Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Case File Archives

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Phase I


Case File 1.01 Sig1.5.jpg
• Tuesday, October 6th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) sleep-study inception: Phase 3. Self-exposure to lachrymatory agent and two episodes of unmedicated psychasthenia (F41.0). The first terminates in syncope, the second tapers via tactile-exposure induced oxytocin release and parasympathetic activation via diaphragmatic respiration. Subject’s initial investigations precipitate persecutory delusions related to paranormal phenomenon (see case file: REDACTED). Paternal care unit transports subject to local Sturm und Drang epicenter for imminent indoctrination and compensated servitude.

Case File 1.02 Sig2F.png
• Tuesday, October 6th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) postmortem re-socialization with Agent Tuttle (Subject G—F1LZ—77.16.02). Preliminary examination detects (1) affective-neurocognitive pathology consistent with bilateral medial temporal lobotomy and chronic Lazarenus effectus (see Project REDACTED) and (2) hyper-attachment mirroring adult-onset disinhibited attachment disorder (F94.2) with organic etiology. One unmedicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0) due to exposure to erythrocytes and sodium hypochlorite. Subject evinces operant conditioning techniques with nepotic extortion and verbalized self delusions of eschatological proportions (rule-out F22); preliminary results include confiscation of tetrahydrocannabinol and adolescent socio-behavioral subjugation.

Case File 1.03 Sig5.png
• Tuesday, October 6th, 1998 AM-PM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) cellular contact with maternal care unit terminates due to low decibel-milliwatts and/or RF interference. Re-socialization with former literary pedagogue. Manifests libriform (see Operation Cryptobranchus; cf. case file: REDACTED) and psychosexual obsessive-delusional symptomatology with poor insight (rule-out F20, F22—23, & F42). Averted vehicular accident results in medicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0); current dosage of Affreux appears efficacious. Citation of town ordinance R—14—1952 violation; deescalation via affective dissociation with Agent Worwood (see case file: REDACTED).

Case File 1.04 Sig3.jpg
• Tuesday, October 6th, 1998 PM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) paternal attachment solidified through joint aerobics and digestion. Evidence of telecommunication phenomenon (see Project REDACTED).
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) investigation of vehicular crash involving Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE-92.08.03). Engagement with ROSEWATER results in unmedicated episode of neurocardiogenic pre-syncope. Co-investigates with paternal care unit incident regarding Agent McDermott (Subject G—M1AD—76.02.05) in critical condition (W21.11XA).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) somnolence-induced vehicular crash; complications occur (see Operation REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. case file: REDACTED) including neurocardiogenic syncope and hypovolemic shock; provisional diagnosis of 825.20 (rule-out 824) and 850.4.

Case File 1.05 Sig4.png
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 AM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) diurnal narcolepsy without cataplexy (347.00; cf. Division REDACTED) results in detention (see WFHS Policy 5.8). Hormonal-sociotypical interactions with Agent Pohlman (Subject G—F00—84.13.07) and Agent Littlebeaver (Subject K—M00—82.13.10). Extemporaneous assessment by pedagoguery; results indicate inadequate hippocampal functioning (cf. 347.00). Errant projectile results in puncture wound with foreign body of left hand, sequela (S61.442S) to Agent Byers (Subject K—F01—83.30.10) and neurocardiogenic syncope by Agent LeBaron (rule out F40.23; cf. case file REDACTED). First aid and pre-coital socialization commences. Agent Gorczak (Subject P—FAE—78.20.08; cf. Project REDACTED) levies in-school suspension (see WFHS Policy 5.9).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) employment IP investigation proves inconclusive (cf. Project REDACTED; Agent REDACTED). Reality testing deteriorates with additional libriform and non-libriform psychotic episode (rule-out F20, F22, F29, & F42; see Operation Cryptobranchus; cf. case file: REDACTED). Satellite-faciliatted contact with maternal figure. PSA disseminates (987.8; see Operation Goldsmith Imago; cf. case file: P—M1AE—92.08.03).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) medical examination at MPGH conducted by Agent REDACTED. Results confirm diagnosis of 825.20 and 850.4. Cranial catheter operational. Dosage titration regimen fails (cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED). Unspecified psychosis not due to a substance or known physiological conditions (F29); hallucinations, unspecified (R44.3; cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED; see case file: REDACTED). Operation Goldsmith Imago commences. Results inconclusive.

Case File 1.06
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 AM-PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) discovers ticket stub (see case file: REDACTED) and experiences episode diurnal narcolepsy without cataplexy (347.00; cf. Division REDACTED) followed by diurnal emission (608.89).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) meets with REDACTED (cf. case file: C.R; cf Operation REDACTED; cf Project REDACTED); attempts to abort didaction regarding Agent Tuttle (Subject G—F1LZ—77.16.02) and symptomatology related to Lazarenus effectus (see Project REDACTED). Satellite-faciliated contact made with “Lindsay” (no file available). Further co-investigation with paternal care unit and Agent Ostergaard (E—M2AD—80.25.12) regarding Agent McDermott and emeritus Agent Moore (see case file: REDACTED). Manifests psychopathy (rule out F60.2) with Agent Worwood. Residential intrusion detected; surveillance reviewed.
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) remains out of contact and unresponsive to treatment; preliminary results indicate adverse reaction to regimen (cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED). Degenerative signs of unspecified psychosis not due to a substance or known physiological conditions (F29); hallucinations, unspecified (R44.3; cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED; see case file: REDACTED). Further testing needed.

Case File 1.07
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) further hormonal—digestional—sociotypical interactions with Agent Pohlman (Subject G—F00—84.13.07) and Agent Littlebeaver (Subject K—M00—82.13.10), including discussion of Agent Crowshoe (Subject S—F1HV—84.23.06). Altercation with Agent Judd (Subject K—M00—82.01.11; cf. F66). Subject reports to NPS Red Aspen (cf. Project REDACTED), interacts with maternal care unit, and receives assignment to Rockwell’s Fall (see case file: REDACTED).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) administers dosage of lachrymatory aerosol to “Dusty” (cf. case file: PENDING; rule out F60.2). Introduction to “Michael”.

Case File 1.08
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04)
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) manifests insecure-resistant attachment (Type C) with maternal care unit; related unmedicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03)

Case File 1.09
• Wednesday, October 7th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04)
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) manifests acute psychogenic paranoid psychosis (F23; rule out F29) and abnormal uterine and vaginal bleeding, unspecified (F93.9). Psychiatric commitment, voluntary or otherwise, under review.
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03)

Case File 1.10
• Thursday, October 8th, 1998 AM—PM

Case File 1.11
• Thursday, October 8th, 1998 PM

Case File 1.12
• Thursday, October 8th, 1998 PM
• Friday, October 9th, 1998 AM

Case File 1.13
• Friday, October 9th, 1998 AM

Phase II


Case File 2.01
• Friday, October 9th, 1998 AM—PM

Case File 2.02
• Monday, October 5th, 1998 PM
• Friday, October 9th, 1998 PM

Case File 2.03
• Monday, October 5th, 1998 PM
• Friday, October 9th, 1998 PM

Case File 2.04
• Tuesday, October 6th, 1998 AM
• Saturday, October 10th, 1998 AM
View
Phase II, Case File 2.04

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.06.1998, Tuesday morning

GM: Sleep smashes into Kurt like a sledgehammer. The pain of that impact, however, doesn’t hit Kurt until 5:00 AM when his alarm screams bloody murder:

BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK!

Kurt: Kurt stirs awake and sluggishly reaches out for his alarm clock to turn the stupid thing off.

GM: As usual, Kurt rouses to find his throat and tongue as dry and sore as if they were scrubbed with 60-grit sandpaper. He has a vague sense of cloying dreams slipping away, like his not–quite–steaming breath in the frigid apartment. Above him, he notes the glossy shadow of a quarter-folded poster he took from a hand–me–down sports magazine.

In the pre-dawn gloom, he cannot see the image of John Stockton and the rest of 1997 Utah Jazz posing with the Western Conference trophy, but he can picture it clearly. In the annex between sleep and waking, he can still hear the alarm-like buzzer being drowned out by the sea of basketball fans as the comparatively short Stockton sent his team for its franchise’s first time to the NBA Finals, avoiding going into overtime on Game 6 with a three–point buzzer beater.

Outside, a phantasmal-thin cloud parts from the full moon, causing several areas of the poster to glimmer with Sharpie. In the darkness, Kurt can easily pretend that they are signatures from Stockton and Malone. In the darkness, he can easily entertain bitter-sweet ’if’s’. If his father hadn’t ever gotten sick, his dad would probably have taken him to one of the conference games.

His dad would have driven him down, just the two of them, to the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. He might have gotten a jersey, a handshake, maybe even a signature or two on a poster that would have come from his monthly subscription. Instead, the creased poster bears the Sharpie-scribbled handwritings from residents of Saint Enoch’s. The first and oldest chicken-scratch is from Wilson:

Proof that a short white dude can make it to the Pros!

The second, tucked into a corner, is from his sister: Keep your day job. Also, pick up milk.

The third, largest, and most recent is written in bubbly, curvy letters that fills up the bottom of the poster: Remember I loved you before you made it big. XOXO 4EVER, Felicity

Imagining the words prompts him to recall the moment when they were written. It had been in the heat of the summer, a far cry from the creeping-cold fall he feels now. With school out on break, his mother was able to drive to and from work on her own, leaving Kurt free to decadently sleep in until at least 11 am, if not all the way to 2 pm if Mr. Clay didn’t assign him a matinee shift for the next day. And that night, he hadn’t, leaving Kurt blissfully free and clear to do as he pleased with the hot summer night.

Initially, he had played a bunch of games with Thomas on the Larsen’s old Sega Genesis, munching on a mega-bucket of popcorn he scored from work. Later, once Ms. Larsen had sent her “Tommy” to bed, Kurt had joined Wilson in a pick-up game of street ball in the Towers’ mosquito–thick parking lot. Kurt dominated the game, sinking shot after shot, even as the other team’s full-grown men had tried to violently foul the too swift, too talented basketball captain. He didn’t need to sink a buzzer-beating three-pointer like Stockton did on Game 6, but he still did just for kicks. That, and the revving attention of his girlfriend who watched the game with a flock of other girls and women from the Towers.

They hadn’t planned it, but he had been expecting it, when she came quietly knocking on his front door later that night. Felicity had barely waited for Arlene’s feet to hit the stairwell before she had crept out of bed, careful not to disturb her sleeping mother and brother, though Kurt had doubts that either of them didn’t know or care.

Still, she had tapped his door softly in their secret knock. Initially, it had been morse code for XOXO, but somewhere in that hot summer, the teens had shortened it to one letter three times, XXX.
Knock, tap tap, knock
Knock, tap tap, knock
Knock, tap tap, knock

He had swallowed hard when he heard the unscheduled, but anticipated sound at his door. He remembers opening the door, and seeing her in the moth-thumping florescent light. Her blond hair had been pinned on one side with a clip in a casual, messy way that probably took twenty times before Felicity was satisfied it conveyed the proper wild but cute image. As always, she wore the small necklace he gifted to her on their year anniversary. But he most recalls her clothes and how much he wanted to get them off her. The tight denim skirt with its skinny belt and horseshoe buckle. The button-down sleeveless floral shirt with its V-neck that was just low enough to tease and just high enough to taunt.

She had all but pushed him back to his room, while his normally dextrous fingers fumbled with what seemed like a thousand buttons. She had laughed. Her summer-tanned skin had been so warm. She smelled like honeysuckle and fresh-cut grass and heat. She had just stood upon his bed like a conquering queen, unashamed as she kissed him, stripped off his own too–easy–to–rip–off–jersey, and shoved him to his knees. She sighed, then moaned as he had kissed the hollow of her back. She had laughed again, huskily, as Kurt cursed at the belt and its too many loops.

But it had been when he finally made it up to her bra strap that she had taken the cap off the Sharpie she had been holding the entire time. Seeing her stretch her short arms up to the ceiling and his beloved poster had given him pause, even in the heat of things. The other graffiti artists had left their marks in Kurt’s absence.

But Felicity had made hers as brazenly as she had stood upon his bed, naked and unashamed. “It’s permanent,” she had said, tossing the marker into a forgotten corner of Kurt’s bedroom as he slipped the last strap of her bra off. She had turned to him then, the window’s moonlight casting silver shadows on the tips of her strawberry blond nipples. “That means forever, Kurt.” Kurt had then–

BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK!

The screaming snooze alarm snaps Kurt back to the 7th of October. Back to his cold, empty bed. Back to the bloody-faced alarm clock as it glares the time: 5:08 AM

Kurt: Kurt groans, pulling himself up after dozing for a few extra, much-needed minutes. He gives the offending alarm a tired, grumpy look as he finally kicks off his warm blanket.

BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK!

His bedroom’s lino floor feels hard and cold on his bare feet. He remains seated for a moment. He yawns. He grabs his glasses from his bedside and puts them on. His blurry surroundings, including his blaring alarm clock, come into focus.

The alarm continues to blare as Kurt sluggishly rubs the sleep from his eyes. He then finishes, staring off blankly. What a horrible dream, the young man thinks wryly, eventually reaching for his alarm. He turns the contraption off and stands up to get ready. It only takes a few minutes.

GM: A fortunate fact, given that he only has a few before he’ll be late to pick up his mother from work.

Kurt: Kurt firstly heads to the bathroom, relieving himself as is his morning ritual. Afterwards, the young man puts on some loose-fitting clothes and well-worn boots. He heads out the door in a hurry, stopping only to momentarily check up on his catatonic father before leaving.

GM: His father stares up at the ceiling, blinking in slow motion with shallow breaths that confirm he is still alive. Not that it’s much of a life.

Kurt: Satisfied, Kurt heads out without any more fuss, intent on now hurrying. Nonetheless, his head whirs, the thought of Felicity bothering him as he struggles to shake his ex-girlfriend from his tired mind.

GM: At the bottom of the stairwell, Kurt barely registers the mail-stuffed row of boxes and plastic-wrapped copies of the Wednesday print of the Witiko Falls Tribune. At this hour, the Towers are atypically empty, or at least quiet. The Crawfords’ Lincoln Town Car waits for him, parked by his sister after she dropped off their mom and subsequently got a ride home with Rick. The air hovers a few degrees above freezing, but the car’s vinyl upholstery slaps his rear like his principal’s paddle. Ahead of him, a murder of crows picks at a pair of open dumpsters. Looking at the time, Kurt realizes he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for the car to warm up.

It’s another long, cold ride. Kurt follows the yellow-lined road across the town’s dark outskirts. It’s a lonely road, but Kurt passes a pair of big rigs, likely hauling the newest pharmaceutical batches from Nostrum Enterprises’ plant. Flanking his headlights, the rising pine and fir trees are slashed with black and silver from the moonlight and shadow. Kurt spins the radio dial, trying to ward off sleep with an FM sports or music station that isn’t swallowed by static. Like so many other bone-early mornings, he is forced to switch to AM, where he settles upon KALM 1307.

Brook: Brook’s voice comes into crackling focus as the dial turns to his station. “-and it’s such a weird direction for the band. I doubt they’ll ever stop using trumpets, but I kinda hope I’m wrong,” his voice comes out, soft and calm.

“But folks, it’s another morning in Witiko Falls. The weather is 30 degrees, partly cloudy as usual, and we have fog warnings on the highways to the west, so keep that in mind. It’s now 5:42 AM, and we’re nearly done another night. I’m still working out a few kinks, but for my real sleepless listeners out there, I’m going to be taking a call or two to test out the changes to my switchboard system for a new segment. While I wait, here is United Cigar with Good Riddance.”
GM: As the punk song winds its course, Kurt rounds a bend in the road, revealing the pharmaceutical plant’s dozen smokestacks. Under the full moon, the thin, silvery-white towers resemble titan-sized cigarettes puffing carcinogenic clouds into the tar-colored sky.

Kurt: The sight is intimidating. The pharmaceutical plant is a white behemoth in a sea of a black wilderness. Kurt used to gawk in awe, but now he simply frowns at the towering, poison-spewing structures. He continues to listen to the radio.

GM: As Kurt switches his attention back to the station, he hears the radio jockey cue up a caller. “Line two, you’re on the air.”

A young boy, likely prepubescent given his high-pitched voice, introduces himself after a moment of squelching radio static: “Hey, uh, this is Dixon Talbert. I called in last year, gave you the tip about the paperboy who was chased by the Grey Devil on Hemlock Lane last May. So, uh, I got done with my route today, and I just remembered I didn’t do Mrs. Grundel’s math homework. If I don’t bring up my grade to a D for my progress report, my mom won’t let me go to the Kelpies’ Homecoming game.”

DROWN ’EM DEEP!” the boy shouts into the phone, causing the radio volume to painfully spike and screech.

“Dixie, are you okay?” comes a distant, motherly voice from the background.

There’s a muffle on the radio, then a muted shout from the boy. “Yeah, sorry, Mom, I, uh, dropped a book on my toe. Cause, uh, I was, um, studying.” After another static-y scrape, Dixon’s voice returns, once again clear and quiet, or at least at a decent decibel level.

Brook: Every listener is rescued from the boy’s screeching by the radio jockey, an attendant of the school long enough that he turns down the volume as soon as he hears the word ‘Kelpies’, though not enough that people aren’t treated to a jump. Still, the jockey apologizes to the audience for the volume as the boy speaks to his mother, and continues on with the call.

GM: “Yeah, um, okay. Right, so, um, I was hoping to get some, uh, help. Like checking for answers in the back of the book. Yeah, like checking to see if you’re, I mean, I’m right. Yeah.”

“Okay, so here’s the first one. Little Squanto went to a pizza place with two friends. They ordered a large peyote pizza for $10.40 and a sweetgrass salad for $4.45. They also got two sodas for $1.45 each. The tax came to $0.95. How much change should they have received from $25.00? So, uh, like I got $7.75. What’d you get?”

Brook: “Hey Dixon, welcome back to the show. Tell you what, I wasn’t ever the best at math either, but I as told something that really helped me out. Your mom is home, why don’t you go and ask her to borrow 25 dollars, and sit down and work it out with real money? She’ll be so happy you’re taking it serious, she won’t say anything when you leave the table with $6.30 in your pocket.”

GM: “Uh, ok. But why would I put $6.30 in my pocket… oh, oh, I get it! Thanks, dude! You’re way cooler than my brother says. Okay, what about next problem?”

“A water tank, having the shape of a rectangular prism of base 100 square centimeters, is being filled at the rate of 1 liter per minute. Find the rate at which the height of the water in the water tank increases. Express your answer in centimeters per minute.”

Dixon pauses, then asks, “What’s a prism, anyways? Like a prison? Like are they trying to drown somebody or something?”

Brook: There’s a small pause from Brook himself before he makes a thoughtful ‘hum’ into the microphone. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, Dixon, but you only get one freebie from me. Your brain is just another muscle, you know, if someone helps you do push-ups you’ll never grow big arms. What they’re talking about though is basically just a 3D rectangle, like a shape you can fill with something. And I at least hope the next question isn’t going to insinuate drowning.”

The radio picks up the familiar squeak of his chair, the shuffling of paper, and the movement of something steel on wood. “But I’ll give you the same advice I did before. Go and speak with your mom about it, get some help and sit down with someone.”

GM: “So, uh, does that mean you’re not going to help?”

Meanwhile, back in the Crawford’s Town Car, Kurt pulls into the plant’s non-VIP employee parking lot located outside the facility’s heavily surveilled gate and electrified fence. Looking around, Kurt does not see his mother, but finds ample spaces to wait till she finishes clocking out. Unlike the long, cold walk his mother has to endure, Kurt is wrapped in the car interior’s warm blanket of engine-heated air.

Brook: “Sorry, Dixon! Besides, what if your math teacher is listening? We’re going to move on to another track, but I hope you keep listening with your mom while she helps you out.”

The line goes dead to the young man, and the tired young ranger introduces the next song, something to keep people awake just a little while longer.

“This is Black No. 1, by Type 0 Negative. Probably one of our last songs until the morning takes us.”
GM: The goth metal blares from the car’s speakers, rattling with too much bass for the old car as the lyrical dirge riff builds:

She’s in love with herself.
She likes the dark,
On her milk white neck,
The Devil’s mark.
It’s all Hallow’s Eve.
The moon is full.
Will she trick or treat?
I bet she will.


The song conjures images of Morgan in Kurt’s sleepy mind, especially as the second verse rolls around. She’s got a date at midnight…

Those thoughts, however, much like his waking memories of Felicity, are jarringly disturbed. This time, though, it isn’t an alarm clock but his mother knocking on the passenger window to be let into the locked car. “Kurt, baby, the door.”

Arlene is dressed in an oversized hunting jacket, purloined from her husband’s possessions, chemical-splotched jeans, and broken-in work sneakers that do little to diminish the woman’s short stature. Her weary face is flush from the long, brisk walk from the plant to the outer parking lot, such that her cheeks resemble the hue of the reddish-blonde locks that hang limply from her drawn-up hood. Her employee photo-ID badge clacks against the side window as she leans down to catch her son’s attention with another tap of her wedding band against the glass.

Kurt: Kurt apologizes to his mother and reaches over to unlock the passenger door. It’s a habit. One time while waiting at a stop light, a homeless man opened his passenger door and tried to get into the car. Ever since, Kurt liked to lock his doors while driving. “How was work, Ma?” he asks, giving her a tired smile.

GM: Arlene saddles in beside her son, and turns down the blaring radio before warming her hands against the dashboard vents. Her creased face softens as the warmth takes the chill our of her arthritic knuckles. “Work was work,” she says stoically, then adds a bit more warmly as she regards her beloved boy of nearly 18 years, “Honestly, it was really rough today, baby. Hank, the rotation supervisor, rode us pretty hard, assigning extra tasks, checking everything we did with a literal white-latex glove, and blowing up if there was anything less than sparkling. I had to talk Shirley down from clubbing him with her mop.”

She smiles, but her fatigue robs the expression of any joy. “What about yours?” she asks, rubbing her hands together one last time before sliding off her hood and strapping on her seat-belt. “You get to watch any good movies?”

Kurt: Kurt, looking behind him, giving his mirrors a cursory look-over, reverses out of the parking space once his mother settles into the Lincoln. The car’s heating exacerbates the young man’s tiredness, but it’s necessary due to the early morning frost.

“I had a pretty good day at work yesterday,” Kurt replies, turning out onto the main road. “I ended up watching The Manster with Morgan. Mr. Clay was in a good mood.” He glances at his mother and gives her a cheeky smile. “I managed to get my pants pulled down in front of everyone, too.”

GM: Arlene listens initially with a content smile, clearly not recognizing the movie and perhaps not wanting to either. Kurt’s mother had never quite understood nor accepted her son’s fascination with horror films. The mention of a girl other than Felicity likewise seems to slide past her tired ears, but Kurt’s last admonition rouses Arlene from her half-slumber.

“What?” she asks, her face creasing in an expression that makes her look more like a grandmother rather than mother of two young adults. Meanwhile, KALM 1307 continues its broadcast its early morning programming over the car’s turned-down radio speakers. Presently, the radio jockey is handling an irate, female caller: “Shame on you, young man, for playing the music of the Devil!”

Kurt: Kurt barely registers the radio, failing to hold back a laugh at his mother’s confused reaction. “I was acting like a bit of an ass with Wilson and the guys meeting me just after work,” he admits to his mother, freely. “Morgan thought she’d bring me back down to earth when I tried to kiss her, so she pulled my pants down.”

GM: Kurt’s explanation hardly seems to pacify his mother’s concern and confusion. “Wilson again,” she remarks severely as her face pinches with wrinkles. “And who is this Morgan? She sounds like a bad influence.”

Kurt: “She’s not. I’ve told you about Morgan,” Kurt says, surprised. “She’s a coworker and a really cool chick. Goes to Falls High as well. Loves horror movies.”

GM: Kurt’s words once again further entrench his mother’s creased brow and frown.

Kurt: Kurt pushes on nevertheless, undeterred by his mother’s reaction. “I was actually thinking about asking her out on a date, Ma,” he says, eying her response.

GM: As the radio rhetoric heats up with other callers joining in on the ‘Great Satan Debate’, Arlene sighs like a deflating balloon. “Honestly, honey, why can’t you just… you and Felicity, you two were great for each other. Have you even spoken to her since you broke up? I mean, really tried to patch things up? Felicity misses you, Kurt. I know she does, how couldn’t she?”

She sighs again. “Honestly, I’ve haven’t even listened to Irene’s last two messages. She’s worried about her kids. Just like I am about mine.” She lays a hand on Kurt’s shoulder and gives it a gentle rub. “About my baby. Growing up so fast, so handsome.”

Kurt: It’s Kurt’s turn to deflate a little, sighing much like his mother. “I haven’t spoken to Felicity, but I don’t see how that’ll help. Things got pretty toxic in the end.” He keeps his eyes straight ahead as he talks, surreptitiously to keep an eye on the road.

GM: Arlene gives Kurt’s arm a loving squeeze before removing her hand. “Try, honey, that’s all I ask.” Unable to let it lie, she adds, “For your mother’s sake, at least.”

Kurt: “I’ll think about it.”

Not really.

GM: Kurt isn’t sure if his mother swallows the lie, but at least she doesn’t pressure him anymore. Instead, she leans her small head back, closes her eyes, and yawns. “I’m so tired.”

The car goes quiet save for the rumble of the road beneath the tires and the turned down radio station. The latter still features the far from over ‘Great Satan Debate’. The current caller, which Kurt recognizes is none other than Falls High’s music and band teacher. “One of the founding precepts of metal is the use of the diminished fifth chord, the Pythagorean augmented fourth, or the tritone. In classical composition, this interval was considered dissonant and awkward. Its inability to evenly harmonize with the root and fifth made it somewhat taboo in classical and traditional religious music. It was considered unusable and avoided by all ecclesiastical composers from the middle ages up through the Renaissance. In the early middle ages, this interval was coined ‘Diabolus In Musica’ or ‘The Devil in Music’.”

“In The Craft of Musical Composition by Paul Hindemith, he mathematically explains the proportional scrutiny and reasons for shunning this chord. I won’t restate it, here but it’s a good read for anyone interested in the math behind music theory.”

“So, once musicians started going against the accepted grain and began using this interval and incorporating it into the electric guitar’s repertoire, traditionalists started viewing this type of music as evil. Hence, metal music became Satanic. It didn’t help that groups like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple use references to Alistair Crowley and other historically Satanic subjects along with gypsy and pagan symbolism adding fuel to the traditional religious zealots’ fire; interpreting this music as an evil abomination. Metal musicians rebel against the norm; which traditional organized religion doesn’t like. All this on top of the use of the Devil’s Chord gave religious loudmouths all they needed to condemn metal music as evil and Satanic. Most metal musicians loved this since it helped make their image more appealing to the disenfranchised youth of post-war industrial society.”

“But even with all the intentionally evil imagery and anti-Christian references, without the use of the diminished fifth chord, metal music wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Brook: The radio jockey makes small affirmative ‘yeah’ and ‘uh-huh’ noises along the man’s words at each meaningful stop in the teacher’s early morning lecture. While it the Jockey’s station, it’s likely no surprise the sophomore sounds more like a student than the one running the show.

“Diminished Fifths have been used since… I think the early 1960s, right, sir? I know The Beetles had one or two songs they used them in for instance. Here in the present though, I imagine the drop of Marilyn Manson’s newest album last month has all the teachers and parents preparing for when it’s anti-establishment messages reaches Witiko Falls?”

There is a slight lilt in the jockey’s usually smooth deeper voice as he talks about this new album, but he stays quiet for the teacher’s reply.

GM: “Impressive,” praises the high school teacher. “Stop by the band room sometime, Brook. I’d enjoy talking with you more about the Chord. I’ll see if I can convince Mr. Epstein into giving you extra credit. But, I need to get ready for my morning jog. My marching band buns don’t stay toned by coach surfing. Stay heavy, and stay metal, Witiko Falls.”

Kurt: Kurt, allowing his mother to rest her eyes, quietly listens to the radio as he drives home, a little angrily.

GM: That anger is reflected and all-too amplified by the next salvo of calls to the radio station. Most are short diatribes who unequivocally if briefly make clear their ‘vote for the right side of the Great Satan Debate’. One caller is less… brief.

Unlike most callers which identify first identify themselves or make an obligatory compliment to the radio jockey or the station, this female caller launches straight into her ‘sermon’:“You want to talk science, then let’s talk science. In my Creation Bible biology class, we learned that a frog placed into boiling water will immediately jump out. But if that same frog is put into a bowl of cool water that is slowly heated by a Bunsen burner, the frog eventually boils to death. To death.”

“That’s what’s going on with our kids and the music they listen to these days. Music that pumps out of this radio station. Just look at ‘Rock and Roll’. It means fornication. A street name for sexual immorality and damnation. It has wrecked the lives of our youth through suicide, drug abuse, immorality, perversion, and Satanism. Sadly, we live in a day where many Christians and church leaders are allowing this demonic music into our churches, claiming that the music is holy and sanctified because the lyrics are changed to include some ‘religious’ words. Where is the discernment in the church? Are Christians losing their ability to discern the difference between good and evil? The fact that this demonic music even made it into the church is proof of the moral and spiritual decline affecting the church today. We are being invaded by hard rock, acid rock, punk rock, new wave, and heavy metal music under the guise of religious rock and roll.”

“Consider the scriptures. Remember Paul taught the Ephesians, ‘Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.’ And in Hebrews, the apostle wrote, ‘But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin’.”

“Satan was created a beautiful musical creature: ‘Every precious stone was thy covering, the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created’, the prophet Ezekial said. Since music was built into his very nature, are we foolish enough to assume that he will not use it to deceive and enslave?”

“We are told by the religious rockers that we must look and sound like the world in order to reach the youth of this generation. They say, many young people will not listen to the gospel or come to church, so we must meet them on some common ground. That common ground is rock and roll. In other words, they are saying that preaching of the Word of God is no longer sufficient for both young and old. If this is true, then we should open bars in order to reach the multitudes of drinkers. We should open porno-shops in order to reach those who engage in smut. Shouldn’t we go to their level so we can bring them to the Lord Jesus Christ? So what if we do evil if the end result is good? What’s a little compromise with God’s standards of holiness and separation if it results in souls being saved?”

“This type of reasoning is one of the doctrines of demons that Christians are accepting. Does it not make sense that the same Bible that has worked successfully to this time, will continue to work for both the young and the old? How many Christians love God’s people enough to say, ‘No more! Throw this satanic filth out of the church and back into hell where it belongs?’ Do you realize that just ten years ago, this evil music would not have even remotely been considered as a suitable method to sing and praise God. That type of music would have been immediately thrown out of the churches. What we are witnessing today is the spiritual and moral degeneration that is affecting Christians to the degree that many no longer have any discernment between good and evil.”

“That previous caller, the so-called teacher tried to share some fancy history lessons, but let’s review some real history. Just observe how Satan brought in his rock music in the 1950’s and slowly degenerated it to its present level of baseness. Watch how Satan slowly turned up his Bunsen burner until his music developed to its present low.”

“In the early to mid 60’s, the message of early rock was seemingly harmless music with lyrics that promoted ‘good times’. It promoted dancing the new dance fads. Idols, the so-called ‘Teen Idols’ were worshiped by teenage girls and being ‘cool’ was in for boys. The stage was being set for rebellion by the ‘greaser’ image. A decade later, the Bunsen got turned up. The message of the British Invasion and Motown and the rest was a stronger rebellion theme that was to be the thread through all future rock music. It promoted free sex, drugs, and rebellion, presenting them as harmless fun. False religions. Folk groups promoted anti-establishment attitudes and appearances. British influence hardened the American music by taking out the swing beat and putting in a more frenzied pace tempo.”

“Then came the acid or hard rock of the late 60’s to early 70’s. Huge rock concerts promoted free sex, open drug and alcohol abuse, and a total do–your–own–thing attitude. Lyrics preached rebellion, no morals, and no responsibilities. Drugs became synonymous with rock music. Stage violence begins, with a sharper focus on false religions. The music developed more repetition and a hypnotic effect. More rhythm, more volume, and more violence became the dominant force of songs. Groups actually destroyed equipment on stage. Early beginning of ‘cross-dressing’ and use of make-up by men.”

“Then came ‘Heavy Metal’ in the early to late 70’s. The message–sex, no morality, and drug abuse. Lyrics openly promoting rebellion, violence, and homosexuality. Satanic messages are hidden or camouflaged by backwards masking. Also, open sex begins to occur on the dance floors of discos. Beat and volume increase, driving rhythms captivate listeners. Beat or pulse of music hypnotizes listeners as they are fed evil lyrics. Performers openly admit sexual perversion and act it out on stage, contributing to the moral decay and debasing of society.”

“And since then? Satan Rock. Violence supreme. Satan is no longer hiding his motives. Lyrics openly denounce Christianity presenting the devil as the answer. Violence, sex, rebellion, and drugs are not only promoted, but are acted out on stage. Lyrics even promote suicide. MTV brings Satan’s messages into homes through rock videos. Music is violent, loud, abrasive. Synthesized music creates a “robot-like” sound, simulating the controlling power of rock music. Rock music has evolved into the single most powerful tool by which Satan communicates his evil messages to our youth."

“To the Christian, God says in His Word: ‘And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them’. The question this verse brings to mind is: What kind of fruit does rock and roll produce? There is definite fruit to rock and roll and all of it is evil. This demonic music has been the major tool and vehicle through which Satan popularized suicide, drug abuse, immorality, perversions, bestiality, blasphemy against God and sacred things, homosexuality, occultism, and Satanism. Now God has said to Christians not to have any fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. Rock and roll is an unfruitful work of darkness and Christians have no business trying to imitate those who are on the broad road to destruction. Christians also have no business listening to secular rock as it is all an abomination to God.”

“God also says in His Word: ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world’. ‘As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance. But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy’. ‘Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’. Finally, how can satanic Christians be holy as we are commanded when an earring is hung in the ear, sexual clothes are worn, and a rebellious nightclub atmosphere is created by those who claim to worship God?”

“It is time we exorcise the demons! Time to cleanse the temple of the den of thieves and defilers!”

“Which leads us to you, radio person. You are playing demonic music that is an abomination to God. You are harming yourself as well as God’s blood-bought children. The Lord Jesus warns, ‘But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea’. If you truly love the Lord Jesus you will forsake this evil music. If you do not, God’s judgment will surely come into your life. The wicked will burn.”

The caller does not wait for a response, but promptly terminates her live-call.

Brook: The teen radio jockey makes an audible groan as the woman starts on her tirade, letting every listener know his displeasure. But before any reply can be had, the lines goes dead.

“Well for anyone who hasn’t turned that dial already, here’s a bit of a truth bomb on you, because we need one after what was just vomited onto my desk. Rock’s start went further back, its first elements present in blues, because as we all know the devil is in the bayou. But more importantly, and pretty much everyone my age will agree with me, rock is our music because we’re fed up. We’re sick of a bloated and underfunded school system that relies on standardized tests, we’re sick of scared adults pushing their agendas on us to make us their carbon copies, we’re sick of the church telling us what we can and can’t be or do to believe in a hippie in the sky with diamonds, wine, and shitty crackers, ‘cause you know that shiny pope can afford wheat thins, and we’re sick of being told to slow down or appreciate what we have more.”

“We’re absolutely fed up. But I’ll give the parents out there a break, and I’ll let them know what we’re MOST fed up with. The fear of change and abusing your power to try to keep that change away. Shattering your kids’ records because you’re scared or disgusted by your kids’ music doesn’t cement your authority, it screams how terrified you are of becoming obsolete and irrelevant, and that makes you look selfish and scared. That makes a rebel. Having a catharsis and outlet, something that you feel GETS you, that doesn’t make a rebel. Having that taken away or looked down on does. But I’m not gonna rant too much longer, I’m sorry folks. My last words on the matter are simple. It’s never just about the devil. And my gods are older in either case. In their words, let the world be ruled by the wisest and most cunning. And now for a special treat, Witiko Falls, the first time this album has touched our town. I give you The Dope Show.”
The radio jockey doesn’t come back after the album’s flagship track being dropped, the standard varied music usually on the station returning, with automated messages on the weather dotted in between, per-recorded with Brook Barnes’ calm smooth voice.

GM: The latter never reaches the Crawfords’ car, though, as Arlene turns off the radio mid-Manson. Kurt’s mother sighs. “We already have the heat on; we don’t need any more hot air blowing in our face.” The focus of Arlene’s ire isn’t immediately obvious, though, until she adds, “Kids will be kids, but Bible beaters…”

She rubs her temples for moment, then stops and lightly sniffs her hands. “Phew, you’d think I didn’t wear gloves. Chlorine and perc do not make a good perfume.” She places her hands down in her lap and looks out the front window as St. Enoch’s comes into view. “Try-outs are coming up, right? Oh, wait, that’s today, isn’t? Or is that just for varsity, and junior is next Wednesday?”

She laughs lightly. “Or do I have it the other way around? I’m sorry, baby, I know I should know this stuff. We both know the sports smart parent wasn’t me…” She reflexively frowns at the brushed mention of Kurt’s father, but tries to patch it up with a forced smile.

Kurt: “I wouldn’t have you any other way, Ma,” Kurt replies, catching his mother’s forced smile. “It’s honestly too early in the morning to be remembering if I have try-outs this week or next week.” He adds, “I don’t expect you to remember. You have enough on your plate.” A cheeky smile then appears on Kurt’s face. “But you were right the second time. Try-outs for varsity are today; juniors is next week.”

GM: Arlene’s smile softens, such that only a tiny thread of sadness or guilt remains. “Oh, well, break a leg then, honey!” She laughs a bit self-consciously. “Or is that not what people say in sports? Either way, good luck. Not that you need it, captain.”

Kurt: Kurt’s mood has taken a completely positive turn after being called ‘captain’ by his mother. “I probably need it more than a broken leg, though,” he grins.

GM: As the town car pulls into the Towers’ parking lot, Arlene lingers a moment before exiting the car. She turns to Kurt and rubs his upper arm maternally as she says, “Kurt, I’m so proud of you. I don’t say that enough. Varsity basketball captain, AV vice president, active member of the Pare–Para, that other club, all while working long hours, helping out with your family, and somehow keeping your grades up. I’m so so proud of you, baby.”

Kurt: Kurt doesn’t reply to his mother’s lathered-on praise; however, he can’t help smiling a little bit more.

GM: Her hand reaches up to gently cup his jaw. “I love you, Kurt.” True to her earlier words, Kurt can’t help but smell the eye-stinging odor of strong chemicals on his mother’s arthritic hand, but she takes it away quickly enough and saddles out of the car, pulling up her hood to ward off the bitting cold.

Kurt: Kurt lets out a chattering yawn as he exits the vehicle. The cold hair hits his face, causing his glasses to fog up a little. Nonetheless, the young man shrugs off the cold as he simply marches tiredly back to the Crawford apartment. His mind is too preoccupied with thoughts of school and basketball.

GM: His mother is similarly preoccupied, or at least quiet, as they cross the lot, enter the graffitied stairwell and make their five-story ascent. Along the way, they pass a disheveled, drunken man, who is kneeling and staring at a wall while pleading, “No… please, no, no, I don’t want to… don’t make me…”

Arlene threads her arm around Kurt’s and hurries them around the man, clearly trying to avoid making any eye contact–which is all-too easy with the man nearly pressing his forehead against the piss– and paint–stained wall. On the fourth floor, they hear shouting between a man and woman inside an apartment, the coherence of their cursing but not violent anger distorted and muffled by the closed door and walls. All in all, it is a quiet morning in the Towers.

Once inside their meager apartment, Arlene hangs her over-sized coat. “You want me to make you something? I think we have some eggs. Or do you want to try to catch a nap before school?”

Kurt: “I’ll probably end up more tired if I try to sleep now,” Kurt admits, laughing awkwardly as he shuffles into the bite-sized apartment. “I wouldn’t mind some scrambled eggs, but I am sure I can make some myself. You try to catch some sleep, Ma.”

GM: Arlene starts to protest, to say she has to stay up anyways, to make a bottle of formula for Kurt’s father, to clean up the apartment, to take a shower and scrub off the chemicals, but a long-overdue yawn steals over her face and steals the rest of her words away. She sleepily gives her son a hug, then stumbles off to bed. Kurt hears her kick off her shoes, then crawl into bed with her comatose spouse. She’s snoring softly before Kurt has a chance to take out the carton of eggs from a water-filled cooler and discover they’ve gone bad.

Kurt: What rotten luck.

Brook: Skin Deep


10.10.1998, Saturday morning

GM: Tink, tink, tink

Brook’s doze is disturbed by a soft tapping of his cell door. Ferg stands before him, shoe-less but at least wearing pants, as he holds a pair of steaming coffee mugs.

“Morning, sunshine,” the old dispatcher says. “Best get a move on. I just got the call. Your ride is on its way.”

Brook: Brook feels a frustrated anger roil in his chest at the sound. Sleep finally comes and now the world wants him up so soon after. Years of being raised by Mary Madcatcher pay off slightly as the boy wakes and is almost functioning mentally after just moments, then lumbers over to the door. “Please open the door. Let me stretch out before they shove me in cuffs.”

GM: “Just a hair bit longer, Brook,” Ferg says apologetically. He slides the coffee mug through the largest gap in the bars. “Drink up and we’ll see about a stretch soon enough.”

Brook: Brook slowly takes the mug but doesn’t drink, half-muttering his next words. “I’m not made for this. I’m inches from breaking the door down. Knowing a man died in this cell isn’t helping either, Ferg.”

GM: Ferg takes a sip of his own maple bacon brew, but an eyebrow raises at the mention of a man dying in the cell. “You have a bad dream, boy?”

Brook: Brook slowly reaches into his pocket, offering Joe’s letter to Ferg. “Witiko Falls has a knack for leading me to find hidden things. This was in the cell.”

GM: Ferg reflexively takes the offered letter, but his garden-calloused hand wavers as his old eyes recognize the folded paper. Brook spots the flash of troubled emotions upon the old dispatcher’s face.
“Wha-where did you?” He squelches the question, though, and tucks the paper hastily, if carefully, into one of his pockets. He half-turns away as he eventually adds, “Sorry about that.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes narrow for a moment as he looks the older man up and down. There’s something here that he’s missing. “I’m sorry too, Ferg. Looks like I dredged up something painful.” He slowly swirls the coffee in his cup and keeps talking despite his apology. “I can tell you’re guilty about something, but I’m good at keeping secrets on top of finding them. If you want to talk about it, it’s safe with me.”

GM: Ferg chews on the offer for a while before sighing, long and hard. He sits down in the folding chair. “Back before the amusement park closed, I talked with this gypsy or carnie person who told me that secrets are carved in the inside of a person’s skull. The worse they are, the deeper the cuts.”
He sighs again and takes a sip of his steaming coffee. “I’ve made some mistakes, Brook.”

Brook: The young man squats down to keep level with the man who’s been so kind to him, warming his hands with the mug as he listens. “Someone once told me secrets are like rocks. That when you have enough, they start to fall out of your pockets. But your mistakes, Ferg? I think you’re a good man, even if you’ve done bad. I can feel it.”

Brook reaches through the bars, putting the mug down on the ground, the warmth sapped from the cup for now. “I’ve got time to listen. And when I get back, free, I’ll pay for the next Slaughterhouse Five, and we can keep talking.”

GM: “You’re a good kid, Brook. Sweet as honey, just like…” he starts to say, but stops as the corners of his old eyes moisten. He sniffles as he takes another gulp of coffee. “As I was saying, I’ve made some mistakes, and I’m willing to take my lumps for them if need be.”

“But there’s some things that need doing around here. People that need helping. Which brings me to you. I… I shouldn’t have let your sweetheart into the station, not past hours. But then, your other friend, he’d have… he’d likely be in a worser spot.”

“Oh, which reminds me, young mister Littlebeaver, he’s stable.”

Brook: Brook’s brow creases in worry at the man as he looks like he’s about to start crying, giving him another puzzle piece. But his heart aches for the man, even after everything else is said. “Good. I’ll kill him later. But June is… his. She’s not my sweetheart. Either way, she came to me with a secret that maybe saved his life. You did the right thing, bending the rules. Thank you.”

The young man clears his throat after the ‘thank you’ and looks a little uncertain how he should broach the subject. “Did Witiko Falls take something from you, Ferg?”

GM: Ferg stares a while before answering, “We’ve not time for that tale, and little to be gained by telling it, I figure.” He turns to Brook. “But I have to ask, to keep quiet about what you heard last night, or thought you heard. No need drumming up trouble in a town already troubled.”

Brook: Brook nods, sighing. “I keep quiet about a lot of things, Ferg. Don’t worry about it. I’m already keeping Hazel being in the hospital to myself.”

GM: Ferg eyes the teen for a bit, then huffs in resignation. The sigh causes his gray whiskers to flutter and twitch. Meanwhile, he pulls out his key ring and unlocks the door. “How about that stretch and a gulp or two of fresh air? I could use another hand in the garden, and you’ve already proved you have a pair of green thumbs.”

Brook: The young man’s sass completely falls away. He looks like a dog that someone let out of its kennel as he slips out the door and into the station basement, taking an over-exaggerated breath as he throws his arms up and arches his back, feeling things pop in his back and shoulders like bubble wrap. With that out of the way, he goes nearly limp, standing like a wet noodle as he lets himself get used to being free. “I will replant your entire garden two blocks over if it means I can run around outside for a bit.”

GM: “Well, I don’t think Mrs. Gunderson would like that–nor I very much, but the enthusiasm’s appreciated, Brook.” Ferg then leads Brook up the stairs, commenting along the way, “I can make you a flapjack on my hotplate if you’d like. I also have a can of picked beets.” He does motion for Brook to wait up at the station’s booking desk for a moment, though, as he dips into the main office. Brook hears a drawer open and shut, broken by the rustle of paper. Ferg then pops back out. “So what’ll it be, flapjacks or snakeroot?”

Brook: Brook stops at the desk like he’s motioned to, but shakes his head. Breakfast is the last thing on his mind right now, he’s about to smell the trees again. There is one thing on his mind however.
“Actually, Ferg, I’m good. If I could though, can we check on the locker my things were put in? I want to make sure everything is okay, if we can.”

GM: “We’ll get your things as soon as your ride comes. Frankly, it makes it easier for me to convince them that you aren’t going to run, or less likely to run without your things.” The old dispatcher laughs, but not without a glimmer of truth.

Unlocking the front door, Ferg escorts Brook outside. The alpine air hits Brook like a kiss, and he can taste the wetness of the nearby Green Lady upon his tongue. Likely less than an hour since dawn, both men’s breath still fogs in the nearly freezing morning. Golden-orange arcs slip over the mountain peaks, scaring away long, snake-like shadows between the well-cared for houses along the river. It’s a peaceful, pleasant, and prosperous enough part of town. Quiet and calm, and fast asleep on a Saturday morning, save for a passing flock of geese above.

Brook: Brook looks a bit disappointed but nods to the man. Nothing in that box but his necklace has his mind, however. After someone snuck in, its safety weighs on him. Despite that, the moment Ferg leads him outside, the air sends a full-body shudder though the pubescent male. He takes in a breath through his nose big enough to hurt a lesser man until he breathes back out. He’s running out of time to bathe in the Green Lady this season. But the smells and sounds together nearly make the boy’s knees weak as he looks up at the sky and slowly kneels to wipe the dew of the grass off on his hand. The tilled earth of the garden, and the distant smell of woodsmoke from older homes’ stoves bring someone to mind, but Brook focuses back on Ferg.

“Running would ironically make me less free than if I stay and face the music, but a run around the block is almost tempting enough for me to push my luck for. But! Right now we have the garden to take care of. You’re growing snakeroot, you said?”

GM: “Yep,” Ferg says, similarly enjoying the bucolic splendor. He scratches his rump as he leads Brook around and behind the station. “I’ve got some sweet alyssum I’d like your read on too.”
Around back, Brook sees the station’s far from modest floral garden, particularly given its autumnal bloom. Between more chrysanthemums are balloon flowers, snakeroot, sweet alyssum, and the aforementioned chewed up toad lilies. Off to the side, a vegetable patch also sits with a trio of pumpkins not quite ready for Hallows’ Eve. “Damned rabbits,” Ferg says as he regards his ruined toad lilies.

Brook: Brook pauses a moment when he gets to see the full splendor of Ferg’s well-loved garden and looks over each flower with a bigger smile than the last. He might have to ask to pick one or two later. But for now he heads over to the lilies, seeing what he can tell about the rabbits that took their nibbles on them. “Poor things, I see why you wanted help. I’ll ask my mom to bring you over a sample of the pellets,” he offers, leaning in closer to inspect the scene of the horticultural crime.

GM: Bringing his lifelong ranger skills to bare, Brook notices that Ferg definitely has a pair of green thumbs himself. The few unraveled toad lilies are remarkable for surviving so long into the fall, although even the best are wilting severely due to the cold. Nonetheless, as Brook inspects the gnawed remnants of the pale while, lilac, and purple-spotted petals, stems, and soil around them, he confirms that a group of rabbits have been ravenously at work.

Or more exactly, not rabbits, but hares, and by the look of it, a manic drove of them. However, Brook uncovers another truth, one almost literally buried under the hare tracks. Human tracks. Far too small to belong to Ferg, the half-native tracker concludes they more likely belong to female feet. Furthermore, Brook discerns that, unlike the hares, the human trespassing was only incidental to the toad lilies which line the exterior of the autumnal floral garden. Instead, the faint human tracks cross through the toad lily border in multiple locations, each time stopping in the midst of the sweet alyssums.

Like the rest of the garden, the low, flowering bushes are wilting under two nights of frost, but their clusters of white, pink, rose, violet, and lilac blossoms still retain their honey-sweet smell. Given their wilted state yet numerous clusters, Brook nearly misses the last piece of evidence. Someone has purposefully sheared and plucked very specific bushes of sweet alyssum–or at least what he initially mistakes as sweet alyssum until he finds a small clipping that the intruder and thief must have dropped and then overlooked in the darkness.

The petals, particularly in their frost-wilted state, look similar but there is something off to their smell. They’re sweet, yes, but there’s something… else, something… off. Yet, despite Brook’s instinctual gut-check, his brain is unable to identify the nigh-mimicking plant.

“Always hard letting them go each year,” Ferg says of his fading garden.

Brook: Brook gets low to the ground as he begins his survey. Just like that night behind the Swiner almost a year ago, he keeps perfectly silent, gauging his prey. Hares. More meat, bigger teeth, more of a problem. But this is not the biggest concern he has. He gets on all fours as he carefully surveys the tracks through the lilies and into the bushes of alyssums. There’s something up here. The teen tuns and sits in the grass, looking over the bulb. There’s an ironic seed of doubt in his gut as he looks over Ferg. “So what was it you wanted me to look at so far as your sweet alyssums?”

GM: Ferg chuckles. “Oh, maybe just wanting a pat on the back. They came in really good this year. Or, so I thought,” he says a bit more humbly, as he goes over to inspect the wire fence around his pumpkins. “These aren’t ready yet for carving, and if we get any more snowfall, the station might have to settle for a painting contest instead.”

Brook: Brook leans in through the toad lilies, smelling each bush like he’s a drug dog, trying to get the scent of something important. “Something is up,” he calls, stuffing his face in another cluster of flowers, trying to pinpoint another whiff of that ‘off’-ness. “Are ALL of these alyssums? Did you mix these all up?”

GM: “What’s that?” Ferg asks, leaving his small vegetable patch to come back to Brook and the station’s fading flowers. “What do you mean?”

Brook: Brook grunts in effort as he slowly stands back up, opening his hand to show the bud left behind to Ferg. “Don’t let it touch your hand just yet, but do you know what this is?”

GM: The old dispatcher gives the clipping a glance, then looks back up to Brook as if confused.

Brook: “It doesn’t look wrong to you? It smells off… and it was pruned and left on the soil.”

GM: Ferg reaches a hand out then seems to recall Brook’s warning or request. He settles for leaning forward. “Huh, I don’t recall pruning them recently. Probably was the storm that whipped through here two nights ago, snapped more than a few of them off. I thought I got all of them yesterday, but looks like I missed one.”

Brook: Brook sniffs it again and makes a face. “Is there anything I can put this in? It seems to be the last one. And I might just be going nuts. But if I have my gear I can figure out what it is. After this court nonsense.”

GM: Ferg scratches his beard, then shrugs as he fails to see any difference. “Inside, we’ve got evidence bags if you want. I’d otherwise just use it for compost.”

Brook: “Evidence bag sounds nice. Other than that? Your lilies were attacked by hares. Lots of them. Putting the pellets just before your line of lilies should start to teach them, with the death of their kin, that your garden is not to be approached.”

GM: Ferg nods at the repeated advice. “I’ll remember that,” he says, then waves for Brook to follow him back into the station, where he provides the youth an evidence bag.

Hudson: The crunch of gravel from outside the police station heralds the imminent arrival of Brook’s probable ride.

Brook: Brook thanks the dispatcher again and asks him to hang onto it or put it in his boxed up belongings. The sound of the gravel being pushed around, however, makes the young man tense up again as he imagines the trip out to the courthouse, just to be locked up in a new cell. It’s not a pleasant thought at all, and he hopes in the back of his head that the DA or the judge will look at a 15-year-old and not want to take him out of school. He might already be expelled for missing yesterday.

“Well, Ferg… I guess this is it. This is going to be my first time out of Witiko Falls, funny enough,” the boy laughs, but he’s bad at masking the concern behind it.

Hudson: A few moments later, the door swings open to admit Hudson’s wide presence. The marshal looks much the same as last morning, but is dressed in a different light gray suit, darker trench overcoat, striped blue and yellow necktie, and a notable white bandage over one of his ears. Otherwise, however, the bags under his eyes and exhausted (to say nothing of mud-crusted) mien of last night, however, appears to have been banished by a full night’s sleep.

“Good morning, Ferg, Mr. Barnes. I see the latter of you is ready to go,” he remarks as he sees the youth outside of his cell.

Brook: Brook’s eye is, of course, drawn to the injury on Hudson’s head. Either he missed a party while he was in lock-up, or Moe is awake and resorting to using his teeth now that the three marshals have robbed him of his other arm. “Been ready for quite a while, and now ’ear you are.”

The proud, impish grin on the young man’s face can’t be hidden from his seniors, even with a hand over his mouth, his tan face starts to tint red as he holds back a crack-up fit of laughter. “I always tell people not to approach the raccoons, but looks like with every out of towner, it’s just in one ear and out-” the boy can’t finish the joke and breaks into a snicker for just a moment before slapping his face lightly. “Okay! I’m done I’m done. Had to get that out, I’m sorry.”

GM: Ferg nods to the federal agent as he enters, but gives a ‘tsk’ at the teenager’s levity. “All right, son,” he gently chides, “let’s get your things.” As he heads over to the storage locker, the dispatcher looks up at Hudson. “Might I interest you in a cup of coffee, Marshal? I’ve got my pot of maple bacon brewing again.”

Hudson: “Too slow, kid, I got an earful of those quips from my doc and deputies already,” Hudson dryly retorts. He nods in response to the other man’s query. “Yes please, Ferg. That sounds ten orders better than the vending machine instant they have at the hospital.”

Brook: “Oh, so that granddaughter I keep hearing about hasn’t had a crack at you yet,” he retorts back, riffling a hand in his pocket and silently putting the king-sized Butterfingers on the desk as Hudson passes. But the storage locker is calling, and the young man goes to check if all his things are present and accounted for. His necklace especially.

GM: Ferg tosses the keys to Hudson, then leaves the two alone while he presumably goes to get the offered coffee.

Hudson: The fat man catches them with a surprising cat-quickness and goes to check the locker for Brook’s things. “Don’t forget your candy bar, Mr. Barnes. It’s a long drive. Sugar might not make it shorter, but will make it sweeter.”

Brook: Brook makes no motion to grab it and continues with the marshal up to his locker. “It’s yours. I’m not a big sugar person. I’ll likely sleep most the trip anyway,” he assures the older man. “Are you going to call my mother to pick up my pistol? Or take it with you?”

Hudson: “Well now, that’s very kind of you. I’d say I’ll just have to be a big enough sugar person for the both of us, but I think it’s plain that I already am,” the marshal remarks as he pockets the Butterfingers.

“We hopefully won’t need the extra gun where we’re going. What’s your number?” After getting it from Brook, Hudson calls Mary from the station phone and leaves a message that he and Brook are headed out to Sandpoint, so she can come pick up her son’s firearm (and any other things he doesn’t want to carry with him) at her soonest convenience.

Brook: The young man makes no mention of the candy bar, but does give the marshal his phone number as they open the case. It’s the official largest handgun on the market and the boy beams whenever he sees it. “Can I take this necklace with me, at least? I feel naked without it,” he asks, taking it out of the box and dangling it. The anatomically correct heart and the small amber-colored stone are so fondly familiar by now.

GM: “I don’t see why not,” Hudson replies as he finishes his call and sets the phone down.

Brook: Brook waits by the locker for it to be opened, and takes his box out of the locker and onto the desk. The gun is first, he takes it out the box still strapped into the chest holster, putting it down over towards the sheriff so he can see the thing is unloaded and in his hands. Then he takes the necklace out, breathing a sigh of visible relief as he puts it back around his neck, dropping it under his shirt. The rest of the contents are whatever he had in his pockets instead of his vest or his bag on the night of the event. Several loose cartridges, a pack of gum, the ziplock bag with the bill and phone number, and other assorted junk a teen finds their pockets weighted down with. The Moonbrood bill is carefully wrapped up and slipped into a pocket, and the boy stands there a moment, staring at this box for just a few moments, waiting for Ferg to come back with that coffee.

GM: The wait isn’t long as Ferg quickly appears again, carrying a misshapen mug that looks like it was made in a middle school art class. He passes the coffee-filled mug to Hudson, then asks, “Begging your pardon, marshal, but is this really necessary?” He glances meaningfully at Brook. Yet, before Hudson or Brook can respond, all three men hear the crunch of tires outside.

Turning around, Hudson and Brook see a Cadillac Fleetwood limosine stop in front of the police station. Beyond its distinctive length, the car is immediately recognizable due to the wide-set pair of elk antlers fixed to its angular grille, its spotted hardtop made of Appaloosa hide, and its white-wall tires that have been painted to resemble roulette wheels.

A ‘native’ of the local reservation, Brook is passingly familiar with the vehicle–and its owner, Jacob Absalom “Sal” Ghostelk, chief proprietor of the eponymous Ghost Elk Lodge and Beavertail Casino. Hudson, though not a native but a long-time lawman in Idaho, also recognizes the fifteen–year–old vehicle and its owner’s prominent involvement in the American Indian Movement. Two of the Fleetwood’s back doors swing open.

From the rear door facing away from the station, an Amerindian man crosses the road and stops just short of the still-closed La Folle Journée Salon. There, he turns around and looks over the surroundings with a sullen expression.

Astanighkyi.jpg

Even at this distance, Brook clearly identifies the man as Astanighkyi Kills Many Horses. A Kanai rodeo man notorious for riding broncos into the grave, Astanighkyi, or Stan as some know him, has features, much like his boss’ car, that are all–too distinctive. The teen’s mind fills in the details his eyes cannot see. The large scar above Stan’s left brow that looks like someone or something chewed on his face. The slightly crooked nose from too many breaks. The perpetual frown on one side of his lip from an old knife wound. Otherwise, Stan’s clean-shaved face is framed in traditional braids, one of which is adorned with a beaded–and–feathered fetish. His patterned red, white, yellow, and black button-up shirt is half-covered by his rough-worn denim jacket. Similarly, his rodeo boots and jeans are half-concealed by his large, horse leather tooled chinks. Astanighkyi’s presence, though atypical outside the reservation, isn’t entirely unexpected to Brook, as the ranger cadet is aware of Stan’s regular service to Ghostelk as a security ‘assistant’.

As Brook’s gaze meets Astanighkyi’s, the teen is reminded of the tales told about the rodeo tough’s brow. Most say or assume his old scar came at the hand of a victimized horse, while others–including the Henderson brothers–claim he got it trying to capture the Coyote Child of Witiko Falls. Still others argue the scar matches something caused by human, rather than equine or canine, teeth. Indeed, Daniel’s older brother, Elijah, once told Brook and his best friend that Stan received the injury in a massive brawl down at the Burning Bush, courtesy of the Moonbrood after Stan allegedly pushed things too far with one of the establishment’s red-haired dancers.

Brook’s musings though are interrupted as his line of sight is broken by the second figure that exits Ghostelk’s limousine.

Janne_Whitedoe.jpg

That figure is without a doubt the tallest woman any of the men has ever seen. Topping nearly seven feet tall with her eagle–beaded cowboy hat, the elderly woman is further dressed in a puffy–shouldered, concentrically–bedazzled blouse-suit over an arrowhead–pinned neck scarf, denim slacks, and cowhide boots. Her short, blonde hair is nearly invisible beneath her slanted brim-hat, although her wrinkles remain evident despite her makeup with includes huckleberry–hued lipstick, black mascara on thin eyelashes, and painted-on eyebrows. That face squints in the slashing dawn as she strides forward stiffly, a briefcase that seems too small for her swinging in one of her long arms.

Although Brook has never seen this giant before, he has heard of her during his time at Lame Bull where other children spoke of the “White Sasquatch Woman” captured, shaved, and forced to wear clothes by Ghostelk. From other, potentially more reliable sources, Brook believes the woman must be the Scandinavian expatriate, Janne Whitedoe, whom the reservation adults tend to call Jane Doe.
The ‘White Sasquatch Woman’ halts just short of crossing the station’s still-open door. She pauses to glance down at Brook then turns her attention firmly to the even shorter federal agent. She smiles stiffly, revealing tobacco-stained and silver-capped teeth. “Good morning,” she speaks in heavily accented, yet fluent English. “I presume you are Deputy Marshal Schofeld?”

Hudson: Hudson considers the woman’s presence. If he had to guess, the reservation is threatening legal action over him arresting one of their own. He’s no expert on tribal law beyond that reservations are still subject to federal law, and the point is moot with the crime taking place on non-tribal land anyway.

Then again, Madcatcher and the Natives might be pursuing a different track. She struck the marshal as resourceful.

Regardless, he’s out of this town for good once the now-awake Moses is fit for transport, and what fuss the Natives throw then isn’t a concern to him. If they want to sue, they’re welcome to take it up with the Marshal’s Office in Boise.

“Supervisory Deputy Marshal if you want to make me feel important,” Hudson replies as he sets down Ferg’s coffee mug and strolls towards the station’s open door to address the nearly fifteen-inch-taller woman.

“I presume you folks are here over Mr. Barnes. You’d also seem to have me at a disadvantage in more than just height, Ms….?”

Brook: Brook stands a bit at awe of the woman every time he spots Whitedoe in Witiko Falls. If this Nordic bean-pole and Leanne are anything to go by, maybe he just has a thing for tall women. As the deputy makes a crack about her height, however, the young ranger lightly taps his arm.

“Rude. Deputy Schofeld, Miss Whitedoe. Miss Whitedoe, Deputy Schofeld,” he introduces, sighing at the coming storm and standing back a bit.

GM:Mrs. Whitedoe,” the towering woman corrects, but not with any evident rancor. “May I come in, Supervisory Deputy Marshal,” she then adds, turning back to Hudson.

Hudson: “Please do, Mrs. Whitedoe,” Hudson indicates. “Ferg here has just made some of his reputedly famous maple bacon brew if you’re feeling thirsty.”

Brook: “Apologies,” he shoots back quietly, tapping his ring finger and letting the adults work it out for once.

GM: “Thank you,” she replies once again in her heavy Scandinavian accent. She ducks her head as she enters, then adds, “but my loyalties belong to Mr. Blackplume. You would do well, Supervisory Deputy Marshal, to swing by the Wigwam before you depart.”

Ferg grunts a bit at the remark, but otherwise holds his peace.

Hudson: “I think my team can make that pit-stop, Mrs. Whitdoe. Perhaps it’ll even decide the question of my own loyalties.”

Brook: Brook looks back out the door at Stan the Stallion Snapper for a moment to see see if he’s just lost, before looking back in between the two adults inside. If his mother sent Jane Doe after the marshal, things are likely to get complicated.

GM: Kills Many Horses keeps his silent, sullen vigil across the street. Inside the station, though, Mrs. Whitedoe walks to the booking desk, sets her briefcase on the counter, and opens it with the iconic double-click of its spring locks. “Well then, Supervisory Deputy Marshal Schofeld, I shall endeavor to complete our business quickly, so as not to delay your trip.”

She reaches into her open briefcase and passes the federal agent a legal brief. “On behalf of the authority invested in me by the Kainai Nation and with the cooperation of your government, I am here to take into custody Brook Barnes.”

Hudson: Hudson accepts it and looks it over.

GM: Looking over the dense legal documentation, which includes numerous citations to Title 18 of United States Code, Sections 1151 and 1501 to 1521; Title 25, Section 1301; and Public Law 102 to 137; Hudson discerns that Brook falls under tribal rather than federal jurisdiction on his main charge of obstruction for three primary reasons.

First, all of Brook’s charges constitute gross misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Second, Brook Barnes can be prosecuted by the Kainai Nation by virtue of his official residence and adoption by a full-blooded member of the tribe.

Third, the primary charges of obstruction occurred, as the documentation thoroughly details, within Scratch’s Corral, a parcel of land that while not within the tribal reservation still falls under the tribe’s inherent sovereign authority due to an obscure legal loophole–the box canyon became an Indian allotment to a Kainai member in 1891 under the Daes Act and their descendants under the later amendments of the Curtis and Burke Acts.

The legal checkmate is sealed with all the necessary signatures, including the reserve’s chieftain, all twelve of the band’s council members, the allotment’s current owner, and faxed copies from Idaho’s district attorney and the Marshal’s office chief in Coeur d’Alene.

The stack of papers pass Hudson’s legal sniff-test–particularly once he locates the guarantee that the tribe will prosecute Brook according to their laws–or else jurisdiction immediately reverts back to the federal government.

Hudson: Hudson shuffles the papers back into a tidy stack and returns them to the cowboy-hatted woman. “Everything here looks in order, Mrs. Whitedoe. In the event you should need me or my people for anything, we’ll be parked at Mt. Pelion for the foreseeable future.”

All things told, his bosses’ call on how to play things is a pleasant enough resolution to this whole affair. Hudson might be paranoid, but he’s glad that the notorious Houdini will now get to remain under full guard. Even if he is missing both his arms.

“You, Mr. Barnes, are ‘free’ to accompany Mrs. Whitedoe.” He offers the youth a smile. “Seems your mother came through for you. You’ll be prosecuted under tribal rather federal law.”

Brook: Brook watches everything as he takes his mug of coffee, sipping and waiting to see what happens between the adults. Both are powerful people and both evidently want him, but he doesn’t expect the outcome to be so calm. Before he can catch up with what’s happened, the marshal is saying his mother came through for him, and Brook is only able to give him a slack-jawed nod with bewilderment in his eyes. It explains why she never came for him. And…

GM: Before Brook or anyone else can reply, though, the station’s radio crackles to life. Hudson’s heart lurches at he recognizes not only Cassidy’s voice, but her frantic urgency.

“Code 3 at 15!” she shouts over the intercom in the station’s main office. “Boss, they’re taking Moe! I repeat, code 3 at 15!”

Hudson: Hudson doesn’t waste a second either, including on farewells as he barrels out of the station with an almost uncanny swiftness towards his parked car.

“10-4. Who is taking him, Cassidy? Over,” the mustachioed marshal levelly asks as the vehicle burns rubber and speeds towards the hospital, blue and red headlights madly flashing.

Inwardly, Hudson isn’t sure how much difference he can make. Mt. Pelion is just enough minutes away. Three of his people were already guarding the prisoner.

But he drives on. It’s all he can do.

GM: More slowly but still urgently, Ferg rushes into the station’s main office, leaving Brook, Janne, and Hudson’s cooling cup of coffee.

Mrs. Whitedoe, meanwhile, returns the packet to her briefcase and closes it with a click of finality. She turns around to face Brook. “Shall we? Your people are waiting.”

The open door beckons.

Brook: The radio’s blaring with the emergency pull the boy’s bones towards the door to go and help, but his muscles freeze him in place, just watching as his brain rubber-bands and smacks him in the back of the head in realization.

They aren’t his people. They’re his mother’s people, doing her a favor. Brook takes one last sip of his coffee and quickly starts putting things from the box on his person, strapping his hand cannon onto his chest and walking around the desk. “What just happened? The council, DA, parcel owner, AND the Marshal’s Office? Was this really… I mean, what in the world would this cost my mother?”

The question at the end sends a pang of guilt through his body, imagining the mass of favors she owes now. At least the council has to appreciate him stomping out a ritual that isn’t theirs.

“Let’s go. I need to see my mother.”

GM: Janne does not answer his questions, but readily escorts him to the limo, where they are joined by the grim-faced Stan. Yet, as Brook steps out into the morning light for the second time today, the sky fears somehow darker as his mind is overshadowed by Moses’ words from two nights ago.

Give the Devil his due.

As the car pulls away from the curb, Brook is left to wonder just how many devils are in Witiko Falls–and just how much they are due.

Brook: Brook remembers that cave coated in what all would hope was the blood of wild animals. He remembers the devil in Bad Medicine and wishes he could warn the deputies not to go there. He remembers the fire and death in the eyes of a biker not truly of this world. Of course the boy wonders about the myriad devils and their dues in Witiko Falls.

But given what’s happened with Moses, he wonders more how many devils he can put into the ground before they come collecting their dues from him.

Hudson: A Golden Star


10.10.1998, Saturday morning

Hudson: Ten minutes after he took off from the police station, Hudson pulls in his car at Mount Pelion General Hospital.

His little man was right.

His deputies report that ominous G-Men in black suits showed up and ‘informed’ the Marshals that they were taking Moses into their custody. As Cassidy relates, she tried calling Hudson immediately, but the room’s landline and cell connections were dead with static–so she ran to another area of the hospital. Curtis claims he likewise tried to stall by asking for identification–but the G-Men reportedly provided it–although Curtis is strangely unable to describe the identification, the G-Men’s agency, their names, or even what they looked like exactly. Despite this cognitive fugue, Curtis remains adamant that he checked for proper identification and received it.

Hudson finds this incredibly suspicious and pursues several next steps.

First, he asks Curtis to submit to a medical examination by Mt. Pelion’s staff. Curtis begrudgingly does so, and the initial results are inconclusive if not substantively asymptomatic. Without pursuing neuroimaging, the attending physician provides a preliminary diagnosis of acute, stress-related hypsomnia and partial dehydration. Second, Hudson calls the Marshal’s Office back in Boise, and informs his boss, Warren Theodore Weaver–_the_ United States Marshal of the Idaho District–that individuals whose identities he is unaware of, as they technically weren’t ‘unidentified’, but claimed to work for an equally unidentified governmental agency, abruptly showed up and took custody of Moses while Hudson was away from the hospital. This wasn’t the FBI, was it? “I remember those bunch of misfits at VASCU were trying to claim jurisdiction for a while,” the mustachioed marshal remarks. Regardless, he is frank that Moses’ abrupt ‘transfer’ should be considered his rather than his subordinates’ fault, and asks his boss how they should play things.

Warren is incensed by this news. It turns out that Chief Deputy Marshal Ebenezer “Old Posse Ben” Stoddard of Coeur d’Alene’s office, who outranks Hudson but is still subordinate to Linus, had not informed their mutual boss about any of this. Warren tells Hudson to hang tight for a bit, only to call back in a few hours after reaming Ben through the ear and making calls to his own boss—the deputy director of the Marshals Service back in Washington D.C., or rather, Crystal City. Warren comes back from the latter call rather tight-lipped and tells Hudson to “let the matter lie”. When pressed, he reports that the men who came for Moses have jurisdiction, and the U.S. Marshals no longer do. Case closed. However, Hudson’s boss is exasperated enough by being run roughshod that he does briefly share his doubts as to “how many lights are on upstairs when an armless serial killer is ‘vital to national security interests’.” Warren nevertheless tries to console Hudson, though, saying “by my book, you still got your man.” The fat marshal agrees with his boss that things turned out as well as they could have. “We ran into some difficulties, and to my mind it’s a miracle that no one died.” He then assures Warren that he will remain silent over what little he knows–something which Warren thanks him for, even if it is clear to both men that he wishes it wasn’t necessary.

His little man finds this whole thing decidedly sour. He remembers that bad feeling he got around Nurse Wagner. He remembers Moses’ last words: you work for them. Moe is clearly not going back to the state psychiatric hospital. What possible importance could this madman be to national security interests? Why right now, rather than doing all those years in the loony bin? And just what government agency barged in claiming jurisdiction like Hudson is rather used to his own agency doing?

But those aren’t questions he can answer—or even ones that he’ll try to answer. He’s got his orders.

And so do his own subordinates. Hudson gathers up his three deputy marshals, which includes Maxwell returned from his break at the Lodge, and announces that the case is closed. He tells them he called the Marshal’s Office back in Boise, and that’s all they told him–in addition to ‘good job catching your man’. Moses is now somebody else’s problem, and the four marshals are now free to leave Witiko Falls. Hudson commends his subordinates for their work and tells them to meet up at the Ghost Elk Lodge in a few hours’ time for the drive back to Boise. He’s got a few remaining orders of business to take care of, not the least of which is eating a full meal at someplace besides the god-awful hospital cafeteria, which he recommends they also do. He’s heard good things about the sandwiches at the Swiner.

All three readily agree. “If I never see another egg salad sandwich again,” Maxwell laments, “It’ll be too soon.”

Hudson’s next order of business is to return to the town’s police station, where he samples Ferg’s maple bacon brew. The elderly dispatcher seems a bit more confused by Hudson’s unexpected return rather than his earlier abrupt departure. Hudson is forthright explains the former: some other government men showed up to claim Moe and they turned out to have jurisdiction. Hudson doesn’t actively press the dispatcher for information, but the long-time lawman is no slouch at drawing out stories–casually remarking, “I was surprised to find other feds in a town this small”–and slowly takes his measure of Ferg’s reactions between sips of coffee. Nonetheless, his compliment of the man’s brew is genuine as he helps himself to a refill. “My heart says I shouldn’t, but my gut is telling it to shut up already.”

As to why he’s back, Hudson remarks that he has a few last orders of business to finish up before he leaves. The first of these is retrieving Brook’s arrest records from the sheriff’s—er, undersheriff’s—desk, which he was unable to give Janne Whitedoe in his previous haste to depart the police station. Depending on how things turn out for young Mr. Barnes, the tribal authorities may or may not choose to destroy them. Hudson has known his share of federal agents who would gladly order local cops to serve as delivery boys, but he opts to simply mail the records from the local post office.

Next, Hudson makes a call out to Burrell, his old friend in the state police, and tells him how “Those motorbikes made all the difference, Joe. We got there just in time. Saved two boys’ lives.” Both long-time lawmen know there are few words that make the job more worth it than ‘you saved a life’.

Hudson uses the office’s electric typewriter to finish up his police report on Moe’s capture—he always prefers doing those at the office rather than at home. He also prefers doing them immediately after whatever events occurred, while everything is still fresh in his head. That personal rule is currently as hale and intact as Moses’ arms, the marshal grumbles. It’s been a busy few days.

His report is a bit longer than usual, but sticks to the same deliberately plain and direct language characteristic to such police paperwork. The report starts with Hudson’s arrival at the abandoned farmhouse and walks through the prolix series of events that led to Moses’ capture at Scratch’s Corral, including Hudson’s laid plans and counter-plans that turned out to be unnecessary in light of the farmhouse’s false evidence. Most saliently to the tribal authorities, the report also includes the three specific counts of obstruction for which Hudson arrested Brook: abandoning Red Aspen and forcing the marshal to split his team and conduct an unnecessary search for the missing youth; assaulting Moses on his own and causing the fugitive to use Nelson Judd as a hostage; and assaulting Moses again in the middle of the marshals’ hostage negotiation. A fourth salient count of obstruction was withholding information on Moses’ location, although Hudson had been unaware of that at the time and did not specifically arrest Brook for it. The tribal authorities might choose to prosecute the youth for some or all of those obstruction counts, or for entirely different charges.

Once the report is done, Hudson faxes a copy to the Marshal’s Office in Boise, faxes a second copy to the number provided on Mrs. Whitedoe’s card for the tribal authorities, and keeps the original report for his personal records. A follow-up fax to the Natives adds that his team is leaving Witiko Falls sooner than anticipated and includes the work phone numbers for the three marshals, in the event that Mrs. Whitedoe (or most likely, someone else) should have any questions pertaining to the report’s contents.

Hudson also seeks out the other county deputies, Tina and Chip (and so much the easier if they stop by the station while he’s working), to shake hands, thank for their assistance in apprehending Moses, and wish well. It’s a sometime “hobby” of Hudson’s to dispel the hard-nosed fed stereotype around local cops; beyond being courteous, it might well make some other federal lawman’s job easier down the line.

The marshal also leaves a ‘thank you’ phone message for the local (well, actually federal) cop whose help he relied on the most. Or at least who he imposed on the most. Mary Madcatcher seems the type to dismiss his thanks as yammering, particularly after he arrested her son, but Hudson does it regardless, and even chuckles too about the timing. Mrs. Whitedoe showed up literally the minute after he gave notice about taking Brook away.

The last member of Witiko Falls’ law enforcement community he bids farewell to is Ferg—who he also asks to pass along his simultaneous condolences and prayers to Sheriff—er, Undersheriff Bauman. He’s seen that look the county lawman was wearing back at the hospital. He’s worn it himself a few times. There’s no words he can offer to make things better, but as he remarks, “I’ve seen a lot of darkness in this town, Ferg. But I’ve also seen a lot that’s worth fighting for. And for whatever it might worth to your boss, I think he and his people are up to that task.”

Hudson also seeks out Stan Epstein to thank the math teacher for his prior assistance and willingness to play human bait in a thankfully now-unnecessary ploy, after the ‘evidence’ they discovered that he was Moe’s next target. “That might’ve been as fake as I’m fat, but there’s a lot of folks who would’ve wanted police protection instead.”

As lunch hour rolls around, Hudson meets up with his deputies at the Swiner; everyone was enthusiastic enough at the prospect of some non-hospital food that Hudson proposed a group outing to sample the town’s reportedly best eating establishment. The four marshals promptly brand themselves as outsiders when they ask the Yaeger twins for menus, causing Hudson to chuckle over their collective faux pas. This is a small town. That has a certain charm, too. After asking what’s good to eat, the senior marshal places a meatloaf order, with a request to “go easy on the bacon. I’m fat enough as it is.” He leaves the Slaughterhouse Five to Curtis and Cassidy, or as he wryly terms them, “the younger and healthier among our company.” As delicious as that sandwich sounds, Hudson’s frankly at enough risk for a heart attack as it is. Max probably feels the same way.

After the lead marshal ambles back to his car as stuffed and content as the pig for which the diner is modeled, the four stop by Coffee Wigwam for some steaming joe and light dessert to wash down all that crispy meat. Ferg’s competition is no slouch, but Hudson decides that his ultimate loyalties must remain with the law.

Once that question been resolved, it’s time for everyone to leave. The marshals head back to the Ghost Elk Lodge and pack their remaining things. Their loaned motorbikes, scrubbed clean of the muck from Thursday night’s miserable ride, are stowed in the trunks. Hudson lingers for a moment to admire the hotel’s scenic view. And to think back to all of the things he’s seen.

Raving would-be serial killers ‘vital to national security interests’. Curtis’ bizarre lapse in memory. Strange nurses who sent his little man anxiously tap-dancing. Unknown federal agents in this podunk town who could snatch out his jurisdiction. Even the ‘lesser’ things, like how the Britters have to lobotomize their cows. The anisocoria in so many peoples’ eyes. Sheriff Bauman’s—Undersheriff Bauman’s, the locals are starting to rub off on him—‘father of the year’ award from his kid saying ‘epoch’ instead of ‘year’. His battery-operated electronics draining so fast.

And the dreams he’s had. Strange and familiar and haunting and horrible like nothing else.

Just last night, his mind carried him to a far-off and long-ago vista in a tidy suburban house with a white picket fence and mowed green lawn, circa 1953. He remembers his cheeks being plump from youth rather than age, grinning as he blew out the eight candles on his mom’s specially-made checkerboard cake, hoping there would be another model train set in his birthday presents.

His uncle was there, telling him that inhaling the smoke from “so many candles!” would stain his nostrils permanently black (today he’d probably say “give you lung cancer”), but the WWII vet’s ornery sense of humor wasn’t why his eight-year-old dream-self was suddenly crying. It was the black shapes whose outlines wafted and comingled in a hazy fog of reality and not-reality just past the smoke. No, figures. Staring at him through the house’s windows, like he was a rat in a cage, and the fifty-four-year-old lawman knew they didn’t belong in his memories, and he knew they wanted something, and he knew they were wrong, that they were evil, and that he had to unmask them, had to identify them, because he’s a cop, and—

And then he was choking, not from smoke like his uncle laughed, but from what could only be described as a nightmare, as he bolted straight up from the sweat-slick sheets with his heart hammering.

Dreams, all right. Dreams he thought were his alone. But in fact commonplace enough for young Mr. Barnes to term ‘tourist nightmares’.

Hudson chews the lip under his thick mustache. There’s something odd about this town. He laughs as he mentally hears Cassidy saying, ’That’s a little obvious, boss.’ ‘No, no, Cassidy,’ he hears himself replying. ‘I didn’t say there’s something odd in this town, I said there’s something odd about this town.’

‘Every case is the sum of its parts. Every scene is the sum of its individual details. There are plenty of odd details in this town. But I wonder how long you would have to spend before all those little oddities added up to scenes, and how long before those scenes added up to cases. And how long before all those cases added up to one giant case. The entire town, Cassidy. Could it be a case? Or am I paranoid and reading too much into bizarre but disconnected incidents?’

Well, he’s got enough reservations that he’s not actually saying any of that out loud to her. But his own words to his old friend echo back to him.

It’s a strange town, Joe. The more of it I see, the stranger it feels—like leftover bits of egg-flavored gummy, stuck in the back of your gums. Stuck there, fermenting, a strange and subtle taste that only gets stranger the longer it’s there, and the more you think on it.

Yet for all its oddities, it’s a beautiful town, the marshal cannot deny. The autumn mountain air tastes crisp and clean in his lungs. The crispy bacon-wrapped meatloaf and rich black coffee digest happily in his gut. The snow-capped Bitterroot Mountains and douglas fir-spotted hills are a sight to admire. For all the locals he’s met who were strange and uncooperative, he’s met at least as many who were good and decent, or simply struggling to get by. From what young Mr. Barnes said, it can be a struggle to get by here. But perhaps it’s a worthwhile one.

The car’s engine revs up as Hudson twists the keys and closes the door. Struggles and mysteries the locals have in spades. But he’s done what he came here to do. He has a family that misses him. He’s going home.

A crunch sounds from tires over gravel—and from teeth sinking into Brook’s king-sized Butterfingers.

514 calories heavier than when I left, the marshal wryly concludes.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Date [REDACTED]

GM: Hazel’s psyche falls into the spiral. Around and around. Retreats into the familiarity. Around and around. Predictable familiarity.

“We’ve been waiting,” the figure’s voice says. Its tired, monotone voice is barely audible above the cycle of laundromat machines.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

“But we knew you would come. It was predictable.”

Hazel: Hazel blinks several times as her heart hammers in her ears. She furtively scans the laundromat for her dad—and has just enough presence of mind to feel embarrassed once her nerves settle. The rows of orderly, slowly rotating and whirring machines are calming in their own way.

This was the only one of the four chairs not to imperil her. There were no surprises. No obfuscating riddles. No appeals to emotional tendencies best restrained. Just simple, unwavering steadiness. The only logical choice. Her choice was made even before those ‘waters’ flooded her lungs.

“I have observed the alternatives. I choose logic. I choose stability. I choose you,” Hazel hears herself saying in a tranquil-calm voice.

GM: “Choice is an illusion,” the laundromat figure repeats.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Hazel: “There was no choice before me,” Hazel agrees. “Three illusions and one truth.” She looks towards the cat. “I am prepared to proceed through the door, if there is no further ritual or deed required.”

GM: The cat, however, is nowhere to be seen.

Hazel still receives an answer perhaps as a laundromat machine buzzes in a tired, yet loud voice, signifying one cycle is done–and another is ready to begin. The headless figure rises.

Hazel: Hazel frowns at the feline’s absence but looks towards the nameless figure. “Do you require assistance in re-donning your head?”

It seems only polite to offer.

GM: The headless figures dispassionately points to the nearby dryer that buzzed and now sits still. “The lint trap should be checked.”

Hazel: Mom always told her she missed that step. Hazel doesn’t miss it now.

GM: As Hazel approaches the machine, she can feel the familiar heat and thrum. Sliding out the lint trap, she senses the scent of warm lint. Within the trap, Hazel finds the typical accumulations of textile fibers and other processed materials. However, she also spots of trio of movie tickets. All three are whole and still redeemable, but their showing times are all the same. Hazel’s fingers tingle with the habitual rush of kleptomanic impulse.

Hazel: How they do tingle. But it’s one thing to steal from Shop-Plus, the faceless exploitive corporation, and quite another to steal from an actual person. Or at least most of a person.
Hazel holds up the tickets. “Are these yours?” she inquires of the headless figure.

GM: The figure replies in a monotone, “One is yours.”

Glancing at the tickets, Hazel notes the names of the ‘movies’ belong to literary pieces. The first is Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, set to play in the Edwin Abbot Abbott Theatre, seat number 1884.

Hazel: It seems honesty does pay. She looks at the next two.

GM: The second is The Time Machine, allegedly featuring in the H. G. Wells Cinema, seat number 1895.

Hazel: Now that was a book she enjoyed as a child. She never cared much for ‘romances’.

GM: The third ticket is for The Canterville Ghost at the Oscar Wilde Multiplex, seat 1887.

Hazel: Wilde or Wells. Hard call.

GM: The laundromat persists with its mechanical and chemical cycles, unperturbed and disinterested in Hazel’s dilemma.

Hazel: A movie about space, a movie about time, or a movie about spirits. Her brow furrows as she considers the choices available.

“This one is mine,” Hazel declares, holding up the Time Machine ticket. After all, it was found in the lint. The trash. A book turned into a movie.

GM: Above, the laundromat’s fluorescent lights flicker with a buzz. Glancing up, Hazel notices the back side of the ticket. Like her surroundings, the stub has a familiarity that extends beyond its dinginess. The ticket is for a Scarecrow Cinema showing of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Time Traveler, an 11:11 matinee dated for July 15th, 1985. Her ticket.

Harvey had taken her to movies. It had been a Monday. Harvey had wanted to get out of the house–or perhaps wanted his then-10-year-old daughter to get out of the house. “It’ll be fun,” he had said. “And heh, it’s a science fiction movie, maybe we’ll learn something about science?” Lydia hadn’t attended; summer breaks didn’t apply to the corporate lawyer.

Hazel: “Maybe back in the ‘60s, Daddy, and if we were reading a book. Science fiction authors only tried to be consistent with actual science relatively early in the genre’s history. We’re even less likely to be educated by a non-documentary movie,” the still-literal-minded younger Hazel had explained. She’d added, “But a movie still sounds good.”

GM: “They’ll be popcorn,” the off-duty lawman said with one of his ‘aw shucks’ grins. “And candy.”

Hazel: “It’s too bad Mom can’t come. Maybe we can bring her back some Junior Mints.”

GM: “Yeah, pumpkin, that’s a great idea,” her dad had chimed, grabbing his keys. “They’ve even got that new movie, just came out last week I think. All part of the movie theater’s ‘Summer Time Madness’ special.”

Hazel: Actually, no, it wasn’t all bad. Mom would probably stop her from having any. She’d started to be weirdly fixated with Hazel’s diet that year, and the recently-chubbier ten-year-old didn’t care much for it.

GM: Oblivious to his daughter’s thought, Harvey had scratched his scalp, deep in his own thoughts. “Forward into the Past, I think it’s called. Maybe she’ll like it. She likes the main actor. Could be good.”

Hazel: “Hmm. I don’t think I’ve seen that.”

GM: “Just came out as I said. I’ve heard good things.” He had hugged his preteen daughter then. “But first, you and me hit the classics!”

Hazel: Hazel tried not to stiffen too much at the unexpected hug and made her usual effort return it. After all, he was taking her to a movie. “The classics, Daddy?”

GM:Time Machine!” her father had beamed. Along the ride, he had explained his first viewing of the movie. “Your aunt took me. First time I’d been in a movie theater without an adult. Felt special. The Scarecrow hadn’t been opened too long, and Mr. Clay was running an ‘End of Times’ special with the coming New Year’s.” He had laughed lightly while he drove. “I remember a lot of folks, Gramps, included didn’t like that, what with the Cold War still going on.”

Uncomfortable with his own change of subject, he veered back to the movie and proceeded to spoil about half of it, relating how Winnie was scared of the morlocks and how he never understood the reference to the three books. He might have spoiled the entire movie, had they not arrived downtown. True to his word, Harvey bought the tickets and let Hazel pick out candy, soda, and popcorn.

Hazel: Hazel didn’t mind the spoilers. She hadn’t seen the movie, but she had read the book, and it didn’t sound like it had changed too much. The plump ten-year-old was all-too happy to pick a box of Junior Mints and gummy multichromatic Dots, on top of the usual popcorn staple.

“Yes, the morlocks were scary. Though the part I found most so is when the main character travels so far ahead in the future that he sees humankind has devolved into, what was it, something like a butterfly? Then something steps on it, while the dying, massively expanded sun hangs in the sky. It was a very bleak image.”

GM: “Butterfly? I must’ve missed that,” Harvey had said, carrying their haul of junk food. Together, they had made their way to the theater, where Mr. Clay himself had been waiting to take the tickets. As people filtered through the line, the albino unnerved his customers by quoting Lovecraft. To the ten-year-old, the albino’s bizarre appearance were likely more disturbing than his words, but the savant child remembered the latter more keenly in the years to come:

“Reason as we may, we cannot destroy a normal perception of the highly limited and fragmentary nature of our visible world of perception and experience as scaled against the outside abyss of unthinkable galaxies and unplumbed dimensions—an abyss wherein our solar system is the merest dot… the time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible and measurable universe.”

But as a ten-year-old, Hazel had been frightened to let the man touch her, and so Mr. Clay let her pass ahead, her ticket intact. The ticket now in her hand. It was always her ticket. Some things, time does not change. Back in the laundromat, the figure takes the other tickets and throws them in the trash with the other lint and forlorn rubbish, including a theater popcorn bag.

Hazel: Hazel had appreciated a fellow Lovecraft fan and quoted some of the cosmic horror author back. She had grown less loquacious at the prospect of physical contact, though, and drawn back to her dad’s side as she mumbled, “I don’t like touching people…”

GM: In the corner, the TV’s static buzzes and wavers, resolving into the opening credits of the Metrocolor film. A candle burns rapidly as a clock whirls in sync with the spiraling laundry machines.

burning_candle.gif

The wax gathers at the candlestick’s base till it is fully spent, only for the sequence to loop back. Around and around. A few faceless patrons glance up, staring vacantly and entranced by the photic cycle. Docile and pacified as the eloi.

Hazel: They are as undesirable an evolutionary branch as their morlock cousins in their own way. Hazel watches the phenomenon for a moment, then turns to the headless figure. “Do you require your head now?”

GM: Does the figure nod? Hazel cannot tell, but the figure then proceeds to the corner of the room, where the TV itself rests. The figure cinches its tie, slips its suspenders back up, and rolls its sleeves before it reaches up and takes down the old TV. Cables pull and snap, spewing arcs of electricity that eerily remind Hazel’s subconscious of her biological father’s terminal sacrifice.

Hazel: Her first father. Not just biological father. Not after the memory she relived.

GM: As the lights flicker, only to reveal another TV back in the corner blaring empty static, the figure takes its TV, still playing Time Machine, and mechanically goes about inserting the TV cables into its ‘chest’ and securing the television set in place of its head. Adjusting a few dials, its screen blares cold fluorescent light in a hue that defies taxonomy. Behind it, the laundromat’s walls are covered in boredom-driven graffiti. An adjacent window reveals an urban scene of congested, grid-lock streets flickering with rows of brake- and headlights.

TV_figure.jpg

Hazel: The question of the figure’s head, however, appears… answered. She watches the head-screen for any change in the featured program or further action from the figure.

GM: The TV’s face ripples with static, then resolves into a video. The video is… difficult. It opens with a sigils like a sun with rays, first digital then on a physical flag also bearing a another sigil that has elements of a circle, lines, and spirals in red. Clocked figures escort the sigil-bearing banner out of a valley into a burnt sepia sky. It shifts to an ornate rooftop clock, with cheap AV superimposed letters:

fotamecus
film majik

What follows is a disjointed series of clips filmed in 16mm, with various time dilations and lapses. The camera pans down, displaying a bus and moving vehicles. Men and women watch something in a movie theater, dowsed in ochre shadows. A digital clock counts, and low, drone-like chanting begins.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

More clocks, disjointed individuals moving. A park, then children moving behind a metal barred fence. Men and women preparing something at the table, something culinary perhaps. And the chanting continues.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

The sigil flashes again on the screen, black over yellow-film. A young girl’s face. Hazel’s face from a family home video. Then appears the sigil. More chanting.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

Electronic distortions that are more nonsensical noise than music. The figures continue to prepare something, surrounded by domestic artifacts. Flour in jars. Images and sequences repeat or skip forward. The same boy and girl walk behind the fence. She wears a blue dress of a ballerina. He wears a baseball cap. The sunlight overwhelms the equipment, making them a blinding blur. There is a lull in the chanting, replaced or perhaps revealing earlier whispers. Things are being mixed and stirred into a batter. Dough is rolled out, hand-kneaded and formed into circular shapes. Cookies, upon which are drawn the sigil. A straight horizontal line that touches the zenith of circle. Perpendicular lines flow down and away. The circle is bisected by a vertical line, then the form of twice-turned snake. The men and women are outside, eating the substance.

The whispers continue. The sigil in black fills the screen, then shifts to a night scene wherein torches burn, and the chanting begins again, this time more of a pressured hiss:

“FO-TO-ME-CUS!”

A drawn pentagram, figures in dark cowls, drawing something in the dirt with a lighter mineal substance. A spiral. The lower drone merges with the pressured hiss.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

“FO-TO-ME-CUS!”

Hazel struggles to discern whether they are in harmony or slightly out of synch. The montage continues to flash, unstable images of a ritual featuring fires and hands. The chanting continues. Over it, a sole man’s voice with a British accent begins to speak:

“The lapse occurs frequently.”

More chanting, growing louder.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

A pendulum swings. A timepiece. Fire burning in the night. The man’s voice returns, echoing:

“The lapse occurs frequently. Splinters of whole eternities compressed into hollow points. Glistening, impenetrable space.”

The chanting softens.

“F o t o m e c u s…”

The fire continues burning. Hands and figures, dimmed by darkness, cast in shadows.

“Everything we’ve ever done, or will ever do.”

The pressured hiss returns, adding urgency to the ceaseless drone.

“FO-TO-ME-CUS!”

The screen bleeds to white, with the black sigil superimposed, the camera unstable, and then the sigil fades back to the scene with the clock above the bus. Over the chanting and hissing, the man’s voice returns:

“Sips from the cup of memories you thought were round.”

The screen fades to white again, and in banal black font, it once again reads:

Fotamecus
Film Majik

A new white screen appears, mid-drone, with different tired black letters:

Glimpse of a 30 minute film
Under Construction
The date reads, 2002

The electronic distortion transforms into softer, rain-stick sounds, as the white warms to ochre, red, and sepia as the child’s face returns. Hazel’s face, dark-haired and messy, round of cheeks, moving as she babbles. “Remember this feeling,” the faceless narrator says. “These sights and sounds.”

The screen fades back to white, with black letters:

Directed by
Keyman

Produced by
INDIFFERENCE
PRODUCTIONS

And then at the bottom, there is a web address:

www.indifference.demon.co/u/fotomecus

As the soft chanting continues, a final scene of a child walking away, her back to the camera, her first day at school, her reflection wavering against the polished floor. The screen fades to black.
As the television screen grows dark and silent, the familiar sounds and sights of the laundromat return. In the corner, the ‘other’ TV continues to play Time Machine to the patron drones. Glancing to the corner, she sees that time has lapsed far more than she thought, the image of the morlocks suggesting at least an hour, if not 800,801 years.

Morlocks.jpg

Hazel: Hazel’s brow furrows as the bizarre montage begins, and furrows only deeper as it continues. She recognizes some of the names and symbols. But the order and significance of the seemingly random selection of images is lost on her. Time is a fluid, tricky thing to meddle with. It gives authors headaches trying to write for—really write for—and raises an infinitude of paradoxical questions. Hazel frankly doesn’t have the patience for it. Time should be a linear, static thing. A unit of measurement and no more. Further alterations are simply too inconvenient to quantify.

But of the three lint-lined tickets, she chose this one. She looks towards the TV-headed figure. “What is the significance of these images?”

GM: It reaches up and clicks a dial, changing its channel. On the screen is a feed of a black-green cat trapped in static. It turns, as if seeing Hazel and rushes forward till its own monitor-black eyes fill the screen.

still_taste.jpg

Hazel: Concern briefly flickers across her features at the feline’s state. But it was the one who said she had its sympathies. It’s… probably all right.

“We are defined by our pasts,” she answers.

GM: The TV figure nods.

Hazel: “The taste is impossible to fully expunge.”

GM: It nods again, and the whole laundromat echoes as all of the many heads within the machines speak in unison: “We are the same. The cycle repeats.”

Hazel: “It may be concealed beneath other tastes, but it is better to learn to live with the past and to appreciate its distinctive flavor. I enjoy the taste of my own past. I have considered many hypothetical and might-have-been scenarios recently, but they are an ultimately fruitless use of one’s energies. My past has made me the woman I am today. I am proud to be that woman.”

GM: Their voices drone again, even as some gurgle as their heads are washed and scrambled and cleaned. “We are the same. The cycle repeats.”

The TV-headed figure, meanwhile, reaches into its pocket and draws out two one-dollar bills that are as creased as its work-worn, sleepless shirt.

Hazel: Hazel accepts the bills with a perhaps needless “Thank you,” and makes her way over to the vending machines.

GM: The backlit vending machine is nearly empty, exposing rows and rows of metalline spirals. Three options, each costing a bill, remain. Hazel notes that the vending machine has been manufactured by a subsidiary of Metaphysic Trinity Incorporated, one Weaver Industries.

Hazel: The god in the machine. She pauses for a moment to admire the symmetry in one of the corporation’s three subsidiaries offering three options.

GM: Those options comprise a cut-out box cradling a light bulb. The bulb’s wiring, however, has been replaced with living, pumping blood vessels that create an umbilical cord to a fetus that floats within the glass-contained amniotic fluid. LIFEBULB, its box declares.

Hazel: She hopes she doesn’t have to eat it.

GM: Beside it is a table-sized Scrabble box whose tiles are printed with periodic table abbreviations. The box features a ’50s housewife smiling beside a printed caption: Because table manners matter! On its side, the box also boasts, Now with enriched ununquadium!

Hazel: She regards it with faint amusement before turning her gaze upon the third and final option.

GM: The final is a glass Jolt Cola bottle. Rather than dark, carbonated, and highly caffeinated soda, the bottle contains flickering lightning bolts.

Hazel: Hazel feeds the dollar bills in to the machine, selecting the grisly fetus and lightning-filled soda bottle.

GM: The vending machines buzzes, clanks, and rattles as it delivers Hazel’s purchases.

Hazel: She pulls them out from the slot at the bottom and turns to regard the TV-faced figure.

GM: Hazel is started to find the figure just inches from her. Yet, as she turns around, she is not ‘face–to–face’ with the glass screen, but instead to the opened rear of the television set. Although no mechanical virtuoso, Hazel nonetheless notices that the projector bulb is missing. Additionally, where once there was a power cord, there is a now an empty hole, a plastic-rimmed orifice.

Hazel: The figure’s abrupt appearance makes her clench hold of her ‘purchases’ to stop from dropping them. “Your head is missing several essential electronic components,” she observes.

GM: The figure does not refute the observation, but–true to its earlier statement–waits.

Hazel: Hazel inserts the fetus-filled bulb and lightning-filled Cola bottle into the appropriate locations on the TV.

GM: As she finishes installing the Lifebulb and emptying the Jolt Cola, Hazes feels the surge of power rush into the TV-headed figure. Quintessence emanates from it like the corona of Sol, a halo and palpable radiation of cosmic life and energies. Against the supernal brilliance, the laundromat dims like an over-exposed image.

And Hazel can taste it–the sweet and terrible nectar of two of the sefirot. She feels it in the heat and shadows of her skin, the infinitesimal growth of hair and nails, the jack-hammer of her heart, and the tides of sanguine rivers that flow throughout her body. She senses it the acid which burns like a chemical sun at her center, strengthening her vitality, delaying the slow, entropic death which seeks to unravel her pattern. She feels it in the reproductive pulse of her sex, the gravitational weight of her viscera and bones, the electrochemical storm racing through her neurons, and the quickening of her lung’s alveoli, a whole forest of life weathering a microcosmic cycle of hurricanes that maintain the secret art of homeostasis.

Hazel: She’ll be ashamed to say so later, but she flinches from that cascading rush of energies at first. The memory of the last quintessence she inhaled is still all-too fresh.

But that instinctive aversion lasts for only a moment. Those previous floodwaters were as a firehose being blasted down her throat at full pressure. This is a tall jug of ice-cold water on a hot summer day. Hazel raises it to her lips and drinks deep. Deep, and without fear.

The heat pulsing beneath her skin is extraordinary. It’s amazing to think just how much thermal power there is in the human body. It’s so internally warm that draping someone under enough layers of woven fibers can make them sweat like on a blisteringly hot day. It’s amazing to think just how much warmth there is in the world, period. She could call it up in the palm of her hand, make the exothermic process of combustion a plaything for her amusement. Or a weapon against her foes.

I don’t look like a fire, Mom. I could be one.

GM: As Hazel awakens to that inner flame, she opens her eyes to find herself back within the Chamber. The chairs and their portraits remain, but nine other objects are now present as well. Nine, plus the television-headed figure which stands behind the seated Hazel. The nine objects are arrayed in the configuration of the sefirot-fruit of Metaphysical Tree of Life, with Hazel at its grand conjunction.

Hazel: The sensations coursing through her body still leave her almost giddy. Her hands trace her flesh as she silently marvels at the simple, extraordinary efficiency of her own biological functions. The human body is infinitely more complex than any computer, than any theorem of Dee’s. It’s genius, it’s made in the image of godhead. She wants to worship it by stroking herself to climax right then and there—fuck, how long has it been since she last got off? Not since before…

But she forces herself back to the present as she observes the changes to the Chamber. Nine fruits. The three threes. A trinity of mathematical perfection.

Three of them look familiar to now, too. She has sunk her teeth past their skin, savored their just-right texture, and drunk their sweet juices.

And there are so many more… she wonders, if she ate them all, would the mythical tenth at last sprout from some unseen branch…?

Ah, and even these three she has tasted, she could yet savor even more deeply! She’s barely even broken past their skin. It’s staggering to contemplate just how much knowledge hangs from that tree’s boughs. It’s a wonder that the great branches don’t snap beneath the sheer weight of their bounty. It’d be a marvel for the ages if could… know all of that knowledge within one lifetime—and it’s a challenge she relishes. Here, at last, is absolute knowledge of all that ever was, is, and shall be.

Hers for the taking.

Hers for the claiming.

She licks her lips and turns in her seat to face the television-headed figure. “I wish to taste more fruits. What must I do?”

GM: The figure’s response types out letter–by–letter on its screen ‘face’. The other nine objects are also silent. Nine.

Dinner salt shaker.

Tarot trump card, the Sun, XIX of the Major Arcana, with its nubile male and female twins grasping hands beneath an anthropomorphized sun and field of sunflowers.

Greasy box of O’Dribbles, the inner lid of which has been scribbled with silvery ink.

Elk’s skull with a bullethole.

Sacrament wafer from the Church of the Almighty Shadow.

Generic Shop-Plus bottled water.

Police-issue flashlight with a faded Junior Deputies Club sticker wrapped around the handle.

Digital watch with a countdown in progress.

Ripped out page of a Latin Vulgate Bible.

Hazel: Those seven letters are not new. Hazel’s eyes scan back and forth between the rows of objects, but the pattern and meaning to them is not yet apparent. Still, the cat’s earlier words are also fresh in her mind. “I am ready to proceed through the door to the inner mysteries. Or are there further impurities I may yet dissolve within the Chamber?”

GM: The television-headed figure clicks another dial, causing the screen to flicker, then resolve into a distant picture of a stoplight. The angle zooms in, as the light changes to an electronic yellow. A message superimposes over the grainy image as it cycles in a tight loop.

is_this_mind_yours.gif

Hazel: “Yes,” Hazel instinctively answers. “It is possible, if not probable, that external forces and figures have tampered with it. But it is mine by right, and I shall fight to ensure that it remains so.”

GM: The figure neither gainsays nor concurs, but waits for the evidence to assert itself.

Hazel: “I am not finished within the Chamber,” Hazel replies. “I have not reflected on the nature of death and the dissolution of my impurities. I have made choices, certainly. There is enough of the Wyld in me to not believe my fate is wholly predetermined. I have aligned my essence to one of the metaphysical Trinity. I have gazed upon the great Tree and further savored its fruits. But I have not purified my inner self through the contemplation of mortality—not within the Chamber.”

Without further word, and with minimal further action, Hazel sits upon the not-space her mind corresponds to the floor.

“You may assist me in this endeavor by volunteering images or objects of my death and personal failings. But the core of the effort shall be through simple contemplation and reflection.” She sits cross-legged, closes her eyes, and takes a slow inward breath. Meditation features prominently in many mystic traditions. Her own personal use of the practice has been more limited. But not nonexistent.

Meditation was one of the first exercises she and her mom did together in yoga class. All… how many classes did they attend together before Lydia threw her to Mrs. Vosburg? Hazel had pretended to fall asleep during the first group meditation. She was seventeen. She wasn’t so brattish as to refuse to get up when her mom nudged her perhaps harder than was strictly necessary. But she was just brattish enough to still make Lydia do so.

She feels a pang of guilt over that. And realizes it’s as good a place as any to begin.

What were her failings then? In a word, childish stubbornness. Vindictiveness. She resented her parents for catching on to her PE lying. She was angry they were still making her take a class after she’d made up for the independent class she lied about, by walking—then biking—between their houses all summer long. She was angry at them and wanted to lash out. She was irrational, too. They weren’t making her take PE. The jig was up with Coach Ross. She couldn’t well claim to walk home while taking the bus again. They’d just wanted to make sure she graduated. If they could’ve waived the PE requirement any more than her IEP already allowed, she’s sure they would have.

For all the reverence with which she held level-headedness and rationality as personal virtues, she had not acted terribly rational. That’s another hard truth to be face. She might have idolized Mr. Spock as a child, but she can be a very far cry from logical sometimes. She is easily provoked and driven to respond with acerbic words and actions that alienate others. She wonders how things might have gone if she hadn’t been so openly rude to Mackenzie during their last meeting.

Part of her instantly stiffens at that notion. Mackenzie is a… she takes several deep breaths, attempting to quell her instinctive ire. Her old classmate’s behavior isn’t the issue. It’s hers. Mackenzie might have been a bitch, but she wasn’t wanting for company. Would a more tactful approach have secured her a meeting with a doctor who could have admitted visitors? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But logic dictates the odds would have been higher.

What, then, did she ultimately want out of her interaction with Mackenzie? No contemplation at all is necessary to arrive at her answer. To see her parents! What could possibly have come close in importance? She needed to comfort them and assure that she was all right—well, relatively speaking—to assuage their doubtlessly considerable anxiety. She needed to find out her legal status, too. Whether she had been arrested or institutionalized for…

Her train of thought comes to a crashing halt.

Well. She is supposed to contemplate mortality.

She tidies the previous corner of her mental house with one final admission—her actions with Mackenzie were non-conductive to her goals. She did not behave in a logical manner. Now it is time to consider the Sweeneys.

She almost doesn’t want to. Wants to bury that horrible thought out of sight and out of mind, forever—Just like she tried with their bodies? Her face flushes with shame. She takes several further calming breaths. The truth will always come out. Her heart goes out to that couple—for what pittance her sympathies may be worth. They seemed nice. They’d lost a daughter already. It feels especially wrong, to visit further pain upon those already in pain. Of course, they had other children. That does not diminish the pain of their loss, but could at least have meant they weathered it better.

How will her parents weather her loss—a seemingly all-too probable outcome, at either the hands of the criminal justice system or her undead nemesis? If he even wants to kill her at this point. Her life has quite possibly been irrevocably destroyed as it is. He’s one to savor his victims’ pain and fear. What’s the most sadistic way he could destroy her? Expose her as a murderer. Destroy her relationship with her parents. Drag her name through the mud. Torment her with guilt for her crimes. Drag things out as long as possible. Have a full trial. Make her family go through it all, to the unanimous “guilty” verdict at the end.

Maybe she would plead insanity. Lock her away in the mental institutions she’s always so feared. That’s mortality to contemplate if there ever was. Spending the rest of her life in a padded room. In one of the straitjackets the coathanger figure said she might like. She pictures herself, physically. Oh, they’d still feed her, exercise her, of that much she’s sure. Her parents would try to get her put away somewhere nice. But people in those places, the ones there for life, the ones who hate being there—they decay. First inside. Then outside. Their eyes dim. Their faces grow gaunt. Their hair thins. They scream and cry and throw fits at first. They get sedated and locked up. Lose privileges. The nurses take a disliking to them. Their fire runs out. All fire does without a fuel source. They settle down. Or they kill themselves.

Hazel thinks about killing herself. There are merits to the idea under such circumstances. The thought of her seventy-year-old self in a straitjacket, eyes feeble, drooling like an infant and barely aware past the drugs, is too horrible to bear. Better to end her life on her own terms. But the pain it would bring her parents… first a trial, then a conviction, then institutionalization, then suicide. She couldn’t think of a more horrible sequence of events to inflict on them. Maybe she could compromise. Kill herself after they died. That’s how many more decades?

She read an account from another autistic girl about suicide under similar circumstances. The girl had been unable to form any interpersonal relationships outside of her own family. So she told her parents that she would kill herself after they were dead. She didn’t want to go through life alone.

Hazel found her assertion illogical. The girl could have had herself artificially inseminated. She’d told her parents several times she meant to do that herself, just in case she never found a life partner. Her mom and dad will die eventually. But it’s not that she herself didn’t want to be lonely. She struggles for a moment to articulate the thought. Her parents were… are… good to her. She would like to… pass that on. She’s not been very good at articulating her desire to have children. She’d previously wondered aloud if it was simply biological instinct. Life is driven to reproduce. Her parents just said her heart was in a good place and the words would come to her later.

There seemed something… sacred in that. The simple fact of human life propagating further human life. Families stretching across the years and generations. Stability. Continuity. Virtues that have always been cardinal ones to her. Hazel considers where she fits in that great chain. Her. Her mother. So much alike, where it counts. Her mother’s father, and yes, Lydia is a great deal like him, even down to her j—

She pauses in her thought. She’s literally looking backwards. Forwards… she sees that great chain sundering. Herself as the last, broken link. Broken by her nemesis. Broken by her own crimes. No! No. Not if she has anything to say about it. The thought of her death and her parents’ grief does not merely seem a crime against their persons. It seems a crime against nature itself. A crime against existence. Against reality. How dare that dead, lifeless mannequin threaten her family!

But how dare she, imperiling her life and her parents’ lives by—no. She might remember killing the Sweeneys. But she can fathom absolutely no reason why—why she would threaten herself, her parents, with such a senselessly abhorrent act! She doesn’t remember any of the preceding events. How the hell did those parts wind up in her bedroom? How the hell did her nemesis know where to find them? And when did she even get the opportunity to kill them? After all, they corresponded entirely by-

Hazel pauses. By letters. Always by letters.

And the postcards. That would be a very unusual form of self-deception. The corpses swim before her eyes. The blood on her own hands. Yes, yes, she remembers that

Right when she met her nemesis, face to face? His involvement in this entire affair is beyond suspicious. How would he have known she killed them? When would she have had opportunity to kill them, corresponding entirely by post? And who sent those fucking postcards? Hazel feels as if her head is about to split open from the cognitive dissonance. She irritably snaps it shut. She won’t go mad. Not when she doesn’t know the full story. Like whether those letters were even theirs. Whether the handwriting even matches.

Why was her nemesis even interested in her? Because of her looks? There are prettier girls, and even more accessible girls, than her he could have preyed upon in Witiko Falls. How would he have even known she was coming back, if it was him? The police can’t answer those questions. The entire investigation was hobbled before it could even begin.

No. She’s not submitting to the law. Even if she did murder the Sweeneys—not yet. The possibility she might kill again is too significant not to address. She will confide the truth, again, in Leo. Someone to keep an eye on her while she discovers the truth. The full truth. And the truth is, she doesn’t want to go to prison. Not for her own sake. For her parents’. She could never put them through that. If she is a murderer, she will find a way to stop herself from ever again killing. She will not give up. She will not meekly submit to the law, remove herself from society so as to minimize the danger she poses to other lives. She will put an end to that danger herself. She has eaten of the great Tree’s fruits. She has power the likes of which she might have scarce previously imagined. She will not seek to control others with it—but herself. It’s as Leo said. As Plato said.

The first and best victory is to conquer self.

She will not kill again. Never again. And she will not destroy her family’s lives. She will not sunder the great chain. And she will be honest, too. Someone truly concerned with the welfare of one’s fellow men might give themselves up. Turn themselves in. Oh, certainly, there is validity to her argument that the full story must be discovered, the full truth made known. But that isn’t the real reason. The truth is, Hazel admits aloud,

“I would kill to preserve my parents and family.”

She contemplates that, then continues, “I would not merely choose their lives if the alternative was the deaths of two strangers. I would kill many strangers if that was necessary to preserve their lives. I would never kill for its own sake. I am not a murderer. I am not a monster. But I would become one if I deemed it necessary to protect my family.”

“And perhaps,” she finishes quietly, “I already have.”

The silence after the declaration stretches. Then anger flashes across her face. “No.”

“I am not a monster. I am not a saint. I am merely human. Human enough to feel pain over their deaths. Human enough to believe their lives had independent and intrinsic value. Human enough that I would never seek to harm those lives—”

“—save,” she continues grimly through her lidded eyes, “in defense of family’s. And yes, I am human enough to wish to get away with murder—if indeed I am the sole culprit—so that I might better shelter and protect my family’s lives. I will uncover the truth behind the Sweeneys’ murders. If my nemesis is responsible, I will bring him to justice. And if I am solely responsible, I will sabotage the investigation and absolve myself of guilt in the eyes of the law. My parents will put this entire nightmare behind them. I will ensure that another one never occurs. We will continue to be a family, and nothing shall ever break us apart.”

“I will not permit it. For I have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and as I pursue that knowledge to catapult myself to Ascension—yes, to taste the tenth transcendent fruit!—I shall use its power to destroy all threats to my family, swiftly and without mercy. I shall lay Marilyn’s spirit to rest. I am human enough to have that much compassion.”

Hazel’s eyes remain closed, but a smile spreads across her face. “You have failed, Valentin Vladescu. If you sought to cripple me with guilt, to shatter my will to live and fight, you should have had me murder my parents. I accept that I may have killed the Sweeneys. I am sorry, if I did. I wish that I did not. But that regret no longer holds power over me. It does not deter me from my present course of action.”

Attila stands up. Her open eyes flash like the lighting now at her command as she roars, “I am Hazel Calloway Attila Bauman—I shall pluck the tenth fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and love my family as fiercely as I shall protect them—and woe to any who would stand in my path!”

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Phase II, Case File 2.03

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.05.1998, Monday evening

GM: “Choke on my fucking tiger-balls, Flawsen!” As the truck full of Falls High football players drives by, Wilson Perry adds a pair of middle fingers to his ‘greeting’. When Kurt finally exits the Scarecrow, Wilson hops down from the trash can and turns to regard his best friend. Middle fingers still extended, Wilson gives a chin-thrust ‘greeting’. “Sup, fart-knocker.”

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Apart from his flat-brim baseball cap, Wilson Perry wears several ‘hats’ in the small rural town. Fall’s High star baseball pitcher. Satyr-hunting senior. St. Enoch Crips drug-dealer. And most saliently to the now off-duty cinema worker, Kurt Crawford’s best friend.

Several years have passed since Wilson first welcomed Kurt into Saint Enoch’s Tower. Since then, Wilson has gained a trimmed but still scruffy teenager’s beard and an increasing number of tattoos marking his rising status amongst the Crips. Tonight, the popular if notorious nineteen–year–old’s entourage numbers four, excluding Kurt.

The youngest is Adam Pendergrass. Multi-generation residents of Witiko Falls following the Great Potato Famine of Ireland, the Pendergrass’ spent decades and dozens of lives spelunking the local caverns in search of gold. Yet, it wasn’t until Nostrum came that the Welsh-American family finally struck it rich–ish. When the plant’s chemical waste caused the Pendergrass’ lobotomized cattle to mutate and produce hallucinogenic milk, the pharmaceutical company settled out of court to purchase both the Pendergrass’ ranch and their silence.

With that dubiously fortuitous windfall, the Pendergrass family bought up a bed–and–breakfast, an ice-cream shop, and the local O’Tolley’s. Since then, only the last has proved reliably profitable. The exact details (and dollars) of the Nostrum–Pendergrass settlement remain a persistent topic of local bar gossip, and it similarly is unknown whether the family has since squandered such monies or hid them away like the cave-gold for which they once searched.

Heir to such history, gossip, and small-town fortune, Adam Pendergrass is a fifteen–year–old Falls High sophomore. Like all long-time natives, Adam possesses the distinct anisocoria of the town’s eponymous ‘Witiko eyes’. A less common condition is the life-long, scaly psoriasis that afflicts his arms and legs, which in Lame Bull earned him the pejorative nickname of ‘Lizard Boy’ which has since evolved into the debatable euphemism-sobriquet of ‘Lizzy’.

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Apart from said defects, Adam is otherwise a handsome young man with symmetrical, athletic features including short-brown hair, chiseled chin, and muscles toned on Falls High’s basketball court, baseball diamond, and track field. Tonight, the talented jock wears his favorite hoodie: a dark green garment whose front is embroidered with Y Ddraig Goch, the Welsh Red Wyrm, and back has the Kelpies’ mascot. Beneath the hooded sweatshirt, Adam is dressed in baggy jeans, expensive tennis shoes bought from Coer d’Alene, and a chain wallet.

“Sup,” Adam says, mimicking Wilson in a quieter, less confident tone.

The girl between Adam and Wilson instead settles for a vague smile. Kristy Hodges.

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A fifth–floor resident of the Towers, Kurt’s and Wilson’s neighbor is a pudgy senior who stands a half–head taller than the basketball captain. To ward off the cold, she wears a heavy V-neck sweater over what is likely her brother’s or father’s hand–me–down plaid dress-shirt. Her bare goose-pimpled legs, however, shiver slightly under her skirt. Her blonde bangs hang limply over her dilated eyes, while the rest of her hair is tied back in a short ponytail with blue scrunchie that Kurt knows is worn more to reduce gang harassment than denote true allegiance.

Beyond her lackadaisical graffiti art and membership in the Lucid Dreamers Club, Kristy Hodges is ‘best’ known locally as being an easy lay who is happy–or at least dispassionately willing–to exchange sexual favors for pot, angel dust, or LSD. This reputation, as well as her love of donuts and other sweets, has led cruel Towers’ kids and high schoolers to refer to her as Kristy Kreme. It’s honestly hard to tell if the oft-stoned girl cares.

The remaining two teens are less familiar to Kurt, but not unknown. Sunukkuhkau ‘Sunny’ Dusty-Bull and Casie Saunders.

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Son of Makkapitew Dusty-Bull, the former rodeo champion and current head of security at the Beavertail Casino, the sixteen–year–old Sunny is a junior at Falls High. Clearly one of the ‘haves’ on the reservation, Sunny wears new western dudes including a black stetson that’s just slightly too big for freshly barbered hair, a dark denim coat with lamb-wool lining, and stonewashed jeans tucked into a pair of red cowboy boots tooled with images of horned serpents, arrowheads, and lightning bolts. A half-smoked cigarette smolders weakly in his mouth as he gives Kurt a nod, even as he pulls his new girlfriend around him in a braggadocio or at least possessive manner.

That girlfriend, Casie Saunders, leans into the embrace and holds Sunny’s hand lightly as she whispers something into his ear, making the Blackfoot teen smirk. A senior at Falls High, Casie Saunders is the adopted daughter of the decently well-off Britters of the Blue Mooncalf dairy farm. With long, bright–blonde hair and buxom curves, Casie (who despises being called Cassie) is more likely to be a Virtue than Nymph at this year’s prom. Tonight, she dresses in a tight jeans, western boots, and a fitted black, belted blouse-jacket embroidered with sunflowers.

Sunny takes a last drag of his cigarette and tosses it to the curb. He turns to Wilson. “All right, I’m in.”

Wilson smiles wide, dropping his middle fingers to ‘shoot’ Sunny a wink as he exclaims, “Sunny-D! I knew you weren’t a bull-shiznit tease.”

Kurt: Kurt greets everyone with a casual, friendly smile, nodding his head in acknowledgement as he stands closest to Wilson. Kurt’s short stature is a strange contrast to Wilson’s more solid, taller frame. Nonetheless, Kurt doesn’t look out of place as he tucks his hands into his jean pockets and listens to the exchange between Sunny and Wilson.

“What’s happening?” he asks, looking up at Wilson for answers with a half-amused smile.

GM: Wilson nudges Adam. “Give my home-skillet the 4–1–1.” The former then waves for the rest of the group, but Sunny specifically, to follow him to his parked ‘97 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS, informally known amongst Wilson’s circle as ‘The Prez’. Although lacking the gold rims long coveted by Wilson, his dark green sports coupé–with its hood vents, hood scoop, and rally-inspired rear spoiler–is one of the flashiest set of wheels owned by a Falls High student, especially one whose single parent household is officially unemployed. Currently, the Prez rests under a dusting of snow half-melted by the Scarecrow’s marquee lights.

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As Wilson unlocks his car and fishes for something tucked under the driver’s seat, Adam explains, “Casie’s folks are going out of town next week for some, uh, like cow convention or something. So we’re going to throw a big party at her house.”

Casie smiles at Kurt. “For Homecoming.”

While Kristy leans against the Prez and stares dazedly up at the marquee lights, Wilson gives Sunny a small, stuffed paper bag, then shouts out to Kurt, “It’s gonna be tranny-fucking crank! Whole school, with plenty of heady nuggets, boating, cow rodeo racing, and now all the booze we can drink courtesy of the casino. It’s gonna be slick as frozen shit in a blizzard. It’s gonna make Flawsen’s party look like a fugly Dewey Decimal lecture by Mrs. Griswold!”

“I thought the librarian was dead?” Adam half-asks.

“Whatever, who gives a shit?” Wilson replies with an irritated look as Sunny checks the paper bag’s contents. Still staring up at the lights, Kristy interjects slowly, “I think… it’d be cool to have a class taught by… a ghost…”

Wilson gives another increasingly annoyed look at both Adam and Kristy. “What the fuck is wrong with you two? I slip you the retard dubs?” Wilson looks to his best friend, his tone an odd mix of trying to simultaneously convey and seek assurances. “It’s gonna be off the chain.” Sunny and Casie both glance at Kurt, expectantly.

Kurt: Kurt’s lazy smirk turns into a big smile as he nods at his best friend’s explanation. “I gotta say this could be up there with the great underwear raid of ’96, Wilson,” Kurt answers with a wistful, almost-starry-eyed look of approval. “Fucking awesome.”

GM: Wilson’s face explodes into a smile. “Tranny-mag spanking hot!” He flicks out his cigarette and swings an arm affectionately around Kurt. “I swear I could jerk and suck you off right here and now, Count Kuuuuuuuurrrtttt!” The last part is all but roared in Kurt’s ear.

Kurt: Kurt winces a little at the volume, but that impish grin remains.

GM: Adam gives a shrug that slides into a nod, especially as Sunny and Casey smile and laugh in agreement–especially after Kurt’s remark prompts Kristy to dazedly ask, “Where’s my underwear, anyway?”

Still smirking, Sunny gives the two captains a parting nod and fist bump. “All right players, Casey and I gotta go, but we’ll be in touch.”

“Bye, guys,” Casie says with a warm smile and a light wave.

Kurt: Kurt smiles cheerfully at the pair as they take their leave. He struggles to hold back a small chuckle once they are out of earshot. “I can’t be the only one wondering how Sunny managed to get a girl like Casie,” Kurt says a little cheekily, eyes twinkling.

GM: Adam gives another shrug but watches as Sunny and Casie drive off in his red-striped Bronco. Flashing Kurt a wink, Wilson slides a hand up and down on his other wrist. “Mother-fucker’s hung like a mud-bone bull.”

“Maybe she likes his poetry?” Kristy mumbles, once again staring at the parking lot lights.

Wilson raises an eyebrow at the remaining pair of guys. It’s unclear if pity or impatience makes him fold back a seat for the still-leg shivering girl to get in the Prez. As the large girl squeezes in rather ungracefully, Wilson begins pantomiming various ‘acts’.

His show, to which Kristy seems oblivious, is interrupted as Adam moves to the other side and yells out “Shotgun!”

“You bugg’n, Lizzy,” Wilson shouts back. “Kurt rides shotgun, so get your ass in the back.”

Adam directs a dirty look to the asphalt, but hops into the back beside Kristy. As Wilson himself slip in behind the wheel, he gives his best friend a lewd smile. “Speaking of hung bastards popping cherries, what’s the deal with you and Morgan? You tag that yet?”

“He just broke up with Felicity?” protests Adam from the back, but still leans forward to hear Kurt’s reply.

“Wha…you… Felicity broke up?” Kristy says, her dilated eyes opening. “I thought…. she was sick…”

Wilson snickers into his hand as he turns the ignition and whispers, “Kreme’s straight up dusted…” He then looks back to Kurt, as if awaiting a reply as he peels out of the Scarecrow’s lot. A blue catering van has to swerve violently to avoid Wilson’s laissez-faire attitude towards stop signs. “Well?”

Kurt: “It’s complicated.”

GM: The other three teens remain silent, clearly expecting or wanting more.

Kurt: Kurt sighs and rolls his eyes, buckling under peer pressure. “Felicity and I broke up the other day. She was getting weird and controlling.” Kurt adds, “I am still working up the courage to ask Morgan out on a date. Man, I don’t even know if I should wait a bit, though.” This last bit is more so directed at Wilson as Kurt tacitly looks for advice from the baseball captain.

GM: Adam starts to reply, but is interrupted by Kristy, who begins singing–badly–the lyrics to Hold On Loosely.

“You see it all around you,
Good loving gone bad,
And usually it’s too late when you
Realize what you had…”

Wilson ignores her, blazing through another stop sign.

“Uhh, you missed the stop,” Adam remarks at the flagrant traffic violation.

“Don’t get your panties all wet, Lizzy,” Wilson says as he lights up another cigarette. “I told you, the stop signs with white borders are optional. Suggestions.”

Kristy continues to sing, her eyes shut once again:

“Just hold on loosely but don’t let… go.
If you cling too tightly,
You’re gonna lose control.
Your baby needs someone to believe in,
And a whole lot of space to breathe in.”

Wilson flings his zippo on the dash, cracks the window, and takes a puff before turning back to Kurt. “Dawg to dawg, you should invite Morgue Morgana to Casie’s crib next week. It’s gonna be banging!” Wilson’s eyes shine with excitement, having long since tuned out Kristy’s singing:

“It’s so damn easy,
When your feelings are such,
To overprotect..,
To love… too much…”

Adam breaks in again. “I should invite somebody too, but like, I don’t know.. Abby Merkle? Veronica’s hot but…” The sophomore looks to the two male seniors for advice.

Kristy keeps carrying her tune–badly: “Sentimental fool… don’t let your heart get in her way… yeah, yeah… yeah…” The singing turns to snoring.

Kurt: “I’d go Veronica. Who cares if she’s a headcase?” Kurt offers with a hint of sarcasm, smiling devilishly. “We all need a little crazy our life.”

GM: “Word,” Wilson says as the Prez races past the still-open Shop-Plus. “Like, it’ll drive her sis’ apeshit-fucking nuts. I mean, we get Veronica to come to the party with Lizzy, and her Bernie will be so bugging’, she’s well likely to dip out of Flatness’ party, just to make sure her baby sister doesn’t bring home reptile AIDs or some shit.”

“No offense,” the senior says with a casual glance to Adam in backseat. Taking another drag, he turns back to Kurt and excitedly continues: “Like, if Bernie dips, you know she’ll try dragging her pencil-dick meathead boyfriend. So either Chuck-turd tries to stop her and they have it out and she’s sulking, or she pussy-whips him into dipping out with her and leaving Flawsen one less lieutenant ass-hat. Either way, Flawsen’s vibes are harshed bad.” Wilson blows out another stream of smoke through his window. “Kurt, you’re a fu-uuuucking genius.”

“Yeah, but like how do I get her to say ‘yes’ then, or not bail?” Adam asks in the backseat somewhat irritably. "Like once her sister finds out… right?

Kurt: “Offer to buy her booze,” Kurt offers with a knowing smile.

GM: Adam’s voice crinkles like a furrowed brow. “You mean, buy alcohol for Veronica or for Bernice?”

Wilson starts to reply, but his words are cut short and followed by a stream of curses as a curb-side trashcan startlingly tips over into the road. Yanking the Prez’ steering wheel hard, the senior jolts his passengers as he swerves violently around the tipped over trash and rolling, metal lid, but the reflexive move causes him to drop his still-burning cigarette onto the interior floor mat.

“Mother-fucking-fag-ass!” Wilson shouts as he slams the brakes and begins stomping out the smoldering carpet and cigarette. Both of the back passengers, including the previously asleep Kristy, are slammed hard into the back of front seats, eliciting co-mingled groans and shouts.

Kurt: “Shit!” is all Kurt can help but yell.

GM: The basketball captain’s well-honed reflexes, however, save him from any insult or injury. Those same skills help him to spot the glint of a rifle barrel retracting back inside the slats of a nearby house’s attic window. Lit by a street lamp, the small building’s white-washed shingles have almost glow a mildewed gray. A narrow ramp leads up to a tight double-door reminiscent of a church, and the ecclesiastical resemblance is further solidified by the austere cross that tops the roof.

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Meanwhile, Kristy massages her mouth as if checking for loose teeth. “What the fu-?” she groans, as Adam catches Kurt’s backwards glance, but fails to spot the now-retracted rifle barrel.

Wilson, however, continues inspecting the tiny burn-mark on his floor-mat as he colorfully describes how he’s going to catch all the "shit-sucking garbage-bears and string them up as Homecoming piñatas.

Kurt: Kurt, fiddling with the glasses on his head, making sure they’re on his face right, makes a move to open the car door. The young man has his suspicions. “I’ll be a minute!” Kurt says, letting his friends know his intentions. “I need to check something!”

His eyes look from the attic window and then the trashcan that tipped itself onto the road. Nonetheless, Kurt’s eyes also dart around in search of something to act as a shield in case his suspicions are correct. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? Did somebody seriously shoot a trashcan? he asks himself, disbelievingly. He needed proof.

Proof! Kurt thinks, eventually reaching the trashcan. The bespectacled young man pulls the can upright, spotting a dint almost instantly on its side. He curses and frowns as he looks back up to the attic window. “I think some kid tried to shoot a BB-gun at us!” Kurt declares, angrily. Frowning, it’s then that Kurt recalls this house as the infamous Herod Hansen’ house.

GM: Looking up at the cross-topped house, Kurt recalls what he knows about the house, its infamous occupant, and the local scare-dare game he inspired. Glancing back at the still-parked car, Kurt remembers the first time his then-newfound friend, Wilson, told him of Herod Hansen and the Sinner’s Song.

07.20.1996, Saturday afternoon

GM: Kicking a dirt-clod, the beardless, tattoo-less Wilson remarks: “The way it goes, Herod’s parents were hard-core bible thumpers. I mean hard-core. Most people in Witiko Falls are Lutherans. But there are Lutherans, and then there’s crazy Hansen Lutherans. Story goes closer to fundamentalist Catholics than anything else. The Hansens were the family who were the first ones to arrive on Sunday and would sit through both services. Gave all their money to the church. Supposedly the pastor tried giving some of their money back to take better care of themselves–or something worded a bit more, uh, subtle-like or something. But of course, they refused.”

Wilson takes a swig of a two-liter bottle of generic cola and passes it to Kurt, continuing: “There were the other tales, too, sure. Stories about Herod getting beat and everything else you’d think of from horror movies with big, evil religious parents–except that his parents died, and Herod didn’t have anything to do with it. It was actually a carbon monoxide leak or something like that in their house, and Herod was away at church camp of all places. He was fifteen, or something like that, and became a ward of the state after that, but that didn’t really mean anything since some of the older members of the church took it upon themselves to do the good Christian thing, and took care of him, so he wouldn’t go off to a state orphanage.”

Wilson climbs up one of dirt-heaps adjacent to Saint Enoch’s Towers and looks out to orange-blistering sunset. “As you might have guessed, they probably should have let him go.” He kicks another clod, and listens to it fall away into the darkness as Kurt climbs up after him, then adds: “The way it goes, Herod didn’t talk after his parents died. Supposedly, he barely even talked as a kid in the first place–probably got beat for being evil or something. But after they passed away, he never talked: not a word. Almost two years without saying so much as a solitary sentence.”

“So the guy doesn’t talk for about two years, and then the story goes a revivalist comes to town. Tents and cookies and lemonade. And they talk with a southern twang, no matter how close to Canada we are. The preacher comes out shouting fire and brimstone, and most of the people sorta, you know, act polite, not really listening in true Witiko Falls passive-aggressive fashion.”

“But Herod, Herod stands up, hands raised to the sky like he hears and feels something the others don’t. Then, the choir starts singing. After that, well, after that, Herod started talking again, ‘Lord be praised’ or some shit, but not talking. Mumbling, sort of singing. All he would say were words from the song, over and over and over and over again. He’d go to school and do all the things he’d usually did, but he wouldn’t answer any questions or say anything that wasn’t singing that song.”

“At first, his teachers were just happy that he was saying anything, but then, how much of that shit can you listen to before it starts creeping you out. And depending on what version of the song you hear, there are multiple verses, but most say the same sorts of places. ‘Kneel to the rock, please hide them. Kneel to the river, please stop flowing. Kneel to the mount, please uncover. Kneel to the Lord, please forgive me. Kneel to the Devil, he was laughing’.” Wilson extends a hand for another kick-back of off-brand cola, then continues:

“See, freaky Herod, he believed that song. When he heard it, he heard something that other people didn’t. He… he heard a plan, I guess. See kids in shit-holes like here, especially before cable TV, they do all kinds of things to pass the time. If it isn’t trying to score weed or beer from their parents or older siblings, it’s making up some fucking fool game.”

“Like the Glutton,” Wilson adds, jerking a thumb back to the Towers. Taking another swig and squatting down atop the dirt-heap, he resumes his tale:

“Well, this game, the Sinner’s Song, it came straight from the story–at least the story as far as any of the kids knew it. The rules are simple enough. Wait till midnight. Of course. And then you gotta walk out into the woods without a flashlight. All you’re supposed to carry with you is a lighter.”

“As far as the story and the game are concerned, they found Herod’s adoptive mom. She was a town council treasurer. They found her body on the far side of a boulder. She’d been beaten to death, and he’d tried to shove her under the boulder. He supposedly broke her in half trying to do it.”

Pointing off to a rough area of the dark woods surrounding Witiko Falls, he says, “Speaking of which, the game is all about retracing foot-steps, so first you need to go to the boulder, kneel down, and say the line straight from the song, just like Herod would have done: ‘Please hide them’.”

Shifting his pointed hand a bit to the west, Wilson continues: “The river’s next. It’s only a hundred yards away. You wouldn’t know it unless you’re damned near standing near it. Something about the close-grown woods buffering out the sound or some shit.”

“Now as far as young Herod is concerned, they found his adoptive dad in the river. Or, well, over it. He had been gutted and slung from a tree that hung over the edge of the water. They say the blood was still dripping into the water when they found him. For the game, you need to wade out into the water, just a few steps. Dropping to your knees isn’t necessary, as you’d end up getting your pants soaked–and where’s the fun in that. Then you say the next part: ‘Please stop flowing’.”

Wilson checks his pockets, as if looking for something but finds them empty. “It’s at this point, that something must have gone off script. Because when his Sunday School teacher went missing, she was never found. The assumption is that she was buried somewhere out in the woods. But there wasn’t any specific place found in the song. The only reference is a mount–which is none too freaking helpful in these parts. Cops looked for weeks or months, but came up with squat. Her body was never found, even though there was evidence all over the house that there was a struggle, and they found plenty of Herod’s fingerprints there–in places a nice, casual visitor didn’t have any place being.” Wilson makes pantomimes a few lewd gestures, then smirks at Kurt. “Not very church-like, if you know what I’m saying.”

“For that part of the game, you just need to walk out into the woods, just a little farther, away from the river. Away from the boulder. Just far enough that you can’t see any lights of the town. It only takes a couple of minutes, then you drop to your knees, and then you do your best to imagine that poor woman’s grave right in front of you. And you say it, ‘Please uncover’.”

Wilson beats his chest with his fist, eliciting a long, cola burp that echoes into the night. “They finally tracked him down to what was hardly anything more than a sunk foundation of a church, just north of town, deeper in the woods. It probably hasn’t been a church for a hundred years, but everybody knows what it is, and as far as I know, it’s still there to this day.”

Standing up, Wilson begins demonstrating the next steps. “One you get there, you guessed it, drop down to your knees like it’s a good time to start praying.”

Wilson then looks at Kurt. “The stones are still blackened where he poured the gasoline on him before lighting the match. Supposedly he was still singing as he burned.”

“I’m a sinner, please forgive me.”
“I’m a sinner, please forgive me.”
“Please forgive me.”

Wilson grins self-deprecatingly at his horrible singing, but his expression turns ice-water cold as he continues: “At any point up till now, you could quit. Go home and lie and say you did it, and all that. But if you kneel in that church, and you say those words, you have to see it through.”

“If you say, ‘please forgive me’, and there isn’t any noise?–then God has forgiven you. Then, and only then, can you light the lighter you brought with you, and start up a candle or lantern or whatever that should have been left there before you set out at midnight.”

“However, here’s the kick in the teeth–if you hear a noise, that means God isn’t protecting you, and questions your faith, and you cannot light that lighter. In that case, you gotta wait until the sun comes up and then walk home. Don’t fucking leave the outline of the building no matter what you hear. If you light the lighter, the devil himself will be there, and he’ll be laughing at how dumb-fuck-ass you are for playing the game as he drags you to hell.”

Wilson stands up, dusting off the dirt from his already grass-stained jeans. “So that’s Herod Hansen and the Sinner’s Song, least as I heard it. What about you, Kurt? You farm-boys have any weird games like cow-tipping or bull-milking?” He grins. “Or you know, we could talk about something else, like, your sister’s bra size…”

10.05.1998, Monday night

GM: Back in the cold autumn night of the present, Kurt watches as his bearded, tattooed best friend bursts from the Prez, baseball bat in hand. “Kurt! You wigging, bro–get away from that trash can! Garbage bears ain’t no fucking joke!”

From the car’s rearview window, Adam and Kristy peer back at Kurt. The former’s voice can be heard from the open doors. “They got rabies and stuff, Kurt!”

“Other diseases too from eating trash,” adds the latter.

All three seem oblivious to Kurt’s remark about a BB gun. However, Kristy’s comment about ‘eating trash’ helps Kurt come to another realization: the can outside of the old Herod Hansen house was full of trash–including recent food waste.

Kurt: Kurt appears conflicted, second-guessing his desire to investigate after his latest realisation about the full trashcan. The young man decides to speedily run back to the car. “Fuck this!” he yelps, covering. “That’s the Herod Hansen house!”

GM: The mention of Herod Hansen draws a round of shocked gasps inside the car. Wilson, looking up at the house for the first time, affirms Kurt’s declaration with a flash of recognition, followed by trepidation. “Oh snap,” he shouts, swinging his baseball bat around as if covering Kurt’s retreat.
“Let’s dip, bitches!” he adds as both of the seniors jump into the front seats. No sooner does Wilson floor the Prez though, does the sharp ping of cracked glass rattle the rear windshield.

“Someone just shot at us!” Adam cries in alarm.

“It’s like we’re JFK and Camelot is dying in the backseat,” Kristy huffs, then breaks into hypomanic laughter.

Wilson’s reply is a steady stream of shouted curses as his foot slips off the gas, only to slam down again. As the Prez tears down the street, burning rubber, the car’s interior is filled with chaotic shouting amidst its occupants. Blood pumping Kurt’s ears, he is dimly aware of the verbal clamor as he notices that something is stuck to his right tennis shoe. It’s a letter, or the crumpled, sticky remains of one left to marinate next to opened tomato soup cans and banana peels. The thing nearly disintegrates as Kurt pulls it off his shoe’s rubber heel, but the first part of the type-written letter is still legible: Dearly Beloved Sister of the Holy Osiandrian Possession

The next few–and last decipherable– lines suggest the letter was a request for a donation of some kind, though the particulars are lost to tomato soup stains, gravel, tennis shoe-imprint, and fetid rubbish-slime.

A nudge from Wilson snaps Kurt back to the present ‘conversation’ in the car. “You feel me, dawg?!”

“What’s that?” Adam asks.

“I got the pasties,” Kristy mumbles.

“Should we call the cops?” asks the underclassman.

The Prez swerves as Wilson yanks his head around to chew out the younger teen. “Hell no, fart-knocker! We ain’t calling the Piggly-Wigglies. We’ll handle this on our own. I’m gonna get my window fixed, and you can bet your last dime-bag it won’t be on my dime. Fuck Herod Hansen’s cry-baby ghost, I’m gonna get my money’s worth and then some. Right, Kurt?” Wilson asks, red-faced and pissed, but at least no longer tearing down the road at 80 miles an hour.

Kurt: Kurt, pulling away from the slimy note, reaffirms Wilson’s intentions almost by reflex. “Exactly!” he calls, smirking. “I only spotted the end of the BB-gun, but whoever was shooting was doing it from that house’s attic window!”

GM: Wilson flashes Kurt a heady smile as he punches the steering wheel and all but howls, “That’s my blood! Count Kuuuurt!”

Kristy murmurs something incoherent about the color of blood being a rainbow, but it’s largely lost and soon ignored as Adam looks out the window and grumbles, “I don’t know, guys. We didn’t do anything wrong. We should just let the police handle this. The house, it’s way out of Crips’ turf. I don’t want to start any trouble. I mean, like, all you gotta do is call the cops and explain what happened, and we’ll all back you up, and then th-”

Adam’s words are cut off as Wilson violently swerves the car to the curb while slamming the brakes. Wilson just stares straight ahead as he speaks, “The Prez ain’t for pussies, Lizzy. Least not the ones that don’t put out. So you better shut up and giddy up, or get your flaky ass to walking home.”

Kurt: After an awkward, tense moment of silence, Kurt decides to lighten the mood. “Where’s the fun in going straight to the cops, anyway?” Kurt asks, laughing. “We’re gang bangers, right!?”

GM: His nonplussed demeanor doesn’t just lighten the car’s mood–it all but fills it with laughing gas.
“You can bang my gang anytime,” Kristy guffaws. “So long as you bring enough fairy dust to fly off the Towers!”

It’s too much for Wilson. He hysterically breaks down, tears welling at his ears as he laughs. “Girl is straight tripping face!”

Adam smirks, then laughs freely as well, but not before Kurt catches the look of gratitude on the underclassman’s face.

Kurt: Kurt, catching the look, smiles at Adam before turning his attention back to everyone else. “What’re you guys think about that old game the Sinner’s Song? Any of you actually tried it?”

GM: “That old kids’ game?” Adam asks, but not before pulling up his hoodie as if he’s caught a shiver. “It’s always sounded kinda dumb to me. I mean, like, who’s ever stood in the middle of the woods and not heard some kind of noise from the wind or trees or an animal, right?”

“That’s the whole point,” Wilson replies.

“Just ask Steve…” Kristy mumbles as she tries to catch some imaginary figments in front of her face.

“Who?” the boy beside her asks.

“Steven Alderman,” Wilson says, before lighting up a joint he pulls from his baggy pants. “Back in the eighties or whatnot, some dude named Steven Alderman did it and disappeared. A lantern was found at the church, so was his dad’s zippo. But Steven was gone.” Taking a puff before offering it to Kurt, he adds, “I heard his face got like printed on milk cartons and shit.”

“I heard billboards,” Kristy says as she extended weed. “Hey, I caught the pink fish.” She takes a drag, then passes it to Adam.

Wilson’s brow furrows momentarily, then relaxes as he turns back to his best friend. “Some say other kids kept trying it for a while, and some successfully did it. But since you’re all alone, no one can prove shit.” A thought visibly crosses Wilson’s face before he blurts out, “Dude, you should get Morgan to play the game with you!”

Adam laughs as he takes a hit, then passes the joint to Kurt.

“I’m not yanking his chain,” Wilson continues. “Like, you know she likes all kinds of weird, spooky shit, right, and so you tell her and take her out into the woods. Just the two of you. Leave out the part you gotta do it alone. Get her all freaked, then you two get your freak on in the nasty dark. You feel me? Tomorrow night, midnight.”

Kurt: Kurt seems to seriously consider this, rubbing the bottom of his chin. The relaxed smile he usually wears grows bigger and bigger. “I gotta say,” he says, thinking about wooing Morgan, or at least freaking the shit out of her. “That’s a brilliant idea.”

GM: “Most dope!” Wilson agrees, flashing a grin and finger-tats as he takes back the joint. A second latter, the Prez is once again cruising the midnight streets of Witiko Falls. Speakers blare. Headlights sweep sleepy streets, and windows fog from pot-smoke and teenage banter.

GM: Several minutes later, the Prez drops off its first passenger at the Pendergrass’ gabled, riverside bed-and-breakfast. “Aw crap,” Adam says as he spots several bottom-floor lights still on. “My parents waited up. Not good.”

GM: “Just tell ‘em you were up playing the Sinner’s Song, and that god already forgive you, so they can’t rightly be mad at you,” Wilson quips.

Adam gives a weak smile in return. He pulls up his green hoodie against the cold, then gives a parting wave to two upperclassman still awake. Kristy is long gone as she saws logs in the backseat.

Kurt: Kurt returns the gesture, looking a little tired after a long day. Kristy’s snoring doesn’t help.

GM: As Adam trudges to his door, Wilson cracks his window to flick his spent joint into a lumpy, curbside boxwood. The Prez then drives off. The soporific car is two streets away when Wilson eventually breaks the silence–or at least the monotony of Kristy’s shallow snoring. “You ever think about, like… what life would be like if we had grown in a flush house like Lizzy’s? Like, how things might be different… if we didn’t live in the Towers?”

Kurt: “What do you mean?” Kurt asks, listening to his friend. He, of course, has thought about things like that many times.

GM: Wilson hesitates or at least considers the question to his question. He sighs. “I mean…, it’s just that, like… ugh, fuck it, I don’t know. Forget I said anything.” With that, he lapses back into silence, his eyes on the road ahead. The direction of his thoughts, however, are hard to read in the dark.

Kurt: Kurt’s brow furrows a little as he stares ahead, too. He thinks silently for a couple moments. “I sometimes wonder if my ma would be better off finding another guy,” Kurt says, having a little bit of trouble getting the words out of his mouth. “I probably wouldn’t be wondering that if I lived in a house like Adam’s, though.”

GM: “Moms and shit,” says the other ‘fatherless’ teen in existential agreement. He coughs, straightens the flat brim of his baseball cap, and asks, “Your mom still wigging out over Felicity?”

Kurt: “Yeah.” Kurt’s face scrunches up. “I don’t get how she can take Felicity’s side.”

GM: “Moms and shit,” repeats Wilson, this time with a full smirk. “That’s why I don’t tell my mom about my bitches. Even if I had a real special honey, you know. Don’t need to make her worry. Don’t need to hear the noise.”

“Speaking of which, I figure it’s gotta been slamming for you to have your psycho-ex miss so much school lately. Less noise, less dealing with her being extra hella salty as you put the moves on Morgan.”

Kurt: “It is.” Kurt smiles. “It’s damn near awkward passing her apartment door, though.”

GM: “Gotta be brutal with lil’ bro tripping too. Tommy acted like the sun came out of your ass. That, or like he wanted you to be his new daddy. Except for the humping his sister versus mom part,” Wilson wisecracks.

His smile widens after a moment. “Although… if you had been doing the nasty with Mrs. Larsen, that would explain a lot. Felicity and Tommy going whacko, your mom taking their side… it all fits together.” Wilson tries to put on a straight face, but eventually breaks into red-eyed laughter.

Kurt: “Tommy’s a good kid,” Kurt says, shrugging. “I think it’ll be more awkward running into him than Felicity. I haven’t yet. You can’t tell anybody this, but I’ve been tiptoeing passed their apartment door every time I come down the stairs.” A self-deprecating smile appears on Kurt’s face. “I don’t even want to accidentally run into Felicity’s mother.”

GM: “Yeah? Afraid the old lady will want some more of Kurt’s special sauce?” Wilson asks with a lewd snicker. His smirk fades though as he turns to his best friend. “But seriously, dude, I got your back. Thicker than blood, my lips are sealed.” His gaze then faces forward again as the Prez cruises up the sloped road to the Towers’ parking lot.

Kurt: Kurt simply nods his head. He feels pretty tired now, working all day—but the day isn’t entirely done yet.

GM: Indeed, despite that fatigue, Kurt can still read his best friend like a size 40-font book. It’s the way the baseball-deviant chews on his lips, a habit he only does when he’s up at the pitcher’s plate and trying to bluff a batter–or when he’s got a secret and is trying to hold it back, but feels bad about it.

Kurt: “Do you have any girls on the go, Wilson?” Kurt asks, breaking the short silence as the Prez makes its short incline toward the Towers.

GM: Kurt’s question–and more particularly its knowing tone–causes Wilson to half-choke as he simultaneously tries to deny and demand how and what his best friend knows about his ‘girl’.

Kurt: Kurt gives a small, knowing smile, taking small jibes at his friend’s embarrassment. “Don’t you know, man?” Kurt continues, clearly taking the piss out of his friend. “Everyone’s talking about it. Everyone knows.”

GM: “What?!” Wilson shouts, so shocked that he can’t even muster a curse. He all but swerves the Prez into a telephone poll. It takes him a moment to recover, jamming the Prez into park. Kristy groans as she slides around the back seat. Wilson’s eyes, though bloodshot, are wide and frantic. “B-but that’s… fuck! FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!!!”

Kurt: “Shit!” Kurt swears, laughing as he grabs the dashboard. “I’m joking, man!” He continues to laugh, now wide awake from the sudden swerve.

GM: “Wha-,” Wilson starts to reply as understanding trickles slowly into his brain. As it does so, he turns around wails on Kurt with a surprisingly painful gut-brushing punch to the gut and balls. “You tranny-sucking douchebag asshat!!!”

Kurt: Kurt’s laughter dies as the wind is knocked out of his sails; a punch to the balls will do that.

GM: “Ah, shit,” Wilson says as he realizes he’s hurt his friend. His fists relax, but he then gives Kurt another push–this time more playful than violent.

Kurt: “Holy shit!” he struggles to get out, nonetheless grinning wildly. “Must be someone pretty fine to get you this hot under the collar!” He continues to cup his balls defensively, though.

GM: It’s Kurt’s lunatic grin that once again pops Wilson’s anger. He laughs long and hard, tears welling at his eyes. “You’re fucking crazy, dude. That’s why I love you! Jesus in a dress, you had me going, man!”

Kristy stirs from the ruckus, her movements groggy and sluggish as coffee left out in October. “Fo-our and twen…ty… naughty b…oys baked… in a pie,” she mumbles.

Kurt: Kurt’s grin doesn’t leave his face as he turns to Kristy for a moment. He turns back to Wilson. “You know you got to tell me who it is, right?” he then asks his friend in a lower voice, looking expectantly. “It’s not a teacher, right? Not the new librarian? I hear she’s a bitch…”

GM: Also glancing back at Kristy, Wilson flags his hands as if begging Kurt to be quiet. He gestures for them to get out of the car.

Kurt: Kurt, closing his mouth, relents as he nods at his friend. He moves to unfasten his belt and get out of the stationary vehicle.

GM: Wilson does likewise, leaving the car and heating running for Kristy, as he quietly closes the driver’s side door. Meanwhile, the cold, autumnal night gives Kurt another sucker punch to his unsheltered face.

Kurt: Kurt instinctively shivers, clasping his sides as he turns to his friend.

GM: Wilson clearly feels it to as he rubs his hands together, blowing into his fist. Leaning over the car, he starts talking, though his eyes are often evasive. “Look, Kurt… you know you’re my brother from a different mother… I-I should have told you, I should have been straight…”

“No, not,” he says giving Kurt a glare as the obvious joke plays across his eyes. “Shut up, homo. Look, I mean, I should have told you. But like, things have been so whacked. Like you’ve been dealing with Felicity and her family and your mom, all them bugging out. You’ve been working all the time, studying for your SATs and shit, trying to get ready for the season and potential scouts…”

Kurt: “It’s fine, man. We all have problems, but you know you can tell me anything. We’re best friends.”

GM: Wilson grabs the flat brim of his hat, sighs, and tries again. “And fucking me, I’m… aight. I’ve got my bean-slinging stuff going on, and you, you’ve always been straight dope with all that… and I’ve always tried to keep you out of the game.” He looks up at Kurt, his breath steaming like he’s smoking–which he increasingly is these days. “Kurt, you’re going places, man. You’re gonna get out of the Towers, be somebody.”

Kurt: Kurt chews on that, appreciating the compliment—but chewing on the implication that his best friend didn’t think he was going anywhere. “Enough BSing, man,” Kurt says, smiling at Wilson. “What’s the stitch with this girl you’ve met?”

GM: Wilson sighs again and lights up a cigarette. The red dot of fire glows as he takes a drag. “I’ll tell you, I promise. It’s just that, I wanted to apologize for not telling you earlier. I should have. Things have just been bunk. Sometimes, I swear, it’s like I’m living two different lives. There’s school–and I’m not talking about the books and pencil-shit. And then there’s my… business. Providing for my mom and all. Making sure I have, like, a future or something.”

“And we’ve got a plan for Homecoming, a bitching one,” he says with growing excitement. “And business is, well, it’s growing too. Busy, sometimes freak out busy, you know?”He regards Kurt again, as both boys shiver in the cold. “Balls, it’s cold, right? Like I already got a major hard-on with my nipples.”

“Yeah, yeah, fart-knocker, I know I’m stalling,” Wilson adds, likely more to himself than to Kurt. “Okay, so without dragging you into the latest Crips-shit, I’ve been going to the Burning Bush.”He looks around to make sure no one else is eavesdropping in the parking lot. There isn’t, likely due more to the cold than the ungodly hour. Like I’m nineteen, so it’s all legit."

“But I haven’t been going there for the T&A shows, or well, not only for them. Let’s just say that the guy that runs the place and I, we’re trying to rustle up some Dead Presidents.”

“Anyways, so like, I’ve been doing some night-driving is all I’m saying, and one night, a few weeks back, back when you and Felicity hit the shit-fan.” He takes another puff. “And I see this girl on the side of the road, looking to hitch.”

Kurt: Kurt nods, taking in his friend’s words, trying to his best to be serious. “I take it you picked this girl up, right?”

GM: “Yeah…” he says, his thoughts clearly drifting back to that time. “Shiit, like no lie, I only noticed her because she was like major shwing and like not wearing much.”

Wilson laughs. “No, like, dude, she wasn’t like birthday suit or nothing, but I don’t know, it looked like she’d been clubbing or partying. Party must have had retro theme or some shit, you know cause of how she was dressed.”“Anyways, so she’s trying to hitch, old school thumb jerking and all. And I figured, well, like, why the hell not? Maybe I can use the good karma, dharma, or whatever shit. And you know, did I mention she was hot?”

Kurt: Kurt laughs, getting sucked in by Wilson’s story. “Yeah. You’ve mentioned it a few times.”

GM: Wilson chuckles himself, self-deprecatingly. “Yeah, well, she was–is. So I pulled over and offered her a ride.” He smirks. “And the good news is that apparently, I don’t look like a serial killer, and she got in.”

Kurt: “Man. If anything, you look like a serial pervert.” Kurt adds, “But I think girls think most guys do, anyway.”

GM: “Well, if the flip-flop fits…” Wilson agrees, though his smile dips as he continues, “But like she got into the back seat, like the Prez is a freaking taxi. But like, whatever right? I still had a hot sister in my car, and I figure, heh, if things get set to steam-press, she’s already in the backseat if you know what I mean…” He stops to pantomime a vague, though clearly lewd, gesture.

“But she was, um…, well, like, she looked really cold. She must’ve been out thumbing for a while, or walking. It hadn’t snowed yet, but you know how the nights get out there. Turn your joystick into a slim jim real quick.” He motions to the cigarette, meaningfully, then reconsiders taking another drag so soon after. “So, quit fucking interrupting me, home-skillet,” he jibs sarcastically, then continues,

“Anyways, I of course, as like a proper gentleman, I give her my lettered jacket. You know, because chicks like that kinda shit. And so she tells me she lives down on Fenton, so I drive out there. It’s out of the way, but why the hell not. She’s real quiet at first, but like once she opened up… man, it was a LSD sunshine, out of this fucking world. Like I’ve never met a girl like that, well, your sister being a close second. Like she was even into like AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. How slamming is that? "

“It was a long damn drive, but it just flew right by. She had me drop her about a bit from her house. I didn’t want to let her walk, but she said her mom would freak if she saw a guy dropping her off. So I let her off, and I drove back home. I was, like, flying, so it didn’t occur to me like until I was back at the Towers that she hadn’t given me back my jacket… or her number. Brutal, right? Like maybe Mrs. Atwood is right that horny dudes are dumb as shit ’cause all the blood from our brain goes to our dicks.”

Kurt: “Did you at least get a name?” Kurt asks, curiously. Wilson rarely acted this wound up over a woman.

GM: “Cat,” Wilson answers with an expression that almost sounds stoned–which he certainly isn’t from only a shared joint. “You know, just like the pussy. First, I thought she was like psyching me out, but she wasn’t. And before you ask, no it was Katy Diggerts, you dumb-ass. Cat’s not from Falls High. Or, well, like she doesn’t go there now. She did.”

Wilson all but screams as Kristy opens the driver’s door, dazedly stumbling out. “What time… is it?” she asks dazedly.

“Fuck, Kristy!” Wilson yells. “I think I just shit a brick in my pants.”

“Brr-rrrr,” she responds, her teeth chattering as the cold air creates goose-pimples over her bare legs.

Kurt: Kurt gives Kristy a wry expression, figuring this would be the end of Wilson’s story. The bespectacled young man smiles at Kristy’s reaction to the cold air and her question about the time, though. “It’s late,” Kurt answers shortly. “It’s also fuckin’ cold out here. Probably should call it a night, aye Wilson?”

GM: “Yeah,” Wilson says, shooting Kurt a look of gratitude, ’we’ll talk later’, and ‘tell–anyone–and–I–will–murder–your–babies, grandbabies, and great–grandbabies’. It’s a strange look, and one likely only capable of being shared by childhood best friends.

Kurt: Kurt returns the look with an affirmative ‘no worries, man, your secret is safe with me—and not just because you threatened my babies and my grandbabies’ look of his own.

GM: After Wilson grabs his keys and puts the Prez to sleep, the three seniors trudge up to the Towers for their own overdue-beds. As they clamber up the graffiti-overrun staircase, Wilson says goodnight to his best friend, promising to “pick up where we left off tomorrow”. He then helps Kristy to her apartment.

“You don’t have to,” Kristy says, despite the wobble in her knees.

“Of course I do, I’m a douchebag, but a fucking gentleman douchebag,” he answers with a smirk and snicker that echoes in the stairwell.

Kurt: Kurt, of course, wishes both his classmates goodnight. Stifling a yawn, he heads to his own apartment to hopefully hit the hay.

GM: Sadly, as he enters his apartment, he’s reminded that the hay may have to wait. Again.

Kurt: Shit.

GM: Literally, if his nostrils guess right. The source of the fecal stench is not immediately visible when Kurt enters his family’s fifth-floor condo–turned–apartment. Its peculiar floor-plan has the front door, with its series of deadbolts, open directly onto an L-shaped hallway of sorts, whose left side is a cramped excuse of a kitchen. Despite the late hour, the kitchen’s sole window blares electric light from the sodium street lamp built a few inches from the window. Its paints the room in a monochromatic yellow that fades to black.

In that dingy light, Kurt takes in his home’s kitchen. The old, original cabinetry and hardware from the late ’60s remains. The little counter space that exists beside the plastic sink is clean, but cluttered by air-drying pans, cups, and baby bottles. At the other corner sits the stove. On its range, a pot of cold chicken noodle soup waits for Kurt. Above the stove, a microwave precariously perches while propping up a box of generic Shop-Plus cereal brand and an unopened, but assuredly stale bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips.

Between the white stove and yellowish sink cabinets, a gap exists, like a rotten tooth was extracted but never disinfected. It’s been nearly two months sink the fridge broke, leaking thawing freezer water onto the cheap linoleum tiles and rotting the plywood beneath. Arlene had sold off the broken fridge to the local salvage yard, but the Crawfords ended up barely breaking even after the salvage crew charged Arlene a ‘relocation fee’ for hauling the bulky appliance down five flights of stairs. Worse, their landlord has done nothing to fix the pipe issues that caused the fridge to break in the first place. And so the gap and torn-up section of the floor remains–as does the trio of ice-filled coolers sitting against the opposite wall that serve as the Crawford’s makeshift fridge. Home sweet home.

Crawford_home.jpg

Kurt: Kurt’s face scrunches up as the smell hits him like a ton of bricks. He barely registers the pot of chicken noodle soup on the stove. He makes a beeline and heads for his bedroom.

GM: Kurt’s path and the desperate promise of immediate sleep, however, are blocked by his father. Kurt Crawford, Sr., resembles a horror-house mirror image of his son. Similarly short-statured and possessed of dark, unruly straight hair, the middle-aged man stands unnaturally stiff, his head cocked at an odd angle as if crooning to some phantasmal sound.

Kurt_Crawford_Sr.jpg

Dressed in sleep-rumpled pajamas and coat for warmth, the catatonic man stares, eyes open with an unnervingly long space between blinks. His presence in the hallway is startling, although not unprecedented. The teen recalls the first time his ‘injured’ father got out of bed and walked into a wall. He remembers how his mother was overjoyed and rushed their catatonic father to the doctors, fervently believing that it was but the first sign of the man’s recovery.

Kurt: It wasn’t.

GM: Kurt can never forget how crushed Arlene was when the doctors told the Crawfords that their patriarch was simply sleep-walking and such movements were not uncommon in cases of catatonia and in no way indicative of a change in his ‘condition’. Now, nose to nose with the waxy form that once was his father, Kurt has found the source of the stench: his father’s diaper. Home sweet home.

Kurt: “I can’t catch a fucking break!” Kurt swears, exasperated. He drops the bag slung over his shoulder onto the ground with a noisy thunk. Trudging over to his father, the young man can’t help looking into the senior Kurt’s dead-eyed stare with a mix of annoyance and sadness.

GM: His father’s stare remains all-too vacant–and makes Kurt wonder once again if there is anything left of his father inside his bodily husk, and which fate would be crueler.

Kurt: Kurt doesn’t have to wonder long, however; the smell of his father’s shitty diaper makes the answer all too clear in his opinion. He awkwardly tries to direct and shuffle his father to the cramped space they call a bathroom.

GM: As usual, his father does not resist–but also does nothing to assist. His living ‘corpse’ is akin to a waxy doll that remains in whatever position his son shapes him to be, barring the limits of gross anatomy and gravity. As usual, the bathroom barely provides enough room for both men, and only when Kurt half-stands in the doorway. As usual, his father’s diaper is full of stool made wet and orange-yellow from a steady diet of liquid formula. As usual, Kurt must fight not to spill the soupy excrement, not to cause his father to topple over, and to hold back the contents of his own retching stomach.

Kurt: It’s a thankless, odious task. Bile threatens to come up as Kurt attempts to hold his breath for the most part. He enters and exits the bathroom to catch his breath.

GM: As usual, Kurt finishes the first thankless task, if not odor.

Kurt: Kurt turns the shower off and dries his father’s wet, naked body. His father’s dirty clothes lie crumpled in a corner, covering the used diaper. It is mind-numbing.

GM: His father’s only reaction to the initially freezing water is a slight shift in his breathing and blinking. Time runs away like the fecal-brown water flowing down the shower drain.

Kurt: The only thing Kurt pays attention to is his own breathing, the sound of dripping water, and the sound of the drain’s gargling screech. His mind is a million miles away. His eyes see through his father. Nonetheless, his hands move with a practiced swiftness.

GM: The apartment is otherwise still and silent. A husk of a home.

Kurt: A husk of a father. A husk of a son.

Having received some fresh pajamas for his father to wear, Kurt buttons up his father’s top when life reemerges in his eyes. He smiles weakly as he then directs his father’s newly washed, dressed form back to his parents’ room to rest.

GM: His father’s expression, or lack thereof, remains unchanged. As usual.

As Kurt flicks on the light to his parents’ room, his weary eyes lazily brush over the room. The walls are bare plaster, cracked and chipped in places. When they had first moved in, the room’s walls had been covered in peeling, mildew-stained wallpaper with purple buffalos and candy-colored clowns. Arlene had ripped it down with the intent on replacing it with something less… nightmarish. But the time, and money, had never materialized, leaving the bare walls as they are.

Kurt is brought back to the present by a thin, icy draft creeping from the painter’s tape that surrounds the window-mounted AC-unit. Arlene had planned on taking it out as well, but, once again, time and energy were needed elsewhere and the task had fallen to the wayside. Fortunately, the radiator beneath the window pumps out a silver of heat, warming a couple pairs of socks draped over the painted metal. The vertical blinds are mess, tangled up and broken, likely from his father’s recent somnambulism.

Between the bed that swallows the room and the weathered, item-cluttered dresser, Kurt spots his mother’s snow boots sitting beside a bitterly familiar water jug. In happier days, the jug was used by Kurt’s parents to drop in spare change, with which they would empty when full to buy gifts and toys for their two kids.

After his father’s ‘accident’ and the loss of the family farm, the jar instead became something of an idol, altar, or wishing well for Kurt and Amy. Together, they would pick some dearly desired treat, toy, or activity, scribble its name on a piece of masking tap, and their mother would slowly fill it with the coins she collected while cleaning couches and chairs at the pharmaceutical plant. It took months to fill the jug, and most of the time, it was only pennies and a few dimes. The siblings learned to dream and pray smaller. Then, Arlene got transferred to the lower dregs of the plants, away from the plush sofas. No more pennies. The wishing well ran dry. But the jug still remains. A plastic husk.

Crawford_house2.jpg

Kurt: Kurt gives the room a cursory look, letting his mind wander as he recalls titbits about its contents. As unfortunate as his childhood was, those memories are honestly quite sweet in his mind. The priceless love of his mother and even his big sister. A small, tired smile remains on Kurt’s face as he continues to put his father to bed, and as sad as Kurt sometimes feels about his father’s condition, the young man finds some small solace in looking after his catatonic father. Not a lot. But, Kurt tries putting on a brave face for the sake of his own sanity.

GM: Kurt’s father stares up at the popcorn ceiling, eyes wide open and seemingly uncaring at the world being turned on its side. A piece of dry painters tape flutters by the window, allowing another hiss of night air to enter the bedroom like a tired sigh. On the dresser, Kurt watches as a Mickey Mouse clock, a souvenir from a pre-‘accident’ family vacation to Disney World, ticks back and forth, its battery winding down.

Kurt_bedroom.jpg

Kurt: It’s at this point Kurt’s stomach rumbles and he remembers the chicken noodle soup sitting on the stove top.

GM: Like the comatose husk of his tucked-in father, the cold soup remains where it was left.

Kurt: Kurt turns on the stove top, letting the soup heat up to temperature. He finishes his bowl in record time. He then returns to the hallway to collect the bag he discarded earlier. He tiredly gets out of his work clothes. He then changes into a loose shirt for bed and a pair of pajama pants.

Kurt’s bedroom, cramped as every room in the makeshift apartment, is a sparsely furnished, slightly messy affair. His bed is loosely made and a few dirty clothes are spread out on the floor. A basketball poster is on the back of his door. By his bed, a stack of books, academic and otherwise, rest in a haphazard pile. A couple crudely drawn pictures of women in scantily clad underwear sit on top.

GM: Clicking off his light, the tired teen crawls under his covers. His forlorn bed is far from warm, and it takes great willpower to reach over and set his digital alarm clock with its bleeding red numbers that accusingly remind him it is 12:37 AM.

Sleep smashes into Kurt like a sledgehammer.

GM: The pain of that impact, however, doesn’t hit Kurt until 5:00 AM when his alarm screams bloody murder:

BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK! BRAYNK!

Brook: Skin Deep


10.09.1998, Friday evening

GM: “Phew, those girls certainly know how to make a sandwich,” Ferg says as he wipes a swath of BBQ sauce from his beard. Crumpling the napkin and wrapper into a ball, the old dispatcher regards the teen on the other side of the jail-bars. “How’d you like your Slaughterhouse Five,” he asks, referring to the meal he brought back from the Swiner, a locally legendary sandwich stuffed with pulled pork shoulder, bacon strips, spareribs, smoked ham, and pork sausage.

Brook: After napping on the jailhouse floor, the warm meal is a more than a welcome change for the teenager. Having his steno-pad back after the time Ferg was gone is just as sweet. As they eat, many napkins meet their end to turn those pages to show the older man the events of last night.

“Needs more pork, other than that, it’s fantastic, Ferg, thank you,” he jokes, a grin on his face as he lets out a deep breath. “Funny that I needed to get thrown in jail to have a good day this week.”

GM: “Glad it was to your liking, Brook,” Ferg says, as he nibbles on a toothpick-impaled pickle. “You more than earned it in my book.”

Brook: Brook mutters that he forgot his pickle and pulls his takeout container back onto his lap, pulling it back off the stick and crunching into it. “There is one thing that’s bothering me though… about last night. Do you know much about the Mooners?”

GM: “Only one thing?” Ferg asks between another munch of his pickle. His goodnatured smile dips, though, when he hears Brook’s question.

Brook: “Just that…they were there that night. I saw them as I was driving away, all sitting there on their bikes in the rain, over Scratch’s Corral.”

GM: Ferg finishes off his pickle slice, chewing slowly before he replies, “Moonchildren. Moonbrood. But never call them Mooners, not to their faces at least. No matter what you call them, they’re a bad crowd. You’d be wise to stay away from them, but I doubt I’m the first to tell you that.”

Toothpick in hand, Ferg waves it like a miniature baton as he continues, “See, everybody in Witiko Falls knows that it’s you kids who are out selling the weed, PCP, and other drugs.” He adds, “Well, hopefully not you, but you know what I mean.”

“Anyways, it’s the kids from the Towers and the trailer park. Has been for years. But really, neither of those places have been around for more than thirty years. That’s lightyears for a young kid like yourself, but it’s living history for old-timers like myself.”

He sticks the toothpick between his molars and continues, “Anyways, for as long as those kids have been there, they’ve been dealing. The specific kids, their names, their faces, their tats, they change all the time. Who’s fighting who, who’s on top, who’s on the rise, yada, yada, yada. But it’s all window dressing. Cosmetic changes. Most folks never stop to ask or think about where the kids get the drugs.”

He looks up. “Well, I guess some folks might blame the plant, just because they’re an easy target. But you kids were dealing a generation before the pill-plant stuck its first shovel in the dirt. See, it’s the Moonbrood. It’s always been the Moonbrood.”

Brook: Brook listens to the man the entire time, and it’s a good tip right from the start. Lots of people call them Mooners, though he doesn’t think he’s actually addressed them in person through his scant, but too many, encounters.

Hearing it all though, he realizes that it makes more sense than not. Scary gang, no one gets near their hideout, travel in huge groups. He wonders if they just make or buy and re-sell the drugs. That vision comes into his mind again, and it looks almost hypocritical now. Is it talking about the drugs the Moonbrood pump into Witiko Falls? The pills the plant pumps into Witiko Falls? He furrows his brow and smooths his hand over his chin.

“I can’t say I’m surprised… it doesn’t explain why they were there that night, though. I’ve run into them. Twice now. Once when I was young, and another a few years ago.”

GM: Ferg uses the toothpick to fish out another piece of pulled pork jammed between his back molars. Re-chewing the morsel, he responds, “Well, that sounds like a story.”

His implicit request, however, is interrupted by another phone call upstairs. Ferg apologizes, then hustles upstairs, though Brook can tell the man’s stride is a bit slower than last time, likely due to the late hour and full belly.

Brook: Brook adjusts his seating to start spinning the tale before they’re again interrupted by the ringing of the phone upstairs. It’s almost getting annoying at this point. The young man capitalizes on his time, however, with the thankfully returned steno pad and the now well-loved mechanical pencil back in his hands. Last he left off, it was Hudson’s grand entrance. Whether due to the light scratching of the lead across paper, the half a pig in between two slices of rye, or the fact that Ferg is in the upstairs office behind a half-closed door, the boy’s well-trained ears fail to eavesdrop this time.

The next scenes are dark enough that the young man wishes he was at home with his charcoals in reach. A careful cross hatch and only the bare essentials of form in people’s silhouettes, where Brook previously occupied just lines of rain, and a crouching form much closer to the crazed antagonist than before. The next panels are a blur of activity and motion, of a young man doing his best and almost being shot in the ensuing struggle. Of a dying form of what passes for a man, and a split second choice to save his life by the offer of a life-saving first aid kit.

Eventually, it’s the last scene. Of Brook sitting dead-eyed in a hospital, the squat form of his mother, and the taller rounder marshal, faceless people in the background. The only dialogue in the entire comic stands center place above all their heads, a thin line tracing it to the heavy jowls of Marshal Schofeld.

“You’re under arrest.”

GM: As Brook inspects his graphic denouement, the junior ranger hears the station’s door-bell chime. “Just a minute,” Ferg hollers from the main office. Brook hears the old dispatcher’s footsteps heading down the hall before the station door is unlocked. The door creaks open as he asks, “Well, hello. What can I do for you, miss…?”

Brook’s heart skips a beat as a familiar feminine voice answers: “June. June Pohlman. May I come in, Mr…?”

“Just Ferg, Ms. Pohlman. Nobody’s called me Mr. Ferguson since never.”

“May I come in, Mr. Ferg? It’s rather cold tonight.”

“Oh may, of course, little lady. And it’s Ferg. Just Ferg. The only Mr. in this station right now is the Mr. Clean under the sink.”

Brook: Brook keeps his nose in his work, his brain a million miles away and just barely recognizing the sound of the door opening. His heart skipping a beat and the cold breeze feeling of realization break him out of the trance immediately, shooting straight backed with his eyes out the bars into the station. June. Fucking. Pohlman. Brook nearly trips over the leg of the bed as he bolts up, shouldering the wall and swearing under his breath as he corrects himself, spinning around to find no mirror in the jail cell.

Their conversation is the only time he has to figure out what to do not to look like an idiot, going from leaning up against the wall to standing there like an idiot, to sitting on the bed. All that he can think about is ‘what the fuck are you supposed to do with your hands!?’. In a slight panic, he eventually settles on sitting at the head of his bed facing out the bars, panting just slightly and his heart going. His brain says ‘why is she here?’ His groin just yells the word ‘conjugal visit’, despite who it is.

GM: Brook hears the front-door close and the sound of small boots on the wooden floor. “Thank you, Mr., I mean, Ferg.”

“Well, Miss June, what can the Sheriff’s Office do for you this late Friday night?”

Down in the cell, the adolescent’s loins flare as June’s answer echoes down the stairs. “Brooks, Brooks Barnes, is he still here?”

“Miss Pohlman, I’m not sure what time visiting hours officially ends around here, but I’d wager it’s past your bedtime. Past mine too, come to think of it. But…” Ferg drawls, “…how about we say I forgot to check the clock, and I won’t check on it for ten more minutes.”

Brook doesn’t hear June’s reply, as it is lost in the sound of her descending footsteps on the stairs. The petite, cupid-faced blonde emerges, practically swimming in her sage green parka with white faux-fur trim. When her light brown eyes meet Brook’s green gaze, June all but runs to the bars. “Brooks! I didn’t believe it…”

Brook: Brook bites his bottom lip as he hears the conversation happening upstairs, his foot tapping in anticipation. Ferg is a great man, he’ll let her down, he just knows it. Or maybe he’s just hoping too hard he will. June’s footsteps down the staircase put an almost panicked fluttering in his chest, and the sitting he’s chosen trying to seem cool fell apart as he bolts up and grabs the bars. “June! What are you doing here?! How did you—I’ve only been—fuck me, June, I can’t believe you’re here either.”

GM: June seems to equally stumble in her reply or simultaneous series of replies, “The show last night–the storm–no answer again and again. Then you didn’t show for school. Your hearing–we thought, Danny and I–” She looks around, as if realizing that it is just the two of them. “Where’s Danny? Did he leave already?”

Brook: Brook towers over the girl, feeling like he could break the bars in between them and just hug her. His mother hasn’t even come around yet. But her words confuse him. “Danny was never with me, June. I was alone all night. And you are my first visitor. Besides Ferg upstairs.”

GM: A look of fresh worry upon old flashes over June’s heart-shaped face. “He should have been here. Hours ago.” She looks down. “Straight after school, Daniel called your mom… she told him what happened. Well, pieces. Enough pieces, maybe. Danny called me right away. He couldn’t get a ride, his aunt and older brother were working. No, that’s not right, his older brother wouldn’t or something.”

“So Danny told me he was going to ride his bike from his house to here. I told him I’d get here as soon as possible. My folks wouldn’t give me a ride, didn’t want me getting involved. So I had to lie to them, I got a ride to a sleepover at Shelley’s house, just down the street. Once they fell asleep, I snuck out and walked the rest of the way. It’s a long way from here to Danny’s house. Miles, right? But he should have already arrived. Hours ago.” June looks up with wet sepia eyes and places her petite hands on the cold bars. “I-I’m scared, Brook.”

Brook: Brook listens intently, slowly growing more and more alarmed. His greatest fear before this business was that he had nowhere to go to avoid the talk about their relationship. Now though? Dammit. It never ends. Reaching through the bars, the young man puts his hands over June’s ears, carefully cupping her head as he takes a sharp breath in, his voice booming as he yells. “Ferg! Ferg, can you come down here!” As he yells, and even after, he doesn’t quite let go, enjoying the feeling of her warm skin and fair hair against his rough hands.

GM: Already shaken by Daniel’s absence, June is startled rather than comforted as Brook’s large, strong hands suddenly wrap around her diminutive face and refuse to let go as the young man shouts. “Brook, let go! You’re hurting me!”

Meanwhile, Brook feels as much as hears the upstairs’ toilet flush. “I’m coming!” shouts the old dispatcher.

Brook: Brook lets go the moment she looks started rather than comforted, even if it means calling for Ferg without his hands over her ears. “Oh shit, June, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking, I just didn’t want to yell in your face.” It’s a mix of shame and anger in his belly, but what shows on his face is only the shame. He backs away from the bars, holding his hands. Junes more delicate than he thought.

GM: “You scared me,” June says, and Brook can see the truth of those words in her eyes.
Ferg, however, interrupts the any further private exchanges between the teens as he hustles down the stairs, buttoning his pants and slightly out of breath. Pausing to regain that breath, he looks between the two youth, but mostly waits for Brook to speak up.

Brook: Brook feels hurt, after all he’s done to show her he has control and she’s scared. His eyes betray a bit of his disappointment as well, but Ferg comes in just at the right time. “Ferg. I was supposed to have another visitor today. Someone from the reservation. He was going to bicycle here, and he hasn’t shown. He should have been here by now. Can we put out a call for Danny Littlebeaver? Or even just let me use my phone call. My mother can round up the rangers!”

GM: Ferg may be old, but the veteran dispatcher swiftly processes the potential emergency and the correct channels. He shakes his head at Brook’s suggestion. “Rangers’ jurisdiction are the national forests and reserves, not the reservation. I’ll call the tribal police and Sheriff Bauman, set up a BOLO, and get whatever patrol cars we have to look for him on our side of the line. I’ll need a description, and if you know what he might be wearing, that will help.”

June pipes in, “I can do that! I know what he was wearing today at school.”

Brook: Brook stays a little quiet hearing the experienced man pretty much take over, nodding at June when she volunteers her description of Danny. Much as he’s more comforted at the idea of his mother the master hunter being the one to track down Danny, and how sorry he feels that Undersheriff Bauman has to be bothered, it’s already set in motion. There’s a tense caged in feeling in the young man’s spine, he wants out to join the search for his friend.

“Thanks, Ferg. I just hope he didn’t run into the kind of luck I do on Shades of Death Trail. Will you be able to let me know if you find him?”

GM: “Course,” Ferg answers, then hooks a finger at June. “Come with me, Miss Pohlman.”
The gray-bearded dispatcher then rushes back up the stairs.

June spares Brook a worried look, then follows after.

Brook: Brook simply motions her to go along. He slowly eases back down onto the bed and smooths his hands together, looking them over. June is scared of him when he moves too fast, that simplifies things. So much for using that tape to yell at her. The young man simply sits there, waiting, hoping things turn out for the better as he struggles with his powerlessness.

GM: The powerlessness extends as Brook is forced to wait in his cell, able to only hear that Ferg is making phone calls, but without the ability to discern the details given the distance and doors between them. The feeling only amplifies when Ferg comes hustling down the stairs and quickly informs Brook, “Hang tight, we’ve got deputies looking for your friend, so I gotta take Miss Pohlman home.” Not waiting for Brook to gainsay the plan, the old dispatcher hobbles up the stairs again, and a few minutes later is locking the front door behind him, without June ever having the chance to say goodbye.

Brook: If there were no hard feelings against Marshal Schofeld before, some of those feelings are starting to mount as the teen sits there with nothing to do and less to ease the growing unease at being locked away in this cage. He barely has a chance to thank Ferg before he’s off, and Brook is sitting there alone in the police station. Worse, he can feel it’s nighttime now, and it’ll be a sleepless one. With noting else to do, and hoping the mechanical pencil doesn’t run out of lead soon, he curls away in the corner of his cage and keeps his hands busy. It’s all he can do in the absence of the sweet release of sleep.

GM: Brook is only two minutes into his artistic resumption before he hears the gut-dropping, hollow ‘click-click’ of the mechanical pencil. The lead is gone, spent on his graphic novella.

Brook: Gone. Brook can’t help but drop the pen on the floor and put his head in his hands, feeling his rough hands against his face and trying to keep his cool. It’s not even midnight, is it? Early in the night with nothing but himself, the worst possible fate for the young man. It’s why he has the radio station, the guitars, the stacks upon stacks of art supplies. But not here. Here, he doesn’t even have a person to talk to, trapped in this little fucking cage without anyone to help him or talk to anyone. The ill feelings mount, and the boy’s shaky hands grab up crayons of all things Ferg left. But what can he fucking do with these!? Brook stands up and slams them back down on the bed, stomping the whole two steps to the barred door and grabbing HARD on it, shaking it violently, testing the lock on the door as he starts to feel like a coyote, caught in a trap and gnawing its leg.

GM: The bars rattle on the cell-door, but do little else. The metalline echo bounces against the cement walls and floor before it quietly dies. Those same windowless walls shut off the boy from the outside world, denying him even a glimpse of the wilds he loves and serves, or even a glance at the moon to gauge the hour. That sense of trapped timelessness only heightens as the tall adolescent scans the cell and the basement beyond for any clock, watch, or similar sign of the time. His frustration only grows as that search proves fruitless. Or at least, his search does not produce the fruit he increasingly craves.

Instead, Brook’s riffling through the cell produces two, unexpected discoveries. The first is a small pitch pipe nearly cemented to the underside of the jail-bed with large, dried-up wads of gum. The second Brook finds when he picks up the cell’s second framed picture: an old polaroid of Witiko Falls–the falls, not the town. Seeing the infamous fount of ‘his’ Green Lady, Brook brushes a finger over the polaroid, only to hear a crinkle of what sounds like paper behind the photograph.
The cell and station beyond otherwise lay silent.

Brook: Brook’s near-manic pouring wields results! The tiny cell nearly drives him insane as he smooths through everything on all fours, trying to claw back any sense of freedom he once had back. The items he comes across are interesting, however. Getting his hand damp from the sink, he reaches under and tries to flick water on the space to wet the gum on the pitch pipe, trying to ease it off the bed without harming it.

GM: The process takes time, but it ultimately proves more gross than truly arduous. By the end, Brook’s fingers smell like stale peppermint, rust, and spit, but his hand nonetheless grasps the tarnished chrome pitch pipe.

Brook: Brook washes his hands right after, not incredibly worried about gum when he lives a life pulling entrails out of animals. With the Pitch tuner in his pocket, he moves onto the polaroid, gently taking it off the wall to look over it and find the source of the paper sound he’s come across. Just hoping it’s something to keep him occupied until someone returns.

GM: Retrieving the second discovery proves far easier, swifter, and cleaner. Popping off the back frame, Brook finds an old letter, yellowed with age and creased with likely years of storage. Delicately unfolding the letter, he squints to read the faded ballpoint-blue ink. The hasty handwriting is further obscured by several old water stains and the severe, yet fragile, creases.

Father Kruppenbach, the letter begins.

I know that what I’ve done is wrong, so wrong. The hope of heaven is beyond me now, so I’m not even sure why I’m writing this to you. I guess it’s partly so that Julie’s folks and mine will know some of what happened. Maybe it’ll count as a form of confession, for when I’m done.

See, my old man always said that a person is supposed to be accountable for their actions. The army backed him up on this one. No matter what happens, if something goes a way people think it shouldn’t, somebody’s got to be able to answer up for what happened. They have to explain it and take the punishment that’s coming for it.

You know, I dread this letter more than I dread killing myself. I know I’ve got to do both, but I think the other will be the easier of the two. I learned about killing in the war, so the punishment I can handle. It’s the confessing I’m nervous about.

When I got back from Vietnam, I was just so relieved to be home. I’d written to Julie and she’d written back, but it all seemed so far away. Just seeing her again… God, it was like being born. She smelled so good and sweet, like sunshine, and she was so pretty in that blue dress with those flowers on it. I still wonder what kind of flowers those were.

At the same time though, Father, I was so scared. You see, something happened to me over there. I know, everybody says that war changes a man, but I felt like–God, I don’t know what I felt like. Like part of me was dead, the part that smiled and laughed and had fun. And part of me was something else, something that liked the war, and killing men, and the smoke and the fires and–

Well, you get the idea. So here I come back, and there’s this big party and my mom is all teary-eyed and laughing, my dad keeps slapping my shoulder like he’s proud of me, and then… there’s Julie. I swear, I could feel her as soon as she entered the room. It was like all the light in the world was right on her, and I couldn’t even move.

It’s not like it started then, either. At first, things were just fine. I thought we’d maybe still have a real life, just like what we planned. I’d just seal up those dead, twisted parts inside, and she’d never even have to know. We went to parties and dances, and hikes along the trails. I know that she loved 
me. She told me so, and with that look in her eyes I knew she wasn’t lying. That’s when I came to see you, a few months back, and we had that talk about marriage. I know you remember, can’t be too many people in town who are dying to get married in January, in the middle of a damned blizzard.

Anyway, I really thought things might work out. But then that other guy kept coming around. She kept denying it to the end, and I almost believed her. But it didn’t make any difference at that point anyway. That’s not why this happened. Turning the letter over, Brook continues reading:

The thing was, we had a fight. I’d never raised my voice to her in my life, and I would have been ready to swear I never would. But there I am, using words my dad would have been ashamed to hear, stuff I never would have dreamed could be said until I joined the army. She looked at me like I was crazy, and maybe I was. She said that I was scaring her, that I wasn’t the same Joe she knew. And you know, she was right. I knew that even before we had the fight in the first place, but I didn’t want to admit it. It’s too hard to admit it.

After that, it was never the same. We made up, but it was like she never trusted me again. Suddenly I can’t get two words out of her, and she can’t relax around me anymore. Always she’s looking at me with those eyes, those beautiful blue haunted suspicious eyes. And I can’t shake it.

Today, I found her on her way home from town. She’d been to the store, and she had a bottle of aftershave in her bag. I just lost it. I started accusing her of going out on me, and worse, and she just stared at me the whole time. When I finally stopped, she told me the engagement was off. Just like that. She turned to leave, and I tried to stop her. At least, I meant to try to stop her. I grabbed for her, grabbed her around the neck… she just dropped like a sack of wet flour.

It took me a minute or so to realize what had just happened. It was the same way in the jungle, too. It’d take a little bit after the fighting stopped to piece together exactly what you’d done while it was going on. It was almost like it wasn’t you, but some demon that you watched from behind a window.

I went over to try to pick her up, but she just hung, limp. That’s when I realized she wasn’t breathing anymore. I went all cold. And then–God help me–I saw what she had in the bag she’d been carrying. That aftershave was packaged with a birthday card. I opened it up, and it was to her father. It was his birthday, and I didn’t even know it. I just went crazy over it, and now I’d­–

So now you know.

All I can say is that I’m awfully sorry, Father. You’ll never know how much. I don’t know that Julie’s parents will believe me, but it’s true. I never meant to hurt her. I love her more than my own life, and I always will.

Maybe it’s best this way. Even the best wall has cracks in it eventually, and there’s no telling what I might have done down the line. No monster can be caged forever.

Tell my mom and dad I love them. Please.

Joe

Brook: Still, fuming and skittish, the young man sits on the bed with the letter, trying to escape this cell for just a moment longer, at least until Ferg gets back and gives him something else to give him the sweet release of escapism. But he stops wishing for that after a few more moments, sobering in the face of a man’s last words, and the tale he had to tell before leaving this world.

Brook’s hand traces, but then covers his mouth, trying to deny the pain behind his eyes starting to build up tears. Danny rarely ever came to the tower, his mother never looked through his books while she slept there, but one of the lonely teen boy’s weaknesses is on that bottom shelf. Tales of the pain of true love, of love lost and found, of thick romance classics and coming of age discovery of love novellas.

The stains of water on the letter feel like tears. If the young man reading it can’t hold back a loose tear or two no matter how hard he bites his lip, he wonders how hard Joe must have cried. Even a monster cries. Brook reads it again afterwards, pouring over the details and pushing himself back against the wall sitting on the bed.

The week comes rushing in, as do so so many questions Brook tries so desperately to ignore, a reason he has to admit—in this brief moment—he keeps his life so busy. Why is Witiko Falls so horrible? Why does every corner writhe with secrets? Will he ever be happy here? Does Mary simply keep him as her replacement, instead of a son? What are these nightmares? Why is he still so fucking weak? Why didn’t he just drown that day? Why do those Littlebeaver kids hate him so much? Why is he so lonely, even with so many people knowing him? Why is he always so angry? Why is he so dim that school wants him gone? Why was June so terrified?

It all weighs on his shoulders enough to crush him, sliding down the stone wall and cracking like even the best walls do, choking back ugly sobs and covering his face with the thin prison pillow as he breaks in two, crying alone in the basement of a police station, without a soul around to comfort him. Be around for him. Why does everyone need him, but so few people seem to even want him?

GM: Imprisoned, Brook’s questions, like his muffled sobs, can only echo in the cement-trapped silence and solitude of the boy’s cell. It takes Brook a moment to feel or at least recognize it, the cold touch of fear under all his angst, rage, and loneliness. It’s just an icy caress rather than a full-taloned clutch, but the emotion feels strange and unfamiliar, like accidentally slipping on someone else’s shoes in the dark.

When was the last time he felt afraid? Reflexively, his hand rubs his chest, as if snow had fallen there, and he is trying to brush it off. But nothing is there. And that’s the problem, the teen considers, as he is once again reminded that he has been stripped of his prized possessions and locked up. In that moment, the thin, tear-damp pillow sheet pressed against his face reminds Brook of a more primal memory. A wet sheet wrapped around his face and body. This may be his first night in jail, but the Madcub has been imprisoned before.

_ w h a t w i l l y o u d o_
w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o
y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook: It feels like a hot coal, or maybe more accurately, like a piece of dry ice deep in the young man’s soul. Something small, but like the wolf is more dangerous than the bear, something doesn’t need to be big to hurt you. Brook considers a moment the fear he’s worked through in his career of being Madcub, the horror he’s seen, the sick wet sound of chunks and blood hitting pavement before the dull twitching thud of a charging dog’s corpse hitting the ground, the snap of twigs when he’s sure he’s alone, the gentle tone of a whippoorwill too nearby as he sits unmoving up in a blinder clutching a weapon.

How many times he’s pushed through it, never denied it, but pushed through it. But the vulnerability is exposed, the naked chest he’s not felt in years without the feel of a tight brown cord or a chilled steel heart resting against bare skin. Then comes the river again, that haunting voice reminding him of a threat he screamed into the water, a promise. Anything to be free. There’s a small panic in his chest for a moment as his instinct against being cooped up starts to rise again.

GM: Yet, it isn’t the sound of rushing, drowning waters that fills Brook’s ears. Instead, the keen adolescent hears the sound of the station’s front door opening.

Brook: Brook’s panic is immediately shut out by that glorious sound. He sniffles in a gross glob of snot and spits it into the sink as he jumps up, wiping his face with his arms as he rushes the bars and yells up the stairs, “Ferg! Ferg, is that you!?”

GM: Contrary to the boy’s expectations, the elderly dispatcher’s voice does not drift down to greet him. Instead, he hears a footstep freeze instantly in the doorstep of the station. And then, he hears nothing. Nothing save for the echoes of his own voice crashing in his cell till they die.

Brook: Brook pauses, a shot of instinct whispering in his ear to slowly back away from the bars of his cage out of view of the stairway, and he follows it, standing stock still and listening. It doesn’t feel good having having only what he does for room, ass pressing into the sink as he waits for whoever is here to reveal themselves.

GM: No revelation occurs. Instead, Brook is left to wait inside his cell, time tightening his muscles like wound springs. Does the door close? He cannot be sure. He thinks he would have heard it. He thinks he would have heard something. Much like the troubling absence of his medallion, Brook does not hear anything except for his own heartbeat.

Brook: It’s almost too much, he feels like a trapped raccoon in a trap waiting to be finished off. Slowly stepping forward, he peeks out at the stairwell, trying to catch any hint of movement.

GM: Those hints, however, once again evade capture–or as Brook must increasingly wonder, they may simply not exist. For despite all his focus, Brook fails to hear anything from upstairs. Time ticks on silently, without measure and soon without meaning.

Brook: Soon enough, Brook has had enough, slowly sliding out the pipe from his pocket and wiping it on his shirt, sharply blowing into the forgotten pitch pipe to try and scare whoever lurks in the station.

GM: Brook himself is surprised when the rusted aerophone fails to produce a blast of piercing C sharp. Instead, Brook notes the reed is jammed by something stuck inside the pipe, ruining the intensity and pitch of the note. Yet, the abnormal fluttering note does manage to create an odd ‘echo’ from upstairs. Up two sets of stairs, if Brook is not mistaken. There is a jostle of something accompanied by a creak of a descending foot upon the staircase that connects the station’s first and second stories.

Moreover, the ruined note seems to ‘tune up’ Brook’s already sharp hearing, allowing him to hear someone or something stealthily open, then close, and finally lock the station’s front door. Afterwards, Brook is once again trapped in silence.

Brook: Brook’s ears concern him. Everything is strange about this, if he was free, he would take off after this person and hunt down who had the gal not to answer him! But whoever they were locked the doors back. It doesn’t sit right, but knocking this door down would simply get him in more trouble. He turns his mind to a question he can answer, sitting and starting to carefully take the pitch tuner apart, to see what is stuck in that pipe.

GM: The task is tricky without the proper tools, but Brook manages to finagle the obstruction. Straightening the slip of paper out, the teen sees that it is a fortune slip from the local Chinese restaurant, the Cat’s Meow. The slip reads: Three can keep a secret, if you get rid of two

And below: Lucky Numbers 48, 43, 81, 98 -11, 6, 15, 29, 54

Brook: Brook looks over the fortune and sighs, having hoped for something more obvious, or at least less ominous. Murder cookies at the Cat’s Meow apparently. Sliding it into his pocket, he starts to look over the door, taking deep calming breaths as he tries to find some way to open the door without breaking it.

GM: If the way exists, Brook’s mind is unable to find it.

Brook: Brook sighs and smooths his hands through his hair, pacing the three steps along the cell. Breaking this door isn’t an option right now. He pushes that feeling down as hard as he can with logic, that he IS free, that this is just for tonight, a courtesy for Marshal Schofield. Tomorrow he gets to go out of town, and most likely after that, go home! Right? Right. He paces and waits, listening for the door to open again or his internal clock to tell him it’s time for sleep.

GM: Brook’s sense of time further slips away. Somewhere between picking his cuticles, clucking his tongue to listen to its echo, and counting the cinder blocks in his cell for the fifteenth time, Brook hears the station’s front door open. Once again, he hears no voice announce its arrival.

Brook: Brook feels more and more like ripping the sink off the wall and using it to bash the door down, eventually finding himself shifting leg to leg, muttering the lyrics to the entire NOFX ‘punk in drublic’ album. Then the door opens again, and the boy feels like he’s been slapped with a cold wet facecloth. Instinct kicks in and a finger and thumb from one hand jams into his mouth, the whistle that sounds on could wake the neighbors or deafen a bear. “Hello!? HELLO!?!?”

GM: “Fish and chips, boy,” comes Ferg’s startled voice, “You trying to give me a heart attack? I thought you’d be asleep.” Brook hears the station door close, keys jangle as it locks, and then slow steps descending the stairs.

Brook: There’s a tingle of relief down the young man’s entire back, shuddering and feeling his muscles finally relax. It’s Ferg, finally. “It’s you! Thank god. I don’t know if I could have lasted another half hour.” He waits, standing with his face nearly in between the bars

GM: Ferg’s shoes, slacks, jacket and finally wooly face face emerge into view. That face though, is clearly drained. “We found him, son.”

Brook: Brook’s is conflicted for a split second, before it gets deathly serious. “Alive?”

GM: Ferg takes off his glasses and kneads his brow. Agonizingly slow seconds tick by before he answers, “Yes.”

Brook: Brook can swear he feels the metal bars start to bend as he grips them tighter, even the answer doesn’t satisfy him as his arms strain against the bars. “Ferg. I can handle anything. Please. it’s worse not knowing.”

GM: Ferg hesitates returning his glasses to his face, as if not wanting to look the youth clearly in the eye. However, Brook’s impassioned plea moves the old dispatcher. He sighs, his bread blowing softly, before he answers, “First off, Miss Pohlman, your friend, is safely at home. Her family is none to pleased with her sneaking off, but I think tonight’s events have helped her see the right of being square. Second… second, your friend Daniel Littlebeaver was, is, badly hurt. I just left Mount Pelion. He’s in good hands now. Better hands than yours and mine.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes don’t put the pressure of his stare on Ferg, instead burning a hole into the man’s chest as he listens, nodding slowly. “She might have saved his life, sneaking off. She’ll have to save it again when I beat him senseless for doing something so stupid in the first place,” he mutters, taking a deep breath, trying not to get angry with himself of all people at fault here. “The roads from the res are bad medicine. All of them. Was he attacked? Did he fall? What can you tell me?”

GM: Ferg scratches his chest, as if attempting to itch away Brook’s gaze. “He made it into town. We’re not sure what happened, but it seems like he crashed badly off his bike.” He pauses, looking up at Brook before glancing away again, “He was dressed in black, no reflectors on his bike. Car might not have even seen him, clipping him or scaring him off the road. He just says he crashed.”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes, looking almost furious, eyes turning away from the man’s chest to the wall beside him. “He doesn’t even have to say it to my face for me to hear that is a lie.” he mutters, nodding. “You said he was in town, but badly hurt? Tell me the truth Ferg, what did your gut tell you happened? I mean, if he’s badly hurt, and his bike is fine? I don’t buy it.”

GM: Ferg takes off his glances again and hangs it on his shirt. “Night has a funny way of making facts fuzzy and guts rumble.” He stands wearily, groaning with a pop in his spine. “Brook, son, it’s been a long day. I’m going upstairs to hit the hay. I don’t sleep much, on account of my prostate being the size of a grapefruit, but I do need some sleep. If anything changes, we’ll get a call, and if not, I’ll call over at first light.” The dispatcher, who very much looks his years, gives a parting wave, then makes his way to and up the stairs. “Holler if you need anything, and please don’t if you don’t.”

Brook: Brook nods quietly, eyes softening considerably when the dispatcher stands up, pained and tired. It reminds him of his mother. “You deserve the rest. But Ferg, one last thing. A few hours ago someone snuck in, walked to the top floor, and left. I heard the lock go, they must have had a key. But they didn’t answer me when I called,” the boy warns, his nervous gut easing slightly with the info passed on.

GM: Ferg’s bushy eyebrows raise as he pauses mid-step, “Come again?”

Brook: “A few hours ago. They tried to be quiet after the door opened. Steps paused in the porch and I heard nothing until I blew this pitch pipe I found. I heard them jump from the top floor. Then they snuck out the front door and locked it. They didn’t answer and tried to sneak. But I heard them. They didn’t answer me when I called from the basement. And I didn’t call again until I blew the pipe. It didn’t feel right.”

GM: “Pipe? Jump? None of this is making sense, son. I’m sure, well really sure I locked the station when I left with your friend, and I definitely had to unlock the door when I got back.” He leans a forearm against against the wall. “No one has a key except me, Sheriff Bauman, and Deputy Lowder. Sheriff’s been at his daughter’s side at the hospital this whole time, and the other deputies were way out by Rockwell’s Fall–which is why I had to leave the station to go look for your friend.”

Ferg glances upstairs. “Couldn’t… this old station, it can play tricks on you. Specially for someone locked up, stewing in a cell. I should know, after all.”For all his projected confidence, Ferg’s voice and glance betray the dispatcher’s ill-ease. Brook can almost see the hook of doubt he’s cast in the man’s tired mind.

“Night has a funny way of making facts fuzzy and guts rumble,” repeats Ferg, perhaps more to himself than to the cell-locked teen.

Brook: Brook kneels and reaches through the bars, tossing the pitch pipe to slide across the floor to the older man’s feet. He’ll want it back later, for now it’s a good example. “I found it in the bed,” he starts, standing again.

“I run the radio station at night because everything that I am doesn’t rest until the sun rises, Ferg. Not only that, but I’m a hunter. I know when I startle something. And I know you’re a good man, so I’ll still offer even if I know you wouldn’t let me out of this cage to watch the door for you while you sleep. But they had a key. I heard the lock. Just check if… I dunno, maybe the sheriff came, or one of the deputies. I’m just telling you what I heard.”

GM: Ferg begrudgingly picks up his glasses. Sliding them on his face, he sighs. “Okay, Brook, I hear you. I’ll check in and recheck the station, and… I appreciate you telling me.”

Brook: “I’m sorry to worry you, Ferg. The offer still stands. Call for me and I’ll kick this door down. You’ve been really good to me, so… don’t be afraid of asking me for some help.”

GM: Ferg’s bushy brows crease at Brook’s mention of kicking the metal cell-door down, but he holds his tongue, and instead simply nods in appreciation of the youth’s seeming goodwill. He waves again, then resumes trudging upstairs.

Brook: Brook sighs, and waves back to the man, letting him trudge back upstairs and sitting on the bed cross legged. At least the young man could spare the older one the suicide note, and the thought that a 15-year-old was sitting in the cell of a man he knows died there. But instead, the boy closes his eyes, feeling at ease with another person in the house and trying to relax. Ears open, waiting for his body to tell him it is daylight.

GM: As hours pass uninterrupted, the cell seems to infinitesimally yet inescapably shrink. With each exhalation, Brook feels one step closer to asphyxiation. His only companions are gray-faced doldrums and stir-crazy delusions, and the pair eye one another and him in an escalating Cold War that occurs solely inside the cage of his mind. Daylight is long in coming.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Date [REDACTED]

GM: Hazel finds herself back in the chamber where she has neither been nor not been. It takes her a moment to register the new, burningly painful cat-scratch on her chest.

Hazel: It only figures rejecting entropy would hurt the most. Eventually, her fast-beating heart stills. She looks down at the cat in her arms.“I think I provoked him.” There’s the faintest smile as she rubs her jaw. “My last words to my parents were warm ones. I hugged them both. I normally don’t. But I feel like you already know that, don’t you?”

“I miss them,” she admits. There’s a tiredness to her eyes. “It feels like a lifetime since I last saw them. I’m sure they’re worried… sick over me. The thought of Mackenzie having even potentially prolonged or increased their distress greatly angers me.” She sighs. “But I cannot allow entropy unchecked reign throughout my mental kingdom. Even the last two scenes we saw… I turned those tendencies upon them.”

GM: The cat regards Hazel with its black-monitor eyes. There’s a click as un-named colors return in new shapes:

not_sad.jpg.png

Hazel:You’re not sad? Or I shouldn’t be sad?” she inquires, her voice going flat.

GM: The cat closes its eyes as it brushes up against her hand.

Hazel: She scratches its ears, giving it an equally flat look. She’s not sure whether to tell Tibbles to piss off or concede that the cat has a point. She settles for a dry, “Thanks for listening,” scoops it up in her arms, and sits down on the unfinished chair. This one needs fixing. Improving. She feels… like doing, or at least seeing, something generative right now.

GM: Whatever the cat’s view of her thoughts, it seems content with her actions. It purrs with its rhythmic computer-fan whir. Once again, another of the chamber’s picture frames come to life.

As Hazel opens her eyes, she awakens beside a soft bed. A cool spring breeze wafts through large, half-open windows. The morning air causes the linen curtains to stir to life, shifting to reveal a verdant hedge of blooming roses beyond. Within the room, a large comforter drapes over the bed like a cotton caul. Initially white, a floral pattern emerges before Hazel’s gaze. Fecund fruit trees and stamen-flush flowers blossom across the plush fabric, attracting sartorial birds and soporific-buzzing bees. The nectar-hued dawn filters through the room, illuminating piles of freshly printed books whose virgin spines yearn to be opened.

Hazel: Now this is a place she’d like to wake up to.

GM: Another figure does.

It somnambulistically stirs. Young arms stretch as lazily as any cat. The figure sits up, revealing its soft cotton-T-shirt, freshly wrinkled by dreams. The figure turns to face Hazel–or appears to do so. Like the figures in the other pictures, this one lacks a head. Instead, a coat hanger replaces its scapula and neck.

dynamic_avatar.jpg

“Good morning, Hazel,” the figure says with a yawn.

Hazel: “Good morning,” she replies. At least this time she knows where to orient her gaze. She pets the cat from her own seat upon the bed. “The phrase would certainly appear more than mere platitude in this case.”

GM: “It’s time to begin.”

Hazel: “Yes, there is much work to be done. Both upon the chair, within the waking world, and within my own psyche. Where and how do you suggest beginning?”

GM: Remaining in bed, the figure leans over and picks up one of the books. “The beginning has begun,” she says. The book opens with the satisfying flicker of pages to the start, where Hazel can see words being printed in fresh ink.

Good morning, Hazel, they begin.

Good morning. The phrase would certainly appear more than mere platitude in this case.

It’s time to begin.

Hazel: She reads up to and past the part where Hazel starts to read. Part of her wonders what would happen if she flipped ahead to the last page. But she’s never been one to do that. All things in their time.

GM: “There are no last pages,” the coat-rack figure says, seemingly reading Hazel’s thoughts. “Not here. Never here.”

Hazel: She considers that. “I suppose there aren’t, now are there?”

GM: Meanwhile, Hazel watches as the printed words continue to appear on the book, yet as she reads, she sees the page spring to life with variously colored inks. From those fertile pools of rainbow inks, seeds begin to sprout. First one, then another, till the entire page is overflowing with vines and upward rising trunks that thicken and sprout untamed branches.

In the riotous growth, those branches begin to yield fruit of various shapes, most of which are just out of sight behind the spreading canopy. Nevertheless, Hazel discerns the shape of several nearby, low-hanging ‘fruits’. The first is an officially sealed envelope that ripens before Hazel’s eyes, bursting open to reveal a freshly-signed PI’s license.

Hazel: “A low-hanging fruit indeed. I knew it was already there in the mail,” Hazel states, though she is smiling. Her mom could use the help, and Hazel has never been one to trust strangers to a task she could do herself.

The thought of sabotaging the Keystone-Nostrum contract gives that smile some pause. It seems so… just, agh now. What she’d give to be able to do PI work for her mom now, the devil to whether she’d—they’d?—be leaving.

GM: “Not leaving, but beginning a journey elsewhere. Starting anew. New domiciles, new jobs, new loves, new partners. The loam is black and rich as coffee in the morning,” the figure says, leaning back and talking as if in a dream. Hazel can hardly see the figure through still-growing forest.

Hazel: “Maybe. That’s… that’s what Mom would say. No opportunities in Witiko Falls. But leaving behind Dad?” She’s quiet after that half-question, half-statement, turning back towards the book.
Well, canopy.

GM: The figure’s dreamy if not dreaming voice filters through that canopy. “It’s time for him to change too. He’s ripe to begin anew.”

Hazel: “That… that might be right. He certainly is clinging to the past. He still wears his wedding ring. And Mom doesn’t intend to stay,” Hazel grants. “But… the thought of him bringing somebody else in, much less a stepparent…” She squirms. “I suppose I am a grown woman and my parents’ choice of partners is no longer something I ought be overly concerned with, but I do not like the thought of a stranger being brought into our family, whose affection is solely for my father—or mother—and forces us into a state of awkward coexistence. It is disharmonious.”

“But I would be remiss not to acknowledge that our family is… disharmonious, as well, in its present state. They would not even call it a family, would they? I wish we could… just go back to the way things were. Before the divorce.”

She sighs. “But… I do have to wonder what manner of future there might be in such a recreation of the past. My mother is correct as to the limited career opportunities available in Witiko Falls. And even if she were to reconcile with my father, she is not happy here. She has never been happy here.”

“I don’t… I don’t know what to do,” she lamely finishes.

GM: Off in the canopy somewhere unseen, a blossom ‘ripens’ into a newborn infant’s cry.

“Could be a half-sister. Brother. Son?” the figure says excitedly.

Hazel: Hazel thinks. It gets her mind off harder questions to answer, at least. “It is either my child or my father’s. My mother is past the age of childbearing. I intend to have myself artificially inseminated if I am unable to find a life partner, though not for some years yet. I do not believe I am presently qualified to rear an infant. So it is most likely my half-sibling.”

She still doesn’t like the idea of a stepparent. But… a brother or sister would be another matter.

GM: Far closer to Hazel, however, is another ‘fruit’. Initially, Hazel mistakes it for an odd cluster of hanging bananas, but it shifts, revealing itself as a swarm of hands. The hands clearly belong to minors, although each one bears a similar tattoo on the inner wrist. The tattoo is a double line of numbers and letters, a single period separating them, fresh ink and blood dripping like nectar from the arms. Most of the nails are painted in bright colors. They reach out to Hazel, as for help or to help.

To their side, another fruit bursts into life. At first, it appears like a white orchid, but it swiftly grows, then blooms into a dangling straitjacket, its buckles dangling as metal stamen.

Hazel: Hazel instinctively stiffens at its presence, her face hardening. “No. I’ll make Mackenzie fucking eat that jacket.”

GM: “Keep an open mind. You never know how it fits till you try it on. You could find it to your liking.”

Hazel: “Keep your mind too open and your brain matter will leak out through your ears,” she answers caustically, but then moderates her tone. “I’ll try a new jacket. Sure. But I will never surrender my personal autonomy. Open the sleeves and lose the straps.”

She looks towards the hands, tentatively reaching out to touch the nearest one.

GM: It looks as if the coat-rack figure shrugs at Hazel’s terse reply. The nearest hand, however, reciprocates Hazel’s gesture. It then hesitates, as if unsure if it wishes true contact.

Hazel: That actually makes her more at ease. They’re alike in that way, then. “Pleased to meet you,” she remarks as she shakes the hand.

GM: The hand accepts Hazel’s grip, tentatively at first, then seems to split apart like a ripened peel of flesh, leaving Hazel holding nothing but the tatters of a teenage girl’s arm-skin. Inside, however, emerges a glistening wet wormish creature. A muddy-black salamander with hellish-orange spots that slithers down and away into the overgrowth.

Hazel: There’s some amount of instinctive disgust. But Hazel tries to clamp down on the sensation. Gross bodily functions are a far more trifling thing to be upset over than loss of personal freedom.
She observes the newborn salamander’s path. It is, after all, a creature symbolic of beginnings.

GM: Yet its size, coupled with the fecundity of the now-forest, causes Hazel to swiftly lose sight of the salamander. Indeed, she runs straight into a nest of flowers whose stamens are keys–including one to Sisyphus Manor. The key conjures a flurry of thoughts that distract Hazel, and by the time she recalls her intended pursuit, she is lost, and unsure whether she can make her way back to the bed, and the coat-rack dreamer and cat who bedded down upon it. Branches and vines grasp after her. So many textures, scents, and sounds. In the distance, a chicken clucks.

Hazel: This is not good. Growth and change is necessary to prevent stagnation, but it must be controlled, regulated.

GM: A pair of vines unfurl, connected by a wooden beam. A swing. A young man rocks upon the arboreal perch, his back turned to Hazel.

Hazel: She holds off on the act of will that could have sent her back to the cat and dreamer. She approaches the young man. “Hello. Are you the boyfriend of Marilyn Sweeney?”

GM: The man, who upon closer inspection must be several years older than Hazel, starts to turn. Before his face is revealed, another straight-jacket flower ‘blooms’ blocking her view. Its strap ‘petals’ reach out for her, its buckle stamen clinking loudly.

Hazel: Hazel instinctively thrusts out a hand. The weight of the buckles grows oh so heavy, forcing down the cloth straps that give it animation.

GM: The jacket responds, all-too eager to move, to change. The metal grows, not just heavy but in dimensions. The magnified buckles tear free form their straps, dropping like ferrous seeds, there they strike and sink deeply into the ground, only to instantly sprout into iron bars that are as thick as they are towering. Through the gaps, Hazel can see the control camisole transform as well, shifting into the semblance of a white doctor’s coat.

The young man exits the swing and disappears into the recesses of the overflowing forest. At the current exponential rate of spreading flora, Hazel too will soon disappear.

Hazel: Roll with the dream. Don’t contradict the narrative. There is a logic at work here she understands.

“Yes! Grow! Grow!” she shouts, throwing her arms wide. Grow and grow the metal bars do—along with the size of their gaps. Hazel ducks her head to slip underneath them, then grabs hold of the bars from outside. She could try to halt the growth of the forest. Or she could beat it at its own game.

She hoists herself over the bar with a grunt, grabs the next ‘rung’, and climbs still further up. All the while, she shouts the same word: “GROW!”

The metal ‘foliage’ ascends higher and higher. Hazel squints down at the rapidly diminishing forest. It’s getting hard to see. Another incantation and act of will hones her perceptions to a knife’s-edge, cutting through the thick canopy like a machete.

There—the coat-rack dreamer. The computer-eyed cat. The bedroom, or at least what started as a bedroom, is barely recognizable beneath the fast-expanding megaflora. There needs to be a check on this growth, and soon. An Antropos to sheer the miles-long thread of life. For now, a Lachesis to provide direction will do.

GROW—that way!” Hazel points. The steel bars prove all-too eager to enlarge, expand, and live at her urging. She clambers down from her perch as the foliage-overrun bed and its two occupants approach. She observes that the lower bars are all but consumed in a thicket of hungrily-spreading branches and vines. She absently wonders how long it will take them to cover the entire metal structure, but dismisses the matter as she jumps down onto the bed with a soft impact, then scoops the cat back up in her arms.

She turns to regard the coat-rack dreamer—or at least her closest approximation of where the figure may be.

“I am often inflexible and given to modes of cognitive rigidity. Your spontaneity, adaptability, and willingness to try new things are qualities that do not come easily to me, and they are ones I would benefit from adopting to a greater degree. But Clotho’s ceaseless spinning must be directed by Lachesis’ guiding hand. You may best serve my personal development as an advisor standing beside my cognitive throne than as the queen who sits upon it.”

She looks to the cat. “I am ready to depart.”

GM: The feline obliges, sinking its fangs deep into one of Hazel’s fingers. Back in the chamber, the cat licks a paw, but eyes Hazel. Those eyes speak, despite the feline’s silence.

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All four chairs remain, though only one remains untested.

Hazel: There’s another restrained glare at the sudden pain, even if she knew it was coming.

“At least the parting there was more amicable,” Hazel remarks. She’s come this far; there’s but one road she has yet to explore.

She approaches the mobile chair’s path, waits for it to intersect with hers, and then semi-awkwardly attempts to quickly sit down while there’s still a cat in her arms. It’s fitting, though, that the last chair she occupies is literally coming around full circle.

GM: Around and around.

Once again, she sits. Once again, a picture frame flickers to life, and once again, she finds herself within a new vista. Like the first two, the fourth landscape is familiar to Hazel’s psyche. Home. Or, what was once her home. For the chair transports her to the one of the abandoned walkways leading up to the Sisyphus manor. It’s a path she’s trod many times. Old brick, deeply buried in the lawn, line the pathway otherwise made of well-trod gravel. Above, the sky bears the bruising purple of twilight: the bewitching hour. Below, the path has been further marked by dozens if not hundreds of open books.

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The dark-furred cat leaps from Hazel’s arm, but waits for the woman to decide their sojourn’s course.

Hazel: Home.

God she’s missed it. Lacewood has always been close to her heart. But always second-closest. Her apartment and college dorm were temporary residences. Mom’s hotel room barely registers a blip. The Sweeney house has been forever despoiled.

But here.

Home.

She knows the path by heart, and follows it by heart alone, towards the distant hilltop manor. It’s even during her favorite time of day. All that’s missing is her family waiting at the house’s door. It may not be perfect. But it’s damn close.

GM: Close, and increasingly closer. And yet, her very first step gives her pause. For in side-stepping the panoply of books that litter the gravel path, Hazel is struck by the sight of the book at her feet. Her book.

She immediately recognizes it. Knows it. Like the scent of her father’s aftershave, the sound of her mother tiredly slipping off her heels after a long day of work, and the taste of Gramps’ smoked trout, she knows this book.

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Hazel: Those shoes are so illogical, Mom, she thinks with simultaneous amusement and sadness. But a far more immediate memory—and sight—beckons.

GM: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. She had found the book–or had the book found her?–during her first night at the Sisyphus manor. She had been pacing in her then-utterly unfamiliar bedroom located in the then-foreign house that seemed far too vast for her comparatively tiny family of three. Around and around she paced, unable to sleep, unable to settle herself in the alien environment, unable to process why her mother had demanded they move away from Gramps and Nana and the familiar security of Lacewood. Around and around, she paced, unable to relax, as the old house on the hill creaked and groaned with strange voices. Around and around, she paced, her bare feet treading the old, squeaky floorboards. Around and around, she had paced until she recognized that one of the floorboards had a different voice, a different groan.

Sometimes, the sensory hypersensitivities had its benefits. That night was one of them.
Hazel had inspected the odd floorboard and found it came up easily, its nails and inner side having been filed down. Moving the thinned plank aside, she found the clandestine cache and the book that would cement her interest in the occult and supernatural. Its green-gray binding reminded her of a WWI military uniform. Two red lines, faded from age, marked the top and bottom covers; whereas, dust gathered in the black inset typeface of the book’s title and its compiler: M. R. James. At first, Hazel had assumed the book was a moving-day present from her mother. After all, the erudite lawyer occasionally hid small gifts for her daughter to find or unlock, as if to promote her problem-solving, if not perseverance.

Hazel: That was a quality of her mother’s an older Hazel came to admire. Even her younger self had to admit she liked the satisfaction of unearthing her presents.

GM: Already a bookworm, and with not much else to do, Hazel had cracked open the book. It was a 1904 first edition book, published by Edward Arnold in Britain. Beyond its notable age and foreign publication, Hazel was struck by its ‘author’, Montague Rhodes James. Namely, M. R. James was detailed not as the author or editor of the book’s stories, but as its compiler. This was all the more noteworthy given that the book, true to its title, was a collection of ghost stories. Indeed, the credence given to the book’s tales and their veridical nature were amplified when Hazel learned that James was a respected paleographer and medievalist scholar who served as the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge.

Hazel: Well, that had settled it in her young mind. Even the most highly-regarded of intellectuals could treat this subject matter as a valid pursuit and scholastic field.

GM: Moreover, Hazel found that in contrast to earlier gothic tales filled with dashing knights and beautiful damsels, James’ collections predominately used rural settings with introverted, yet scholarly protagonists getting caught up in the activities of supernatural forces. Similar, Hazel came to appreciate how James’ work was similarly unique for its details of horror almost never being explicit, but instead relied upon a gentle, bucolic background to emphasize the awfulness of otherworldly intrusions. As a socially maladjusted, yet preciously erudite youth living in a beautiful town otherwise best with strangeness, the young girl not only noted the parallels, but also saw personages resembling herself being featured as protagonists.

Hazel: That sealed it. This was who she was—in more than one sense of the word.

GM: Consequently, it was unsurprising that Hazel read and almost memorized all eight tales in the collection: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, The Ash-tree, Number 13, Count Magnus, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.

Hazel: She remembers showing the book she’d found to her parents. “This is about me! And it’s very good!”

GM: Of course, they had reacted with surprise and initial trepidation. After all, they had insisted that they knew nothing of the floorboard niche, nor the book. Moreover, they had worried that the book of old ghost stories would do nothing but give their emotionally volatile daughter terrible nightmares.

“Pretty dark stuff, kiddo,” her dad has said, offering to buy her a book on ponies or cake-making to replace it.

“It’s not real, darling,” was her mother’s response. “You do know that?”

Hazel: “Ponies are boring, and cakes are for eating, not reading. I find this remarkably fascinating!” the five-year-old had protested to her father.

She wasn’t as sure what to say to her mom’s statement and settled for, “It is educational and entertaining!”

GM: With that seeming concession, her mother relented, as did Harvey, especially when the nightmares failed to materialize, although Hazel’s somnambulism did seem to spike while at Sisyphus Manor.

Hazel: Besides, who knew if she might find other books in the house, late at night?

GM: Indeed, Hazel’s parents would come to rue their acquiescence, as the book proved to be a ‘gateway drug’ that spurred Hazel’s eventual obsession with the occult. Certainly, Gramps’ fairy tales and superstitions didn’t help, nor did the way in which the old house seemed to keep turning up aged copies of occult works from the likes of Éliphas Lévi, Aleister Crowley, and John Dee.

Hazel: Hazel always did try to relate them to her parents, especially as she grew older and better able to verbalize their contents. She told her mother and father all about Hermes Thrice-Greater-One, Kabbalah, Enochian, the Golden Dawn, and the mythical city of Pymander. The girl with autism had found a topic that enraptured her, and could share facts about it for hours upon hours. “Within the body of Adam Qadmon, the Primordial Man, all things are found! See how the 10 Sephiroth chart the path from mortality to supreme godhead!”

GM: Much to their chagrin–and that of nearly anyone else unlucky enough to be in Hazel’s earshot.
Now, though, Hazel’s only company is the black cat, which has stopped to lick its paws again, as Hazel hefts her old copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian. Looking down, she sees the book has been opened to Count Magnus, and to particular passage therein:

He found that the Count was not a favorite. If his tenants came late to their work on the days which they owed to him as Lord of the Manor, they were set on the wooden horse, or flogged and branded in the manor-house yard. One of two of these cases there were of men who had occupied lands which encroached on the lord’s domain, and whose houses had been mysteriously burnt on a winter’s night, with the whole family inside. But what seemed to dwell on the innkeeper’s mind most–for he returned to the subject more than once–was that the Count has been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.

Hazel: Hazel had brought up some of those passages around her parents too. Terminology such as “flogging and branding” doubtless did little to set their minds at ease.

GM: However, it had been the explicitly detailed descriptions of sex magic by the likes of Randolph, Jennings, Craddock, Crowley, and de Naglowska that proved unpalatable to her parents–or more specifically her father. When Harvey had discovered the explicit content littering his middle school daughter’s ‘bedtime reading’, he took the entire collection of antique books and burned them.
Hazel had returned home from school that day to find her parents shouting at each–a then incredibly rare event, potentially the first time Hazel ever witnessed.

“So what, Harvey, you’re a Nazi now, burning books?!” her mother had shouted as she opened the front door.

Hazel: The then-thirteen-year-old Hazel had one thing to say to her father: “YOUBURNEDBOOKS!?” she had shrieked with outrage, her face flushed red. “Those—were—!” she had found herself at a momentary loss for words, sputtering with incoherent, wrath.

“You—BARBARIAN! You—stupid_, uneducated lout! Ever has it been the way of—_savages to destroy those works of civilization they cannot understand! He is not a Nazi, Mother, but a mindless, butchering Vandal in the streets of Rome, destroying that which he might never understand nor create! Those were—ANTIQUES! Irreplaceable! The knowledge they contained is now lost forever, thanks to your—ignorance—and stupidity! YOU DESTROYED KNOWLEDGE!”

At that final declaration, the middle schooler’s fury burned out. Despair was all that remained. She burst into choking spasms of tears and sank to the floor.

GM: To Hazel’s latter lament, her parents’ fury, particularly with each other, was far from extinguished. Lydia tried to comfort Hazel, saying they would replace them.

Harvey wouldn’t hear it, promising to burn every single one again and again “even if it meant his daughter hating him for it!”

“What about your wife hating you?” Lydia had reflexively shouted back.

And in that moment, Hazel’s parents were verbally at one another’s throats again, seemingly blinded to their daughter by their uncharacteristic anger at each other. As their verbal tirades escalated, Lydia eventually accused Harvey of stealing the books so he “could learn some new tricks for Tina–or is it Leo!”

Hazel: That spate had actually made Hazel’s face go still for a moment. She… really wasn’t sure what to think of it. And coming so soon, after the destruction of her beloved books. It didn’t even seem real. She felt her head growing light and a familiar tightness gripping her lungs. Blinking past her tears, she cried, “Y-you co-could have j-just taken them a-w-way! YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO BURN THEM!”
The words flew out of her mouth like hot vomit, but she didn’t feel any less queasy for its absence. All of this, all of it was… was… further coherent thought was lost as the panic attack hit.

GM: Her parents, so possessed by their fury at each other, didn’t even notice. All Harvey heard and saw was Lydia yelling the inflammatory accusation an inch from his face. He lashed out with a push that drove Lydia staggering back into the kitchen table and shattering the top of her wineglass.

The action shocked all three of the Baumans, Harvey included, but Lydia was the first to recover–though not from her fury. It all happened so fast, and Hazel could never know for sure whether her mother was simply trying to spill the remaining wine in Harvey’s face or stab out his eyes.

Before the latter could happen, intentionally or not, Harvey slapped Lydia’s hand with such a terrible force that Hazel heard the snap of her mother’s wrist-bones echo in her dreams for months. Lydia cried out and sunk to her knees. Harvey tried to rush in to apologize, beg forgiveness, and comfort her. But she flailed and screamed at him to leave.

It was at that moment that Harvey seemed to remember his daughter. He tried to stammer something, but instead half-fled, half-stormed out the kitchen door, ripping the screen-door off its hinges like he was being pursued by the very hounds of hell.

Hazel: Like a bad hangover, the panic attack’s mindless fear-spasms eventually ran their course. They always did eventually.

She couldn’t say for how long it was after the terrible scene. If listening to her parents fight didn’t seem real, watching them fight—physically fight—called into question whether anything was real. This couldn’t have been happening. It was an altogether distinct manner of terror from the anxiety attacks—not a sudden punch to the gut, where one expects, but a punch to the throat, the groin, where one doesn’t expect, followed by shards of glass strewn throughout one’s home, turning that which was safe and familiar into a waiting death-trap of sharp angles and cutting edges that even the slightest unintentional action might set off, drawing forth new welts of blood and pain.

She felt her heart hammering in her ears, the surge of adrenaline running through her bloodstream, instincts screaming either fight or flight in a place that should see neither. In a place that should be home.

She didn’t stand up. She wondered if she might stand up into a stabbing web of broken glass. Whether raising her head too high would make someone see it, would disturb something else, make them scream. She crawled instead into the kitchen, her expression half-dumb, instinctively seeking comfort, explanation, sense. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks white as she looked up at her mother, but she’d long since stopped crying. Her voice was hardly above a whisper.

“Mo-om…”

GM: The Sisyphus Manor also seemed large, especially for a small family of three. But that day, as mother and daughter crawled to each other on the floor littered with split wine, blood, and glass shards, it seemed incomprehensibly vast, like the cold, infinite vacuum of space. It was only a few feet, but it felt like traversing light years.

Hazel: “M-Mom,” she stammered helplessly, “wh…”

What? Why? It was both those questions, and none of them. None because this shouldn’t have occurred. Couldn’t have occurred. Hazel’s mother was always the indomitable, high-powered corporate executive who got what she wanted, through force of will and intellect alike.

She wasn’t a woman who screamed and flailed and got slapped around in her own house.

GM: Except, that day, she was. And the shock of it all had seemingly shattered Lydia’s composure as well, and far less cleanly than her wrist. By the time her mother reached her, Lydia had begun to sob. Hazel could feel the heat radiating off her mother’s face. As she placed her good arm around her daughter, Lydia tried to stammer out an answer.

“I-it’s… my f-fault…” She tried to say more, explain better, to provide some comforting response or assurances, but Lydia couldn’t. Not then and there. Where words failed, Hazel had to make due with her mother’s shaky embrace and the sound of hot tears falling into a small puddle of wine.

Hazel: Hazel had even less idea what to say to that. It was… it was an accident, a car crash that happened as suddenly as it did terribly, for reasons no one could ever fully piece together.

She had equally little idea what to think of it. She’d never seen her parents cry.

“I… don’t want you to fight, over… my books…” she said lamely. There had to be a cause for this.

GM: Lydia had went to wipe her eyes and mascara-streaked face, only to wince sharply as she as was painfully reminded of the break in her wrist. “N-no, Hazel… it’s not your fault. Sometimes… sometimes parents fight.” Her tears trickled to a stop. She still hadn’t really looked at her daughter, not yet. But she hadn’t withdrawn her arm, either.

Hazel: Her thirteen-year-old self awkwardly crouched there. Never comfortable with hugs, and all-too on edge under the present circumstances, she managed to put an arm around her mother’s shoulder and limply squeeze back. “Wh… why?”

GM: Lydia had stared down at the floor a long time, as if trying to count all the pieces of shattered glass, as if trying to retrace their movements and history back to the point at which they were a solid, unbroken glass.

Had she succeeded? Or did she give up on the complex quest–or worse yet, trace the trajectories back to a truth she did not like or could not change? Hazel never found out, not then at least. Instead, her mother had stammered, then reiterated more firmly that ‘it’ would never happen again.

“I promise, Hazel,” she had said, looking up at her daughter, her face resolute in a way that Hazel knew well.

Hazel: “I can… wipe your eyes, if you are not adverse,” Hazel offered, equal parts tentative and sincere.

GM: Lydia almost lost it again at Hazel’s simple, yet profoundly sweet offer. She sniffled, and perhaps to hide another bout of tears, had asked Hazel to get several hand towels from the kitchen drawer.

Hazel: “Okay. I will… return shortly.” Hazel awkwardly rose and disengaged her arm, all-too ginger in her avoidance of the eggshells over the floor—glass and otherwise. She returned after a moment with the requested hand towels and a tube of paper ones. “The disposable material might be more efficacious, but we have both…” she half-ventured, half-explained as she knelt back down.

GM: “That’s very thoughtful of you, dear. But let’s start with the cloth ones.” With her daughter’s help, Lydia had fashioned a makeshift sling for her wrist, then rose and retrieved the broom. It was awkward work. In more ways than one.

Hazel: “I can sweep, with your wrist…” Hazel had quickly cut in.

GM: “I’ll manage,” she had replied stoically at first, but then added with a softer tone, “but I would greatly appreciate if you helped with the dust-bin and hand-broom.”

Hazel: Hazel proved all-too eager to do so. A rare change for the thirteen-year-old where housework was concerned. “We can call Winnie. To come over, about your wrist.”

GM: “That’s–” began her mother, with a tone that sounded like disagreement before halting, only to start again, “that’s an excellent idea, Hazel.” Her smile had beamed with pride. Sadness haunted that pride, but Hazel had felt her mother’s approval then like a torch in the dark.

Hazel: Hazel was puzzled by the sudden shift in her mother’s attitude, wondering what subtext she had missed. “Yes, avoiding a trip to the hospital emergency room would seem preferable.”

GM: Whether in tacit agreement or mild avoidance, Lydia had not replied initially, save for roughly mopping up the floor with her feet and a pair of paper towels. “Now, I’m sure you’re hungry after a long day at school. Why don’t you go get yourself a snack. Anything you want, dear. And then, I’ll call your aunt.” A pang of sadness slipped over her smile as she patted the top of Hazel’s head. Sniffling back a tear, she had added, “I think there’s a slice of Lottie’s German chocolate cake still in the fridge.”

Hazel: That was a rare offer. Lydia normally watched the plump 13-year-old’s intake of sweets and junk food like a hawk. She clearly wanted things to get back to normal, but as much as Hazel would normally want cake too, she honestly wasn’t feeling hungry. She mentally weighed the pros and cons of asking about the next matter on her mind, then settled for, “How can we minimize the… deleterious consequences of the reunion when Dad is back?” She then added, “Or how can we best facilitate a reconciliation.”

She managed not to wince at the mildly unexpected head-pat.

GM: Lydia didn’t quite wince as she had when she was reminded of her broken bone, but she had sighed. Sitting down at the table, she patted an adjacent chair. “There will be several steps,” her mother had explained in a didactic tone, as if spelling out a recipe for chicken cordon bleu.

“You will go upstairs to your room. This will allow me to privately call both your aunt… and your father. I do not know who will come here first. Aunt Winnifred will tend to my wrist, and I will privately explain what has happened. She will be discrete and sympathetic. She may come upstairs to give you a hug. You should accept it. She may ask if you are ‘okay’. You can answer however you wish. She will likely not ask you anything else.”

She had paused ever so slightly to ensure Hazel was tracking this ‘recipe’, then continued. “As for your father… your father will come home. I will wait down here. He and I will speak. Nicely. We may cry. But we will be nice to each other. He will apologize, and I will forgive him.” She had looked ever so slightly away, then added, “He and I will come upstairs then. He will apologize. He will likely cry. But that doesn’t mean he is upset with you. Do you understand?”

Hazel: Hazel listened to all of that slowly. She really did want to believe that following her mother’s directions would make everything better. But there was still no apparent cause for why any of this had occurred at all.

“There are… unaccounted variables in this plan,” Hazel replied. “Perhaps my presence during your initial reunion would serve as… disincentive against further hostilities.”

GM: “There will not be further hostilities. Your father and I need to speak privately first. We will speak nicely. I promise.” She had then returned to her ‘recipe’. “Your father will want to hug you. He will want to feel assured that things are okay, and that you forgive him. He will want, as you said, ‘reconciliation’. Do not pressure him about the books. We can talk about that later.”

Hazel: “I can do all of those things,” Hazel said slowly. “But… if I may be frank, the root cause of the hostilities does not appear to be addressed.”

GM: Her mother’s reply was equally tactical, if not tactful. “That is for your father and I to resolve, Hazel. I appreciate you giving us the space and time to do so.”

Hazel: Hazel bit back her natural objections, but then finally said, plaintively if not desperately, “I don’t want there to be another outbreak.”

GM: With that remark, a smile that looked, or at least felt more like a frown, appeared on Lydia’s face. She reached over and gently tucked one of Hazel’s stray strands of hair back behind her ear. “There won’t be. I know you are worried. It is natural to feel anxious. In time, that will pass.”

Hazel: Hazel looked up at her mom with some amount of puzzlement. “But there is basis to the feeling. I don’t…” Her next words quavered as she felt her eyes getting teary. “I don’t want you and Dad to fight…”

GM: “Sh-hhhhh,” her mother had said, wincing as she reached over to embrace her daughter.

The rest of the day unfolded effectively just as Lydia had promised. Hazel’s books, however, were never replaced–and remained an impolite topic of conversation amongst the Baumans.

But now, she is holding Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Her book. And by the look of the path ahead of her, the rest of her lost collection is all here as well.

The Mysteries of Eulis
Heavenly Bridegrooms
Psychic Wedlock
1912 copy of Oriflamme
The Book of Lies
Liber IAOIAO
De Nuptis Secretis Deorum Cum Hominibus
Liber Stellae Rubeae
Liber Agape vel C vel Azoth—The Book of the Unveiling of the Sangraal
Liber A’ash vel Capricorni Pneumatici
Le Rite Sacré de L’amour Magique
Le Mystère de la Pendaison

Hazel: Hazel gives a bittersweet smile. She knows by now the books weren’t why they were fighting. But she’d have still given them up if it meant peace.

Not that it stopped her from later accumulating more books. And never ceasing to hold her father accountable for the fact that ‘you could have taken them away without burning them’. He never apologized for those, so she never forgave him. She never brought any book to his house that she wasn’t prepared to lose. She did not let him handle any of the boxes containing books when moving to and from Spokane. And after the divorce, she took no small petty pleasure in informing him that her new collection of books, the one that would forever stay at her mom’s house, was “ten times as explicit.”

She won’t ever forget what he did. But maybe if he just apologized, she could finally forgive.

GM: The cat languidly waits, either oblivious, patient, or uncaring at the delay.

Hazel: Hazel finally looks down at the black-furred cat. “Is there no figure with whom to converse here?”

GM: “Says the girl to the cat with whom she converses,” replies the feline with a swish of its tail. Its eyes, however, give another message.

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Hazel: Hazel’s brow furrows. Not over yet, then. And of course it isn’t. She hasn’t even approached the house. She picks up the cat and makes her way up the book-littered road to her real home.

GM: Sisyphus Manor perches atop its hill, awaiting Hazel’s return. Built during the first wave of the White Plague to strike Witiko Falls, the postbellum mansion holds a commanding view of its surroundings–or normally does, for today the valleys and town below are shrouded in the opaque coils of snake fog.

Hazel: Dad, and especially Gramps, always felt the house was too large. “Like wearing a coat three sizes too big.” But Hazel never minded. It was more space for the family to have to have all to themselves—all before the abundance of “secrets” such an old, large house offered a young Hazel to explore.

GM: Old and large it is, particularly when compared to most of its local peers. Fashioned in Gothic Revival, the mansion stands three stories tall, boasts expansive cellars, and is further capped by a finial-topped cupola that functions as a grand belvedere worthy of a castle from a Grimm fairy tale. The exterior was fashioned of stone cleaved from a local quarry and sealed with a rose-tinted plaster. Framed by hooded mouldings and scalloped buttresses, scores of lancet windows peer from the second and third floors, while the first bears a set of matching porches with expertly carved columns, cornices, and stairs. In contrast, its immediately surrounding grounds are austere, featuring little else save wind-chilled grass, a large leafless tree, and the pathways upon which Hazel treads.

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Hazel: Hazel never minded the relatively barren yard. She was always an indoor child, happier with her nose in books than her feet on grass.

Looking upon the house again is a bittersweet feeling. The last time she saw it was the summer of 1993. She was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. Mom didn’t want her to spend the summer lazing about, however, when she could be moving to Spokane and settling into her new life at Gonzaga.

The last sight she had of Sisyphus was from the passenger side of the van Lydia rented to move her things in—she didn’t want Harvey on her property, and Hazel didn’t want him handling her books. She never did after that fight. Her mom had read the half-forlorn look on her face and reminded her that she was now bound for much bigger and better things than Witiko Falls. She’d softened a bit and said how proud she was of Hazel, who was all grown up and heading off to college. Hazel did want to move forward. She did want to earn her degree.

But she wanted Sisyphus too. There were no visits there back from college. Lydia sold the house and was moved into the Ghost Elk Lodge in what seemed barely any time later—so little time, in fact, that Hazel suspected her mom had been making the necessary arrangements all throughout her senior high school year. Lydia was adamant that Hazel’s move to college was going to be a move forward—just like the move from Lacewood was thirteen years before. There would be no Sisyphus Manor for Hazel to come home from college to. 1993’s Thanksgiving was at the Ghost Elk Lodge.

They’d fought. Bitterly. Hazel lost track of the number of times she repeated, “You shouldn’t have sold that house, Mom.” But there was nothing she could do about it. She was moved out and it was her mom’s house. Nothing she could do then, at least.

She has her plans now. Or at least had them. Her face falls a bit. She’d barely gotten those plans off the ground. She’d gotten inside Gina’s computer, but hadn’t yet investigated how the otherwise invisible Simeon Cratter actually paid for the house. She remembers thinking, That’s not a purchase you can make and stay invisible. Either Simeon had a bank account from which the funds were transfered, or he handed Gina a suitcase full of cash like a drug lord that she was obligated to report to the IRS. Hazel thought there were some promising avenues there. All the more so if Gina or Mr. Cratter didn’t play things by the book.

That all seems so remote now. She’ll consider herself lucky if she’s even living with her parents for the foreseeable future. If she should even be allowed to. If she can even justify herself living with them. After all, she did murder the…

She instantly clamps down on that horrid thought. No.

That… that is a sin to face in its own time. Not here. Not now. Along with her nemesis’ level of involvement. There’s nothing she can do about either here. In her mind. Her soul?

All she can do is move forward. Choose her chair. Step through the door. That, at least, feels… right. She scratches the ears of the cat in her arms, then strides forward into the house from her past.

GM: The old porch groans as Hazel ascends its stairs, like the old floorboards in her room, whispering of hidden secrets. Yet, as her hand grasps the old copper doorknob, cast and etched to resemble a blossoming rose with an oblong fruit in its center, her peripheral vision swims with movement. Behind her. Around her. Hidden now by the barren, black-barred tree and the pillared porch. Figures, dark, with faces white and round as the moon. Rabbit faces.

Hazel: Welcome to the next half of your story indeed, Alice.

Hazel calmly surveys the approaching figures. She’s in a good position if she needs to retreat—right by the door, where she can bottle them up if they come after her.

She has no intention of retreating.

“I am Hazel Attila Bauman,” her voice rings out through the twilight, “and this is my home upon which you intrude. State your business.”

Her eyes take in each of the rabbit faces even as her mind begins to work a defensive invocation.

GM: Several more rabbit faces peek up over the crest of hill. With the fog, Hazel cannot be sure, but she increasingly suspects the faces are masks. They are too eerily still. Others look over rooftop with plastic smiles.

Hazel’s reply, however, comes from within the Sisyphus Manor, rather than without. “State yours,” creaks the house with a voice that murmurs though the main door’s key-plate, a baroque, burnished affair of matching patina, metal, and age as the doorknob, whose cast and etched disk bares a circular motif of three rabbits chasing each other in three-fold symmetry.

Sisyphus_three_rabbits.jpg

Hazel: The voice sounds as if it originates from within the keyhole, so it is to the keyhole which Hazel turns to address. Her own voice remains level and betrays no fear. She knows she can’t take all those figures, if it comes down to a fight, but conviction and ingenuity may yet avert the need for one.

“This place is my home. I am here for reasons of sentiment and personal discovery. I believe there to be knowledge within its walls that will assist me in making a profound choice. Failing and irrespective of that, I intend to pay my respects to the house for the past knowledge it has bestowed me, and without which I would not be the woman I am today.”

GM: In reply, the key-plate slides of its own volition. As Hazel watches the plate reveal the dark keyhole, she can feel the press of plastic, rabbit eyes around her, their gaze pressing on her shoulders and spine. Hazel can barely hear the voice from within the keyhole, as if the source of the whisper is incredibly small, quiet, or distant.

“And if you had to choose?”

Hazel: “I would pay my respects, and make my choice with the information I already possess. I have only recently become aware of the full significance to the debt that I owe.”

GM: There is a pause, then the feel more than the sound of spectral tumblers moving. The whisper seems to dim, forcing Hazel to crane closer. “Sentiment… or discovery…” As Hazel leans in, she thinks she detects some feeble flicker or presence of light.

Hazel: The sound of the tumblers is all she needs. She opens her home’s door and briskly strides inside with the cat.

GM: She steps into darkness. It swallows her and her feline companion, snuffing out all sight, save for a single object, illuminated by an unseen source. The object is a sign, or more accurately, a pair of them. Both are nondescript, white as the rabbit masks. Both point away from Hazel at a forty-five degree angle. The top signals to the right, the bottom to the left. A single, yet distinct, word marks each signpost:

HOME

LOST

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Hazel: Her brow furrows for a moment. She takes the right-hand path. The choice is only logical. To have a place or to have none.

GM: As she takes the path identified as leading her to her home, Hazel hears a click, like the pull of a lamp-cord in a closet. As the light turns on, the resemblance is apt, as the room she finds herself in appears to be a giant closet, or closet-esque. Further inspection reveals the chamber to be a giant cube, with no apparent doors of windows.

At the cube’s center is a figure. Hazel recognizes the figure-or at least its body. Well-worn jeans, suited for a rugged hike, and a button-up long-sleeve dress shirt that is incredibly wrinkled from sleeping on the bus she was forced to take from Coer d’Alene to Spokane. The rider had already been asleep, a jacket over its head, and had remained that way the entire trip–or Hazel’s entire trip. For as Hazel left the bus to return to Gonzaga, the figure remained, its sojourn not yet complete. The figure had slept so soundly, so contently, despite the uncomfortable seats, smell of smoke, and oft-raucous passengers, that Hazel had wondered if the dreamer would ever wake or merely ride on forever and ever.

On this sojourn, however, there is no jacket over the figure’s face. As with the others, it has no face. Instead, there is a cube. Its aurelian hue and glint shimmering just as her uncle’s disturbingly ambiguous, if not amorphous desk-weight. The surface of the cubes, both those that frame the walls, ceiling, and floor as well as those of the figure’s ‘head’ begin to shimmer. Their vibrations create sounds inside Hazel’s inner skull:

They are not one.
Just one.
They are not the one.
Just one.
But not one.
But one of them.

Hazel: Hazel regards the cubed figure’s ‘face’. “Greetings. I am uncertain as to the identity of the ‘one’ you are referring to.” But then, she’d been uncertain how someone could possibly have been content on that bus ride too.

GM: You are.
And you are not.
One.

Hazel: “You believe I am divided,” she states. “Between sentiment and discovery?”

GM: You.
You are not one.
You are divided.

Hazel: “Knowledge and my family are the two things I treasure beyond all else,” Hazel states.

GM: The surfaces shimmer, creating pressure that distorts perceptions of space and time, blurring or widening Hazel’s eyes of apperception just enough that she sees the cube-esque chamber not as a cube, but a tesseract.

You do not understand.
One will understand.
But you are not one.

Hazel: “I cannot obtain ultimate knowledge and retain my family,” Hazel states, half in question.

GM: The figure reaches up and takes hold of a corner of its ‘head’. A piece shears off, creating another cube, which floats now in the new center. Blood pours from the wound, shimmering between crimson red and black as fresh ink. The figure’s hand weep with the liquid.

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Hazel: “That is its price,” she continues slowly.

GM: They are not one.
Just one.
They are not the one.
Just one.
But not one.
Only one of them.
You are not you.
You are not the one.
You are not one.

The blood-ink continues to gush.

Hazel: “Ultimate knowledge for the ultimate price,” Hazel states, seemingly as much to herself as the cubed figure. “That is a principle with which I am acquainted.”

GM: With alarming speed, it begins to fill the tesseract. Hazel feels it rise, first to her ankles, then knees, then waist.

Hazel: “Speak plainly. Do you desire me to make that choice where your counterparts did not?” she demands. She eyes the rising blood level. Perhaps the time to depart this place grows nigh.

GM: The floodwaters rise to Hazel’s breast, then neck, and Hazel struggles to fathom the voice of the fractal cubes. They, like she will be soon, are drowned out by the inky blood.

The cat crawls atop Hazel’s shoulders, then head. Its monitor-eyes stare at Hazel, flicking with their unnameable colors.

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Hazel: But not before she overcomes this trial by her own merits.

“I intend to prove that,” she answers grimly, her arms sloshing through the sanguine floodwaters as she traces a protective glyph. The pattern itself is simple—a straight horizontal line crossed through by a straight horizontal line. It’s Germanic—representing survival and protection. A primal, simple concept appropriate to the nature of its invocation. She’s not sure if the cat on her head needs it, but she repeats the quick tracing and effort of will for its benefit.

GM: Hazel’s will is puissant, but she nevertheless begins to choke as the ‘waters’ flow into her, filling her beyond what she can bear. Perhaps too late, she realizes that the substance is not liquid–not even matter at all but something far more… transcendent. Its immaterial taste is… indescribable. Her psyche reaches out for the ladders of comprehension, and her mind grips hold of words and concepts and quotes, many from the same books that had hid and waited for her inside Sisyphus Manor.

Azoth. The ultimate substance that is not substance. Quintessence. Ain Soph. The emanator of the sefirot and the emanations of the Tree. Her psyche echoes with the writings of Manly Hall in The Secret Teachings of All Ages_:_The universe is surrounded by the sphere of light or stars. Beyond that sphere is Schamayim… who is the Divine Fiery Water, the first outflow of the Word of God, the flaming river pouring from the presence of the eternal mind. Schamayim, the Androgyne, divides.

Schamayim is the Azoth. Its emanations pour itself into the four main rivers of the four elements. This comprises the River of the Living Water, the Azoth, that flows out from the throne of God and Lamb. In this Eden is the first or spiritual Earth, the incomprehensible and intangible dust out of which God formed Adam Kadmon, the spiritual body of man, which must become fully revealed through time.

Hazel: There’s only one thing to do then. She breathes deep.

GM: At the same time, her psyche hears Eliphas Levi’s words from Transcendental Magic:
The Azoth… is, for the soul, is supreme reason and absolute justice; for the mind, it is mathematical and practical truth; for the body it is the quintessence, which is a combination of gold and light. In the superior or spiritual world, it is the First Matter of the Great Work, the source of the enthusiasm and activity of the alchemist. In the intermediate or mental world, it is intelligence and industry. In the inferior or material world, it is physical labor.

Baal Shem Tov internalized the esoteric, transcendent emanations of Kabbalah into immanent, psychology perception and correspondence: Atzmus or the Quintessence. While Ein Sof can only be infinit, Atzmus is beyond the duality of finite and infinite. It is beyond duality. It both transcends all levels and permeates all levels. Paraodoxical acosmic monism.

As Hazel tries to swallow and drink the transcendent infinitude of Azoth, she begins to drown and dissolve. Above her, the cat, which now looks frighteningly large, nothing short of a giant green-black lion, looms over her. Its black monitor-eyes silently speak in a visage that could either be a scream or weeping:

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Hazel: Godhead is man’s birthright. “Within the body of Adam Quadmon, the Primordial Man, all things are found.” The human body reflects the heavenly order. Arms, legs, and head: five extremities of the human body, five points on the pentagram, five elements from primal Earth and Fire toward Air and Water and finally Spirit. Man represents his own pathway back to God. One need look no further than the perfect geometric order of the human body as living proof.

Man is both gateway and mirror to the sublime. Da Vinci’s famous diagrams of Man and Woman assume this and offer clues to eventual transcendence. To Ascension. Man is bound in form and function to divinity. Man’s body and soul possess the aspects of All Things, and show how one might rise from humble mortality to ultimate transcendence.

And yet as the sheer weight of that infinitude crashes into her, all that Hazel can suddenly think is how she wants her mom and dad.

The cat is too large. The message in its eyes too distracting. The waters… not-waters… too deep, too paradoxical, for her strained psyche to comprehend in their infinitude. The thoughts preceding them too troubling. All… too… much. She can dimly hear herself screaming past the rushing waters. That this is her house. That she’s going to get it back. That she’s not a killer. That her nemesis, that it’s his fault. That the sin isn’t hers—can’t be hers. “I… I don’t want… infin…! Mom… Dad… I want… please… I’m n… I’ll wipe your eyes!” Yes! She seizes upon that pattern. The logical one by which to stem the flooding waters.

“I’LL WIPE YOUR EYES MOM I’LL WIPE YOUR EYES I’LL WIPE YOUR EYES…!”

GM: The frantic words echo like a stuck VCR, running forward and then back in an endless loop.

Around and around.

Hazel’s psyche falls into the spiral.

Around and around.

View
Phase II, Case File 2.02

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.09.1998, Friday evening

GM: Several hours after his “accident” with his sister, Kurt is alone (and clean) again. With visiting hours ending at 8 PM, Amy (who certainly has not forgiven her brother) succeeds in convincing their mother to go home and rest for the night. Arlene only relents when her kids remind her of their invalid patriarch. Kurt’s mom promises to return in the morning.

Kurt: Kurt bids his family goodbye, mixed with an endless series of apologies for his sister. He is pretty embarrassed.

GM: “Don’t worry about your sister,” his mother tells him before she leaves. “She’s fine.” She kisses him good night (while Amy gives him the finger), and they depart. Kurt can only assume they all use Rick’s vehicle. But in their wake, the hospital seems colder. The nurses dim the post-visitation lights, and a shawl of silence descends over Kurt’s room and the surrounding medical wing.

Kurt: Kurt lays on his side and resumes staring at the curtained section. “Sorry about earlier,” he says, remembering his ‘roommate’. He then closes his eyes and attempts to go to sleep.

GM: As the curtains of consciousness close, Kurt’s tempest-tossed psyche intuitively seeks safer, calmer waters. In his dreams, his mind casts back to how things were. Before.

The minutes, hours, and days peel back like an overripe fruit, exposing both sweetness and the seeds of the present tomorrows.

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10.05.1998, Monday afternoon

GM: Scarecrow Cinema. The film projector clicks on. Its unique hum and heat fill the small projectionist’s booth as the apparatus fires out into the large theater and fills the massive movie screen like white-burning phosphorus. Built in 1895 as part of the original baroque opera house that preceded the building’s re-opening as the Scarecrow Cinema in the 1970s, the main theater room still retains a glimmer of its lost halcyon nights when the wealthy sanatoria patients flocked to listen and watch the ghostly revenge of Don Giovanni, the salacious dance of seven veils of Salome, and the bloodbaths of Elektra.

Tonight, another kind of ‘classic’ is about to start. Less than a handful of patrons take their seats in the sloped–floor seating under the opulent curve–plaster ceiling with its neoclassical–noveau sea of wheels, stars, and naked Venus rising from her supernal clam.

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Back in the projectionist’s booth, Kurt notes lamentably that less than a third of the audience stayed for the second half of tonight’s double feature. His employer and the proprietor of the Scarecrow, Mordecai Clay, had decided to do a re–run of the 1962 exploitation double–feature of Eyes Without a Face and The Manster, billing both under their American debut names, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and The Split as well as their original foreign titles, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Sôtô no Satsujinki.

If any of the township’s residents appreciate the nod to history, it doesn’t seem to show. Then again, it is a Monday late-night showing. Still, as another pair of patrons decide to pass on Breakston’s and Crane’s tokusatsu, Kurt wonders whether Mordecai might shut down the showing–which would mean the senior would get off early. Which would be nice–except for the fact that his family is strapped for cash. Yet, any doubt is erased when Mordecai himself walks into the theater and takes a seat, effectively doubling the seated viewers–but not paying customers. The bald albino gestures to the booth, indicating that ‘the show must go on’.

Kurt: A small smile plays out on Kurt’s tired face as he spots Mordecai. He then proceeds to continue the double-feature, watching the screen, still enraptured by the strange, muted horror of Eyes Without a Face. He looks forward to The Manster.

GM: Like the corpse-dumping inception of the French-Italian horror film, the The Manster’s beginning signals violence to its audience with its opening credits: a rice-paper door splattered with blood.

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As the movie reel rolls out the plot, Kurt watches as an American reporter, Larry Stanford, is sent to interview an eccentric Japanese scientist working on weird ‘cosmic evolutionary’ experiments in his mountain laboratory in Japan. After his experiments grotesquely fail using his own wife and family, the doctor realizes that Larry is the perfect subject for his next experiment, so he drugs and injects him with a serum, and then leads him on a profligate tour with the aid of his Eurasian seductive assistant, Tara. Eventually, the transformation begins as Larry’s shoulder becomes pained–only to sprout a monstrous eye that opens and stares at its host and the audience.

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The next phantasmagoric scene, however, is interrupted for Kurt as the booth’s side-door opens. It’s his fellow senior and cinema colleague, Morgan Thompson. The recent transplant from the West Coast pulls up a chair and plops down beside Kurt. Tonight, the goth-girl’s raspberry-black hair dye is showing the natural blonde’s roots. As usual, she has shirked the cinema’s ‘uniform’ vest and white shirt to reveal bleach–stained ripped jeans and a black heavy metal band T–shirt with a necklace-strung razor–blade. Embellished with black eyeliner and similarly hued lipstick, her pale face and violet eyes regard Kurt.

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She passes him a tub of popcorn. “You should eat something. You’re starting to look like a Scarecrow yourself.”

Kurt: Kurt, composing himself after jumping a little at Morgan’s intrusion, half-smiles as he casually accepts the proffered popcorn. “Thank you,” he says, looking away from the screen to turn to Morgan with a slightly quirked brow. He takes a small handful of popcorn and then tilts the tub in Morgan’s direction. “We can share.”

He then looks back at the movie screen, giving a coy glance back at his co-worker. “Do you really think I am starting to look like a scarecrow?” he asks, crinkling his nose. He has been skipping breakfast lately.

GM: Morgan shakes her head at Kurt’s offer to share. “I don’t think Eliot or Foster wash their hands after using the bathroom.” She smirks to let Kurt know she’s joking. Probably.

On the screen, the ‘evolving’ protagonist wanders Tokyo late at night. He murders a woman on the street, a Buddhist monk, and a psychiatrist, while slowly changing form, culminating in him growing a second head out of the shoulder on which only the eye had been.

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As Morgan watches the B-movie grade special effects and murder scenes, she comments: “This is way better than the mainstream movie I’m ‘showing’ in the other theater. Urban Legend,” she adds, supplying the new release’s title. “But go figure, that drivel’s drawing at least ten times the crowd.”

She peeks through the booth’s glass. “Which sadly isn’t saying much, but still. And did you really have to slip in your friend again, that Wilson guy? I mean, he doesn’t even watch the movies–he just gets uses the theater as his fuck-pad. It’s gross. It’s bad enough with Mordecai showing porn to the drunks after we leave.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses in his chewing when Morgan mentions the popcorn could be contaminated, looking a little worried. He eats a little more slowly as the pair watch the movie. “Urban Legend is formulaic crap,” he answers, agreeing with Morgan. “But even more damning, it just isn’t scary.” He turns back to The Manster. “This is weird and intense.” Kurt clearly means that as a compliment.

He grins cheekily at the mention of Wilson’s supposed exploits. “What do you mean?” he asks, looking surprised.

GM: She rolls her black-lined eyes. “I mean, he’s a douchebag with tats. Why do you hang out with him?”

Kurt: Kurt’s smile lessens as he takes on a more serious tone. He meets Morgan’s eyes. “Wilson isn’t a douchebag,” he answers, completely sincere as he defends his best friend. “He’s the most reliable person I know.” Kurt adds more gently, “Sorry. You know I’d defend you if anyone tried to say shit about you too, right?”

GM: Morgan gives a noncommittal shrug and returns her attention to the movie.

On screen, the now two-headed serial murderer seeks a cure as he climbs the volcano to Dr. Suzuki’s laboratory–just as Suzuki informs Tara that Larry has become “an entirely new species” and beyond remedy. As the ‘Manster’ confronts the doctor, the latter tricks Larry into approaching him so he can inject his ‘subject’ with an altered enzyme designed to split the protagonist into two different creatures.

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Dr. Suzuki succeeds–but the injection costs him his life as the transformed monster-man murders him and destroys his lab in a fit of feral rage. Morgan watches as the seductress Tara flees the steam-flooding lab up the side of the volcanic summit. Larry pursues her to the lip of the volcano, which is beginning to erupt. There, he splits into two completely separate entities, one looking just like the original Larry, the other a bestially hirsute humanoid male.

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Kurt: Kurt watches with rapt interest, slowly eating away at the tub of popcorn. He begins to feel like a drink due to the salt, though.

GM: This monstrous second being grabs his once-femme fatale and hurls her into the volcano, just as the ‘human’ side of Larry rallies and pushes the monster in after her. Soon thereafter, the protagonist’s formerly spurned wife arrives with a platoon of policemen who swarm through Dr. Suzuki’s lab before carrying away the still–weakened split–man. The tokusatsu then ends with a final shot of the erupting volcano in the distant background.

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As the projector whirls through the last of the tape, Morgan stands. “I better get back to my booth before the boss catches me abandoning my post.”

Kurt: Kurt looks up at Morgan, nodding as he gets to his feet, too. “Yeah.” His answer is unusually short. He then proceeds to focus solely on his job, working the projector.

GM: “Later,” Morgan replies in an equally terse, emotionally truncated manner as she leaves his booth.

Kurt: Kurt ignores Morgan as she leaves the booth, not saying another word. He is tempted to ask her for a drink of Pepsi to sate his parched throat, but instead focuses on tidying up and emptying the projector, deciding to not tempt Morgan’s wrath.

GM: As the one paying customer ambles out, Mordecai remains for a moment as if savoring the cinema or its solitude. Eventually though, he rises and heads to the booth just as Kurt finishes closing up shop–at least for his shift. As the albino man stands in the hallway, Kurt is reminded of his first ‘employment interview’ with Mr. Clay.

08.07.1996, Wednesday evening

GM: As a horror movie enthusiast and impoverished sophomore, Kurt asks for an employment application at the ticket counter after seeing the re-showing of the 1963 splatter film, Blood Feast. He’s rebuffed, or so he had believes, until the one–year–older usher, Jimmy Newton, tells him that Mr. Clay wants to interview him for a job.

Leading Kurt through the cobweb–strewn halls of the cinema, Jimmy stops just short of an ornate office door half-hid by a seven–foot–tall wicker man with scorched baby dolls trapped in its stomach. At the time, Jimmy’s weird mannerisms made Kurt suspect he is being played or set up for a prank. Over time, he learns the truth: Jimmy was scared.

Left to approach and enter Mr. Clay’s room alone, Kurt first notices the buzzing sound. After knocking and entering the room, a lone insect drones past his face, the creature too obscured by the darkness to identify. The office’s interior is no less bizarre than its entrance. Black velvet curtains conceal the office’s four walls, or what Kurt assumes are four walls. The floor is made of cold, crimson and bone–colored marble tiles that have been cut and arranged in repeating zig–zagging lines. The pattern is lit by a single, unshaded lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. A rocking chair that eerily resembles the one from Psycho sits in a curtained corner. The only other furniture is a large desk with various movie prop mementos. Behind it stands a naked man. Or almost–naked man. For upon their first meeting, Mordecai Clay’s naked, hairless, fish-belly pale skin is covered in bees.

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Kurt’s first interview question is equally atypical. “Are you allergic to bee-stings?” Mordecai asks, standing stock still as the honey bees swarm his albino skin.

Kurt: Kurt is scared and confused, of course. He barely registers the strange man’s question on any conscious level, but nevertheless he finds himself answering as if on autopilot. “No. I am not allergic to bee stings.”

GM: Mr. Clay doesn’t nod–likely out of concern that he’ll crush or startle some of the venomous insects. Instead, he just answers, “I am. Deathly so. Should I get stung, the epi-pen in the front drawer likely won’t save me.” He then just stands there for a while, bees crawling over his honey–lathered naked body, with the fifteen–year–old Kurt standing in his door.

“What did you think of the movie?” he eventually asks.

Kurt: “I liked it. It was a bit campy, though,” Kurt answers honestly, spooked enough to avoid lying to this strange man. “It is surprisingly gory for its time.” He then asks his own question: “Why are you naked and covered in bees, Mr. Clay?”

GM: Mordecai moves slowly as he points to the rocking chair. “Would you like to sit down? Norman’s mother seemed to enjoy it.” He had then adds, without waiting to see Kurt’s reaction, “I believe ‘naked’ and ‘covered’ are antonyms…” he pauses as if unsure of the young man’s name.

Kurt: “Kurt.” Kurt adds, “Kurt Crawford, Mr. Clay.”

GM: “Yes… Kurt Crawford. But to better answer your question, Kurt, let me ask a related follow-up to my earlier one. Why did you and so many others then and now enjoy a splatter film like Blood Feast?”

Kurt: “I like gore and monsters.” Kurt then pauses, thinking over his answer. “I can’t say why other people like it, but those are my reasons.” He shuffles his feet awkwardly. “I do have to say that chair looks remarkably like the one from Psycho, Mr. Clay.” He wonders at the time if Mr. Clay is Witiko Falls’ very own Norman Bates, uncovered except for a swarm of bees before him. “What did you like about Blood Feast?”

GM: Mr. Clay blinks, scattering a trio of bees which had droned irritably close to his pink eyes. “Some call splatter films torture porn, Kurt, but they rarely question why gore is so arousing to our species. We are predators, yes, but I believe there is a more important answer. Something that makes us special. I believe we alone of the species have the capacity to understand and contemplate our mortality while simultaneously rejecting and denying it.”

He had then slowly raises a honey and bee slathered hand. He winces. “A honey bee has one sting in it–but its sting comes at the cost of its life. Yet, I doubt it feels any terror at its own stinger. It’s ‘thoughts’ are alien and unknowable, yet I believe they lack the sophistication of the human mind–the ability to grasp that it will one day die.” He lowers his hand. Slowly.

“Some say films like Blood Feast appeal to the inner serial–killing sociopath inside all or some of us. I disagree. I think we are moths attracted to the flame. We go about our lives constructing societies and cultures all designed to help us ignore, forget, and deny our own mortality. But films like Blood Feast rip back the veil and remind ourselves brutally that we are made of corruptible, fragile flesh and blood that is inevitably doomed to die.”

“They allow us to ‘live’ out our own death drives or thanatosis safely from our cushioned seats. They allow us to face the horror of death, or at least pretend to as they disillusion us of our veneer of invincibility and immortality. And by doing so, they foreshadow the cathartic thrill of our own private apocalypse.” His pink eyes gaze down meaningfully at his body.

“There is ecstasy in facing fear, Kurt. Power and pleasure from peeking inside our own coffins. It’s why we love roller-coasters as well as horror films.” He turns to the still-standing teenager as a dozen bees crawl over his bald scalp. “Does that answer your question, Kurt?”

Kurt: Kurt mulls over Mr. Clay’s words. The man is weird as fuck, of course–but in some weird, messed up way, Kurt appreciates the man’s intensity and remains steadfast. “As far as a movie being a vehicle for our own morbid curiosities, there’s something to be said for who you project yourself onto on the big screen: are you the victim or the monster?” Kurt shuffles his feet awkwardly again.

GM: “In the end, we are always, inevitably the victim, Kurt. The only way to escape that fact is to escape our mortality–and that inevitably requires us to become a monster.”

And then, as if they had been simply talking about Kurt’s prior employment history or occupational aspirations, Mordecai suddenly concludes the ‘interview’.

“You’re hired. Welcome to the Scarecrow Cinema. See Bertha Phelps about all the tedious but necessary paperwork. Once they’re all submitted, she’ll contact you about your hours and training.” He then adds, almost reluctantly, “And pay.”

10.05.1998, Monday evening

GM: Back in the projectionist’s booth, now two years later as one of the most senior staff still working at the theater, Kurt looks up to see Mordecai, thankfully clothed and absent any bees, standing in the booth’s threshold. “What did you think of the film?” he asks, mirroring Kurt’s old memories of their first discussion.

Kurt: “I liked it whenever the eye broke the fourth wall,” Kurt answers his employer. “It felt like I was part of the movie, or the roles were switched, and I was being watched instead.” Kurt chuckles good-naturedly. “It was also pretty cool when he got split into two parts. What did you think?”

GM: Like Kurt did two years, Mordecai remains standing in the threshold as he answers. “I enjoyed how Dr. Suzuki was an inversion of the stereotypical introverted, socially awkward and reserved scientist. There was also the subtlety of him refusing to use the serum on his wife, despite her volunteering–and then how she injected herself against his will only to transform into a caged monster he was forced to dispose of. That his second test subject was his own brother who volunteered was another interesting twist. In short, his ethics were twisted and degrading, but not inhuman or entirely absent.”

“Apart from that there’s the often under-appreciated historical impact of the film. I believe it inspired Evil Dead‘s two-headed Ash and subsequent doppleganger scene. Otherwise, it has many great aspects to it, but there were a few things that keep me from considering it one of the truly great films. First, the dialog often fell short of the mark. In particularly, there were missed opportunities for Dr. Suzuki to monologue more deeply about man’s evolution and the motivations and fears driving his work in general.”

“Also, he had also apparently taken Tara from… somewhere very unpleasant that she doesn’t want to ever have to go back to, but they never say what it was. Was it a whorehouse? Was it an orphanage? Was she living on the streets? Who knows? They were deliberately vague on that point, and I don’t know why. It was another missed opportunity, a foreshadowing that fell flat–particularly because they mentioned it multiple times but never made it come to fruition.”

Mordecai’s pink eyes light up with an obsessive glint as he continues, “Now where this movie really shined was with the monster make-up, particular for its time. Dr. Suzuki’s brother Genji turned into a creature that was very similar to what developed in Larry and eventually separated from him. It had both ape and human-esque features, creating an atavistic element that drove straight down the uncanny valley. I also enjoyed Emiko’s look, with her features resembling melting wax plugged with bulging misshapen eyes and teeth. Her caged scenes helped drive home the point that evolution may not produce forms we currently consider beautiful. The future might be frighteningly ugly. And then there was the two-headed manster itself. Did you notice how the second head wasn’t just a still dummy, but had animatronics? And they were put to gruesome display as he went on his killing spree.”

“And did you know that Jayne Hylton, the main actor’s real life wife, played his wife Linda in the film? I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit more fun with the way he was verbally and eventually physically abusing her because of it. It’s probably a lot easier to do those sorts of things with someone you’re married to than with someone you just met when they started filming, but that’s just speculation on my part. Regardless, I have to give credit to Jayne for her scream when Linda first sees Larry’s second head. It was like she bottled the sound of terror.”

Mordecai idly pulls the lobe of his left ear before concluding his answer. “But one of my favorite parts is the ending. The original ending. Originally, the climax gives way to a much longer, more thoughtful denouement, but they cut that out in the stateside release.” The albino’s ‘Witiko eyes’ gleam as he regards his favorite employee and adds, “I, however, have a copy of it on VHS if you would like to watch it.”

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes light up. “Yes. That would be great, Mr. Clay.” He adds, “It’s been a hard weekend. I need something like that to cheer me up, definitely.”

GM: Mr. Clay leans up against the door-jamb. “Well, come by my office tomorrow at the beginning of your shift, and I’ll lend you my copy.” He pulls his ear again. “How’s your mom taking the breakup with Felicity?”

Kurt: Kurt’s face turns a little sour, but he keeps Mr. Clay’s gaze. “She’s not happy about it at all, honestly,” he admits to his boss. “I feel like she’s taking her side and I am getting lumped with all the blame. What am I supposed to do, really?”

GM: “Become a monster.” Mordecai’s initially severe expression seems to reluctantly break into a grin, like a film’s crudely edited epilogue. “Either that, or make your mother believe Felicity’s become one. Which in the end, my dear boy, is the same thing. The only other option is to endure your mother’s monstrous maternalism.”

The Scarecrow’s owner then steps forward and gives Kurt an awkward tap on the shoulder. “Become a monster or a victim of one, Kurt.” His pink eyes crease without another awkward smile. He then steps back and pats the threshold of the projectionist’s booth with unfeigned affection. “Before you head out, make sure someone cleans up the girls’ restroom. Morgan told me one of the toilets is clogged with a bloody tampon and jujubes.”

Kurt: Kurt pulls another face. “I see you’re already forcing me to take up your advice and be the monster who delegates someone else to do it,” he replies, smiling cheekily. “Thanks, Mr. Clay!”

GM: Mordecai smiles, his bone-pale face crinkling like tissue paper. “Smart lad, and that’s why you’re my favorite. And why I’m willing to lend that VHS tape.”

He starts to leave, but pauses briefly to add, “As for delegation, you might consider Fred Meyers. He called out sick last Sunday without notice, allegedly due to the flu, but Eliot said he was going to a party. But I’ll leave the final call to you, my budding Manster.” He departs with a final, “Sayonara, Kurt.”

Kurt: Kurt and Mr. Clay say their goodbyes and part ways. The young lad is more than happy to take Mr. Clay’s advice and tell Fred Meyers to clean the girl’s toilets, which Kurt surreptitiously takes a Manster-ous glee in so doing.

GM: Unsurprisingly, Fred takes the assignment hard. Especially given who’s giving it. After all, the nineteen-year-old Falls High graduate has been working at the Scarecrow for eight months longer than Kurt. And though he took over Bertha Phelps’ full time position, he’s never earned Mr. Clay’s favor or the authority the ‘adult’ craves–and which Kurt has seemingly swooped in and stolen.

It also doesn’t help that the soft in the middle, brown-haired teenager is already in the middle of cleaning up a giant mess in the foyer–one allegedly started by Kurt’s best friend, Wilson, when the baseball star thought it’d be fun to start a popcorn war while exiting the cinema. He stares down at his younger co-worker, broom and swivel-sweep in his hands. Buttery popcorn litters the floor around him.

Fred.jpg

After a long stare, Fred asks disgruntledly, “Why can’t Morgan do it? It’s the girls’ restroom.”

Outside the lobby, Wilson and some other upperclassmen tap on the glass window: “Kuuuuurt….”

“Come out annnnd plaaaayyyy!”

The adolescent antics do not improve Fred’s sour mood.

Kurt: Kurt ignores Fred for a moment, distracted by his friends’ antics. He turns wave at his classmates and taps on the glass with a dorky smile plastered on his face.

He then turns back around to face his co-worker. “What do you mean, Fred?” he asks, chiding the older ‘boy’ jokingly. “You’re not afraid of entering a girls’ bathroom, are you?”

GM: “Don’t be a dic–”, Fred starts to snap back, then stops as a few patrons file out and around the two cinema employees. Behind them, Wilson and his clique continuing their jeering.

“Kuuuuurt!”

“Come plaaaaay with the lost boys!”

“All work and no plaaay makes Kurt a dull boy…”

Several girls amongst the group laugh as Wilson sticks two twizzlers in his mouth as mock vampire teeth. “Kuuuurt….”

Fred gives the glass-pressed crowd a curdled lip, as if he’s trying to decide whether he’s more upset by their rambunctiousness or the fact he’ll probably be the one stuck windexing their faces off the display glass. He turns back to his ‘junior’ colleague. “Come on, Kurt, don’t be an…” He stops again and looks over at the closing down concession stand. “Make Eliot do it…”

Eliot seems to perk up at his name being mentioned. The skinny sophomore finishes swallowing some popcorn dredged from the machine before calling out, his voice cracking a bit, “My mom’s outside waiting for me.”

Around the same time, Morgan exits the employee break room–which is really just a glorified closet– and finishes slinging on a black leather jacket over a hoodie emblazoned with a faded, peeling print of the monster truck, Grave Digger.

GM: Spotting her, Fred calls out, “Morgan, they need someone to clean the ladies’ room.”

She spares a glance towards Kurt, then flicks her razor-blade necklace idly as she keeps walking. “Not my problem, Flintstone, I’m off the clock.” Her pace, however, slows when she spots Wilson and his gang.

Kurt: Kurt smiles at Fred. “I am off the clock, too,” he adds. “Plus, girl cooties scare me.”

GM: Behind the counter, Eliot giggles and half-snorts a popcorn out of his nose.

Fred shoots him a scathing look. When he turns back to Kurt, his expression is no less welcoming.

“Kuuuuuurt….” comes the repeated adolescent calls and laughter from outside.

Kurt: “Thanks, Fred!” Kurt gleefully says. He then turns tail and exits the cinema alongside Morgan before Fred can get a chance to reply.

GM: If Fred replies, Kurt can’t hear it–even if he can feel the older youth’s eye-daggers boring into his back. In contrast, the senior can clearly hear Eliot’s high-pitched chuckle. “Yeah, thanks, Fred!”

“Shut up, dipshit!” Fred all but hisses at the sophomore.

Morgan meanwhile hooks her arm around Kurt’s and leans in, the curves of her body and perfume almost deafening compared to her words: “Still afraid of girl cooties?”

Morgan doesn’t wait for his answer as she bites his ear and whispers, “Get me past the goon squad, and I’ll owe you one, scarecrow…”

Seeing–but not hearing–Morgan, Wilson’s gang goes bananas. “Kuuuuuurt!” Wilson drops his licorice fangs and leaps atop a trashcan, beating his chest like a manic chimpanzee–shorn of hair and covered in tats.

Kurt: Kurt quirks a brow at Morgan as she makes a show, unperturbed in the least, pulling Morgan a little closer with a casual smile. He leans into her ear and lets some tension build. “You’re trouble.”

He pulls away, still smiling. “I might be able to distract them if you do me a certain favor.” He’s clearly making a show of things, shamelessly flirting for his own amusement.

GM: Morgan half-stumbles when Kurt pulls away, forcing her to reflexively grab hold of her coworker to avoid falling. The teens outside laugh and jeer. After righting herself, Morgan flicks her hair, and shoots Kurt a look that simmers between hot and boiling. She eyes the manic crowd outside, then returns her gaze to the basketball captain. “You want me to paint your nails again?”

Kurt: “No. What I want is a kiss.”

GM: Morgan eyes Kurt. “That all?”

Kurt: “Why, are you expecting more?” Smirk.

GM: She leans in huskily and fingers the edge of Kurt’s shirt. “Close your eyes, big boy.”

Kurt: Kurt closes his eyes, playing along with the request. He puckers his lips a little too dramatically.

GM: With the roaring hooligans outside, Kurt doesn’t hear anything until he feels a slight touch on his butt–and the sudden tug of his pants pulled down to his knees.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes snap open in surprise as his pants are pulled down, revealing to Morgan and his onlookers his Dracula-themed underwear.

Kurt_Undies.jpg

Kurt’s face goes scarlet. He quickly pulls his pant back up and looks embarrassed. “You win, Morgan,” he says with the tiniest smile remaining. “Hands down. You win. Or, maybe pants down.”

GM: Given the reaction by the crowd outside and the still-kneeling Morgan, Kurt has little reason to be embarrassed. As she stands, Morgan slips her hand in Kurt’s back pocket. “Maybe we both win,” she says whispering in his ear.

“Count Kuuuuurt!” Wilson shouts with a wide laugh. His entourage follows the chant.

Kurt: Maybe.

“I’ll catch up with you later, Morgan,” Kurt finally says, giving her a pensive look for a couple moments. “I need to catch up with Wilson.”

GM: Behind them, the impressionable underclassman Eliot decides to jump up on the concession stand and pull down his pants, exposing his whitey-tighties and bony knees in all their lanky ‘glory’. “Yeaaahhh!” he yells and shakes his fist.

Just as Mordecai walks out into the lobby. “Mr. Glessman, please pull up your pants,” the albino cinema owner says in a thin voice, “And go home.”

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Date [REDACTED]

GM: Oblivion falls into Hazel like a tempest pouring into a dark, churning sea. But the sea has limbs. Many, many limbs. They’re naked, dirty, and invisible in the dead blackness. But she feels them all around her. Shuffling, clinging, wringing. Fingers, hands, arms, legs, feet. She hears the fetters on those limbs too. The clanging of metal cufflinks and cold chains against stone and flesh. She hears voices. Moaning, screaming, and the kind of naked, soul-wrenching crying that can only be uttered in the dark.

It does not take Hazel long to realize that at least some of those shackled limbs belong to her.

Hazel: Mental institution
Sweeneys
Can’t be allowed to walk free
Make up for this
Dead
Marilyn
Can’t risk killing again

The thoughts roar through her mind like an ocean’s onrushing tide. She flings herself after them, following oblivion’s siren call to the benthic depths of unconsciousness. An icy steel floe crashes against her instead. Consciousness shudders through her with all of its attendant pains and burdens. No. No! She wanted—her cry joins the damned chorus as she instinctively thrashes against her fetters, a wordless splash of protest within the churning entropic sea.

I’m not a killer…

GM: Her thrashing is drowned in the cacophony of limbs and lamentations, but as her physical protestations join the chained chorus, Hazel recognizes several of the voices. They’re too familiar, as are the brushes of limbs against her own flesh.

Initially, in the darkness, it was too easy to attribute the disorientation to the lack of light and unknown surroundings, but now… now, she realizes that blurred sense of where she begins and ends is also due to the uncanny familiarity of the limb’s shapes and movements, the eerie similarity of the voices’ timbre and pitch.

They’re hers. All of them. All save one.

The exception is faint, almost imperceptible in the sea of her voices and thrashings. Perhaps she merely remembers it, and like a key found in the dark, it takes her memory a moment to fumble at the edges, turning it in her protean mind until it correctly aligns with mental tumblers and clicks open the cognitive lock.

Gaire no i dormet.

Hazel: No, not Latin. French? No, not that either. But closer. Linguistically and geographically. Occitan.

Don’t fall asleep.

It’s from Sponsus, a medieval Latin and Occitan liturgical play. It contains the first known inclusion of demons in western drama. She’d long since read Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Faust’s sad tale by the time she was fifteen, but she was curious what “the first work of dramatic literature to feature demons” was. She remembers asking that question of Mrs. Griswold, who didn’t know the answer off-hand, but directed her towards several books that might contain it. She’s not sure if that question got a phone call home or not. If it did, her parents were long since inured to that sort of thing. She eventually found her answer and Sponsus copy after enough hours spent plumbing the Chimera. She remembers sharing the former with her mother over dinner.

“The work of Western dramatic literature to feature demons is Sponsus. It’s an adaptation of the biblical parable of the ten virgins. The demons only feature at the ending, though, when they drag the five foolish virgins to hell. It’s not as if they’re developed characters on the level of Faust’s Mephistopheles.”

“That’s interesting, dear.”

She clings to the memories. Clings to them like a child’s security blanket. She can bury it against her eyes and shut out all the awful things she doesn’t want to see. What did they have for dinner, it was… a weekend, that’s why she wasn’t eating a Prince Pizza home alone, or leaving it in the fridge to go have dinner at Gramps’ house with him and Dad. Mom had put her foot down that further evenings at Harvey’s were in violation of their court-agreed visitation schedule, but she couldn’t do anything about Hazel visiting her grandfather, and oh well if her dad happened to live literally next door. She remembers how smug her voice was when she confronted her mother about it. “You have no legal basis with which to prevent me from visiting relatives besides my father,” she’d proclaimed.

She tries to lose herself in the memories. To drown out the press of grasping, fettered, disembodied (?) limbs beneath thoughts of home and family. She tells herself that her memories are an essential component of the experiences that make her who she is, beyond whatever superficial resemblances this faceless mass of flesh might have to her own. It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, there’s only one of me…

Her own voice—voices—cry and wail in her ears.

This isn’t real. Can’t be real! It’s all in my head, all in my head, all in my head…

‘She’ sobs. Another ‘she’ in the wailing tempest of flesh and steel. Another scene from another medieval drama about hell.

With that, the doleful notes began to rasp
my consciousness; I’ve come into a zone
where pain’s expressed by shriek and moan and gasp
where not the feeblest ray of light is known,
which squalls and bellows like an ocean tempest
when the waves are driven by the cyclone;
this infernal, never-ending blast
drives every soul before it in its sweep,
tormenting them with every turn and twist,
who, confronted by the ruin, weep,
and gnash their teeth, and moan, and curse, and swear,
and blaspheme God, and bawl, and howl, and shriek.


Another scream sounds, as audible as a raindrop in a thunderstorm. She’d wished for oblivion. Not hell.

Don’t fall asleep.

But that wasn’t her voice.

Leo? He gave her the pills…

V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M. Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam. Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone.

Her mind races. The “Chamber of Reflection.” A place for the initiate to contemplate death and the dissolution of impurities. The awakening initiate.

Don’t fall asleep.

She’d sought oblivion. But Leo is out there, trying to help her. And she’d wanted his help. She remembers going to him, entrusting him with that letter to give her parents, in case of the worst…

No! I hope it gathers dust in your file cabinet forever. She has to get to her parents! She has to let them know she’s all right—and to do that she has to be all right! All in my head. Yes, this is what’s in her head. An external manifestation of her inner turmoils. This mental hell, this wailing mass of suffering and ignorance. Outrage flares in her. That isn’t what she is! She has to fight!

Part of her sags at the question. But where to even begin? How does one extinguish a roaring bonfire with a mere thimble of water?

No. Don’t start with the big picture. She’s always been a procrastinator, justifying it in the name of putting off the impossible. Dad always advised her: just do the little things, one at a time. The first line on the police report. Make the task smaller.

Tears in the dark. There are no tears as lonely and afraid as those. She remembers crying in her bed at night during the divorce. She remembers her nemesis hiding under another bed at night, the room’s lights as dead as his pulse. She remembers being sent tumbling down that madhouse flight of stairs, blind, helpless, dying, and afraid.

I’m sick of being afraid!

She thrusts a shackled limb into the screaming tempest. She plucks a low-hanging fruit from the great transcendental Tree whose roots extend even into such barren soil. A fruit hanging just above the foot of Matter.

She’s never been religious. She’s not praying to any god for deliverance now. But the scriptural verse is all-too appropriate to her present circumstances.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said,

FIAT LUX!” (LET THERE BE LIGHT!”) Hazel roars.

After all, it’s easier to stay awake with the lights on.

GM: As the echoes of Hazel’s raw, primeval roar crash against the dark, cacophonous sea of susurrating limbs, clanging fetters, and piteous weeping, a solitary light flashes into blinding brilliance.

Above the teeming masses, the light unfolds like a heavenly, blossoming rose. But as the radiance grows, Hazel perceives the ‘petals’ as scores of wings, feathered and full of fathomless eyes that burn and turn as wheels within wheels of fire. As those gazing wings unfurl, a still half-hidden figure takes shape, its skin a cerulean blue that scintillates with the golden microcosm of galaxies. From that body of celestial bodies, a pair of seraphic arms emerges. The first bears a name-engraved, gold-plated bullhorn whose shape flickers between an ox’s hollow tine and an electric megaphone. In the latter form, static hisses:

INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER

The seraph’s second hand holds a burden that also oscillates in form. One moment, Hazel perceives it as a bundle of scrolls sealed with waxen seals. The next, she sees an open Micron laptop displaying unread, encrypted emails. In its former visage, the seal bears a peculiar cross with an inscription that sears Hazel’s psyche:

IN HOC SIGNO VINCES

Drawing the bullhorn to its wing-shrouded lips, the seraph speaks:

“If thou
 were not so behold to thine own conceits, thou wouldst received much enlightenment 
from my mother’s heritage. But lo, thine eye hearkens not, so thou lies in such fettered straits. And yet my dearest mother
 will not regard thy mischief. Behold her condescension, 
that many a one might awaken to the light, though this may chance but seldom 
that they be better esteemed, nor reckoned as mere fable. Therefore in honor of the feast which today shall commence, 
that her grace may be multiplied, a good work will she do: The rope will now be lowered; whoever may hang on to it, shall be freed.”

Its declaration made, the seraph refolds its wings in a reverse blossoming till it becomes a singularity of light. No longer blinding, the point of radiance reveals a rope being lowered from some unknown height nigh to the floor of the previously pitch-black cave. That same light reveals the cave’s manifold inhabitants–or perhaps, manifold inhabitant.

For the only person in the cave with Hazel is Hazel. Hazels. How many exactly Hazel cannot tell. But each is stripped, shackled, and squinting as she perceives the light-born rope.

Escape.

Hazel: At any other time, any other day, the unreal sight of her countless chained tormented selves would make Hazel lose her stomach. Or her mind. But she’s come close enough to losing that already. For good or ill, it has tempered. She was once asleep. She is now Awake.

And it is always better to see than be blind.

She regards the many-winged and many-eyed seraph’s appearance with wide eyes at first, but quickly steels herself. She knows she’s dreaming. She swallowed those pills, which have set off god only knows what chemical reactions in her brain. Nevertheless, after all she’s seen… if ghosts and vampires are real, why not angels? But real in the waking world or real only in her mind’s eye, occult writings are all but universal in their consensus on one point:

Such entities are never to be entreated with lightly.

And there can be no mistake, she is now entreating with such a being. Fiat Lux.

John Dee was intensely interested in finding a copy of the Biblical Book of Enoch, and many of the angelic conversations concern Dee’s inquiries about an “Adamic” language that he termed " Celestiall Speech," “First Language of God-Christ,” but best known as, “Angelicall.” Dee believed that God used this language to create the world and was thus implicitly underlying all physical structure. Angelicall was further used by the first man, Adam, to talk with God and the angels. Adam had not sampled the fruit of Tree of Knowledge—a pan-cultural myth variously revered as Yggdrasil, the oak of Dodona, old Prussian oaks inhabited by old pagan golds, and many others—and so was blind to the power inherent to his speech. His descendants were not. The Tower of Babel, another pan-cultural myth, represented nothing less than the power of a universal language to cross the barriers between earth and heaven, endowing men with the power of gods. In Renaissance Hermetic Christian belief, in common with all Abrahamic faiths, the Biblical patriarch Enoch (“Idris” in Islamic tradition, and associated with Tehuti, Hermes, and Thoth—translated by the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus, three times very, very great) was the one known human after the Tower’s fall who also spoke this language.

Commentators have used the term “Enochian” to distinguish John Dee’s “Angelical” from other “angelic” languages, noting the widespread Judeo-Christian tradition that there was a divine language, spoken by the angels, that matched the sacred numbering and ordering used in their creation story. It is a language of light, in whichever of many contexts one understands “light,” traceable to the “Fiat Lux” or “Let there be light” of Genesis. Dee makes multiple plays on “Fiat Lux” on the frontispiece of his better-known works.

By the time Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley began their angelic conversations, Dee was convinced that Hebrew (or some proto-Hebrew that could be “corrected” by Kaballistic study) was constructed by Adam after the Fall based on a shadowy memory of true Enochian. Indeed, other Renaissance Kabbalists, both Jewish and Christian, thought the primary language was Hebrew; modern students of the mystical Kabballah, who believe that the “22 sounds and letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the foundation of all things,” ordering the first creation of earth and stars in the heavens, and represented by different occult symbols and gematria, can recognize the outline of this belief system in modern esotericism. Gematria, the system of assigning numerical value to letters in sacred alphabets, especially Hebrew and ancient Greek, is derived from both the ancient Greek words for geometry (measurement of the earth or world) and grammar.

Indeed, to Dee, linguistic gematria assume an implicit connection between number and letter. Kaballists often map the 22 letters of Hebrew to a cube, the “building block,” so to speak, of three-dimensional reality. It is not much of a stretch to hypothesize that, just as Hebrew maps to three dimensions, Enochian maps to four dimensions. While one does not usually think of modern languages mapping implicitly to geometric structures, John Dee did. That, to him, was part of what made a language sacred.

It is no less so to Hazel. The young woman with autism has always been a visual learner.

Dee’s most famous work, the Hieroglyphic Monad or Monas Hieroglyphica, and a related much longer work, the Propeudamata Aphoristica–all stamped with “Fiat Lux”–explicitly combine sacred languages and sacred geometry within an alchemical system purporting to show the structure of physical reality and how it is placed within the larger cosmos; both make use of four dimensional mathematics and show an understanding of gravitational forces 100 years before Newton.

Hazel read those volumes during her senior year in high school and deduced that Dee’s first 17 theorems could be considered his “outer mysteries,” and the final of these, 17, also a transition to his “inner mysteries.” By Theorem 17, Dee makes an ingenious language play upon the word "light"—once again, in Latin lux, then written LVX—that suggests the INRI/LVX transformation central to modern western esotericism, as well as connecting to the geometry of conic sections and specifically, letters formed when a plane intersects two cones in particular ways. To Dee, understanding the concept of light and the transformation of shape stood at the border between the inner and outer mysteries. Curiously, and with prescient accuracy, it also stood between his concepts of three-dimensional and four-dimensional geometry: by Theorem 20, he is outlining the use of a hypercube for those who have eyes to see.

Hazel has those eyes now.

This celestial rope, this lux, is her first step in ascending from Plato’s blind cave to Dee’s innermost mysteries. But she cannot ascend while she is literally shackled to this naked, tormented mass of her crying and blinded selves. They literally do not see the path to escaping their present state. Hazel pities them. She would help them, if she could.

No, she abruptly then decides, she would not. Power demands self-sacrifice. That is another constant in all mystic traditions. Odin sought wisdom by hanging himself upon the Yggdrasil, a sacrifice of himself to himself. These other Hazels… they are her and she is they. If they were nothing to her, she would not still linger in this miserable cave.

“I have brought you light and shown you a path out of this hell! Those of you who would follow me, rise now and break your chains!”

That is what must come next: she must sever her link to those parts of herself that lack the resolve to follow.

Hazel firmly seizes the shining celestial rope with both hands, tugs down, and drapes it over the lengths of chain connecting her foremost-self to her pitiful other-selves. There is a great difference between men like Dee and Crowley and the prophets of the Bible: all of them might entreat with angels, but where Daniel trusted God’s messengers to deliver him from danger, Crowley recognized that the will to power comes from within. And by her will, these shackles will fetter her no longer.

In hoc signo vinces. The cross inspired Constantine, but he still fought and won the battle._

Hazel twists the rope’s length into the Enochian glyph for eight—a number long associated with misfortune, for it is just shy of the numeric perfection represented by nine—the three threes. Eight is perfection unrealized and potential unfulfilled.

Enochian_8.jpg

As the radiant glyph sears itself into her vision, her will flows outwards. It seeps past the tumblers and empty spaces in the shackles’ mechanisms like water, willing them to…

OPEN!”

GM: Matter obeys Hazel’s whim, acquiescing with a sharp, metallic click. Her heavy shackles fall away from her like shed skin, clanging to the stony ground beneath her.

The echo of her release, however, is soon swallowed up by the chorus of cries and violent jostling as the other Hazels surge towards the rope with desperate ferocity. The sea of selves crash down upon the rope, clawing at one another, clinging to each other madly, and in their fury and frantic attempts to escape, Hazel–in all her imploding manifold–loses the rope as it begins to rise and withdraw from the mob-like mass that consumes oneness and devours the boundary of self from non-self, till all become the one that is none.

Hazel: You… cunts! I try to do something for you! Hazel’s simultaneous wrath and terror flash through the gloom—and it answers. Shadows cast by the glowing Hazel-tossed rope twist, bend, and congeal into an umbral specter born from her—from their—worst fears. The light surrounding the rope dims, its promise of salvation revealed as all-too false, all-too feeble against the encroaching dark.

But the darkness is not empty. It’s where the bogeyman lives. He’s there. He’s always been there. But this time he’s come to her.

As the weird shadows congeal into the looming outline of a grotesquely oversized ventriloquist’s doll, Hazel’s voice simultaneously booms like thunder yet drops to an almost intimate pitch, seemingly whispered into the ears of her terror-struck other-selves, as the phantasmal duplicate of her nemesis hisses the same sanity-shattering words that cast her into this abysmal pit:

YOU. KILLED. THEM.”

GM: Terror incarnate seizes Hazels’ psyches, and suffocates them with sheer panic. Some curl into fetal positions, naked and chained, yet numb to the thrashing and trampling of their other selves as they attempt to flee, blindly as before, yet this time violently seized and halted by their chains. The panic creates rippling spirals of chaos and anarchy, fear and horror. Several selves pass out, others slump asphyxiating as if no air can enter their lungs, while others scream unceasingly as if their lungs can do nothing but vomit air.

Hazel: Hazel—the real Hazel, or so she tells herself—doesn’t waste a second. It’s all a trick, all a trick, all a trick… and she knows it, seizing for the golden rope as her wretched other-selves recoil in terror. It’s only fitting that the one Hazel to see past the phantasmal terror, to not be shackled down by her fears and disabilities, should so ascend.

“Don’t you get it? That’s why you’re here,” she whispers. To herself. Herselves.

GM: The rope rises like the sun. As Hazel climbs that dawn, the prisoners and the panic-inducing shadow-play on the cave wall fall away into darkness. As the last of their terror-wrought echoes die, Hazel can almost hear the voices of Glaucon and Socrates discussing another, although all-too eerily similar cave:

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another

Hazel: She stares past those shadows towards the rising light. Every night must pass into dawn.

Brook: Skin Deep


10.09.1998, Friday evening

GM: Marshal Hudson M. Schofeld’s retirement comes early when a hairy, moon-silvered arm reaches through the open window of his pickup as he sits parked at the crossing-point of two dirt roads out in foothills of Wikito Falls. There is a low, snorting grunt, and a wild, terrifying smell, like something you would smell in the lion-house of a zoo. 
His mustached head is snapped around, and he stares into a dark-green eye. He sees the fur, the damp-looking snout. And when the snout wrinkles back, he sees the teeth.

The beast claws at him almost playfully, and one of his cheeks 
rips away in a flap, exposing his teeth on the right side. Blood spout
s everywhere. He can feel it running down over the shoulder of his shirt, sinking in warmly. He screams; he screams out of his mouth and out of his cheek. Over the beast’s working shoulders, he can see the moon, flooding down white light.


As the beast reaches for Hudson’s throat, the marshal reaches for its face, grabs double-handfuls of coarse, wiry fur and pulls, hoping madly that the mask will shift and then pull off–there will be the snap of an elastic, the liq
uid ripping sound of latex, and he will see the killer.


But nothing happens–nothing except a roar of pain and rage from the beast. I
t swipes at him with one clawed hand–yes, he can see it is a hand, however hideously misshapen, a hand that lays his throat wide open. Blood jets over the truck’s windshield and dashboard; it drips onto the king-sized Butterfinger that has been clipped to his golden star and tucked into the pocket.


The beast’s other hand snags in Hudson’s thick mustache and mouth and yanks him half out of the pick-up’s cab. It howls once, in triumph, and then it buries its face and snout in Hudson’s neck. It feeds while both the candy bar and badge falls onto the floor by the truck’s brake and clutch pedals.


Brook bolts awake, hot and sweating, the taste of fresh blood in his mouth. Dimly, he hears the rattling of bars. His bars. His cage.

“I said, do you want the candy bar or not?”

It’s Ferg, standing in front of the cell, waving a king-sized Butterfinger. “It’s yours if you can tell me how to get rid of my murderous rabbits.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes bolt open just as his body does, the boy’s tall burly form on it’s feet before he registers what’s reality and the thin mists of his dream still receding into the edges of his vision. But he finds the sink just fine, spitting what little blood he doesn’t reflexively swallow and running the tap, ricing his mouth out quickly as he rolls his jaw and lets it pop and crack. These dreams are getting out of hand and he feels sorry for the marshal. But this time, the eyes… no, it’s nothing.

His attention goes to the candy bar as Ferg waves it around, looking him up and down.

“Compound 1080 is a naturally occurring chemical in plants in Australia. But to vermin in North America, it’s a single dose poison. Get my mother on the horn and order a bad of pellets, put a few of them on the wooden border of your garden. They’re too colorful for birds to mess with them, and the rabbit will drop in 30 seconds. Make sure you clean the bodies up,” he recites, as if he’s said it a million times before. “If you don’t want them dead, head to the bait shop and get a bottle of coyote piss. Few drops will keep the rabbits away.”

He holds his hand out, waiting to see if Ferg is satisfied.

GM: “Well that’s… that sounds like a winner and then some, Brook. Coyote piss and 1080, you said? All the way from Down Under? Damn rabbits are massacring my toad lilies and making a mess of my snakeroot and bellflowers. Storm I can handle. It happens.”

He extends the massive candy bar to the teen. “Go on, you earned it.”

“I like your radio station, by the way,” he says, pulling up a chair. Sunglasses tipped up on his head, he rubs the bridge of his nose.

Brook: Brook nods and thanks the man as he takes the candy bar, placing it next to him as she sits on the bed to talk with the man, smoothing his hands over overcompensated muscles in his legs. “Well thanks, Mr. Ferg, I’m happy you’re a fan. The radio station helps me out a lot, too, I’m glad that other people enjoy it. I’d likely be up there tonight if not for this obstruction business, but well…things happen, I guess.”

GM: Ferg plants his callused hands on his knees, which are thankfully still clothed. “Yep, things do happen.” He frowns, then chuckles like an old beater chugging up a steep road. “It’s pretty funny if you think about. The sheriff had me buy that candy bar to give to the head marshal. Word is he’s got a real sweet tooth. But it just didn’t seem right.”

He raps his knuckles on a bar. “Not just him locking up a boy, but also, if we’re being frank, the marshal could stand to lose a pound or fifty. Giving him a king-sized just seemed cruel, like giving a full bottle to a drunk.”

“I feel bad though, for not doing as Sheriff Bauman asked,” he adds, more to himself than Brook.

Brook: Brook listens, and looks back at the candy bar for a moment. There’s a mix of respect and distaste for the marshal in his gut. On one hand he’s a fat prick who walked onto the scene and angered people as he stomped through their town looking for a man, fell for planted evidence, and shot at him and Nelson instead of risking his own hide. On the other, he was willing to give himself up to save Nelson, was gentle with his arrest, and worked to save Moe despite WHAT he is.

Ultimately, the young man grabs the candy bar and leans forward, offering it back to Ferg. “I’ll trade you back for it. I could use a pencil, a sharpener, and a pad of paper to pass the night tonight. If you listen to the radio show, you know my body doesn’t sleep at night.”

GM: Ferg eyes the tall teen for a moment before waving a hand. “Nah, you keep it. You earned it after all. Besides, I’m too old for that junk, unlike you. Why I bet you could eat a whole gallon of Britter’s ice cream and the cow who made it and not need another loop of your belt.” He stands. “Now as for the paper and stuff, I’m inclined to say yes. You mind telling me what’s it for?”

Brook: “The cow who made it sounds good about now,” he admits, chuckling and putting the bar off to the side. He’ll give it to Hudson later, then. “I draw. A lot. If I had my things, I’d show you my sketches. I did the composite of the clue that lead me to find Moe, even.”

GM: Ferg smiles. “Full of tricks, aren’t you?” He pats his own stomach, which is markedly flat, and stands. “All right, how about I get you your art stuff. I think Harvey might still have some of Hazel’s crayons in his desk. And then, I’ll swing by the Swiner and pick us up some stuff that will give us a heart attack rather than root canal?”

Brook: Brook feels a little pang in the back of his chest. He’s weak to kindness from people in general after such an austere upbringing, but after everything this week Fergs kindness hits a tender place. He digs his nails into the palm of his hand and nods slowly, feeling lucky.

“That sounds great, Ferg. Thank you. Really,” he says, that last word a bit weaker than the boy usually speaks. His teen pride demands a change of subject, something to harden the feeling in his chest. “Speaking of the Bauman family… Undersheriff Bauman was at the hospital before we were, didn’t look like himself. You know if he’s okay?”

GM: Ferg chews on the question for some time, but seems similarly tender to the local boy’s innocent question. He shakes his head. “No, sad to say it, but he’s not okay. Not okay at all.”

Brook: Brook looks worried now. Undersheriff Bauman just the other day stuck his neck out for the young man, and now something is wrong. Sitting up straighter on the bed, he looks Ferg up and down before she speaks. “Can you—I mean, is it okay to tell me? Is it something about Moe?”

GM: Ferg looks confused for a moment. “Moe? Is that like slang for something?”

Brook: “Moses? I don’t remember his last name. It was the murderer I found last night.”

GM: “Murderer?” Ferg’s bushy eyebrows raise. “I heard he was an escapee from a state psychiatric hospital.” He frowns. “But no, he has nothing to do with Sheriff Bauman’s woes, least I don’t think so.”

Brook: There’s a bit of release in his chest as the young man learns he wasn’t just late to an event he isn’t privy too. But that still leaves a question. “So what happened? I’ve never seen Undersheriff Bauman like that before.”

GM: “Listen, Brook,” Ferg says with a slight shake of his bearded head, “You’ve got enough on your plate, and it really isn’t my place to be sharing the sheriff’s private business.”

Brook: “Yeah. Okay, you’re right. Hazel helped me with a paper the other day, and Undersheriff Bauman always vouches for me. I’ll give them their privacy.” Standing and stretching tall, he shakes out his limbs and sighs, trying to stop thinking about how bad a week it’s been. “Thanks for looking out for me though, Ferg.”

GM: Brook notes that Ferg’s face slips into a momentary frown at the mention of the undersheriff’s daughter. But the sadness vanishes as he nods at the teen’s expression of gratitude. “Don’t mention. I’ve been on the other side of these very same bars more times than I can count. Somebody else was kind to me back then, when they didn’t need to, and I’ve never forgotten. That’s the way kindness is. It costs almost nothing to give, but at times, it can be priceless to get.”

He smiles. “Or, something like that, according to my last fortune cookie at the Cat’s Meow.” He stretches. “Let me rummage up some art stuff, and then I’ll rummage up some dinner for us.” He starts to walk off, then halts and asks, “Say, does that 1080 stuff smell? Like does it have an odor?”

Brook: Brook smiles at the man’s words. He tries to be kind to people, this kind of person always reinforces why. He eases himself back on the bed, stretching out his legs and sighing. It’s ironic, he’s had to be thrown in jail to have a restful day.

“Odorless, tasteless, quick acting, soil safe, they even deflect bugs away from your garden while they sit nearby. My mother only uses the best. I’ll ask her to order some special for you, Ferg. The only downside is the 30 seconds the rabbit lives is kind of disturbing.”

GM: The mention of violent rabbit-poisoning causes the old man no pause. “Sounds too good to be true, if I must speak truly. Bet it costs a lot?”

Brook: “Nah. It’s naturally occurring, and the rangers get a government discount for invasive species control. Thank you, though. I’ll draw your portrait if you want, if I can just get a pencil and paper.”

GM: “Huh,” Ferg replies, generally surprised at Brook’s reply about the compound. “That’s… that’s good to hear.” To the teen’s reply of being the subject of a portrait, the old man chuckles and shakes his head. “I do enough looking at my leathery face every morning as I shave. It’s a nice offer, kid, but I’d suggest picking another study.” He crooks a finger. “But without further delay, let me look for some art supplies.”

Brook: Brook eases his back against the prison cell wall, thinking back to his training on the matter of using poisons to hunt. It’s not something he enjoys, and he likes to think his mother agrees, recalling her taking him out with small caliber rifles and handguns, and giving him a rabbit quota. Though now-a-days, any weapon he hefts would cut a rabbit clean in half and make it impossible to find the other half.

But he smiles and shakes his head as Ferg turns him down as a portrait study, sure he’ll make a great one, but not pushing the issue. There’s more to draw, a whole night of using pigment to realize the dreams he’s been going through, sketches to remember faces, to look to the future, and steal souls so they don’t leave him so easily.

“Thanks again, Ferg. I appreciate it.”

GM: Ferg simply nods, then departs. Brook hears the stairs creak, then quiet as the dispatcher climbs the stairs.

Lacking any windows, Brook’s cell provides no clue as to the time of day or night. In trying to get some sense of bearing, though, his eyes alight for the first time on the first of the two picture frames. Its glass has been removed, but the cheap, Shop-Plus frame still holds the photo-copied image of kitten holding onto a branch. Its caption, however, isn’t the expected ‘Hang in there’.

oh_shit.jpg

Brook: Brook sits in his cage, resting the candy bar on the shelf across from him and resting his broad tired back against the wall as his eyes scan through his confinement. It’s small, almost as if the room shrinks when he stretches his legs out, and it closes in even more when he becomes conscious of that fact. The small decorations help somewhat, the cat especially making the teen boy break into a small grin. But still, he sits there alone with himself, thinking back to distant memories. ‘Freedom’ comes back into his mind.

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

That night comes back into his mind again. That man, that vision, all that blood, and the frustration of having no idea what that Mooner was saying half the time. The bars on his cell start to annoy him, the boy looking away from them and at the wall, feeling an ache in his hip bones to go outside and take a walk. Not so much possibility of that here. Instead, he stretches tall and shakes everything out again, before crossing his legs and closing his eyes. Distraction is coming, and tomorrow he might even be free.

Just tonight. Just have to get through tonight.

GM: The creak of stairs foreshadows Ferg’s return. “Yep, I think this should hold you over, at least till I come back with dinner.” He begins to pass items one by one through the bars. “Steno pad, mechanical pencil, one of those pink erasers, and some crayons.”

As he passes the last bundle, which consists of a red, lilac, and brown trio of jumbo crayons, he adds, “Supply was a little short. Hazel used to love chewing them more than using them, so much so that I wondered if she pooped rainbows.”

Upstairs, the phone rings, causing Ferg to apologize and rush upstairs.

Brook: Brook almost feels his cage snap like a rubber band back to it’s actual size as Ferg returns to his sight, sitting up and leaning over to grab the supplies that he brought the young man. “That’s cute! Seems she was a quirky kid,” he offers, smiling at the man as he puts the crayons off to the side, returning his legs crossed as he checks the mechanical pencil for how much lead it has.

Before he can say anything else, the older man rushes off to grab real life calling, his eyes sinking down on the page. More memories. Being a little scrapper sitting in a quiet room painted and decorated to sooth children, a fat woman with too much makeup and jewelry asking him to draw, to make sounds instead of talk, to grasp the patterns between notes and strums. After years of that, he attached to them like a babe to the teat, and even now he comes back for more comfort.

He starts where his bones tell him is the beginning, the outhouse. The scene is rather simple, Brook and Nelson squatting behind the jeep. The windows are dark, but there’s a figure. Not obvious, but there. It stares down at them in the boys hard edged style, sloped forehead and wild hair, the composition he aims for is simple as well, two people becoming faintly aware of each other.

His hand continues along smoothing lines to create negative space in broken windows, messy expressions of willed adrenaline, the slight piercing shine of white space where his hand refuses to fill in the eye of a madman, leaving it a lighthouse in the dark, and signaling his sight down at the boys below. The stroke of a line in the boy’s self-portrait sparks recognition.

Ed Campbell, an artist who drew From Hell, who made ugly pudgy faces too round for the high cheek bones and drew lips that made a younger Brook squirm. Who stole the shadows from Mike Mignola before his rise to fame, and botches them with ugly crosshatch that make beautiful patterns in the sky otherwise. The line reminds the young man of Alan Moore, who made Campbell draw what he did, who whispered in the man’s ear and made his pencil slide across a page into ugly forms to tell an ugly story. But the line feels appropriate. Moore, after all, is a madman much like the one in the window here. The story tells of what many already have, London’s most famous serial murderer. But through his missions for the crown, through his work for the Masonic temple, for all his murders and assassinations the cutting of meat brings him closer to the truth of God in his own twisted mind.

Brook wonders if that’s how Moses sees things as he turns the page of the steno pad and starting again. Comic books on the mind, decides each page is now a panel of his story, pencil flying across paper as the vision of the tall young man sitting in the tower, watching the rain, and the cracks of lightning. The viewer is behind him looking at his broad back as he watches the storm. The weapon is by his side, and they can see his hand still holding a pencil on the table. But not in his expression, as his lines slowly start to connect into a complete picture. But his mind doesn’t leave Moore.

Moore worships strangely, but privately, never a man to shove his haphazard and insane beliefs on others. Follower of Aleister Crowley and his idea of True Will, of tarots and that kebal-whatever word that the young man always forgets the name of. No, what stuck with the youth is the writers words on his patron deity, the Roman snake god, Glycon and his beliefs on this deity. That they are fake. A hoax, as the ancient cults detractors claimed. That despite this, in the main character of From Hell‘s own words, ’The one place gods inarguable exist is in our minds, where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity’.

Brook smooths his thumb and finger over his eyes and turns the page, the next is simple. Negative space, a slight smudge, jagged lines, and a flash of light is born, the top half of a body with long black hair hitting the ground. But he rushes it, and pauses, staring at the opposite wall as gears turn and creak, and the boy finds himself firmly knee deep in his own brainpan.

GM: The boy’s more primal, animal instincts, however, remain keen–keen enough to register Ferg’s farewell shout-out to “hold the fort down” as Brook is deep into his art.

And keen enough, several minutes later, to hear the station’s front door unlocking to allow not one, but two sets of feet trudge into the booking hall. Keen enough to not only hear but clearly discern the voices and identities of the individuals upstairs.

“I feel bad for the guy,” the first voice says, setting something heavy down on the booking desk. Nursed on Red Aspen’s radio teat, Brook recognizes the male voice as that of Chip Hensler, a young deputy in the Sheriff’s Department that is usually stationed elsewhere in Bonner County.

“You feel bad for the guy!?” snaps a female voice that Book instantly knows belongs to Tina Lowder, Chip’s fellow deputy and niece of the county sheriff. “Jack-in-box Jesus, you say that like he caught the flu or missed his flight!”

Brook can all but see the male police officer raise his hands. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, I just, I don’t know–”

“That’s right, Chip, you don’t know. We don’t know.”

There’s a pause, then Chip breaks in, “Come on, Tina, just look at the evidence. There’s a fetching hand. A severed hand. And let’s not forget the foot. Sitting right on her bed and kitchen table–well, not her table, the Sweeney’s table.”

Tina tries to interrupt, but Chip continues, “And the pictures? Forget them, Tina, because she’s confessed! She’s already confessed she killed them, both of them.”

“But she’s… out of her mind,” Tina protests, increasingly weakly Brook notes.

“Exactly!” Chip agrees. “She’s a raving psycho!”

“All the evidence solidly points to her being a murdering psychopath, Tina,” he continues. “That is what we know. If this was any other town, any other family-”

“But…” Tina gropes for a retort. “Maybe…. maybe she found the bodies, and it maybe her snap. She’s… never, she’s never been all that… stable from what I’ve heard. Twitchy. Panic attacks. Yeah… she must have found the bodies and then gotten spooked, and then Harvey said she fell down the stairs… probably affected her memory, like a concussion or something…”

“Tina,” comes Chip’s voice a bit more softly. “I know you care… about Harvey.”

“He’s my boss,” Tina replies back. Too quickly.

“No,” Chip says firmly. “Your uncle is your boss. Despite what these people think, your uncle, not Harvey, is the sheriff. And our duty–,” he continues, “–is to the law. Think of the Sweeneys. Both of them are missing at best–and missing… pieces. At best. Worst… they’re resting in pieces.”

“That’s not funny, Chip,” Tina says, choking down a tear.

“Yeah,” he replies in a voice that Brook can see plastered with a goofy smile. “But at least I got you to stop crying.”

“I wasn’t crying, Chip!”

“Just you and me, Tina. No one has to know.”

“What the hell does that mean?!” Tina shouts.

Brook: Brook stays stock-still during the exchange, his jaw hanging wide open and as he breathes evenly. It’s a soundless way to breathe, and he takes in every bit of information as he closes his eyes and opens his ears. It’s a lot to take in, a lot of conclusions, and a lot of suspicions confirmed and warped around. It’s not a good day.

But as Tina shouts, his jaw snaps closed, and a deep breath comes through his nose as he puts his two ring fingers up onto his lips. The whistle that leaves his lips could shatter wine glasses.

GM: “I mean, Tina, that I know this is hard for you–” Chip starts to say but grows dead silent as the whistle echoes up from Brook’s cement cell.

“I thought you said the lock-up was empty?!” Chip answers, but Tina is already heading down the stairs, the sharp-eared teen hearing her clear her holster.

“Who’s down there?” she shouts.

Brook: “Brook Barnes! Marshal stuck me in here!” he calls back, leaning back against the wall. “Afternoon, Deputy Lowder!”

GM: “Aw, shit, I forgot,” the pretty, dark-haired woman says, lowering and holstering her gun with an apology.

Brook: “No need to apologize, Deputy. Not the worst I’ve had done today.”

GM: Chip is a step behind her. “Wait, the radio jockey?” He looks over Brook. Although the deputy and junior ranger had bandied words over the air waves, this is the first time they’ve been face to face.

Brook: Brook can’t help but glare at Chip. “Junior ranger. And the ranger who tracked down Moses, and got someone home alive tonight. Thank you.”

GM: Brook’s comment seems to slide off the deputies’ faces which are still slap-shocked by the presence of someone having been in the station with them. They look to each other, then back at Brook. It’s Deputy Lowder that asks the question, though.

“Brook… how, did you happen to hear anything, like anything about what Deputy Hensler and I were discussing… upstairs?” To her credit, she doesn’t flinch or blink, but looks at Brook’s face intently for his answer.

Brook: Brook slowly crosses a leg, nodding to Deputy Lowder. “I heard everything.”

GM: “So not good, Tina!” Chip says, turning half away, not in embarrassment but in concern. “You didn’t tell me there was a kid in the station!”

She turns around, heat rising in her face. “Ferg told me, but I forgot, okay! Everything’s…. just I forgot!”

Brook: “Hey Chip, you listen to my show, right?”

GM: Brook’s words once again remind them in a painfully immediate way that they are not alone.
The male deputy nods and walks down the remaining stairs. “Yeah, any time I pull the grave-night.” He shrugs. “Not much else too,” then adds, “That’s not meant as an offense.”

Brook: “Then you should know I’ve got a good set of ears. It’s Hazel, right? What happened to her? I just saw her. I spent the whole school day with her, from first to last bell.”

GM: Chip pulls up a chair and offers it to Tina. “We need to level with him. He already heard the worst of it.”

“No,” Tina says, shaking her heard. “We have to keep this under wraps. If the town finds out–”

“The town is going to find out, Tina, like it or not. This is happening.” He turns back to the teen in the cell. “Why are you locked up, Brook? Just, you know, out of curiosity,” he adds as if their entire conversation has been entirely normal.

Tina stares up at the cement ceiling for a while, moans bitterly, but sits.

Brook: Brook looks between the two, but his eyes rest on Deputy Lowder for a moment. “Is that okay to talk about, considering who put me in here?” Even as his says this however, he hands Tina the steno pad. His comic of the events, panel by page covering panel. “They’re rushed and shitty, mind. But you can flip through them. I didn’t get to how it ended yet.”

GM: Brow peaked, Chip sweeps back his perfectly combed and coiffed brown hair as he looks over Tina’s shoulder as the woman flips through them. “You’re really good, Brook. Like really good.” The sincere complement comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Chip.

Tina’s brow folds. “You did all this?”

“You could be one heck of a courtroom sketch artist,” Chip says, admiring the speed and emotion of the artwork. “But I, I, how did this,” he says, pointing to the comic, “land you in here?”

Brook: “Obstructing. I forced Marhsal Hudson to make some bad choices. I forgot about my truck radio, it’d work even if the tower was down. He followed my dirtbike tracks. Thankfully I’m heavy enough to leave good tracks. The ending as well, he was talking Moses down. And I took the chance to grab his good arm and the knife. They opened fire and now Moses has no arms.”

GM: Looking over the sketch’s story, Chip comments, “That’s a hanky call.” He clarifies, “About you being put in the tank.”

Brook: “They’re taking me somewhere tomorrow. To a judge to get an arrest warrant,” he expands, resting his head back on the wall. “Or wait… I guess today.”

GM: “Hmm, unlikely to be before Monday, unless they rustle up a judge off a golf course or church pier.”

“He’s a marshal,” Tina says in disagreement. “He’s got the weight.”

“No pun intended, right?” Chip wisecracks.

Tina begrudgingly smiles.

Chip lays a hand on Tina’s shoulder. “So do you want to tell him or let me do it?”

Brook: “I want Deputy Lowder to be the one to tell me,” Brook announces, looking at Tina.

GM: Chip pats Tina’s shoulder again, gently. “I’ll go put the stuff away and lock the door. Wouldn’t do to have another… unintended audience.”

The female deputy nods, gratefully, takes a deep breath, then turns back to the teen in the cell. “Brook, you need to understand that what I’m telling you–I shouldn’t. You shouldn’t have overheard our conversation. We thought it was private, just between law officers.”

Brook: Brook looks past her as Chip leaves, nodding. “We should talk about him, later too. But yeah, I get it. Nothing said here leaves this cell.”

GM: Tina’s clearly thrown off by Brook’s reference to Chip. “Deputy Hensler? What about him?”

Brook: Brook leans forward slightly, head cocked and shoulders up an expression that screams ‘What!?’. “I heard ‘everything’. You know it’s bad when a sophomore cringes at how bad a jealous guy flirts,” he says, motioning her to move on. “Hazel though. That’s more important.”

GM: “What, Chip?” Tina says, her expression a bit of shock and a flash of rising anger. “Deputy Hensler is a good guy, Brook. It’s not even his fault, it’s mine. I was the one who called him and–”
She shakes her head. “Never mind about Deputy Hensler, and it isn’t any-” She pauses. “Maybe the marshal is right. You need to-” She pauses again, takes a deep breath, and sighs. “But as you said, let’s talk about what is more important.”

“What I am about to tell you could get me fired, or suspended at the least. But I am doing it because I care about this town, I care about… its people. And if you go telling people what you overhead, what you shouldn’t have heard, than it will be the town and its people that will suffer far more than me and my badge.”

“Just so we’re clear,” she says, giving Brook a serious look that is fitting of a woman whose uniform includes a gun.

“Okay, Hazel Bauman is at Mount Pelion General Hospital. She is being treated for injuries she sustained while falling down the stairs at the Sweeney’s place. When police responded, they rushed her to the hospital. She’s stable.”“Physically,” Tina adds with an expression akin to someone trying to swallow glass.

“Police later searched the house. Given Hazel’s… state, we suspected that maybe she was attacked or spooked by something that caused her to run, trip, and fall down the stairs as she did.” She makes another glass-swallowing wince. “Police found no sign of an intruder, but… but we found body parts. As you heard, a boot with a foot inside of it, and a glove with a hand inside of it.”

\We have reason to believe the hand and foot respectively belonged to Albert and Elouise Sweeney. We have scoured the house, but there’s no sign of them." She then clarifies grimly, “The rest of their bodies.”

She rubs her hand. “We questioned Hazel about it, hoping… well, it doesn’t matter. We questioned her when she came to, and she confessed to killing them. But she was hysterical, is still as far as I know.”

Brook: Brook slowly crosses his legs as he listens to the entire explanation, a frown creasing more and more on his young face as he considers what the woman is talking about. There’s so many questions, he starts to compile them in the back of his head as they rise up, scraping his nails along the scruff of his pubescent face, scanning Deputy Lowder’s before he speaks.

“Hazel is… weird, but not that weird. She got real close yesterday and didn’t reek of blood or chemicals, her hands were fine, and how do you expect a girl that size to have body pieces like that just around the house? You know how hard it is to—Moses has been on the loose, he could have-”

There’s a moment of recognition on his face, and he thinks back to Rockwell’s Fall, to Bad Medicine and a certain denizen.

“Where is she now? Is she under arrest in the hospital, or committed to a ward?”

GM: Tina shakes her head. “We’ll ship the evidence to the county coroner to confirm, but the hand and foot, their decomposition suggest that whatever happened to the Sweeneys, happened weeks ago. As for Ms. Bauman, she’s at the hospital.”

She stops once again to look at the stairs. “You tell him?” Chip asks as he emerges from the staircase.

“Yes,” she replies, wearily.

“All right then,” he nods. “Consider it practice for calling your uncle.”

“My uncle?”

“Come on, Tina, you know you have to call him. You can’t wait for Harvey to do it.”

“He’s the undersheriff,” Tina protests.

“He’s the stepfather of our only suspect, a woman who’s confessed to murdering two people in cold blood.”

Tina opens her mouth as if to protest or counter Chip’s logic, but she comes up empty. She closes her eyes and rises.

Brook: Brook watches them, and shoots Chip another ‘shut up’ look at this goes on. The deputy is really getting on his nerves. “So you don’t know who the parts belong to yet? Have you even questioned Hazel, because I’m hearing she hasn’t left the hospital,” he points out.

“As for Undersheriff Bauman, you should let him make that call. Despite any personal feelings between you, he’s a man worth respect enough for that, don’t you think? Hazel is not… she isn’t a nutcase. Take it from a Madcatcher.”

More visions of that liquid monstrosity sliding down the cliff face, the thought crosses his mind. What if I rubbed my scent off on Hazel?

“Deputy Hensler, can I speak to you privately? Please?”

GM: “He’s right about the foot, Chip. We don’t know for sure that its Elouise’s. Maybe… maybe she killed him, faked her death, Hazel found the body parts, and then… freaked. She’s touched. It wouldn’t have taken much to push her over.”

“What?” the male deputy says, agog. “You can’t be serious, Tina. The hand was wearing Mr. Sweeney’s wedding ring. Hazel confessed. You were in the room. We’ve both listened to the recording. You’re grasping at straws.”

Brook: Brook quickly puts a hand up.

“Stop.”

GM: He then turns to Brook. “And you’re feeding them to her, and now want to talk to me. Privately. What the fetching heck is wrong with this place?”

Brook: “Wedding ring? Have you found the wife’s?”

GM: “No, we’ve been searching all day long, tearing apart the house,” Tina replies. “Why do you ask?”

Chip throws up his hands. “I give up. Is it something in water?”

Brook: Brook ignores Chip as he stands up and walks to the cell bars. “Few days ago, I was sent to clear roadkill out of Rockwell’s Fall. Timber wolf with a gun wound, and its guts all over the road. I found a wedding ring and a chunk of finger in its stomach, it’s still at the tower, and I even filled out the paperwork. If that ring is the ring you’re looking for, there’s no way Hazel would have been the killer. How would she get two bodies into Rockwell’s Fall by herself? That’s a tough job even for me.”

GM: The two deputies regard each other, then turn back to Brook. “Where’s the ring?” Tina and Chip ask nearly in unison.

Brook: “It’s in the freezer at the ranger station. Paperwork is filled for processing in the desk drawer, in the folder marked ‘Bad Medicine—01’.”

GM: Both cops rise and head for the stairs. “Thank you,” Tina says in parting. They all but run up the stairs.

Brook: Brook watches them go. “H-hey, wait, my steno pad!”

GM: For all the boy’s attempt to help, his own cry is answered by the slam of the station’s door. His steno pad sits out of reach. Behind Brook, the kitten poster sums up the strange turn of events.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Date [REDACTED]

GM: Hazel stares into the west-rising eye of dawn. It winks, and she finds herself inside the chamber. It is the third porridge, neither too vast nor too minuscule, neither too dark nor too bright. It is neither too right nor too wrong. It is a mixture of all these things, yet none of them. A meeting place. A road crossed or cross of roads. It is the chamber.

Four chairs reside in the chamber. They reside. They deign neither to sit nor stand. They are neither on the ceiling nor on the walls. The chamber has neither ceiling nor walls.

There is a portal that is neither a door nor a window, neither many nor one. It is neither closed nor open, allowing neither ingress nor egress. But it is in the chamber. It is a looking glass, of things within and without.

Four pictures are in the chamber. They neither hang upon the wall nor rest upon the floor for there is neither floor nor walls. But within the chamber, they are. Four in number.

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Hazel: Theorem 17. The transition from outer to inner mysteries? Possibly. It is here that Dee wrote the transformation of shape took place, between three-dimensional and four-dimensional geometry, between simple Hebrew and true Enochian.

She approaches the looking-glass. Does she walk further, or does it draw closer—or was it always there? Is there even a difference?

GM: “It makes a difference,” responds the black cat that creeps through the gap in the looking glass. It lazily regards Hazel, its twin-black pupils the hue of sleeping computer monitors.

Hazel: “You are correct. There is power in words and definitions,” she replies to the cat. “Even if the concept is mutable, definition and structure must exist in the language itself.”

GM: The cat rubs itself against Hazel’s leg, yearningly.

Hazel: She smiles and bends down to stroke its fur. She’s always liked cats. It was such a shame she could never have one in Witiko Falls.

GM: The creature begins to purr in satisfaction, though Hazel notes its sound is more akin to a computer booting up.

Hazel: “Would you feel undignified if I spoke to you with traditional cat speech?” she inquires, wanting to be polite. But the familiar boot-up sound draws her gaze to its eyes.

GM: The cat’s black pupils grow wide, filling its eyes. Lights flicker on in colors without names. But the colors make up words whose names she knows.

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Hazel: A frown creases her features. “Within the waking world, yes. Within my mind… no. Am I dreaming?”

GM: The cat continues to purr and curl its lazily spiraling tail around Hazel’s leg. “You are dreaming. You are not dreaming,” it responds. “But you must choose.” It glances to the four chairs.

Hazel: Hazel obliges it and moves to scratch the bottom of its chin and behind its ears. She knows all the spots they like. “I had presumed so. Those statements may not coexist.”

GM: None of the chairs are whole, but one in particular looks dismantled, weathered, and rotting. Another appears inchoate, still peppered with sawdust from incomplete manufacture. Another sits completely still, while the fourth wanders in the chamber. “You may sit for a spell,” replies the cat, purring in loud, computer-esque bliss.

Hazel: “Is this gap in the door a pathway to the waking world? Or further into the dreaming?” she inquires, eying the chairs.

GM: “Depends on the door. But first the chair, then the door.”

Hazel: “Very well. You may sit on my lap if you wish,” she replies, moving to pick up the cat if it doesn’t object. She considers the chairs for a moment. There is a choice here. As in all things.

GM: The cat contentedly or at least lazily obliges. As Hazel’s hands sink into the space-black fur, her fingers touch a previously hidden collar of gold. A name-tag bears a minute inscription. On the facing side, it reads: If you have heard anything concerning the nuptials of the King, consider these words. By us the Bridegroom offers you a choice between four ways, all of which, if you do not sink down in the way, can bring you to his royal court.

Flipping it over, the obverse bears another inscription: Choose now which one you will of the four, and persevere constantly therein, for know whichever you will enter, that is the one destined for you by immutable Fate, nor can you go back in it save at great peril to life. These are the things which we would have you know. But, ho, beware! you know not with how much danger you commit yourself to this way, for if you know yourself to be obnoxious by the smallest fault to the laws of our King, I beseech you, while it is still possible, to return swiftly to your house by the way you came.

Noticing Hazel’s reading, the cat replies, “It was miswritten. You can’t trust anything written on a collar. Least of all a cat’s.”

Hazel: Hazel offers the cat a sad little smile. “I think I’m in a lot of trouble already.” It gives way to a look of resolve. “Perhaps not, but I know the message to be true. No power without price.”

GM: The feline closes its eyes, silent save for the electric vibration of its purr. The chamber, with its pictures and chairs, awaits.

Hazel: “And perhaps I shall invite more trouble upon myself. I realize and accept that price.” Hazel moves to sit upon the stationary, intact, hale, chair. Her choice is only logical. It is the most stable and dependable of all the furniture upon which she may sit. It’s a moment before she realizes that she’s holding her breath as she does.

GM: As Hazel does so, one of the four pictures springs to life. The cat’s purr changes like a movie theater projection queing up, and she feels a black heat from the feline’s belly.

Hazel: She continues to stroke its fur, patiently awaiting whatever is to come.

GM: From her vantage upon the still chair, the picture frame seems to transform in Hazel’s mind into a window, which allows her to see beyond the chamber. Through that window, she sees a laundromat. She doesn’t so much as peer inside, as pour.

Hazel: Welcome to the second half of your story, Alice…

GM: The first thing she senses is the overwhelming familiarity of the place. It’s a sensation she’s experienced every time she’s stepped into a laundromat: a sense of sameness that transcends time and space.

Hazel: It’s definitely a place that feels the same anywhere. But truthfully, she hasn’t been inside a laundromat many times. Living with her parents, they had their own laundry machines. In Spokane she used her grandparents’. Cheaper and fewer strangers to interact with. Back home now, she’s still brought over loads of laundry to do at her parents’.

GM: Nonetheless, she recalls how as a young child, the washing machine broke once while living at Lacewood. Harvey took her to Witiko Falls’ local laundromat. She recalls because it was late at night, and while the rest of the town was asleep, the laundromat was… not. It wasn’t alive, either, but it wasn’t asleep. Fluorescent lights filled the laundromat with a unique gray-ish light that was neither cold nor hot. It just was.

Hazel: The late hour at least meant few strangers. That was one thing she recalled, especially as a young child.

GM: And then there were the rows and rows of identical machines. All perfectly lined up. There was the sound of the place. As her father had quipped, “It’s reliable: you can always count on it to be almost empty, but only ‘almost’.” True to his words, there were a few quiet souls there, listlessly dropping in coins, wordlessly switching loads from a washer to the drying machine. One or two who just seemed there.

Hazel: “I don’t want to go through other peoples’ clothes,” her young self had replied.

GM: She didn’t have to. No one spoke with her. Everyone kept to themselves. Their own clothes, their own business.

Hazel: Still. The thought was there, in the back of her mind, agitating her like an itch. “Daddy, can’t we just get our machine fixed?”

GM: “We won’t be here long, kiddo,” he had replied, before he too settled into one of the many empty, rows of chairs. The place was still, or very nearly so. There was movement and sound after all. The rhythmic sound of the laundry machines filled the place. The old TV in the corner, its speakers neither loud nor quiet. It was a static-kind of quiet. Predictable. Inescapable.

Hazel: I don’t see why I had to come, she’d mentally grumbled, but she was here and her dad wouldn’t make a separate trip to take her back. So she settled in and did the only thing she logically could: wait.

GM: It was an empty, breathless kind of waiting, but at least it was a particular kind of waiting without any surprises. Yet, she was surprised years later, when her parents had just moved into the Sisyphus House. Her mother took her back to the laundromat. Her mother had ordered all-new appliances for the house, but the out-of-town delivery truck was late by several days. Harvey had suggested they simply go back to Lacewood to do their laundry until the new machines arrived. Lydia, however, was adamant that their move would be a move forward. So she had hauled her daughter and their week’s worth of laundry to the local laundromat.

Hazel: Hazel had been a much more vocal complainer that time. “Moooom, we can use Gramps’ and Nana’s! It is less money! I don’t want to go! It is illogical!”

GM: Her mother had tried to console her that it was a new laundromat. That the old one had gone out of business, and a new one had opened a few streets down. That it would be different. But it wasn’t. It was exactly the same. Same rows, same rattle, same near-emptiness, same waiting, same chemicals, same smells, same gray light. Same static.

Hazel: “Why are we paying more money not to see Gramps and Nana! It is illogical!” the five-year-old had repeated with growing frustration.

GM: The few other patrons were different. But they weren’t really. Not truly. They wore the same expressions, the same fatigue and sisyphean, listless perseverance.

Hazel: “I don’t want to be here! I want to see Gramps and Nana!” she had continued to complain.

GM: The quarters they slowly slid into the machines probably had different mint dates. Probably. But it was the same pattern. Same clink. Same click. Same whir. Same clunk. Again and again. A spiraling cycle that had the paper-thin illusion of change. A pattern of permanence.

Hazel: She was five. She’d started to cry.

GM: It was the third time that cemented the pattern forever in her mind. The third time was during a trip home from college. She and her mother had locked horns again. Another all-too reliable pattern. Hazel had wanted someone to drive her the whole trip. Lydia wanted to promote independence, or at least de-incentivize the girl’s lack of interest in working and saving for a car.

Caught between that immovable object and unstoppable force, Harvey had ‘compromised’ by driving Hazel half-way, then dropping her off at a local bus stop, where she caught the connection that took her the rest of the way to Spokane. Despite leaving hours ahead of schedule, they still had missed her departure time. “The roads have a will of their own, pumpkin,” Harvey had said in casual apology.

But despite that apology, he had refused to drive Hazel the rest of the way–likely from the ear-splitting ream he received after using a payphone to call and inform Lydia. Deflated, Harvey nevertheless waited with Hazel until the next bus came.

Hazel: “Stand up to her, Daddy! You’re divorced, and driving me under these circumstances is not unreasonable!” Hazel had fumed.

GM: It was Hazel’s casual or at least unequivocal way of proclaiming he and her mother were divorced that seemed to be the last knife in his emotional tires. He did wait with her though until the next bus came.

Hazel: “If you don’t want to listen to her ranting, just hang up!” Hazel had continued to press.

GM: “Enough, Hazel,” he had said tiredly as he slumped over to the laundromat to settle in for the hours-long wait. “Some things, you just can’t change.”

Hazel: “Yes, that’s clearly true,” she had replied saltily.

GM: Whether she followed him in because she wanted to continue to argue or because eventually she got cold out in the open bus stop, she found herself inside her third laundromat, this time in Coer d’Alene. And despite the significant passage of time and space, the laundromat was the same. Around and around. Around and around. Around and around.

That sameness strikes her senses now. The predictable familiarity. The mass-produced, cheap chemicals. The rows of used washers and dryers. The occasional, listless slink of quarters and buzz of winding down machines mingling with the slurry of TV static and clunking whirring. The few figures are faceless. For most, that facelessness is figurative, an indifference in their eyes and posture that makes their features too boring or bland to attend to or remember. Yet, for one, the facelessness is all too literal.

He sits in one of the otherwise empty rows of chairs. His clothes are clean, but rumpled from a heavy day of toil and drudgery. His white dress shirt is wrinkled, half-unbuttoned here and there as if comfort was sought and then abandoned. His business tie is similarly loosened, yet still around his neck like a noose made of dark bland fabric printed with a subdued, generic geometric pattern. His slacks and shoes are unremarkable. He doesn’t so much sit as he slumps. He’s waiting. Of course. Indeed, he would be utterly unremarkable in a laundromat, save for his literal headlessness.

Or, as Hazel soon realizes, his lack of a head attached to his shoulders. For behind him, Hazel sees the figure’s face stuck inside a glass-windowed washing machine. The head tumbles around and around. Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

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“We’ve been waiting,” the figure’s voice says tiredly in a monotone voice barely audible above the cycle of laundromat machines. “But we knew you would come. It was predictable. The only logical choice.”

Hazel: Hazel sits down across from him. She’s not sure whether to look at his head or his body. “Yes. It was logical. The other chairs were either unfinished or inconvenient to sit upon.” Her eyes drift between his headless torso and the spinning washing machine.

GM: The bifurcated figure gives no offense at the uncertainty or vacillation of Hazel’s gaze. “Structure is necessary.” In the corner, a faceless, though not headless figure clicks through the TV. Every station is static.

Hazel: “We are in agreement, as evidenced by my presence. What is now to come?”

GM: The figure looks to the cat on Hazel’s lap–or at least seems like he’s looking at the cat. Eye contact is atypical when one’s eyes are inside a washing machine.

Hazel is far more sure of the cat’s gaze as it peers up at her. Its pupils remain glassy, vacuous fish-globe orbs. The ineffable lights therein shift and flicker into new shapes, transmitting a new missive.

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The cat’s voice, however, has its typical feline languidness as it speaks. “You may try all four chairs. Only one can be chosen.”

Hazel: “I believe my choice made, but to gather more data is to make a better-informed choice. I shall ‘try’ sitting upon further chairs.”

GM: “Choice is an illusion,” the laundromat figure replies.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Hazel: She looks towards the cat.

GM: “We’ve been waiting. We will be waiting. We are predictable,” adds the face inside the washing machine.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Hazel: “As am I,” Hazel replies blandly.

GM: “We are the same.”

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Before Hazel can reply, the cat suddenly bits her arm, drawing blood. Hazel is back within the chamber, no longer sitting. The cat licks its paws, unapologetically.

Hazel: She rubs her arm, stifling an instinctive glare at the cat. No data—knowledge—without price. She picks the feline back up and sits down on the decaying chair. Gingerly. It may not support her weight.

GM: The arcane process unravels, but its destination is far from the same. This time, Hazel finds herself in what initially seems like the backyard of Abby Sormurson.

While a student of Eugene Baker Elementary, Hazel had been tag-teamed by her mother, father, and teacher into doing a group science project. Her assigned partner was Abby Sormurson, best friend of Mackenzie Pinkston. It was fiasco doomed on all levels.

Hazel: It was a fiasco. And Hazel was determined to drag “that bitch’s” friend down with her.

GM: As summer approached, the literal and figurative heat intensified, with animosity and frustration felt by all sides, including her parents, Abby’s parents, both children, and their teacher. The latter threatened summer school if the girls didn’t jointly produce a final project. The assignment was to do some artistic display, such as a mobile or poster, on a prominent scientist.

Abby had wanted to do Thomas Edison. “We’ll draw a lightbulb and be done!”

Hazel: “I work better alone.” Teachers and parents alike heard that phrase countless times.

“Edison was essentially a plagiarist and nowhere near as brilliant as people thought. He got famous from his patents,” Hazel had crossly replied. “Nikola Tesla was the real genius. You’re an idiot if you think they’ll be happy with just a lightbulb. They want a poster. You’re also an idiot for thinking Edison is a praiseworthy scientist, so I suppose your behavior is at least consistent in its mental deficiency.”

GM: “Well, uh, you smell like nasty tuna fish pee!” One of them, after all, had the developmental level of an elementary student. Which of the two girls was more mature, however, was a point of contention, and as the summer approached that contention only grew.

Hazel: Tuna pee? Oh, you have no idea what you’ve just brought on.

Hazel felt the wrath boiling within her. She didn’t want to do a group project. She didn’t want to do it with Abby. They thought they could force her? Make her put up with this simpleton?

“This is a nonproductive use of my time. I have no desire to remain in these surroundings. I belong in them as much as dog feces belongs on a carpet. MRS. SORMURSSSOOOONNNNNN!!!!!!!!” the ten-year-old Hazel abruptly screamed at the top of her lungs, trying to get the mother’s attention.

GM: The attention of the one mother and then the other was surely gotten, and the exchanges between Mrs. Sormurson and then-Mrs. Bauman rivaled their daughters’, leading to the disintegration of a decade-long book club and a rather public spate featuring a well-thrown custard pie during the school’s end-of-the-year bake sale. It’s unlikely the armistice would have been reached by the more level-headed adults had not a psychotic moose killed a tourist hiker and tried to break into Mrs. Gunderson’s house.

Hazel: Hazel wasn’t sure as to the cause of their mothers’ enmity. She didn’t care. Another weapon in her arsenal was another weapon in her arsenal. Summer school gradually began to seem less and less undesirable.

GM: And then far less palatable, to both the children and their parents, when the principal Superintendent Atwood decreed the girls’ summer school would consist of multiple science projects together–unless they turned in a passable project by the last day of school.

Eventually, the adults decided to flip a coin, roll dice, or some similar measure to arbitrarily pick a science figure for the girls’ project. So it was that Abby and Hazel spent the last afternoon before school ended doing a visual display on Rudolf Clausius. A heat wave had slammed into Witiko Falls, which left the Bauman’s AC-less house an oven. Consequently, Hazel’s parents were forced to effectively kidnap, bribe, and blackmail their daughter to go over to Sormurson’s.

Hazel: “I can stay near a fan and read,” was her logical refutation (and protest) to this.

GM: Her parents–keen on dodging heat strokes, much less a prolonged hell of summer school–were less interested in logic. They simply wanted the project to end. By brute force, if need be.

Hazel: Hazel tried. She really did. She wanted to avoid summer school. Told herself that a summer of such science projects was infinitely worse than doing just this one.

But Abby didn’t pull her weight. Hazel swiftly found herself doing the lion’s share of the work—whether out of Abby’s own sloth, or Hazel’s exacting intellectual standards that (as she so relished pointing out) the other girl was incapable of living up to.

“You are as useless as the second ‘shift’ button on a keyboard. I advise that you drop out of high school to become a prostitute, given the vacuity of your mental faculties, poor work ethic, and even poorer choice in current whores as friends. It is an undesirable vocation, but it is no less than you deserve,” the ten-year-old had acidly remarked.

GM: The comment caused Abby to burst into tears, retreating to her mother to tattle on the “fat, smelly bully”. Mrs. Sormurson was swift to confront Hazel.

Hazel: The vindictive girl made no attempt to deny her remarks, but rather showed that she was far from done. Hazel turned to face the crying Abby, and calmly intoned, “You are a bleating dim-witted sheep brought into this world likely by accident—I am certain that sure your conception was the undesired result of a casual liaison upon a sweat-stained yard-sale couch—who will serve no purpose except to steal the oxygen that might fill the lungs of more worthwhile specimens of humanity such as myself. I have a name for such useless masses of barely-cognizant flesh such as you. Oxygen thieves. Summer school is preferable to further time spent in your company. I would sooner fellate a rhinoceros, whose engorged gray member would certainly be a more aesthetically pleasing sight to gaze upon than that tapioca-abortion-in-a-toilet called your face.” The ten-year-old autistic girl didn’t know much about sex, but she did know that bringing it up tended to shock people.

“I detest this science project, almost as much as I detest you personally. You are ill-mannered, ill-bred, overweight, unintelligent, and so many other ‘ills’, ‘overs’, and ‘uns’ that despite my advanced intelligence, I would require the aid of a dictionary to reference your personal shortcomings in their entirety. You are a waste, Abby Sormurson, not of not only of oxygen and humanity, but far more saliently, of my time. Good day. I am departing this foul abode for my parental domicile, by means of bipedal locomotion—your mother may not trouble herself driving me in her motor vehicle. She is welcome for my saving her gas. You are a useless sack of misspent and ill-conceived sperm that had the terrible misfortune to breach your mother’s egg and grow into a human being. If I could have replaced that sperm with gasoline at the moment of your conception, thereby preventing you from ever existing and punishing your mother for merely the possibility of your existence, I would have done so. Your existence actively degrades the worthwhileness of the human race. Furthermore, I consider that your soul must be destroyed.” Cato the Elder ended all of his speeches before the Roman senate with those words, if one were to replace ‘your soul’ with ‘Carthage’. Abby probably didn’t get the reference, but to Hazel it made perfect sense.

In a similarly archaic but perhaps far more obvious gesture of revulsion, Hazel then made the loudest, most vile facsimile of vomiting her vocal cords could produce—gross bodily functions are another way to engender disgust—and hacked a gigantic glob of spit onto the ground at Abby’s feet.

“Also, I did all the work on this project.” She then promptly turned to leave the house.

GM: Or tried to, as the beet-faced Mrs. Sormurson smacked Hazel across the face, then effectively tossed her outside into the fenced back yard like a mangy stray who had soiled an expensive rug.

Hazel: Hazel had shouted back the entire time, “Go ahead, physically manhandle me! That’s battery! My mother’s a lawyer, my father’s the county undersheriff, and we are significantly richer than you! Manhandle me! I dare you!”

GM: “You’re nothing but a spoiled brat!” the woman had yelled as she latched the door, then went on to call Hazel’s parents to demand they pick up their “hellspawn.”

Outside, the air was like a full-blast hair dryer. The grass was burnt-brittle. A small kettle grill sat off to the side, a ways off from some sun-splintering corn-hole boards and fraying beanbags. Otherwise, Hazel’s ‘pen’ was empty save her fellow ‘inmate’.

Kerne, a foreign exchange student who had been hosted by the Sormursons. Older and taller than Hazel, he had been dressed in dark jeans with rolled-up cuffs; black boots; and a long-sleeve, button-down dress-shirt. A field journal rested in his hands. A paper grocery bag lay at his feet.

“I am doing an… experiment,” the youth had said in an odd accent. He then tapped the bag with his boot. The bag jerked, violently. A low hiss and growl issued from inside the stapled grocery bag–a bag that Hazel had slowly realized was doused in lighter fluid. By that time, Kerne had already lit and dropped the match.

“Abby said you like cats.”

Now, Hazel can once again hear the raw, animalistic screaming. She smells the flames, the smoke, the stench of burning hair and flesh. The yard is as it was that blistering day, a field of burnt-brittle grass. The fence, however, feels thinner, as if it aged, weathering before her eyes. Behind that fence, the neighbor’s house slowly takes on the appearance of the pox, as its white aluminum siding begins to turn a rust-eaten red and brown. The yard is empty save for Kerne’s figure. He wears the same clothes, save for one addition. He wears the burning paper grocery bag over his head. The torrent of flames and smoke rise thick in the heat-choked air.

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DESTROY THEM,” the burning figure says in a voice that growls, hisses, and screams. “THEY ARE STEALING YOUR OXYGEN. THIEVES.”

The burning figure steps closer. The flames turn a lurid, greasy green that is too viscous and waxy for normal flames. “THEY ARE TRYING TO SUFFOCATE YOU. SUFFOCATE THE TRUTH.”

THEY ARE A WASTE,” the figure says, echoing Hazel’s words as it continues to speak in a voice of burning growls, hisses, and fiery torment. “USELESS. MISSPENT. ILL-CONCEIVED. WE SHOULD REPLACE THEM WITH GASOLINE. I CAN BE YOUR MATCH. THEIR EXISTENCE ACTIVELY DEGRADES THE WORTHWHILENESS OF THE HUMAN RACE.”

It raises its arms, as if to welcome Hazel in an embrace. The burning bag jerks and shudders desperately, frantically as it burns and burns and burns.

THEIR SOULS MUST BE DESTROYED.”

Hazel: Hazel couldn’t have fought the older boy. Even if he wasn’t bigger than her, she was always small and weak for her own age. She remembers staring at the flaming sack with simultaneous shock, horror, and loathing—then grabbing the backyard’s garden hose, spraying its life-saving waters over the burning feline, all while yelling about the “savage ways of barbarian foreigners!”

She’d have lost any resultant physical altercation. But so long as water was sprayed over the cat, his experiment was foiled. She screamed and hollered the most filthy insults she could imagine at Abby’s mother, calling her a “vacant-minded broodmare”, “two-penny whore pretending to be a mother, whose neanderthalic parenting style shall produce another whore”, and “couch-fornicating vindication of Salvor Hardin’s dialogue in Foundation! Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, you evolutionary throwback! Your underdeveloped cranium comprehends no language save force, so I have little doubt that your own conception—and your mongrel-blooded spawn’s—was the result of rape, you atavistic subhuman! You deserved to be raped, and I hope you die of an infectious disease!”

She even toyed with spraying Abby’s mom with the hose, but as tempting as that might have been, she confined herself to ‘mere’ insults. She tattled to her parents as soon as they picked her up, explaining everything. Abby did none of the project’s work, Hazel insulted her, Abby’s mom confronted her, Hazel spewed further insults, Abby’s mom physically hit her, and then… well, everything else, but hopefully including more hitting from Abby’s mom after she rose to that bait. Hazel relished photographing her bruised face and urging her cop father and lawyer mother to pursue all manner of civil and criminal avenues of legal attack. Hazel was very confident they could win without even going to court. ‘All’ she did was say nasty things. This might even have been the leverage they needed to strong-arm the superintendent.

Whether her parents sought redress from Mrs. Sormurson, or not, however, Hazel made very plain her next intentions—she would not work on this or any other science project with Abby. If she was forcibly partnered with the other girl, she would not only refuse to do the work, she would make it her personal mission to belittle Abby to the point of tears every single class. Her objective was no longer to avoid more schoolwork. It was to deny and defy Superintendent Atwood’s objective of making her interact with Abby Sormurson in any capacity, and to prove that her will could not be suborned in this matter.

Nearly fourteen years later, Hazel looks up at the shrieking, burning sack and the dark-garbed figure who is its architect. Her instinctive revulsion is still there. But her voice is level as she replies,

“When I was a child, and younger than I was at the time of this incident, I watched an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is split into two different selves. His lower half is id personified: cruel, savage, impatient, and heedless of any concern besides its own immediate gratification. Kirk’s higher self, however, is not bettered by this platonic split. His higher self proves soft-hearted, indecisive, weak-willed, and ultimately ineffectual in its pursuit of its moral aims. Mr. Spock offers—as always—a logical explanation for why the two selves must be rejoined: man’s darker and destructive tendencies, when leashed like a muzzled hound and guided by morality’s attentive hand, may be directed towards more productive ends.”

Hazel pets the non-burning cat in her arms. “My own destructive tendencies, inherited in large part from my mother, have worked to my personal benefit. My asociality and peculiar mannerisms as a child would have made me subject to much bullying if I had lacked the resolve to stand up for myself. My ruthless and self-centered impulses are a valuable part of who I am. I do not doubt that they will be necessary in the times ahead.”

“And yet,” she remarks slowly, “I am certain that my ten-year-old self’s actions caused much… unpleasantness,” she finally settles on, “for my parents, during an already trying and unpleasant summer. Perhaps it would have been better if I had simply swallowed my pride, done the school assignment, and allowed Abby Sormurson to write her name on it. An unfortunate side effect of my neurological condition is that empathy for the feelings and well-being of others does not come easily to me.”

“That is why I must make a conscious and deliberate effort to temper my darker tendencies with conscience and discipline—lest they grow out of control, just as a bonfire meant to warm might blaze into an inferno when left unchecked. As I lack empathy, it is through my intellect that I must turn my darker tendencies, such as they are, towards constructive purpose.”

Her face softens. “Such as the happiness and well-being of my parents. I did not initially realize that ‘making nice’ to Mrs. Worwood would be an effective means of vengeance against her. My concern at the time was for easing the strain upon my father’s job. Tempering myself for his sake… felt like the right thing to do. Certainly, he appeared thankful afterwards.”

Hazel shakes her head. “I do not claim to be a paragon of virtue, or even of filial devotion. I am often ruled by my vindictiveness and desire to avenge perceived slights. But I do not believe this is an aspect of my personality that needs to be further encouraged. Its place is as the muzzled hound, not the leash-bearing hand. And your words are those of a ten-year-old, however erudite her vocabulary.”

She looks down towards the cat in her grown self’s arms and braces herself for another bite. “I am ready to depart.”

GM: Before the cat can respond, the burning figure rushes forward. As it does so, the grass withers to ash. Rust overtakes the neighborhood houses, causing them to implode like the House of Usher. The wooden fence also violently rots away into splinters, further exposing the ruined hell-scape whose very sky starts to burn as the sun becomes blood-red and starts to crash to the earth.

That scene, however, is blotted out by another terrible sight, as the figure grabs Hazel’s head with its hands leans close as if to whisper. It doesn’t. It screams. The sound of the thrashing, burning bag is deafening. The heat so hot, Hazel feels like her eyes are starting to evaporate. The waxen smoke worming its way into her mouth. The growl-wail-scream proclaims, once more twisting Hazel’s own words: “VIOLENCE! BONFIRE BLAZE INTO AN INFERNO!”

Dark images start to appear in the asphyxiating, poisonous smoke. A wooden puppet with fanged teeth waiting under her bed. Faceless Spooks watching as two beasts pull Lydia apart into ribbons of sinew and blood. Mackenzie Snakewater smiling as she locks Hazel into an asylum.

VENGEANCE! RULED BY VINDICTIVENESS. DESIRE TO AVENGE!”

So close, Hazel can taste the smoke on her tongue, in her mouth, a savory apocalypse that crashes through her subconscious like the plummeting, bloody sun. As terrible, ineffable revelations sear the dark corners of her psyche, the figure finally ends the distance between them with a last, burning kiss that seems like a promise, if not curse.

YOU ALWAYS CHOOSE ME… IN THE END

View
Phase II, Case File 2.01

Hazel: Attila Awakens


GM: Such wildering scenes, such flitting shapes
As feverish dreams display:
What if those fancies still increase
And reason quite decay?

GM: Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past—they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.


A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.

GM: Awareness is the enemy of sanity,
For once you hear the screaming, it never stops.

Date [REDACTED]

GM: The prison of her body cannot contain the madness of her mind. It blots out reality, casting her in the blackness of sanity eclipsed. Yet, in the darkness, there is sound. It fills the abyss: a terrible static. Endless, eternal, evermore.

But something else emerges from the static insanity: a signal. Its piercing tone makes her ravaged psyche bleed, but it is all she has–all she has save the dark static of her soul.

Following, clinging to the tone, her psyche hears the signal transform. As it does, the static recedes. Not away from her, but deeper inside her. But it is quieter. The other sound breaks free of its tonal chrysalis. It unfurls its audial wings and alights upon Hazel’s senses. The echo of its resonant wings becomes a mechanical voice:

“You have a collect call from–”

Another flutter of audial wings changes the tone to something more organic, yet still alien:

“–The colors of the future.”

Another echo, and the return of the mechanical voice:

“Will you accept the charges?”

Hazel: “Charges? Color? What charge–” It’s dark. Dark, like her hair is dark. Her hair is dark and black, and it’s good that it is, that she can’t see the hand that’s running over it, that’s running over her face, giggling, but there isn’t supposed to be a hand there, and she knows why, if she could just see if it wasn’t dark, she’d see–

“I accept! I accept! I accept!”

GM: There is a click as the noise-moth dies. It plummets through the abyss, descending in a resonant spiral. Around and around. But its death-throes create an audial pathway for Hazel’s psyche to follow in the maelstrom of black madness. It leads her to a keyhole.

Keyhole.png

Inside is another abyss, black and lightless. But its darkness is not inviolate. As her mind presses to view inside its recesses, she becomes aware of numbers falling.

Keyhole_numbers.png

Their light cracks the stygian insanity. Ones and zeros. 1s and 0s. Streaming like green rain. A dichotomy upon which the universe can be expressed and programmed. But then the numbers shatter. Euclidean time-space fractures as the illuminated numbers disintegrate and transmogrify. They bend and break, shift and shuffle, merge and meld. And as the semiotic alchemy proceeds, Hazel senses new patterns. Sacred geometry. It burns like the kiss of the seraphim. Circles. Spheres. Nine and one. Ten. One and zero. One.

AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.

Keyhole_symbols.png

The images flicker like the closing and opening of the inner eye.

Keyhole_numbers.png

Keyhole_symbols.png

Keyhole_numbers.png

Keyhole_symbols.png

Hazel: Numbers. There’s logic in numbers, the universal language everything is built off of, but it’s not the language she speaks. She’s never spoken the same language as the rest of the universe, never been tuned into the same frequency. The spheres, the letters. Symbols and visual aids she understands. They are her own her own order, her own 1s and 0s.

The flickering stream of numbers disappears. There is only the kaleidoscope-like spinning and rotating of the geometric patterns, whose depths she already seeks to plumb and configure.

Keyhole_symbols.png

GM: AWAKEN

And with that choice, her inner eye opens with white-fire burning away the blackness! Its gnostic flame illuminates the symbolism of the spheres: a sacred geometry. As the apocalyptic forms and geometric ratios unfold in her mind’s eye, her understanding of the secret universe unfolds, enlarges, alters, and awakens.

She beholds the Tree. The Tree, map of Transcendental Existence, unfolding from the Primordial Unity to the Infinite diversity of Manifested Reality, expressed according to a mathematical progression based upon the square root of three, the Metaphysical Trinity: Dynamism, Stasis, and Entropy. The Fruit of the Tree, its sephira or spheres are nine and one. The crown of Prime, the foot of Matter, and the other sacred seven between them: Life, Spirit, Mind, Force, Space, Time, Fate, and the tenth transcendental fruit that remains untasted, unknown, but not forbidden. This last fruit of Consciousness is the key to Superconsciousness to which all existence seeks to ascend.

But it awaits the one who walks within the Vesica Piscis–which signifies the mediation of two distinct entities; the complementariness of polar opposites, as when two extremes complete and depend upon one another to Exist: the Dialectic Monism. One circle may signify the Masculine, the other the Feminine. The Sleeper and the Awakened. The Sound and the Silence. The One and the Null, that in Grand Unity is the Womb of Quintessence and the Child of Ascension. In those gnostic-lit circles and its supernal mandorla, both Sleeper and Awakened perceive themselves for the first time.

Themselves.

They are the Key. Ascension awaits Them.

Atilla Awakens.

01.16.1977, Sunday night

GM: As the door unlocks, the black abyss is replaced by a white one. Static returns, but it is silent. Outside it is snowing. Voices, male and female, break the white static’s silence.

“Slow down. You’re going too fast.”

“I’m ten under the speed limit.”

“I know. It’s just–”

Time and space fold into a singularity whose violent dissolution creates echoes that tear through their lives, taking, altering, transforming. Gravity lets go first. And they fly. The stoplight changes without warning, turning from its faint, safe green to a lurid black that devours the wintry light. Lydia slams on the brakes as another vehicle tears through the intersection. But the brakes have nothing to grip in the icy blizzard-rimmed roads of Witiko Falls. Their car slips and begins to spin. Around and around, like a reverse Flower of Life whose sudden, violent terminus is inevitably death.

The final impact causes the car to wrap around an old black-iron light-pole that bends, half-ripping from the ground. It crashes into a power-line. The cable snaps, showering the vehicle with its sparks that instantly evaporate the falling snow. One end writhes like a black dragon, spitting electric flame from its frayed mouth. Sound finally catches up like thunder after lightning. Glass breaks, tires screech. Metal groans as it painfully contorts in ways it never should. A family screams. And then there’s the deafening car horn that will not stop. That will not ever be consoled.

Hazel’s mother does not move. The airbag cradles her unconscious face, spatters of blood and glass shards riddling her clothes and long black hair.

Hazel: MOM!

Hazel knows how this plays out. Knows her mother survives. She’s heard the story, in some form or other, a million times. But hearing isn’t seeing. And her mom. Who’s unconscious. Hazel always thought…

Where’s her dad? Her other dad?

She knows there’s nothing she can do. But this is her first chance to see him for herself. Did he have any… last moment with her? How did he die? And who was in that other car?

GM: “Hazel…”

It’s his voice–a voice she’s since repressed. Its familiarity is reminiscent of a childhood blanket rediscovered in an old attic. But the pain in his voice is also all-too naked. He tries to swallow it. Without an airbag, her father’s face struck the glovebox in the impact, shattering his constantly worn sunglasses. As the shards fall away, they reveal a man with sallow–pale skin, short–cropped hair prematurely marked with white around his temples and forelock like stray microcosmic lightning through midnight. His features are a mix of oriental and occidental. But his facial appearance is most strongly defined by what it lacks: eyes. Born with the rare congenital defect known as anophtalmia, Hazel’s father turns to her with his eyeless face. A small rivulet of blood runs down his cheek like a tear he cannot cry. “It’s okay… to be afraid.”

Hazel: He was… blind? Mom never mentioned that. He’s almost surely accustomed to it and has far graver concerns right now, so it seems almost pointless, but… Hazel feels sorry for how he can’t see. No, it’s not pointless. It’s as Mom said. Being only human.

GM: He reaches a hand to his wife. Touching her in a way that is tender but otherworldly, as if his haptics transcend mere touch.

Hazel: It’s such a minor thing, though, against what is to come. Why is it what’s making her cry? Would be making her cry, if she had eyes to weep with? I’m sorry. I…

GM: The crushed passenger door is bent around and through her father. He coughs, and something red and bubbling flecks his lips. “Are you okay… Hazel?” He turns, painfully, and reaches for her.

Hazel: Yes, yes, I’m fine, I know I survive, it’s YOU who’s dying! It’s you you should be worrying about! Damn it all, where’s the police, where’s–where’s Dad–my other da… where!?

GM: His fingers stretch as if to feel her face, her hands.

Hazel: Her mind blinks away imagined tears. Why couldn’t he have gotten here FASTER!?

GM: The horn keeps screaming. Sparks snake and sizzle the air, evaporating the blizzard in gouts of white vapor like the breath of a demon. Above, the baleful stoplight keeps ‘shining’ black, drinking in the pale wintry light. “Hazel… Daddy needs your help… can you… reach me?”

Hazel: I’m here, I’m here, I’m… A long pause. Is he addressing… her?

GM: His fingers plead and struggle to find her.

Hazel: No, it can’t be, he’s addressing the three-year-old who… where even is she?

GM: They realize that she is them, and they are she, at least in part. Hazel is witnessing these events from her three–year–old eyes, experiencing the tortured emotions of her old selves and new.

Hazel: Hazel’s only three, she was always clumsy, but… now is not the time to fall back on her disabilities. She’s comparatively uninjured by the crash, thanks to sitting in the back and in a booster seat. Her tiny, trembling fingers hit the release. She leans forward, her hands seeking out her father’s.

GM: As the click echoes like another key turning in her mind, there is another sound that both she and her father hear.

Hazel: Tears run down her youthful features as her mouth soundlessly moves. It’s still a little while before she utters her first words. No… this isn’t just her, this is me. SAY SOMETHING, you little shit! SAY SOMETHING! she screams.

GM: The black car that almost hit them, that made them mortally swerve and crash, catches on fire. Its front is smashed into a local downtown antique shop–its driver lays impaled on the broken shards of the shattered windshield. As the flames lick up from the hood, the figure starts to scream. Hazel notes that the figure does not bleed–It leaks. Something oily and black rather than red issues from its torn frame. Its black suit, white dress shirt, and tie are torn, revealing something wrong inside its chest cavity. Gears, pistons, cogs, and strange inhuman apparatus. A gust of white wind rips off its black hat, exposing similarly bizarre elements. The man-mockery screams again: but only deafening static comes out of its pipe-throat.

Her father looks up at the unsound. Fear might wash over his eyes if he had any, but his jaw clenches. “Hazel… close your eyes… don’t… watch…”

Hazel: Somehow, she always knew that it wasn’t natural. What happened that night. On another occasion, she might investigate the other driver more closely. No, she will still investigate him. It. But that doesn’t matter, not right now. She looks up at the brave, blind, and doomed man who was her first father through blurred eyes.

SAY SOMETHING! Just… just SAY SOMETHING!

She can feel the words, tries to make them well up in her younger self’s throat. She’s physically capable of speech! She’s…

This is just a mental block, like the anxiety attacks! Say something, you stupid little aspie! SAY SOMETHING!!!!

GM: The unman lifts its body from the burning car, its oil-blood leaking down its torn open chest. Its clothes catch fire, but it stalks uncaring to the Calloways’ car–and its occupants. To Hazel.

“Close your eyes!” her father shouts.

Hazel: Hazel pulls at her younger self’s jaw with a set of metaphysical pliers. She knows what happens to her father, even if she’s no longer sure how it happens. But there’s something she can give him before he dies. Maybe it’ll grant him some measure of happiness, however briefly, before he… NOW!!!!

Her eyes clamp shut. But her mouth forces open.

“Dad…”

GM: Although her physical eyes shut and block out the horror of the approaching thing, her immaterial, awakened eyes remain open. They watch as her father’s fingers click and shift in prolix patterns like a programmer performing a yantra-esque hack into something. His shape begins to transform. The light around him dims like a reserve halo. Then, he is illuminated by a field of tiny lights as if his features are cast in the glow of a giant monitor.

programming.jpg

As the transformation continues, a mask appears over his face, its ancient features resembling a Japanese Noh mask. Her awakened eyes can taste the digital magic, the fruit of the Tree, as her father reaches for those lights. He grunts from the strain, blood beginning to leak from the painted nostril of his Noh mask.

Noh_mask.jpg

The unman reaches the car. It rips off Hazel’s door like wet tissue paper.

Hazel: Damn it, I can help, I can help, I can see the Tree too…!

GM: Bound by father–daughter bonds she will later forget, the three–year–old keeps her eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the thing as it goes to reach for her.

That’s when the snapped power-line comes alive and whips around the unman’s ankles, dragging it back away from the car. Her father’s mask and lights flash brightly, his fingers flickering as he grunts and coughs. The frayed, sparking ends of the power-line rear up like a snake. It fangs the unman’s exposed clockwork heart, pouring a million volts of electric venom into Hazel’s would-be attacker. The massive discharge causes the downtown’s electric boxes and electric network to spark and black out. The unman writhes, its gaping mouth-pipe screaming static so loud that it breaks windows.

Hazel: He saved me. He died saving me. He…

GM: The stoplight fries. Its blacklight dies. The writhing stops. The static recedes. The car horn becomes silent. Unconsoled, but silent. In the stark quiet that follows, Hazel can hear the snowflakes fall from the heavens. With her window ripped off, she feels their icy touch and the biting cold wind.

“Hazel…” Her father coughs, badly, painfully, and there is the sound of movement. Maybe something tearing. His fingers brush her face. “My dream… Hazel… can you… do something… for Daddy?” His fingers gently touch her face, as if to read her gestures.

Hazel: Her tiny hands brush back. Yes, yes, anything, while there’s still time…

GM: “We’re going to… play a… game…” There’s a wet, ragged cough, followed by a wheezing sucking sound. “Hide… and… seek… just keep… your eyes… closed…”

Hazel: A game? This isn’t any time for games! He needs help, NOW, before…

GM: “I… have to… go… away…” Another shudder, cough, and visceral sucking sound. “But… you’ll… find me… you were… a…ways… be…t… at… se…k…ng.” His fingers touch her lips, pushing gently at a corner to ‘feel’ her smile. “Jus… list…n… lis…n… for… the col…rs…” Hazel’s awakened, wide-open inner eye watches as the reflective transphysical lights return. They flicker soft and dim like digital fireflies.

Hazel: This word doesn’t take any great effort to coax forth in her younger self. “No!” A new wave of tears runs past her still-closed eyes as she sniffles, “No… Da… no! Don’t go! No! Don’t go!” He can’t go. Please, no.

GM: “Th… c…l…rs… of… th… f…tur…” His hand falls away from her tear-wet face. The lights die. All save one. Its tiny, fragile light leaps like microcosmic lighting, disappearing into the wiring of the nearby payphone.

Her father breathes no more. Little Hazel sees none of it. There’s only the terrible absence. The silence of his voice. The abyss that will forever remain between her and his loving touch.

Hazel: No! It’s not… if he had the power to, WHY did he… could he let… they could’ve made this right! They could’ve fixed this! Somehow! Did he… did he even get to hear her? Or was it all something she imagined up, in hopes of granting some measure of last happiness to a tragically doomed man?

GM: Hazel’s only answer is the silent, white-snow static that falls from the sky.

Hazel: Find me.

Yes, yes, he’s right, she’s always been good at finding things, at picking up patterns, she can find this… these….. colors? She can find them, whatever they are. Wherever they are. She just… has… to… wake up! AGAIN!

GM: As the three-year-old Hazel cries and shivers, the colors of the past and present bleed together in flashing reds and blue. But the white-cold static washes out all shades and sounds.

Brook, Hudson: A Golden Star


10.09.1998, Friday morning

GM: The night’s storm has passed, but the morning gusts stir and stipple the hospital’s half-flooded parking lot. The same chilly-wet wind slaps at Hudson and Brook as the former escorts the latter to Hodges’ truck. Showered and freshly clothed, Brook watches as another gust catches the dark-green tarp tied to the truck-bed, causing it to twist and like the Green Lady.

Hudson: Hudson is neither showered nor freshly clothed. He gets the door for the handcuffed Brook.

Brook: Brook still feels the film over the world, but with the time and the shower he’s been gifted, the cause becomes clear. Filth. He’s coated with more than just the filth that the marshals can see, but he can feel it coating him. The tarp’s rippling form only drives home what he knows. He needs the box under his bed and he needs one last visit to the Green Lady before the fall gets too cold, and she sleeps under ice.

The open door has the teen step into the truck, resting his head back and waiting for the portly marshal to join him.

Hudson: Brook does not have to wait very long at all. Hudson’s clothes are still wet and coated in mud, even if he all-too thankfully accepted Max’s dry coat to replace his ruined one for the drive over. The fat marshal sees Brook inside, then promptly gets out of the cold himself.

GM: Far above, a stray goose, likely divided from its flock in the storm, flies south for refuge from the coming winter. It honks plaintively.

Hudson: He turns on the ignition and pulls out of the hospital’s well-lit parking lot. The police station is ten or fifteen minutes away.

Brook: “So. Mind if I ask you a question?”

Hudson: “We don’t have too much else we can do at the moment, Mr. Barnes.”

Brook: “You’re leaving Witiko Falls for good after this, right?”

Hudson: “Once the doctors tell us Moe is in good enough shape for the trip back to Boise. But yes, I’ll be gone for good.”

Brook: “How far along have the tourist nightmares gone?”

Hudson: Hudson raises an eyebrow that’s still caked with a smidgen of dried mud. He sighs and rubs at it. He washed his hands and face back in the hospital, but it looks like he didn’t get everything. “‘Tourist nightmares’, Mr. Barnes?”

Brook: “Every visitor up here experiences nightmares,” he states, very matter-of-fact. “Just like why you can’t bring dogs up here. Different question, then. Did Nelson have any police protection when you let him leave that day? Mr. Epstein is a known gun carrier, my home is the most secure place in the Falls, but Nelson was the one of three who was taken.”

Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, it’s very late. Late enough that it’s rolled around to being early, in fact,” the mustachioed marshal says tiredly. “Though I suppose the one upshot to that is the rest I’ve gotten here being equally terrible.”

Brook: Brook side-eyes the lawman, and shakes his head. “If you survive what comes after the nightmares, you’ll be fine.” Easing into his seat, he looks out the window for the sun. His body doesn’t ache as much as the older man’s, not by far. The trip there was easy, the fight short and vicious, but not terrible. “If you ask Mr. Epstein, I even told him it’d be us. And if you talk to him today, thank him for me. His math class was the only reason I was able to find Moe.”

Hudson: “I don’t think there’s any reason for me to burden him with that guilt, Mr. Barnes.” Hudson looks out over the rising sun. It’s still cold and wet outside, but the light and truck’s heat is a vast improvement over his previous mode of transportation. “Finding you and Moe together was something we’d prepared for, but hoped to God wouldn’t be the case. You either had the worst luck in the world to run into him, or some idea of where he was.”

Brook: Brook wants to say a lot, wants to credit the forest for guiding him once again, and his memories of the forsaken little valley. But he spots the sun too, and the thick form of the young man beside him starts to almost deflate before the lawman’s eyes.

“It wasn’t ‘some’ idea, no. There was a pattern, and I found it using the obvious clues he left behind. The composite sketch of his shit-pentagram, the fires, everything fit neatly together in the golden ratio. The radio tower was inoperable, so I had to…”

Those are the boy’s last words, the sun signals his downfall as he passes out in his seat.

Hudson: “Hmm-hmm. And what about your truck radio? Or the tower’s generator?” Hudson chuckles. “Sounds like I’m out of a job, though. You’d get along with my granddaughter. She can name a hundred reasons she should be wearing the marshal’s badge instead of me.”

GM: Brook’s narcoleptic snores are the marshal’s only reply.

Hudson: “That includes my being too fat,” the marshal continues conversationally. “She thinks the marshals should have a maximum weight, or at least BMI requirement. I switched from smokes to candy bars so her dad wouldn’t inhale any secondhand, when he was a kid. Isn’t that some life.”

“But that’s kids her age. They always know better.” Hudson lets Brook sleep for now—god knows he could use the rest—and looks ahead towards his drive.

GM: Ahead, the mountains are dark with rain and receding shadows. Nestled between those peaks, Witiko Falls remains largely asleep, barely even stirring.

Brook: Brook’s body and mind fight over rather to sleep or panic each time they both realize that his wrists are bound, every so often his arms flexing as they remember the sense of dread as Mo wraps his arms in tape, but relax as his mind reminds them of the look of horror on his face when he ripped out of them. It continues all the way to the station, and the only other conscious thought that pulls itself out of his brain is the lament that he can’t look out over the mountains after a thunderstorm.

GM: Indeed, the only ‘passenger’ Hudson crosses on the roads before reaching Witiko Falls’ police station is a tumbling plastic bag from Shop-Plus.

Hudson: It’s a much too early—or late—hour for anyone to be up and about. Hudson has to admit he likes it, though. It feels natural. In tune with how things should be. Everyone being in bed, rather than a city’s never-ending pattern of frantic activity. That’s small towns. Hell, you could probably leave your car and house unlocked in a place like this. Hudson parks the truck, gets out, and gently shakes Brook awake. “All right, we’re here. You can get your full day’s worth inside.”

Brook: Hudson’s finger barely brushes Brook before his eyes shoot open, looking the man over like he’s wondering why he’s so tall and white, before his memory catches up with him and he grumbles, sliding out of the truck and shaking his legs out and looking up at the building. He’s quiet for the moment.

GM: Brook awaits to his destination and seeming place of temporary residence for the unforeseen future. 131 Cackleberry Lane. Police Station of Witiko Falls. Although Hudson’s been here before, he is still struck by the building, which altogether looks more like a small-town bed–and–breakfast than a jailhouse.

True, POLICE STATION is brightly emblazoned above its two white-washed doors, but those words and the usual menace or at least power they carry is literally overshadowed by a fragrant mass of flowers grown over the building’s large porch, complete with a sitting chair and whittling stick.

Police_station.jpg

Hudson: Not that it likely ever sees many inmates. Probably just drunks sleeping it off.

GM: Both men note the night’s storm has beaten up the late-blooming blossoms rather badly. It’s hard to tell whether Brook or the flowers are more badly bruised.

Hudson: This is small towns, all right, but the floral wreath had made even Hudson pause at the sight at first. Well, he’s seen stranger—and in this town no less. He leads Brook inside.

Brook: Brook feels better than those flowers do, at least, he frowns lightly at their state, but still heads inside with Hudson. “You know, I have one more question, Marshal.”

Hudson: “Shoot, Mr. Barnes,” the marshal deadpans.

Brook: “Was this necessary?”

Hudson: Hudson gives a tired half-smile. “Would you be here if my answer was no?”

Brook: “Maybe. I don’t get why this had to happen, though. You couldn’t find him, and I did. And it ended up saving Nelson’s life.”

Hudson: “Since you’ve asked, that I can explain.” Hudson motions for him to take a seat.

Brook: Brook sighs and looks out over the town. “Please do.”

Hudson: “This is happening, in short, because you interfered with my team’s investigation when you weren’t supposed to. We found evidence—planted, deliberately false evidence, as it now turns out—in the farmhouse that Moses’ next target was Mrs. Britter. We assigned her a full guard. When Red Aspen didn’t respond to our communications, and I took two of my people to find why, we discovered bike tracks that indicated you’d driven off into the night, for god only knows what reason. Where you might run into Moses, who was oddly late in showing up for Mrs. Britter, and my little man was starting to tell me might never show. I made the decision to split my team, half staying with Mrs. Britter, half searching for you, knowing that I might be condemning someone to die for want of enough men. That was your first count of obstructing an officer.”

“You’re lucky I was able to track your path to Moses, and had a friend who lent me some motorbikes that marshals aren’t normally issued. When I got to Scratch’s Corral, I saw you and Moses engaged in an altercation. He might have killed you. He might have killed Mr. Judd. He might have done god only knows what, because you deliberately sought him out in order to put away the bad guy and play hero. That was the second count of obstruction. Then, in the middle of a hostage negotiation, you attacked Moses. That was the third count of obstruction. Against all odds, no one died, and the bad guy got put away. But here’s my question for you, Mr. Barnes.” Hudson looks Brook in his eyes and asks slowly and deliberately:

“What if you were wrong?”

“What if you were wrong about where to find Moses, he really went after Mrs. Britter, and someone died because her guards were at half strength? What if when you first found Moses, he killed Mr. Judd? What if my team’s trigger fingers were too slow, and he fatally stabbed you or Mr. Judd? Or what if it wasn’t my team’s trigger fingers that were slow, but our powers of deduction, or the speed of our bikes, and we are arrived too late to stop Moses from gutting you or Mr. Judd? What if I never listened to my hunch that Moses might not show at the Britter farm, and stayed there with my team? There are a thousand and one other ‘what ifs’ a DA who picked over this case could identify, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure your natural response to that is ‘but I was right and everything worked out’. But things didn’t work out. Not for everyone.” Hudson slowly shakes his egg-shaped head. “Oh, I’m grateful how things turned out, let there be no question of that. If you offered me the chance to go back in time, re-do events, and play those dice again, I’d turn you down. We were incredibly lucky that no one died that night. Incredibly lucky. But Moses still lost his arm. He’s going to go through the rest of his life unable to eat, drink, open a door, even take a dump, without help from a nurse. I’m responsible for that, Mr. Barnes. I made the call to shoot off his arm. But some of that responsibility is yours—for attacking Moses when you did, and forcing the events that led to me making a terrible split decision: shoot a man, or let him stab two boys. And the equally terrible repercussions of that decision, for Moses, are not a responsibility you should have to bear, in even the slightest amount. You are fifteen years old and still a minor.”

“I’m not fifteen. I’m an adult, a marshal, and one close to retirement at that. I knew that something like last night’s outcome, or worse, could happen under my watch when I accepted this assignment. It was my cross to bear if someone died or got hurt because of a decision I made. Because that’s the thing, Mr. Barnes. If you want to get credit for being a hero, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences if you’re just a screw-up. And when the stakes are men’s lives, those consequences are terrible. Terrible enough that we don’t ever want them visited upon a child.”

“You interfered with my team, three times—four if we count not sharing Moses’ location with us, not that anyone ever expected you to discover that—and hijacked some major decisions out of my hands. Those weren’t your calls to make. You weren’t qualified to do our job, as the fact you didn’t think to tell us what you’d found over your truck radio makes all-too apparent. If we let every fifteen-year-old who believed he was in the right interfere with a federal manhunt to the extent that you did, most of those manhunts would end in disasters. Most of the time, fifteen-year-olds are wrong.”

“That’s why, Mr. Barnes, even in being 100% right, you can still be 100% wrong. You’ll find that’s life. The comforting shades of black and white will blur and intermix as you grow older, until they grow so gray, you’ll find that sometimes, right is wrong.”

Brook: Brook listens intently, leaning against the building as he thinks it all over, chewing it with a concerned face.

“I don’t want to be a hero, Marshal. I wanted no one to die. I wouldn’t have left that tower if I wasn’t 90% sure. One, that I couldn’t contact you. Generators can’t be used to run radio equipment during a storm, and the tower was fried. I didn’t even think about my truck. Two; using my maps and the locations of the fires, with the symbol he was so fond of, and the history, geography, and difficulty of access, I was certain he was in Scratch’s Corral. Third; I didn’t have the time to hesitate. Witching hour is 3 AM, I had to get there before I found a corpse and not a teacher or classmate. I… I’ll admit my mind was more occupied on getting there too late than getting there with backup. I brought flare guns to signal my location, but should have set one off before I left. I’m sorry you got bad information from Moses, and I’m sorry what I put you through in running off, but I was too sure someone would die if I didn’t go.”

“As for me grabbing him, I was expecting the three trained officers there to rush forward and grapple him, not open fire. Even one person to grab Nelson, that’s still three people to grapple Moses, when I was able to overpower him before you came. The only reason he grabbed Nelson was because he realized he couldn’t beat me. I don’t blame you for your choice. It turned out. But I accept that responsibility for him losing his arm. He doesn’t have a lick of pity after telling me how he lost the first one, though.”

“As for you saying it’d be my ‘natural response’, it’s not. You haven’t been here long enough to realize what Witiko Falls is. That Mary is my adoptive mother, that my friends are all missing family, that I have a friend in the hospital right now losing her mind over a murdered mother, that the stain in my school library is from a woman shot dead, why police dogs aren’t allowed here, or why my mother doesn’t want any of you into the forest. Everything turning out okay doesn’t happen often, if ever. We see things we can’t unsee, each step towards the hole where the Great Root was taken leads us to learn the things that crawl up from it are wrong. So of course I realize there are ‘what ifs’. What if I’m not fast enough, what if a mountain lion is waiting in the trees, what if today is the day I trip and feel teeth on the back of my neck. I live with my own what ifs, Marshal. This isn’t my first brush with death. That said-”

There’s a small break in his expression as Brook scans the parking lot with a look of sadness, or maybe loss. A father, let alone a grandfather, can tell the boy is choking a lot back.

“It was close. Really close. Before you showed up, Nelson was in a worse place than he was before I showed up. I probably would have killed Moses, or he probably would have killed me. I had… I thought I had a bargaining chip hidden in the corral, but it was gone. I was going to tell my mother that I needed to stop being a ranger for a while. I got so frustrated at all of you treating me like a child, and not taking what I was saying seriously. Despite that I was right, I think I get it. Fucked up that I only learn shit when I almost die. Fucking idiot.”

Brook turns away from the marshal so he can’t see his face, but he can hear the boy’s shoes creak as his toes grip the patio floor.

“Just put me in the cage. I already know that you’re senior enough that the judge and DA will listen to what you want. And at this point I’ve got no right to argue with you.”

Hudson: Hudson sits down on the bench outside the rather homely police station as he patiently listens to the teenager’s reply. “Yes and no, Mr. Barnes. I can put you in a cell, although it’ll be a judge’s call whether to keep you in one past the weekend.”

“You’ve had a rough night. It sounds like you’ve had a rough life. It sounds like right now’s particularly rough. The teen years always are. I should know. I’ve put a kid through them before, and am putting another one through them now.”

Brook: Brook sniffles, rubbing his face on his shoulder. “You ever heard of the Mooners, Marshal?”

Hudson: “Regional biker gang, if I’m not off my mark,” Hudson considers. “My team actually saw some bikers watching us off the canyon on our way down. God knows why, but it’s nothing to bring them in for.”

Brook: “Those were them. When I was 12, I was sent into the woods in the winter to find a stick to punish me for giving this very Nelson a black eye. I found one of them in the woods, drugged with his leg broken. Coyote chewing on his hand. Carrying him away from there, being chased by a pack of coyotes, was the day I learned not to have petty fights.”

Hudson: “Sounds pretty ugly. I’m not about to say that your starting fights is a good idea, not after tonight, but it sounds like he was lucky you were there.”

Brook: “Was more me just saying… I don’t want to be petty with you. So… I’m sorry for causing you issues. You are going to have issues with my mother, so I’m sorry for that, too. I hope you and your granddaughter sort it out and you never have to come back to this place.” Brook takes a deep bracing breath and turns back around, nodding to the door. “Let’s go inside. We both need to sleep.”

Hudson: “I appreciate hearing that, Mr. Barnes. It’s not often that a person I’m arresting apologizes for it.” The fat marshal gives a faint chuckle. “First time ever, in fact. That will likely mean something to a DA if he thinks you’ve already learned your lesson. A lot of people who go through our justice system never do.”

“As for my granddaughter, she’s got her problems, but she’s ultimately going through nothing that any other kid her age isn’t. I don’t think you can be a teenager without saying the words ’I’m being treated like a child and not taken seriously’ at some point.” There’s another tired smile on the disheveled man’s features. Finally he rises from his seat.

“Now, let’s.”

Brook: Brook nods and sighs. “Like a genetic curse or something.” But he does let out a small chuckle. Using his knee, he opens the door into the station and opens the door with his hip, heading a bit wobbly inside, having to lean up against the wall. His condition is getting to him again. It takes him a moment to straighten himself out, but he does, with no hands to support himself or touch his face he just leans against the wall as he waits to be processed into the jail.

Hudson: Hudson spares the handcuffed teenager the need to so awkwardly get the door by simply opening it himself. “You can let the adults handle some things, Mr. Barnes,” the marshal comments dryly.

Brook: Brook gives another little chuckle as he lets the marshal open the door. “I really don’t like handcuffs.”

GM: As the door opens, Hudson and Brook hear a gruff, yet mellow voice call out to them. “Be right with you boys.” Contrary to expectations, the voice comes not from inside the station, but from around its side. In the still morning quiet, there comes an audible ‘zip’, followed by a stream of liquid hitting the ground. “Ahhhhh,” sighs the voice in unabashed relief. “I salute you, Lady.”

Hudson: Small towns.

GM: The splashing sound goes on long enough to vacillate between awkward to impressive to concerning. But eventually, it stops. Another crisp ‘zip’ cuts the air. A mumbled song follows, as the voice’s owner rounds the corner: “Eenty teenty tirry mirry
, Ram, tam, toosh
, Crawl under the bed
, and catch a wee fat moose…”

Brook: Brook hears it all, leaning in to the marshal to whisper, “I’ll be here in the morning. Promise.” Other than that, he stands there waiting.

Hudson: Hudson merely shakes his head. “Sorry, Mr. Barnes.” Besides, the marshal is the only one with the key to his cuffs.

GM: Hudson and Brook both recognize the distinctive voice as belonging to Leslie Ferguson, local dispatch.

Hudson: That’s not the only thing distinctive.

GM: Bushy as the station flora he manages, Ferg has gray hair that’s fast becoming a Kris Kringle white. Crooked sunglasses sit between a long, bulbous nose and a creased brow. This morning, Ferg is wearing a gray T-shirt, pair of whitey-tighties, and a clip-on walkie-talkie. The ‘bareness’ of his legs, though, isn’t immediately obvious, as his wooly legs resemble long johns.

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“Any of you boys seen a watering can?” He scratches his rear while looking up at the flowers. “Storm’s made a mess of things, like Old Scratch whipped them for going to church.”

Hudson: “Afraid not, Ferg. We’re here to get Mr. Barnes bedded down for the night—day—and I’m back to the hospital.” He gives the man a second to process that, then proceeds inside with Brook. The marshal knows better than to harangue the locals for their ways, but he’s not going to let them waste his time either.

Brook: “Morning Mr. Fergy. Haven’t seen it no. Wind may have carried it away if it was left out.” Brook greets the man, small town style as he looks to the marshal and follows him.

GM: “Well, that’s a shame,” Ferg replies, although to what or whom isn’t clear. He looks up at the rising sun. “Looks like it’s pants-time.”

Hudson: “A time and place for all things,” Hudson replies as he heads inside.

Brook: Brook shrugs. “He’s a good man, pants or no,” he says, looking to Ferg as he follows in. “Did something happen last night Mr. Ferg? Undersheriff Bauman looked like death.”

Hudson: Brook goes in before Hudson, who initially opened the door for him. However well the teenager might be taking his arrest, arrestees walk first.

Brook: Well as it seems the boy is taking it, his body still groans at him to leave. To head and go through his daily rituals, to get his ass to school, to slide into the river, to take that recording to June and decide rather he wants to suck face or not. There’s too many loose ends, he resolves to simply get into his cell and sleep the pesky daylight away.

GM: Ferg obliges, escorting the marshal and teen inside the police station. He pauses long enough to slip on a pair of uniform trousers before continuing the ‘tour’.

“Here’s the booking room,” the elderly dispatcher says, waving an arm at the station’s main hub and its plaster walls, mustard-painted headboard, and scuffed hardwood floors. Tidy if dated, the area features a long, weathered booking desk; a large metal locker; spare road signs; a display case filled with various department and municipal trophies and awards; a Kelpie pennant; a framed picture of the mayor; a county map; vintage cigarette machines converted to dispense candy; and a gumball bank filled with Barbie-doll heads.

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“Up there’s the evidence room,” Ferg continues, pointing up the stairs for Hudson’s benefit. “Still cleaning up after the fire.” He then opens a door next to the vending machines, revealing a well-organized office filled with framed police academy diplomas, certificates, and badges; a shelf lined with legal and forensic binders, books, and pamphlets as well as framed wedding and child graduation photos; pin-stuck maps of Witiko Falls and surrounding environs; a trio of desks featuring blotters, an electric typewriter, writing implements, the mid-week copy of the Tribune, and a microfiche machine. Between a shelf and the back desk, a laminated piece of paper declares in mismatched, asymmetrical child print: FATHER OF THE EPOCH.

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“Sheriff’s office,” Ferg comments. “But he’s nice enough to share if you need to finish some paperwork.” Closing the door, he points to a pair of doors. “Bathroom’s on the left. Make sure you pull the lever up, not down. Break-room’s on the right. Has a fridge, and I’ve got a pot of my special maple bacon morning brew all ready. Just make sure you don’t bump the card table–we’ve got a hell of a game of Chinese Checkers going on.”

Leading his ‘guests’ down a second staircase, he adds with a sad smile, “But I guess you boys are here for the main attraction.” He ushers them down to the basement holding cells. Like the rest of the station, the place is a bit antiquated but surprisingly tidy, arguably even cozy. Although the walls and floors are concrete, they have been freshly painted in the same mustard and white as the rest of the station. Fresh, crisp sheets have laid over the bedroll, and the cell has been stocked with folded towels and toiletries. A small, high shelf holds the latter as well as a pair of framed pictures. A minuscule sink, shower, and toilet are nearly hidden by the sliding bars.

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Ferg leans against the bars and scratches his buttocks–this time through the fabric of his pants. “Yep.”

Brook: Brook has seen the inside of the station before, making deliveries for his mother, or coming to help move things around as a favor to the officers. Small town things. But the lighting almost looks different when he’s being led around by a set of handcuffs. Even the little cell he’s only ever seen a man sleeping off a few too many highballs during the day.

Hudson: Hudson looks the ‘cell’ and surroundings environs over. He’s slept in worse hotel rooms than that. He thanks Ferg for his assistance, states that he’ll do his best to avoid bumping the table (given his weight), and gets around to the booking process, starting with finding the eponymous book that contains the town’s arrest records. All… five of them?

“Last time I did this, people getting arrested were chanting chanting some variation of ‘hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today’,” Hudson remarks dryly as he records Brook’s name and reason for arrest (obstructing a public officer). Then comes the mug shot. The station has a camera, but Hudson can’t find a designated location to put the pictures, much less a separate spot where records of minors are supposed to be stored, so Hudson makes do with slipping them inside a folder he labels ‘juvenile arrest records’ and places on the undersheriff’s desk. That’s doubtlessly not the only part of this process that’s going to get slap-dashed through.

Then comes taking clothing and personal property. In a truly stunning surprise, the small town police station lacks uniforms for jail inmates, so Brook stays in his current clothes. Hudson does take anything the teenager might have in his pockets, as well as his firearm, which he empties of its ammunition and checks to be sure the safety is on for. Brook’s effects go in the designated spot for personal inventory, which Hudson is mildly surprised to find. The small town station has fingerprinting equipment too, so Hudson takes prints from Brook. That likewise goes in the folder. He waives the medical screening. Brook was only just examined by Mt. Pelion’s nurses under his watch.

Brook: But then come the motions of getting put on the books, the photos, the processing of his belongings, the fingerprinting, everything. Internally he hopes they’re destroyed if he isn’t convicted, but as everything is completed he stands there against the wall, starting to look like death. Not only is his body rebelling and demanding sleep, but the reality of the situation is starting to weigh on him.

“You like the hand cannon? I picked it out for myself. A year ago at the end of the month.”

Hudson: “It packs some punch. Guess that’s not a surprise with the wildlife you run into here,” Hudson nods. “Hang in there just a bit longer, Mr. Barnes, we’re almost done.”

GM: Ferg watches the whole processing laconically, occasionally pointing to or unlocking something the marshal needs.

Hudson: Hudson writes up an itemized inventory of Brook’s possessions, which he signs and has the arrestee likewise do. It also goes in the folder.

Brook: “457 Casull. The .500 S&W was too lanky for my taste. She can put a bear down in two shots,” he continues to say, signing the inventory.

Hudson: “I’m a Glock man myself. Standard issue to marshals, though we sometimes carry heavier for assignments like Moses.” Hudson pages through the battered ‘jail standards’ manual. It’s been a while since he did this. “All right, you just showered, so I think we can skip that step too.”

Brook: “I get too dirty in the line of work for anything but a revolver. Last thing I want is the pin failing to strike,” he mutters, closing his eyes and waiting for the man to finish.

Hudson: “Adults are also allowed an unmonitored phone call with their attorney at this point. Now your mom already knows you’re here, but if you have someone else you want to phone, feel free.”

GM: Ferg, still barefoot, listens but continues to keep his peace.

Hudson: Hudson gives the arrestee a chance to do that in privacy, if he wants, then checks through the remaining steps in the manual. He gave Brook a full body pat-down as part of claiming his possessions. He’s received his ‘thorough orientation to the facility and its operation’ courtesy of Ferg. Hudson looks around for a pamphlet containing information about the facility’s regulations governing inmate treatment and conduct, listing of programs and services available, methods of seeking information or assistance, procedure for making complaints, emergency procedures, the agency’s zero tolerance policy towards sexual assault and how to report incidences, and any other information necessary to enable the inmate to adapt to the routine of the jail.

Unsurprisingly, the marshal comes up empty-handed. He informs Brook as to this fact and tells him to ask Ferg if he has any salient questions.

GM: Ferg nods in assent.

Hudson: Upon completion of orientation, the inmate is requested to verify that he/she has been made aware of the facility’s rules, programs, and services with his/her signature. Hudson mentally sighs and drafts a statement as to that effect, making note of the ‘exceptions to general policy’, which he has Brook sign. It goes in the juveniles folder too.

Oh yes, checking for warrants. Hudson dryly asks Ferg if Brook has any outstanding ones, double-checks the station’s records, and finds little to his surprise that the fifteen-year-old does not.

“To reduce the likelihood of violence and injuries from fellow prisoners, we normally ask about current and former gang affiliations. Somehow I think we can skip this step,” the marshal notes, “but if you feel your personal safety is at risk for that reason, Mr. Barnes, please don’t hesitate to notify Ferg.”

GM: “Not tats,” the dispatch says in his mellow-gruff voice.

Brook: Brook nods the process and looks around through his belongings, looking for the little baggy with the phone number and dollar bill the Mooners have given him, but doesn’t make a move to grab it.

“Oh. Marshal Hudson, I should warn you. Since my mother is no longer very happy with you, there’s some ground rules you should know. If you stay here a few more days, have you and your team put mousetraps by your door in case you sleepwalk. Don’t go near the river or into the woods without a ranger. Skinny Chet is a good choice. Don’t drive along Rockwell’s Fall. Oh, and the best coffee is on the reservation,” he says dryly. There’s nothing he wants to go over, deflecting the growing weight on his shoulders with what little humor he can scrape up. “I’ll be here sleeping, unless you want me to write out an affidavit about what happened last night from my point of view.”

GM: Ferg frowns at the mention of ‘best coffee’ being on the reservation, but otherwise waits for the marshal to finish his business.

Hudson: “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Mr. Barnes, although you might actually find it useful as a tool for personal reflection,” Hudson replies. The county jail unsurprisingly lacks equipment to take DNA samples, so that step is also skipped. Hudson looks through the moth-eared jail standards manual (he absently wonders whether it’s older or younger than the current inmate) to double-check if there’s anything he’s missed, and goes through those steps if there is.

Finally, he provides Brook with “standard” bedding and hygiene items that amount to those he can think of off the top of his head, though he does also pause to ask the teenager if there’s anything else he needs. Then, at long last, he sees the tired Brook into his cell. He’s since lost the handcuffs, along with his necklace.

“All right, Mr. Barnes, get some sleep. Judges and warrants will come tomorrow.”

Brook: The only major complaint the teen has is, in fact, that necklace. “Marshal. Before you go, do you think we could break procedure just a bit, and let me get that necklace back? It’s kind of incredibly important to me. Even just the pendant without the chain.”

Hudson: Hudson shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes, but breaking procedure is why we’re here in the first place. You can get it back for the drive out tomorrow.”

Brook: Brook almost neurotically taps his fingers against the bars, looking around the office for where the items are kept as he nods. “Okay. Can you make sure it’s tied around the hand cannon, then? Just so it doesn’t wander off. It’s good medicine for me.”

Hudson: “I think we can manage that.” Hudson brings both items back, ties the necklace where Brook can see him doing so, and returns them to inventory.

Brook: He relaxes slightly and nods. “Thank you. I’m going to force myself to sleep, then. You get some rest too, Marshal.”

Hudson: “I’ll try my best there,” the marshal dryly replies. “All right, Ferg, I’m out of your hair. You can contact my team over radio if there’s anything.”

GM: Ferg nods again, and sums up their encounter by saying, “Guess it’s time to crack the case of the missing watering can.”

Hudson: With those parting words, the still muddy-suited marshal (though that mud has since caked over dry from the building’s heat) pauses to thoroughly inspect one last, very important component of the facility’s operations—its converted cigarette-to-candy-dispensing machines.

Once that duty is discharged, Hudson gets into the police truck and drives back to the Ghost Elk Lodge to pick up a fresh change of clothes for himself and his two deputies. He nicely asks the hotel employees for the room keycards at first, explaining why he needs to get into his deputies’ rooms, and that he appreciates the exception they’re making to hotel policy. Any employees who refuse him, however, get a marshal’s badge thrust in their faces coupled with the stone-hard stare of a man who’s been through god knows what, and whose clothes certainly look the part. Hudson may even growl something about “obstructing a federal law enforcement agent in the execution of his duties.”

Whether the marshal gets what he wants through politesse or the fact that Idaho’s $5.15 minimum wage doesn’t come close to the cost of getting in his way, however, Hudson doesn’t linger at the Ghost Elk; he’ll change and shower back at the hospital. A radio dispatch tells his people that he is en route back to Mt. Pelion with fresh clothes, and that Cassidy and Curtis can look forward to a long overdue night’s sleep. He and the comparatively-rested Max will take over guarding Moses.

His uncle, a WWII vet, always said never to ask anything of your men you won’t do yourself, but the 54-year-old still heaves a mental sigh at the thought of staying up for another eight hours. At moments like these, the three years until mandatory retirement don’t seem so bad. He consoles himself with the thought that these next eight hours won’t be anywhere nearly so arduous as the past eight.

Besides, the hospital has vending machines.

Not anywhere near as arduous, the marshal thinks as the Almond Joy bar crunches under his teeth.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.09.1998, Friday morning

GM: Kurt’s room doesn’t even have his name on the door; a simple blue curtain partitions the room, and labored breathing comes from the outline of a shape in the bed on the other side. Kurt awakens, his head slightly propped up against a pair of pillows with yellow stains. A pulley sling holds up his leg cast, and an intravenous tube snakes into his arm while a cranial catheter drips bloody cerebrospinal fluid. The bedside table holds a metal sample bowl full of thick sputum as well as a tray with an egg salad sandwich minus a single bite. The white-painted walls are peeling, and the smell of sweat and rubbing alcohol lingers in the air.

Inside his skull, though, Kurt feels like his brain has been flushed with drain-o.

Kurt: Kurt blinks, slowly. “I’ve been here before,” he says with a croak, eyes taking in the worn, yellow-tinged surroundings. His eyes finally settle on the sandwich with one bite taken out of it.

GM: The curtained off figure stirs but does not reply. However, Kurt’s croaking comment draws the attention of someone outside the hall. Shoes clack on the once-waxed linoleum. The doctor walks into the room. He’s dressed in antiseptic white and carries a menacingly large hypodermic needle. His poise is reminiscent of a wax figure. He looks down upon his patient with withering confidence and silent condescension. His eyes are the same brown as cigarette burns. His thin hair matches the stained hospital pillows. His lips are the pink one imagines raw flesh must be, like his mouth is just a gash cut in his face so he can talk through it. His manicured fingers remind Kurt that he makes surgeon money –and that he frequently holds both life and death in his hands. His demeanor is of one well-acquainted to playing god.

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The doctor retrieves a thin flashlight from his surgeon’s apron and flashes it in Kurt’s eyes. He does not lower the hypodermic needle.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes strain under the light; nonetheless, he goes through the same motions as last time. He then stares coldly at the almost-alien doctor, unperturbed.

GM: The doctor clicks off the flashlight and stows it, only to click on a voice recorder. “Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03. Pupillary response assessed. Miosis consistent with dose response curves. Mental status exam to commence.” The doctor, still recording and holding the needle, poses Kurt several questions. “Please identify yourself, including your given and surname.”

Kurt: “Kurt Joseph Crawford.” His answer is glib and to the point.

GM: “What to your best understanding is the current time and date?”

Kurt: “It’s the 8th of October.”

GM: “Of what year?” the doctor asks in a tone that is simply not exasperated because his expectations are so low.

Kurt: Kurt adds, “1998. I wouldn’t have a clue what the time is, but taking a wild guess, I would say it’s after lunch time–-from my half-eaten sandwich.” Kurt continues to stare coldly at the doctor, brain continuing to process this strange deja vu.

GM: The doctor seems unphased by the cold stare of his “subject”; instead, he speaks into the audio recorder. “Deficits remain in subject’s temporal orientation. Ego orientation appears intact. Responses suggest attachment Class B. Final orientation to commence.”

The doctor returns his cigarette-burn eyes to Kurt. “Why are you here?” He pauses for a moment, as if once again trying to recalibrate his question for his patient’s ‘deficits’. “What events led to you being here?”

Kurt: “I got into a car accident this morning on my way to pick my mother up from work,” Kurt answers deadpan. “I have a broken foot and obviously am at Mount Pelion General Hospital.” He looks pointedly at the doctor as he continues, “I take it my mother has already been notified.”

GM: The doctor replies with all the cold clinical enthusiasm of turning patients over to prevent bedsores: “Mrs. Crawford has been notified of your present situation. You will be approved for visitors pending the successful completion of your exam. Now, please describe in detail everything you recall of the events leading up to, during, and after the car accident.”

Kurt: Kurt relays the same answer as the first time he was asked this question–but only to a degree. This ‘time’ he omits both the screaming he heard and elk with a flayed body on its antlers.

GM: The waxy doctor regards Kurt for while, as if he’s measuring Kurt’s pupillary and respiration rate. Slowly, the doctor holds up his recorder and says, “Subject shows positive response to serum dosage regimen. Recommended treatment: Perform full follow-up assessment, including mental status exam and reality testing, at next appointment. Administer additional serum dosage if symptoms remit. If necessary, implement more invasive procedures if subject proves unresponsive to the aforementioned treatment plan.”

The doctor then turns off his recorder, placing it in his surgeon’s apron, and similarly stows away his large needle. “Your injuries are quite severe. However, your chart will be amended to permit visitation. You are in capable hands.”

Kurt: “I can see that.” A plastic smile appears on Kurt’s face.

GM: There is neither a smile nor any warmth that accompanies the doctor’s words, just an automaton processing of sounds through the mouth-like gash in his face. This time, the doctor leaves.

Kurt: Kurt waits a few seconds after the doctor has left, then he turns to the drawn curtain next door. “What do you reckon?” he asks. “I think that’s the worst doctor in Witiko Falls.” He stares at the drawn curtain with an anxious gaze; waiting raptly for the thing to appear once again.

GM: The shadowy outline of the reclining figure stirs, but only replies with a snore. However, another ‘presence’ does answer him. He hears the color of six hundred and six and the sound of saltiness: Do you like pranks?

Kurt: Kurt pauses, a shiver running up his spine as tries to calm himself. He keeps his composure. “I love pranks. What did you have in mind?” His voice is dry and emotionless.

GM: The answer sizzles in Kurt’s brain like the sound of puce and Sunday:

1N MiNd!

“HaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHa
hAAAhahaHAHAHhAAhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhaHaHaHAhAAAhaha
HAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHA
ahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAhAh
HAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAH
AHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhah
HAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhhahahahAaAHhahaHaa”

Kurt: Kurt cracks a smile, but his eyes continue to stare at the far wall tinged with splotches of yellow. He turns to his half-eaten lunch and then attempts to finish it. Not as good as Ridley’s steaks, he thinks to himself. Nonetheless, he eats for no other reason than he is hungry and knows even crappy hospital food is still better than the food he usually eats.

GM: Rule No. 1 This time the thought seems to come from his own mind. He thinks.

Kurt: Fuck it, Kurt figures, whether it’s me or not me, what does it matter? It’s still fucking true. He laughs inside his own mind. This time. It’s him. He thinks.

GM: “Kurt… my baby… my son… you’re… awake!”Arlene Crawford rushes into the room. Her sleep-deprived and teary eyes are framed by her creased, worn–out, stress–ridden face. Her reddish-blonde hair has the look of someone who just woke up from sleeping, and not sleeping, on a hospital chair. She’s dressed in jeans, her beat-up tennis shoes, but she’s wearing a faded sweatshirt with Cinderella on it, an old souvenir purchased during one of the Crawford’s vacations to Disney World–back in the halcyon days long passed. She throws her arms around him. “Kurt… it’s me… I’m here…”

Kurt: Kurt sighs out of relief; he missed his mother far too much. He accepts the hug, but looks up at his mother’s worn, tired face with a put-on bewildered expression. “Who are you?” he asks his mother. He then cracks a smile after a few seconds, which quickly turns into a cheesy, big grin. I am the master of pranks.

GM: For the briefest of moments, all color and light drain from his mother’s face. But then, after he cracks his familial sardonic grin, she all but smacks him, then hugs him tightly. “Kurt! Don’t… you…”

Kurt: Kurt guffaws. “Sorry, Ma! I couldn’t help it! You’re just so serious!”

GM: But she can’t finish, she’s simply too happy to have him back–her son.

“About time you woke up, lazy bones,” comes a voice from the hall.

Kurt: Kurt hugs his mother back, because he felt the same way–-he had his mother back. The memory of his mother’s foaming, bleeding form causes Kurt to squeeze her tighter.

Kurt then turns toward the voice.

GM: Kurt’s sister Amy is standing in the doorway, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a logo that says Cthulhu Loves Pie. She glares at Kurt like only a red-headed sister can, then bursts into laughter and runs to him, hugging him almost as tightly as their mom.

Arlene strokes Kurt’s hair with her calloused fingers. “We were so worried. The doctors weren’t sure… if… when…” She chokes up.

Amy lays a comforting hand on her mother’s back.

Kurt: “I won’t lie. I feel like crap. But, honestly, it’s just a broken foot and a really sore head.” Kurt adds, “I was pretty lucky. How’s the car?”

GM: With Arlene still recollecting herself, it’s Amy that answers: “Remember what Demogorgon did to your wizard back in the Temple of Ook-Oz? It’s like that, but worse.” She leans in and whispers only half-sarcastically: “Were you drinking?”

“Amy!” Arlene says, snapping back at her eldest with a half-wounded, half-scolding tone.

Amy raises her hands, palms up, as if that’s the most reasonable explanation for all this mess.

Arlene touches her son’s cheek. “Don’t worry about the car, baby. You’re awake, and that’s all that matters.”

Kurt: Kurt chuckles and shakes his head at the half-accusation. “I never drink, Amy,” he replies with a cheeky smile creeping on his face. “I am the good child, remember?”

GM: “Lying bastard is more like it,” she says, sticking out her tongue.

Kurt: Kurt laughs some more.

GM: “That’s enough,” Arlene says, though not without a smile at seeing the good-natured banter between her children.

Kurt: Kurt looks to his mother and gasps in mock-shock. “Fiiiine.” Kurt looks for something to eat; his stomach growls a little. “Have they delivered more food for me?” he asks.

GM: “My growing boy,” Arlene says with simple maternal pride. “I’ll see if they can bring you an early lunch, or otherwise I’ll go to the vending machine.”

Kurt: “Thanks, Ma.”

GM: She hugs and kisses him as if her love alone will make sure he stays awake and recovers.

As she leaves, Amy, sitting on Kurt’s bed with her bony hip half-digging into his, leans in. “So were you? Drinking that is?”

Kurt: Kurt snorts. “What? No way! It was still dark when I got up to go pick up ma from work.” He scrunches his nose a little and admits with a touch of embarrassment, “Don’t tell Ma this, but I fell asleep at the wheel.” He adds, “I don’t want her to worry about me working too much, y’know.”

GM: Amy regards him for a while. “You had us so freaked, Kurt.” She starts to tear up, then wipes her face. “Fuck that.”

Kurt: “You look so weird when you cry.” Kurt smiles innocently like only a pest of a little brother can do.

GM: “Yeah, well you look like shit.” She forces herself to laugh.

Kurt: Kurt laughs at that.

GM: “You really do,” she says.

Kurt: “Do you have a mirror?” he asks, afraid of seeing his own reflection. Afraid of not seeing his own reflection.

GM: “I’m afraid you’d break it. Seriously, you look like Frankenstein had sex with a poodle and the condom broke. An ugly poodle too.”

Kurt: “Jesus!” Kurt says. “Thanks for the sympathy, big sis!”

GM: “Oh, speaking of Jesus,” Amy says, blowing her red hair out of her face. “Mom was out of her mind. I mean, she’s been praying and going full on holy roller mode. It’s been… nuts.”

Kurt: Kurt cringes and groans. “The last thing we need is Jesus in our lives,” he replies to that revelation.

GM: “Yeah, I’m hoping she’ll forget about all those midnight chapel prayers.” She then taps Kurt.

Kurt: Kurt frowns at that, noticing the plural in ‘prayers’. “How long was I out?” he asks.

GM: “Scoot over, bum. You’ve been sleeping for two days now in a, well not comfy bed, but a bed. Those waiting room chairs are like the brain-child of a sadistic chiropractor from hell.”

Kurt: Kurt feels a little numb at that explanation, but nevertheless scoots over as directed by his sister. “That’s longer than I thought,” he replies to Amy. “I told the doctor I thought it was the 8th of October.”

GM: She lays down beside him and sighs. “It’s the 9th. Friday.”

Kurt: “Yay!” Kurt says mockingly. “The weekend! Woo?” He then adds under his breath, “You’re so freaking bony!”

GM: “Beats being ugly and short. And gimp.”

Kurt: “Ha! You’re short, too!”

“Fuck!” Kurt looks at his foot. “This is totally going to mess with basketball.”

GM: Amy closes her eyes. “Yeah, it’s going to fuck with everything. Mom’s in denial. I think she had to be. But this is bad, Kurt. I mean, without the car… and the doctor bills. I tried talking to Mom. I think it might work if Rick and I move back in.”

Kurt: Kurt gets quiet as he listens to Amy.

GM: “Help with rent.”

Kurt: “Yeah.” Kurt pauses. He doesn’t like Rick, and the idea of that guy moving back in, that annoys him. But he feels absolutely powerless. “I can talk to my boss Mordecai. Maybe he’ll help out?” he asks. Speaking of, Kurt thinks to himself, probably should give him a call.

GM: “Maybe,” she says, staring up at the ceiling. “But I thought you said the cinema’s almost belly-up, and has been for years.”

Kurt: “Yeah. It is.” Kurt adds, “But I know he’s got a car that he’s trying to sell.”

GM: She turns on her side, facing him. She rests her chin on his shoulder and puts her arm around him like they used to on the farm’s hammock.

Kurt: “I could organize a payment plan or something with him,” Kurt offers. “And maybe work it off at the cinema.” He hugs Amy back, thankful for the contact after a rough couple days.

GM: “Yeah, or you could start pimping Wilson out to the old lonely ladies of St. Enoch’s?”

Kurt: “They wouldn’t have him. We’ve already tried.” Kurt grins at that.

GM: She smiles, then sniffs him with mock exaggeration. “You smell like my cleaning bucket.”

Kurt: “Is that a good thing?”

GM: “For how you usually smell? Yeah, it’s an improvement.”

Kurt: Kurt guffaws. “Why do I even bother trying to trade barbs?” He then lifts his bum in Amy’s general direction, attempting to fart.

GM: But unfortunately for both of them, multiple days of a saline diet and left-out egg salad sandwich make for terribly wet, loose stool.

“Wha–fuck!?” Amy yells as Kurt soils him and her, given his lack of clothing beneath his back-slit hospital gown.

Kurt: Kurt’s face whitens. “Shit.”

GM: She leaps up and punches him. “You just shit on me!”

Kurt: “Sorry! I didn’t mean to! I thought it was a fart! I swear I didn’t mean that!”

GM: She looks down at her brown-smeared jeans.

Kurt: “Fuck!” Kurt swears. “I am so, so sorry, Amy.”

GM: “Jesus fucking Christ, Kurt!”

Kurt: “I know Amy! It’s fucking horrible!”

GM: “Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” comes their mother’s voice around the bend.

Kurt: Kurt’s face is in his hands and his cheeks are flushed. “God!” he exclaims. “The last thing I need is religion! I need a nurse! And a change of sheets!”

GM: Amy stares down at her jeans, agog and gaging. Arlene enters in on the scene. It is an awkward time for all.

Kurt: But mostly for Kurt.

GM: Mostly.

Hudson: A Golden Star


10.09.1998, Friday afternoon

GM: Six hours after he’s booked Brook, the vending machines of Mount Pelion General are, like Hudson’s wallet, markedly poorer. Still, the caffeine– and sugar–fueled wave allows him to ride out the sleepless hours parked inside Moe’s recovery room.

Shunted from the surgery ward to MPGH’s intensive care unit, Hudson and Maxwell–as well as their unconscious, double amputee captive–have witnessed a murder a minute, with the serial victim being time.

“He looks like the Grim Reaper used him for toilet paper,” Hudson’s red-haired subordinate says, after the latest of rotating nurses cycles in, confirms that Moses is still alive, and defers unctuously that it will be up to the physicians to “determine when and if the patient will be fit for long-distance transportation.”

“Kinda wish he had flushed him, though,” Maxwell adds. “Would save the courts and public taxpayers a whole lot of money. Not to mention our time.”

Hudson: “Maybe, Max. Can’t say I’d particularly like to be him right now,” the mustachioed marshal grunts. “No arms isn’t a fun way to go through life.”

GM: Maxwell grunts. Yet, despite his verbal grousing, the man seems content enough as he flips though a pamphlet from the Fish and Wildlife Services about local angling hot-spots.

Hudson: “The fish here at least seem normal,” Hudson comments blandly.

GM: “No matter how it shakes out, I say we’ve got at least a couple years of ‘disarming’ jokes from the affair.”

He peaks up though at the mention of fish. “Why, you heard something?”

Hudson: “We disarmed him because he wouldn’t comply with instructions when we said ‘hands up’. Only showed us one hand,” the tired-eyed marshal fires back, thought it comes out with as much sizzle as spark. The morbid humor under circumstances like these is endemic to all lawmen. Part of how they cope.

GM: Maxwell chuckles with the same tired, grim humor. “Yep, there’s no need to worry, as the fugitive is unarmed.”

He then taps the pamphlet. “You ever fished for kokanee? Sockeye salmon around here, that have mutated or evolved from being landlocked in alpine lakes. I’ve never fished for salmon in a lake.”

Hudson: Hudson simultaneously chews over that factoid along with a plump lip. “Might get your chance here, if we stay long enough. As for what I’ve heard, it’s more what I haven’t. All the other animals here are mad as Moe when we blew off his arm.”

“Back in the ’50s, my uncle once scared me, talking about lobotomy patients. Walking zombies, he called them. One nick with the scalpel in the right spot on your head, and you go dead inside.” There’s a tired smile. “Parents could do it to bad enough boys and girls, he said. I never met a lobotomite in my life until a few days ago, though. She was a cow.”

GM: Maxwell cranes his head. “Come again?”

Hudson: “A cow,” Hudson answers with that same smile. “She had four legs, black and white spots over her body, and an udder you could milk. I like to think her name was Betsy. She was only missing a bell around her neck that went ‘clang’. The Britters lobotomized Betsy and every other cow on their farm, you see. I can only presume to make them less aggressive. Angry enough cow could hurt someone pretty bad if it made up its mind to. That’s what farmers have to do here, just to milk the animals without getting kicked in the face.”

GM: Hudson can see his subordinate’s brain chewing on the tale and struggling like it’s a piece of fatty meat. “That’s really weird, Hudson.”

Hudson: “It is,” Hudson replies. A frown creases his wide-jowled face as he peels off the wrapper off his Snickers bar.

GM: “So I guess we should avoid the local burger joints in town,” Maxwell says in summary.
“Just to be safe.”

Hudson: “Takes ‘mad cow disease’ to a new level, doesn’t it?” The marshal remarks, but his brow doesn’t un-furrow. “It’s a strange town, Max. A very strange town. But as far as I know, your salmon are normal.”

GM: “Maybe we both better stick to the vending machines,” he says, setting down the fishing pamphlet. “Better safe than sorry. Speaking of which, you want anything? I’d like to stretch my legs, call Nancy and check in on the kids.”

Hudson: The look on Hudson’s face is too faint to properly be called a macabre grin. But there’s definitely the shadow of one as the fat marshal produces no less than four additional candy bars from his replacement coat’s pocket.

“To save me the added trips,” he drawls. “But go give the family a call. I could go for some actual food too, if you can scrounge anything edible in this hospital.” He grunts. “My little man tells me these people didn’t splurge on the cafeteria.”

GM: Maxwell gives a half–nod at Hudson self–deprecating admission. “Thanks, Hudson. I was scheduled to coach Ted’s Pop Warner game today at five.” He looks up at the clock. “That’s clearly not going to happen. But I’ll see what I can do about a real meal.” As he heads out, he adds, “But no burgers or steaks.”

Hudson: “If those didn’t kill me, Nora would,” Hudson remarks dryly. “Candy does a good enough job at that already, you ask her.”

GM: Maxwell halts mid-doorway. “You call her yet? Check in on the grandkids?”

Hudson: The fat marshal nods between the first crunch of his Snickers bar. “She sent her love. Glad we saved the boys. Thankful nobody died. Alex was glad we put away the bad guys. Emma says I should’ve lost my arm instead to lose some pounds.”

“Don’t think an arm would do it though. Not enough anyways. A fat chicken’s still a fat chicken, even if you lose a drumstick,” Hudson remarks between another satisfying crunch.

GM: Maxwell shakes his head. “You’re a better man than me. I’m so glad Nancy and I just have boys. I wouldn’t do well raising girls. Especially a teenage girl.”

Hudson: “They’re handfuls. Trick is to not let them know. Every time she calls me fat, I find a way to call myself fatter. She runs out of steam eventually.” There’s another crunch of the candy bar. “She and that Brook kid would get along.”

GM: “Why’s that? She need to spend a night in the slammer?”

Hudson: “It might lend her some perspective,” Hudson remarks blandly.

GM: He chuckles. “I once threatened Bobby I’d haul him to jail if he didn’t clean his room.”

Hudson: There’s an answering chortle back. “You should’ve told me that trick when they were younger.”

GM: “I was lucky he didn’t call my bluff.”

Hudson: “Yeah. Emma would shout that a judge would throw that right out.” Another weary smile. “I’d fire back that I could still hold her without a warrant. For a little while anyway. Maybe trump up a resisting arrest charge for arguing.”

GM: Max just shakes his head again. “Boys are so much easier.” He hikes a thumb, indicating the hallway. “Be back in a bit, Hudson. Radio me if Moe starts any trouble, but if you ask me, he looks pretty h–armless…”

Hudson: “I don’t think I’ll need a hand. He may though.”

GM: Maxwell laughs as he leaves Hudson to his charge.

That charge, unconscious and hooked up to an oxygen mask and various intravenous drips, continues to breathe as thinly as a shallow grave.

Hudson: Hudson tries to get more comfortable in his seat. What was it that girl he overheard on the way in called them—‘brainchildren of a sadistic chiropractor from hell’? Well, at least he’s just sitting on something out of hell.

You, my friend, are lying well inside its gates.

“I’m sorry about your arm,” he remarks aloud.“I’m sure that means precisely diddly-squat to you even if you could hear me. It’d mean squat to me if I’d lost my arms.” The fat marshal rolls his shoulders. “Just how it is.”

“I’ve put away my share of people in my time. Some mean well but are just dumb—or, well, fifteen—like Brook. And some are sick fucks who want to cut up young boys like you. But I’ve put away enough of them not to take a case personally. I’m glad you’ll be behind bars—or at least within a padded room. But you didn’t need to lose your arms.”

“I wouldn’t re-do last night if you gave me the chance. We were damn lucky no one died. I consider your arm an acceptable price for a life. For possibly several lives. It doesn’t change the way things are either. You didn’t have to lose both arms for this,” Hudson motions with the candy bar to his comatose form, “To happen. I’d have preferred that you didn’t. I’m sorry that you did.”

“And that’s how it is,” the marshal finishes between another crunch of the Snickers bar.

GM: Moe’s insensate almost-cadaver offers no reply to Hudson’s existential apology save for another series of slow, feeble gasps that fog up his oxygen mask.

In contrast, the room’s phone replies with an electronic ring that rouses Hudson, but not Moe, from the audio monotony of mastication and medical equipment.

Hudson: He swallows the last of his bite, spares the comatose patient a last glance, and reaches to pick up the phone. “Schofeld.”

GM: “Hudson, oh thank goodness,” comes the voice of his wife, Elenora, from the receiver. “I was just sure they were going to connect me to the wrong room.” There is a pause as marshal hears the aerosol-sound of applied hairspray. “Now, Hudson, you know how I don’t like bothering you at work, but… there’s a situation here at home, and I simply don’t know what to do.”

“As I told you last week, I’m hosting a dinner party for the Rotarian wives. The ladies and I will planning our yearly holiday fundraising event. And just between you and I, Hudson, this might be the year Mrs. Bledsoe doesn’t get her way.”

Hudson: “Nora.” Hudson smiles at hearing his wife’s voice. There’s some relief too. Moses might be little more than a limp piece of meat right now, but it’s been a harrowing night. And it’s a very strange town. The marshal’s little man isn’t screaming ‘fire!’ but he’s been pacing anxiously. There’s something about…

“We all don’t get our way at some point, dear. I suppose this will be the point Mrs. Bledsoe doesn’t. Now what’s the situation?”

GM: “It’s the grandkids, Hudson. Well, one of them really. I’m just at my wits’ end.”

Hudson: His little man spotted that one coming too. He’d hoped for a moment it was otherwise when Nora brought up her fundraising-planning dinner. But his little man isn’t often wrong.

“All right, what’s Emma gotten up to?”

GM: “Emma?” Elenora echoes. “Oh, no, it’s not her. Although now that you mention it, she has been nagging me about enrolling her in a drivers’ education program. Well, you aren’t going to believe this, Hudson, but the program happens after school, and to add insult to injury, they make you pay them. I told her that there must be a mistake, because when we and her father went to school, drivers’ education always happened in school and free of charge. Well, I won’t tell you what she said to that, but it was not very respectful. Can you believe that?”

Hudson: “I can.” Hudson grunts. “They’re saddling kids with more schoolwork these days. More activities. More everything. Guess driver’s ed got the axe.”

GM: “Well, I think that’s just ridiculous. We really ought to get more involved with the school board, Hudson.”

Hudson: “Maybe we should. For now not much we can do except pay for it or teach her ourselves.”

GM: “Well, I’m still going to make a call on Monday,” she replies with another blast of hairspray.

Hudson: “By all means, dear. Schools these days keep pushing kids faster and harder. Don’t give them a chance to just be kids.”

GM: Hudson can almost hear Nora purse her lips in a frown. “Yes, well about kids being kids… it’s Alex.”

Hudson: Hudson frowns. That’s atypical. “Alex? What is it?”

GM: After a moment, his wife whispers into the phone, “Hudson, I found him in his bedroom. He was…”

Hudson: The hairs on the back of his neck raise as the marshal leans forward in his seat. “He was what, Nora?”

Let it just be masturbating.

GM: It sounds as if his wife is cupping the phone transmitter as she whisper-shouts, “He was putting on eyeliner!”

Hudson: “Eyeliner?” Hudson frowns, though his little man un-tenses.

GM: “When I caught him, he totally clamped up. Then, he yelled that I wouldn’t understand and pushed me out of the room. Actually pushed. Since then, he’s been refusing to come out of his room. Frankly, at this point, I don’t know what to do. Part of me wouldn’t mind if he just stayed in his room all night, but then, I’m afraid he’s going to purposefully ruin my dinner by rushing out in a dress.”

Hudson: Hudson’s frown remains in place. “Well, kids these days are into some pretty odd stuff. Adults too. Why, I think it’s popular for some of the punk and, what’s it called, ‘industrial’ bands to put on eyeliner. And a lot more. Can hardly tell which are men and which are women. They take it off after their shows though. Is he into that kind of music?”

GM: “I don’t know, but now that you mention it, he has been listening to his walkman with headphones a lot. I just assumed he was listening to those books on CDs we got from the library. See, I knew you would know what to do. Do you think he’s a deviant?”

Hudson: “I wouldn’t go that far, Nora. Kids just want to fluster grown-ups by doing shocking things. They grow out of it. Even faster if they don’t see it getting to us.”

GM: “So, what, we let him walk around with eyeliner? What will the neighbors say? And what if wants to, I don’t know, start putting on lipstick? No, Hudson, you need to fix them. Straighten him out, man to man.”

Hudson: “It doesn’t sound like Alex wants to walk outside his room if he was that flustered over you catching him,” Hudson observes. He frowns a little more. Maybe it isn’t just over music. “I’ll talk with him when I get home. Until then, I think we’re safe with the neighbors.”

GM: “Emma!” Nora calls at the same time. “Please come here and take the phone to Alex. Your grandfather wants to speak to him.”

“Now, Emma!” she calls again, this time a bit louder.

Hudson: Hudson looks down at Moe upon hearing his wife’s ‘alternative’ idea.“All right, we can do it now,” he considers. “Alex will still be embarrassed around you. Talking to me and his sister could help draw him out of his shell.”

GM: A few seconds later, Hudson hears the cordless phone exchanging hands. “Take the phone to Alex. Your grandfather wants to speak with him.”

“I heard you the first time. I’m not deaf,” comes Emma’s distant retort.

“Well, sometimes it is hard to tell when you don’t answer or respond.”

“Whatever.”

A few footsteps later, Hudson hears his granddaughter speak into the phone. “Grandma says you’re in the hospital. What happened, your belly finally pop?”

Hudson: “Nah, I’m checking in early to let the doctors pop it. Figure if that’s inevitable I might as well do it with a medical team around.”

GM: “While they do the operation, I hope they also shave off that ridiculous mustache. It’s a health hazard–to anyone looking at it.”

Hudson: “That’s why I wear it. Made the bad guy I was chasing clamp up in horror while my deputies cuffed him.”

GM: “Yeah, right,” she says, unimpressed, then adds, “When are you coming home?”

Hudson: “Not sure. He’s in pretty bad shape. Whenever the doctors say he’s well enough for transport back to Boise. Or decide that he’ll never be.” Hudson spares another glance for the armless war vet.

GM: More doesn’t reciprocate the gesture. His bruised eyes seem as comatose as the rest of him.

“I thought you were a big shot with deputies at your beck and call,” Emma continues. “Can’t you get somebody else to babysit a dying man?”

Hudson: Hudson would shake his head if he wasn’t talking over the phone. “Cas and Curtis are taking some well-deserved rest. That leaves me and Max.”

GM: “Four cops to handle a guy the docs don’t even think will make it? No wonder the national debt is so high.”

Hudson: “Yeah, Max thought it’d save the taxpayers a few bucks if we’d just shot him dead. You like, I can smother him with his pillow.”

GM: “I think you’re trying to be funny again.”

Hudson: “Maybe one day I’ll even succeed,” Hudson deadpan-answers. “We’re three cops to handle a dying man the docs don’t even think will make it, anyway. We arrested someone else and need to drive out for the warrant.”

GM: “What’d they do, bump into your fat belly?”

Hudson: “They did, in a manner of speaking. He’s a boy of fifteen, your very age. He ran off to bring in the bad guy on his own and scared everyone half to death.”

GM: “So you arrested a kid my age. Am I supposed to be impressed or scared?” She adds, “Because I’m not.”

Hudson: “I’m glad to hear that. It wasn’t particularly impressive, and I wouldn’t want to scare you.” The smile is audible in his next words. “I suppose he just reminded me of you, in a few ways.”

GM: “Whatever. I’m sure he’s not your number 1 fan, so at least we’ve got that in common. Anyways, as interesting as it is hearing about you babysitting and arresting teenagers, I want a license. And a car.”

Hudson: “License sounds like a good thing. Your grandmother and I have talked about that. It’s too bad schools don’t teach it as a free class anymore, so looks like an after-school elective is the way to do it. Getting a car sounds good too. Won’t be too much longer until you’re able to work and help save up for one.”

GM: “Save up for one? You’re kidding, right? Let’s be real, that would take years. This is why you go to work. Make the big bucks babysitting and locking up teenagers. Working weekends, overnight. Becky Herschell’s parents just bought her a band new Nissan Micra, and her dad does like marketing or stuff. Home every weekend.”

Hudson: “Your grandmother and I could help with the initial down payment,” Hudson remarks, though his tone sounds more contemplative than conceding. “We’ll talk over what you might be able to do in exchange.”

GM: “Heather Pruett’s parents are leasing her a Ford Focus, just two years old, and they’re covering the monthly bill, insurance, and gas. All of it. Heather’s dad does commercial photography. Do you even get paid overtime?”

Hudson: “Lucky Heather Pruett. Un-luckily, your name’s Emma Schofeld.” Hudson smiles a bit. “Marshals do get overtime. Since I’m a sanctimonious old man, I want you to appreciate the work that goes into buying something like a car, and blah blah teach responsibility blah. So I think we can start with you getting a job and helping to make some of the down payment.”

GM: “So in other words, it sucks to be a Schofeld. Tell me something new. Or better yet, how about your spread some of that special Schofeld sunshine to someone else?”

Hudson: Hudson chuckles at that. “Something new? All right. The kid I arrested apologized for the trouble he caused me. Said he didn’t want any bad blood between us. That was a first. You might take something from it.”

GM: “Whatever.” Hudson hears a loud bang on a door. “Open up, it’s the fat police.”

“Go away, Emma!” issues muffled Alex’s voice through the door.

“Open up, dweeb, it’s Grandpa.”

“Grandpa? He’s back?”

“God you’re so stupid. No, he’s on the phone.”

“Oh… well I don’t want to talk… now.”

“Look, Alex, I don’t care if you talk to him or not. All I promised to do was pass you the phone. So open up before I tell them about last Wednesday.”

It doesn’t take long before Hudson hears the door open, and the phone get exchanged yet again before the door is shut and relocked. “Hi,” says the preteen boy in a sullen voice that makes him seem simultaneously younger and older than his twelve winters.

Hudson: Hudson listens to the exchange between the kids with a slight frown. He doesn’t care if Emma mouths him off, but her little brother is another matter. Still, Alex sounds like he’s got other things on his mind. “Hi, Alex. Emma giving you a hard time?” Hudson asks.

GM: “No.”

Hudson: “Mmm.” Hudson chews his lip for a moment, then asks conversationally, “My guess is no to this question too, but you ever see a lobotomy patient?”

GM: “Huh?”

Hudson: “A lobotomy is a medical procedure you can perform on someone,” Hudson explains. “You nick the right spot on somebody’s head with a scalpel, and they turn into a living zombie. Lobotomies were more popular back in the ‘50s. My uncle sometimes got a kick out of telling me my parents would give me one, if I didn’t clean my room or take out the trash. Turn me into a zombie.”

It’s the second time Hudson has told this story today—actually, in the past hour—but if the shoe fits…

“I met my first lobotomy patient yesterday. One of those living zombies. She was a cow. A moo cow. She had an udder you could milk and black and white spots all over her body. I like to think her name was Betsy. Betsy the lobotomized moo-cow.”

“Like I said, she was a zombie. You could walk up to her, clap your hands in her face, scream in her ear, tug her udder, and she wouldn’t so much as blink. You think most cows have vacant looks in their eyes, well, you should have seen Betsy. It was pretty weird.”

GM: “So… you’re saying, you saw a… zombie cow?”

Hudson: Hudson chuckles. “Oh, not just one zombie cow. The Britters—the family I visited—had an entire farm of cows. And each and every one of them was a zombie.”

GM: “Whoa, so like, an army of zombie cows.”

Hudson: “If lightning struck the farmhands would have to herd them all in. Because they would just stand there and get electrocuted.”

GM: “That’s… that’s so cool, Grandpa.”

Hudson: Hudson laughs. “The job has its perks. You see some interesting things.”

GM: “I’d like to see that.”

Hudson: “Tell you what, after I’m home, we can drive back out to Witiko Falls if you’d still like to.” He continues, “But you know, in some ways, the zombie cows actually weren’t the most remarkable thing I saw there. It was the people. Let’s take the Britters, the family who owned the zombie cows.”

GM: “Really?” Alex asks dubiously.

Hudson: “Yep. The Britters were just like you and me. Mr. Britter liked to drink beer and watch TV. His teenage daughter liked to spend too much time on the phone chatting with her friends. An entire army of zombie cows right outside their windows, and it was as ordinary to them as the sun rising might be to you or me. The truth is, Alex, it’s not just that people can get used to just about anything.”

GM: “Maybe,” the boy says, without much confidence.

Hudson: “We’re all a little weird inside. Some of us wear it on the outside. That frightens some people, because it makes them face the fact that they’re a little weird too, somehow. I was pretty alarmed by those zombie cows at first. So were my deputies. We thought they were really, really weird. But the Britters didn’t once bat an eye over them. After a while, I started to feel a little foolish for such a big deal about things. So I gave a shrug, stopped paying attention to the zombie cows, and my team and I nabbed the bad guy we’d been sent after. And now I’m here, talking to you over the phone about zombie cows, and finding them the most ordinary things in the world.”

“Whatever’s on your mind, Alex, I’m gonna guess it’s even less weird than an army of zombie cows.”

GM: “Grandpa… I hate it here.”

Hudson: “Here in Idaho, next to LA?”

GM: “Maybe,” the boys says.

Hudson: “Or because of Grandma and your sister?”

GM: “What? Oh no, they’re… ok.”

Hudson: “It can be a lot of things. There’s a lot of reasons somebody can hate a place.”

GM: “I miss my old fa… friends.”

Hudson: “I think you miss them both, Alex,” Hudson says quietly. “I miss your old family too. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about your dad.”

GM: The phone line is silent, save for Alex’s tight breathing.

Hudson: “It’s okay for you to miss them. Your grandma misses them. Your sister does too, no matter what she might say.”

GM: “I… hate them.” The preteen’s voice breaks, and Hudson can almost feel the heat of fresh tears.

Hudson: “That’s not weird to feel either, Alex. Lot of the time, people we hate are people we’ve loved. When they punch us, it hurts a million times as bad. We swear that we’ll never, ever forgive them, for making us hurt so bad.”

GM: “Sometimes, Grandpa… I, I hate myself. But I don’t know why.”

Hudson: “It could be you feel bad for hating your mom and dad, after they’ve loved you so much.” Despite his words, the marshal’s vigilant gaze hasn’t wavered from his comatose patient.

GM: “Does… does that make me a bad person?” Alex’s voice is rough and fragile.

Hudson: “No, Alex. Not ever,” Hudson says softly. “You don’t hate them. Not really.”

GM: “What if I do!” Alex yells, then breaks down and begins to sob.

Hudson: “Oh, you’re angry at them. Maybe angrier than you’ve ever been over something. You loved them, they loved you, and then they hurt you. Sometimes, Alex…” Hudson closes his eyes for a moment, then continues more quietly, if not fervently, “sometimes accidents happen. Terrible, tragic accidents, beyond anything we can possibly predict or control. Accidents that hurt the people we love, no matter how much we might not want to.”

“And just to confuse things even more, we don’t always get to know when it’s an accident. Sometimes we’re left in the dark, horribly wondering, did they mean to hurt us, or was it an accident.”

GM: Around Hudson, the chorus of medical equipment and Moe’s ragged breathing punctuate the marshal’s words.

Hudson: “There’s a name, for… times like that. ‘Long, dark nights of the soul.’ Where we have to look inside ourselves, and decide if we want to love or hate, from only what’s there.”

GM: “Grandpa, I don’t understand. Nobody here understands. Everybody knows, but nobody understands. It’d be so much easier if nobody knew…”

Hudson: “It would be easier. Be easiest of all if they weren’t gone.” Hudson sighs. “I wish I could make things easier for you and your sister. I don’t think I can make them that easy. But I can offer this:”

“Both of your parents, wherever they are, whatever accident might have happened, love the two of you. Very, very much. And knowing how bad you are hurting hurts them just as bad.”

GM: Alex is quiet for a while in the wake of Hudson’s words. He sniffles once, twice, then speaks: “Grandpa… can you promise me something?”

Hudson: “Name it, kiddo.”

GM: Hudson hears the sounds of a sleeve wipe before Alex speaks up. “Grandpa… I know, I know he’s your son, but my dad… if you ever find a lead, promise me you’ll hunt it down.”

Hudson: “I promise, Alex, on my marshal’s star, that I will hunt any leads I find on your father to the ends of the earth,” Hudson answers solemnly.

Moses’ promise might have asked him to break another. But Mary’s didn’t, and neither does this one.

GM: Alex’s reply lacks Hudson’s solemnity of words, but not its sincerity. “Okay.”

Hudson: “Okay,” Hudson echoes. “Can you do me a favor too? It’s for your grandma, and I don’t know if I can manage on my own.”

GM: “Okay,” Alex repeats, at least in regards to his willingness to hear Hudson out as much as agreement for the unnamed favor. There’s another sniffle, but the boy’s voice is steady again.

Hudson: “Your grandma says you shoved her and won’t come out of your room. She’s worried about you.” Hudson’s tone is more soft than blaming as he continues, “She’s worried she might have made you angry. There was also something about walking in on you wearing eyeliner. Or was it listening to satanic music?” Hudson sounds unsure so that Alex can feel like he’s controlling the narrative, but then audibly chuckles. “It all seems equally boring to me after an army of zombie cows, I have to admit. But you mind explaining whatever it was so that we can calm her down?”

GM: “I-I didn’t mean to push her, Grandpa. It just… happened.” It’s a line the long-time lawman has heard a thousand times.

Hudson: “She isn’t hurt, Alex,” Hudson says calmly. “In fact, she’s worried she might have hurt you.”

GM: “I’ll apologize, Grandpa. It won’t happen again.”

Hudson: “That’s good enough for me,” Hudson says at a point where the boy can probably picture him nodding. “You remember what I said earlier, about all of us being weird?”

GM: Moe’s electronically monitored heart-rate counts out the seconds of silence before Alex simply replies, “Yeah.”

Hudson: “And how I thought those zombie cows were so weird at first, but the Britters didn’t so much as blink over them, and made me feel like the silly one for getting so worked up? Whatever got you upset when your grandma walked in, I’m going to bet was a whole lot less weird than an army of zombie cows.”

GM: There’s another cardiac count-down before Alex replies, “She doesn’t understand.”

Hudson: “I’m sure of that. Maybe we can help her if you can help me.”

GM: Another pause. “Can we talk about it when you get home? I promise not to mess up her party.”
The boy’s last comment contain a prick of irritation, but seem all the more sincere to the cop and family man.

Hudson: “All right. That’s good enough for me too.” Hudson pauses. “Oh, there’s also a second favor you can do for me.” He doesn’t let the silence stretch for long before he answers, “Will you tell your sister that I love her? I didn’t get a chance before she passed me along.” He laughs, “And yes, I know she’s going to roll her eyes, pantomime barfing, or just say she doesn’t.”

GM: “Sure, Grandpa. You know… she does love you. Just doesn’t want to say it. Makes, makes her feel bad. Like weak.”

Hudson: “I know she does, Alex. Lot of girls her age are the same way. But it still makes me feel better hearing that from you.”

GM: “Yeah, okay,” says the boy in odd synchrony with Moe’s heartbeat.

Hudson: Hudson’s eyes continue to rest on the comatose patient his team put halfway into the grave. Maybe more than half. Still, Hudson won’t himself get too distracted while he’s the only man on watch. It’s just a matter of principle.

“I love you too, Alex. Do me a third favor and pass the phone back to your grandmother?” That’ll help defuse the awkwardness. Get them back in the same room without having to talk to each other.

GM: Alex’s acquiescence is slower this third time, but it eventually reaches Hudson’s ears–as does the sound of someone outside Moses’ recovery room. In short order, Hudson hears multiple doors opening, one back in Boise, the other in Witiko Falls. From the latter door, a nurse appears, one Hudson hasn’t seen before. Or at least one he thinks he hasn’t seen before, but then a fragmentary memory flashes almost more in his gut than brain.

She had been part of the surgical team. A hitchcock blonde, he–or perhaps his little man–had thought. Hudson had caught a glimpse of the bombshell delivering an injection into one of Moses’ IV lines amidst the prolix actions of the large surgical team. Honestly, if not for the woman’s atomic blonde hair and barbie doll curves, Hudson likely wouldn’t have noticed, much less remembered. Those same features once again draw Hudson’s attention as the Hitchcock-blonde nurse enters the room and inspects the armless patient and the myriad equipment sustaining and monitoring his thread-bare hold on life.

“Hudson?” comes Nora’s voice from the phone’s receiver. “Hudson, are you there?”

Hudson: Hudson’s little man abruptly twists in his stomach.

Dangerous. Not working alone.

“Let Alex go to his room. Gotta call back.” Hudson kills the line. He then sets down the phone and walks up to the nurse, grinning widely as he gets in her way.

“If I had a girl like you at my bedside, I don’t think I’d ever want to get better.”

GM: Hudson’s words are like water thrown on wax. They occur, but they do not in any way affect or alter the nurse’s affect or actions. His attempts to block her from Moses, however, are another matter. She mechanically pivots, almost as if her feet and spine were attached to an invisible cable-track in the ceiling and floor. The motion, though neither notably swift or aggressive, catch Hudson off-guard. By the time he recovers, she is already by Moses’ side, methodically checking the various implements. Throughout the ‘interaction’, the woman’s affect remains unchanged. It’s an odd combination: cold as the stethoscope around her neck, yet flat as the soles of her synthetic work-shoes.

Hudson: Hudson’s little man isn’t just twisting now, he’s full-on tap-dancing. The marshal doesn’t do anything so brash as yank her away—there’s no good reason for him to do that, and until he knows just who and how many people are the real danger here, he can’t have them knowing that he’s suspicious. Still, he’s ready to stop the nurse if she injects anything else into Moe’s veins.

That was the only thing he saw her do in the surgery room. One injection.

“I’m Hudson M. Schofeld, U.S. Marshals,” Hudson continues, letting the grin show in his voice as he jabs a thumb against his starred badge. “You got a name, dollface? You seem like a real heartbreaker.”

GM: In response to Hudson’s query, or at least identified authority, the nurse rotates her head to face him. “C.N.S. Hellen Wagner,” she says in a breathy voice that might be huskily seductive if it weren’t so monotone. Her head then turns back to the room’s patient–a patient which Hudson can see is stirring. One of Moe’s eyelids twitch and his beard shifts as the old war veteran tries to swallow.

Hudson: Hudson’s hackles immediately raise. He might be arm-less, but happening this exact moment…

“Hello, Moses,” he says levelly. His other eye remains on ‘Hellen’.

GM: Perhaps hearing his old nemesis, Moe’s other eyelid struggles to open.

“Subject P—M3EM—27.15.10,” Nurse Wagner states.

“….” comes Moe’s reply, a gasp too weak to form coherent words.

Hudson: “I think Moe rolls off the tongue better,” Hudson opines blandly. He glances down at the leg restraints on Moe’s bed. They haven’t been fitted, due to the compression-fitting tights he’s wearing to prevent blood clots.

Arm restraints, of course, are unnecessary.

GM: The nurse once again ignores, if not seems incapable of registering, Hudson’s humor. She instead begins to start documenting several notes on the man’s medical clipboard. “Waves: alpha, beta. Electromyography: tonic. Nystagmus: absent. Oculomotor cranial nerve response to commence.”
She clicks her pen twice in smooth precision. First to retract the pen-point, and second to engage the small penlight.

Hudson: Hudson listens to the woman’s documentation far more intently than his previous quipping might suggest. He hadn’t been sure if this woman was really a nurse. But she seems to know her way around things. It’s still possible that she isn’t really employed at Mt. Pelion, but this picture is starting to fill in.

The only thing he can’t figure is her looks. Why send a bombshell like Nurse Wagner if she’s just going to shoot down the inevitable male attention she draws?

GM: That focus, however, is compromised or at least tempted as the curvaceous woman leans over the bed and flashes her penlight into Moe’s eyes.

Hudson: Hudson’s happily married. His little man says this broad is bad news, in all kinds of ways. The firmness of her ass is precisely the last thing on the duty-bound marshal’s mind.

GM: The old man’s pupils shrivel as Nurse Wagner methodically pries back each eyelid and moves her penlight slowly across his field of vision. The angles are all wrong, and the reaction is fleeting, but Hudson detects that Moses’ flinching isn’t just a physiological response. There’s also a psychological element, a flash of perhaps fear born of… recognition?

As Nurse Wagner releases the patient’s eyelids, she once more double-clicks her pen and begins to dictate her own transcription: “Pupillary response assessed. Miosis consistent with dose response curves. Condition updated to code 95816.”

Hudson: “Tell me, Hellen, is 95816 good enough for him to be shipped back to Boise?” Hudson asks.
He doesn’t mind if he interrupts her recording. He’s curious what it might take to crack the ice queen’s facade.

GM: There is no thaw in the nurse’s mien as she simultaneously states out loud and writes, “Physicians to be contacted to determine subject’s regimen.” She then clicks her pen, this time but once and stows her implement and Moses’ medical clipboard in their respective containers.

Moses manages a gasp that borders on a cough. His eyes sluggishly rove over the room, searching for something he’s lost or has never found.

Hudson: “Better hope so, Moe. Hellen here’s pretty easy on the eyes, but you stay long enough and she’s bound to break your heart,” Hudson comments.

GM: “…” he says again, and weakly licks a dry tongue over his blood-crusted lips.

Hudson: “Better to cut things off while you’re still in that sweet, head-over-heels stage.”

GM: Nurse Wagner’s blonde-veiled face once again pivots to regard the marshal. She is silent, blinks once, then turns back to Moses, or more specifically one of his IVs. Hudson’s medical training informs him that she is reaching for the line attached to Moses’ IV bag filled with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid commonly used in hospitals for pain management.

Hudson: Hudson calmly catches her hand. “You trying to make things more comfortable for Moe there, Hellen?”

GM: Hellen does not turn as she reaches for the IV’s valve, but describes her action as if she is reading a script: “Increased dosage of Intravenous administration of N–1–2–Phenylethyl–4–piperidinyl–N–phenylpropanamide for analgesia to commence.”

Hudson: “Mmm. This sick fuck tried to cut up two young boys. I don’t think he needs to be in less pain at all,” the marshal lies. “So you can go ahead and skip that dosage, Hellen.”

GM: The nurse pauses. She pivots to regard her restrained hand as well as the force behind that retraining. She states in her breathy monotone, “Your authority is superseded, Supervisory Deputy Marshal Hudson Schofeld.” Her words are neither an apology nor argument, but a clinical assertion of fact. “Please unhand me so I may perform my protocols.”

Hudson: “Go get your boss. If a doctor thinks this bastard should get to laze around like he’s in the Ritz, then I’ll let you go on with those protocols,” Hudson answers, not releasing her hand.

That’ll get her out of his hair long enough for him to question Moses.

GM: “The physicians will be informed,” she says, the breathy tenor of her voice almost taking on an edge of emotion. A rather unpleasant one, too, if Hudson guesses. Then again, he might just be reading his own emotions in the reflection of the nurse’s elastic gaze. Nonetheless, she straightens, and awaits for the marshal to remove his hand.

Hudson: Hudson grunts. If a nurse says pain relief is the best thing for a patient, he isn’t about to gainsay her. But not this nurse. Analegia, after all, means Moe could go under if he’s in too much pain.

“All right, you go and do that,” Hudson answers, releasing the woman’s wrist. Still, this raises a question. As she turns to leave, the marshal mentally apologizes with a, Sorry, Nora, then smacks Nurse Hellen on her ass.

That’ll help cement the narrative he’s thinking with his other little man around this woman, not to mention build a better profile on her. It’s a sad truth that a lot of nurses wouldn’t do anything about this kind of behavior from Hudson. But they’d at least be upset. It’d say a lot about Nurse Wagner if she isn’t.

GM: So released, the nurse exits the room, but stops instantly upon her buttocks being slapped. Hudson cannot see her face to read her expression, but there is a tension in her frame that wars with what can only be called submissiveness. That conflict ends in some inscrutable manner as she states Hudson’s name and badge number aloud as if cataloging him. “Supervisory Deputy Marshal Hudson Schofeld, 407-68.”

She then exits the room, her movements striking the marshal once again as preternaturally precise, as if she is being pulled along an invisible cable-rail from which she will not or cannot deviate. Still, as Hudson watches her vanish down the ICU’s hall, he finally places the ever so slight, yet distinct disturbance in affect.

As both a state trooper and marshal, he’s seen it hundreds of times. Waitresses working road-stop diners and bars, girls accustomed to being smacked on the butt, objectified, and harassed by chauvinistic patrons. Most accepted the ‘attention’, not out of any shred of enjoyment, but an understanding that rejecting would do little but hurt their tips and get in the way of finishing their shifts. But just because they accepted it, didn’t mean they forgot or forgave.

And every once and a while, the war between accepting and not-forgetting would boil over, causing them to strike back. Sometimes, it would be overt, like dumping a pot of hot coffee over a trucker who got a little too handsy. Sometimes, it would be more covert, like handing out flatware with a thin film of dish soap.

He has seen it on other, yet similar occasions. Prostitutes who generally accepted but never forgot their mistreatment by their pimps, who got their revenge by diming their pimps’ location to a bloodthirsty gang or loan shark. The long-time wives of cons and fugitives that had endured, even accepted, years of domestic violence and abuse, who one day simply had enough and either ratted their spouses to the cops of blew them away with a shotgun or hunting rifle.

But this is the first time he’s seen that conflict with a nurse. But he’s confident: Nurse Wagner may have accepted his sexual assault, but she has not and will not forget.

Hudson: It’s no doubt not the first time for a nurse as pretty as Nurse Wagner either. Hudson feels an abrupt pang of guilt at that. It was a sexual assault. He’d wanted to build a better profile on the woman his little man said was a danger. He’d wanted to see if she was human deep down. Turned out that she was. All-too human.

He can’t erase what he did, but he’ll apologize to Nurse Wagner later. For now, he closes the door, picks up his radio, and transmits, “Max, get back to Moe’s room, on the double. Stay outside. If anyone tries to get inside, don’t stop them, but talk to them. Loud enough that I can hear and have a moment’s warning. I’ll explain why later. Over.”

GM: The radio crackles back with Max’s reply. “On my way and understood. You okay? Over.”

Hudson: “Still fat but no worse for it. Over.”

GM: “Understood,” Max replies. “I’ll be there on the double. Radio me if anything changes. Hodges, over and out.”

Hudson: Hudson ends the transmission, leans down over Moe’s bed to look the armless man in the eye and states, “You were scared of that woman. My gut says she’s trouble and not working alone. Blink once for yes, twice for no. Is your life in danger from these people?”

GM: Moses looks up at Hudson with roving, bloodshot eyes. His gasps turn into a shallow, coughing wheeze that Hudson almost pegs as laughter from the armless maniac. “C…can..dy… ma..n…”

Hudson: “That’s me, Moe,” Hudson acknowledges. You don’t get to pick your witnesses, however easier that might make things.

GM: Moe’s blood-cracked lips hack up another feeble cough-chuckle, but it makes him wince painfully. By the look of it, the man really could use some opioids. A lot of them.

Hudson: He’ll get them in short order. Right now, Hudson needs to determine if Nurse Wagner and whoever she’s working for will be an even worse hazard to the patient’s health.

GM: Indeed, Moe nearly passes up from the pain right there and then, but true to Hudson’s prediction, the tough bastard is too stubborn–and perhaps too deserving of the pain to escape into alleviating unconsciousness.

“…” gasps the repeat fugitive. Between those gasps, though, Hudson can tell Moses is trying to speak, but his voice is fragile to the point of being almost undetectable, if not indecipherable. “Cl…os…er”

Hudson: Hudson leans closer. He wouldn’t put it past the madman to bite him, and even tenses against that prospect, but he’s risked worse in the line of duty.

GM: The feared bite doesn’t come, but the lawman still can’t help feeling soiled by the madman’s lips so close to his ear. Weak as Moe’s breath is, it still reeks of death and chemicals. But the ends seem to justify the means as the proximity allows Moses to whisper more clearly and less taxingly. “Candy… man… I never… told you about my arm…”

Hudson: “You lost it in the war, Moe. That was years ago. This is now. Who does that nurse really work for?” Hudson presses in the firm but urgent tones of a lawman questioning a source that’s just about to tap out.

GM: “Lost it… in the war…” He chuckles painfully, causing one of his scabbed lips to brush Hudson’s earlobe. “But… which war… Candyman…”

Hudson: “The Second World War,” Hudson replies levelly. But not without a note of questioning.

GM: Hudson’s answer, and hint of uncertainty, elicit another weak, but wet-tearing bout of laughter. “…we warred for more… than the world, Candyman… I lied… I lost my arm… American soil… 19..46… we… called it down…”

Hudson: “You called what down, Moses?”

GM: “Someone… had to bell… the cat… pay… the price… give… the Devil his due…” Another light laughter, then wince.

Hudson: The poor bastard’s making little sense. Hudson doubts he can get him to answer a direct question about Nurse Wagner at this point, though.

“You sacrificed someone else?” he asks.

GM: “No…”

Hudson: “Or you lost your arm to call it down, give the Devil his due?”

GM: Hudson feels Moses’ lips brush him again as the man shakes his head. “No… someone had to get it… pick… it up… can’t leave… the box just… laying in… a hole…” He chuckles, then wheezes, “Some… kid.. might find it…”

Hudson: “You lost your arm retrieving the box,” Hudson fills in.

GM: “Yes… no… not a box, no, no, no, not a box…”

Hudson: “What did you lose your arm retrieving, Moe?”

GM: “They make you read Hesiod? In my days… they made us kids… read all the classics… in Greek… kids… these days…”

Hudson: “Marshals these days have college degrees. I’ve done my reading,” Hudson answers. “And yeah, kids. I ended up arresting Mr. Barnes, the boy you fought with. Now stay with me, Moses. We don’t have a lot of time. What do you want to tell me?”

GM: “Erga… kai Hemerai…” He laughs again. “Funny the things… you remember…”

Outside the door, there’s a knock. “It’s me, Hudson,” comes Maxwell’s voice.

Moe stirs at the knock, and Hudson instantly knows it wasn’t another marshal he was expecting.

Hudson: Time’s up.

“Rest, Moe. I’ll take care of things.” He pulls his head away and calls, “Come in.”

GM: “C-and-y-man!” Moe all but hisses desperately.

Maxwell steps in, holding a pair of brown bags. He drops both and goes to his gun when he sees the armless man violently whispering, but then chuckles. “Forgot he wasn’t armed.”

“You… as…ked…” Moe wheezes, trying to desperately to speak up. “N…urse…”

“How long has he been up?” Maxwell asks, stooping to pick up the brown-paper bags. “He tell you where he buried that girl’s body, back in ’82?”

Hudson: Hudson holds up a hand in forestallment and leans in close to Moses again. “What do you want to tell me, Moe? Fast.”

GM: Moe’s chest heaves, the oxygen mask still askew on his chin. “N-nurse… you asked… who she works… for…”

Maxwell quietly stands, bags in hand, but otherwise waits quietly.

Hudson: “Yes, I did,” Hudson confirms for the faltering man.

GM: “We won… the war… but lost… she works… for… them… they… won… she works for… them… I… work… worked… for… them… and… so…”

Hudson: “They want you back? Is that it?”

GM: Hudson feels Moe’s dry tongue as the latter tries to wet his lips. “She works for… them…” He laughs, then tries to suck in a deep breath, but it only becomes another a wet-tearing wheeze. He gulps it down, though, and continues, “And so… does… he…”

Hudson: “Your doctor, Moses?” Hudson asks. He barely notices the sensation of the madman’s tongue against his ear.

GM: “The… redhead…”

Maxwell squints. “What’d he say?”

“Don’t… blame…” Moe adds with another wheeze. “…him…” Another sucking gasp. “After… all…” Moe closes his eyes, but continues weakly. “…so do… you… CANDYMAN!!!!” His eyes flare open and the armless man lunges forward the breath of an inch to sink his teeth into Hudson’s ear.

Maxwell rushes over, his gun drawn, but then hesitates. “You want me to shoot him!?”

Hudson: “Mother of—GOD!” Hudson bellows, blood-flecks flying from the side of his head as he jerks out of the madman’s reach. Natural instinct growls at him to punch back, but he makes do with a glare and equally low growl as he applies pressure to the wound.

“No. Stand down, Max. The nurse is going to give him something soon.” He manages a grim smile past the bleeding. “No place better to get bitten by a crazed psychopath than a hospital, right? Hell. I even saw that coming.” The fat marshal grunts. “For all the good it did me.” His ear feels oddly light…

GM: The armless madman gulps down the tip of Hudson’s left earlobe and licks his lips. He tries to laugh, blood splattered across himself, but then his eyes bulge as he begins to choke.

“You okay?!” Maxwell starts to ask his superior, then stops as Moe begins to asphyxiate. “Give it up, old man, there’s no way we’re falling for that. Again.”

Hudson: “Oh, good grief!” the mustachioed marshal snarls. He’s not sure which sight he’s referring to as he pushes forward, blood still leaking down the side of his head and all over his clothes, as he presses his hands to Moe’s chest and applies CPR. “He’s not faking, Max, get the nurse!”

GM: Maxwell rushes to obey, once again dropping the paper bags. “NURSE! DOCTOR!” the marshal yells at splitting ear volume.

Hudson: “Choke on my own ear, why don’t you! Go ahead! Chow down, see how that works out!” Hudson all but spits as he frantically works, again, to save the crazed would-be murderer’s life.

GM: Like the last time, the next minutes are a blur of blood, sweat, and near-misses. In that window, a variety of medical staff file into the room, relieving Hudson. “Acute aspiration, gastric contents,” one staff yells to the rest. “Prepare for oropharyngeal suctioning, and adjunctive endotracheal intubation and nasogastric tube.” Other terms are bandied, including bronchoscopy and positive-pressure ventilation. In the end, the combination of those varied procedures, equipment, and the medical staff who utilize them–which Hudson notes does not include Nurse Wagner–save the life of Moses Ezekiel MacDonald.

Hudson: Hudson is not at all surprised there. When they remove his earlobe from Moses, he points to it and asks with a sardonic drawl, “Someone here mind stapling that thing back onto me?”

GM: They also save Hudson’s ear, after suctioning out the torn lobe-fragment from Moe’s bronchial tubes. They re-attach the lobe in another set of thankfully less hasty and less risky procedures.

Hudson: “My thanks,” the marshal grunts once they’re done. That’s gonna leave a scar. Won’t Emma have a field day with the quips.

GM: By the time the dust settles–or at least most of the blood dries–six o’clock arrives, signaling the end of Hudson’s shift as a guard and the start of his stay as a patient at Mount Pelion General. As Hudson is set up in a bed within the same room as the once again unconscious Moses, Cassidy and Curtis arrive.

Hudson: In the immediate aftermath of his earlobe’s reattachment, Hudson no doubt aggravates his nurse when he refuses to change into a hospital dressing gown. The moment he does that, they’ll start seeing him as a patient rather than a marshal. Hell, even his deputies subconsciously might. And that won’t do. As Moses just proved, he’s dangerous even without his arms. Dangerous to people who lean in close enough, anyway.

As his long-overdue rest approaches, Hudson doesn’t even change out of his bloodied clothes into pajamas, but into another button-up white shirt and pair of gray slacks with suspenders. The two concessions he makes towards sleep are loosening his necktie and leaving his jacket draped over the bed’s railing. The implication is clear: he expects to be back on duty soon, and is ready to resume it even earlier if need be.

Hudson also calls his wife back from the room’s phone. He apologizes for their last call’s abrupt end and explains that a work emergency came up when the fugitive they’d brought in regained consciousness. He then tells Nora that he and Alex had a good talk. The poor kid’s still hurting over his parents, and especially his dad. He wants to talk about the eyeliner once his grandfather is back home, and in the meantime he’s promised not to interfere with Nora’s dinner party. So for now, Hudson recommends to his wife, giving him some space and acting like nothing’s unusual will be best.

It also looks like the marshal is going to be home sooner, now that Moses has woken up. How soon will still be up to the doctors. “He was pretty lively,” Hudson remarks. “Sure gave me an earful. I gave him one too, and he grinned the whole time, though eventually he started to choke up.” He’s just loud enough for Max to hear those bits.

Hudson ends the call with an “I love you, dear,” then sags on the edge of his bed and permits himself a moment to just feel dog-tired. He’s been awake for close to 36 straight hours, during which he’s cased crime scenes, gone on a wild motorbike ride in miserable weather, stood off against a satanic would-be serial murderer, blown off that would-be murderer’s last arm, raced him back to the hospital, arrested and booked a young kid in front of his mom, realized he sexually assaulted a woman, had his earlobe torn off, had it reattached, and done it all off a diet of adrenaline and candy bars, with the exception of the bland-tasting cafeteria food he’s shoveling into his mouth at this late hour. He’s not an old man yet, not in his fifties (“that’s still middle-aged, now,” he’d once remarked), but he damn well isn’t a young man anymore. His bed’s pillow beckons as sweetly and softly as a melted chocolate bar topped with powdered sugar. But giving in to this temptation will actually be good for his health.

The marshal still spares a smile as he sees his deputies come in to relieve him.

“You sure you two aren’t ear-ly?”

GM: Several minutes later, Hudson is the one hearing a joke. “Knock, knock,” says the white-haired and white-coated doctor who entered the room and identified himself as Dr. Humphrey.

Dr_Humphrey.png

Hudson: The marshal grunts and sits up in his bed. He’d almost fallen asleep. “Who’s there?”

GM: The dark-eyed doctor, whose medical accouterments include a head mirror and stethoscope, replies with a smile, “HIPAA!”

Hudson: Hudson replies in kind with one of his own. It’s somewhat less enthusiastic. “Doc, I’m as glad as the next man that my medical information is private, but I’ll sure be a lot gladder after I’ve had my forty winks.”

“All right though,” the marshal says with another tired-eyed smile at his physician’s enthusiasm. That’s rare enough in this hospital that he isn’t about to shoot it down. “HIPAA who?”

GM: Dr. Humphrey raises an index finger and smiles goodhumoredly as he answers, “I can’t tell you!”

Hudson: There’s a faint chuckle. “I suppose you can’t, now can you? Joke’s on me.”

GM: He then slowly points his extended finger to Hudson. “Might I have a word in private, Deputy Marshal Schofeld?” His smile does not falter as he glances at Cassidy and Curtis. The unconscious Moses is overlooked.

Hudson: There’s an internal groan at the doctor’s request, but it’s not like he hasn’t gone out of his way to communicate he’s still duty-ready. “All right. Cassidy, Curtis, hold down the fort,” Hudson answers as he hauls himself out of bed and pulls on his jacket. He lets the doctor lead the way.

GM: “Oh, no, no, Deputy Marshal,” Dr. Humphrey says as his patient rises. “I was thinking you and I might stay. The more you rest, the speedier your recovery.” His next remark is to Cassidy and Curtis as much as Hudson. “It will only take a moment.”

Hudson: “Far be it from me to complain over staying on my ass,” Hudson remarks as he sits back down. “If you two don’t mind waiting outside?” he directs towards his deputies.

GM: “We’ll be right outside, boss,” says Cassidy, as she exits the room alongside Curtis, who gives a salute-like nod at the implicit order.

As the door shuts, Dr. Humphrey turns back to Hudson. “Well, they seem like nice folk.”

Hudson: “They’re good people. I do and have trusted them with my life,” the mustachioed marshal nods.

GM: “Good people,” Dr. Humphrey repeats, his smile fading. “Too bad we can’t all be good all the time.”

Hudson: Hudson heaves a sigh. “I think I know what this is.”

GM: He pauses, then speaks again. “Yes. I promised this would be short, so if I might be frank, let me just say that Nurse Wagner spoke to me, and I have to say I am very disappointed.”

Hudson: “She’s telling the truth,” Hudson says as if to preempt any discussion on that topic. “I don’t have anything to say that isn’t an excuse, Doc. I doubt that she wants to see me right now, but if you know her and think that it would help, I’d like to apologize to her for my behavior.”

GM: Dr. Humphrey frowns at the confession. “Well, I think the less you speak with Nurse Wagner from here on, the better. She was very upset by your untoward actions, and no doubt she felt very conflicted approaching me, being as you are a man of the law. God knows the good looking woman is given enough grief by her patients.”

Hudson: Hudson’s tired smile has long since faded to simple tiredeness by now. He’s seen his share of guilty people breaking down and finally confessing. It’s not as often that he’s been the one in the same roll.

“That took some courage on her part to tell the boss.”

GM: “Yes,” Dr. Humphrey agrees. “She is a very courageous woman, whose ample beauty and bravery are only matched by her generous spirit.”

Hudson: “I thought she was a pretty cold fish when we first met. I wanted to see if she was ‘really human’ deep down. Well, it turns out that she was. All-too human.” The fat marshal seems to deflate further. “I have a wife and granddaughter. In my line of work, I’ve seen my share of women who’ve been treated badly by men. I thought I was better than that. I wasn’t. And I’m sorry that I hurt her.”

Hudson isn’t so sure that he buys ‘generous spirit’, but he holds his tongue.

GM: “Well, apologies are like bandages, they don’t undo the damage or substitute for stitches. But given that she is not pressing the issue, and in light of your frank confession as well as recent… injury, Deputy Marshal Schofeld, I believe the hospital is willing to consider this matter resolved.”

He raises a finger. “However. However, I must warn you. Regardless of your intentions or apologies, what we need here is an understanding. We have already had to almost throw out a locally respected lawman today from Mt. Pelion.”

He lowers his hand. “From now on, any mistreatment of our staff or interruption of their duties will be grounds for immediate dismissal–or in your specific case, reassignment.” He sticks a hand into his pocket and leans forward. “Do we have an understanding, Deputy Marshal?”

Hudson: Hudson doesn’t blink at either of the doctor’s initial statements. “We do, Doc. You won’t have any further incidents of harassment from me.”

GM: “Splendid!” Dr. Humphrey beams as he rises and extends a lollipop to Hudson. He goes to depart, but then pauses right before opening the door. “One last thing, Deputy Marshal.”

Hudson: The fat marshal, to the surprise of no one who knows him, plucks the lollipop out of the physician’s hand. “That’s the point, Doc, where I usually tell the bad guy that I still have my eye on them.”

GM: Dr. Humphery winks with a chuckle, and taps his head mirror. “Well, as an otorhinolaryngologist, I always have an eye on my patients, good and bad. But, no, I have another question for you. Why did the blonde nurse carry a red pen?”

Hudson: “You got me on that punchline, Doc.”

GM: Dr. Humphrey raises his finger again and smiles widely. “In case she needs to draw blood!”

Hudson: There’s another low chuckle from the now-lollipop-sucking marshal.

“You might have heard this one as an ear doctor. A woman once went to her family physician with her crying baby. He determined right away that the baby had an earache. He wrote a prescription for ear drops. In the directions he wrote, ‘Put two drops in right ear every four hours’ and he abbreviated ‘right’ as an R with a circle around it.”

“The woman returned to the doctor after several days and complained that the baby still had an earache, and his little behind was getting really greasy with all those drops of oil.”

“The doctor looked at the bottle of ear drops and realized what had gone wrong. The pharmacist had typed the following instructions on the label:”

“‘Put two drops in R ear every four hours’.”

GM: Dr. Humphrey erupts in a knee-slapping guffaw. “That’s a keeper, Deputy Marshal!”

He’s still laughing as he opens the door and turns to the waiting deputies. “He’s all yours. I told him to go easy on the Q-tips for a while, but I think it went in one ear and out the other.”

Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.09.1998, Friday evening

GM: The TV buzzes with flickering snow-like static. Secured to the upper corner of her private hospital room, the TV stares down at Hazel with its incoherent blur and mechanical hiss. Other medical apparatus beep and chirp like a broken electronic symphony. The walls and floor are an antiseptic white, broken only by the golden sunlight that filters through a curtained window.

Hazel: Attila awakens.

Patterns. Patterns everywhere. In the thread of the sheets, the wiring of the lights, even the static blaring down from the television set.

Patterns. Patterns everywhere.

The underlying laws and logic to the cosmos, laid bare at least. Hazel cannot articulate them–not so soon, not when she’s never been the best at putting thoughts into words–but she knows them. They wind through reality like the threads of a grand tapestry. Threads that she might gather up in her fingers, spin, snip, re-weave into new designs and patterns. Her tapestry. Her reality. Reality is soft clay, malleable in her hands, and she has just learned how to sculpt. She’s had the blindfold removed. For the first time in her life, the universe makes sense. Perfect and complete sense.

Attila has Awakened.

She feels the scream–of elation, triumph, anticipation, and a maelstrom of so many other emotions, welling in her chest like a hurricane about to make landfall. It’s all she can do to keep her mouth closed. She clenches her fists and smacks her bedding, rocking back and forth, giddy with… no. ‘Giddy’ is far too limiting a phrase. This is exaltation, soul-deep and unlimited, infinite, all-encompassing. She is Awake! It all makes sense!_

She calms after a moment, the grin disappearing from her features. A long-honed investigator’s eye apprises her surroundings. So. Her own private room. Mom likely paying for things, as expected. She’s not handcuffed to the bed. Nothing’s been proven. Nothing…

Oh god. Dread sinks her stomach like a cannonball chucked into a bathtub.I killed them. The Sweeneys. I’m a murderer. No. No. No. That’s impossible, they never did anything to me, they…

The severed limbs flash across her newly-aware mind. The limbs. In her house. Hazel clenches her blankets and begins rubbing her hands against them, back and forth, back and forth. Concentrating on the sensation. They’re relatively soft, for a hospital bed’s. Nice to know she’s… the thought disappears as her mind plumbs for answers. There might not be much time, and there’s so much at stake. She needs to act, and fast.

GM: Her manic, fractured psyche reaches out for the spiral staircase, but she finds the handrails are gone. Only static remains. The TV buzzes, then abruptly changes its own channel. An image appears on the screen which rests on the squat side-table shoved in the other corner. Was it ever hovering above her in the other corner? Is space an illusion? A mutable phenomenon full of caprice and bereft of moorings–like her mind?

Another table sits beside the TV’s stand–although now Hazel cannot help but question what ‘beside’ means. Does it mean anything at all? Did it ever mean anything at all? Does anything anymore? But no, there is a glass table, a circle–in which she sees other circles, creating the vesicle piscis repeat again and again, around and around, to create the Flower of Life, just like how her family’s car swerved and spun, around and around, again and again. Now the circles are an illusion. Or are they? Is the table an illusion? She doesn’t know. Her eyes close, perhaps reflexively to shut out the madness.

But the madness is within. The static. She smells wine. Red. Red like the blood of Elouise Sweeney as it spurted on her husband’s face. It’s Barbaresco. She opens her eyes to see the lipstick imprint on the all but drained glass. The TV warbles into ‘focus’.

TV.png

A face emerges on it. Its eyes vacant save for an insatiable thirst and frenzied terror. The feminine thing howls and shrieks with an inhuman intensity that causes the video feed to crackle and distort. Points. Lines. Angles. That’s all it is. That’s all everything is.

But Hazel’s psyche sees the lines, points, and angles of the creature’s mouth. Teeth. Fangs. The shot pans out, revealing the seemingly possessed monster in a kevlar and chain-reinforced straightjacket shackled to a barren room. White-walled room. The mad woman-thing thrashes, but in vain. Two Spooks emerge in the far corners of the shot. Their plastic features are obscured by their identical black hats, black glasses, and suits.

By virtue of some off–screen cue, the pair retracts a room divider, revealing the other side of the room–and most prominently a sunrise–capturing window. As the solar illumination fills the room, the fettered woman begins to smolder. Her skin blackens like burnt paper in a bonfire. As the paranormal immolation hideously consumes the frenzying monster, the audio feed of her screams is muted and another feed comes on playing the national anthem. A male voice-over joins it:

REALITY DEVIANTS ARE EVERYWHERE! YOUR GOVERNMENT NEEDS YOU! JOIN THE CONSENSUS!”

Hazel: Hazel can’t say she’s sorry to see the vampire go up in flames. Far from the tragically misunderstood antiheroes of certain novels, all of her research–and the one she’s actually seen with her own eyes–indicate they are nothing but monstrous parasites upon humanity.

But she’s not sure she trusts the men–the Spooks–who delivered the thing to its destruction (‘death’ seems inaccurate) either. She’s seen their methods up close and personal too. She’ll hold off on any joining until she’s done a lot more research. Like what happened to her predecessor.

GM: The TV shot zooms in as the government agents walk in eerie symmetry towards the now-empty straitjacket and chains. As the anthem ends, the male voiceover continues:

“WE CAN SET YOU FREE! JOIN TODAY! THERE IS SAFETY IN CONSENSUS!”

Even deranged as Hazel is, she picks up the not so subtle undertones of what might happen to those who don’t ‘join the consensus’.

Hazel: A lot more research.

GM: The video is swallowed by static. One eye-blink later, the TV stares down at her again from the top of the other corner. There is no TV on a squat table. There never was. Distance is lie. So is sanity. A nurse walks into the illusion that her mind once recognized as a ‘room’.

Hazel: Hazel sits up and regards the woman. “Hello. How long a duration have I been insensate for?”

GM: The woman checks her ticking watch. Unlike her scrubs which bear Mount Pelion’s seal of Eris’ golden apple of Discord, her leather watch-band has the tooled shape of Proteus, the ever-changing one. “It’s Friday, October 10th, 1998… at 6:06 pm.” The nurse looks up and offers a smile that doesn’t yet reach her eyes.

The evening light casts sharp shadows across her face, but her features are still clear enough for Hazel to identify the nurse. It’s Mackenzie Snakewater, formerly Mackenzie Pinkston–her old queen-bee social tormentor in middle school. “Hello, Hazel,” her old school-mate says with a half-swallowed smirk. She looks over Hazel’s chart and then inspects the sling over Hazel’s arm and the splint on her thigh.

Mackenzie.png

Hazel: Well, look who now wipes people’s asses for a living.

“Hello, Mackenzie. Please see to it that my parents are informed I am conscious and in such a state as to receive visitors.” Attila is prepared to be civil if her ire is not tempted.

GM: “That will be up to the doctors to decide,” the dark-haired nurse says.

Hazel: “Such is not within your power. I see. Please inform my assigned doctor that I am conscious and in such a state as to discuss whether I am able to receive visitors.”

GM: “Speaking of doctors’ orders,” Mackenzie adds, pulling out a pill bottle with Hazel’s name printed on it, “You’re to take these. For the pain.” She lays out the nine pills in a shape that eerily resembles the nine fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Nurse Pinkston then leaves.

Hazel: “Nurse Pinkston!” Hazel’s voice sharply rings through the hospital room.

GM: Already out the door, Mackenzie’s head pops back in. “Yes, Hazel?”

Hazel: “What are you going to do when you have left my room, Nurse Pink–Snakewater.” Hazel’s tone is not one of someone asking a question. It is a reminder, sharp and pointed as a hospital scalpel.

GM: “Follow my orders,” she says with a winsome smile. “As you should yours,” she says with a motioning gesture to the pills. “Best take a big drink first.”

Hazel: Attila smiles back. “Repeat them for me, Nurse Snakewater, so I am certain they will be followed.” They are her orders.

GM: Likely to Hazel’s infuriation, Mackenzie laughs. Her voice is still pearly. “You know, Hazel, people change all the time. They really do. You should give it a try sometime. Maybe start by being less of a bitch. But if you want to cause a scene, I’ll just call some orderlies to sedate you.” She flashes Hazel another class-winning smile, then closes the door. It locks.

Hazel: Hazel’s clear voice smugly sounds through the door. “Sedatives can take mere hours to wear off, Mackenzie. Evidence of infidelity with men twice one’s age, however, can permanently destroy a marriage.”

GM: Her words refer Hazel’s pre-employment snooping on her old rivals. Mackenzie’s skeletons were perhaps the most surprising. Not only does Hazel know that Mackenzie married Hiram Snakewater, a half-blooded Kainai from the reservation–which was unexpected given Mackenzie’s racist predictions in grade school–but Hazel also followed Mackenzie on several late afternoon trysts to another man’s house. Each time, she arrived gussied up, and each time she left fatigued and disheveled, but clearly very, very satisfied. That the old queen bee would be so treacherous does not shock Hazel. Instead, it’s the identity of the ‘other man’ that still perplexes the bedridden librarian. Mackenzie Snakewater, her old classmate, is having an affair with her uncle, Leopold Schoening.

But despite that knowledge and her threat, the door remains locked. Perhaps Leo’s Lustprinzip is just that good.

Hazel: So be it. Attila does not threaten–only promise. Mr. Snakewater will be receiving some very interesting photos.

GM: Locked inside with prescribed pills she knows nothing about, the hospital room takes on the menacing overtures of an asylum. One where she as the patient has no power. Yet, as Leo often reminds her, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. And as she inspects the nine pills and their bottle, she gains power.

Hazel: Besides which, the door could well be within her power to deal with. It wouldn’t be the first lock she’s picked. Some store merchandise, after all, is locked inside those pesky cases.

GM: Beside the large glass of water, Hazel finds the pill bottle placed right where the tenth sephirot or fruit should be. The pill bottle’s overall appearance resembles that of all prescription bottles, save for the print that describes the medicine itself. Rather than a list of its name, dosage, and route, there is a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

In vain, though by their powerful Art they bind
Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea,
Drain’d through a Limbec to his native form.


Hazel knows that Milton’s passage signifies the association of Proteus with the Hermetic art of alchemy, and of those alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone. More specifically, she recalls writings of the German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath, who said that the shape–changing sea–god was, because of his relationship to the sea, both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the Art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ which may signify the awakening as well as the symbol of the anima mundi, which may signify the tenth fruit which unifies them all, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury: our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and… power over all things.

In more modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as the personification of the sleeping unconsciousness, who is vast and pulled by tides both deep and strong, but is mutable nonetheless. Surrounding the pill bottle, which Hazel notes is now empty, are the nine pills. Each one has a single letter on it. For one who had not seen what her inner mind had seen, it would be almost impossible to know where to begin the ‘reading’. But the reference to the Hermitic arts of alchemy provide the clue: one must begin with the basest of matter. Matter. As Above, so Below. Her mind summons up the tree and the base fruit of Matter, then follows the connections, reading each engraved pill-letter. V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M.

Even now, the message would be undecipherable to most, but Hazel has the key of knowledge, its edges honed through years of occult study. And so, she recognizes the meaning of the nine letters: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam. And its translation into her tongue: Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone. Moreover, she recalls the acronym has another hidden meaning, its letters signifying a green lion. Just like the one in Mrs. Griswold’s diary. Just as the green lion of vitriol dissolves all metals save the noble gold, the expression amongst Freemasony, Rosicrucianism, and Heremetism is a motto commonly found in the physically symbolic “Chamber of Reflection,” wherein the awakening initiate contemplates and reflects on the nature of death or dissolution of impurities in order to achieve internal, spiritual purification.

Hazel: Interesting. Hazel sets the pills down–and as she does, she notices slashes on the bottle’s bottom. Two of them, in the form of the cross. Holding the orange plastic up to the light, the cross looks rose-colored.

So. Another present from Leo.

That alleviates some of her concern. There’s someone out there trying to help her. It even fits with how Mackenzie is her nurse: the former queen bee’s connection to Leo likely made it all the easier for him to discretely get the pills in.

But how does he know about the tree and its nine fruits? How does he know she can now taste them? Is he… like she now is? Awake?

Those aren’t questions she can answer now, but she’ll trust him–if you can’t trust family, who can you trust–and take the pills. The sole remaining question she can answer is whether she should do that now or later. It’s possible she’s been involuntarily committed, for Mackenzie to actually lock her in. If that’s the case, the 24 hours she can be detained without a preliminary court hearing aren’t up yet. But there is a sure way to find out whether she’s being detained. She sets down the pills and waits for a moment, looking about the room.

She could try to escape. She could pick the lock, maybe exit through the window. If she’s not been taken into emergency custody, it’s her legal right to refuse medical treatment and leave the hospital at any time, even if it’s against her doctor’s advice. But even if she isn’t being detained, it’ll look suspicious as hell right now. The police–her dad among them–are most likely puzzling over the collection of dismembered body parts they found in her house.

The ones she was responsible for.

That she now remembers.

She’s a murderer.

She brushes away the dampness in her eyes. Why? Dear god, why?! What did the Sweeneys ever do to her? How could she–why did she–but she did. There is blood on her hands. She doesn’t even know how it got there. I… I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to. Please, I… I didn’t! she pleads, as if beset by the dead couple’s accusing faces.

But she said it herself, to her dad in the car. Intentions count for little. Actions are what matter. She was always a determinist. A utilitarianist. She buries her face in her hands, stifling a sob. I… I have to make up for this! I have to atone! Right my wrong, balance the figurative scales of justice–

But they’re dead. She can’t bring them back. What can possibly atone for this, for the blood of two lives on her hands? Blood that she didn’t even remember shedding?

Marilyn. There’s Marilyn, their daughter. Their ghost. I… I must help her pass on. That’s what they would have wanted. I’m the only one who knows Marilyn’s story, I’m the only one who can do it! I can’t go to prison, I can’t–

Her face flushes with shame. She’s not facing reality. First, is that what Albert and Elouise would even want? Their killer to walk free, to try assisting their daughter’s soul in finding rest? She doesn’t know. She’s never been much good at reading people. They’d probably want Marilyn to know peace, but at her hands? Their murderer’s? Hazel scrambles for answers. What if they left behind shades of their own? She could seek them out, submit herself to whatever grim justice the restless dead might impose…

It’s poetic, certainly. Grand and noble. Let her victims decide her fate, after she helps their daughter pass on. But it ignores a very real and very pressing issue: she doesn’t know why she did it. She hardly remembers doing it. And until she does–_if_ she ever does–she is a danger to others. What’s to stop her from cutting up some other poor innocent couple and squatting in their house? And sending postcards. Postcards. Good god, the lengths to which she went to deceive herself…

The hard and brutal truth is, she can’t be allowed to walk free. She can’t risk killing again. Not so she can ease her own poor conscience. Maybe institutionalization really is the best fate for her, if one is to consider the greatest good for the greatest possible number.

A mental institution. It’s what she’s always feared, since she first started researching what her ASD meant. Since she found out about all the other people with autism who had it so much worse than she did. She thought she’d escaped their fate. But maybe not.

It’s too much to bear.

She downs the pills, tosses back a tall drink of water, and blissfully falls into oblivion.

View
Phase I, Case File 1.13

Brook: Skin Deep


10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: Brook awakens on the ground. All around him is the stench of burnt ozone. His head feels like it was struck by a sledgehammer, and his ears keep ringing with a warble and screech akin to an endless dial-up tone.

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap open, realizing in a second what’s just happened. Something that has never happened to him. He lost consciousness while the moon was high in the sky. He jerks up, panicking, grabs the back of his chair and hoists it up like a spear against the room around him. He sniffs the air and then slides his back against the desk. There’s nothing. Last he remembers he was looking at the clock and then–oh no.

The scared teen shoves his hands into his pockets, checking for the wrapped-up dollar bill as he checks the clock. He has to still have time to get that work done. Maybe after he unplugs the phone.

GM: The clock is dead. Everything is dead. Except him. He thinks. It’s pitch back. Rain patters on the windows.

Brook: Lightning. Fucking lightning? That’s bullshit, after so many years Red Aspen has either slacked on its electrical work or whatever hit them wasn’t a normal bolt of lightning. But it fits. Everything going black right when he answered a phone. Maybe it’s his fault.

Fumbling, Brook makes his way down to the main floor and feels in the dark for his bag. Of course the flashlight is dead. But as he fumbles to a cupboard, he finds more than enough candles, and a box of matches. Count on his mother to be prepared. But after everything that’s happened today? It’s time to just… stop for awhile. Brook lights a candle and carries it into his bedroom, grabs his guitar and carries it up into the tower. He keeps only two candles on his desk, so he can see himself and his work.

But he pushes it out of his mind. One song. The rain is perfect. One song to cool his nerves. He mounts the guitar on his knee as he sits and squeezes his hand to loosen it up, and gives a tentative strum. Maybe it’s not the time, but after so many years of art and music as a means to cope, he needs it right now.
GM: Brook’s eyes play tricks on him. Blinding after-images. Serpent-like shadows or lightning bolts mingle with the red–orange candle flames. When another bolt of lightning arcs across the sky, Brook feels his muscles twitch involuntarily, causing the musical chord to fray like a downed power–line. His windowless bedroom, however, provides a relative respite from the storm which ranges outside. And eventually, the after-images and echoes subside.

Brook: Brook grits his teeth at the sudden twitch, and a low growl of self-frustration brews in the base of his throat as he sets the instrument down. It’s not working, and the strange upside-down feeling in his gut is still there from the shock of sleep at night. Is it the phone? The lightning? The boy suppresses a growl, pockets the matches and extinguishes all but one candle, then slowly creeps up into the tower. He has to grab what’s left of his homework.

GM: True to Danny’s jib, geometry and trigonometry are not Brook’s best subjects. However, his friend’s notes provide a vital lifeline as he struggles through his homework. The first half requires him to calculate the angles of different regular polygons. When he gets to the pentagon, he pulls out his sketchpad he made, recalling something Mr. Epstein said about the degrees. By the time he’s done the first portion, he’s pretty sure he got enough items correct.

The second half is in one of those larger word problems from the book called ‘practical applications’. Tonight’s exercise, at least, begins with a photo of the Summa Vitiorum, a thirteenth century monastic illustration, depicting an armored knight with a shield bearing the “sacred geometry” of the Scutum Fidei, or Shield of the Triarchic God.

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Brook reads over the paragraph explaining the symbol’s religious history and a quote by Plato asserting that “God geometrizes continually”. The actual math problem itself requires the calculation of each angle of the Scutum Fidei. The math problem proves a bit harder for Brook, and by the time he’s done, or at least gives up, he’s neither sure he computed the correct number or degrees of the angles. Regardless, the math is done.

Brook: Brook concedes that math isn’t his best subject, but it’s a thin enough line between him and expulsion that he’s willing to even brave whatever the fuck has just happened up in the top floor of his tower to get it done. His earlier muscle twitch, as the thunder rumbled through the world, still eats at the back of his mind. He works hard under the candle light, his pen slitting across the paper as he gets the first portion done. That’s when things get strange, or at least stranger than normal. He doesn’t give in, he does his best, and when he’s done it’s like a wave over him. But it’s not relief as normal.

GM: Agent Barnes, do the math.

Do The Math.

The words reappear like a summoned ghost. He looks back at his sheets of paper, the protractor, calculator, and rest of the candlelit supplies as if he’s forgetting something. Something important.

Do The Math.

The epiphany strikes him as sudden and blinding as the lightning bolts that crackle through the sky. The pentagram. He grabs the nearby maps. He has to be sure. It only takes him few moments to confirm his suspicion.

Five points. Five fires. They match perfectly, not just in number but in precise distance from one another. Somehow the rangers and marshals all missed it. Brook looks back to his sketchpad. No, not five points. Six points, the sixth being in the grand center of the pentagram. A few calculations later, and Brook has found the sixth site. One where no fire has burned. Yet.

Scratch’s Corral. A box-canyon not too far away from Baker’s Cudgel, the dead-end gorge has an old dirt–track trail originally made by nineteenth century cattle rustlers and restored nearly a century later by conspiracy–secessionists in the 1969. Looking at the maps, Brook comes to six disconcerting conclusions. Six. Just like the pentagram. Six points. Six lines. Six words. Six.

First, the homicidal asylum escapee, Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, is either already in or heading to Scratch’s Corral.

Second, Moses is angry, and before the sun rises, he’s going to try to give ‘the Devil a foothold’ likely through some satanic ritual that will doubtlessly involve atrocities against another.

Third, all of the NPS rangers are patrolling public park trails, and thus are nowhere close to the off-limit box canyon.

Fourth, with all of Red Aspen’s electronics fried, Brook cannot alert the proper authorities.

Fifth, even if he could, they wouldn’t be able to reach them, not in time, and maybe not at all, as the Corral’s trail is too narrow for cars and trucks. Dirt bikes are another matter.

Sixth, and most importantly, if someone is going to stop Moses MacDonald, it’s going to be Brook.

Do the math

Brook: Do the math.

The earlier gnawing in his head takes a back seat to a new set of teeth chewing on his brain, until tooth meets tooth and sparks like flint in his gray matter. Brook shoots up, sending his chair to the floor as he pulls a map off the wall and slaps it on the table. Everything lines up. Everything makes itself known. The fires giving everyone trouble have been arson every time. That sick shit-painting fuck.

More realizations mount on, more and more, until it makes sense. Do the math. Do his job. Hunt. Brook bolts back down the ladder onto the first floor, races to his hook on the wall and pulls on his gear. Boots, outdoor camouflage clothing, his boonie hat, and his pocketed vest are soon all tightened up and ready. As his hands move into a blur, he realizes this feels unlike most hunts he’s been on. This feels like war. There is animosity in his movements and an eager shiver in his chest cavity. He’s excited. Maybe to be racing to the rescue, or maybe to be on the hunt for what he is.

His guns, his bow, his arrows, his gloves, and his backpack survival kit. Brook arms himself to the teeth, even hiding his revolver in its holster under his brown- and green-patterned coat, violating a law. The adrenaline-high teen grabs his keys and hesitates for only a moment as he runs back and pulls a loaded flare gun out from the supplies box. Brook bursts out the door like a movie hero, sending gravel flying as he sprints down to the station shed. His project sits right next by. It’s a piece of pride for him and a guilty pleasure akin to the Mooners. He rips the cover off to reveal his dirt bike: it’s not much of a looker, but it’s something he’s proud of. It takes only one smooth kickstart before the lamp flicks on and the ranger cadet is on his war-path. His green eyes stare unblinkingly focused ahead as he makes his way to Scratch’s Corral.

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GM: Outside, the storm rages. The forest feels alive, awoken by the thunderstorm booming and crawling above and between the mountain slopes and valleys. Cold, fat ran smashes down on Brook and his dirt-bike, making the gravel trail and muddy drop-offs treacherous. The blackness of night is cut through by lightning. They alternately resemble horned snakes slithering across the umbral Sky–Country or white–hot arteries and veis on thin–skinned flesh of some ineffable monstrosity looming over the world to swallow it. The staccato flash of blinding white and black create a blurring wash of false gray that distorts color, shape, and time.

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Yet, despite the nightmarish driving conditions, Brook rides on, fast and unfettered. Instincts take off, and rational thought slides into some unused, unneeded corner of his mind. These are his woods after all. His home. His territory. Some atavistic will guides him in the dark. The primeval power, however, has a cost, as somewhere in chiaroscuro cacophony, Brook’s hold on the present washes away like the rain-water down the ride.

One moment, he’s riding white–knuckled down Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast, and the next, he’s rousing from his dark dissociation, his bike still gunning through the nigh–hidden, person–wide entrance into Scratch’s Corral.

Brook: Once again, the young hunter’s forest feels as though it can swallow him alive or push him safely into what he seeks. It chooses. Brook’s mind goes blank as he pushes forward, if anything traveling faster and faster as his heart rate rises. Right up until he bursts through the entrance into the box canyon. Scratch’s Corral, the stage. Either for his death or his successful hunt is yet to be seen. He barrels through on his bike as the world comes back into focus, making his teeth grit and his chest quiver. He still doesn’t slow much. He begins his search, his hunt, racking his brain for places the rain won’t reach. Where he can find a rat.

GM: Brook’s mind doesn’t have to rake long. Only two years ago–in the wake of Ms. Littlebeaver’s shocking suicide–Danny and Brook had camped out in Scratch’s Corral, attempting a desperate teenage vision quest in the hopes of contacting Danny’s ancestors. During that troubled trip, the boys had found an old cave formerly used by rustlers, grizzles, and most recently by militant secessionists, who employed the natural bunker as an arms and ammo depot and locale of their last, lethal stand against the joint task force of ATF, NPS, and FBI in the ‘70s. Other than the cave of the box canyon–which was cleared out by the federal forces–there are thick copses fed by vein-like waterfalls and Auld Coot’s Creek.

Brook: Brook doesn’t wait for a better place to come into his head. He heads for the cave and slows his pace. His original plan of running down the psycho with his bike is out the window, but this place is at least a start. Soon the hunter calms his war ride, slowing to a stop and sliding off his bike a few meters from the mouth of the cave. He takes the keys and slides them into a pocket inside of his vest to keep them silent, and hefts his bow, notching an arrow as he keeps low and makes his approach. Tracks will tell him what he needs, the cave at least not in the washing rain.

GM: As Brook stalks toward the cave, a forked lightning bolt rips through the sky like Uktena’s tongue. For a brief, terrible moment, the young man is once again struck both blind and deaf. Absent those senses, Brook’s mind looks back to the past, when he and his best friend first visited Scratch’s Corral.

07.02.1996, Tuesday afternoon

GM: It’s hot as hell. The circumstances spurring the boy’s camp-out and desperate vision quest were already grueling, but the heat makes everything worse. And it’s only getting worse.

When they had arrived two days prior, it was unseasonably warm and dry. When Mary dropped them off at the entrance with all their supplies, there had at least been a little mountain breeze to wick off the sweat. However, once the boys descended into the box canyon, that wind suffocated like a cat trapped inside a shrink-wrapped shoebox.

At first, the mind-numbing heat, sweat, and exertion of hauling their supplies and setting up camp had been good. Danny hadn’t wanted to speak, and honestly Brook wasn’t sure what to say. How do you comfort your best friend right after his mother jumped out of a third-story hospital window and left him and all his siblings de facto orphans? So the stifling heat seemed like a blessing. But the blessing soon turned into a curse. It was like the box canyon was a giant cauldron and someone kept adding more timber to the fire.

The second day, the temperature climbed. Brook and Danny had tried to sweat it out, to use the pain and discomfort as a cleansing experience to guide them in their search for peace or at least answers. But the brutal sun just baked them and scorched any chance of spiritual solace. Danny especially suffered. Unlike the atypically tall, muscular ranger cadet who lives and works in this unforgiving wilderness, the comparatively short, scrawny pre-teen spends more time inside playing Duke Nukem, Zork, and his most recent favorite, Quake.

Seeing his friend endure the brutal weather so much better than he could certainly didn’t improve Danny’s mood or already tormented emotional focus. Today has been little better. Actually, it’s been a hell of a lot worse. As Brook checks his NPS thermometer–not for the first time–he sees the red mercury top 102 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s literally boiling.

After hearing Red Aspen’s forecast for today from Brook’s walkie-talkie, Danny had declared that he was done with the “crackpot sweat-lodge”. At the same time, he hadn’t wanted to run home crying, either. After all, home didn’t really exist for him any more. Not like it had. Going back would simply mean confronting harsh realities.

So Danny had decided to stay in the cave, hiding from the sun and its cruel heat. Brook isn’t sure whether the darkness has improved his best friend’s black mood.

Brook: While he can’t match it to his best friends, it has been a painful year for the young man. After the incident he’s not allowed to speak of, his body has been changing. He wakes up in pain, his body screaming at him for no reason. His temper flaring at odder and odder times despite his promise to reign himself in. His dreams changing to worse and stranger motifs, much to his awkwardness seeing the girls they involve the next day. He’s grown too, his arms bulging, his appetite demanding much from him.

Danny has been here for him though, the entire time. It’s only common sense once his mother fell to her death, that he reveal what he’s been studying. What they can try to find his ancestors for answers, like his bigger friend is looking for in the waters of the Green Lady. But it’s not going how they want. Brook of course follows his friend I to the cave, taking off his boonie hat and siting beside Danny in the dark awhile. “Are you okay? Do you need more water?” It’s all Brook can think to say. It’s painfully awkward, but it’s better than wallowing in the dark.

GM: Danny doesn’t reply–at least not in a way Brook can see. In the harsh sunlight that reaches but fails to grasp the back of the cave, the ranger cadet can barely make out his friend’s silhouette. Even so, he can tell the silhouette is wrong. But not why.

His friend’s aberrant silhouette moves. There’s a soft movement of stones, then a ‘whiiiish’, followed by the echoing clatter of stone ricocheting against stone. When the echoes die, Danny speaks in a drone-like voice: “…the mouth of Vaults of Zin, and the vindictive ghasts are always on watch there for those denizens of the upper abyss…”

There’s another scrape, whiiish, and distant clatter.

Brook: Brook freezes as soon as he realizes something is wrong. Like a dying biker in the snow, he just listens. Only this time, there’s something in the dark, even as Danny suddenly speaks of mouths and vaults. And another skitter sounds in the darkness. Despite all of it, the young ranger realizes this had to be what they were waiting for. Something is speaking through Danny. Making only very slow motions, Brook removes his hat and puts it down beside him, speaking quietly and carefully. There’s not exactly a script, but he speaks like the people in Mary’s stories, looking at the shadow. “I am Brook. Son of Madcatcher and The Green Lady.”

GM: The strange silhouette turns slowly to face Brook. Danny’s voice speaks:

“Son of two lesbos, eh? That explains a lot.”

Pre-teen snickering echoes in the cave.

Brook: Something is happening. Brooks doesn’t know what but it’s probably what they’ve been working towards. His hair. It’s not how it was. “Close your eyes Danny. I think it’s working finally. You said some…weird stuff.”

GM: “Brooks, I think the sun’s cooked your brains. Not that there was much to cook, after all.” Brook can’t see but can imagine his friend grinning. “Nah, that’s just a line from some Lovecraft. White-ass racist, but he could write some creepy shit. It’s like the base for Quake. Base, inspiration, whatever. Vaults of Zin, my favorite level.” He picks up another rock and wings it, causing another staccato echo of skipping stone on stone. “Those ghasts or fiends, man… scary hard.”

Brook: “Dude. Your hair is gone in your shadow. It’s wrong looking. Focus. We can do this. Your ancestors are here.”

GM: Danny stops, and his voice changes, but not in a good or inhuman way. It’s angry, bitter, and raw in a way that only a hurt human can sound. “No. They’re not. I cut my hair. I don’t want my braids or sweetgrass or smudging or any of the wigwam-crybaby crap.” Brook feels his friend toss a pebble in his lap. “Let’s see how many you can skip, Green Lady baby.”

Brook: Brook frowns. It’s a reverse now. He was always so dismissive of the ways of the who he’d been adamant were not his people. But what he realized was that they don’t have to be his people for the spirits of things to reach him, or vice versa. But now here was Danny, throwing down his hand in pure sorrow and frustration. And now the sun and their hats have made the boy feel like a little bit of a fool, taking a rock.

“I think I’m ready to tell you what happened that week I missed school last year. The last time I gave Nelson a black eye.” Brook throws the rock, hoping to skip it well.

GM: The stone goes spinning away into the darkness, where it skips off the cave-rock repeatedly. Six times to be precise, a number painfully higher than any of Danny’s throws. Both boys cannot help but listen to the echoing stone strikes.

Click.

Pling

Plack,

Clack,

Plick,

CLANG

Perhaps the stone skips further in the dark, but the sixth strike drowns them out, both by its volume and strange tone. The two boys instinctively look at each as they recognize it as the sound of stone striking, not stone, but metal.

“Wh-,” Danny begins to ask, but then clicks on the flashlight clipped to his belt. Its sudden light causes both preteens to reflexively squint. As their eyes adjust, Danny peers into the flashlight’s beam and the distant cave-rock it illuminates.

oth boys once again turn to another after simultaneously spotting something metallic jutting from the cave-rock. “Wha–,” begins Danny again, before walking towards the object. “I thought you said the feds or rangers cleared out the bunker?”

The flashlight’s beam shakes and wobbles as the light is brought closer to the metallic object. “Dude, maybe a camper left it since then?”

Brook: Brook is about to spill beans even as the rock skips, until they hear the clang of iron. Neither of them can resist the impulse to check it out, and the taller of the youths walking over to the jutting something after adjusting to the flood of light. It’s strange, was his mother still in charge of the rangers back when this happened? He’s forgotten the exact date they’ve told everyone those wackos came through. “Well… here, hold the light steady. Let’s see what it is first.” Reaching out, the young preteen carefully bringing his hands around it, seeing which way it’d let him move it without breaking it. Hoping his gloves will keep him safe from any cuts.

GM: Together, they identify the metallic object as a rusted locker box, likely of military origin. The box had been stowed in a cunning artificial alcove in the cave-rock. Someone had chiseled a roughly cubed hole into the rock wall, stored the lock box inside, and then used cement and paint to hide the alcove. In the dark, it would have been all but impossible to miss. However, the decades have not been kind to the painted concrete, and the repeated barrage of hard-thrown stones broke a hole in inch-deep cheap cement covering the box.

Danny excitedly grabs some of their gear, including a hammer and shovel. He sets down the flashlight and begins bashing and scraping away the lockbox. In the long-shadowed light, Danny smiles, almost shouts between grunts, “It’s like real buried treasure!” It’s the first time Brook has seen his best friend smile since his mother’s suicide.

Brook: It’s dangerous, but how can he tell Danny no to this? That smile. Maybe this is the answer, just doing things together. Brook stays in the cave with the flashlight, tapping away with a rock before Danny comes in. Brook lets his smaller friend hammer away at the cement, sweeping debris away with his boot while they uncover the treasure.

GM: Cement dust coats Danny’s grin and knife-shorn locks, making the youth look maniacally happy, but happy all the same. The image reminds Brook of being younger, when he and Danny made mud balls, built forts out of broken car parts and trash, and played ball amid dustbowl gardens. “Together,” Danny says, still grinning, as he makes way for Brook to help him slide the box out of the hole and move it to the ground.

Brook: Brook remembers. All too well. It’s sad, but he doesn’t know if they can ever go back to those care-free days. For now though? He’s willing to ignore the world for Danny, grinning as he helps the boy pull the box out of the wall and down to the ground, very slowly, muttering to Danny they could be explosives and so to put it down carefully as possible. “These people were dangerous, weren’t they? The ones who took over this cave?”

GM: Brook’s comment about explosives does nothing to deflate his friend’s exuberance. He does, however, follow his advice. He stares at the box, then up at Brook. “Dude… dude!” He puts his finger on the lock-switches, then pauses. His voice drops low, more conspiratorial than calm. “What… what do you think is inside?”

Brook: Brook looks up at the wall, seeing how sealed up it was. “Something important. They went through a lot of trouble. Can you get it open?”

GM: He nods for Brook to hand him his multi-tool, then gets to work. It doesn’t take him long to spring the two locks. “Magic fingers,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. Cracking those fingers, he places his fingers on the lid like a magician about to do a great reveal. Only the tiny furrow in his brow seems to convey the worry that the box might blow up–or worse, be empty.

The old metal lid creaks open. Both boys peer inside as the echoes bounce like bats around them. It’s hard to say what they see first. Most of the box is filled by two matching humidors. Then there’s a gun, a swatch of silver cloth stuck inside a chaplain’s bible, and a key. Surrounding all these artifacts is money. Lots of money.

As Danny pulls out the cash, both boys note that the bone-crisp money includes several denominations, but one dollar bills are the most common. What’s uncommon, however, is what’s been done to the money. Each and every one has been burnt.

Inspecting them by flashlight, Danny and Brook can see that the burn marks are relatively similar and roughly the size of a nickel. “Aw shit,” Danny says as he realizes the money is ruined. “Why… why would somebody… burn money?” His smile slips.

As Brook rifles through several ones, tens, fifties, and even some rare two-dollar bills, the ranger cadet notes how the circular, similarly sized marks resemble cigarette burns, but only slightly larger. Looking over defaced money, Brook vaguely remembers a time, nearly a decade ago, when Mary had to attend a week long NPS training in Seattle. She had left the then-six year old boy in the care of several distant relatives. He dimly remembers the hugely muscled Sampson Bird-Rattle pulling out a dollar bill and burning it with his cigarette. Though young, Brook was old enough then to understand that money bought things and fire destroyed them, so he had asked Sampson about it.

“Blinds the Black Men,” he had said, not elaborating.

Brook: “Blinds the Black Men,” Brook repeats, though more to himself than Danny as he looks over each little bill. But he doesn’t dwell too much, he takes them all out and piles them infront of Danny, before he picks up the gun. The only of the two of them to know how to safely handle one, the young ranger doesn’t want Danny picking up an old loaded gun just to hurt himself, Brook looking the antique over.

“I don’t know what it means, but I’ve seen someone do that to a bill before. One of my mom’s cousins or something? He did these to his bills.”

GM: Danny nods. “Yeah.. I think I saw ‘Lij and some his friends playing poker. I can’t remember, but maybe some of the money had marks like these. Maybe not.” His attention, like Brook’s, shifts to the gun, though only the latter physically inspects it. And only the latter recognizes it immediately. It’s a .22 caliber Ruger target pistol fitted with an integrated silencer. Its serial number has been filed off and replaced with three tiny words likely etched by a hunting knife or razor blade:

Covenant

Sword

Arm

Consistent with Brook’s worry, the gun is indeed loaded, but with only a single bullet. Danny meanwhile pulls out the bible with the silver swatch. The former he plops down by the money and holds the latter closer to the flashlight. He then shows Brook how the fabric, which is about the size of a hand, is all monochrome silver weave save for a single sewn letter in its middle. A crimson L.

“Dude, this is… it’s like Sesame Street on angel dust,” the pre-teen says, shrugging in puzzlement as to what the swatch or letter might mean.

Brook: Brook grabs the multi-tool and carefully gets into the gun’s works, pulling out the target pistol’s pin pocketing it, putting it back down beside the case. Even if Danny wants to handle it, now, it’s safe. But his attention turns back to Danny as he pulls the bible out, brow furrowing at the cloth and the single initial on it.

“L? Was it like… on a certain page in that bible? Gun with one bullet, bible, money. I bet this was like… for those bad guys to grab and run, and pop themselves if the cops caught them.” Leaving the bible investigation to Danny, Brook pulls out the Key to inspect, hoping it’s for something cool.

GM: Left to inspect the bible, Danny picks up the still open book, only to set it back down. “Yeah… uhh, I don’t think this is red ink like Mrs. Scheingart uses.” He nudges Brook to show him the page, which has been splattered with what Brook recognizes as dried blood splatter. Someone has used said blood, when it was fresh, to repeatedly paint the words: Brothers Keep Silent.

The sanguine defacement covers both pages save for a single verse. Jeremiah 51:20. Danny reads it aloud. “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

He looks up at his friend. “Not your normal Jesus Saves bumpersticker.”

Brook: Brook leans over to take a look soon as his friend nudges him, still holding the key as he looks over the bloody messages. It’s more than clear that these people were some kind of crazy cult. The quote however sends a chill up the young man’s spine. They really had been ready to go to all-out war for their god.

“Nope… I guess they were more than just a little culty and nuts. What about this key? You think there’s even more treasure? Shine the light on it.”

GM: Danny obliges. The key itself appears rather nondescript. It’s attached to a large keychain, though, which is in the crude outline of a leg-bone. Its material, however, is too porous and rough, which gives the keychain the appearance of a dog biscuit–an item most Falls’ natives have not seen, but which the ranger cadet nonetheless recognizes.

“Maybe the key unlocks one of these boxes?” Danny says, pointing to the two humidors still inside the lockbox. “Or well, that wouldn’t make sense,” he remarks in afterthought. “Cause… you know… anyone who’d have the box would… have the key,” he explains, rather lamely.

He shrugs and moves on to the two humidors. Hefting the first one, he angles it into the light, then jolts in alarm, nearly dropping the case. “Shit!” he exclaims with a subsequent laugh that tries to cover his anxiety. Despite his forced bravado, he doesn’t open the humidor. Instead, he angles his flashlight through the top’s glass display.

“Looks like, uh, this box is for you, Brooks,” he says half-jokingly as he slides over the humidor. Inside the humidity-controlled container are two well-preserved corpses. Tiny corpses, but corpses nonetheless. The first is a bat. The second, a snake. Both are as black as they are dead.

So preserved in the humidor, the two creatures look like they are merely sleeping, despite being dead for potentially decades. Brook, being learned in wildcraft, quickly identifies both species. The first is a western small-footed myotis, one of Idaho’s most common chiropterans. The second is a timber rattlesnake. Both are afflicted with melanism, a not common but known condition that gives them their shadowy hue.

Danny, meanwhile, moves on to the next and last item, or at least last box within a box. “A bunch of papers,” he says to Brook as he begins to inspect the pile of papers. After rifling through the stack, Danny shakes his head. He passes the papers to Brook, then says, “I can’t really make heads or tails of these. Sounds, uh, lawyer-y.”

The other pre-teen has similar luck, or lack thereof, after perusing the typewriter-printed documents. Danny meanwhile has begun to nimbly pick at the humidor’s inside. “Ah, yes!” he exclaims as he lifts up a false bottom. He excitedly shows Brook’s the twice hidden item inside. A scroll. And by the look of it, old and fragile.

“Best not touch, Brooks, and leave it to Mr. Magic Fingers,” he remarks smiling. Despite his words, Danny hesitates. “What do you think it is? A secret name for a chthonic demon? A recipe for applesauce? Directions to… dude, I don’t even know with… whoever left this.”

Brook: Brook just watches, looking over the two boxes and wondering what the hell is going on with whoever had these boxes packed. The first was disturbing, two melonistic animals pinned up in a box display to mummify or something. It’s impossible to know what these wackos thought as they stashed this here. But he’s going to take it. Get rid of it, or bury it somewhere safe.

The papers are equally troubling, as the young boy can’t figure them out, not even the smart one of the two can. Brook rolls the papers up after getting them nice and squared and he stuffs them in his pocket, planning on taking a dictionary and these papers into the library.

That’s when the scroll comes in, it’s a straight mystery to them both, and his chest clenches. “Use gloves,” he warns, looking to Danny. “I bet it’ll be some secret future ‘god is coming’ prophecy junk. But be super fucking careful when you open it. I know I’ll mess it up, so… just careful.”

GM: Danny nods, and goes to get a pair of gloves. His movements and bobbing flashlight create strange shadows on the cave-walls. Brook could almost swear he sees one of the animal corpses twitch inside the humidor.

Brook: Brook hefts the papers up and carefully turns, putting the papers in a bag so he can slap them back in the humidor they came from before they leave.

GM: His now-gloved friend returns, however, before Brook can check. “Okay, let’s go for the applesauce,” he says grinning. He turns to Brook. “You know, part of me wondered if you planned or staged all… this,” he says motioning to the lockbox and all. “I wouldn’t even put the bloody bible and animal mummies past you. But all that writing? What was the gun, by the way? Looks weird but wicked cool.”

Brook: Brook still feels silly about Danny so easily tricking him earlier, with him forgetting about the hair and the stone skipping sounding like… something bad in the dark. But when he leaves, there’s no one to trick him, and as the humidor’s animals seem to twitch, the young ranger slowly puts a hand over the case, trying to feel for movement instead of relying on his eyes. But Danny comes back too soon, making him jump and sigh before shaking his head.

“I don’t really know how to put up cement either… the gun though? It’s a sport .22, it’s even got a silencer. I think’s for like… suicide, dude. Here, I took the pin out, check it out.” Brook grabs the gun again, carefully ejecting the round inside and picking it up, handing the gun to Danny and taking his own flashlight to check the bullet, to see if it was anything special.

GM: Brook recognizes the bullet as a .22 conical ball cap, or CB. Its long muzzle velocity, combined with the built in suppressor, would make the shot virtually silent.

Virtually, unlike Daniel who has become truly silent. He makes no movement to take the offered gun. When Brook turns his eyes from the single bullet to his best friend’s face, he sees the pain. Pain deeper than any gunshot. And that’s when the preteen just realizes what he’s said.

Suicide.

Brook: Shit.

Brook pales a little in the dark, dropping the gun on the ground as he realizes what he’s said. Danny truly is the smarter of the two if the half breed can say something so horrible without realizing until afterwards.

“Danny, I-I didn’t mean. Fuck, I am so sorry. I-I just—you’re like the closest thing to family I can get, dude, I’d never mean it like that. That came out so wrong, please believe me.”

GM: Daniel sags like a string-cut marionette. His chin starts to quiver in the flashlight cave. Brook’s words seem to deflate any anger, but that just leaves his best friend with an imploding misery.

“Why?”

The fragile, raw question slips out between a pair of wet teardrops hitting the lockbox. “Why did she do it, Brooks? I-I know she had it hard… ever since my d… he left. But were we r-really that bad?”

Brook: Brook feels his heart twist and ache, and it demands his body to move. He grabs Danny and pulls him in as tight as he can, feeling the question digging into him, into things he can relate with, and into the parts of him that hold Danny up in such high regard. How can someone so good to him suffer so badly? How can someone drop a child in a sack into a river? Why? Thoughts of the coyotes, the river of blood, pills, and water, what they’ve just found, all flash.

“No. No they weren’t, Danny. I just… it’s… it has to be this place. The Rez, the town, even the lands around it. It-it’s like poison, Danny… I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, sorry. She loved you, it wasn’t your fault.”

GM: Danny sobs. He doesn’t fight the platonic embrace, but all he can give in return is a weak clutch of Brook’s shoulders that slides off as he balls his fists. The darkness covers the boys. It hides their mutual parental pains, their heart-wrenching question, and their unresolved regrets and resentments. But it does not heal them. Not today at least. Perhaps these are wounds that never truly heal. They just scab.

And as Danny finally pulls away, wiping his snotty and tearful face on his shirt, he decides that he’s done picking at that scab. For now. He stares at all the… things they’ve uncovered. And eventually his eyes return to the one thing untouched. Sniffling, he looks at his gloved hands then back to the scroll. “Okay, we’ve… come this far,” Danny remarks ambiguously, then adds, “Might as well keep… going.”

Like a diver, he takes a deep breath and dives in. He slowly unrolls the scroll, which reveals itself as a two-page letter. Unlike the stack of bleached papers with typewriting, this letter is old, really old. Small cracks appear as it’s unrolled, requiring Danny’s utmost nimbleness.

As Danny tenderly smooths out the pages and reads the first two lines out loud, the boys discover just how old the letter is.

" Edward Rutledge
Philadelphia, June 1776."

Danny turns to Brook. “What the fu–, no, this…”

Curiosity gets the better of him and he resumes reading. A bit faster now. Angling the flashlight, Brook can see the letter’s handwriting is antiquated, a scrolling quill-penned penmanship. Frankly, it’s amazing Danny’s able to read it as well as he can.

“Dear Representative Adams,”

“No doubt it will alarm you to read words penned by someone, who has these last several months argued so fervently for Reconciliation with the British Crown in the face of your own stance in favor of, Independence for these colonies of America. But in these times the world moves around us and we shall find ourselves left behind like rocks in a rushing stream.”

“I have myself received a revelation. I will not say it is religious in nature, for I feel it concerns our own world and not a higher realm. Our own lives, the lives of men the world over, these are the subjects of the knowledge imparted to me.”

“Many nights I have been haunted by dreams of the serpent. Is this the same beast that tempted the fairer sex in the Garden of Eden? Whatever the case may be, it leers at me and threatens with a snap of its jaws, the consequences of capitulation to the revolutionaries amongst us, and I believed it an extension of my own distaste for Independence. But as I write this, I am exhausted and sleepless, and labor by the light of a candle, for this very night the Serpent visited me. It was no dream, for its scales gleamed as the brass of the candlestick or the wetness of this ink and the death that reeked from it was as powerful a stench as I have ever encountered. It wore upon its brow a crown that shone, but the Light could not hide its ugliness. It opened its jaws and between it held the whole world, and worlds in the Heavens yet to be named.”

“This the Serpent spoke to me. It told me of the future that I must help bring about. In this world, men writhed blindly through darkness, and ruled one another by cunning and subterfuge alone. Deceit became the coin of kings, and the most cunning ruled not by Law but by the vagaries of their own will. The Americas, this new world still so virgin and unexplored, was fodder for the Serpent which would wax strong in the politicking and two-facedness of an America ruled by petty despots and governors lying both to the people of our colonies and to the British Crown who appointed them. This was the world the Serpent desired, and everywhere its brethren snakes would slither, pouring poisoned honey into every ear.”

Danny spares Brook another unsure look, then continues:

“And then I heard a storm as if from the beating of great wings. A shadow passed over an, and I espied the Eagle above me. In one claw it held a lightning bolt, and in the other a scroll, and written upon the scroll was a Code of Laws all men must obey. The serpent recoiled and the Eagle alighted upon a mountain there to rule. Its wings embraced a new world, a new world order in which the laws set apart the best and highest-minded men that they might rule the rest. In this world, law would rule and majesty and conquest along would be the makers of kings. Cunning would win only scorn. By strength and law would one man attain lordship over another.”

“The Eagle spoke to me as the Serpent had, but its words did not fall on horrified ears as the Serpent’s did. It promised me the world of justice, where Right would come to pass, and that the history we few fortunate men were making would bring it about. But only if the Colonies broke from the Crown could the Eagle be free to build this world. I saw its wings were afire and its eyes were of gold, its beak the gleaming steel of a soldier’s bayonet! It was wreathed in rifle smoke and its pinions were purest light that could illumine every corner of our world!”

There’s a delicate rustle of paper as he moves on the second, partial-filled paper.

“Then the Eagle carried away the Serpent and cast it away into the west, so it watched over our new world alone. And so I understand now that I served the Serpent, that subtle and deceitful beast, but now my eyes have been opened and I seek to do the work of the Eagle. It is to this end that I have resolved to sign the Declaration that you and Jefferson and the others are drafting. Outwardly, I shall suggest that this decision is prompted by a desire for unity among the colonies, but to you I profess the truth behind my decision in the hope that you will yourself understand the greater conflict being expressed through the process of Independence.”

“I hope that I can count on you as a brother in this matter, and that you can in turn bring others into the fold of understanding regarding the victory of the Eagle over the Serpent. I am certain tat I am not alone in my revelation, and I am already seeking out certain persons who have revealed themselves to be followers of the Eagle and all it stands for.”

“I shall speak to you soon, and rest assured that my quill shall be in hand as it is now.”

Danny pauses a moment before reading the next and final two lines:

“Yours in liberty,
Edward Rutledge, Representative for South Carolina.”

Danny’s eyes squint, and not just because of the dim flashlight.

Brook: Brook hangs on to his friend tightly in the dark, even if this is a wound that will never truly heal for either of them for Danny, his friend is there for him. They’re there for each other. Before this, he remembers days Danny was his only source of calm, the only person in his life not pushing him to be, or pushing him into danger. Even with high school coming up so soon, with them out of the rez, he wonders if that situation will change. But for now, Brook just knows that he can share this wound, and that he and Danny will heal and scar over one day. One day.

But for now, it’s a good idea for them to distract themselves. Pulling away from each other, they get to reading… whatever this is. It’s a stunned silence as Brook listens, sitting perfectly still as Denny reads out the ancient letter and the worries and triumph of a man long dead all come to light at the same time. He remembers his mother’s words on snakes, about what they are and where they come from. But it’s no real comfort, it just puts strange context on so many questions.

“I, uh… um. I have… fucking tap dancing Jesus in a birch bark canoe, what the fuck was that? Let’s… put it back, with the papers, it’s super old…”

Brook rubs his forehead, he has a lot of his own meaning to take from this. But what meaning can he take from this? Snakes with worlds in their mouths and crowns on their heads. Then eagles with lightning in their claws? Somehow it seems like an Indian nightmare, a thunder bird banishing a snake king, to make way for what sounds like the American Revolution.

“Fuck, Danny… do you think this guy seriously saw all this?”

GM: Danny’s face tightens in hard concentration, his jaw churning and clenching. “It… can’t be real, I mean… it’s so old. Why would it be here? Crazy white-ass people…” He frowns. A hand drifts to his braids. But they’re gone. “But…”

Brook: Brook slowly lets the lights go on his head one by one, until the light bulb pops into his brain. “Ukenta. The snake with the blinding crown. Eagle with a lightning bolt, warring with Ukenta, the Thunderbirds,” he mutters, gently nudging Danny. “And these people who put this thing here. You think these are like…a cult the dude in the letter made, after he saw this? To try fighting Ukenta?”

GM: Brook’s words seem to turn on an equal if not greater storm of light bulbs in Daniel’s mind. “Right! Yes, exactly, or… maybe not at all. Maybe it’s…” He looks back to the line.

“Uktena. My grandfather taught me about those. Remember we had to do that project back in… like fourth grade? You did the bitching art, but I did the reading man. Serpents in native mythology. It’s all over the place. But it’s all backwards.”

He continues, clearly excited, as if he’s lost of temporarily forgotten his still damp cheeks and chin. “Crazy white-ass people, dude.” He waves at the pile of items. “White people, to them, snakes are like evil. The devil in the garden and all that stuff, right?”

“But to us,” he begins then looks down a bit awkwardly at his biracial friend. “Or well to most natives, serpents are sources of wisdom, even magic. Like Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs, Kukulkan with the Mayas. And you’re right, it’s like a spot on description of the Uktena, here, except like it’s described through a white dude’s eyes. The blinding crown, my grandfather says it’s like a jewel or diamond, the Ulu-something or other, which is all like sorcerous or magic granting.”

“And the stench? Like the Uktena was said to have breath that smelled so bad that no living creature could survive if they happened to inhale even the tiniest bit. I had that all written in our report. It’s called tons of different names in different tribes. The Sioux for example had the legends of the it, don’t ask me what they called it, horned serpent or something, but they had the legends about them fighting the thunderbirds.”

He flicks his hand up his chopped hair. “What if this old white dude had it wrong, like what if… we’re the Serpent people?” He sets the letter gently down, but then picks up the burnt money. “Okay, remember the first flag of the 13 colonies? Remember the creature on it?”

Brook: Brook’s eyes go wide, following along with Danny’s thought process the whole way, keeping up at least enough to know where he was going as he nods at the smaller boy’s questions, a huge grin breaking on his face at being able to take the realization even further, keeping up with Danny.

“The rattlesnake! But like, just a while after this letter was written they changed the symbol to the eagle. I just remembered a bunch of shit too. Fuck. Okay, go on, I’m following.”

GM: Daniel smiles. “You know, you listen pretty well for a guy who sleeps through most of his classes.”He then turns the flashlight to the interior lid of the lockbox. The light illuminates three stickers or decals:

The first says DEATH TO ZOG, the second reads, NORTHWEST TERRITORY IMPERATIVE, and the third is a picture of the Gadsden Revolutionary flag depicting the rattlesnake and motto, DON’T TREAD ON ME.

“Don’t ask me what the fuck is Zog save the awesome name of a troll or metal band. But shit, Brooks, I mean, you’re right about the eagle. Like…” He looks around and then picks up a fistful of burnt cash. Holding up a dollar bill, he asks, “Look, dude, where’s the eagle?”

Brook sees none. Because the place where the Eagle-centered Seal of the United States should be is burnt away.

Brook: Brook’s entire train of thought crashes at the station as his friend points out the eagle being the thing burned out. He realizes his first thought is wrong, and that-…he slowly puts the pieces together, a frown slowly creeping over his face as he smooths his thumb over the wood of the case of mummified animals. What if? If it was…oh no.

“Blinds the Black Man… what if the ‘eagles’ are the government, not the snakes. Like that old senator guy reached out to other senators? What if that senator HEARD cunning, like a white fuck would, but Ukenta appeared to him to say that he had to make a land of wisdom? Does that mean the secessionist guys here were ‘snakes’? Is that why they had this letter? Trying to follow Ukenta’s words? I mean… fuck, dude.”

GM: “Fuck, dude, yeah… like it’s a conspiracy within a conspiracy. Weird shit.” He scratches his scalp. “But weren’t those secessionists like a bunch of white racist psychoids? Or is that just want ‘The Man’ has made us believe?” He drops his hand and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think… or do with all this stuff. Well, besides the cash.”

Brook: Brook nods at the thought of their conspiracy getting deep. They aren’t sure of anything, and that takes a lot of the meaning out of all this. “You can take the cash. But… Danny, can I tell you something important? Something you have to take to your grave, even?”

GM: In the darkness, Daniel’s face crinkles with worry, excitement, doubt, and curiosity. “Uh yeah, yes, of course. We’re best friends.” He takes off a glove and holds up to show the scar on his thumb where as young kids they cut their thumbs and pressed them together. “Blood brothers forever. No matter what.”

Brook: He gives his friend a weak smile and takes off his own glove, showing the scar on his own thumb, but he hesitates for a moment. “That week I missed school last year, and when I stopped cutting my hair. I had an… experience, Danny. I…” Brook fishes out the pendant, looking down at the red jewel and steel heart he was gifted.

“The moon saved me from a pack of something wrong… I carried someone hurt out of the woods, a big guy. Back before I was so big. And the moon, she—I sound nuts. But I heard drums, and the moon felt like it was spurring me on. I should have died trying to carry that person.”

GM: Danny listens, attentively in the dark, despite a war of emotions and thoughts waging on his flashlight-lit expression. He looks to Brook, down to the pendant, to the strewn cache, and back to his friend. He makes a motion as if to hold the pendant, but his hand falters. Maybe even shakes. “W-hat… dude, I don’t understand… you like carried a guy, rescued him?”

“Okay, that’s really freaking cool, but what does that have to do with the… moon, and drums you say? And that necklace? I’ve never seen you take it off, but never seen you take it out either. Dude, what the fuck is that?”

Brook: Brook looks concerned for a moment, looking to the lip of the cave and out into the blinding light for a moment, quickly stuffing the pendant back into is shirt. He starts the story, telling Danny he’s omitting certain things before he even starts. He leaves out that the man is, or was, a Mooner, that the coyote wasn’t breathing and is probably stumbling blindly out there, all until he gets near the end of his story.

“…after Mary told me those stories, she warned me of snakes, and that they were dangerous, and that this man was one of them. So were the things after me. But when she went inside to call an ambulance he woke up. I could barely understand him, but he thanked me, told me to pick one of his necklaces as a thank you. I picked this one. And he told me to come closer. He warned me about ‘the darkness in me’ and not to be afraid, and…everything went black. I had a vision. And when I woke up, I-…he was gone. I realized the spirits aren’t made up things. Even if I’m not Kainai, the moon gave me the power to pull that man out.”

GM: “That’s… heavy…” is all the boy can reply. Other thoughts and feelings seem to flicker in his eyes and face, but they are like flitting bats in a dark cave: neither youth can identify–much less capture–them. However, Brook knows his friend well enough to be be sure of one thing. For good or ill, Danny believes him.

Brook: Brook slowly reaches out and grabs his friend’s wrist, trying to bring this point home. “Please. Never go off alone looking for this kind of stuff. What I saw? The parts I can’t tell you? You shouldn’t have to face them alone. I’d prefer not at all, but… you live here too.”

With his tale told, he puts the scroll gently back into it’s hidden space, and puts the stack of papers over it, sealing the humidor and putting it side by side with the other one. He loads the bullet back into the now unfireable gun and puts it back in the lockbox. He pockets the key as well, resolving to one day find the lock it goes to.

“We should bury this stuff somewhere. You can keep the cash, I’ll keep the key. But if these guys ever come back? I kinda feel we should let them have their stuff back.”

GM: Danny’s reply lacks confidence and finality, but he eventually nods slowly, deferring to his best friend. “Okay…” He looks around. “So, like, you wanna put back in that hole or like bury, uhh, outside?”

Brook: Brook looks over Danny for a moment, and just sighs at himself. “Danny, If I lost you? I don’t know what I’d do with myself. So I’m just saying… the forest is dangerous. Take me with you if you ever follow the scent of Ukenta. Okay? You’re my brother.”

Taking his backpack, the half breed carefully pulls everything out of it, wraps the humidors in a plastic bag, and and zips the backpack closed with them both inside, sighing in relief t have them fit. He adds the key in his pocket to the chain of the necklace around his neck, two mysteries hanging from his shoulders, and picks the bible and gun back up. They go back in the lockbox, the young man closing it and hefting it back up to fit in the space in the cave wall they’ve pulled it from, getting Danny’s help to cover it back up with a bit of the concrete rubble. He looks drained, shoulders slack, and he feels relieved to finally tell someone at least part of his story. At least part of something that’s been eating him.

“I get it now, by the way. The snake in the humidor could be Ukenta. The bat might be a Thunderbird. if we’re following a theme.”Despite saying that, the bigger young man grabs the bag and strides into the dark, carefully finding the small alcove he knows will keep it a secret, and hiding the bag there best he can. They can come back or it. Sooner or later.

GM: Daniel holds the big flashlight so Brook can see as he toils. There are a couple times when Brook thinks his friend is about to say something, but the cave’s darkness and echoes make his senses untrustworthy. Yet, when the deed is done, Daniel looks out at the cave-mouth which still radiates oven–like heat. “Still hot as the House of Cthon out there.”

Brook: Brook finishes quickly, and once the deed is indeed done, he looks back out at the sunbaked box canyon. It’s been awhile since they got here, and this adventure in finding treasure has been the only interesting part about it. The young man wonders if maybe he’s not capable yet of contacting Danny’s ancestors, but he knows he can just be there for him. “Want to pack up and get out of here? We could go swimming, and then hit up the store for some freezies.”

GM: Daniel looks between the blinding, burning sunlight and the cooler darkness. His flashlight hands low in his hand, idly illuminating a shorn braid. In the chiaroscuro shadows, it resemble a black serpent coiling around the orphan’s heel.

Clicking off the light, Danny tags his best friend on the shoulder. “Life, Brooks. It’s some messed up shit, dude. One moment you’re babysitting for a paycheck, and the next, somebody’s summoning up Hell. So here’s the morale to the story, Space Marine: let’s skip the swimming and go straight for the freezies.”


10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: A few minutes later, after the pair pack up and exit the cave, Brook is struck blind by the sweltering summer sun. He blinks reflexively, squinting away the burning after-images. When they finally fade, it is two years later. The black night sky is sliced open by lightning. Thunder roars inside the box-canyon of Scratch’s Corral. Rain pounds down on the muddy ground and wind-blown pines.

Lightning2.jpg

For a moment, Brook thinks he hears the rumble of motorcycles, but the sound–if it exists outside his mind–is swallowed by the storm’s cacophony. Ahead, Auld Coot’s Creek slakes itself on the canyon’s run-off. The cave beyond it awaits.

Brook: Brook feels the sound move through his chest cavity but he doesn’t blink. If his theory is correct, that this is one of those Ukenta secessionist cult people from way yonder long ago, then… maybe this can end without too much bloodshed. Once the youth spots the cave, he gets low, bow at the ready to fire a piece of wood and steel into the darkness. He slinks in from the rain, stilling his breathing as he carefully watches the dark. Despite his reminiscing about the secrets he has stowed in this area, his heart is still beating a mile a minute. Moses is here, he can almost feel it in his bones, and he’s going to stop this once and for all, ease the burden on his mother and co-workers.

GM: The cave’s interior is dark, but the smell of blood hits the ranger cadet like one of the Britter’s sledgehammers. Fresh blood. In the pitch blackness, Brook’s boot touches something. It wobbles, then tumbles over. Its carrion smell is familiar to the adolescent hunter.

Brook: Brook’s entire body goes rigid as the smell hits and sets him on edge. But he’s swallowed a river of blood, it’s not going to stop him now. Even if it seems just the right twinge for him to knock something over in the dark.

GM: The slight sound causes another to awaken. “W-what do you w-want!?” comes a masculine, if thoroughly terrified voice in the darkness. A familiar voice. It’s a voice that’s haunted his childhood. Normally, its tone is one of over-weaned confidence, petty cruelty, and blind bigotry. But the thread of fear has always been there. Deep down in a dark closet.

Nelson Judd.

Amidst the echo of his terrified shout comes the rattle of what sounds like bones, scraped stone, and the ripped strain of duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s bow raises up towards the voice, cord tightening until the part of his brain not committed to animal instinct finally connects the dots. Is that? No. Oh no. Nelson. Brook swallows and tries to steady himself. It’s like those war movies, they injure someone out in the open as a trap. Or a bear follows a pack of wolves to take what’s left of a fresh kill.

Brook slowly kneels instead, reaching back into his bag and carefully pulling out two of the thick road flares from his kit. He needs light. But being stealthy isn’t a possibility anymore either, Nelson has heard him and has likely alerted Moses. Speaking loud and clear, he starts reciting years old memories.

“Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

Yanking the cap off of one of the flares, the young hunter quickly strikes the match head of the flare and lights it up in the cave, flooding it with bright red light, revealing the young hunter drawing back the bowstring once again.

GM: In the red phosphorescence glow, the cave looks hellish. Its ‘decor’ only enhances the disturbing effect. The cave walls have been painted in blood. Crude hand-prints, pentagrams, as well as increasingly schizophrenic letters spell out again and again a familiar refrain:

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

The ‘object’ that Brook knocked over is revealed to be the head of a mountain-ram that was previously propped up on a rock like an atavistic idol. And in the back of the cave, beside some survival gear and the torn shreds of a soiled straight-jacket, there’s a cage.

It’s made of ram-bones and bent pine-saplings, woven together and further secured with duct tape. Inside the savage, anachronistic prison hangs Nelson. He’s been stripped down to his underwear, his arms and legs hyper-extended and tapped in cocoons of the same duct tape, like a primitive but still painful wrack. The bloody pelt of the mountain ram is wrapped around his shoulders, painting his body is rivulets of gore and fear-sweat.

The boy’s blue eyes squint at the sudden exposure to light, but when he opens them, alarmed shock replaces horror on his face. “Brook! B-Brook!” He gives a short gasp of pain as his exclamation twist his stretched limbs. In the red glow, Brook can see a number of painful bruises covering the nearly naked Nelson.

Brook: Brook slowly looks around the cave and scowls, quickly putting his arrow back in its quiver and and putting his bow around his shoulder as he pulls up the shotgun, unafraid of being loud now that he’s turned the lights on. The cave is disgusting, as is the condition that Nelson is in, but this is no time to enjoy seeing him scared and in pain. Quickly and quietly, shotgun aimed at every shadow, the ranger cadet walks along the wall to the cage.

Things slowly set in as he just stands there for a moment. This isn’t how he’s ever pictured his life as a ranger, baring teeth at the dark for a person who’s put him down his entire life. But this isn’t high school, and the realization hits the young man like a wave. This disgusting scene does not belong here. It boils down to this; these are his lands, his wood, and his people. This sick one handed goat fister Moses is fucking with the wrong someone’s flock, and their guardian predator cub isn’t having it, snarling all business at Nelson.

“Shut up. Where is he? Did he leave the cave?”

GM: Brook’s rebuke seems to sting Nelson, but he grows silent. As Brook looks around, he identifies the contents beside the cage: a large backpack and outdoor gear that looks like it was stripped from an unfortunate hiker. But no traps, and no Moses MacDonald. Thunder rumbles outside the cave.

Brook: Brook slowly slinks over to the bag, looking up at the mouth of the cave before he opens and starts to go through the bag. If there’s anything he can hold as blackmail or to help them leave, he needs it. “We’re getting you out of here, Nelson. Just like the cabin, do everything I say. Keep an eye on the mouth of the cave, and tell me… how long has he been gone?”

GM: As Brook glances up at Nelson, the ranger cadet sees an expression he’s never witnessed on the jock’s face. Concern. Care. “B-brook!” he blurts out, then swallows hard. “Y-you have to go, g–get out of here. Now! H-he’ll come b-back! He’s… he’s not hu–,” he shakes his head, tears starting to well over his bruised eyes. “He’s… go, s-save yourself… p-please… please!”

Brook: Brook looks up at the boy and just pauses a moment, looking back at the cave entrance. This isn’t good, Nelson’s head isn’t right. Not hu… hurt? Human? That would explain a few things. But he needs to calm Nelson down, needs to remind him who he’s talking to.

“Nelson. It’s okay. I’m everywhere, remember? There’s a snake with a blinding crown and the stench of death with me, and I will not become a slave to fear thanks to it. You helped me become this person too, Nelson. Now breathe, and trust me.” Turning the bag up-side down, he carefully empties out the contents.

GM: The upturned bag spills out various outdoor supplies. Maps, compass, MREs, some accelerants, and more. As Brook starts sorting through the items, he glances up to see Nelson suck in a breath. A hot tear rolls down his bruised, grimy jaw, but he takes another breath, and then a third.

Brook: Brook spots a few things that can help him here, the accelerants mostly. He’s got more than enough of what he needs to start a fire. Nelson worries him though. Even if he’s finally breathing, he’s still shitting his pants more and more.

GM: “Brook,” he says again, this time no longer in full panic or pleading despair. “He’s crazy. Get me out. Please. We have to get away. We have to run. We ca–”

Nelson’s voice dies amidst a blinding flash of light that frames the cave’s mouth in piercing white. The dreadful radiance frames a man. Or at least something that wears its shape.

Moses.jpg

Moses Ezekiel MacDonald has a thin, gray mane streaked with disheveled white and balding spots. An equally slovenly, savage beard frames stained teeth whose smile looks equally suited to gnashing throats or feces. Warts and moles litter the oddly plump skin around his deep–shadowed and –creased eyes: manic, psychopathic orbs that bulge with thoughts that no man, living or dead, should imagine.

His unbuttoned shirt and pants hang loosely over his flesh, as if the trappings of civilization will and can never fit. His left sleeve hangs limp and empty as a ghost’s shroud. Dog tags hang from his chest, their aged metal resembling the old shrapnel clearly buried beneath his skin. Rain drips from his mangy locks, clothes, and the lumber axe which hangs from his muscular hand.

Thunder rattles the sky like bone-snapping laughter. Moses’ own teeth chitter and snap in eerie echo.

“HehEheHaheHAHahaheehe…”

As the thunder subsides, the psychopath that looks far too young to be a WWII vet hurls his lumber axe with the casual ease of a man flushing a toilet. Whipping through the air, the deadly sharp tool embeds itself into the barrel of Brook’s shotgun. The sudden force rips the firearm from the ranger cadet’s hands, causing both instruments of death to clatter against the cave wall.

Brook: This is him. Moses MacDonald. Mo. Brook stands tall, the brim of his hat keeping the light out of his eyes as he stands up, looking the man over. His heart begins to race again, predator facing predator. But one of them has to take the first flash of teeth, and it’s Moses. The younger man braces as the axe comes in, only to feel the great force of it snap the metal rungs keeping it on the sling over his shoulder, sending it all flying down to the ground. Brook’s only reaction is to put up his fists before…

GM: Moses slowly turns his head, and stares at a spot a foot to the left of Brook’s eyes.

“How old is you, boy?” he asks.

Darkness once again descends upon the canyon, leaving only the blood-red light of the flares. Brook hears his cage–bound peer begin to hyperventilate.

Brook: Good, he’s talking. Slowly, the ranger pulls the bow off his shoulders and tosses it down to the pile now being made of their weapons, taking off his hat and tossing it into the pile as well. “Fifteen, Mr. MacDonald. I got your message in that outhouse… I came to talk and get my friend back, maybe trade for something that’s missing if I’m right about the snake and the eagle, and whose side you’re on.” He only hopes he isn’t spouting gibberish at this man. Prays to the absent moon.

GM: “Fifteen…” Moses repeats, still staring at the vacant space with a quasi-vacant gaze. “I was once fifteen, long time ago. Too long by half, I reckon. But once, once I was fifteen. Too young to join the Army and spit in the Führer’s face.” His eyes bulge a bit. “Boy, you ever spit in a man’s face? You ever put your spit in a man’s mouth?”

He doesn’t wait for Brook to answer–if he’s even talking to him: “So there was me, fifteen, walking in them woods one day when I met the Devil, or at least somebody about the right height. Now me, I wasn’t afraid of nobody, German or Devil, so we got right to talking.”

The rain continues to pound against the man’s back and pour down his pants and arm-less sleeve. Moses licks a finger, ‘“Devil,’ said me, ‘How am I gonna get in the Army? ’Lie,’ said the Devil, ’It’s what I’d do.’ ‘Devil,’ said me, ‘I can’t even grow a beard. Give you my soul if you’ll help me out.’"

Moses moves forward, more a stagger than a step, but he continues staring and sharing his tale. “But the Devil said, him, ’I’ve go a lot of souls, but I’m sure I can think of something else. Tell you what, you go to town and you sign up for the Army, and I’ll make sure you get in, and I’ll make sure you see action.’”

Another step closer. “So I shook the Devil’s hand, me, and went down to town. Sure enough, they took me, and a year later, I was starving in a foxhole somewhere in France. Then one day, I step on a landmine. So I’m here bleeding, and who do I see? The Devil himself, come round again. ‘You here for my soul, Devil?’ said me.”

Moses takes another shuffle closer. “But the Devil, he shook his head, ‘I told you, son, I don’t need souls. I’m starving out here, though. All the meat is mangled and charred. I don’t suppose you need that hand?’”

Another step. “Now me, I started to argue, but I knew the rest of me was all torn up and my left arm was the only part halfway decent. A deal is a deal, so I let the Devil gnaw off my hand, and because he was really hungry he ate off a bit more, see?”

Moses twists his torso, causing the armless sleeve to slap wetly against his bare chest. “’You’re a plain dealer,’ said the Devil, ‘And I don’t need one of those in Hell. Kill one more man for me when you get home, and I’ll make sure you live a good long time.’”

Another step. Nearly an arm’s length away now, Moses adds, “Sure enough, some Frenchie found me within the hour and got me shipped back home. I killed my brother–in–law not a day after I got off the boat.”

Moses’ bulging eyes suddenly slide to lock hold of Brook’s. “A deal’s a deal, boy. Fifteen…”

Brook: Brook doesn’t move, but he feels his heart going faster and faster the closer the man gets to them, and things slowly start to click into place. Isn’t human. This man isn’t human, is that what Nelson was trying to say? And here it is, a man who claims he’s been alive since WWII, with the Devil following him. It’s a lot to take in, but the young man stands his ground where he is, never once looking away or giving the man an opening of weakness. And finally, it’s the eye contact he’s been waiting for. He looks Moses right back in the eye. There isn’t a doubt in his mind this man is who and what he says he is. Between ghost riders and shadow beasts with tits, Brook is ready to believe anything.

“That’s what ‘give the Devil his due’ means, then. I believe you, Moses. I met the Devil once too, and I’ve seen his devils and wandering souls a plenty. But I’m not like you were. I’m scared, for these people in these lands, I’ve sworn to the one who pulled me from a sack in a river that I’d protect them from what wanders these woods. The Devil told me though, not to deny what I am, and to stare down my darkness, lest I become a slave to fear.”

Searching in the madman’s eyes, he hopes he can find a glimmer of hope for himself. “You’re a plain dealer, Moses. I might have something I can trade with you.”

GM: Moses cocks like a mongrel hearing a strange noise–or perhaps an old familiar one. He then lurches forward, the smell of fecal parasites and strange chemicals pungent on his breath and radiating from his rain-slick pores.

Nelson chokes back a cry of fear or protest.

Brook: Brook wills himself not to flinch, but his eyes trail over to the caves secret alcove, and back to Moses. This is a long shot, but if Moses is interested in affirmation…? It can work.

“The Devil sent a snake to Eden to tempt Eve, and I have a letter from a man that snake once again appeared to. Representative of South Carolina, Edward Rutledge. A letter proclaiming God’s dominion over the lands of my people long ago. This is Witiko Falls, the Devil has his fill of death and flesh here. But I can give you this letter, and you can burn it in his name. Burn the lies of the man who put the eagles that watch you on dollar bills, in the name of God.”

GM: The sky growls in a low pitch that shakes the earth. Moses sniffs the air. “Let’s see this toilet paper, you.” The asylum escapee doesn’t move to make it easier for Brook to disentangle himself to get the alleged colonial letter. But Moses waits as the teenager heads to the cave’s alcove. Brook catches a terrified, confused look from Nelson, as he glances back.

But as Brook moves the rocks aside from the tall ledge, it’s his own face that must choke back terror, or at least confusion. The backpack. It’s gone.

Gone.

Brook: Brook winces and feels a tremble of everything ring through his body. Fear, frustration, impotence. The thought to sneak around the corner and blast the lunatic’s head off his shoulders comes up into mind, as does the hard knuckles of his gloves and how much damage he’s sure they could do against him. But if he’s not even human what can the boy do to affect him? Thoughts of the Irishman pop up again, the blood, the missing body, the need to throw all that up. The thought that he’d eaten a human being. All too late. Thirteen-year-old naiveté has made this a dangerous situation.

Brook walks out the alcove empty-handed. “I’m sorry. It’s been taken. I… thought it would be safe. Thirteen-year-old me wasn’t thinking. If you give me a few days maybe I can find it.”

GM: Moses’ eyes squint and roll. His teeth chitter as if chewing on Brook’s words.

And then, just as suddenly, his eyes fly open, bulging with rage as he races towards Brook, gnarled fingers raised like bayonets. His raw screams oil the cave, “Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

Nelson screams a vain warning as Moses leaps down upon Brook, his one hand clutching hold of Brook’s jacket, breaking the zipper.

Another distant lightning-bolt sunders the night.

Brook: Brook watches Moses closely as he does that chewing, feeling the leather of his gloves tighten as he clenches his fists. This is the moment, whether his words reach the man or a monster descends on him. There’s an instant he looks over at Nelson, just before the screaming starts. Synapses fire in his brain all at once, the young man’s body tensing and a deep fear rising in his gut as he’s grabbed by the jacket.

The lightning hits, and it feels like it hits in the teen’s chest. Words have failed him, and he remembers flashes of voices as a primal violence wells up like bile in his throat.

w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook’s body reacts on it’s own as those voices echo in his head, a foot sliding back in the same moment Moses grabs him. Nelson sees something he’s never seen on Brook’s face before, a kind of bestial snarl, teeth borne, screaming in murderous effort, and eyes wider than what looks possible, as his classmate’s fist suddenly comes up from in between the two of them, slamming hard as rocks into the psychopath’s jaw in a bone shattering uppercut. His gloves push the impact all through them, he barely feels a thing, but the steel on his knuckles makes sure Moses can feel it.

GM: Moses’ jaw caves in like over-ripe melon rind. Blood and teeth spew from his mangled mouth, sticking in his now-shredded beard. The bone-crushing blow knocks Moe backwards, crashing into the nearby cage of ram skeleton and pine sapling. The structure snaps, twisting the still duct-taped Nelson into a painful contortion. As the prison implodes, Nelson goes down hard on the cave-rock floor. Brook lamely feels Moe’s hand clutching for his throat, but the enraged teen beats him off.

Brook: Brook is losing the plot, fear mixing with rage and pent-up feelings as he feels the man’s bones give way to his savage uppercut, sending them both into the cage and into Nelson before the struggling pair rolls on their own backs to the side. Brook brushes off the man’s attempt at a strangle-hold and roars spit into his face, before…

GM: As the trio of bodies roll over each other and the tangle of bones and branches, Moses and Brook finally break away from the ensnaring morass. When they do so, the taller teen sees that the grisly goat-pelt is twisted around Moses’ head, exposing only his lower jaw. A jaw that inexplicably begins to resew itself back together before Brook’s eyes. New teeth bursting from scabbing over gums, bones re-popping into place. The madman smiles wickedly and spits into Brook’s face, his blood and broken teeth-shards speckling the young man’s face. His laughter is the sound of insanity.

Brook: Oh no. It’s happening again. Just like the coyote in the woods, the man’s head just wills itself back into existence and sends a shiver down the teenager’s spine. But the words echo in his head and he will fight. Brook shifts his focus, rearing back his arm and aiming for the madman’s chest, slamming his arm down into it as hard as he can.

“You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

GM: Moses laughs. A few feet away, Nelson lays flat on his back, his neck at an odd angle against a rock outcropping, his limbs still trapped in duct-tape, but at least no longer pulled taut.

As Brook rears back his fist, Moses feints with his own fist, only to cunningly wrap a leg around Brook’s off-balance arm. The ranger cadet is flipped painfully onto his stomach. No sooner does he slam into the bones, saplings, and stone does Moses snatch Brook by the hair and bash his face into the strewn cave floor. “You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

The head blow leaves Brook stunned, with rock and lunatic laughter ringing in his ears. He’s only dimly aware of his arms being pulled back and bound amid the tell-tale sound of unrolled duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s trained eyes flick over to the young bully for just a moment before affirming that he’s most likely still breathing. But it’s quickly the last thing on his mind as he turns back and everything goes wrong. His hand is caught, pulled around and onto his stomach by the military monster suddenly above him. It’s a terrifying moment and the young man’s least favorite, the restrictions of bonds pulling on his arms as he’s locked into a grapple, hurting his arm as he screams into the stone, aching and burning from the rough treatment, until he feels his hair yanked and head slammed into the floor.

GM: The sound of Moses’ laughter stops when the madman suddenly goes stiff and sniffs the air. “Candyman….” he whispers with a low hiss.

Brook, however, smells nothing but Moses’ fecal odor and the still cloying smell of blood, both animal and otherwise. But the rousing teen does hear what could be footsteps approaching the cave, the sound of multiple people crossing the creek. Perhaps it’s a trick of the cave echoes, or perhaps he’s become infected a touch of Moses’ madness. Or perhaps not.

Brook: There’s a moment of stunned silence from the boy, a breath and reevaluation as he feels his bonds get even tighter. It seems this maniac doesn’t understand as well, but before Brook can say anything, there’s a silent moment of recognition. Smoke from his flare at the mouth of the cave, hopefully a moment of checkmate, as renewed vigor and a wide crooked grin crosses the young ranger’s face.

“There are older things than your Devil, fuck-face. Hungrier things! I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

Brook takes a sharp breath and screams his rage at the top of his lungs, an atavistic howl of effort and victory that’s become a recurring theme in his life as his arms bulge and strain, twisting madly, like a coyote caught in a trap. It hurts, it pops joints and threatens to pull muscles, a stinging throb through his arms before there’s a rip, a snap, and finally he tears his arms free, bashing his knuckles together and letting out another animalistic howling scream at the man, his mind slipping beyond words as he announces his entrance back into the fight.

GM: Moses’ steps back from Brook’s preternatural strength and feral rage. Slack jawed, eyes bulging, he glances to the cave’s exit and the sounds of the approaching figures, then back to the youth whose dual hearts of iron and flesh fill the cavern with the echoes of pounding hot blood and the pungent odor of predators and primal fears. Moses seems to shrink, back and away.

Brook: Brook sees that look and knows already that he’s faced down a demon and isn’t the the one who flinched. Like any predator, this hesitation is blood in the water. The half-feral teen advances an ominous step, crouched to pounce with seething heavy breaths, littering the cave floor with spittle and what blood Moses has managed to get onto the boy’s lip when his head was caved in like a melon. All the boy can think about is collapsing his chest cavity, rending his limbs, holding him down and hog-tying him to beat him with steel knuckles until backup comes.

GM: Then Nelson groans and starts to shift. The sound snatches the attention of both predators, but Moses’ reflexives prove faster. He draws a large hunting knife from behind his back and hoists up the semi-conscious jock by his neck, the knife’s blade pressed against the youth’s throat. “I’ll give you credit, boy,” Moses says with a dark smile. “But give the Devil his due.”

Nelson rouses as the cold knifepoint pricks his skin. Disoriented, the concussed youth starts to yell, but only manages a choking vomit.

Brook: Then it’s Nelson. Rage takes a sudden back seat to caution as an area around the madman is set like an electric fence, just with a knife against his classmate’s neck. Nelson is in danger, and a lot of it at that. There’s little even doctors can do for a half-severed head.

Hudson: A peal of thunder cracks outside. The accompanying flash of lightning starkly illuminates three figures.

It’s ‘candyman’.

His trench coat is drenched with rain and muck, his receding wind-tossed hair is blown every which way, and water drips from his face like effusively pouring sweat. The broken bits of twig, leaves, and moss scattered over his shoulders only further add to his feral mien. He is accompanied by two more Kevlar-clad figures, a man and woman with darker skin and equally soaked, muck-smeared clothing. Their leader’s countenance is grimly resolute: that of an arbiter of civilization tasked with upholding it in a wild land that knows it not. Yet the marshal’s belt-clipped golden star, the same one worn by generations of lawmen who brought order to the Wild West, is no stranger to such places. Its five burnished points stand in eerily inverted synchrony to the feces-painted pentagram Brook encountered yesterday, and the dark cave’s hellish red light only serves to further blur the boundaries of the rain-drenched, wild-eyed figures staring one another down. Cop and criminal, lawman and murderer, man and monster.

Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: Roughly an hour after Red Aspen failed to come in over radio, Hudson and Deputy Marshals Porter and Matlock followed Brook’s dirt bike trail into the box–canyon named Scratch’s Corral. After contacting the only in-range NPS ranger and waiting for multiple relays on the static-warbled radios, Hudson had waited only long enough for Curtis and Matthew to arrive with the three heavy-duty state police motorcycles, before leaving the Britter’s and their Blue Mooncalf dairy farm to investigate Red Aspen’s radio silence. There, the law officers had confirmed the rangers’ suspicion that lightning had fried the tower, but they had also found several other disconcerting clues.

Namely, Brook Barnes was missing, with no signs of forced entry, and a dirt bike track started from the station’s shed and lead away into dark storm-hammered paths. Deputy Lowder was left to man the station and await Mary Madcatcher’s inevitable arrival, while Hodges and Hensler returned to the Britter’s.

Hudson: To say the U.S. marshal was red in the face would be an understatement. Hudson’s teeth clenched and his eyes bulged as if the candy-gorging man were finally having his long-overdue heart attack. The radio in the kid’s truck was working just fine. Brook could have contacted them over that. Now, Hudson found himself having to redivert key personnel when manpower was already stretched thin, putting god knows how many peoples’ lives in danger on account of one stupid kid.

GM: It had been an ugly, rough ride from Red Aspen to Scratch’s Corral. The heavy bikes constantly threatened to slip or slide off the muddy unpaved park trails, all of which were utterly unfamiliar to the three town foreigners who were trying their utmost to simultaneously maintain control of their vehicles, follow the dirt bike tracks amid lightning and pounding rain, and somehow go as fast as possible to catch up before… before things only went to hell. More than they already were.

Now, at the entrance to the canyon, all three federal agents are drenched in rain and mud and likely unkind thoughts towards the ranger cadet who’s dragged them out here. With the help of their motorcycle’s police-grade headlamps, Hudson quickly spots the red glow of road flares silhouetting the cave-mouth. As Curtis finally catches up to the others, Cassidy nudges her boss and points up. Against the backdrop of lightning, rain, and night-black storm clouds, dozens of headlamps rim the towering canyon walls.

“We got company, boss-man,” says the Mississippi marshal.

From this distance, Hudson can tell the headlamps belong to other motorcycles, but little else. They, unlike the cave at the back of the canyon and the creek between them, are out of reach. The arm of the law may be long, but it has its limits. Yet, despite the disconcerting and presently unreachable ring of motorbikes above the canyon, it’s the hellish-red cave light that has his ‘Little Man’ finally wake up and start yelling FIRE!

Hudson: Hudson kills his motorbike’s engine and clambers off, his already mud-soaked shoes squelching as they press into the muck. Then again, he also wishes there wasn’t a boy missing with a serial killer on the loose. The marshal’s once-livid fury has subsided into grim determination under the storm’s relentless downpour–and has set his little man increasingly on edge. Now he’s awake and screaming his head off. Road flares. If there’s anyone who had access to those, it’s that damn kid. Hudson has a terrible, gut-wrenching sense of what he’s going to find in that cave. The motorbikes do little to set him at ease. His little man might not be screaming over those, but he’s giving a good hard frown. It’s also as Cassidy says–no time.

Never enough time.

Hudson grabs his radio with gloved but still-rain-soaked fingers and growls his latest–and potentially final–communication to Lowder. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-97. 10-78. Repeat, 10-78. Send immediate backup. Kid and maybe Moses in cave. Unknown motorcycles by canyon walls. Dozens of them. Schofeld out. Schofeld out.”

GM: There’s a crackled reply on the rain-splattered police radio. The thunderstorm renders Lowder’s or some other person’s voice a static gargle, but one which Hudson’s believes acknowledges his request for back-up. “C..p.. tha…, …ho…ld…”

Hudson: The safety clicks off Hudson’s .40 S&W as the lead marshal’s countenance settles into a grimly certain look the younger feds know all-too well. Two chunk-chunks sound from the 12-gauge Remington 870s as the three marshals stalk towards the cave’s entrance.

GM: As Cassidy and Curtis makes visual sweeps behind their superior, the latter asks, “Mission objectives, sir?”

Hudson: Hudson stows the radio and pats the bag full of possibly futile prisoner restraints clipped to his belt. “Get the kid out safe and back to Red Aspen. Take Moses into custody, if that’s him my little man is throwing a screaming fit over. Put him down if he doesn’t come quietly.”

GM: “Yes, sir,” Curtis replies with the eager expression of a soldier ready for war.

Cassidy may or may not roll her eyes as she mutters something about ‘Rambo Commando’.

Both deputies, however, fall silent as the trio of marshals stalks stealthily across the copse and creek, stepping over downed logs while making sure they aren’t being trailed. By the time they reach the dead end of Auld Coot’s Creek, all three marshals hear the shouting. Hudson instantly identifies one of the voices as Moses’.

“Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

The second voice is younger, less familiar, but not wholly unfamiliar either. “You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

“You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

“I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

The violent words are matched by sounds of a physical altercation equally mad and bloodthirsty.

Hudson: That’s all Hudson needs to hear. Thunder cracks as a bolt of lightning strikes overheard—and so do the U.S. marshals.

10.08.1998, Thursday night

Hudson: Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

GM: Moses barks out a wild babble of laughter. With his back to the cave rock, he glances outward to the three still distant marshals. With blood and teeth streaking his beard, a gory ram-pelt wrapped haphazardly over his head, and red road-flare fog swirling around his legs, the fugitive looks nothing short of demonic.

“Candyman! Smelled you, I did!” There’s another bark of laughter. “Back away, piggies, or I gut this boy!” The knife presses harder against Nelson’s neck.

Brook: It’s the cavalry. Brook peeks over his shoulder to see the three figures, two of whom he’s very glad to see, and a third he’s… oh. Is that how it is? The dark-haired and manic-looking teen wonders for a moment if sending the rangers out everywhere but here has been the fat man’s plan, but it doesn’t matter now. He stays on guard and doesn’t say a word, waiting for an opening or a signal from the fed who’s just walked into the scene.

GM: Moses herds his knifepoint hostage out of the cave. “SQUEAL!!!! SQUEHEHAHEHAHEHEEEHAHAEAL!!”

Nelson involuntarily obliges. He tries to call out, to shout back a curse, but the knife in his neck hurts so keenly.

“I’ve got the shot, sir,” Curtis whispers to his superior, his eyes never leaving the madman.

The rain continues to pour down.

Hudson: Gears turn in the fat man’s rain-soaked head. Moses Ezekiel MacDonald is 100% certifiably and quantifiably batshit, even by Bedlam’s standards. And most Satanists’. The blood, the feces, the absence of any named demons in his ‘paintings’, the brutal murderers that lack any ritual component or identifiable religious symbolism… Moses is a being of seemingly pure, sadistic id, and it’s a wonder that he’s even capable of venerating a force beyond his own immediate, murderous gratification. There’s no reason to his actions, but there is a rhyme to them, however twisted.

It might be the only thing that has a shot of saving poor Mr. Judd’s life.

“We know you’re just going to kill him anyway, Moses,” Hudson calls out over the rain, his Glock still raised.

He meets the fugitive’s maddened eyes, then continues, “That’s what you need, someone to kill for your ritual. And you can’t do it right here, or you’d have opened Mr. Judd’s throat already. You’ve had plenty time to do that too, judging by the state he’s in. No, there’s a place you need to kill him.”

“But if you do open his throat, Moses,” Hudson continues, the rainfall steadily plunking against his leveled gun, “that’s the end. Perhaps we’ll gun you down, or perhaps we’ll haul you back to the loony bin, where you’ll get slapped in a straitjacket, thrown into a padded room, and doped up on so many meds that you’ll forget why you even wanted to come out here. Either way, that’ll be the sad end of the road for Moses Ezekiel MacDonald. No sacrifice. No ritual. Zilch.”

Hudson genuinely isn’t sure how much of what he’s saying is getting through to the lunatic, so he reiterates, “Take another step and we’ll shoot, because we know Mr. Judd won’t be coming back either way.”

“Or,” the marshal continues, another tight almost-smile stealing across his features, “The two of us can strike a deal. Just like the one you struck with the Devil, all those years ago.”

“I’d listen to the boss-man if I were you,” Cassidy chips in, her Remington remaining fixed at Moses’ head. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer to shoot you if you’re just gonna kill the kid anyway. But maybe we can work something out.”

Curtis doesn’t spare so much as a grunt, which would be inaudible in any case over the rain, as he calmly states, “Got you right in my sights. Talk or eat lead. Your call.”

Brook: Brook listens, words slowly starting to hold meaning again for him after his slight breakdown of personality. This is too important to be selfishly angry, and the teen slowly forms a plan in his head on how he can help. Besides running the man down, which ultimately means a dead Nelson.

GM: Moses pauses against the collective words. He halts his captive roughly just outside the cave, ducking his head, so only one eye peaks out at the night-shrouded marshals. The rain spatters over them all, save for the ranger cadet still within the cave. The downpour plinks and crashes off trees, stone, and the swelling creek, occasionally swallowed up by rattling thunder.

Moses doesn’t even bother with counter threats, but instead shouts back as plain, severe, and sincere as a bullet in the brain, “Murder me, Candyman.”

“Swear on that star and your last candy bar, that you’ll let me walk a good stone’s throw, and then murder me. Do that, and I’ll plain as day let this boy go.”

Hudson: If something sounds too good to be true, it is.

Hudson’s hackles immediately rise at the offer. Even for someone as crazy as Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, it’s wholly inconsistent with his behavior until this point. No one suddenly just decides they want to die. No, Moses thinks he’ll be the sacrifice. If he dies at the same spot he means to kill Nelson Judd, he thinks that death will have lasting meaning. Revenge on the people who’ve wronged him. God only knows how, but the lunatic seems absolutely certain of it.

The only question is, is he right?

The lawman’s every instinct screams at him. This would be giving the criminal exactly what he wants, not to mention a hundred different kinds of illegal. Hudson has seen some pretty disturbing things in this town, things that make reluctant to simply scoff off Moses. But this is a boy’s life in front of him.

The rain pours down, and with a horrid feeling in his gut that such would be making his own devil’s bargain, the marshal answers,

“I swear by my badge as a United States marshal, and by the wet Three Musketeers bar I have in the bottom of my pocket, that I will let you walk a stone’s throw and shoot you dead if you release Mr. Judd.”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes at the lunatic. He has no idea what Moses hopes to achieve here or what’s going on in his head, but he echoes the thoughts of the marshal. But he reaches into his jacket and pulls the hand cannon out into view, preparing himself to see a man die. If that’s what he wants. As long as Nelson is safe, that’s all that matters right now. The boy’s hand goes steady while his heart pumps a million miles an hour at the prospect of finishing this here and now. He doesn’t say a word, but simply points his weapon at the madman’s heart, waiting for the moment Moses tries to pull himself back together to try escaping them. He remembers all-too well what’s already happened.

GM: Cassidy’s aim and arm don’t waver, but her whisper shakes. “Boss? What are you doing?”

Hudson: “Whatever it takes to save the kid,” Hudson grimly answers. “Now play along.”

GM: Her brow furrows, relaxes in relief, and then sets back into poker-face determination. “You got it, boss-man.”

Hudson: “Release Judd and we’ll shoot you dead. Glad to,” Curtis calls back.

“Fine. You’re crazy enough to die, we’ll be happy to oblige you,” Cassidy echoes.

Hudson levels a glare at Brook’s pointed weapon and loudly calls out, “Put that away, Mr. Barnes. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

GM:LIARS!!!” shouts Moses. “AIN’T NOBODY ROUND HERE A PLAIN DEALING MAN?!!”

He forces Nelson to walk forward, using the boy as a human shield. “Kraut-licking, sonavabitch, Candyman! You think I don’t know what a face looks like when it’s squared up to murder?! Me?!”

Hudson: Hudson grimaces as the lunatic sees through him. So much for that tactic. Moses is set on blood. His or anyone’s. The marshals can try to shoot him dead, in which case it’s entirely possible they might hit Judd or Moses will slit his throat. Or…

“Take me instead, Moses,” he calls. “I’m facing mandatory retirement in three years. One sacrifice is good as another, right?”

Both of the other marshals offer the boss their best stunned looks.

“Boss, you’re crazy!”

“Bad idea.”

GM: Moses keeps walking forward with Nelson held at knifepoint, driving through the rain and muck. “Too old, too fat,” the lunatic yells, one bulging eye sweeping the night-shrouded marshals. “Gimme the negro girl, Candyman!”

“The what?!” Cassidy shouts, unable to control herself.

Hudson: Well, Moses is right on those first two counts. Hudson might even laugh if a boy’s life wasn’t on the line.

“That’s up to her, Moses, though I’ll kindly ask you not to call Marshal Porter names,” the fat fed calls back.

“You’ll be the one who’s laughing when we have him in cuffs,” the marshal quietly tells his subordinate.

GM: Moses seems confused.

Brook: Brook knows that the triple-crossed madman is just a ticking time bomb. But this is good. They have one thing over him, and that’s numbers. Hudson can sit on him if he likes. When he’s called out, he sheathes the weapon back in his coat. Then the focus is away from him. These are cops and soldiers, and the thought puts an idea in the young man’s head. It’s stupid stupid idea, but the only one that sounds as though it’s going to work as he watches Moses scream at the cops in front of him. Hunters have something even more important. They have patience. They have stealth.

The crouching young ranger uses the cover of the rain to creep to the lunatic, evading everyone’s notice before it’s time to strike. The adults are yelling about sacrificing themselves and who will go. It’s time.

Brook’s hands dart up out of blackness. One grabs Moses’ knife arm. The other wraps around his neck, getting a solid grip on lunatic in the rain. Brook just hopes his gloves don’t fail him.

GM: Brook could almost swear he sees a bat soar past him just he grabs hold of the homicidal maniac. Moses gives a strangled scream, and in the storm, the lunatic, the concussed jock, and the ranger cadet all find themselves tangled together, a lightning-lit knot of limbs wherein lurks a deadly sharp knife.

For the federal agents still several yards away, it’s almost impossible to see what is happening. Only the smoky road flare light catches them in frenetic, pugilistic silhouette.

Hudson: Even dim as that light is, and miserable as the conditions are, the Marshals’ aim is trained at Georgia’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for 21 weeks, and true as their starred badges’ golden gleam. A single silhouette is yet distinct. Hudson doesn’t waste a second as he bellows,

“Arm, FIRE!”

Three deafeningly loud roars split the air like thunderbolts.

Brook: Brook looks up just in time to see raising guns. Now it’s up to his luck and the skill of these people. He closes his eyes a moment before three cracks of lightning hit something very close to him, and very near him.

GM: The bullseye-precise salvo manages not only to avoid the innocent teens, but squarely strike Moses’ sole arm as it tries to raise up its knife to plunge into one of the boys.

But he never has the chance. The three shots eviscerate Moe’s one arm, tearing it off the shoulder and rending its length into a pulp that showers the grapplers. Moses’ cries cut the sky like lightning, nearly blinding in their pain.

Nelson half-drops, half–falls away, shouting and skidding back away as fast as he can, even as droplets of flesh and blood mingle with the rain and fall over and into Brook’s eyes and mouth and body.

Moses collapses hard.

Brook: Brook’s eyes open just in time to see everything, red tinted or not, as what’s left of the arm comes flying off in horrific fashion and hits the wet floor of Scratch’s Corral. There’s a sudden weight and sickening churn in his stomach, but he ignores it as bodies start sliding. First Nelson. Then Moses. It looks like it’s over, but… it’s not.

His anger returns, not near as much as it once was, but it’s there. Brook pulls out and tosses his revolver over towards the marshals just in case the arm grows back too fast. Moses has seen it, after all. But after that, the teen descends on the inmate, wrapping his arms tight around him before he can recover. They have to dog-pile him! Cuff him and wrap him up! Arm or no, the teen bear-hugs Moses to the ground and yells,

MARSHAL HUDSON! QUICKLY!! HE’LL GROW IT BACK, COME HELP ME TIE HIM UP!”

GM: “Kid’s in shock,” Curtis replies to his boss.

Hudson: Hudson nods absently in agreement and picks up his radio as the three marshals briskly stride over. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-95. Repeat, 10-95. Over.” Whatever state Brook may be in, Moe’s going to need immediate first aid if he’s to have any hope of surviving–assuming he isn’t dead already.

GM: Cassidy strides over, shotgun in hand, and checks on the downed asylum escapee. “He ain’t going anywhere in his condition, kid, except the morgue.”

Hudson: Hudson kneels down and feels Moses’ neck for a pulse.

GM: It’s difficult with the manic teen still trying to hold down the dying, armless man. The ground is slick with blood, which continues to pour from Moses’ arm… hole.

Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, get off him,” Hudson snaps. The marshal rips a strip of fabric off his soaked longcoat and tightly wraps it around Moses’ arm-hole to staunch the bleeding. The improvised tourniquet is quite crude, and utterly insufficient, but it’s a start.

GM: In Brook’s unhinged state, with the taste of blood and human flesh still on his lips, he feels the jerks of Moses’ death throes. Each time, he expects to see the man rise, to inexplicably start growing a new arm and try to murder than all… but none of that happens. After repeated prodding by the adult federal agents, the teen slowly realizes that he’s bear-hugging an old, armless, dying man in the bloodied, rain-drenched grass and rubble.

Brook: Brook slowly releases his grip on the man as the others come around him. He spits to the side and looks Moses over. It’s not growing back. Of course. Maybe it’s… maybe he turned whatever it was off, after saying he was going to die? Maybe it was voluntary. The teen knows that he isn’t insane, this is a ploy to get out alive, and the three cops are falling for it. That’s fine. That’s okay. Brook sits up on the escapee’s lower body and reaches over his shoulder, rips out the medkit he’d packed and puts it down on Moses’ chest, so that the marshals can work with something other than nothing.

“Are you all certified? I can help!”

Hudson: “Oh, you’ve helped MORE than enough already, Mr. Barnes!” the fat marshal barks in a tone that does not sound at all complimentary as he frantically works to save the dying man’s life.

Brook: Brook is off the man the moment the fat white marshal insults him. This is where the young man curses that first part, treated like a burden despite the fact he was here defending Nelson before they ever showed up! And he even got here by himself, no partner and no city police training. He leaves them the medical kit and goes over to Nelson as he wakes up.

GM: The police radio crackles to life. This time it’s a male voice and one less warbled by static. “Schofeld, th..s…Red As…n. Skinny Chet’s… the com. 10-4 on 10…, will 10-5. Confirm… 10-52. Repeat… 10-52? Madcatcher and…. are 10-76 to… but please give me a 10-20. Repeat… 10-20, Over.”

Hudson: Hudson snatches back up the radio. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. We are at Scratch’s Corral and imminently en route back to station. Prisoner in critical condition. 10-52. Repeat, 10-52. Over.”

GM: The radio reply is quick. “10-4, Scho…, will 10-5, Out.”

Meanwhile, Curtis looks over Nelson with a penlight.

“Wh-where am I? Wh-what the fuck?!”

Nelson’s blue, asymmetrically sized eyes find Brook in the darkness. “Br-brooks? Is that you, man?”

Brook: Brook shows his face in the dark and nods. “Backup is here, Nelson. Hang in there, this guy will take care of you!”

Hudson: Good enough. Hudson glances at the teen and lets Curtis take care of that. He motions to Cassidy, and the two frantically, desperately spend the next five minutes yanking Moses MacDonald back from the jaws of death. The night tries to hide the worst of the blood, pain, and sweat, and the rain does its best to wash away the stains. But some memories are no so easily rinsed from one’s mind.

Brook: It’s a tense next few minutes, Brook rushes out to get his Dirt bike, hoping they can use it to help, but other than that…he just watches. Half of his hopes they save him, the part he wants to listen to. Another part reminds him what happened, what his head was like, and how this has to be a ruse. He knows they’ll all rescue him.

GM: “Let’s not do… that again,” Cassidy eventually says to Hudson when they finally stabilize the now twice-amputated fugitive.

Hudson: “If it’s never again, Cassidy, that’ll be too soon,” the lead marshal agrees as the two gingerly move the bandaged, dying, but at least stabilized Moses towards the parked motorcycles. He sharply motions for the others to follow.

GM: “I think the white kid’s got a concussion or TBI, sir,” Curtis says to his superior as he and Brook help Nelson limp across the rough terrain.

Hudson: Hudson pulls out the belly chain he’d intended to restrain Moses with. “All right. Cassidy, tie him to your waist. Curtis, let’s tie Moe to yours. He’s in no condition to make this kind of ride right now, but I don’t see much other choice.”

GM: Nelson’s speech is slurred, but he protests and says he wants to ride with Brook. Indeed, ever since coming to, the disoriented youth hasn’t wanted the ranger cadet out of his sight. He repeatedly asks where they are, why everyone’s here, and what is going on, but it’s one particular passing remark that strikes Brook the most oddly.

It’s after Nelson realizes that both he and Brook are splattered with blood, that he jokes about how the pair “really are blood brothers,” and holds up his knife-scarred thumb. And Brook realizes that he’s not joking.

Hudson: Hudson shakes his head as he finishes tying the belly chain between Curtis and the newly arm-less Moses. “Can’t do, Mr. Judd. You’ll get to see him back at Red Aspen.”

GM: With the trooper headlamps on, Brook shockingly notes that Nelson’s thumb-scar eerily resembles his own, a self-inflicted injury dating back to late elementary school.

Hudson, and his retinue, meanwhile note that the thunderstorm is passing, and with it, the ring of biker-lights above the canyon pull away, one by one, the roar of their engines creating one last peal of thunder.

Brook: Brook keeps near Nelson, knowing that he’s having a hard time. Just going through all that, at least he’s alive. Covered in blood, bruised, battered, almost nude, and… scarred? The young Indian’s eyes widen as he sees the thumb scar, and worse yet, Nelson knows what it means. Only him and Danny did this together, how could their life-long bully know about it? Let alone have it!?

He doesn’t say anything and pats Nelson’s shoulder for his denied request. He finds his revolver on the ground, puts it in its holster, and mounts up on his dirt bike. He’s ready to go. Ready to get the fuck out of here.

Brook, Hudson: A Golden Star


10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: As the marshals and rangers rush Moses from Auld Coot’s Creek to Red Aspen and then to Mount Pelion General Hospital, life and death race each other like Melanion and Atalanta. The latter is far too fleet and tireless for the former to truly defeat, but delay is possible–if one possesses a golden apple.

Their siren-accompanied ‘sprint’ ends with Moses and Nelson being separately spirited away by over-worked, under-staffed medical personnel, who transport them into the tragedy-tainted bowels of MPGH’s trauma center. Amidst the initial tumult of medical questions, alarms, demands, and activity, there are few immediate answers. Nelson seems stable, physically at least. Moses is anything but stable, physically or otherwise. The former is examined and given preliminary treatment, but is eventually transferred to the intensive care unit. The latter undergoes a forequarter amputation as MPGH’s surgeons attempt to once again play, or perhaps thwart, god.

After some heated, if swift arguments, those same would-be-gods kick out all non-medical individuals from the hectic, already cramped surgery room, or at least they try. Eventually, they concede to letting a single marshal remain. It’s a tangible sign of everyone’s weariness when Cassidy doesn’t even roll her eyes when ‘Rambo Commando’ volunteers for the assignment.

As the rest are shuffled out into the busy trauma center hallway, a gurney rushes past, escorted by a cluster of grim-faced nurses and physicians. The marshals and rangers hardly have time to register the violently writhing, heavily strapped-down man that is foaming at the mouth and screaming incomprehensible obscenities. As the gurney and medical staff races past, the law officers hear the trailing echoes as the ER nurses take bets on how many more “dusted angels will be booking rooms tonight at the Mount Pelion Hotel.”

Brook himself is ushered into a small examination room, where he is summarily assessed by a triage nurse. The nurse is thorough but devoid of any bedside manner as she inspects Brook like he is just another sugar beet along a very long and very full quality control conveyor belt. She clicks off her pen-light after checking his pupillary response. Her prognosis is terse as she hands his hovering mother his discharge papers: “Sufficient. Please vacate the room.”

The entire affair has Mary on edge, like a bear pacing in a cage that smells wrong and is too small. These aren’t her people. These aren’t her woods. “Does he need to… take anything?” the usually stoic woman asks as she lingers in the room, despite the nurse’s all-but-shooing gestures.

The triage nurse spares a single last glance at the blood-splattered teen. “Yes, a shower.”

As the adoptive mother and son are hurried out, back into the hallway, they find the marshals filling in the previously unreachable Undersheriff Bauman on the night’s events. “We expected you would come through the ER entrance,” Deputy Marshal Porter says coolly, “Rather then the interior elevator.”

Harvey doesn’t answer, particularly as he spots Mary and Brook. “He okay?” the ‘Sheriff of Witiko Falls’ asks the chief park ranger. Mary nods solemnly, if thankfully. Brook, meanwhile, is struck by how haggard the undersheriff looks. Gone is his typical ‘aw shucks’ smile. Instead, he looks like he’s lost a bucket of blood–although his uniform is only smeared with a handful. Indeed, other than being stained and blanched, the man’s uniform and body seem hale.

Hudson: Haggard is a fitting description for all the lawmen present. Hudson, in contrast, is merely (at least mostly) physically tired and disheveled. The chief marshal’s clothes are smeared with blood too, from those frantic moments providing first aid to Moses, and his rain-soaked, tattered longcoat remains spattered with mud, though he has since brushed off the twigs and leaves formerly decorating his shoulders. The night has been so long. It’s almost over, which makes the ‘almost’ before ‘over’ feel twice as long.

GM: As if voicing that very sentiment, Maxwell breaks in, “Boss, I’m gonna see if they have one of those coffee vending machines. You want me to get you a candy bar or something?”

Hudson: Hudson reaches into his coat pocket and withdraws an equally soaked-looking blue and orange Butterfingers bar. The candy inside is little better than mush. “These smokes are wet,” the marshal remarks, half to himself. “A Baby Ruth would be just the thing, Max.”

He lied to Moses, back there at Scratch’s Corral. It wasn’t a Three Musketeers bar he was swearing over. He might laugh about that another time.

GM: “You got it, boss,” Maxwell replies. Cassidy waves her colleague off before he can even ask. Maxwell then leaves, seemingly all-too happy to leave before another storm breaks.

Brook: Brook is nearly silent the entire time he’s in the hospital. He’d rode the way here on his bike, and now he sat coated in another man’s blood and viscera while the world around him just seemed as though it was coated in a thin film of muted un-importance. He feels filthy, and pissed off, in equal measures. He slides off the table when the nurse excuses them, and walks past his fretting mother into the hall, not even able to enjoy the sight of her out of her element. Harvey is the stand-out, the only thing right now that feels past the film, though he barely hears his words.

“Undersheriff. Why do you look like hell?”

GM: Brook’s query seems to slide right off Harvey’s square chin. Instead of answering the boy, he turns back to Mary and Hudson. “Chief, Marshal, I appreciate being appraised of the situation, but you’ll have to forgive me. If you need anything else tonight from the Sheriff’s Department, contact dispatch.” There’s almost a ‘please’, but not quite.

Hudson: Hudson merely nods in simultaneous answer, understanding, and farewell. Whatever is on the town lawman’s mind, he’s obviously had a trying night of his own. If it were relevant to Moses MacDonald, he’d have shared it.

Brook: Brook doesn’t take being ignored very well, muttering ‘sure’ under his breath as he turns and eases himself down onto the chair, clasping his hands together and staring at the floor. “Can we leave now? I want to wash the taste of arm flesh out of my mouth.”

Hudson: Hudson turns to Mary and her boy as the undersheriff moves to leave. “Mr. Barnes, go take a shower and change into some clean clothes. I have a few things to talk over with your mother. And with you, when you’re out.”

GM: Mary starts to nod farewell to Harvey, but stops upon hearing Hudson’s orders. She turns to face the mustachioed marshal, a brick wall more than flesh. “No, we go home. No more words tonight.”
She places a thick, protective hand on Brook’s neck, half-helping him rise, half-ensuring he doesn’t bolt.

Hudson: Hudson looks the bear-ish woman over, then gets right to the point. “All right. We’ll do it that way. Mr. Barnes, give me your hands. You’re under arrest.” The fat marshal removes a pair of rain-slick handcuffs from his belt and looks expectantly towards Brook.

Brook: Brook looks between the mother scruffing him and the fat man holding out the cuffs. What respect he won in the valley is bordering on being lost. “I pick neither,” he grunts, gently pushing away his mother’s hand and giving Hudson a sharp glare. “If you want to talk, let’s go out to the parking lot and talk in the truck. Now.”

Hudson: “This isn’t a choice, Mr. Barnes,” Hudson replies coldly. “Will you come quietly, or do you want to face a ‘resisting arrest’ charge too after Deputy Marshal Porter and I have no choice but to employ force?”

GM: Mary pushes herself once again between Hudson and her son, her stolid frame physically denying either a glimpse of the other. “You aren’t arresting my boy.”

Seeing the rising confrontation, the undersheriff sighs heavily as his elevator opens and then shuts. Brook sees him stalking back toward the cluster of law officials.

Cassidy’s hand, meanwhile, dips to her holster.

Hudson: “I am arresting your boy, Mrs. Madcatcher, for God only knows how many counts tonight of obstructing a public officer in the course of his duties. This is a federal case and the jurisdiction belongs to my people. Do you want to fight this?” Hudson asks the chief park ranger levelly, his stare exhausted but unwavering.

Brook: Brook snaps. Seeing the tension, him bereft of choice once again. The walls seem to close in on him as everyone makes choices for him and tries to hold him down. “THAT IS ENOUGH!” he bellows, a solid hand on his mother’s shoulder. He’s gotten so big, still scraps of tape on his arms as he steps around his mother and… presents his wrists to the marshal. “Go home. I’ll be back, as always,” he barks, shaking his wrists at the fat man. “Hurry up!”

Hudson: Yet even as Brook freely proffers his hands, it is not the boy, but his mother, upon whom Hudson’s gaze remains fixed. The marshal’s little man has woken back up and has one clear word to yell in his ear: ‘danger!’. Madcatcher doesn’t seem like she wants to hurt anyone, but…

Brook: Brook feels no weight on his shoulders as the scene plays out. The world still fees behind that thin sheet of grime. But he’s too much an animal of Witiko Falls to not know when violence is afoot. He plants his foot just enough behind him to turn to restrain his mother on a dime.

Hudson: “Mrs. Madcatcher, your boy is under arrest, which also puts him under our custody and protection. You have my word as a marshal, and as a grandfather who can only imagine what mental hell you’ve gone through these past few hours, that I will allow no one to hurt him,” Hudson states. His words are gentle but unwaveringly firm, as if he is talking to a dangerously agitated bear. Which, he frankly supposes, he rather is. The fat lawman grimaces inwardly at the prospect of further violence, but his aching muscles are ready for it.

Cassidy, sensing the change in her boss’ demeanor, reflexively tenses at that same prospect. “Ma’am, please let your boy come quietly.”

GM: Hudson feels it first, like a tornado that’s about to destroy his home but then just… dissipates. Cassidy ‘s heart eases too when she sees the black thunder fade from Mary’s eyes, then retreat completely as she bows her head like broken mountain.

Harvey halts, or at least slows, his rushing advance. The man seems to similarly deflate with a not quite thankful as much as tiredly defeated sigh.

When Mary raises her head, there is something broken inside her voice, despite still being as hard as granite. “I have your word, marshal. Or I’ll have your hide.”

Brook: As Brook sees as things start to wind down, the deputy’s little toadies cooling off just enough that the young man’s eyes turn back to Hudson. With that yell earlier, a little bit of the anger roiling in his gut releases enough that he can accept the situation.

Hudson: “I don’t doubt that, Mrs. Madcatcher,” Hudson answers, the tension in his jaw relaxing. The exhaustion in his eyes does not abate. He’d have preferred to do this with some advance warning and explanation to Mary while Brook showered, but then again he’d also prefer to lose fifty pounds. The world doesn’t seem to particularly care about his preferences one way or another.

“We’re going to take Brook down to the police station,” the lawman continues, “where he’ll spend the night. He can take a shower and change into some clean clothes before we leave the hospital. Tomorrow morning we’ll drive out to Sandpoint, where we’ll see the judge for a warrant. It’ll be in his and the DA’s hands what comes next.”

GM: Hudson’s words hit Mary like bullets shot into black cave-water. They strike and make noise, but their impact and depth are fathomless. Slowly, she turns in the cramped hallway to embrace her adopted son. Madcub may be a few hairs taller than Madcatcher, but the latter is far thicker, made of far denser muscles, gristle, and bone that have been compacted with age, toil, and hardship that only certain mothers know. “Son,” she whispers deeply, “I’ll free you. I’ll dig up the Great Root if I must. Be strong.”

She then releases her son and walks away. Mary Madcatcher is not one to make idle promises. Nor is she one to wait when work needs done.

Brook: Brook turns to his mother and returns her hug in kind, weakly, and whispers back, “The root was pulled long ago. But I saved a life from what crawled up from the hole, Mom. I’ll be home soon,” he mutters. “I love you. Get some rest. I’ll be home.”

When he turns around, he holds back out his wrists. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Deputy. This feels wrong.”

Hudson: “And perhaps you, Mr. Barnes, should for once trust that the adults do know what they’re doing,” the marshal replies as the two lead him down the hall. They don’t cuff him when he’s about to take a shower anyway.

Brook: The only response he gets from the tired and blood-coated teenager is a deflated sigh, as he undoes the buckle on his shoulder and pulls out the mammoth revolver on his chest, offering it to the marshal.

GM: Seeing Mary depart, Harvey does likewise. Hudson marks the grim similarity of their steps. It’s a stride he’s seen and worn many a time. It’s the look of someone locked on a course they do not want, but cannot avoid nor abandon.

The sun may be rising over Witiko Falls, but the night’s shadow hangs heavy.

View
Phase I, Case File 1.12

Brook: Skin Deep


Shades_of_Death.jpg

10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: Four hours before the Devil’s Hour, clouds cover the night sky like a black body bag. Brook turns onto Shades of Death Trail.

For all the macabre oddity of the road’s name, the route is a familiar one to the junior ranger. Beyond its primary function of connecting the Kainai reservation to the Kaniksu Forest–and Akipunni Station therein–Brook is aware of the dark history that inspired the road’s name. Unlike the highwayman banditry and lynching that inspired the similarly named roads in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Shades of Death Trail was originally made by the Kaniksu’s black-robed Jesuit monks seeking congress with if not conversion of the Blood Tribe of Witiko Falls. For deeds which remain disputed amongst local historians, the Kainai’s iikunuhkahtsi flayed the monks and hung their robes and skins from trail’s surrounding pine trees as a warning.

Despite such a morbid inception, the White Plague or the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the trail expanded to its current state as an asphalt paved highway that carves through Kaniksu’s heart. Tonight, no human hides hang from the surrounding pines, cedar, and ponderosas to darken the route, but the drive is still nearly pitch black, save for the Brook’s yellow headlights. It’s quiet too, as the thunderclouds loom menacingly but silently–for now. The forest’s fauna also seem subdued, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Despite such atavistic omens, Brook nearly misses the danger riding right behind him. It’s as if the storm decides to break right behind him, with a thunderclap formed by a deafening roar of a motorcycle and its lightning-hot headlight. Its rider is dressed in black gloves, dark jeans, and a denim jacket whose patches the cadet cannot make out. The dark-haired man sports a thick beard and slicked back hair that seems to blend into the night. But it’s his eyes that Brook notices above all. Perhaps it is merely the reflection of Brook’s taillights upon the man’s glasses, but the biker’s eyes seem to glow like blinding furnaces. The flame-eyed man seems to come out of nowhere, and by the time Brook spots him, he’s racing down on Brook with frightening speed, as if he plans to drive straight through Brook and his larger vehicle.

Biker.jpg

Brook’s ranger-honed instincts take over in the half-second before they would crash, though, and he hits wheel, swerving his old truck just in time. Ardenaline spikes Brook’s heart as the biker disappears into the night. Disappears in a mere blink, just like he appeared.

As Brook blinks, he can still see the afterimages of biker’s eyes burning in his vision. Despite this disturbing distraction, Brook easily spots a horde of Harleys and other chopped–up hogs burning down the road. What these riders lack in speed and stealth, they make up in their swarm like numbers.

The Moonbrood are coming.

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Brook: Brook feels the same way on the trail as he does on half the roads in Witiko Falls–on edge. Driving with narcolepsy, even when he knows he can’t sleep, is a part of his life when all his focus is on the road. It pays off today. It’s not too good of a night for a drive, but a thunderstorm on Red Aspen is always amazing, glass on every side, Brook sees every crack of beautiful lightning. If he makes it home. Hope for beauty is replaced with hope for survival with the crack of what at first registers as lightning behind him. It’s all the teen can do to move, the only thoughts going through his head mimicked in his throat as he lets out a primal scream of effort, feeling like he was going to rip the wheel off his truck as he narrow avoids disaster, turning back into his lane and breaking to a stop.

Shaken and panting, his heart in his throat, Brook slams is fist into the seat beside him and lets out another hopped up yell, not a sign of the rider anywhere. He spots them all immediately after. Mooners. Hazards on, high beams off, Brook slides his gun under the seat and stands out in front of his truck, waving his hands above his head to flag one of them down. They have to have seen something! Maybe it’s even one of them! Whatever gives him solace away from the thought that ‘the line’ came at him. Those eyes burn in his brain.

GM: It does not take long until the Moonbrood descend.

The truck’s flickering hazard lights create a red strobe that lights up the wild bikers like splashes of neon blood. The roar of their collective engines shakes the ground, broken bits of gravel and pebbles bouncing and scattering across the weathered road. At least three dozen strong, the Mooners are a chaotic mob whose individual features blur in the rushing blackness. Black leather, denim and boots. Spiraling tattoos against rippling muscles and wild hirsute faces. Patches featuring shape-changing moons.

The first riders don’t even slow down for the ranger cadet. The next portion of the pack seems to only slow down enough to holler and howl at the night. Brook sees a woman, naked save for blacklight body-paint, riding a grizzled biker that races past him so close he can swears he can hear their grunts and libidinous thrusts. He smells the thick exhaust of the hogs, the odor of weed and harder drugs pollute the forest air. Many have terrifying helmets, complete with spikes or bestial horns. Brook thinks he spots one wearing the giant skull of a pig. Men who have become monsters in the night. Disgusting… and yet alluring.

Brook’s attention reflexively shifts though when a beer bottle hurtles from the horde and crashes into the back of his truck, shattering messily. By the time he turns back around, he notices that the stragglers of the pack are slowing down. Yet, as the Moonchildren approach atop their rumbling chrome and leather hogs, Brook is forced to reconsider the wisdom of hailing down a gang of outlaw bikers.

A half dozen circle around him in slow spirals. The ring of headlights paints them in flickering false halos, coronas of halogen and smoke. Brook takes in each of their faces, a carousel tableau of drugs, machismo, violence, and sins best left unsaid.

The ‘first’ is thin–faced, with unkempt white–grey hair that resembles the mangled woolly remains of a wolf–ravaged sheep scattered across his face. Dressed in black leather from cap to boots, his head almost appears disembodied, bobbing and twitching in the darkness a few feet above his harley. His gray-green stare at Brook with a deadness that most roadkill lack.

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The second’s gaze is perhaps even less welcoming. Black shades are slung high across the man’s razored pate, but his large grizzled mutton-chops hang from his chin and face, their two ends pinched by rows of miniature skull beads that match the iron–work nose and earrings. Despite the autumnal chill, he wears a sleeveless leather biker’s jacket and chaps and cause his crotch and buttocks to bulge nakedly. Tattoos are scrawled across both and snake up his chest and around the scars where his nipples should be. While his left hand rests lazily upon a thrumming handlebar, the right clutches a chain that is clipped to the belt of the third rider.

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Also razor–shorn, the middle-aged man has only a small scruff of reddish facial hair around his lip and chin. Warts mark both of his checks. Similarly adorned in a sleeveless black leather jacket with various patches, including a black moon on its back, the man wears tight-fitting jeans and large hobnailed boots. His bare arms and chest are littered with sloppy tattoos, including designs reminiscent of Celtic or Viking runes, a giant ‘1%’, and a praying nun receiving cunnilingus from a devil. Of all the bikers, his gaze seems the least sure, his green-marbled eyes flickering back and forth to his peers.

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Chief amongst those peers is a grizzled giant. Tall and thick-bodied, the man’s skull looks like it could crack a bowling ball. His long gray beard is unadorned save for ashes from his smoldering joint. A red bandanna covers his wrinkled scalp, but his muscled stout torso is adorned by a denim jacket, covered with patches and pins, from sword–swallowing skulls, American flags, a spread–legged cat encircled by the words HAPPINESS IS A WARM PUSSY, and a giant blue moon. Ink peaks from his fingerless biker gloves, long-johns, tooled moose–skin chaps, and heavy boots. He regards Brook with brow–roofed eyes that even in the dark reveal him as a native son of Witiko Falls, as his dilated left pupil all but swallows his iris. Both eyes appraise Brook, as if searching his face for past recollections or future possibilities.

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Clutching the waist of the long–bearded man is what Brook can only assume is his ‘old lady’. She wears a cheap and flagrantly fake fur coat with a snow leopard print and leather pants so tight they remind the ranger cadet of the Swiner’s sausage casings. He hard–worn skin and sagging breasts are marked with past abscesses, spray tan, and tract marks. A sole tattoo marks her sunken stomach: Property of the Mooncildren. A rolled red bandanna pulls back her bleach–blonde, shoulder–length hair. Her heavily painted brows, lashes, and lips regard the young teenager with a lazy, lascivious look, although her glazed over eyes often

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The last of the slowly circling bikers is shorter and scrawnier than his peers, but no less disturbing. He rides and steers just with his straddled, denim–clad legs. His arms he crosses over his chest. His black T-shirt and sleeveless leather jacket expose his forearms and the gnarled–thick hair that resembles burnt shag carpet. He too wears fingerless leather gloves, those his are studded by spikes. His horseshoe mustache is primarily white, as is the curly hair that bursts from his shirt. He wears an unsnapped bucket helmet and glass glasses that obscure his eyes and scalp. His lips and neck twitch constantly, as if he is shooing phantasmagoric insects.

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As Brook regards the slow spiral of outlaw bikers, old instincts buried in bones take over. He knows nothing of the Mooner’s patches and particular identities, but he does know predators. He knows packs. The blue–moon giant is their alpha–and at present the least aggressive of the pack.

For now.

Brook: It’s a bad idea on every front, but after such an encounter he needs to know what they’ve seen going the opposite way. Too much is weighing on his mind for him not to want to wave these people down. Besides, if he’s honest with himself, he’s often watched them all and felt envious, both of the machines they ride and air of anarchy and rage they can openly display. Despite being on what the gang may see as opposite sides of the law, Brook has never looked on them with any kind of scorn. Drug dealing aside.

The bottle against his truck is mighty fucking unwelcome though, a grit of his teeth to restrain himself from any quick movements as he keeps waving SOMEONE down, and gets his wish. Pack is the best word for what descends on him, and like every pack before this this one, he reacts as is according. Deflecting his threat, he keeps his hands up properly, looking up and making eye contact with who can only be the alpha. Long in the tooth, the female with him, the calm gravitas of a leader. His giant frame does nothing to dissuade this thought process. Brook follows this man’s eyes, slowly turning and waiting for them to stop as he tries only once to yell over the din of their hell-bikes.

“Did you see a biker going the opposite way of you? Slicked black hair and… and flaming eyes?” If they hear it, it sounds silly, but he needs to get straight to the point.

GM: Brook doesn’t know whether any of the bikers actually hear, much less understand his question. Even without the sluggish roar of the five hogs, his inquiry isn’t the most… rational. Then again, neither is his audience.

The bearded alpha makes a motion to his pack, and one by one, they kill their engines.

The furry–armed, shade–wearing one mutters something. Brook almost swears he hears the man say, “Dribbles,” like the fast–food fried chicken chunks from O’Tolley’s.

The bearded alpha regards his scrawny-armed companion as he if just uttered something profound. He turns back his gaze on Brook, and narrows his eyes as he takes a puff from his joint.

“What’a we ‘ave ’ere? A lil’ lost pup?,” his old lady says with a psychedelic–slurred tone. With an eel–like motion, she plucks the joint from her man’s lips and takes a hit of her own, all but forgetting her question and its object.

“Pup? More like a little pussy,” sneers the waist–chained biker.

His ‘partner’ looks over Brook’s tall muscular body. His nostrils flare, as if smelling the adolescent’s musk. His fat, flaccid member begins to swell.

The alpha doesn’t so much interrupt the predatory words as he talks over them. “Maybe you saw the Devil, son. These here are his roads.”

His old lady leans on him, and waves the joint as if it is a Black Sabbat wand and she a witch.
“You’s wann’a ride, sweetie?”

“Sweet cheeks,” the chained biker says, flashing an eye to the expression and engorged member of his partner.

The helmet-wearing man continues to twitch and mumble.

The first man remains silent. His dead gaze never once leaving Brook’s face.

Brook: Brook holds to his mind-set that this a pack of predators, and as such, he susses out the group. Three of them are concerning to him, the first thin-faced man. Heading a pack instead of an alpha may mean he’s the beta, and a quiet predator is the kind the young ranger is the most wary of. Of course then the alpha. But the third surprisingly isn’t the one lusting after his underage ass, it’s the female. One word in her alpha’s ear and moods can change real quick.

His eyes stay on the alpha, even an eye twitch could be an attack signal, but he actually perks a bit when the giant talks about this being the Devil’s road, talking directly to the long bearded man. “Does the Devil have burning eyes and ride a bike loud as hell?”

GM: Some of the bikers laugh, but enough of them also look at their pack leader before responding.

“Why don’tcha cum n’ find out fer y’self, sweetie,” the tract–marked floozy says, offering the joint. “Or are’ya ‘fraid of a lil’ pow’r ’tween yer legs?” she adds with a husky lick of her lips.

“Sweet-cheeks…” the skull-beaded man says with his equally libido-thrumming gaze.

His partner laughs, cracking his neck in nervous excitement. “Dribbles,” the little man says.

The silent one leans in, close enough to smell Brook’s licorice–black hair.

Brook: Ironic, now it’s on the Indian to ‘smoke the peace pipe’ or insult the entire gang. Just like he thought earlier, she’s a danger to him. Whoever this silent one is, and whatever he’s doing, Brook stands tall and doesn’t flinch away from him, letting him do what he wants. “Sorry. I’m not a good enough driver to get home after a smoke, but I’ll take you up on that next time. I owe you all a drink for stopping, anyway. Thank you, miss.”

He hopes that’s enough to placate her before he looks back to her alpha. “I thought it was one of the Moonbrood. He came up on me, fast, just a minute ago, like he wanted to cut right through me. I got out of the way, but he vanished. Did you pass him?”

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood…

01.23.1994, Monday evening

GM: It’s been an ugly year for the twelve–year–old Brook. Being a half-native six-grader at Lame Bull Middle School hasn’t been easy, as he’s had numerous scraps with not only the Kainai kids who treat him as white trash but now the former off-res graduates from Eugene Baker Elementary who magnanimously treat him as just another ‘timber nigger’.

Chief amongst the latter group has been Brook’s classmate, Nelson Judd. This past week alone has seen three playground scuffles between the pair. Today’s fight, however, happened in the hallway, after Nelson and some of his friends locked Danny Littlebeaver in a school locker. The subsequent earned Nelson a black eye and Brook his first out of school suspension.

It’s been an ugly year. And the winter is just as ugly.

A fortnight after the solstice, night falls quickly on Witiko Falls and the wilderness that surrounds it. With the sun already sunk beneath the western rim of the Bitterroot Mountains, twilight is a ghostly grey that rises to purpling black. The moon shines bright, making the March snow glow. The forecast blizzard has not yet arrived, but the temperature is sinking faster than the sun. Brook can hear pine trees crack as the cold leaps fiercely upon the Kaniksu forest like one of its psychotic predators.

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Most folk would consider Mary Madcatcher’s parenting equally psychotic. Upon hearing of her adopted son’s latest fight and suspension, Red Aspen’s matriarch simply pointed outside and said a single word. “Hemlock.” She didn’t need to say anything else.

Nearly an hour later, Brook is still searching for a suitable switch of the relatively rare wood. This isn’t the first time he’s been sent into the forest to search for a switch, as Mary Madcatcher is not one to spare the rod nor spoil her child. In the coming years, Brook may appreciate the educative as well as punitive role of these tasks. Tonight, though, Brook is more keenly aware of three facts:

It’s freezing. Hemlock is damned hard to find. And Nelson Judd deserves more than a black eye.

Brook: It’s freezing, but Brook is equipped, and unfortunately for the scavengers of the young cub’s birthright territory, he’s very much acclimated. It’s not immediately apparent it’s a twelve year old in the bundle of fur and wind breaking nylon, trudging through the snow, steam and panting threats and insults leaking out a small opening in the hood. It’s a big pack he’s carrying, and a gun he wish he didn’t have to lug around, but the fear keeps him moving and glad for the safety both weights bring him. Well, relative safety.

In the dark, it’s difficult to find anything, and though he has a flashlight it’s suicide to make his presence too well known. These woods won’t welcome even a child. They won’t even give him what he needs to leave. But Brook is anything but a quitter, pushing forward into the woods as he keeps his eyes and ears out, stopping at each tree. He has to come back with hemlock. Has to.

GM: As he presses forward, further into the woods, the young Brook comes across a set of moon-lit tracks. Paw prints, surrounded by snow fleas. Front paws larger than rear ones. Claws visible in the soft snow. Oval shaped rather than oblong or round. Coyote. Just last night, there had been reports of a rapid coyote running wild at the Blue Mooncalf Ranch, trying to suicidally attack the Britter’s lobotomized dairy cows.

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Brook: It’s a moment of pause for the young ranger, looking over the print and sneering. Snow fleas, his least favorite part about the spring. But it’s more than clear what he needs to do, looking to where they’ve gone and checking his weapon as he begins stalking the coyote. Mary will be more than pleased with him if he brings her both the switch and one less headache. It goes from trudging and complaining to a silent young man following the tracks of his next target.

GM: The full moon serves as Brook’s nocturnal flashlight as night sinks into the sky. Unlike the hemlock, the coyote proves easily found. Less than a half-mile later, Brook hears the thing growling and yelping. Its predatory sounds mingle with the crunch of snow, the creak of cold branches, and most incongruently or at least disturbingly, the dull groans of a man.

Brook’s eyes drink in the moonlight, his own predatory instincts allowing him to visually tear apart the scene down to its marrow. The man is a Mooner. He’s nearly frozen to death, supine in the snow, his skin an eerie blue and his eyes circling like buzzards in his skull. One of his legs has clearly been shattered and twisted at a sickening angle. Somehow the man is alive. And more bizarrely, he seems to be enjoying his death.

The coyote is gnawing on the man’s pinky. It grows ravenously, shaking its head back and forth, shredding the man’s finger off his hand. It begins lapping up the blood which flows from torn appendage. The man moans. In pleasure.

Brook: Brook takes it all in, a mix of emotions going through his head before he puts it all down and narrows it down to one. Duty. Whether this man is enjoying himself or not, it’s the young man’s job to save him. Using the element of surprise, he slowly raises his weapon and doesn’t dare breathe as he squeezes the trigger. The shot runs out through the whole forest as one predator strikes out at another.

GM: The slug slams into the coyote’s skull. The predator instantly goes down like a puppet with cut strings. No yelp of pain. Just a hunger cut off mid-growl. Whether the preteen grunts or cries out from the kickback of the gun is another matter, and a secret that neither the insensate coyote or insane man will ever share. The gunshot does seem to snap the dying biker back to reality or at least near its zip code. He begins to scream.

Brook: Brook’s shoulder throbs at the kickback of the weapon, teeth grit in pain for a moment before he realizes it’s the only time he’s needs to use the weapon for the moment. It’s good the poor animal hasn’t a clue how it died, but he’s got more pressing matters. This biker is going to die without his help.

Dropping his backpack, he grabs out his kits, putting the safety on the gun as he sets it down, spent shell in the chamber still. With his supplies, he rushes to the biker’s aid. “It’s okay! It’s okay, I’m Brook, I’m here to help you get out of here! Give me your hand!” Brook already has the first aid kit in his hands, grabbing for the biker’s wrist.

GM: It’s hard to tell if the biker’s screams become slurred curses or remain thoughtless, pain–born noise. Despite his callow age, Brook has been raised for moments like these. Years of training–didactic, observational, and experiential–kick in for the ranger-raised preteen. The Mooner’s eyes continue to swirl, but his screams subside. By the time Brook finally staunches the bleeding wound, the biker’s blue lips mumble. The mumble turns into a strange song:

“An ye gae soon to Damburrow toon, Yer breech–cuff cinch up ladder or lasse. For theyre sure to comme ’roon, Up frae under the groom, ’Aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

That’s when the coyote stands up.

Brook spots it, its head still smashed in by the well-aimed shotgun slug. One moment, the corpse is still and un-breathing, fur, bone, and blood splattered around its head as a crown on the moonlit snow. And then, inexplicably, terribly, it rises. Groggily as if waking from a deep sleep. The slug remains buried in its brain. Blood drips from the massive gunshot. Blood drips from its teeth.

The corpse-coyote does not breathe. But it sniffs the air. And smells prey. Its howl tears through the cold-dead night. Its feral pack answers in kind.

Brook: This is Brook’s purpose. Many people think it’s insane for Mary Madcatcher to send her boy out into these forests alone, like he’s doomed to die the moment his mother isn’t with him. But they don’t understand. Mary trusts him to become strong, to become an alpha. Moments like these are why. Listening to the biker start to deliriously go on as he works, it’s the sound of the coyote standing that drains the sound out of everything else in the forest.

He doesn’t look at first, reaching and grabbing his weapon as he hears the coyote howl with what should have been a head separated off its shoulders. But silence gives way to a cacophony of death. Coyotes are flippant when it comes to packs, either very small ones or ones that are easily broken up, until there’s larger prey to hunt.

That prey isn’t Brook. He refuses. These are his woods, he’s the one being groomed for alpha status, he will survive. He is the son of Mary Madcatcher, the boy born of the Green Lady, he is a predator too! Turning with a snarl, he pumps the gun, sending the spent shell spinning into the snow, before he turns the sights on the coyote. That’s when the horror hits him.

There’s nothing left of one side of its head, caved in and thrown into the snow by a speeding slug, and here it stands. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t breathe but it howls, it has no mind but it smells, it’s dead but has rejected Old Lady’s decision and risen back again. It’s not possible. Fear swells in the boy’s chest as his heart races, but other emotions come with it, eyes flicking to the Mooner in concern, teeth gritting in anger, muscle tensing in preparation. Brook pulls the gun up, pointing at the coyote, and squeezes the trigger once more. It must stop moving, and then Brook must run.

GM: The thing lunges at Brook with wide-open jaws, its bloody fangs seeking to tear out his throat with a psychotic rage. As the scared but defiant preteen raises his shotgun, the corpse coyote nearly swallows the gun’s barrel just as Brook squeezes the trigger. The beast’s lunge and shotgun blast knock the boy to the ground. Snow flies up around him and the cold, hard ground crunches on his already sore shoulder.

The thing however is flung backwards, away from Brook and the gibbering, insensate biker. The boy hears bone and pulpy brain matter splatter the snow-carpeted leaves of a nearby pine. The violent impact and discharge cause the snow to crash like an arboreal avalanche, buying the corpse coyote in a ghost–white grave.

In the distance–but shorter distance now–Brook hears the coyote pack. Moonlight cuts through the forest like cold knives. Brook’s breath steams. The biker groans. The mound lays still.

Brook: It’s a moment in slow motion. Brook can almost feel his pupils dilate, ready to show him a life flashing before his eyes, swears he could feel tooth on steel. Before the pain strikes, a shooting pain through his shoulder as time hits play again and sends him sprawling. Blood everywhere, what can only be brain, and these FUCKING snow fleas.

But when the preteen jerks up to see if he’s yet dead, it’s a moment he knows he can’t waste, the pile of snow unmoving. Like he’s caught in a trap, the young man scrambles up with his shotgun and runs to the biker, hefting him onto his back to keep him warm and get him the fuck out of here.

It’s starting to hurt. Ache in his shoulder from his own weapon, a slight burn in his lungs from effort in the cold air, and the dull thrum of a day outside in his thighs and calves. He ignores it for now, knowing how much worse it will get as he hoists the backer over his beck, grabbing both the stock and the barrel and using it as a bench for him to sit on, before he hears it.

They’re coming for him.

Brook sprints off down the path he’d taken, letting his world fade out as he focuses on survival and duty, tunnel vision as his legs slam into the snow, his breath heavier and heavier steam. Red Aspen can’t be far. Brook doesn’t pray, but he quietly pants out his pleas to the wood and snow around him.

“Please. Please let me get him out. Please.”

GM: Ko’komiki’somm answers.

The full moon lights up his hard-packed trail he’s backtracking on, back to Red Aspen, back to his mother, back to home, and away, away. The bright moon paints the trees and rocks in stark relief, their black blurs rushing past him. It’s almost as if he can feel the moon seep into his veins, feeding his young muscles and bones with strength enough to not only heft and carry the adult biker, but to RUN.

The biker smells of blood, frostbite, booze, and fouler things, but the sixth grader miraculously does not lose his grip. Nor does his footing fail. His heart feels like it is about to burst. But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t slow. He runs. The howls of the pack become a distant keen on the wind. He runs. The howls die in the darkness. He runs. He smashes through branches, not stopping as they whip his face and threaten to trip his feet. He runs. And he reaches Red Aspen.

Brook: He runs.

Brook feels his body start to scream. Heavy copper blood in his mouth from biting down mixing with the taste of the snot leaking down on his lips, tears stinging his eyes. Ko’komiki’somm feels… alive. As though the moon as summoned drums. As though the world is just this moonlit train in the forest, the slumbering pines around him each beating a drum, the moon leading the ritual. Putting a chant in their hearts that reaches Brook.

RUN!

Everything hurts. Everything feels as though he’s being ripped up from the inside out.

Brook runs.

Coming out of the tree line, his stone fortress calls him, and everything begins to shake. The 12-year-old’s arms fail, his legs give out, everything all at once as he plummets just feet from his front door, sobbing hysterically in pain with what little breath his burning lungs will let him without agony. His face cuts and marks on the pebble studded snow, the smell of gasoline and blood heavy as he writhes with the weight of the biker still warmed by his burning back. Keeping his heart beating, Brook hopes. What’s next takes everything left in the boy, the last of his fear summoned energy.

Brook howls, his voice spitting blood out on the snow as he screams as loud as his throat can handle, straight at that heavy wooden door.

GM: The primal howl echoes across the summit of Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Atop that peak, Akipunni Station, stands vigil. In the moonlight, its stone flashes like silver save for the deep, dark gouges left by generations of mad, rabid, frenzying bears, elk, cougars, moose, and worse. Tonight, Brook can almost feel those gouges on his skin, his throat, his heart. But his heart keeps beating and his throat does not choke as he gives himself to his atavistic howl. Somewhere, from some unseen distant summit or hollow, other howls rip at the night’s silence. Brook has little time or energy left to listen to them, though, as the door to the firewatch station flies open.

Mary Madcatcher stands in the threshold, stout and strong as her firewatch station. She brandishes a pump shotgun and lit kerosene torch in each hand. The latter’s blue flame casts Mary’s androgynous, leathery face in a wild, menacing light. Gazing upon his mother now, Brook must reconsider the local icebox gossip: perhaps his adopted mother did rip off the balls of a live, raging grizzly bear with her bare hands. Her fearsome mien softens or at least pauses as she regards her son. Her dark eyes crease with concern… and maybe awe or love… or is it fear?

But her expression hardens like flint as she makes out the identity of the blue-skinned biker slung across her son’s back. Her brow creases so sharply, Brook thinks it could chop down a tree. She shuts off the kerosene torch and strides forcefully towards her spent boy. With one hand, she far from gently picks up the injured, dying biker, relinquishing her son of his burden, and drops the freezing man like unwanted dung. She spares a moment to sweep her taut gaze down encroaching forest slopes before turning to her son. That same gaze similarly inspects him: for danger, injury, and trouble.

The biker groans as gravel shifts beneath his weight. He repeats the song, but this time his words are so very weak and broken: “…gae soon to Damburrow toon… up… lapse… sure to comme ’roon… aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

The movement of dark wings flit into a nearby ponderosa. Its boughs hide the bird, but its nocturnal cry cuts all too clearly in the quiet wake of Brook’s howl: a whippoorwill.

Brook: Brook swears he can feel the howls answer him, even after the true alpha of the forest all but kicks open the door to paradise open, fire and death in each hand. Like she’s not heard a boy, but an animal howl at her door. Maybe she’s right. Shaking and desperate on the ground, her adoptive son twitching and too tired to even sob as tears streak down his cheeks. But nothing can tear his eyes away from her face, indecipherable, even to him, until her eyes narrow down onto the life he’d so viciously protected.

As Mary pulls the biker off of her son, she triggers a deep panic in his chest, his glove coming off as it pulls out from under him, raking into the frozen gravel and clawing for the body he was trying to keep warm. The rest of his body stays silent, the muscles in his side spasming and contracting, cramping and screaming at the desperate boy to go limp and stay that way. But he can’t. They all need inside. They need inside now.

Barely able to get enough air in his lungs, the whippoorwill uneases the boy just enough to keep everything burning, screaming, just awhile longer, tripping and choking on his own words. Every syllable nothing but pain to utter as his lungs burn and the core of his chest below the ribs begs him to stop. “Coyote… dead, I… still howled. The moon… it s-s-saved… th… they’re coming! H-help him!”

GM: Mary regards her son with an old pain in her eyes–or maybe one she’s long been dreading will come. She looks away at the moon, the mountain, and the man dying between them. She reignites the kerosene torch and stalks toward the biker. For one terrible moment, Brook is sure Mary is going to use the blowtorch to burn him alive. But she instead sets down the torch a safe stride away from the insensate man. Blue flame-light and black shadows war over his skin and clothes.

Meanwhile, the whippoorwill whispers its name into the night, again and again like a spiral song. Mary spares it a glance, then returns to her son. She cups her strong calloused hands on his cheeks and wordlessly presses her forehead to his. She seems to breathe into Brook a measure of… not quite calm or peace, but at least shared strength. Togetherness.

She breaks the rare moment of tenderness and begins to brush and pluck off the many branches stuck in Brook’s coat and hair. As she picks up one tiny branch, both she and Brook recognize it as being a swig of hemlock. Mary holds it before her son’s gaze and adds, “Too small to teach.”

She smiles. She then collects the small branches and twigs and a nearby brittle pine-cone and returns to the torch. Her broad flat back is turned to Brook as she squats down on her haunches. Unable to directly see what his mother is doing, he nonetheless recognizes the crackle of wood and growing glow of orange flames.

“Go inside,” Mary says. “Get supplies for the night. I will tend the fire.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t know, hasn’t stopped to think that this biker, in another state of mind might throw a bottle at him screaming ‘snow nigger’ at the top of his lungs. It isn’t about that in the young boy’s heart, either because of his reflex of duty to save the man, or the adrenaline blinding him to the consequences. Maybe both. But watching his mother stalk towards the biker, torch in hand, a glimmer of strength throbs through his body, foot dragging up, gearing to leap before the cord tightening scream of his muscles shut him down.

It’s like another weight lifts off his shoulders when the moment passes, he sees his mother’s compassion, putting the torch down before returning to him.

Affection, the feeling of thick cool skin against his cheeks, and the warm press of her forehead. It’s almost too much. Brook’s strength returns just enough for his body to reflexively shudder in an overwhelmed sob in his next breath, like simple gesture was gifted by god. Mary’s yearly joke and that rare smile only make it worse, before he gets his order and raises slowly to his feet.

Blood runs to the boy’s head as his marrow sprints to pump the energy back into his muscle, whip-poor-will mocking his weakness.

Brook returns from out of station a new man, what he’d left of the kit he took into the forest dropped to be sorted out later as he carried out arm fulls of supplies, putting his mother’s folding chair out for her by the fire, a blanket over the top half of the biker, and a pre-made splint for the leg as he carefully kneels on the opposite side of the man, getting to work. His newly loaded shotgun at his side as he glances at the tree line.

“I… I begged to get away from them. They weren’t really coyotes. Ko’komiki’somm. I think she answered me.”

His face is nervous as he looks up at his mother. He’s always resisted her stories, always pushed back against the beliefs of his people. Being a half-breed is hard, and he’s always been too spiteful to entertain his mother’s tales as anything other than campfire stories, or heavy handed anecdotes. This is different. He’s now a scared young boy fresh from hell, wondering if the moon truly cares about him. Enough to keep him awake at night.

GM: In Brook’s absence, Red Aspen’s head ranger has created a roaring fire that pushes back both cold and darkness. The crackle of logs and popping of embers drowns out the whippoorwill’s song–if indeed it remains. The nearby biker shudders as sensation slowly returns to his frost-bitten skin, but he is still supine and silent save for his chattering teeth and groans. Besides the fire, Mary has clearly made no move to help the injured man.

In contrast, she readily welcomes Brook into her circle of fire and light. Her gaze softens with appreciation as her son brings out her folding chair, and she holds her tongue as Brook resumes first aid on the biker. Shotgun in hand, she positions her chair so her back faces the firewatch station and provides an open view of the alpine mountain slope. Sitting, she remains vigilant, save for a reluctantly short glance up at the full moon.

“Ko’komiki’somm…” her flat lips whisper into the night, like a grown child speaking the name of a dead parent. She then breathes in and out, as stoking a second fire inside her mind or heart. “Two stories of Mother Moon I say now.” Shotgun cradled and ready in her lap, she begins the first.

“It is cold now, son. One summer it was just as hot. There was a girl, about your age, named Feather–Woman. Her lodge was too hot to sleep, so she went out into grass to rest. She awoke just as Morning Star, son of Mother Moon, arose. She gazed at his brightness. He was beautiful, and she could not help but love him. She woke her sisters, and said, ‘Oh, sisters, look at the Morning Star! I will never marry anybody except that Star!’”

“Her sisters laughed at her, then ran to the tribe and told the others what Feather–Woman had said. They all laughed and mocked her. But Feather–Woman, she did not care. Her heart knew what it knew. She was as she was. Each day, she woke at dawn to gaze on Morning Star.”

“One morning early, Feather–Woman went alone to the river, to fetch water for the lodge. There, she beheld a bright man standing in the river. ‘Feather–Woman,’ said he, smiling, ‘I am Morning Star. I have seen you looking, and am now come to carry you back with me to my home.’ At this, Feather–Woman shook. Then Morning Star took from his head a rich yellow plume. He placed it in her right hand, while in her other hand he put a branch of sweet wood. He said, ‘Close your eyes’. She did so.”

“When she opened her eyes, she was in the Sky–Country. She stood in front of a shining lodge, and Morning Star was by her side. This was his home, and that of his father and mother, Sun and Moon. Sun was away, working. But Ko’komiki’somm, Mother Moon, was at home. She welcomed Feather–Woman. She dressed the girl in a soft robe of buckskin trimmed with elk-teeth. When Sun came back that night, he called Feather Woman his daughter. She was married to Morning Star, and they lived happily in the shining lodge. They had a son. They named him, Poia, Star-Boy.”

“One day, Moon gave Feather–Woman a root–digging stick, and told her to go about the Sky–Country. ‘Dig up all roots–,’ she said, ‘–but one. Never touch the Great Root that grows near Spider’s lodge. Do so–,’ she warned, ‘–and unhappiness will come’.”

Mary stops momentarily as Brook resets the biker’s broken limb. Once the terrible night-rending screams end with the man passing out from pain, shock, and blood loss, Mary continues her tale:

“Day after day, Feather Woman went out and dug roots. She often saw the Great Root. She never touched it, but her heart yearned to see what lay beneath it. Curiosity grew. One day, it grew so big it swallowed her. She laid Star–Boy on the ground. She took her root-digger, then dug around the Great Root. But the digger stuck in the Root. Feather–Woman could not pull it free. She called two cranes flying overhead to help her. They sang a secret magic song, and the Great Root uprooted.”

“Then Feather–Woman looked down through the hole where the Root had been. Far below, she saw the camp of the tribe, where she had lived. Smoke rose from the lodges. She heard laughing children and singing women. Now she was swallowed by homesickness. She went back to the shining lodge, weeping.”

“As she entered, Morning Star say her tears. ‘Feather–Woman,’ he said, ‘You uprooted the Great Root!’ Sun and Moon also were sad, for they knew she disobeyed. Sad was Morning Star when he took Feather Woman by the hand, placed little Star–Boy upon her shoulder, and led her to Spider who lived in the Sky–Country. Then Spider wove a web through the hole made by the Great Root, and let Feather–Woman and her child down to earth. Her people saw her coming like a falling Star.”

“Her family welcomed her and loved little Star-Boy. But Feather Woman was unhappy. She wanted to return to Sky–Country and see Morning Star. But she wanted in vain. Soon her unhappy life ended.”

The first story told, Mary Madcatcher grows quiet. The fire crackles. She finally looks over at the now unconscious but splinted Mooner. Her flame-lit face hardens like drying leather. “Now, son, listen again.” She looks up at the moon, naked and pregnant with light.

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

“Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

She pauses momentarily as if trying to recapture her thoughts, then begins again. “Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“The next morning very early she saw the Snake again. This time she stopped a long time–so long that Sun started out from the lodge before she reached home. He wondered what kept her so long. He suspected Snake. He thought long. He decided to watch and try to catch them together. So every morning, Sun left the lodge a little earlier than before. One morning, just as he climbed a mountain, he saw Big Snake talking to Moon. That made him angry. You can’t blame him. His wife was spending her time loafing with Snake.”

She looks back up at the sky. “When Moon saw Sun, she ran away. She ran to Sun’s lodge and left Snake on the mountain. Sun wasted no time. He grabbed Snake. Sun was angry! Big Snake begged. He promised never to speak to Moon again. But Sun had him. Sun smashed Snake into thousands of little pieces, all of different colors from the different parts of his painted body. The little pieces each turned into a little snake. Now they were all too small for Moon to notice. That is how so many Snakes came into the world.”

Mary turns to regard her son across the fire. She stands and adds another log to the flames. “Snakes. They come in many colors. Many shapes.” She looks meaningfully at the biker. The grip on her shotgun tightens.

Brook: Brook listens intently to the woman’s stories as his hands get to work bending the biker, a hand on his ankle and a hand on his knee, waiting for a suitable moment in the story to suddenly force the bone into place, rushing to brace and tie it before it bemds in a bad way. The boy sits cross legged after he’s paid a blanket over the life he’d ripped from the wood, a hand kept on his chest as he settled in to listen. Keeping feeling his breathing. If it stops, the boy has to act as fast as he can.

Both stories are heavy with meaning, making even her son stare at the moon unblinking, searching for any kind of meaning. If there’s any day he soon will listen to the stories of his people, it’s today, after Moon herself touched his heart.

But it’s a hard pill to swallow all the same, and he looks down with pity at the man he’s sure in any other situation have been his enemy. Brook wonders on the nature of a snake, looking out into the woods. It’s never been an issue for them, with the insanity these woods brought down with them each day. Reaching, Brook grabs his own shotgun off the ground and pulls the pump back, picking up the spent case off the ground, just staring at it for a moment.

“I snuck up on it. It took his finger. It was going to take his life. I… the shot was perfect. It shouldn’t have suffered. It was laying in the snow peacefully. I tended to him, but… I-It stood up. It wasn’t breathing, but it howled for the rest of its kind! I couldn’t leave him there. Not to those things. I couldn’t. Even a snake doesn’t deserve to be taken by something so WRONG.”

Gripping his own shotgun, his eyes turn back to the tree line again, unblinking. “What if I’ve been wrong to ignore your stories? What if there are spirits? If the moon… if Moon really did summon the drums I felt, and lead me out of that forest. What if I… am I only alive because the Green Lady, or a Big Snake lurking inside her?”

GM: “NO!”

Mary’s shout roars out so suddenly and loudly that Brook has a split second when he thinks his mother’s shotgun has fired. She turns away, her wide back and thick muscles still visible despite her Park Ranger coat. She shakes her head. Slowly. Her breath steams in the cold.

“No, son.” She turns back and kneels beside Brook. “Don’t ever say that.”

Brook: Brook jumps at the sudden yell, looking up at his mother rather fearfully for a split second before he softens again. She seems distressed. Having her come to sit by him calms him a little, he looks a little ashamed now, a little scared. “What am I supposed to think, then? What am I supposed to do with all of this? Is this why I can’t sleep at night? Does the moon pay attention to me?”

GM: Mary’s flat leathery face tightens. Her jaws flexes once, twice like she’s gnawing on a tough piece of raw hide that she eventually gives up on. “I don’t know, Brook.”

She places a calloused hand on his shoulder, their faces close. “But promise me–promise me that you’ll stay away from Snakes. All of them. Moonbrood. Coyotes. Remember the Moon. Remember Feather–Woman. Don’t go digging up the Great Root.” Her hand leaves his shoulder. “It… it will only bring unhappiness.”

Brook: Brook’s head swims. Witiko Falls has been his home for as long as he can remember, but more and more he realizes the horror it holds for someone like him. His own face turns to the moon once again, and then the wood, and then to his mother’s face as she puts her hand on his shoulder. It’s not the message he’s hoping for, there’s no answers from her, just a life of fighting snakes she’s trying to make him promise to never really look at. It’s disheartening. Anger builds up in his chest more and more, but he chokes it down, looking down at the ground and clawing his fingers through the gravel. It feels like he’s suffocating.

He doesn’t know what to say, or how to say it. It’s a horrible thought, that his mother has just been fighting and fighting and fighting, and never asking questions as to how she can stop it. “Are you unhappy?”

GM: Mary’s face is backlit by the fire as she answers, “You are my happiness.”

Her rough hand then reaches back up and curls around her son’s neck in a firm mother-bear vise. Her eyes are dark as she adds, “Now promise me, Brook. Promise me you won’t go hunting for that coyote. That you’ll stay away from Snakes like this man and his brood. Promise me and Moon.”

Brook: Her answer hurts. But her question stands, and the feeling of that hand on the back of his neck drives it home that she needs him to to promise her this. “I won’t go hunting for that coyote, and I’ll try to stay away from the Moonbrood. I promise. But… but Mom, I… I still want to learn more. More about the Green Lady. More about Moon. If Moon can touch me, could we… talk?”

GM: At Brook’s promise, Mary sighs with the weight of maternal fatigue measured in years. Eight, to be exact. The creases around those eyes tighten in some private, silent war. Eventually, her dark eyes open and regard Brook. She tugs at his ear like a lupine nip, but there’s no smile on her face as she answers, “Curiosity swallowed Feather-Woman. But it is time. Or soon enough. Time to talk to great-grandmother.”

She stands and makes another long, slow scan of their surroundings. “When morning comes, I will call Nittawosew.” She looks up at the moon which still rises in the winter sky. “Tonight, there will be no rest.” She looks back to her green-eyed adopted son. “I will call an ambulance. You wait. Watch. Snakes left this one. Others tried to claim him.” She pauses, then passes him her shotgun. “More may yet.”

Brook: Brook meets his mother’s dark eyes, searching for a glimmer of understanding. Much as he knows Mary is iron-clad, she’s proven today to be more cautious than her boy can ever stand to be. The Great Root. It isn’t a perfect analogy. What if the root was on the ground here with them, what if the root peeks down into something rotten. But finally Brook’s mother says something that can calm his fear and curiosity. Great-Grandmother. Talking with elders puts him on edge, but Brook nods resolute. Taking his mother’s gun and smoothing his hand over it, a look not unlike his mother’s flint hardened glare passes over at the darkness of the tree line.

“They’ll try.”

Pointedly, he holds up the blown out slug casing he’d used to put the coyote under the snow, a shiver going through his form before he shoves it into the breast pocket of his jacket, his hand returning to the Biker’s forehead after getting out a canteen of water, hoping he’ll wake up soon. But a lump in his throat forms rather quickly, remembering again why he was in those woods to begin with. How small and petty that little fight seems now.

“Mom? I… I’m sorry if I worried you, I don’t—I mean with Nelson. I got so angry, and… it was stupid. I’m sorry.”

GM: Mary picks up the small switch of hemlock and tosses it into the still-roaring fire. As she walks into the station, Brook hears her words carried on the wind:

“Maybe not too small to teach.”

GM: As Brook turns his attention back to his now stabilized ‘patient’, the preteen has his first chance to inspect the man whom he saved from the coyote horror.

Fortunately for both the biker and Brook, he’s a small man. Thick elbows. Round shoulders. Stomach like a whole-boned ham. He’s middle-aged, but his facial features have some undefinable impish quality otherwise marred by unkempt ugliness. His gray–spit hair is wild, from his gnarled mutton–chops to his partial unibrow. His black leather jacket bears a full moon patch, and his neck is adorned with several chains, featuring bats, dragons, and ineffable shapes. His long-johns are torn and one sleeve bloodied from his torn off finger. His jeans have old bullet-holes in them that hint at dark tattoos.

Brook: Despite his mother’s distaste and outright hate for the man, Brook has a hard time straying from the snake in biker’s clothes, keeping him breathing steadily with a canteen nearby for when he wakes up. He’ll be sore as all hell, but damned if he isn’t going to live through it after today. Tattoos have always fascinated the young man, always having wanted to get, despite the very real possibility his mother won’t let him see another day. But they’re only so interesting for awhile, Brook shaking the man.

“Wake up, big guy, we’ve gotta get water into you so you can warm yourself up.”

GM: The biker slowly rouses. His dilated pupils remain loose marbles in his eyes. He opens his mouth, and Brook sees his teeth–which resemble a busted piggy bank someone tried to glue back the shards into place, and failed. Badly.

The man barks out, his arms flailing weakly. “Dinnae flap! I widnae buy frae that sleekit bastart!” Brook can almost see the line of pain jolt from the man’s gnawed off finger to his addled brain. “Dobbers!” He stops flailing. Mostly. His two eyes momentarily focus on Brook. He gives a snaggle- and gap–toothed grin.

Laird_Duff.jpg

Brook: Brook pulls his hood down, showing off the short jet black hair on his head as well as a relieved smile, even as the man flails around in a silly-looking panic. Despite how ugly he is, he’s still alive. Rather it was a life without dentists, bad genes, or too many blows to the face, the accent is the ugliest thing about him. He’s barely intelligible. Once he calms down and even grins up at his young savior, Brook offers him the canteen full of water. Even snakes gotta drink.

“Your leg is broken and your pinkie was gnawed off by a coyote. But you’re alive. The ambulance is coming to pick you up now.”

GM: The man’s breath reeks of hard booze, as he takes to the canteen like a teat. “Ah mad wae it, loon… but I cannae say nae to a bevy.” He sips, coughs, and sputters as the water hits him. He shivers viciously, as if finally realizing he’s thawing from near full-body frostbite. He closes his eyes. “It’s chankin!”

And then, as if Brook’s words slowly reach the man’s besotted brain, his eyes yell open as he holds up his hand and sees–or more accurately does not see–his missing finger. “Ma facking hawn!”

Brook: It’s starting to make more and more sense as Brook listens to the man, hoping it’ll keep on that way as he keeps watch over the man. Everything is going to hit him at once, the young mutt knows this, and as it happens he already knows what he should say to get him calm and collected. Brook shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls out the spent casing, showing it to the biker with a bit of a grin on his own face. If he keeps it around, he’ll just wonder harder, anyway.

“The ambulance is on it’s way, they’ll have something to take the pain away. As for the coyote, it was chewing on you pretty hard until I put a slug in it’s skull. Keep this, it saved your life.”

GM: The biker takes the spent casing and stares at it long and hard, as if he’s wondering whether he should eat it or worship it. He squints, his pupils playing pinball once more. “Hawd, the laddies and ah… horra sesh… rat-arsed… radge… cannae ’member…” He looks down as his splint leg. “O’ dunderhead, ah chatty’d ma breeks!” He struggles to look around. “Gaun yersel, Laird Duff, yer a bampot!”

Brook: Brook keeps his seat and watches him, peeking up to check the tree line and then the road, hoping for an ambulance. But it’s better to keep him talking, keep his mind off his injuries while making him aware of them so he doesn’t freak out. With the casing out of his hands now, he feels a little better, and even the biker is trying to put himself back together. Even dropping his name, or so the youngster thinks.

“Laird Duff? Is that your name? I’m Brook Barnes, a ranger.”

GM: The biker shivers, the shell held fast in his unmaimed hand. He gives another dentists’ nightmare–smile. “Brook Barnes… why yer jist a wee bairn! Foos yer doos?”

Brook: Brook’s lost the plot. Wee ‘bairn’ is clear enough, in the sense that bairn doesn’t have to mean anything for the mutt to know he’s being called a kid. But ‘Foos yer doos’? Celtic punk is the only reason he’s gotten this far, but what the everliving fuck. He ignores it, looking over at the tree line again. “You said you didn’t remember what happened? I had to carry you and run.”

GM: “Mah manky burd… she cowked af’er gobbin’ me…” He looks at Brook again as if registering the youth’s claim. “Where am ah?”

Brook: “Red Aspen. The ranger station. You’re safe, I promise.”

GM: He groans. “O’ ma heid. Ma hawn… Ah am maist oot yer nut…” A log pops in the fire, sending a shower of embers into the air.

Brook: Gibberish again. At least the second part. Brook all but gives up. “Just rest, the ambulance will have morphine for your hand and leg.”

GM: He smiles again. “Meltit ’ere ah cumm…” He gives a chuckle that makes him subsequently wince and wheeze with pain. “Bout now, ah jist need a peedy tan…” He eyes the canteen.

Brook: Brook just smiles and offers it to him right away, knowing that the best thing for him right now was to get something in him. After such a rough night especially. The young boy doesn’t say a word, not knowing… exactly what he’s replying to if he does.

GM: He nods in gratitude after the drink, his eyes slowly settling. “Bawsack, it’s baltic ootside, laddie…” He crooks a finger for the boy to come closer.

Brook: Brook chuckles, finally something he understands, it’s cold as the Baltic. But the Mooner has a blanket, and the fire is still roaring. As the biker asks him to come closer, the boy unfolds his legs and carefully puts the gun back behind him, shuffling in closer and leaning over just a little, like they’re sharing a secret.

GM: The man’s drunken breath hits Brook’s ear as the biker whispers, “Maebee och awa an dinna talk pish… er no. Ah din tink no… Laird Duff thanks ye, laddie, uncoly… nou ah aint ‘ave ma spondoolies… but yer a cannie loon.. ah’ma gie’s ye a big yin…”

He unfolds his hand with the shotgun shell, then points to his necklaces as if indicating Brook should choose one. There are seven total, and he (presumably) counts each one. “Ane, twa, three, fower, five, sax, sieven.” All seven necklaces appear to be made of gold chains, though each has a distinct medallion hanging from its nadir.

The first is mushroom forged of some dark material.

The second looks like a misshapen cloud or half-kneaded pile of dough.

The third is a bird, a whippoorwill.

The fourth is a small plain locket.

The fifth is dragon made of some green gemstone.

The sixth is a bat.

The seventh is a heart.

Brook: Brook keeps up with the man for the most part in what he’s saying. That he thanks the young man, and that he didn’t have his… spondoodlies? Some kinda cookie? Like snickerdoodles? But he gets the message clear when the biker opens up and offers him things from the selection of medallions. It’s incredibly generous! And turning this down is rude. Snake may be beautiful, but many animals reward kindness towards them. Snakes keep away rats. Crows bring you baubles.

“This is very generous! I was just doing my job, I… thank you.”

Looking through them as he counts them off, he can’t help but feel guilty to be taking these. He can’t take the locket, much as he’s curious as to what’s inside, it may be personal. But the heart? That’s something he can relate to, the boy a sixth grade ball of hormones, and falling for every girl who so much as looked at him. Cautiously, Brook nods to the seventh.

“I’m a bit of a sap, Mr. Duff. I’ll wear it every day.”

GM: ‘Laird Duff’, if that indeed is his name, smiles widely with his crooked mishmashed teeth. “Tekul… hoora tekul.” With help, he slides off the necklace. It hangs from well-worn white gold. Two hoops hang those chains. The first holds an anatomical heart made of iron or so alloy the preteen cannot place. There is some inscription on its loop that Brook cannot make out in the flickering firelight. The second, lesser medallion seems to be made of a lighter metal wound around a dark red gemstone that swallows the fire.

Heart_Necklace.jpg

“Haur ye gae!” the biker says with another puckish, horrid-toothed grin.

As Brook slips on the necklace, the man’s grin changes. Transforms. Something seems to slither up the man’s eyes and face, a wave of something ineffable and awful, something that smells of childhood nightmares, or night-terrors that made and still make him wet his pants.

The biker clutches at the boy with his hand, holding the already close youth even closer till he is nearly gnawing on Brook’s ear. Brook feels, smells, and tastes the mingling of fear-sweat and foul booze and fouler chemicals leaking from the biker. Leaking. Spreading. Infecting.

“Dinnae be feart ta confront yerself, laddie! Dinnae deny wha ye am! Yer yaks gobbed din truth tonite. Ye leuk’d inwith tonite, ye’ve seen yer inner be’en fer what tis. Tha openin’ of yer yak, laddie, tha firs’ leuk beyond, tha entrance to tha Een Circle –ye’ve fackin’ made it! Ye cannae turn ‘way from tis darkness–tis inwith ye! Suppressin’ tha dubh jist gaes it mair power tah slitter tha blind side o’ yer soul! Dis is tha pit at tha center o’ a’thing–ye gotta dive in and fackin’ stare it dunn, laddie, list ye fall to tha clutches o’ foebok and cumm a slave ta fear!!!!”

The voice of the man–if he is one–transforms into the sound of rushing waters. His fingers turn into a burlap sack of sheet that swallows up Brook in its tangled, freezing wet cloth. The fire, light, and heat instantly vanish into abyssal darkness.

GM: Strong arms heft the four–year–old Brook from the frigid river. The murderous swaddling is pulled back. Writing is on the bed-sheet, written in blood so thick and foul that the river could not–can never–wash it away. The river’s currents shift, changing from alpine water to blood to water to millions of pills.

p u t i t b a c k

The transmogrifying current whispers.

p u t

i t

b a c k

The currents swirl around two strong legs, creating eddies of shifting spirals.

p u t

i t

b a c k

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

y o u r t r i b e

y o u r t o w n

p u t i t b a c k

Pills. Water. Blood. The strong hands begin to rewrap the young child in the wet, suffocating cloth. Soaked with water. Pills. Blood. Brook feels the darkness re–swallowing him as his small body is being entombed alive in soaking, gore–stained swaddling.

Brook: Everything shifts. First comes the snake’s crooked smile, then the young man as he’s pulled, and then simply everything. Suddenly Brook finds himself where everything has began, his oldest and more terrifying memory, made even more WRONG. Soaked burlap rubs his hands and feet raw as he struggles, limbs flailing, reaching for what he hopes is the sky, despite passing rocks sometimes battering his hands and legs.

Water. Blood. Pills.

It’s little comfort as someone plucks him from the seizure-inducing shifting of the river from familiarity, to sanguine terror, to a confusing nightmare. Exhaustion is the smallest thing in his mind at the moment, the small bundle of terror grabbing tight to the strong hands as his follow the burlap bag’s writing, looking for a way out. Some kind of hint on how best to struggle. But he hears the whispers, the river promising who he can only assume is his mother that he is evil. That he’s a bringer of ends.

Brook struggles again, screaming and kicking his legs as he’s suddenly wrapped up again. This isn’t right, this isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies! Swirling thick fear breaks, and the child feels it turn from horror, to desperation, and finally to rage. Falling silent, the child takes as much of a lung full as he can, letting everything out in one last defiant howl. As if he intends to break the burlap, the river, and even the hands pushing him back under. It isn’t Mary. She doesn’t put him back.

GM: The strong hands wrap the bloody cloth around and around him, an ever tightening and suffocating cocoon. The burlap’s weft and weave silence his scream. Crying will not free him. Mary does not care. Nor does the river. They know. What he is. What he will become.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

The river begins to seep into the cloth.

Seep into his lungs.

Water. Pills. Blood.

Brook: It rattles in the child’s head for a split second before his hands get to work. Screaming won’t save him, and if people won’t listen to his voice, he’ll- he’ll!

PUT ME DOWN!”

Brook lashes out, he bites and claws at the hands holding him, through the cloth, even his tiny feet digging toenail into the burlap hard enough he’s sure he’s ripping them off. It’s base, primal, and as his doom nears, the bag starts to fill, he cares less and less about the taste of blood in his mouth, or the incredible pain coming from his fingers and toes. He can almost feel his death, and he plans to face it fighting.

GM: He fights in vain. Will he die in vain? He’s too small, too weak. The cloth is too strong. Around and around. The strong hands tie the strands together into a constricting, tightening web. The river sucks the boy down its dark currents.

Blood. Pills. Water.

w h a t w i l l y o u d o

It’s whispering to him. It’s killing him.

w h a t

w i l l

y o u

d o

Brook: Vain or not, Brook keeps fighting. Whatever this is, whatever he’s been thrust into, he fights! This isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies, and the whispering can go FUCK itself. But these strong hands, these aren’t the hands that raised him, the ones that taught him how to fight. How to fight smart, to make it a hunt. The child lets his body go limp, relaxes with eyes closed, waiting for the hands to let go, thinking their job done. If he can’t force his way out, he’ll think his way out, preparing to spring the moment the hands release him, and answers the whispers only internally.

I will fight. With every last breath. Whatever I have to, for what I have to protect. Let me go.

GM: Every last breath. This one may be it. And he sucks it down, fighting against the panic as the cloth drops down hard into the river. It’s completely black. Cold. Suffocating. He can’t move. Can’t breathe.

w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o

The river continues to whisper. Continues to try to seep through the cloth-cocoon. Seep into his nose, his mouth, his ears.

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook: Brook’s plan has worked, as the hands wrapped him, he paid attention to rather he’s cocooned left or right. With all his power, he keeps fighting, imitating the Nile’s apex predator and rolling, spinning, spiraling the burlap sack, in an attempt to unwind himself. It’s cold, it keeps him awake. It’s black, it just blocks another sense so he can concentrate. It’s suffocating, a deep frustration in his gut pushing him on. Brook snarls at nothing, prepared to fight until his every light goes off.

WHATEVER I HAVE TO! I want to be free. I will be free. I’ll hunt anything that hurts my forest, my town, my family! FUCK not being curious. FUCK not being angry about how things are. I WILL FIGHT!

GM: So enraged, the boy’s death–spirals tear apart his woven web. His bestial scream tears from his lips and the river rushes in. It is no longer water nor pills. Only blood. It does not matter whose. He swallows it. It swallows him.

GM: Brook ‘awakens’ upon Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Blood fills his mouth and flows down his chin. The biker’s blanket has been torn to shreds, fibers and strands still drift weakly in the cold winter air. The fire is gone. The man is gone. Ko’komiki’somm sinks in the dark sky. She is still far from her lodge in Sky-Country, but she is tired. Weary.

As Brook stares down at the tatter–torn blanket, the moonlight reveals the cloth scraps are splattered with blood. The pre-teen feels his gorge rise, as if an entire river of blood wants to rush out of his mouth, but somehow the youth swallows it down. Again. A whippoorwill flits to a closer, shadowed bough, and sings.

Its nocturnal cry is interrupted as Mary Madcatcher once again bursts down the station’s front door. Her black eyes widen as she regards her adopted son. His green eyes. His bloody mouth. His fists clutching torn fabric.

Brook: Blood. Thick, warm, life-giving.

Brook startles ‘awake’, noticing the darkness of the camp site, the absence of the man, and…what’s in his hands. Blood, fiber gore, and a sense that something important has just transpired that he can’t put his finger on. It’s awful. It’s sickening. His body fights the urge to vomit, and he has to spit out a chunk of a meal he’d had the previous day, that somehow made it through the slop shoved in his gullet. Nothing registers in the pre-teen’s mind, until he feels the crusted plasma of dried blood on his chin. It’s a flash of a thought, but it’s there, the worst case.

When his mother kicks open the door, he barely hears it, he only hears the deafening warnings of a bird he feels ‘his people’ are right to be wary of. He just stares weakly back at her a moment, his body shivering, before he looks confused back down at the bed, at what’s in his hands, and the dark fire-spot. His tired body and fractured mind seem to just watershed what he knows he should be feeling, all he feels is this queasy confusion, a numbness he can’t place.

“I-I just… he was… the river. Pills. Water. Blood.” Brooks collapses over on his side, limp.

GM: Mary rushes to rescue the boy. Just as she did eight years ago. This time, it’s the whippoorwill rather than the river that sings the same words from that fateful day:

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

This time, she wraps him in nothing but her own strong arms and races him inside their home. Her arms are strong. But the boy is growing. She holds him tight. But he will break free.

10.08.1998, Thursday evening

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood.

Brook: Brook’s face falls at the memories flooding back, the taste of blood in his mouth again. Whose blood, it doesn’t matter, but it brings back plenty of horror, plenty of memories, and even more frustrations. Just one name, though.

Still ignoring the silent one close to him, he doesn’t break eye contact with the alpha, reaching up to his neck and pulling on the chain, bringing out the heart. He’s kept it with him all these years, and he doesn’t leave it out too long for the bikers to see, lest they take it from him if Laird Duff never made it back. After all this, perhaps it’s a way out, or at least a way to have these bikers think they know him.

“Laird Duff. His patch looked almost like yours. I don’t know exactly what happened that night, but I know he was one of you, wasn’t he?”

GM: Necklace and name give the bikers pause.

With Brook’s gaze fixed on the hulking alpha, the teen cannot be sure, but he thinks even the silent roadkill–eyed man takes a step back.

The woman licks her lips. Nervously? Hungrily? Brook does not know.

The bucket–helmeted older man begins scratching his arms. “Dribbles, dribbles, dribbles…” he repeats with a rising tic in his face.

“Laird?” the chained one asks, looking around at the others, unsure. “You mean the leprechaun?” he asks again, but receives a tight chain-jerk from his partner, who in turn silently stares at Brook’s medallion like he could eat it with his eyes.

“Shut your man-hole, prospect,” the alpha says, reproaching the black–moon patch wearing biker. “Al would flay your lady finger for saying he’s Irish.”

The bearded giant takes the smoldering joint back from his rider’s hand. “You’re Mary’s whelp.” It’s not a question.

Behind him, the short old biker continues to scratch like he’s caught mange. “Driiiiiiibbbbles,” he mutters between tics.

Brook: Brook stands his ground, eyes flashing over the chain gimp for a moment, before locking right back on the alpha. Though he can see that back-o-the-bike bitch licking her lips out the corner of his eye. Everything seems to give him a little space at the revelation. He’s not just some timber nigger stuck out in the middle of the road.

“Name’s Brook. Your friend Laird was out in the woods with a real cleanly broken leg and a lotta bad shit in his system. I dragged him—most of him—off a dinner plate. Is he still alive? I got questions for ’em. He showed me something. Something important about myself.”

GM: The massive alpha male eyes the tall adolescent as he sucks down the last of his joint. He flicks the spent weed-wrappings into the road. Brook’s gaze watches as the lipstick–smeared, paper-wrapped weed spirals through the air, smashing into the black asphalt, its psychotropic contents bursting and breaking in the wind.

The bearded giant sets down his bike and swings a meaty leg off his hog. “Blueballs Boone,” the biker says, presumably in reciprocated introduction. A last tendril of smoke escapes from his mouth, only to be sucked up his nostril.

‘Boone’ reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a tiny plastic bag. Inside is what appears to be a dollar bill, though its denomination is unclear due to the folds. The denim-clad biker gives Brook the plastic-sealed bill with a palmed handshake. Returning to his bike, he adds, “If you’re looking for answers on Duff, call the number.”

The other bikers seem to swivel their heads between Brook and Boone. None gainsay their evident leader, though.

Brook: Brook straightens his back when the alpha steps off his bike, rather he’s trying to appear bigger than he is, or just fix his posture to be polite, he can’t tell. It’s like a reflex in the presence of someone this large. Though his mother elicits much the same reaction. But as he steps up to the teen, and hands him the number, the teen is just as confused as he was before he asked the question. But it’s a step closer. Snake den or not, that night is… horror, and horror needs answers. Maybe Feather-Woman would pull that root faster if the sky was drowning in the same filth Witiko Falls is.

“Thanks, Boone. You got no idea how much this means after three years. How ’bout the red-eyed rider? One of you, or… just another devil in the Falls?”

GM: Boone re-saddles his hog, causing the black and chrome machine to sink into its shocks. His old lady begins rubbing the man’s thick thighs. The alpha ignores her, but turns back to the ranger cadet and answers: “When I blow up your ass, you’ll know whether it’s smoke or something else. As I said, these here are the Devil’s roads, and we’re riding after him.”

Brook: Much as the young man doesn’t desire the chewed up and spit out looking woman, the moment she pays attention to her man Brook feels a jealous absence. But he doesn’t let it interrupt their talk, and he thinks on the man’s words. Smoke. It’s nothing that makes good sense, but he nods all the same. It’s something he’ll have to look into himself or otherwise just avoid. There’s so much on his plate already.

“He doesn’t seem to like me, so I’ll leave these roads to you until I get the call to clear a furry corpse off it.”

GM: “Haps you jus’ needs to get to know ’im, sweetie,” the old woman says, slowly opening the side of her faux-fur coat to flash a pendulous breast. “Know what they says ’bout the devil you knows…” She licks her lips again.

“Dribbles,” echoes the biker behind them, his scratching subsided but not wholly abated.

The other men simmer like the heat that radiates off their hogs’ chop-block engines. Brook can feel the rising excitement, the near rev of the motors, the tense readiness of a pack about to ride.

The alpha cranks his hog, hard, but Brook still hears him as he turns again and says, “You could join us, you know.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap to the woman’s chest, betraying his hormones before he wrenches his gaze back to the alpha. Of all the times and places for a boy to see his first pair of tits, it just makes that absence grow bigger, making him think of June and Leanne, that lady cop, and even that redhead at the Shop-Plus. Above the din of motors, though, he hears the offer. It’s strange, but as much as he idolizes the freedom, he doesn’t jump at the chance. There’s things he has to do, promises to keep, responsibilities to fulfill.

“I don’t think I can, Boone. At least not yet. But hopefully I’ll see you again.”

GM: “Maybe sooner than you think,” Boone answers enigmatically before signaling to his pack to mount up. “The Devil’s not riding a tricycle–get riding!”

The other bikers comply all too willingly: shooting, hooting, and howling as they rev up and race away on the morbidly-named trail. Brook is left in the dark center of exhaust fumes and spiraling black tire-marks.

AM_old_b_w.png

10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: The rest of Brook’s ride to Red Aspen is–thankfully if unsurprisingly–uneventful. By the time Brook parks his truck on the pinging gravel area beside the station, thunderheads actively crawl across the sky, and the wind bends the pines with a rustle that echoes through the alpine valleys and crags.

Brook: Brook feels on edge through the entire drive up into his stony bastion, expecting a thunderclap to sound and a huge bird to land on his truck. Or for a vampire to jump out in front of his truck in an attempt to commit suicide. As much as both thoughts unease the teen, the deep-seated frustration over the stacking mysteries growing more and more as he dwells on it. On the vision. Put him back.

Once the teen reaches Red Aspen, it’s apparent that he’s in for quite the light show. It’s a great night night for him to take out a camera in between bolts of lightning.

GM: Beyond the threatening storm, Brook spots another sign of trouble: Chet is already waiting for him by the door, keys in hand. He doesn’t even wait for Brook to turn off the ignition switch before he jogs over to the driver’s window.

“I gotta ski-daddle, kid,” Chet says, pulling up his uniform’s hood and then smoothing his mustache as he tries to recall the list of information he’s supposed to convey. “So the walrus has us all hands on deck, combing the park trails. Everybody’s pulling an all-nighter. Your mom’s directing things on the ground, and I’m about to join her and the others. There’s a lot of chatter pinging back and forth, so keep the lines clear.”

He glances up as a splatter of rain hits the truck’s hood. “Dang,” he laments, then turns back to Brook. “So, just stand by in case anybody needs you, but we’ve got it covered. What else, oh yeah, your mom said to ‘do your homework’. Not kidding. She made me repeat it back to her.”

Chet looks somewhat sheepish and pushes his glasses up on his nose. “But heh, there’s some of that Britters’ ice cream in the freezer.” He smiles, then says, “Okay, I think that’s it, but I left written instructions up in the tower. Looks like we’re going to have one doodle of a light-show tonight, and you’ll have the best seat in the house.”

He gives Brook a two-fingered salute. “Skinny Chet out!” He runs over to his own park ranger truck, flicks on its lights and engines, and starts to back out and away. As the vehicle sweep around past Brook’s, Chet slows and rolls down his windows. “Oh, almost forgot to ask if you had any questions, kid? If so, make it snappy. I don’t want to driving when the rain-dance starts to really boogey.”

Brook: Of course skinny Chet has to be here. Just has to. Brook shuts the truck off and gives the man a deadpan look and several nods before he races to his truck and then proceeds to annoy the boy more. “If you see my mother, tell her I’ll have her coffee ready when she gets home. Now get!” Brook waves the white boy down the road, walking around the back of his truck and inside. He’s at least right about one thing. Brook sits down by the radio and starts his homework after a quick change. He’ll get this all done as fast as possible and then enjoy the storm. Maybe even call the number. Definitely call the number.

GM: True to Chet’s word, the tower has vanilla ice cream, quick if copious notes on the rangers’ overnight trail surveillance, and lots of radio chatter between his mother and the other NPS staff. There’s also a voice message, if the blinking light on the radio station’s answering machine is accurate.

Even as Brook pulls out his books, homework sheets, and other academic paraphernalia, the pegged maps, NPS notes, and radio chatter pick at his ears. Although most of the codes and map markings would be indecipherable to a layman, Brook grew up inside Red Aspen, and he cannot help but put together several pieces of information.

As Chet said, Mary is leading the full continent of local park rangers in a manhunt through the local park trails. Or, as Brook discovers likely to his chagrin, Marshal Schofeld is leading it from another, no doubt warmer and drier, location outside Kaniksu’s trails.

Brook: Brook doesn’t give the ice cream much of a look as he starts a small fire in the wood stove and slaps a pot of water there to boil for dinner. Sugar means highs and lows, and he can’t afford that right now. Instead, he starts to look over the trail notes as he gets his things out and listens to the fuckery happening down below. Something to frustrate his mother to no end, no doubt. That pompous ass of a man doesn’t even let the kid who found the clue come and help investigate it? Dropping his books on the desk, he takes a moment to read over Chet’s notes about the trail search, seeing if there are any hints to this sicko’s location.

GM: After a brief investigation interrupted by the pot’s boiling water, Brook learns that there’s been no sighting of the escaped asylum patient–at least none since the ones he found inside the outhouse, or whatever was inside the abandoned farmhouse. The answering machine continues to pulse red. His spread out, yet otherwise untouched, homework does not blink or flash, but still awaits him.

Just as Danny said and as Brook has come to expect, Mr. Epstein has assigned a bunch of geometry problems to solve. Ms. Vosburg may have been a hormone-a-phobe who carried a loaded gun during her lectures, but at least Brook’s freshman algebra teacher didn’t assign so much homework.

Then there’s World History & Literature. Ms. LeBaron’s work is a bit more vague. Technically, all he has to do before tomorrow is turn in a one-page paper summarizing his assigned culture, the book or books he’s currently researching, and a rough plan on how he plans on working with his class project’s partner, which for him, is evidently Leanne Byers. That said, Danny’s notes suggest there may be a pop quiz on the Rome notes. That, and there’s the actual research for the project he’s hardly begun. He only made it through the foreword before crashing in the library, after all.

Brook: Ugh.

With everything going on, the young ranger hopes for a strike of lightning to hit the school tonight, though it’s probably too much to hope for. After dumping a box of macaroni in the boiling water, he returns to the desk to sift through his homework, nodding lightly and looking over everything. Ms. LeBaron’s seems like the easiest to get through, as Hazel–or rather, Ms. Bauman now he guesses–worked her magic just the other day to give him the old information packed book that still rests in his bag. Before he starts everything, the blinking gets to him and he picks up the receiver, tapping the button to hear who’s called and what they want.

GM: “You have, four, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine. “Message one.”

What follows is a juvenile, curse word-filled rant about how Brook kills baby deer and bunnies and how he should burn in hell with Hitler, because he and the rangers and hunters are guilty of animal genocide.

Brook: Brook grins and saves the message. He has a feeling when this girl comes to spray paint the tower he’ll have her making threats on the answering machine. Next.

GM: After a few beeps and prompts by the answering machine, it saves the first and plays the next. “Uhm, do I… press… or wait…” comes a tentative female voice. “Wait, there was a beep already… oh crap…” The message cuts off with a surety the voice lacked. It takes Brook a few moments to realize the unidentified voice belongs to Leanne Byers, his fellow classmate.

Brook: Brook sits up a little, chuckling at the voice, and smiling ear to ear when he realizes it’s Leanne. He hopes she’s called again and deletes the message, moving on to the next.

GM: The next message’s voice he immediately recognizes: June Pohlman. She sounds upset, maybe a little flustered or like she’s been practicing what to say and finally got the nerve to call and was then forced to leave a message: “Brook, it’s June… you need to do… what you know you should. What you can. It’s past time. Stop hanging back. We shouldn’t have to wait to get over… whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.”

Brook: Brook listens and can feel the look on his face before the emotions hit him in full force. Disgust, grime, betrayal. is this girl serious? No. Oooohh, no. Cute as she is, this isn’t kosher. This is a radio station. Brook stands up and grabs and slaps down his sticker and sharpie-decorated personal mixtape machine, the recorder. He quickly puts in a blank tape and hits ‘record’ before pressing to replay the message. After he gets it all on tape, and makes sure it’s on tape, he deletes it and moves on. His mood’s moved from ‘fine’ to ‘pissy’ for what feels like will be the rest of the night.

GM: The answering machine, if jealous, does not convey it as it announces and then plays ‘Message Four’: “Hi, Brook, or radio station person who I hope gives this message to Brook. That’s Brook Barnes by the way. This is Leanne Byers. I’m in Brook’s classes, or well Mrs. LeBaron’s. We’re together. Partners. On the class project. For Mrs. LeBaron’s class.”

There’s a muffle, maybe a crinkle of paper, before the voice begins again. “So we’re supposed to work together. On the project. And like there’s a paper. And presentation, uhm, I think. And we have to like do a little paper, just one page by tomorrow, but you, or Brook see, like, wasn’t in class today.”

“And so I, like, got your number from the radio station broadcast, and was, like, uhm, hoping you could call me back. Or maybe, like, whoever gets this message can give it to Brook, and he can call me back. Yeah, uh, that’s what I mean. Meant. So, right, this is Leanne Byers, and I’m trying to reach Brook. Brook Barnes. For a class project, paper for tomorrow. My number is 208-344-130-” The message cuts off before she can give her final digit.

Brook: Brook’s mood slowly lifts hearing the awkward fumbling. He wonders if Leanne has written this all down on a piece of paper or she’s just steeled herself. Until he hears that crinkle of paper, of course. As it comes up, the boy snaps out of his fugue and jots down the number, the last digit gone. Well, there’s only one way to fix this. Grinning now, the teen runs back downstairs and finishes up his pot of dinner, shoveling his face with food as he rushes around trying to find the Witiko Falls Phone book. Byers. Easy to look up when he’s got the first bit of the number.

GM: Being such a small town in an equally remote and rural county, Witiko Falls lacks its own phone book, but the white pages of the county phone book have what Brook seeks. It takes him a little digging, though, as Byers is a common enough surname in the region, and Brook struggles to pick the right one, given that adults’ rather than minors’ given names are listed. Fortunately, the fact that he has all but the last digit of Leanne’s phone number makes the process not too onerous or tricky.

Phone_Book.jpg

208-344-1306

Byers, Arlie & Stella…………………..1 Shoney Pond Road

Brook: Brook is done eating by the time he finds the number and writes the last digit, as well as her parents’ names. The address is something he can remember easily. Looking at the clock, he knows it’s past midnight, but he has one surefire way of getting her to call. Brook hops up to the radio desk, stops the filler music, and flicks on the microphone. It’s time to calm down. The teen puts on his smooth radio voice as he announces,

“Good evening folks. I’m sure you all feel the electricity in the air, but I’m still here up in my tower. Now I warn you, tonight’s going to be quiet from me. On top of being your friendly neighborhood disk jockey and park ranger cadet, I’m still a student down at our little high school. Drown ’em deep and all that. I got work to do tonight.”

“So everyone remember to batten down the hatches. Don’t let strangers in. And if you’re one of the lovely people who tried to give me a call today, please ring me if you’re still awake. Especially my friend who likes black licorice. You know who you are. You all have a good night. A safe night.”

GM: The line starts to instantly light up with calls. However, likely to Brook’s dismay, the first is a caller who simply screams “DROWN ’EM DEEEEEEEP!”

The second caller is also male, but not so readily dismissed. “Hello, radio-guy?”

Brook: Brook puts his homework down and starts working on things as he answers the phone. The first call makes him reflexively hang up out of surprise, and he feels a bit bad about it until the next call comes up. He puts on music and stops broadcasting. "Name’s Brook, friend. How can I help you?

GM: “You’re the one who made the announcement about the crazy guy, the one with the hook? The psycho on the loose?”

Brook: “Dunno about the hook. He was missing one hand. Why, do you have information?”

GM: “Yeah,” comes the voice, then a pause with noise, maybe mumbled words, indecipherable in the background. “We’re part of the astronomy club and were out tonight, and we think we found him.”

As Brook listens closely, he can hear the caller is clearly pinching his nose, a crude and tell-tale way to disguise his voice. The background sounds further solidify the radio-jockey’s hunch that it’s a crank call.

Brook: “The astronomy club meeting when it’s about to storm, huh? Word of advice, don’t try this with the cops. It becomes a crime then. Keep your doors locked.” Brook hangs up, going back to his homework.

GM: The caller tries to yell his answer, “He’s in Ur-an–” but is cut short, and off–the–air regardless.

As Brook pulls out the book provided to him by the Chimera’s new librarian, his hands are once again drawn to the leather cover and its tooled repeating patterns, dimples, and protrusions. A dirty thought emerges in his brain, wondering if the nipples of the biker’s old lady would feel similar… and the inescapable image of her pendulous breast flashes in his mind, just as she flashed him less than an hour ago. No one else is in the tower to see if he lingers with that thought or immediately dives into his work. Either way, by the time the teen finds his place in the hand-cut, hand–blocked printed book titled I Have Heard the Pallid Colour of Howling in the Labyrinth, he begins reading the first letter from the Centurion Germanicus to Legate Caius Estulitius Incitatus:

_ [S]alve Legate!
 [A]s per your command, I commit to post this report of recent events along the frontier wall. The wall contains this branch of the Empire yet, but at no small price I fear. The savage tribes of Caledonia still harry and raid the border, despite the outrageous sums which are paid regularly to their kings and chieftains. At the risk of challenging the wisdom of you and your ancestors, I would submit that the Imperium cease its payments to leaders who have no control of their subjects in the first place!_

[I]nstead of this approach, I would recommend a more effective strategy based upon information l have collected in the years since l took up this post. I have learned a little of the tribal enmities and power struggles which exist in Caledonia and feel certain that such situations may eventually be exploited to keep this frontier intact.
 [T]hrough some native informants I have learned that Caledonia is inhabited not only by the Goidelic tribes of the Celtae, with which we are already familiar, but by another race, wholly separate and not necessarily friendly to the Celtae.

[E]ver since divine Hadrian constructed the great wall which runs the length of the border, the Imperium has been plagued by reports of fierce and savage warriors, naked and covered from head to toe with blue tattoos, who seem to appear from nowhere and often succeed in dragging our valiant boys from the ramparts of the wall with grappling hooks, making a feast of their flesh before the horrified eyes of their comrades.

[T]hese Picti, so named for their painted aspect, hold the northwestern regions of Caledonia, from which they send forth raiding parties to harry the Gaels (as the Goidelic tribes are called) as well as Roman strongholds. I propose to arm these Picti against the Gaels and cultivate an even greater hatred between these two peoples.

[T]o this end, I have invited Brennus, the Pictish high king, to parley at Eboracum. There I will propose that he ally with Rome against the Gaels. If they can be kept at each others’ throats, then they will have no men or energy to spare for costly engagements along the wall, and the rest of Britannia can remain secure within the Pax Romana.

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The second translated letter begins immediately thereafter:

_[S]alve, Legate! 
[I] regret to report that the parley at Eboracum was inconclusive. King Brennus of the Pictis_, though his manner was reserved and noncommittal (after the fashion of most barbarian rulers, or so I’ve found), nonetheless seemed to find favor with my proposal. Unfortunately I have completely underestimated the extent of the anarchy which prevails beyond the wall. Any deal which this savage can make with us is nor likely to be honored by the Pictish tribes who supposedly owe him allegiance.

[S]trangely enough, I was to learn this from Brennus himself, who speaks with complete candor about the sorry state of his kingdom. The man is an interesting study; there is a quiet nobility even in the sloping brow, broad nostrils and heavy beardless jaw. He stands scarcely as high as my shoulder, weighing in at less than half my weight, but is as lithe and sinewy as a panther. Clad only in a breechcloth and those swirling blue tattoos, armed only with an un-adorned iron-tipped short spear and a simple dagger of Celtic make, he strides among the assembled Roman might of Eboracum as if he had a century of his own at his heels.

[T]hough he carries himself with all the self-possession of a civilized monarch, he refers to his people only in a detached, sad sort of way; I surmised that the ruling families of Pictdom had held power for so long that they had become insulated, cut off from the rank and file of their subjects. I also suspect some degree of inbreeding among the rulers, also common with savage aristocracies.

[N]early all these preliminary speculations were overturned when I had time to observe Brennus interacting with his retinue. Some half-dozen Pictish warriors accompanied him to Eboracum as part of his personal guard. They are short, shorter even than Brennus himself, and covered with similar tattoos. There most resemblance ends; while their king exudes a savage nobility, these are gross and debased specimens, their spines curved, their speech guttural, their skin unwholesome, scaly and diseased.

[“Y]ou mark the sorry state of my people,” Brennus told me. “But know this, Roman: These men are the finest that l have at hand. Their bodies are twisted by the evil that cloaks my land, but their spirits are as yet untainted. I know that their hearts are loyal to me, and the blood which flows within is that of the true white howlers, not–” and here Brennus stopped, seemingly consumed with a rage which was held in check only by his iron will. He made as if to leave, stopped, spoke to me with his back turned. “Would you court us as allies, Roman? Would you lend us your spears against the Gaels? Then select your closest men and have them mount up! You shall meet those whom you would fight beside! When you are ready, I shall take you to the heart of Pictdom!”

[A]nd there it is, Legate. This will of course be my last missive for some while, but my next communication should be of the best tidings; soon we shall drive the Celtae into the sea and redraw the Roman border to encompass all of Caledonia!

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The translated missives are then broken by the editor’s note which explain that the above articles are the only two complete letters of Germanicus.

The editor goes on to posit that the two letters were never posted to Rome, and equally unlikely to have been carried by the centurion into Pictlands. Instead, the editor hypothesizes that they were somehow preserved at Eboracum and later retrieved by one Nennius or some unnamed compiler. This theory is corroborated, the editor notes, by the difference in the condition between and the narrative that follows. While the first two letters had been copied into he manuscript proper (with the illuminated initial letter of each paragraph left unfinished), the following narrative is in Germanicus’ own hand, and likely intended for later inclusion as an appendix.

What follows, the editor notes, may have indeed begun as a series of letters to Incitatus, but their decayed and fragmentary states leaves the question unanswered. More likely, Brook and the editor alike conclude, is that these fragments comprise Germanicus’ own personal journal or notes, from which he intended to write his report back to Rome upon his triumphant return.

…Leaving Eboracum, we passed the ruins of the Tower of Trajan. Strange glances passed between Brennus and his men, and there was furtive murmuring. Later, a Cymric scout in our party who knew a Iittle of the Pictish tongue related that Brennus’ men had told him accusatorily, “You have called them, and they shall remember.”

[…]

The countryside is beautiful in its Spartan starkness. Vast rolling fields of heather stretch beneath the gray skies; the hills roll gently in some places, in others they jut at odd angles with treacherously bare rock. I asked Brennus […] “[…] but think not that the land was always as you see it now. When my people first came here, we walked, for the seas had not yet divided the land. The earth was pulling back her mantle of ice, and we hunted the reindeer, bison and mammoth across the plains. Gawk not, Roman! For mine is an old people, and our memories stretch back farther than you can even imagine!”

“When the oceans rose, we were driven back into the hills, and lush forests covered much of the countryside. The lion flourished here, as well as the red deer, wild boar, and many other animals, who became extinct as the wilderness died.”

[…]

The squalor of these folk is deplorable. They have no proper dwellings, but live mostly in earthen mounds. I have even been told that there are those in the highlands who make their homes in caves and burrows like common animals.

_ There are some wooden and stone forts where Brennus allows us to make camp and stable our horses. Within the forts one sees bronze and iron tools and weapons, most of them obviously of Goidelic origin. Some, however, I guess to be products of Pictish craft; they are crudely worked, and clumsily decorated with coiling images of fanciful beasts. Away from the forts, even these pitiful items are nowhere to be seen; the majority of Brennus’ subjects eke out their barren existence with nothing more than stone and wooden implements, living no better than troglodytes._

[…]

Here the translated text ends once more and the editor interjects again. Before Brook’s eyes can analyze or glaze over those paragraphs, the phone rings. Looking up, Brook sees that it is 1:36 am.

Brook: Some things stick in Brook’s mind. What evil was the Pictish king talking about? What did he mean by ‘still white howlers’? Why were the Picts so monstrous-sounding? It’s all a buzz of activity in his head, a mystery pulling him in as he reads and reads and reads. Until the phone jolts him awake. It’s getting later. He’s yet to start his assignment, past the reading. But he still picks up the phone rather quickly. “Hello, Red Aspen station.”

GM: The voice on the other end is a mere whisper. “Hello? Brook?”

“It’s Leanne,” comes the whisper, even quieter. Brook can picture the girl cupping the receiver to her lips.

Brook: Brook immediately sits up, feeling her whisper and shivering a little. It’s a little too nice to have a girl whispering in his ear, and his voice breaks a little as he whispers back. “Leanne! I–hey. Um… hey. Sorry I missed your call. I didn’t wanna call back, was so late. I thought you’d be sleeping.”

GM: There’s a pause and for a moment, the adolescent boy thinks the yet–to–break storm has finally decides to break and crash the phone line. Or worse, she’s hung up on him. Neither proves to be the case, however, as Leanne’s voice comes crackling through. “I… couldn’t sleep. Like you,” she says, continuing to whisper.

Brook: Brook can feel his heart scrape against the inside of his ribs on its way up his throat during the silence, like he’s waiting for something awful. It drops back into place when the opposite happens. Like him? He doesn’t know how much Leanne knows about him, but he frowns. “I’m sorry. I know how much it sucks to be awake the next day. I, um… I’m just doing homework. Our project.”

GM: Another pause. “Yeah, um, the project. Right. What do you have?”

Brook: “Lots. The librarian Haz—Ms. Bauman found me a great book. We can read it together,” he whispers, an image of the tall pair shoulder to shoulder reading a book every day coming to mind.

GM: “That sounds great!” her voice raises brightly, altogether forgetting its earlier whisper. “The librarian got me the book or something too. It has pictures. And, like, words too,” she quickly adds. There’s another pause. “I’m… I’m can’t, uh, I’m not sure I understand it though. It’s, like weird. Like old time talk.” She laughs a little self-consciously. “Which I guess makes sense. It’s, like, a history class, after all.” She pauses again, perhaps realizing she’s been rambling.

Brook: Brook jumps a little when she suddenly raises her voice, but as rambling as she is, he can’t help but feel happy she’s enjoying talking with him. Though there’s just one thing. What if her parents catch her talking to a boy at one o’clock in the morning?

“We can figure it out. We’ll be working on this together. And hey, if we have issues, we can always go to the person who gave us the books right? Though, Leanne, you were whispering before. Aren’t your parents sleeping?”

GM: “Yeah!” Leanne says excitedly, then backtracks as seems to realize she’s given only one answer to multiple questions. Her whisper returns. “I mean, like, working together would be what the teacher wants us, to like, do. Together. Will you be at school tomorrow? Were you si–”

The connection becomes a screeching series of beeps and static.
The dial-up naturally fails given the active use of the line, and it is only a few seconds before the ear-drilling sound halts and both Brook and Leanne hear another different form of yelling:

“Leanne!!! What the hell you doing up?!”

Brook hears his fellow sophomore almost drop the phone as she stammers, not into the phone, but away from it. “S-sorr-y, Daddy!”

Brook: Brook nearly jumps out of his skin once again at the sound of the dial-up noise. He sighs away from the receiver and wonders if it’s the storm causing interference before… ‘Daddy.’

GM: “Get the off the damned line, girl!” her father yells. “And go to bed–no, wait, get me a beer if you’re awake!”

“O-okay, Daddy!” Leanne yells back, still flustered, before she whispers into the phone and nearly trips over her words, “Gotta go, thanks, see you ’morrow, bye, thanks.”

Brook: Listening closely, he already doesn’t like this asshole, and his eyes narrow at nothing as he hears the man yell and order Leanne around, who’s all but tripping over herself to please him. He wonders if she has bruises. But then again, he’s never had a father, maybe this is just how you’re supposed to act around one.

“Good night, Leanne,” he manages before the line goes dead. It pisses him off, but at least they can see each other again tomorrow. Buckling down, the boy starts to write the preliminary paper, detailing the name of the book he has from the library, and how he and Leanne are planning on working closely, pooling resources as he wants to put it. It’s only a page, he knows he can knock it out fast and start on that math. Then he can take a look at that bill in his pocket.

GM: The one-page paper is easily vanquished. As Brook looks up at the clock clicking over to 2 AM, he notices that the answering machine has a new message, likely one left while he was on the phone with Leanne. Meanwhile, the first rumble of thunder shakes the sky.

Brook: Brook feels the thunder crackle, and smiles, hoping that he can finish his math before it really starts. Until he sees the light. Sighing, he picks the phone up and presses the button to play the message, holding the phone to his ear as he brings out the math.

GM: “You have, two, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine.

The first message, left at 1:39 am, comes from one Jason Tutweiler, requesting Metallica’s Until It Sleeps. “It helps me resist the aliens when they tell me to hurt people,” he explains before ending his message.

The second message, allegedly left at 1.61 am, is much shorter: “Agent Barnes, do the math.” As soon as Brook hears the message, he glances up to see the clock click to 2:01 AM.

Then, everything goes blinding white, then black.

Hudson: A Golden Star


Candy_Wrapper.jpg

10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: The candy wrapper falls to the floor. Its descent is nearly as slow and and dull as the past four hours.

Outside the Britter’s boathouse, storm–whipped lake slaps the bottom of the floorboards. The windowless walls creak, while the roof pings and patters with rain. Thunder rattles the entire frame and shakes the hanging rowboats, causing them to sway on their winched chains.

Despite the violent weather outside, the climate inside the boathouse is beyond placid–it’s phlegmatic. Deputy Lowder has stopped recounting all the nails in the floorboards. Her sheriff county department peer–the young brown-haired Deputy Hensler–has abandoned his game of solitaire. His cards sit atop a bait bucket, his discarded jokers listing lazily over his makeshift card-table’s edge.

Their doldrum is finally broken by a knock on the door. Both cops jolt, their hands dipping to their sidearms, only to begrudgingly relax when they realize it is the marshall’s partner, Deputy Cassidy Porter.

Cassidy_Porter.jpg

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the young African-American woman likes to say–but never says she likes–that she fits in Idaho as well as a raisin in a blizzard. Tonight, as she opens the triple-locked work closet full of cow chum and motor fuel with her right hand holding the corded landline, she looks over the three white law enforcement officers. Dressed in her marshal-issued kevlar vest and uniform, her engagement ring glitters in the dark threshold as she regards her superior. “Boss,” she says. “It’s Max. Says they got lost. Tried to call, but… you know, reception. He and Curtis are at some wig-wham or something. Like a corner store.”

“Coffee Wigwam,” Lowder clarifies, seemingly happy to be of use, or simply thankful to be doing something. “It’s a shop on the Reserve. You want me to give them directions?” she asks, rising.

Hudson, however, is distracted by someone else. His ‘little man’. He’s been increasingly bothering the marshal over these past hours–or more precisely, he hasn’t–and that’s what’s bothering the lawman. Normally, his hackles would be going haywire, his guts doing a tap dance on his spine. But there’s been nothing.

Hudson’s disquieting musings are interrupted by static-y chatter coming trough the landline in Cassidy’s hand. After crooking her neck to listen to the stretched taut phone, she tells her Bostonian partner to “Hold up,” then turns back to Hudson and the county deputies that await his decision. “Boss, Max says they picked up the bikes from Coeur d’Alene, just like you asked, and that Lt… Burrell, I mean, Bullard, says…”

She leans back into the phone. “What’d he say again?” After Hodges presumably repeats the message, she immediately relays with an arched eyebrow. “O-gauge or no gauge.” She shrugs. “It’s what he said.” She then adds, “Oh, Lt. Bullard threw in a third bike.”

Deputies Lowder and Hensler give the marshals a curious look before the former reiterates her prior offer. “You want me to give them directions? With the storm, they’re liable to get lost. Again.”

Hudson: The rain pounds as Hudson’s teeth crunch down on the candy bar. Chocolate. Peanuts. Caramel. Nougat. That’s what the sweet and chewy interior is. He’d dispensed that bit of trivia to Lowder and Hensler (Porter already knew what it was) for pure lack of absolutely anything else to do. Nougat is actually a type of candy in its own right, made from whipped egg whites, roasted nuts, a sweetener like sugar or honey, and optionally candied fruit. The nougat that makes up a Baby Ruth’s chewy interior consists of milk, egg whites, chocolate, and various artificial sweeteners like like corn syrup. The fat fed savors the third candy bar he’s ‘smoked’ this evening like the cigarettes he’s long since given up, to only dubiously improved health benefits. For himself, at least.

Didn’t switch for me, he thinks, but the thought is fleeting and soon discarded, like the red-lettered candy wrapper that slowly drifts to the floor. Other matters weigh on the marshal’s mind as his tongue licks at the bits of caramel stuck to his teeth.

Mrs. Britter is holed up in one of the expansive farm’s many dairy sheds, well out of Moe’s notice. She’s got her husband and three farmhands protecting her with shotguns, just in case Hudson is wrong. The Britters’ adoptive daughter Casie Saunders is spending the night at a friend’s house, just in case Hudson is also wrong about four guns being enough. The fat fed would’ve felt even better sending away the entire family, but he left that reservation unvoiced. The proud farmer was already unhappy at the notion he couldn’t protect his own, never mind fleeing his land and leaving its defense to outsiders.

So Hudson did the next-best thing, checking in periodically over the police radio he’d given the man. He’s checked in just as regularly with the Park Rangers who are sweeping the Kaniksu’s trail paths, in case Moses doubles back to his old haunts. Stan Epstein is going about his normal routine as if nothing has happened, save for the radio he’s also carrying. The deputized geometry teacher looks like he’s going to be Moe’s next target—and Hudson’s potential ace in the hole in case things are a wash tonight at the Britters’. It’s brave of Epstein to volunteer to be used as bait, and levelheaded of him to be content sitting at home twiddling his thumbs (if Moe decides someone under constant police guard is an undesirable target, after all, it’s anyone’s guess who the psychotic war hero will go after next). Every angle of the pentagon has its part to play, as he told young Mr. Barnes. Hudson has to admit he likes the man.

Meanwhile, the earlier farmhouse he and the others cased sits undisturbed, Moses’ map left just where it was in the fireplace. Hudson’s little man had mused the fugitive might go back for it. Lacking sufficient manpower to post a full guard in wait at the farmhouse, Hudson had considered rigging the fireplace with a trap to douse Moses in red paint—it sure would give the lawmen an easy trail to follow—but called that off. Moses has been seemingly content to live off the land so far (lunches stolen from schoolchildren notwithstanding), and there was too great a risk he might break into a house to use the shower and steal some new clothes. God help any residents he found inside. In lieu of a paint trap, a surreptitiously placed camera is being monitored by Ferg the dispatcher. That’ll at least give them the heads up on his present location.

As for Hudson himself, he and his men—actually, his man and his women, until his other two subordinates arrive—are patiently waiting at ground zero. Moses left copious and worryingly coherent (for a man who paints pentagrams in his own shit) notes on his targets. ‘Scheduled’ Mrs. Britter for today. Drew a sketch of her property’s boathouse. So that’s where the marshal and his deputies are waiting. Hudson has planned for the night meticulously. Laid contingencies for every possible action he can think that his quarry might take. The whole thing looks like it’ll be wrapped up like a Christmas present. Easy peasy.

That’s what makes his little man lead his guts, candy-gorged paunches of bulk that they are, on an acutely painful tap dance over his spine. Its motions only grow more ersatz and its ponderous steps even heavier as the hours tick by and there’s not a sign of Moses. Not here. Not from the Britters. Not from the Park Rangers. Not from Ferg. Not even from Stan Epstein.

Too easy.

His little man grumbles.

_It’s never easy._

Hudson’s tongue works out a lone peanut stuck in the back of his molars. His teeth crunch down over the salted nut as he muses,

That’s the problem with trying to predict madmen. They’re not predictable.

Lowder’s twice-asked question finally stirs the fat lawman from his thoughts. The Wigwam isn’t far. Even with the poor weather it’s a stretch to imagine Max and Curtis getting lost.

“Yes, I would. And yes, they are,” he answers.

The fact is, ‘stretch’ doesn’t even begin to describe the things Hudson’s seen in this town. The mad detours on the roads to get here. The animal attacks. The anisocoria in so many eyes. The batteries in everything draining so fast. The awful sleep he’s gotten. The Britters lobotomizing their cows. Actually, no, that one makes some sense with how aggressive the animals all seem to be. A determined enough cow could hurt someone pretty bad. Still…

“It’s a strange town, Joe,” Hudson had declared over a phone call while snacking on a Captain Crunch bar. “The more of it I see, the stranger it feels—like leftover bits of egg-flavored gummy, stuck in the back of your gums. Stuck there, fermenting, a strange and subtle taste that only gets stranger the longer it’s there, and the more you think on it.”

Then there are the locals. They have their own ways of doing things and understand the town better than he does. Frankly, Hudson isn’t about to tell them no. Outsiders seem to get lukewarm enough receptions as it is, never mind blustering ones who get in the way.

He nods as Porter gets the name right. “Bullard,” he repeats. “Old friend of mine from police academy. Doing us a real favor with those motorbikes.” Under the present circumstances, Hudson doesn’t quite smile at the reference to their shared hobby, but the tight outline of one traces his lips all the same. Back in the old days, Joe likes to say, men had hobbies, not like the hustle and bustle and oft-repeated mantra of “I’m busy” like one sees now.

Taking in his subordinates’ curious looks, the marshal elaborates, “Little insurance on our part, if Moe doubles back to the Kaniksu. At my weight I’m liable to have a heart attack if we have to chase him through any trails too narrow for cars.”

There’s another tight outline of a not-quite smile. “If he’s smart–which he is, in his own demented way–that’s where he’ll run.”

Of course, where Moses might run is worth precisely jack-all next to where he is right now. It’s been four hours. Where the hell is he? As Hudson watches Lowder pick up the phone, he reaches into his jacket’s pocket and pulls out his police radio. No sign of their quarry is all the more reason to check in with the others.

“Schofeld to Red Aspen. Come in, Red Aspen.”

GM: Silence is his only reply.

Dead silence.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Flashlight.png

10.08.1998, Thursday night

Hazel: Hazel waves goodbye as the headlights from her mother’s SUV recede into the dark. They waited a while before Lydia started the car, and the ride home took a little while longer. Hazel is no longer a disheveled mess, but her heart still weighs heavy. She doesn’t want to face a vampire tonight. She could have still put it off. Asked if she could go back to the hotel with her mom, who would’ve been of less mind to say no. They could’ve had dinner again, maybe watched a movie, talked and comforted one another long into the night. She could’ve gone to sleep in a warm and soft bed, far away from the monster stalking her house. Hazel wanted that so badly. She could’ve gone after him tomorrow, during the day. She knows his place of refuge.

But no. That is no alternative. He has guardians to watch him during his sleep, and Hazel’s sure that finding his daytime sanctuary and overcoming its defenses will be a task of its own. She may well be able to meet such a task–but it’s a battle on his terms. The Sweeney house is familiar turf. She’s got him coming here, likely alone, deluded into believing she will be easy prey. The time is ripe for her to set a bear trap. She’s not going to throw away the assembly kit away at the last moment. It’s time to end this, for good or ill.

Hazel tries the front door she clearly remembers locking–and will not be in the least surprised to find her key unnecessary.

GM: With the passing of her mother’s vehicle, it is dark outside. Evening is dead. Twilight is passed. Night falls all around Hazel. Darkness reigns, and as her hand tries the door that then swings open unlocked, she sees that its princedom extends to her home.

Hazel: She flips on the lights in spite of her mounting anxiety. It’s still early in the evening. He’ll want to come later at night, when everyone in the neighborhood has gone to sleep–her included–and there are fewer potential witnesses. He will. When it’s more convenient, for so many reasons.

…won’t he?

GM: The light switch clicks. But darkness remains. It is then that she notices it, the entire street is black.

Hazel: No. No, it’s…

GM: No light shines.

Hazel: She tries the light attached to her keyring. It’s not connected to, to…

GM: The house creaks. The house smells. A droning fills the air. The pen-light clicks on, shedding its feeble blue radiance over the cluttered blackness. In the darkness, the furniture looms, alien and menacing. She bumps into the living room sofa. It has been moved. The buzzing continues.

Hazel: A new wave of anxiety rises in her chest. She swallows it like a tall glass of foul-smelling medicine as she cranes her neck to examine her surroundings.

No. I’ve… I’ve kept my wits. I’m not going to let him out-psyche me. This is just a game, a psychological trick, like I played on him. She steadies her breathing. Power over animals and vermin… what would I do if I wanted to scare someone in their own home?

She thinks for a moment. I’d kill an animal. Or a person. Leave its corpse to the flies. Leave it in a familiar place and setting to them, violate the sanctity of their… She takes a deep breath. It’s logical for him to wait. And to try to unnerve me. I’m not going to let him.

GM: A dark shadow circles through her light. Tiny and black. Buzzing.

Hazel: She swivels the light. Looking for the source of the flies. What’s attracted them here.

GM: She smells it. Something foul, something sweet. She knows it is in the kitchen, her legs bumping and brushing against things again and again as her nemesis has moved everything just a few inches off. The flies buzz and drone. There are not many of them, but enough to make the air itch. One scrapes her cheek. Another drones and drops on her head.

Hazel: Hazel swats at the passing insects. Her eyes briefly fall out of focus as she follows the dot-like shadow flitting across the light. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. But it’s no good. The keychain’s light is too dim to make anything out. The familiar layout of the house, too off-kilter. Resigned, she makes her way to the kitchen–and the source of whatever ‘present’ her nemesis has left.

If he isn’t there himself.

GM: Fumbling in the dark, Hazel bangs into the fridge door, causing it to rock hard against its hinges. Sweat trickles down her spine as she realizes that her fridge has been left open, allowing the food therein to start to putrefy. Flies land on the delivery pizza box, scratching and scuttling to get inside.

But they have other feasts more available. Hazel’s lip curls in disgust as the sickly-sweet stench intensifies. One hand on her key light, the other traces the edge of the round kitchen table to prevent further bumps and bruises. That’s when her fingers brush against something on the table, scattering a cloud of angry flies.

Hazel: The key light’s blue glow shines towards it.

GM: For all her resolve, the feeble light shakes. Her heart hammers deafeningly as her body secretes fear hormones into her brain and muscles. Knowledge is power, but power has a price–and knowing she is being hunted by a centuries-old terror with mastery over vermin, inhuman strength, and worse starts to burrow cracks in her psyche. Darkness inspires a primal terror–and now, Hazel knows why. And it is dark. Very, very dark.

But she forces the light to move. She forces herself to see. Trembling, the blue glow crawls over a man’s glove situated in the midst’s of the table’s mail. But the glove is not empty. Flesh. Bone. Maggots. Terror. The pale, slimy necrophagic vermin spill out of the glove, and one by one, spell out a message:

RIGHT BEHIND YOU

Hazel: A hand. That’s. That’s someone’s hand.

Bile rises in her throat—but has no chance to come out before she blindly dashes from the kitchen, her heart hammering in uncanny synchrony with her feet against the floor.

GM: The back screen door shrieks, then slams shut after her. The air is cold and cannot be sucked down swiftly enough.

Hazel: Sweat trickles down Hazel’s back as she gulps down the night air. Her eyes desperately cut across the umbral gloom in search of light. Any light. Even awful old Mrs. Worwood’s. She could kiss that shriveled crone right now, just to see light.

GM: All of Red Louse Lane seems engulfed in darkness. But then she spots the tiny flicker of flame in the old hag’s house. Candles. Wavering pinpricks of hope and sanctuary.

Hazel: Hazel can taste the hot pinpricks of bile in her throat, but eventually, it subsides. So. Someone’s cut the power. It’s not just her. And she’s not alone. She’d been formulating a plan to get Mrs. Worwood out of her house–inconvenient to have a potential witness nearby–but right now, she’s glad just to know there’s someone else out there. And besides, it is pitch dark.

Well. She’s not headed back inside the house, not yet. Not with… that thing… but she’s not going to remain idle, either. The lack of lighting in the other houses is a boon. Mrs. Worwood won’t be able to see what she’s up to. She should have done this the moment the lights didn’t work, anyways.

Hazel walks off behind the house. She hears no sound except for her light shoes pressing against the freshly-mowed grass. She looks up at the old oak tree. It could be a coincidence, that it’s located here, right where she needs it outside the house. But Hazel’s encountered too many coincidences for them to be coincidences.

Her gaze lowers from the wide leafy boughs, sweeping across the dark silhouette of Marilyn Sweeney’s childhood swing. It wouldn’t be much to look at, even if it were light enough to clearly make out. It’s a simple wooden plank, with two lengths of rope on each end, hanging from a sturdy branch. But you can learn a few things about someone, living in their house for a while. The Sweeneys didn’t talk about their dead child, and Hazel wouldn’t have asked, but the evidence told its own story to the town undersheriff’s daughter. How the wood was worn smooth by long hours sitting there, swinging back and forth. How the name “Marilyn” was carved onto the underside of the swing with a pen-knife, over a crudely etched heart and arrow. How the other boy’s name was furiously defaced by that same knife and a cigarette lighter. The evidence tells quite a story, indeed.

All before Hazel’s neck-hairs stood on end the one time she sat on that swing. That was Marilyn’s swing. It still is. Now that Hazel knows the full story of the girl’s death, she realizes the swing wasn’t just important to the thirteen–year–old’s life. It was where she broke up with her first and only boyfriend. It is inextricably linked to the cause of her death. And such items hold power over departed souls–or so it is said.

Hazel’s already willing to test a hypothesis about vampires. Might as well expand it to ghosts too.

She walks up to the swing, pulls it back and then pushes it forward, as if doing so for the enjoyment of a seated child. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my voice.”

The empty swing drifts back. Hazel pushes it forward again. Just a little further, this time. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my name.”

The swing flies off into the night. The wood lightly slaps back against Hazel’s palms. “I am Hazel Bauman, entrusted with the guardianship and care of your home by your parents.”

The swing sets off. The swing flies back. “That home is still yours, Marilyn.”

The swing flies forth, and then back. Faster. Further. A soft wind whispers at Hazel’s ears. “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us.”

Hazel has to stand to her tiptoes this time, catching the swing by her fingertips as it flies back. Perhaps it’s the moonlight shining just right against her glasses, but she swears she can briefly make out the knife-etched heart with the name “Marilyn” interposed against a dark, smudged-out spot. “Marilyn Sweeney, I bring you gifts from life into death. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

Hazel has to jump this time to catch the swing as it roughly smacks against her hands. She gives a grunt of exertion, but her shoes have barely hit the grass before she pushes the swing off again, into the night. Is it her overactive imagination that she can hear the laughter of a child at play? “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us! Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

GM: The clouds curl and wither like burning black leaves, revealing the winning gibbous moon. Its pale light shines down upon the Sweeney’s backyard, casting long moon-shadows. The air grows colder as frost creeps over the grass. As it glistens, the shadow of the swing lays vivid upon the lawn, as does the shadow of a young girl swinging upon it. The physical swing, at least to Hazel’s mortal eyes, remains eerily vacant.

Marilyn.jpg

Hazel: Hazel’s breath catches in her throat. That’s… that’s physically impossible. But her eyes don’t move. The evidence speaks for itself.

Or can… she?

“Marilyn Sweeney,” Hazel states slowly. It doesn’t seem quite appropriate to bow, but her tone and posture are deferential. “Your killer seeks to invade your home and to claim me as his next victim.”

GM: The shadow appears to reach into its dress pocket and pulls out a pocketknife. Blade in hand, her shadow-hand reaches out and begins cutting into the tree’s shadow. Bark starts to crack and sap bleeds as letters form on the old oak.

YOU SHOULD RUN

Hazel: Hazel’s already pale skin all-but blanches. Oh god. What have I done?

What was necessary, she resolves, her jaw steeling. Her voice remains level as she continues, “Marilyn, I wish to help you exact vengeance upon your killer. To bring him to justice. To make him pay for murdering you, and all his other victims.”

GM: The shadow-girl swings softly as in thought, then shakes her head vigorously. She reaches out with her shadow knife once more to start cutting into the trunk’s shadow. New slashes open up into the bark.

YOU WILL DIE

Hazel: Hazel bows her head. “This is your house, Marilyn, and if you wish me to leave, I will do as you request. I have but one question. I have spent two nights running from him already. If I do not face him, if I do not make my stand here, how am I–how are other girls like you–to be safe?”

GM: Marilyn’s shade makes a large series of slashes. A choppy heart emerges on the tree, its sap trickling down in rivulets. The shadow stands up on the shadow swing, then twirls, causing the physical plank to twirl and move so that its underside is lit by the moon. The shadow-spirit points down to her engraved initials, the heart, and the burn mark.

Hazel: “I cannot defeat him. I can only find someone to love, and so escape him,” Hazel states, half-questioning.

GM: Marilyn’s shade lingers, her hair umbral hail spooling down to the frosted ground as she hangs upside down. Where her shadow face seems to touch the grass, crystalline ice forms.

She at last pulls herself up. She places the pocketknife to her wrist and slits it. Red blood seems to materialize mid-air and drip to the ground, splashing on the frost. The shadow-girl steps off of the swing. The bloodied, frosted grass bends with two barefoot depressions. The swing and its shadow then lifts and tilts, once again exposing its engraved and defaced underside. The swing hangs mid-air askew as the shadowy preteen takes hold of the swing’s shadow and begins engraving carefully. Each cut causes more droplets of blood to patter to the ground. A spectral hiss cuts through the air. It sounds like someone gritting their teeth through great pain. Slitted words, however, begin to emerge upon the swing.

FIND HIM

More droplets and another hiss, slip, and a feminine cry that cuts to the bone. An engraved arrows appears. It points to the defaced initials and the arrow-pierced heart. The shadow hoists itself back up upon the swing.

Hazel: Hazel nods slowly in understanding. “I need to find your boyfriend. That is the key to bringing your killer to justice.”

GM: Marilyn’s shade nods. She places one umbral hand over her slit wrist. Slowly the bleeding stops.

Hazel: “Do you wish me to… bring him here, when I have found him?”

GM: Another nod.

Hazel: “Can you tell me his name? Where I should begin looking?”

GM: The black outline of the thirteen-year-old girl shakes her head and seems to bury her shadowy hands in her face. The sound of crying escapes from the slashed bark. Shadowy tears fall from her dress, leaving ghastly blue scorch marks upon the grass.

Hazel: It’s such a human motion. From something… no, some_one_, that causes her such instinctive fear. “I’m sorry, Marilyn. I’ll do everything that I can. You deserve peace.” Hazel pauses and adds, “Your parents love and remember you. They still have your photo.”

GM: The burning grass catches fire. Blue flames lick at the swing. Smoke rises in great plumes. The black vapors obscure the moon-shadows, and when they eventually rise up into the air, the swing’s shadow remains empty.

Hazel: Hazel reflexively backs away from the sight, about to stammer out some apology for her offense–but it’s simply the ghost leaving. She breathes out an all-too palpable sigh of relief.

Her relief grows all the more pronounced when she sees the familiar headlights of her dad’s patrol truck approaching. Hazel made a lot of plans for how she was going to face her nemesis. But she kept one in reserve in case she needed to abort at the last minute too. She’d called her dad during work and asked if he could drop off some items she’d left at his house–and now, with the power out, she has an all-too ready excuse to stay over again.

Yes, she thinks, at the thought of putting off the confrontation for another day. This is… for the best. She still needs to hear from Leo’s contact, too.

GM: Harvey’s truck light and engine stay on as the undersheriff half-bolts from his truck. “Hazel?!” his voice rings out.

Hazel: “I’m right here, Daddy!” she calls, relieved, as she makes her way over.

GM: Uniform-clad, and hand to his holstered firearm, Harvey runs to Hazel and throws his protective arms around her.

Hazel: The hug initially takes Hazel aback, but she’s had a lot of them with her mom recently. And to say nothing of the present circumstances… if she’s stiff, it’s only a moment before she melts into her father’s embrace.

Her dad is here. And she’s safe, for as long as she’s in his arms.

GM: “Oh, thank goodness you’re okay.”

Hazel: “I know the power’s out, but is there something else that’s wrong?”

GM: “I called your number. The line’s disconnected. Your cell too, but that’s nothing new. And then I saw the black van out front,” he says, pointing to the road.

Hazel: “It’s the power, Daddy. There’s no electricity, no running water, ‘no nothing’, as the saying goes.” Hazel freezes. “Like… one of theirs?” She doesn’t need to say who.

GM: Harvey’s big chin nods. “But it’s gone. They pulled off, no lights as soon as I pulled in.” He sighs. “I was worried they might have taken you.”

Hazel: “Did you get the license plate?” she instinctively asks.

GM: Harvey laughs. His face then grows a bit more serious as he whispers, “Theirs don’t have any.”

Hazel: “It sticks out like a sore thumb, though. The best recourse is to use different plates on each outing. Doesn’t stand out, and worthless to investigators when the plates are replaced. If they don’t act fast.”

GM: “I don’t think that’s the point,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter, you’re okay, and I was just being jumpy.”

Hazel: “Ah. That’s right. It’s good that I’m safe,” Hazel confirms. “And I would much rather have a dad who’s jumpy at the prospect of me being in trouble than one who is lethargic over it.”

Also, I was. Your instincts weren’t wrong.

GM: “Oh, and the reason I first tried calling: Lance is awake! I was planning on going to interview him.”

Hazel: Hazel is quiet for a moment upon hearing that news. “Aunt Winnie was right.”

GM: “How so?”

Hazel: “Mom took me to see him earlier today. She laid out a… compelling, logical case for why I should.” Hazel pauses, not sure how she’s supposed to act in this context. She did tell her dad she didn’t want to visit earlier. “I’m sorry, that feels almost like going behind your back.”

GM: “Actually, pumpkin,” he says, shepherding her to the still-running truck. “How about we resume this chat in the patrol vehicle. I left the motor running. It would be embarrassing if Eddie Munson jumped in and took it for a joyride.”

Hazel: “Good idea, Daddy. Give me a moment though? There’s a couple things I’d like to bring.” She smiles. “Stay guard and make sure Eddie doesn’t jump in.”

GM: “Okay,” he says, smiling.

Hazel: Hazel first reaches into his truck and pulls out one of the heavy-duty police flashlights. Those are much better than the dinky keychain light she carries around. In fact, she should keep a real illumination source in her purse. She already has a basic forensic kit there.

She still takes a short breath before she flicks on the heavy light and re-enters the house.

GM: The miniature spotlight fires a bright beam across her rearranged furniture and knickknacks. Now, regarding the already lived in house, Hazel is struck just by how many hiding places there are.

Hazel: It’s okay. Dad’s here. I can scream, he can radio backup, and Marilyn acted like no one was here… She’s still only slightly less anxious as she pushes the door open.

GM: The flies continue to drone and flit.

Hazel: But if she’s afraid to even enter the house where he’s been, how will she possibly be brave enough to face him?

She won’t be. She’s got to do this.

Not just to out-psyche him. She might be able to glean further insight into his activities from the other ‘presents’ he’s left—he’s killed someone if that hand is any indication. Who was his victim? And in any case, she needs to pack a change of clothes for her overnight stay at Dad’s.

GM: The front door creaks.

Hazel: Let’s get this over with. She pushes it open.

GM: The flashlight slams light into the living room. The beam momentarily blinds a large, mange-ridden rat. It hisses and slinks off beneath one of her couches. The light also illuminates a pair of toys left out on the bottom stair.

Hazel: Hazel tenses, as if ready for them to suddenly animate and attack her instead of rats for some debauched aristocratic court’s amusement.

GM: Both are small finely carved dolls. One is dressed like a sheriff, the other a black-haired woman. Both dolls are streaked with Hazel’s red nail polish.

Hazel: She’s calmer now. She can recognize what a good way that is to unnerve someone. Go through their personal effects and show how no area of their life is safe.

But you’ve shown me you’re not omniscient either, VV. I rarely wear nail polish, and I don’t like red as a color. You don’t know what’s important to me. Who I am. Or how much I know about you.

GM: That’s when the dolls come ‘alive’. But they don’t attack Hazel. They attack one another. They savagely begin to bite and smash each other.

Hazel: Hazel whips out the camera from her purse and rapidly snaps pictures. She’d been tempted to scoop up the dolls and inspect them as ‘evidence’. But she needs to maintain the narrative of a frightened victim, and a victim wouldn’t think to do that. She’d just want to get the hell away. Pictures are the next-best thing.

GM: The sheriff-doll eventually rips the arm off the dark-haired female, only to have the latter rip off the former’s head. The dolls then clatter to the ground, in tatters and splinters.

Hazel: It’s unnerving on an instinctive level. It shouldn’t be happening. But Hazel has… seen a lot of impossible and horrifying things today. A ghost. A severed hand. That’s just within the past hour. These are mind games, tricks to scare her with. She knows them for what they are.

She’s goddamn tired of being scared.

And besides. Seeing her real parents fight is way worse. She’ll take a physical brawl between their dolls any day of the week.

GM: The red nail polish starts to glisten and run down the dolls’ splintered bodies.

Hazel: “Are you done yet?” Hazel mutters, snapping a few last photos.

GM: The only replies are the subtle creaks of the house and the drone of flies. That, and the trembling echo of her own voice. Outside, her dad calls for her, perhaps alerted to her voice as well as the relative lack of movement from the flashlight. “Sport?”

Hazel: “I’ll be out soon, Daddy! Just got kind of caught up with… you know about my sensory processing…”

GM: “Okay,” he says, looking over his shoulder, back down Red Louse Lane.

Hazel: Hazel steps over the ruined figurines and makes her way upstairs. No doubt her nemesis has left another surprise in the bedroom. Maybe even his grandest one? Not sure. If she got really freaked by the hand, by his little creations, she’d never go upstairs, and it’d be wasted. Or maybe it’s something to really scare her if she makes it through those.

It’s no matter. If she can’t face it, she can’t face him–and she has to face him.

GM: With everything rearranged, it hardly even feels like her room anymore. There’s a pervasive feeling of violation. As her shaking hand sweeps the hallways and bedroom, the light falls upon a photograph left on her bed.

Hazel: The light shines over the photo.

GM: It is a birds-eye view of a hotel room, focused on a young woman drawing spirals on the sheets with her own menstrual blood. A hiking boot lays beside it. Flesh and bone rest within, gnawed on by a blanket of flies. A black cat leaps up onto her bed and joins the gristly feast. The flies scatter, their dark, droning wings fluttering around the air with palpable, crude hunger. The pox-ridden cat gives a low growl at Hazel’s presence.

Hazel: The sight, the photo, the knowledge her nemesis knew where she slept–it should make her scared. It should. But it makes her angry. Her nemesis wants to involve her parents, now does he? Showing up at her mom’s hotel? That makes her pissed. And that settles it. She really can’t keep running. And these stupid animals! No doubt they’ll be happy to report all they’ve seen to their master!

She could be more discrete. But she’s not going to tolerate this thing’s pets on her goddamn bed. Hazel whips out her stun gun–another perk to being the town lawman’s daughter–and squeezes off a round. “Fuck you, tom.” In fact, better if the mangy thing doesn’t report back.

The electrifying projectile, however, goes wide as the hissing cat darts under the bed. Hazel drops to the ground, shines her flashlight at the mangy feline, and fires another shot.

GM: As the electric arc fills the dark recesses beneath the bed with burning cat hair, Hazel remembers why children fear the underside of their beds. That’s where the bogeyman lives. He’s there. He’s always been there. Watching. Waiting. And now she’s come to him.

To him.

As his dark, evil eyes bore into hers, Hazel realizes the picture of Valentin Vladescu was not of the man–but the mannequin. Over the centuries, his form has shifted, such that now, a mere breath away, her Prince Uncharming is dressed in fine evening attire: a back satin shawl tuxedo and crimson bowtie. His face resembles a wooden ventriloquist doll, scratched and scuffed, with old cracks in the pale, pale varnish. His wooden eyes are rimmed in black and wide, so very wide and hungry.

VVbig.jpg

His hinged jaw opens, revealing perfectly flat, white teeth–until they pivot on cunning springs, revealing rows of razor-sharp porcelain fangs. The thing whispers into her ear, dead breath pressing into her skin. Her soul.

“You. Killed. Them.”

And with those three terrible words, as the black cat convulses in pseudo-death throes, Hazel’s mind unhinges as the curtains of repression are torn down and she remembers. She remembers. “What did you do to them?” the Lamia had shrieked. Hazel had forgotten. But now. Now she remembers.

She remembers butchering them. Albert and Elouise Sweeney. It was fun. She was never really good with people. So she decided to take them apart. Piece by piece. Now she understands. Now she remembers. The gloved hand of Albert’s sitting on the table. The booted foot of Elouise upon her bed. She had hid them oh so very well. Or so cleverly that no one would find them. No one would ever know–including herself. But now she remembers.

She. Killed. Them.

The mannequin-shaped Nosferatu seizes Hazel by the neck with wooden hands that are too strong, too inhumanly strong as its unblinking eyes burn her with the knowledge of what she’s done. What she is. The mannequin’s porcelain-fanged jaw clacks up and down three times.

“You. Were. Right.”

She doesn’t need to ask. She knows. She is insane. She’s incapable of caring for herself. She’s a danger. She’s mad. Fear stops her heart. She slumps over, flatlining as terror floods her body. All of her previous panic attacks were but paper tigers. This is true fear. True, mind-ripping horror with claws and fangs.

The mannequin hands then gently release her and withdraw back into the darkness. From that den of blackness, Vladescu watches her, his fanged teeth clacking.

Hazel: In that moment, Hazel is no longer a woman of nearly twenty-four years. She’s not even the four–year–old who ate her mother’s eggs bare-handed. Her mind is a blank slate. A tabula rasa. There is but one thing she can do.

She runs.

She doesn’t process the motions of her legs or how gross physical matter that is the house’s walls slams into her from every side. Her shins hurt. Her flanks hurt. Her chin hurts. Why does her chin–? But then her shoulders hurt, her arms hurt, her back hurts, her stomach hurts, her chin hurts, but that already hurt, and it’s happening again, again and again, around and around. The stairs are on the ceiling and the ceiling is on the stairs. Everything is spinning like a mad kaleidoscope, and she’s mad too, why didn’t she take the steps one at a ti–?

Her glasses jerk off her nose as she crashes to a broken heap at the foot of the stairs. Something stabs her stomach. Is that something red? Is it the nail polish from her parents’ murderous dolls that’s smeared over her clothes, or is it–

She can’t see. Darkness envelops her.

GM: But the spiral never stops.

It descends.

Evermore.

View
Phase I, Case File 1.11

Us-marshal-badge.jpg


Brook: Skin Deep


10.08.1998, Thursday afternoon

GM: Nelson raises his hammer above his head and shouts like an atavistic neanderthal. The air cracks and echoes with the gun fire and the bullet’s devastating collision into the old rotted farmhouse. Birds burst from the chimney and feces-streaked gables, tearing through the sky in instinctual panic. If there are other sounds inside the old farmhouse, it is hard to tell–but Brook swears he sees movement in an upper level window. It could have been nothing more than the reflection of a fleeing bird. It could be his imagination. It could be more.

However, Mr. Epstein then breaks onto the scene, a semi-automatic Makarov pistol in his hand. His back is to the outhouse as he kneels in a shooter’s position. The man’s forehead gleams with sweat as he demands, “Explain.”

“The one-armed psycho’s in the house!” Nelson shouts.

Brook: Brook’s eyes immediately snap to that upper window as he spots the movement, his gun following his vision. There’s a quick squint before he snaps to the new motion. Epstein’s presence is a weight off his shoulders in one way and a new small panic in another. He puts a hand on Nelson’s back, then whispers to follow behind closely and stick with the group while he crouch-runs the football boy to the outhouse and their teacher.

One perk of a smaller handgun is how easily he can use it in one hand. He keeps the other on Nelson until they get to the biffy, then pulls out the cloth and buckle from his pocket to show. “There’s a drawing in the outhouse, in shit. Fresh shit, sir. Satanic bullshit. Found this cloth and buckle, state psych. Movement in the upper windows. I borrowed your 1911. We need to get out of here.”

GM: True to his word, Nelson backs Brook’s play. Mr. Epstein considers the pair and the situation intensely, but quickly. After another glance up at the upper windows, the math teacher passes Brook his jeep keys. “We’re leaving now to go find the proper authorities. Brook, you drive. Nelson, I will cover your six as we head to the vehicle on my count. I will ride shotgun, and if there is to be any more discharge of firearms, it will be my hand. Understood?”

Nelson looks to Brook.

Brook: Brook isn’t an idiot. Three vs. one are good odds, but not to take on someplace who might have traps and is guaranteed to get the drop on them. This is a wolf’s den. Best case scenario is that the lunatic isn’t here and doesn’t see them. Police can ambush him later, that way. Worst case, there is a gun sight on them this very second.

The young man stuffs the buckle and fabric back into his pocket, grabs the keys in his now-free hand and scans around before speaking again. “I want to send Nelson into town in the jeep and keep whoever might be in this farmhouse here, but I agree, sir. Last movement I saw was in the upper windows. On your count.”

GM: The next moments are an adrenaline blur as the trio rush to the jeep. There’s the tense, breathless moment when the ignition won’t turn on the first try, when an eagle splits the air with its shriek, when a sudden gust catches the edge of the left-behind tarp. Muscles and jaws tense with the anticipation of something. Anything.

But no gunshots fire from the windows. No axe-weilding madman bursts from the porch. No Satanic screams punctuate the sound of rolling tires. Instead, there’s just the vague and sickening adrenaline crash that leaves the three men almost wishing something does or did happen–and wondering if baseless fears are what drove them from the farmhouse.

As if giving voice to that doubt, Nelson asks, “Do you think he was there?”

“That’s not our job to find out,” Mr. Epstein says. “Our job, like the public announcement said, is to alert the proper authorities.” Turning to Brook, he says, “First occupied house we see, you pull in, and I’ll call 911.”

Brook: If what Brook saw in the window was the escapee, his first thought is that the wolf is going to use this time to flee his den and find another. But the teenager glad this happened so soon after they arrived, they’ll make their statements and the day still won’t be over. The adrenaline crash, however, is probably something that all three of them are used too. Hunter, athlete, soldier. Speaking of soldier, Brook quickly pulls the slide back and the safety on, dropping an unused cartridge onto his lap and offering the now-inert firearm across the bench to its owner.

“If he wasn’t there, he WAS there. It was too recent a scat track to risk it. If I saw bear shit that fresh I’d leave, too. Remember to tell them I have evidence on me.” As the teacher says, however, Brook pulls into the first house he sees with lights on. He quickly parks there and hops out to dig into his bag. He needs to sketch the symbol before it leaves his head.

GM: Mr. Epstein nods, takes back his firearm, and then hustles out of the jeep. He knocks and waits momentarily at the front door of the isolated, but thankfully not abandoned, farmhouse before its owner opens the door and invites him inside.

Meanwhile, Brook’s artistry steals another ‘soul’. He eschews a pencil and uses the more raw medium of charcoal. The sooty-nub soon dirties his right hand as he begins recreating the sigil. Five points. Five lines. Five words.

But no, Brook realizes as he regards his own work, those numbers aren’t right. There was a sixth point, directly in the center of the pentagram. Unconnected from the others. Initially, he had dismissed it as a nail or errant mark. Similarly, his mind had had overlooked the sixth ‘line’. A circle, connecting all the five points of the pentagram. The sixth ‘word’ also perverts its definition. Below the occult seal, someone had painted: EPH2627. Now, looking at his own hypnagogic sketch, Brook sees the truth. Six points. Six lines. Six words. 6.6.6. The Number of the Beast.

Brook: Brook puts the finishing touches on his work and slowly leans up against the jeep like he’s going to melt. It’s been so long since he could lay his head down to rest. Swiner coffee isn’t his favorite, but it’s almost definitely his next stop after the police drill him on what happened. Everything is here. 666, the words, the madness, and the seeming desperation. But those words bother him. Three letters and four numbers. It reminds him of the times he’s had to see the principal or when crazies shout at a native to accept God. John 12-41, Revelations 4-9. Could this be a Bible verse? Having seen a pocket Bible in his teacher’s car, he quickly flips through the pages until he finds it.

Ephesians 26-27. In your anger, do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

Bristles run up the teen’s back and his eyes stare death and fury back down the road. He adds it to his sketch, drawing a stark line from the verse to EPH2627. This escapee is going to deliberately go against this. He is going to hurt someone for his ‘god’ after the sun goes down.

GM: As Brook attempts to recreate the sigil by hand, time ticks awkwardly for the unoccupied athlete. Nelson eventually peers over and asks. “So, have you ever shot someone before?”

Brook: Nelson’s question jerks him back to reality and he blinks for a moment in response. “I’ve shot AT people. Poachers trying to run. Warning shots. Never killed anyone. Hey, watch the jeep. I’ll be back in a second, going to check on the teacher.”

With his sketchbook under his arm, he steps back quickly to the house and lets himself in to look for Mr. Epstein.

GM: Brook almost collides with his math teacher as the man is just about to exit the house. He looks at Brook expectantly, but does not snap at him for leaving the jeep, particularly when he pops his head out and sees Nelson still waiting safely in the vehicle.

Brook: It makes him jump. There’s nothing worse than a surprise, even a good one. When his teacher looks at him expectantly, he takes a step back for comfort. “Are they coming? Do we have any instructions? They might want statements from each of us.”

GM: The tall veteran raises his hands as if to pacify the hypomanic teen. “Calm down. Deputy Lowder and a U.S. marshal are on their way. Our instructions are to remain where we are, and yes, I imagine they will want to talk with us.”

Brook: Brook’s face turns sour. U.S. marshal. Of course he’ll probably notice the young Madcatcher and be a prick about things. Mr. Epstein isn’t wrong about his hyper attitude, however. This is a hunt, the clock is ticking, and someone’s safety is on the line. It’s been Brook’s simple function as a human being to hunt since the moment he was pulled from that river. It’s simple, thus it’s almost a comforting practice. But as the teacher speaks, he still opens his sketch book to show off what he’d made. “I made a composite of the fresh symbol.”

GM: Mr. Epstein regards the drawing. “A pentagram. That will no doubt be helpful.” He pauses again. “You know, Brook, the pentagram is a rather unique geometric shape known as a star polygon. At its core, it’s a regular pentagon whose exterior angles are all 72°. By extending its lines, one forms the pentagram, and if one connects the points, one forms another regular pentagon exactly equal in ratio to the first, save that its orientation is reversed. This sequence can be continued in both directions, outwards and inwards, without end. Also, the pentagram has a special number hidden inside called the