most prepared for the worst, but I have always been able to find my way back.

Perhaps it’s not the most honorable motivation; the fear of having bits and pieces of myself cut and stripped away to fix up a broken fender or two on Santa’s sleigh, so to speak, but it’s something at least.

Believe my story or not; it’s pretty far-fetched; I can’t deny that. All I ask, when all is said and done: just try to be good, for goodness’ sake.

A Fright Before Christmas

We had a fright before Christmas, while all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring; well, maybe a mouse.

The stuffed stockings were hung on the mantle downstairs,

I hoped they’d remain; it was in need of repairs.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of virtual warfare danced in their heads.

With my wife in my t-shirt and me in my skivvies,

We were both tuckered out from exhausting activities.

When out on the lawn, I could hear a strange sound,

It was a little unnerving, with no neighbors around.

Away to the window, I shuffled my feet,

Peeled back the curtains, afraid of what my eyes may meet.

The moon beaming down on the new-fallen snow,

Highlighted the trio who crossed the lawn below.

This was no friendly visit; that much I could see,

With each of the men, locked and loaded with glee.

The tall man in front moving silent and quick,

I could tell right away he was likely a prick.

As they moved to the back door, their weapons in hand,

He whistled, and spoke, and gave his demands:

“You take the ground floor, and I’ll take the stairs,

Then head to the basement and see what’s down there,

If you see anything move, you put it down quick,

Not one of them lives; they make me fucking sick!”

He then fidgeted softly with the lock of the door,

I gave a wink to my wife; the one I adore.

Sneaking out of the bedroom, I asked that she stay,

She smiled warmly back at me, “have fun while you play,”

There was no reason to doubt I would return in a while,

With blood soaking my fingers and smearing my smile.

As I reached the ground floor and was turning around,

Through the backdoor, they entered, barely making a sound.

They were all dressed in Kevlar, from their heads to their feet,

It was clear they were prepared; in case we should meet.

A bundle of stakes stashed away in their pack,

Caused me briefly to worry I could not push them back.

Their eyes—how they twinkled! They were all I could see!

Through the darkness, they were far less likely to see me.

The drool leaked from my mouth to the carpet below,

At the thought of their bodies dripping blood on the snow.

I would silence the one to the front of them quickly.

Gush his fluids across his friends’ faces, so slickly.

He was barely aware when I sank my teeth in,

The shock and horror in his gaze; I couldn’t help but to grin.

He was stocky and muscled, but I drained him down fast,

And I laughed when I saw his friends looking aghast.

With a wink of my eye and a twist of his neck,

I moved on to the next one; it scared him to heck!

He spoke not a word, while I took care of my work,

While the last one turned tail; what a cowardly jerk!

This attempt to flee did not go as he planned,

As I leaped right upon him, turning his kneecaps to sand,

“I cannot let you leave, but you won’t die just yet.

My family hungers as well; you best bet,”

I dragged him down to the basement, and into his cage,

He had not a chance; not given my rage.

I gave him one final glance as I cut out the light,

“Happy Christmas to you; until tomorrow night.”

And to All a Good Nighty Night

This year, I made an egregious mistake.  It was one of those decisions that I knew was bad at the time I was making it, and part of me was screaming at me that I was being an idiot, but I still went ahead with it anyway.  I don’t make those kinds of mistakes often.  When I do, though, damn, they come back to bite me every single time.

At the beginning of December, a friend of mine came to me with a request.  He’s the manager of the only local mall within thirty miles that is still operating.  While there aren’t many stores that remain open there, the one time that things get even slightly busy is around Christmas.  There’s something about the holiday season that makes people want to walk into a big open building so that they can rummage around in small claustrophobic stores, I guess.  It’s the only time of year that the various retailers that lease store space manage to make more than a minuscule profit.

To help get everyone into the holiday spirit, the mall is decorated with all the usual holiday cheer.  As much as I just kind of crap over malls in my last paragraph, I have to say that there really is something magical about them during the holiday season.  I have found memories as a kid walking under giant wreaths and ornaments that hung from the ceiling.  Christmas music would play gently through the building and lights would twinkle in seemingly every corner.  Both the shoppers and the store employees seemed nicer at that time of year.

The big centerpiece to every mall at Christmas time was, of course, Santa Claus.  There would be a spot in the center of the building that would be decorated to look like a workshop or a winter wonderland, and that would be where Santa would be located.  It seems silly to think back on it as an adult, but it really was a big deal as a kid.  There was the big guy himself, ready to take a picture with you and to get your present list right from the horse’s mouth.

It wasn’t really Santa, of course.  It was some guy that had been hired to play the part.  I think all kids know that, or at least suspect it.  It weirdly doesn’t matter, though, does it?  It was still one of the highlights of the Christmas season.

That brings me back to the favor my friend asked of me.  The Santa actor that he had hired had needed to back out due to a family emergency, and he hadn’t been able to find a replacement.  He had happened to bump into my wife Anne at the grocery store, though, and while they had caught up she had happened to mention that I had most of December off thanks to accumulated vacation time that I had needed to use before the new year.

I’m guessing that you can see the answer that he came up with when he put two and two together.

I politely turned him down.  Putting aside the fact that the pay that was offered was awful, I just didn’t want to do it.  My idea of vacation was relaxing and doing the absolute bare minimum, not sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day while children coughed and sneezed all over me.  Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

It was Anne that convinced me to agree.  At first she was completely onboard with my position, but when she found out that the job also came with a significant discount at all the stores in the mall she flipped to the other side of the argument.  We needed new furniture now that our Great Dane was out of that annoying puppy phase where they chew everything within reach.  With the discount we would be able to afford that immediately rather than needing to wait for our tax return the following February.

That was how my much-anticipated and much-needed vacation turned into an endless procession of greedy children and stressed parents.

Somehow, I managed to make it through the three weeks with my sanity intact.  I was close to stepping off that cliff a few times, but each time I talked myself out of it at the last minute.  The last hour of my final shift on Christmas Eve felt like it lasted years.

It didn’t help that I had been forced to take some medication to help me get through it.  One of the hundreds of children with runny noses had passed their cold onto me, and I was determined not to have more than the sniffles by Christmas morning.  To accomplish this, I drank a grove’s worth of orange juice and took cold medication at regular intervals.

On my final break of the day, I had gone to take a dose of the medication and found that the packet was empty.  I had hurried over to the pharmacy next to the mall and bought more.  They didn’t have the brand that I typically used, so I had been forced to buy a different one.

Apparently I should have taken a moment to read the package a bit closer, because it turned out that I had grabbed the nighttime version instead of the non-drowsy pills.  I found this out immediately after I had taken them.  I had stared at the label for a few moments before coming to the conclusion that it would be fine.  How bad could it be, right?

During that last hour, I nearly fell asleep on multiple occasions.  One minute I would be listening to a kid’s wish list of toys, and the next my head would be snapping back after drifting off for a few seconds.  The further into the hour I got, the more often it happened.

Even when I wasn’t falling asleep, I was completely zoned out.  I felt like I was existing in a fog.  Everything became automatic: wait for the kid to rattle of their list, hand them a candy cane, and send them on their way with a quick “Merry Christmas”.

WIth about ten minutes left in my shift, I started seeing things.  More accurately, I started seeing something.  Sometimes when I looked out beyond the small Santa’s Village set, I would see an odd figure off in the distance.  I couldn’t make it out very well, but it was tall, gray, and it seemed to have quite a long neck.  It moved in and out of the crowd of shoppers, stopping every so often to examine someone closer before moving on.

Each time I saw it, the sight of it would cause me to jerk slightly and my mind would temporarily cut through the fog.  I would blink a few times, and when I focused my eyes again the figure would be gone.  After the first few times of this I swore to never spend a dime on cold medication again.  Obviously it had quite the effect on me.

Finally, mercifully, my shift was over.  At that point I knew that it wasn’t safe for me to drive home.  I didn’t want to risk the medication knocking me out while I was on the road.  As I watched the last of the shoppers filing out of the mall doors, I called Anne and explained what was going on.  She immediately volunteered to come pick me up, telling me that we could come back and get my car the next day.

It was going to take her a while to get me, however.  The snow was really coming down outside, and the roads weren’t in great condition.  I told her to take her time and hung up.

My next call was to the friend that managed the mall.  He wasn’t actually at the mall, of course.  Only a madman would be working at a mall on Christmas Eve, after all.

When he picked up, I told him what was happening.  He told me that, while all the mall staff including the two security guards were leaving, I was welcome to stay inside until Anne got there to pick me up.  He had an extra key in his office, and I would just need to use it to unlock the front door and re-lock it behind me when I left.  That way I wouldn’t have to stand out in the freezing cold while I waited.  I gladly took him up on his offer.

I went behind the chair that I sat on when I was meeting children and retrieved my backpack.  As I did so, one of the guards came up to me and told me that the manager had let him know what was going on.  He asked if I wanted him to wait with me, but I told him that wasn’t necessary.  There was no point in him missing time with his family.

Instead of immediately going to the hallway housing the mall staff offices, I went into one of the bathrooms and took off my Santa beard and hat.  I hadn’t bothered to bring a full change of clothes because I obviously hadn’t known that I was going to be stuck in the mall after closing, but I certainly wasn’t going to wear more of the costume than I needed to while I waited.  When I finished, I went back out of the bathroom with a yawn.

I hadn’t been in there for more than a few minutes, but by the time I emerged the mall was empty.  All the stores were closed, the music was no longer playing over the speakers, and the overhead lights were dimmed.  I looked around uneasily.  If I was being honest with myself, it was a little creepy.

Unease quickly reverted to exhaustion, however.  The medication was really kicking in now, and I yawned again as I shook my head in an effort to clear it.  That effort was in vain.  It had been too long of a day and I had taken too much of the medicine for something as simple as a head shake to work.

I slung my backpack over my shoulders and started towards the manager’s office.  The best course of action was to retrieve the keys, sit down on one of the benches near the mall entrance, and wait for Anne.  Fighting off sleep until she arrived would be tricky, but maybe I could set an alarm on my phone just in case.

Through my mental haze I heard a sound.  At least I thought that I did.  It was so quiet that I wasn’t sure if I really did.  I frowned.  I wasn’t even sure what it had sounded like.  I ignored it and continued on.

I heard the sound again but kept going.  I was bound to hear odd sounds that I normally wouldn’t now that the mall was closed.  After all, there were the noises of people shopping to cover up the sounds that all older buildings made.  It was just some pipe moving warm air through it for the heaters or something settling as the night grew colder outside.  Nothing to worry about.  Besides, I was too tired to worry about such things.

I passed by the mall’s movie theater.  It was only a few stores down from the office hallway.  I glanced at the posters displaying the current films being played.  I made a face.  The entire lineup was surprisingly bad with the exception of a special screening of Scrooged.  That one got a pass.

I turned my attention forward just in time to see long fingers begin to curl around the edge of the office hallway.  I was so tired that it took me almost double the time it normally would to react.  Stopping in my tracks, I watched as a second set did the same thing just above the first three.  All of the fingers ended in points that extended two to three feet.

As I stood there uncomprehendingly, a hideous face stretched out from behind the wall.  Its eyes had no lids, and the yellowish orbs with black centers seemed to strain out from the sockets.  Its mouth was pulled back in a smile, its lips cracked and broken.  A disgusting black liquid flowed out of its mouth and poured onto the floor.

“Merry Christmas,” the monster said in a scratchy voice.

I cried out in surprise as fear gripped me.  I stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, landing on my bottom with a thud.  All feelings of being tired were suddenly gone.

So was the creature.  I stopped in mid-shout as it disappeared.  It didn’t pull back into the hallway or otherwise move out of view.  One moment it was there, and the next it wasn’t.

I sat on the ground for a few moments, looking around in confusion while waiting for my heartrate to return to something resembling normal.  I had no idea what had just happened.

I thought back to the medication that I had taken.  It had to have been some sort of hallucination brought on by the drug.  Maybe I was allergic to it.  I nodded to myself.  That made sense.  In fact, I thought that I had read on the box that hallucinations were a known side effect if too much was taken in a single dose.  I didn’t think that I had taken too many of the pills, but it was certainly possible.

I got back to my feet and ran a hand over my face.  As the adrenaline faded, I began to feel even more tired than I had been just minutes earlier.  I sighed as I took a step towards the hallway.

The creature was back, and this time its entire body had emerged from the hallway.  It was extremely tall and towered over me, and its arms and legs were thin to the point of being emaciated.  It looked down at me with that same grin as it extended its needle-like fingers towards me.

“Merry Christmas,” it repeated in that same raspy voice.

It didn’t disappear when I screamed this time.  It seemed to waver slightly as my fear spiked, appearing for a moment like a heat mirage coming off of hot asphalt, but that only lasted for a less than a second as it resolidified.  I noticed that my head didn’t clear the way that it had when I had first seen the creature.  The medication was really taking hold now.

It started to move forward.  It moved slowly and methodically, but I got the feeling that it would be capable of going faster if it needed to.  Not knowing what else to do, I turned and ran.

I didn’t know where I was running to.  I didn’t have a plan in mind.  All that I knew was that I needed to put some distance between myself and this… this thing.  I could hear it pursuing, but I didn’t look back.

I came to the doors at the front of the mall.  Grabbing one of the handles, I pulled as hard as I could.  The door refused to budge.  I mentally kicked myself as I belatedly remembered that I’d have to unlock them before I could leave.

Swearing loudly, I turned back around.  The key was somewhere in the mall manager office.  That office was, in turn, back the way that I had come.  Between me and it was the monster that was chasing me.

Before I had time to form any kind of plan, even a bad one, the creature came into the entryway.  Black liquid sloshed out of both sides of its mouth as its head moved from side to side.

A part of me didn’t want to keep running.  There was a tiny voice inside of my head that said to just give up, that I was too tired to keep going.  There was no way that this was real anyway.  It was just some horrible hallucination brought on by a bad reaction to cold medication.

The rest of me told that part to shut the fuck up.  This was definitely happening, and while I was indeed hazy from the medication, I knew that my head was clear enough that I wasn’t just making this up.  This was real.

“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.

It seemed to be the only thing that the creature could say.  I wondered if that was because it had heard the shoppers repeat the phrase so often during the time it has spent in the mall.  I reminded myself that the words the evil killer monster was saying didn’t matter nearly as much as getting away from the evil killer monster.

It was coming towards me along the right side of the entryway.  I moved in the opposite direction and started running back into the mall.  I had only taken a few steps when my legs began to ache.  I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life to begin with, and both the initial running I had done and the medication I was on weren’t helping matters.  I continued on as best as I could.

I had crossed about a dozen yards when my boot slipped on a wet spot on the floor.  Maybe it was from a spilled drink, or maybe it was snow brought in by a shopper that had melted.  Whatever the case, my heel skidded across the surface and my weight came down on the leg awkwardly.  Pain immediately flared from it, and once again I found myself colliding with the tile.

I managed to get back to my feet, but I wasn’t able to put much weight onto the injured leg.  I looked over my shoulder and found that the creature was closing the distance between us.  Gritting my teeth, I stumped ahead as quickly as I could.  I knew that it wasn’t fast enough, though, and I wasn’t going to make it back to the office hallway before it caught up to me.  I rounded the corner and for a brief period of time I was out of the creature’s sight.

All of the stores were closed and had metal gates pulled down in front of them.  They weren’t going to offer any safety.  I looked around in a panic, and finally my eyes fell on Santa’s Village.  It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

I half-walked, half-dragged myself past the archway and white picket fence.  Following the fake path, I went around the side of the stage to a small wooden house that had been constructed.  It had a working door with a lock, but the windows were just painted on as opposed to being real.  In theory it was there to offer a quiet sitting area during scheduled breaks.  In practice, the working locks and no windows had made it a favorite makeout spot for one of the elves and her boyfriend.  I hurried inside and shut the door behind me, sliding the lock into place.

It was a flimsy lock, and an even flimsier structure.  There was no way that it would stop the creature from getting to me.  The only hope that I had was that it didn’t find me.

I heard it approaching Santa’s Village.  I was breathing heavily, so I placed a hand over my mouth to hopefully muffle the sound.  Forcing myself to stay still, I listened as best I could through the beating of my own pulse in my ears.

“Merry Christmas,” the creature called out from some distance away in an almost confused tone.

I felt a momentary hope.  It didn’t know where I was.  Maybe it would just move on.

That hope was dashed as I heard it collide with the archway at the start of the path.  That was followed by the sound of wood splitting and splintering.  The creature might not know exactly where I was, but it had decided to investigate Santa’s Village.  I thought back to the times when I had seen it off the distance towards the end of my shift.  I had thought that those sightings were just my tired mind playing tricks on me at the time.  That obviously wasn’t the case.  I wondered if it had seen me during those flashes as well.

There were other noises as the creature continued its way towards me, most of which sounded like it was carving a path of destruction through the various Christmas decorations.  It was drawing closer to where I was hiding.  I was starting to panic, but I just barely managed to keep control of myself and stay silent.

I felt the creature reach the house.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I could feel its large body hulking over the flimsy structure.  When it didn’t move away, I knew that I was caught.  Somehow it had worked out where I was.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when there was a light knocking at the door.

“Merry Christmas,” the creature said.

I looked around for anything that I could use as a weapon, but the only thing that I saw was a condom wrapper.  Despite the danger I was in, I shuddered at the thought that the elf had been stuffing her boyfriend’s stocking just mere feet from where I was sitting.

I was brought back to the here and now when one of the creature’s fingers punctured the door.  It slid through easily, as if the wood offered no resistance whatsoever.  It slid down and sliced through the lock, cutting it in two and causing the door to swing open.  I pressed my body as far as it would go against the back wall as the creature’s nightmarish face came into view.

It stared at me for a long moment before casually flipping the entire structure over on its side.  Completely exposed, I screamed as one of its hands wrapped around me and lifted me off of my feet.  I struggled, of course, but I was no match for the creature’s overwhelming strength.  It was going to kill me, and there was nothing that I could do about it.

To my surprise, the monster didn’t end me right then and there.  Instead, it carried me over to the stage and set me down on it.  It then proceeded to point at the chair with one of its claws.

It wanted me to sit down.

Completely clueless as to what was happening, I did as it instructed.  Once I was seated, the creature stepped up onto the stage next to me and examined me closely.  It bobbed its head up and down a few times; it was apparently satisfied at what it was seeing.

“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.

“What…” I attempted to say, my voice breaking.  I cleared my throat and tried again.  “What do you want?”

It leaned in closer to me.  “Merry Christmas.”

It used the point of one finger to tap the red coat I was wearing.  I stared at it in confusion for a pair of heartbeats before I realized what it wanted.

“You want me to be Santa?” I asked.

The big head nodded before it pointed to its own chest.

“And you…”  I thought it through.  “You want to tell me what you want for Christmas?”

Again the creature nodded, and the hideous smile grew broader.  This was completely surreal, and I started to consider the hallucination theory once again despite the pain in my leg and the smell of its horrid breath filling my nostrils.

“Yeah, okay,” I stammered out.  “What…  What do you want for Christmas?”

The creature didn’t reply.  Instead, it straightened up and pointed at the small house I had been hiding in that was now residing on top of three reindeer statues.  It once again pointed at itself before again indicating the house.  I furrowed my brow as I worked my way through what it was trying to tell me.

“Home,” I said as I suddenly got it.  “You want to go home?”

The creature nodded for a third time.  This time, though, it was a much slower motion, and although it continued to smile there seemed to be something melancholy about it.

I thought that I understood what was happening.  It had indeed been watching me as I spoke with the children throughout the day.  It must have thought that I was capable of making their wishes come true.  Now it was asking me for something in hopes that I could make it happen.  I felt a pang of sympathy as I stared up at the creature.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told it, feeling strangely guilty as I lied.  “It will take some time, but I’ll get you home.”

The creature’s whole demeanor changed.  The grin became happy, and it let out an oddly hollow sound that I took to be its version of a laugh.  It turned away and walked in the opposite direction of the office hallway towards the food court.

“Merry Christmas,” it called out before moving out of sight.

Half an hour later, I was sitting in Anne’s car in the parking lot of the pharmacy next to the mall as she went inside to get an ice pack for my leg.  She had immediately asked what happened when she saw me, and I had told her the truth.  I had slipped on a wet patch of floor.  Sure, I left out the part about the tall monster, but it was still technically the truth.

I turned my head towards the mall, attempting to process what had happened.  I had thought that I was going to die in there, and that wasn’t a feeling that I was going to forget any time soon.  More than that, though, I wondered about the monster.  Where had it come from?  Why had I only been able to see it when I was tired?  And the question that ran through my head more than any of the others: why couldn’t it go home?

There was a movement at one of the mall doors.  I could barely see it through the falling snow, but I had definitely seen it.  I turned my head to look directly at it.  Standing behind one of the doors, its body hunched over so that it could see through the glass, was the creature.  I was no longer afraid of it, and I truly hoped that one day it found the way home that it seemed so desperate to find.

“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.

Going Down

Check out the exclusive audio narration on Septic Theory!

The elevator shuddered violently, and the soft white lights flickered out for a moment before being replaced by faint red ones.

I swore under my breath as I realized that the elevator had broken down.  I waited for a few minutes, but when nothing happened I began to become impatient.  Going over to the panel, I bent down to examine the buttons.  None of them were lit up, but I tried the Door Open button anyway.  The metal doors remained shut.

I repeated the colorful language I had spat out moments before.

Being stuck in the apartment building was the absolute last thing that I needed that day.  At the same time, it wasn’t much of a surprise.  Things had been going so badly since the moment that I had woken up that it was a bigger surprise that the elevator cable hadn’t snapped so that I had plunged to my death.

With a sigh, I set down the box that I was carrying onto the floor.  There was no point in just standing there holding it and letting my arms get tired.

I immediately went back over to the panel as a thought occurred to me.  I hadn’t even considered that there might be an emergency phone.  I had seen them in hotel and office building elevators.  Less than a second of searching confirmed that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

I took out my cellphone and looked at the screen.  The words ‘No Signal’ were plastered in the center of the screen.  Of course there wasn’t any signal.  I was standing in the middle of a metal box inside of a metal shaft.  Just another indicator of how… wonderful my day was turning out.

There was a faint thud from outside the elevator doors.  It sounded like a door being closed somewhere in the distance.  It came from an oddly high angle, and it took me a second to work out that the elevator car must be stuck in between floors.  I listened for a bit, but when there wasn’t any followup noise I went back to my sulking.

I shouldn’t have even been in the apartment building in the first place.  It wasn’t like I lived there.  I had just been there to visit my wife…

Ex-wife, I mentally corrected myself.  Isabel had made that very clear when she had ambushed me with the divorce papers the moment of my arrival.  To say that I hadn’t been happy about that would be an understatement.

We had been married for over a decade, and together as a couple since junior high.  Sure, we had gone through our ups and downs, and our marriage hadn’t been where either one of us had wanted it to be, but we had agreed that we both wanted it to work.  Even when we decided on a trial separation it had come with the stipulation that we would get marriage counseling.

Trial separation.  What a fucking joke, right?  Hey, let’s find out if we like being apart since we clearly don’t like being together!  That’s not a trial.  It’s an admission.

I think I knew that, too.  That’s the part that was so damn frustrating.  I should have known better, but I got my hopes up anyway that Isabel was asking me to come over to, I don’t know, talk things through or something.  Maybe to say that we needed to try something else.  I’m not sure what I thought.  Anything but what actually happened.

I started to pace in the elevator, angrily wiping at the sudden moisture in my eyes with my shirt sleeve.  I refused to cry like a lovesick child.

I had showed up at the apartment expecting something good, but instead she had taken me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table before putting a stack of papers in front of me.  She had told me that she had spoken to a lawyer, and that because we didn’t have any kids the divorce could be quick and painless.  All that we had to do was agree on how to split our assets.

She had been so matter-of-fact about it.  It was like everything that we had been through together didn’t matter anymore.  She had just wanted to be done with the marriage, be done with me, and she had figured out the most direct way to get what she wanted.

In that moment, I think that I hated her.  It had been like I was seeing her with this… this clarity that I never had before.  Either she thought that I wanted the same thing that she did, in which case she had never really known me, or she was a spiteful person that didn’t care how her actions affected me.  It would have been one thing if she had discussed things with me before going to a lawyer.  At least then there would have been some kind of warning.  I would have known where her mind was at.  This was different.  This was cold and calculating and without remorse.  It was all about her.

I had started yelling.  I had told her exactly how she was making me feel.  I don’t think that I made a lot of sense.  Most of it was probably incoherent rambling.  I didn’t care, though.  If she was going to act like this towards me, she wasn’t going to get to do it with no consequences.

After I was done screaming, I grabbed my things that she had in her apartment.  She was yelling back at me at that point.  I had lost my shit, and now it was her turn to lose her head.  By the time I left the apartment my ears were ringing and she was no longer speaking to me.

I stopped pacing and leaned up against one of the elevator walls.  I closed my eyes.  There was obviously no point in going over things again and again in my head, but the wound was too fresh.

I’m not sure how long I stood there waiting for the elevator to decide it was time to start moving again.  The momentary flare of anger that I had experienced when thinking back on what had happened was gone.  The only thing left was exhaustion.  I wanted nothing more than to crawl back to my small one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town and go to sleep.

I briefly considered trying to get the elevator doors open, but I quickly dismissed the idea.  If the car really was trapped between floors, it would be dangerous to try to leave.  Even if there was room for me to crawl out through an opening, what if the car started moving again when I was halfway out?  That wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

I looked up as I heard a man’s voice outside of the elevator.  My first thought was that a maintenance worker had come to get me out.  That was proven to be incorrect when a second voice, a woman’s, became audible.  I opened my mouth to call out to them, but I closed it again when they began yelling at each other.  I wasn’t the only one having a bad day, it seemed.

A door slammed shut, and once again there was silence.

No, that wasn’t quite right.  There was a series of quiet noises that I could barely hear over the faint humming of the elevator emergency lights.  They were footsteps walking across the cheap carpet in the hallway.  They came closer before veering off to the left.  A loud metal clang echoed off of the walls, and it was soon followed by the sounds of someone walking down the stairwell that ran down the inside of the building to one side of the elevator shaft.

I tried calling out to get the person’s attention now that they were closer, but there was no answer.  The footsteps faded away as they descended further down the stairwell.  I sighed and sat down on the cold floor.  It had been worth a shot.  My hip bumped against the box as I settled in, so I slid it a bit further away from me.

It wasn’t long before I heard someone coming back up the stairs.  It was the woman that had been arguing in the hallway; I recognized her voice as she talked to herself as she climbed the steps.  I yelled again, and after a moment I followed it with a second yell.  There was still no answer.  Either she couldn’t hear me, which would be strange given how I had no problem hearing her, or she was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t realize someone was screaming.

The stairwell door opened and shut.  As her footsteps passed by the elevator I detected a new sound.  I wasn’t sure what was making it, but it sounded like liquid sloshing around inside of a container.  A water bottle, maybe, or fluid in a plastic container.

If enough sound was getting into the elevator for me to hear something like that, there was no way that the woman would hear me now.  I quickly stood up and moved close to the doors before calling out for help.  There was no answer once again, but this time I was determined to make my presence known.  I cleared my throat and shouted at the top of my lungs.  When I paused to listen, though, all that I heard was her muttering as she continued further down the hall.

I couldn’t believe it.  Either she was hard of hearing, or she was purposely ignoring me.  I turned away from the elevator doors with no clue of what to think of what had just transpired.

I spun back around when a shrill shriek pierced the elevator doors.  It was coming from some distance away, but there was no mistaking it as anything other than a cry of fear.  Not sure of what to do, or even if there was anything that I could, I placed my ear up against the crack between the elevator doors and listened intently.

Something was definitely happening down the hallway from the elevator.  The scream was followed by a series of others, both male and female.  I could just make out a series of rhythmic pounding noises that I couldn’t identify.

Over all of the clamor was a high-pitched laugh that made my blood run cold.  It was the woman.  She was taking joy in the suffering of the other people I was hearing.  The laugh momentarily turned into a cough before it returned.  It increased in volume as the woman drew closer to the elevator.

I backed away from the doors and up against the far wall.  Her tone was that of someone that had come completely unglued.  There was nothing resembling sanity in her laugh.  Something had caused her to snap.  I had never heard someone in that state before, and I fervently wished that she would just go away.

I felt like a frightened child, and I cowered against the metal wall.  I’m not sure how long I huddled in that state before I became aware of an odd smell.  Forcing myself to take control of my own body once again, I raised my head and sniffed the air.  The scent was acridic and heavy.

It smelled like smoke.

The laughing stopped when the woman was less than a dozen feet from me.  I expected to hear her use the door to the stairs again, but instead there was a thump followed by a sigh.  It was impossible to know for sure, but I thought that she was leaning up against the wall next to the elevator.

She coughed again as thin wisps of smoke began to drift into the car through the crack between the doors.  I covered my mouth and knelt down.  That was what we were always told as kids, right?  Smoke rises, so get down close to the floor.

I was starting to sweat.  The temperature inside of the elevator had risen noticeably, and the heat was reaching uncomfortable levels.  There was a new sound as well, one that I recognized as the same sound a burning bonfire makes as it pops and crackles.

The part of my mind that was still thinking rationally instead of simply panicking started to piece things together.  The woman had gotten into an argument with a man.  She had gone downstairs and had come back up a few minutes later, and that was when I had heard that odd liquidy sound.  I had thought it was water, but now I was pretty sure that it had been gasoline splashing around inside of a gas can.

The woman had used the fuel to start a fire.  From the sounds of the screams that were still reverberating off the walls, the blaze had trapped at least two people, and unless something changed they would burn to death.

I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I decided that I couldn’t worry about the people that were trapped.  There likely wasn’t anything that I could do for them, and I needed to look out for myself.  I looked around the elevator.  There wasn’t a hatch on the ceiling or floor, and if there was an emergency panel anywhere I couldn’t see it.

That just left the elevator doors.  I had dismissed the idea of forcing them open before, but I didn’t have any other choice.  I would have to do whatever I could to open them, and once that was done I had to hope that the car was far enough between floors that I could escape onto the lower one.

The downside to this plan, of course, was that by opening the doors I would be exposing myself to both the fire and the insane woman that had started it.  I might be trading a slow death for a quick one.

I had to take the risk, though.  Taking a deep breath, I went over to the doors and put my fingers into the small gap between them to try to pry them apart.

I gasped in pain and quickly yanked my hands away.  The metal was extremely hot, and it had burned my fingertips.  Thinking quickly, I put my hands into the arms of my shirt and used the material to protect them from the heat.  While I was now able to get a better grip on the doors without scorching my skin, it ended up not mattering.  No matter how hard I pulled on the doors, I couldn’t make them budge.

I tried to come up with another plan as the elevator grew hotter.  The air world around me started to move and swirl in front of my eyes.  At first I thought that I was becoming delirious from either the heat or fear, or more likely a combination of both.  It wasn’t until I felt sweat dripping off the end of my nose that I grasped that I was seeing the same effect that happened when intense heat radiated off of a sidewalk.

The woman in the hallway started coughing loudly.  Within moments she was making choking noises.  More smoke was filling the elevator.  It rose up to the ceiling and built up like a dark storm cloud as it slowly pressed down towards me.

The blaze had reached the outside of the elevator.  I had never heard a large fire up close before, and as I pressed myself against the floor I couldn’t help but compare the sound to water rushing up against rocks.

The pain of the hot metal against my skin was almost unbearable, but I couldn’t stand back up.  If I did, smoke inhalation would kill me before the fire could.  I ground my teeth together and shook violently in agony as a moan escaped my throat.

The woman only screamed once.  Somehow that made it worse.  The scream was thick and barely human.  It ended with a repulsive gurgle.

The metal on the elevator doors started to glow crimson.  I tried to lie to myself and say that it was just from the emergency lights.  It wasn’t, though, and it was no use telling myself otherwise.  The flames were heating the doors.  I could actually see them flexing ever so slightly.  Thermal expansion, it was called.

I barked out an involuntary laugh.  With everything that was happening, how in the fuck had I remembered thermal fucking expansion?

The laugh became a cough.  There wasn’t much time left.  I idly wondered what was going to get me first, the constantly lowering ceiling of smoke, the burning metal, or the flames outside the doors.  I hoped it would be the smoke.  It would make me pass out quickly, maybe within a minute or two, and from there I simply wouldn’t wake up.  There were worse ways to go, right?

The burning metal floor had become too much for me to continue to bear.  Coming to a decision, one that I was sure would be my last, I pushed myself up off the floor and into the cloud of smoke.

I was nearly thrown from my feet as the elevator lurched.  The red lights turned off, and the soft white overhead lights replaced them.  There was a loud hum as the car began to descend down the shaft.

The smoke was gone.  The temperature inside the car was the same as it had been when I had first gotten in.  There were no signs of anything that had happened.

The car reached the ground floor and the doors slid open.  It was a surreal moment; it didn’t feel real, and I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be happening.  Not sure what else to do, I picked up my box and stepped out into the lobby in a stunned daze.

A voice from my left asked if I was all right.  I turned towards it and found myself looking at a short older man in a security guard uniform.  He was staring at me with an expression that was a mixture of both concern and suspicion.  For some reason that I still don’t understand, his gaze shook me out of my stupor.

I hurriedly told him that there was a fire up on one of the higher floors.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where the elevator had stopped, but I thought that it was between the fourth and third floors.  When I had finished, he frowned at me for a moment before telling me to follow him over to a small desk in the corner of the lobby.

Above the desk was a bank of monitors attached to the wall.  He carefully examined them all before shaking his head and waving a hand towards them.  I gaped at them stupidly.  They were showing live feeds of all the hallways in the apartment complex, and there was no fire on any of them.

That couldn’t be right.  I looked over each of them again and again.  No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t find a single piece of evidence of the fire that I knew was raging upstairs.

The guard seemed to take sympathy on me, and when he spoke it was in a sympathetic voice.  He said that he was going to tell me something that he shouldn’t, and that I probably wouldn’t believe it.

Six years earlier, there had been a fire on the fourth floor.  A woman named Bethany Taylor had come home from work to find her boyfriend cheating on her with another woman.  She had broken her key off in the lock of the apartment’s front door to jam it closed, gone down to her car, and retrieved a half full gas can from the trunk.  Returning to the apartment door, she had poured gasoline all around the area and set fire to it.  It had quickly gotten completely out of control, and the entire floor was devastated by the flames before the fire department had arrived and managed to get the blaze under control.

Eight people had died as a result of her actions, including herself.  Her body had been found sitting up against the wall next to the elevator, burned beyond all recognition.  It had only been able to be identified through dental records.

The guard lowered his voice further before continuing.  He told me that ever since the fire, weird things had happened on the fourth floor.  Residents had reported hearing strange noises or seen glowing lights.  He himself had been helping an elderly resident to her apartment when he had smelled smoke coming from the hallway.  When he had investigated, he had seen a figure sitting by the elevator.  It had disappeared when he tried to approach it.

He silently pulled up video footage on the monitors.  I watched myself step into the elevator on the sixth floor, the doors closing behind me.  They opened again in the lobby shortly after, and I exited the elevator.  I looked at the time stamps.  Less than a minute had passed between the two videos.

I thought about what the guard had told me as I left the building and walked to my car.  I had no explanation for what I had experienced.  Taking one last look at the building, I raised my head and stared up at the fourth floor.  The windows were dark, and there was no indication of anything strange going on.

A part of me wanted to go back inside.  I felt a need to verify that I had really gone through what I thought that I had.  Another part of me wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and there.

I opened the passenger door and slid the box inside.  I winced as I felt a stab of pain.  Examining my hands, I found that the tips of my fingers were red, like they had been recently burned.  I didn’t have to go up to the fourth floor to know that it had all been real.  The proof was right there in front of me.

There was something wet on my fingers as well.  I rubbed them together curiously.  The substance was warm and sticky.  I retrieved the box and held it up so that I could see the bottom of it.  The cardboard was dark and soaked with liquid.

If I had known that Isabel’s head was going to leak so much, I would have left it up in her apartment.  I smiled crookedly as I closed the trunk.  Who would have thought that dismembering my ex-wife would have been the second strangest event of the day?

The Midnight Bargain

On the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in New York City is a restaurant called Parva Mortes.  You haven’t heard of it.

Don’t feel bad about that, though.  Very few people in the world have.  It’s a place where only the wealthy can aspire to, and only those with power can obtain.  There are only five tables in the entirety of the restaurant, and they are arranged in such a way as to ensure total privacy.  The Parva Mortes is where those at the top of the food chain come to indulge themselves while deciding how everything you know will operate.

Presidents, prime ministers, and dictators are turned away at the door.  No one who has appeared in Forbes or Bloomberg is allowed to book a reservation.  The manager has turned down the Pope’s request to dine on more than one occasion.

I have my own table.

I’m not telling you this to brag about my wealth, or my status, or that I’ve acquired both of these things in such great amounts in such a way as to avoid the public’s gaze.  It’s quite the opposite, actually.  I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand just how serious I’m being when I say that the woman sitting at my table frightens me.

It seems absurd on the face of it.  Lydia is tall but thin.  Her blonde hair was cropped short the last time that I saw her, but she has allowed it to grow long.  She is wearing a black dress that is fashionable and exudes sexuality.  She is a strikingly beautiful woman.

That beauty hides her true nature and the true threat that she represents to anyone in her presence.

I start to walk towards the table before she sees that I’ve arrived.  I don’t want her to know that I’m hesitant.  She probably already knows that, but I don’t want to give any outward indication of my unease.  Every meeting with her is a veiled back-and-forth struggle.  Showing weakness at the onset would dictate how the entirety of this encounter would go, and it wouldn’t be in my favor.

She turns and smiles as I sit down in the chair across from hers.  I don’t return the smile, but I do nod politely.  She has taken the seat directly in front of the large floor-to-ceiling window, and her form is framed by the New York night skyline.

“Well well, Mr. Morwood,” she says, her voice smooth as silk.  “Has it really been a year already?”

“Indeed it has been,” I reply, keeping my own voice even and steady.  “Nice of you to choose this particular restaurant for us to meet at.”

“Nothing but the best for you, Trevor.”

“Especially since I’m the one paying for it?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

She smiles again.  “In the interest of full disclosure, that did happen to cross my mind as I was selecting the location.  I see that you brought along your most recent purchase.”

I set the black box that I’m carrying down on the table next to me.  “It’s never far from me.”

We both fall silent as a waiter comes up to the table.  He stands some distance away from us until I nod at him.  The staff at Parva Mortes is the best of the best, and they will never approach unless they are invited to.

“Good evening, sir,” the waiter says with just the right mixture of pleasantness and respect.

“To you as well, Charles,” I tell him.  “How are your wife and daughter?”

“A handful, sir, just like always.”  He places his hands behind his back.  “Would you care to start with a bottle of wine to share with your lovely companion?”

“His lovely companion would certainly like that,” Lydia interjects sardonically.

I ignore her.  “Ask Maurice to open a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc and have it brought to the table.  No need for a test or tasting, I trust his judgment.”

“Ah, this must be a special night beyond simply being New Year’s Eve,” Charles says with a nod.  “I’ll ask him to retrieve it from his private stores immediately.”

He heads towards the kitchen, but instead of going through the doors he turns right and goes down a side passage.  It leads to the wine cellar.  Somewhere inside of it is Maurice Laurent, the top sommelier in the world.

“I have to admit that I don’t know much about wine,” Lydia says.  “Did you order a good one?”

“It’d better be,” I answer.  “A single bottle of it has sold for over $300,000.”

“Oh, my, what a big spender.”

I shrug.  “This might be my last day alive.  If it is, I want to finish it out right.”

“I have to admit that’s a good philosophy to have.  Especially since you may very well be dead in less than thirty minutes.  Tell me, Trevor, are you feeling lucky tonight?”

“No more and no less than the previous times.”

“Hmm.  I would have thought that it would be harder for you this time around, with you being closer to what you want than you ever have been.  The fact that the pieces are finally falling into place doesn’t make you want to cling to life ever so tighter?”

“As I recall, the terms of our deal don’t include you becoming my personal therapist.”

“Ah, down to business, then.”  Lydia leans back in her chair and drapes one arm over the back of it.  “Let’s get the formalities out of the way so that we can get right down to the fun part.”

I know what’s coming.  It’s the same thing that’s happened every New Year’s Eve for the past four years.  I still listen intently just in case she has made any seemingly minor tweaks to the arrangement that she hopes I won’t catch.

“Trevor Milton Morwood,” she begins.  “Here is the deal that I’m offering you.  It is non-negotiable, and if you accept it the contract will be binding.  You will be given the opportunity to ask me any questions that you have until the stroke of midnight.  I will answer those questions truthfully and accurately without purposely withholding or attempting to conceal information.”

She holds out her hand and a small gold coin appears in her palm.  This isn’t some sleight of hand parlor trick.  That would be beneath her.  It is instead the tiniest of tastes of what she is able to do.

“In return for answering your questions,” she continues, “I will flip this coin the moment that the ball touches down in Times Square.  At that point your time will be at an end, and the coin flip will determine your fate.  Heads, you walk out of here and continue on with your life as you see fit.  Tails, and both your life and soul are forfeit.  There will be no interference with the flip or the result from either myself or you.  Do you accept this deal and the conditions that have been presented?”

“Yes, I accept,” I reply immediately.

“Excellent.  The bargain is struck.”  She smiles.  “You’ve been lucky four times already, Trevor.  That can’t hold out forever.”

I allow myself the faintest of smiles at the edge of my lips.  “I only need my luck to hold out for one more flip.  This is the last time that I’ll be making this deal.”

“Oh, now that is interesting.  Well, go on.  What do you want to know?”

I tilt my head slightly.  “Tell me about the Underlayers.”

Lydia is silent for a moment.  Her expression has changed.  It is usually playful with a slight hint of malice.  Now it is unreadable.

“That’s what you want to know?” she asks in a voice just as guarded as her expression.

“Yes,” I confirm.  “Let me remind you that the terms of our deal require you to do so.”

She considers me for another minute before nodding once.

“In just a moment, I’m going to state a truth,” she begins.  “You are going to scoff at it, dismiss it as simple fiction and call me a liar.  You’ll do this internally instead of speaking those thoughts to me so that you continue to adhere to the usual social niceties, but the end result will be the same.  You will not believe me.

She leans forward.  “Most of you won’t, anyway.  There will be a small part of you that will question your own disbelief.  Something about what I tell you will ring true, and it will stick with you long after our conversation.  Somewhere deep down you will know that what I have said to you is the truth.  This is because you have subconsciously felt it for a long time now.  Maybe you’ve always felt it.  All that I’m doing is putting into words what your species has instinctively known all this time.”

“And what’s this great revelation of yours?” I prompt.

“This is a dying reality.”

I furrow my brow, but Lydia continues before I can say anything.

“This reality is a decaying carcass that hasn’t yet realized that its time has come and gone.  Tell me, Trevor, do you believe in God?”

“What…” I start to say.

“Not necessarily the Christian God, or the Muslim God, or any being that other religions base themselves around.  I’m asking if you believe in a higher power that has a hand in the shaping of everything around you.”

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly.

“There is a Creator.  I know this for a fact, as I am one of the few that has stood in the presence of the Creator and has seen the Creator’s work.  The Creator is not God.  The Creator is so far beyond the concept of God that it’s laughable.”

I stare at her silently.

“This is where the limits of human languages, as well as the limits of human understanding, come into play.  It’s awkward to speak of the Creator without being able to use pronouns.  The Creator is not a he, or a she, or a they.  The Creator is simply the Creator.  You’ll have to excuse the repetition involved in talking about the Creator, as I’m going for accuracy over grammatic fluidity.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with my question.”

We’re interrupted as the waiter steps into view.  Once again, he remains still and out of hearing range until I beckon him over.  He walks over to the table and silently uncorks the wine bottle I had ordered before filling our glasses.  He knows exactly how full of a glass I prefer, and he stops at precisely the right moment.  He finishes his task and places the bottle within my reach.  With a courteous nod, he leaves once again.

“Think of reality as a painting,” Lydia says, absently running one finger around the rim of her glass.  “The painting is the result of the Creator’s brush strokes.  Every single drop of paint has been painstakingly chosen to take its exact place as part of the entirety of the piece.  Nothing exists outside of the Creator’s design.  Are you with me so far?”

I nod.

“When I say ‘reality’, I don’t just mean this universe.  The painting includes the vastness of the multiverse as well, not to mention offshoots and spaces that can’t be comprehended by anyone but the Creator.  For the sake of putting a name to it, let’s refer to this collective reality as a Work.  I’d say that fits nicely into the painting metaphor.  The Creator has ensured that there’s a place for everything and that everything is in its place.”

“This is sounding like the typical creation story that a number of different cultures have,” I point out.

Lydia raises an eyebrow.  “Well, here’s the part where things get interesting.  As I said, this Work is laid out exactly how the Creator intended.  The Work, however, is flawed.”

I blink.  “How is that possible?”

“It’s because nothing can ever be perfect.  That’s something that has vexed the Creator since the beginning.  The Creator believes that the Creator can achieve perfection, but it has yet to happen.  The Creator will believe that a Work has finally been perfected, but inevitably some particle making up a larger particle will be an imperceptible distance away from where it should be and the illusion of flawlessness shatters.”

“But how-”

“The Work will never be perfect because the Creator is imperfect.  That should scare the piss out of you.  It certainly frightens me.”

The thought of the being that had brought forth everything fucking up certainly wasn’t a comforting one.

“When the creator finds a flaw in a Work, the Creator does not simply fix it.  That would be the equivalent of plugging a small hole in a dam with your thumb while the entire structure is collapsing.  Instead, the Creator begins work on a new painting.”

“How many times has that happened?” I ask.

“There isn’t a number that could possibly begin to give you an answer to that.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  Here’s what does.  When the Creator creates a new Work, the Creator doesn’t use a new canvas.  It’s painted right on top of the previous one.  This has been done countless times in the past and will continue to be done countless times in the future.  Much like the original painting is merely covered up by a new one when an artist paints over it, the Works the Creator has deemed failures still exist.  They are left under the surface to slowly rot away.  These abandoned Works are what we call the Underlayers.”

It’s a lot to take in.  I’m silent for a long moment as I analyze what she’s told me.

“You said that this is a dying reality,” I say slowly.  “That would imply that this reality is an Underlayer.”

“Very good,” Lydia says approvingly.  “This Work has been deemed a failure by the Creator, and it has been buried under newer and equally-flawed Works.  As abandoned Works go, this is one of the more pleasant ones.  I know it doesn’t seem like that sometimes, but it is.  It’s much closer to the top than most other Underlayers.  That’s relatively speaking, of course.  There are still a whole lot of layers above us.”

“Nicer in what way?”

“You have to understand that some of these Underlayers have been rotting away since long before the creation of this one.  They’re nothing but darkness and nightmares now.  Very, very unpleasant, and that’s coming from me of all people.”

I look at her closely.  “Tell me, is it possible to travel between these layers?”

She returns my look.  “You already know that it is.  That’s why you purchased that.”

Lydia points at the box on the table.

“You also know that the Fatum Machina can only open doors to places on this layer,” she continues on.  “That means that you believe you’ve found a way around that limitation, a way for it to force open gates across the Underlayers.”

“We believe that we have,” I say, knowing that there’s no point in lying about it.

“We…,” she repeats.  “Ah, yes, your associate Mr. Gangly.  I’ll never understand why he uses that silly name.”

“From what I understand, it started with other people calling him that when they thought he wasn’t listening.  He kept it because he found it amusing.  Besides, his real name would bring a lot more attention if it got out.  We’re getting off-topic here.  I still have some time.”

She shrugs.  “True, although not much.  Just like you’re aware of the existence of the Underlayers, many of them are aware of our layer.  Some of them even attempt to come through the barrier separating layers, and a small number of those succeed.  I call those breaches Bleeds.  You know, like paint bleeding through a covering.”

I roll my eyes.  “Clever.  Tell me about the successes.”

“They’ve been small in nature so far.  Ancient shadows that turn children’s performers into killers to amuse themselves.  Monsters that lurk in the brief moment between awake and asleep.  An unknown force that drives people to take their own lives.  A constant whisper that convinces a woman to open the gateway to madness with the promise, the lie, of eternal life.  Those sorts of things.  Nothing on the scale of what you’re planning.”

“I want the locations of where these… Bleeds originally happened.”

“Your wish is my command,” she replies sarcastically.

I reach into my suit coat and remove a pen and small pad of paper.  I hand them to Lydia and watch as she opens the pad and begins to write down the information that I requested.  There are more than I expected.

“I put the more severe Bleeds at the top,” she tells me as she finishes and slides the pad back over to me.  “You’ll want to start with those if you’re going to attempt what I think you are.  And with that, my dear, your time is up.”

She’s right.  I can see the ball in Times Square lowering through the window behind her.  It strikes the bottom, and lights begin to flash all around it.  Another year gone, another year come.

I stand up and collect the box containing the Fatum Machina.  Reaching down to pick up my glass, I raise it to my lips and slowly sip at the wine.  The 1947 Cheval Blanc is considered one of the finest vintages ever produced, and it’s easy to see why.  It is thicker than I would have thought, but the flavors are bold and varied in ways that complement perfectly rather than distract from the overall presentation.  If this is to be my final drink, I can die assured that the last taste on my lips is the best.

I put down the glass and turn away from the table.  I have no interest in watching Lydia flip the coin.  What will be, will be.  I begin walking towards the hallway leading to the elevator.  From behind me I hear the sound of the coin spinning in the air just before it thumps onto the table.

I reach the elevator.  This is the fifth year in a row that the coin has come up my way.  I quickly do the math in my head.  There’s only about a three percent chance of that happening.

Some would call that luck.  Some might call it fate, or maybe divine providence.  I simply call it what was required.  I don’t take chances that I don’t have to.  I didn’t get to where I am by being reckless.  Each of these five gambles were necessary to get vital information.

The elevator doors open.  Now I have everything that I need, and it’s time to get to work.