Kurt: Mind’s Eye
10.05.1998, Monday evening
“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.”
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’.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.”
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 winces a little at the volume, but that impish grin remains.
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 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.
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?”
The other three teens remain silent, clearly expecting or wanting more.
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.
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 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.
“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.”
“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?
“Offer to buy her booze,” Kurt offers with a knowing smile.
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.
“Shit!” is all Kurt can help but yell.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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
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 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!”
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, 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!”
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.”
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!?”
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, 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?”
“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 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.”
“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.
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.”
“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 returns the gesture, looking a little tired after a long day. Kristy’s snoring doesn’t help.
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?”
“What do you mean?” Kurt asks, listening to his friend. He, of course, has thought about things like that many times.
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’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.”
“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?”
“Yeah.” Kurt’s face scrunches up. “I don’t get how she can take Felicity’s side.”
“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.”
“It is.” Kurt smiles. “It’s damn near awkward passing her apartment door, though.”
“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.
“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.”
“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 simply nods his head. He feels pretty tired now, working all day—but the day isn’t entirely done yet.
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.
“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.
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 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.”
“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
“Shit!” Kurt swears, laughing as he grabs the dashboard. “I’m joking, man!” He continues to laugh, now wide awake from the sudden swerve.
“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’s laughter dies as the wind is knocked out of his sails; a punch to the balls will do that.
“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.
“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.
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’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…”
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, closing his mouth, relents as he nods at his friend. He moves to unfasten his belt and get out of the stationary vehicle.
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 instinctively shivers, clasping his sides as he turns to his friend.
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…”
“It’s fine, man. We all have problems, but you know you can tell me anything. We’re best friends.”
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 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?”
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 nods, taking in his friend’s words, trying to his best to be serious. “I take it you picked this girl up, right?”
“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 laughs, getting sucked in by Wilson’s story. “Yeah. You’ve mentioned it a few times.”
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.”
“Man. If anything, you look like a serial pervert.” Kurt adds, “But I think girls think most guys do, anyway.”
“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.”
“Did you at least get a name?” Kurt asks, curiously. Wilson rarely acted this wound up over a woman.
“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 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?”
“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 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.
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, of course, wishes both his classmates goodnight. Stifling a yawn, he heads to his own apartment to hopefully hit the hay.
Sadly, as he enters his apartment, he’s reminded that the hay may have to wait. Again.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
As usual, Kurt finishes the first thankless task, if not odor.
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.
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.
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.
The apartment is otherwise still and silent. A husk of a home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s at this point Kurt’s stomach rumbles and he remembers the chicken noodle soup sitting on the stove top.
Like the comatose husk of his tucked-in father, the cold soup remains where it was left.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
The cat regards Hazel with its black-monitor eyes. There’s a click as un-named colors return in new shapes:
not sad? Or I shouldn’t be sad?” she inquires, her voice going flat.
The cat closes its eyes as it brushes up against her hand.
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.
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.
Now this is a place she’d like to wake up to.
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.
“Good morning, Hazel,” the figure says with a yawn.
“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.”
“It’s time to begin.”
“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?”
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,
Good morning. The phrase would certainly appear more than mere platitude in this case.
It’s time to begin.
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.
“There are no last pages,” the coat-rack figure says, seemingly reading Hazel’s thoughts. “Not here. Never here.”
She considers that. “I suppose there aren’t, now are there?”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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 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.
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 instinctively stiffens at its presence, her face hardening. “No. I’ll make Mackenzie fucking eat that jacket.”
“Keep an open mind. You never know how it fits till you try it on. You could find it to your liking.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is not good. Growth and change is necessary to prevent stagnation, but it must be controlled, regulated.
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.
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?”
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 instinctively thrusts out a hand. The weight of the buckles grows oh so heavy, forcing down the cloth straps that give it animation.
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.
—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.”
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.
All four chairs remain, though only one remains untested.
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.
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.
The dark-furred cat leaps from Hazel’s arm, but waits for the woman to decide their sojourn’s course.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That sealed it. This was who she was—in more than one sense of the word.
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.
She remembers showing the book she’d found to her parents. “This is about me! And it’s very good!”
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
“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!”
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.
Besides, who knew if she might find other books in the house, late at night?
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 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!”
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 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.
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.
The then-thirteen-year-old Hazel had one thing to say to her father: “YOU
!?” 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
! 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.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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?”
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.
“I can… wipe your eyes, if you are not adverse,” Hazel offered, equal parts tentative and sincere.
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.
“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.
“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.
“I can sweep, with your wrist…” Hazel had quickly cut in.
“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 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.”
“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 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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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 bit back her natural objections, but then finally said, plaintively if not desperately, “I don’t want there to be another outbreak.”
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 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…”
“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
1912 copy of Oriflamme
The Book of Lies
Liber IAO – IAO
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 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.
The cat languidly waits, either oblivious, patient, or uncaring at the delay.
Hazel finally looks down at the black-furred cat. “Is there no figure with whom to converse here?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
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.
The sound of the tumblers is all she needs. She opens her home’s door and briskly strides inside with the cat.
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:
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.
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.
They are not the one.
But not one.
But one of them.
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.
“You believe I am divided,” she states. “Between sentiment and discovery?”
You are not one.
You are divided.
“Knowledge and my family are the two things I treasure beyond all else,” Hazel states.
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.
“I cannot obtain ultimate knowledge and retain my family,” Hazel states, half in question.
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.
“That is its price,” she continues slowly.
GM: They are not one.
They are not the 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.
“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.”
With alarming speed, it begins to fill the tesseract. Hazel feels it rise, first to her ankles, then knees, then waist.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s only one thing to do then. She breathes deep.
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:
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
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.