Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 1

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And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

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GM: This is the way the world ends.

Bang.

This is the way the world ends.

Bang, bang.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Bang.

Struck glass cries out in pain: a staccato crescendo that insistently pulls a young woman through the gates of Horn and Ivory. An electric hum burns behind Hazel’s eyes as she stirs. In response, her giant stuffed bear shifts, then slumps off the bed and slides against the wall and her pilfered TV like an ursine narcoleptic. The banging does not stop. The curtain, a heavy-lacework affair that resembles the love-child of a fractal doily and a LSD-tripping spider, shifts, as if blown back from an impact. Glass rattles. The next bang sounds as loud as a boot slamming against her window. How does it not shatter? Across the road, Mrs. Worwood’s light springs open like a baleful eye.

Hazel: Hazel groans and blearily looks around. The dream is strange enough, but she’s even more surprised to have actually woken up of her own accord. She’s a deep enough sleeper that she usually has to rely on her foghorn-themed alarm clock, and sometimes even it takes several tries.

No. She hasn’t woken up on her own. And it’s not because of her alarm, either. That thumping…

What the hell? she thinks as she pulls her glasses off their familiar spot on her bedside table. Her newly-bespectacled gaze sweeps across the room.

GM: Through the helter-skelter lacework of the curtain, the now-spectacled Hazel spots a short, stout figure beside her mailbox. She also spots the hunched outline of Mrs. Worwood against the amber-light of the crone’s first-floor bedroom window. The spinster’s black outline, her room’s sallow light, and the octagonal window create the pareidoliac image of a crooked cat’s eye.

BANG.

A framed picture falls from the peeling wallpaper. Wood cracks, and glass shatters.

Hazel: Hazel’s heart lurches at the abrupt intrusion into her home. She can feel her breath catching in her chest as the panic attack rises, but she fights it with everything she has as her bare feet hit the wood floor with two light smacks. She rummages through the purse lying against her bedside table, grabs the can of mace clipped to her keyring, throws open the window, and sprays the intrusive, meddlesome old hag with everything it’s got.

She’ll likely regret it later, if she wants to rely on legal action to deal with awful old Mrs. Worwood. But she isn’t thinking straight. And she’s not going to take this lying down. Literally lying down, when she just wants to goddamn sleep. “LEAVE ME ALONE!” she screams over the hiss of the released pepper spray.

GM: Confusion. Fear. Anger. Panic. They flood Hazel’s senses, her blood. The banging is so loud, it sounds, no feels, like someone is smashing glass mirrors inside her brain with a ball-pin hammer. The window flies open. The cold night air crashes into her lungs. The sudden change in air pressure and a nocturnal breeze cause some of the burning pepper-spray to fly back—into her own face, eyes, screaming-wide mouth. She can’t breathe, she can’t see. She’s dying. Black curtains, collapsing tunnels. The gates of Horn and Ivory shut. Hypnos gives way to his dread brother Thanatos.

GM: Bang. Bang.

Morpheus’ twins reluctantly release their chosen prey. Bang. The sound of metal on wood. Somewhere near, but not so near.

“Hazel?”

A voice. A familiar voice. One that has long heralded the end of a night terror and the comforting, if demanding, approach of day.

“Hazel, it’s Dad!”

Footsteps up the stairs.

Hazel: Hazel blinks and feels the bridge of her nose as if to make sure her glasses are still there. That’s when she notices her face is on fire and that her eyes are leaking acid. “W… wagh… WA-ER!” she yells, still sprawled over the floor as she instinctively tries to rub away the lachrymatory agent’s residue.

GM: Harvey Bauman, Undersheriff of Witiko Falls and adoptive father of Hazel, all but bursts into the room. Her father’s features are a painful blur, lit by the diffuse light of dawn. “What in Jesus’ name happened? What’s wrong?” he says. Dimly she can hear her father’s voice and the naked concern in its tone. But with her eyes on fire, it is hard to discern what he is doing. The giant teddy bear is pushed away; the TV blares a static snowstorm. Does he have his gun out? She can’t be sure.

Hazel: Now that unconsciousness has retreated, Hazel’s face burns like napalm. She fights the bile rising in her throat as vinegar-like tears run down her assuredly reddened features. She can’t see, even with her glasses on, and can already feel the second panic attack rising in her chest.

This is way too early in the morning for that shit.

“Pe-epp-per s-spay… wa… gh… er!” she garbles. She tries to rise and stumble towards the bathroom, blindly groping at her surroundings.

GM: She feels her father’s arms, strong yet gentle, reach out and lift her. Just like so many years ago. He helps her to the bathroom, turns on the sink full blast. The next few minutes are a keening rush of water flowing over her eyes punctuated with Harvey’s stream of concerned questions as he tries to make sense of yet another nonsensical, but somehow not atypical encounter with his daughter. The pain eventually subsides. Vision reluctantly returns. Harvey’s confusion, however, remains.

Hazel: “Oh, my GOD…” Hazel moans, staring into the mirror at her puffy, reddened, soaked features. Her wet black hair clings to her head like limp seaweed. The burning behind her eyes has faded to a dull soreness, and even putting her glasses back on doesn’t fully dispel her waterlogged vision.

She doesn’t have it in herself to laugh at her messy wet reflection, and she can’t cry at it either. The pepper spray already squeezed out all of her tears.

GM: “Angel,” Harvey says with a tenderness and patience honed through years of necessary practice, “It’s okay, you still have plenty of time. Just breathe, slow down.”

Hazel: “It’s… it’s six in the morning,” she declares bleakly, rubbing a towel under her eyes as she turns to face her dad. “Is there a ‘redo’ button I can hit to do this day over again? All five minutes of it?”

GM: Harvey takes off his cowboy hat and stares into it as if searching for the words that simply won’t come. Instead of his usual canvas-colored, badge-pinned uniform, he’s dressed down in a flannel shirt. His customary big buckle, jeans, and western boots remain unchanged.

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He dons his hat again and shrugs his wide ‘aw-shucks’ shoulders. He places a gold-ringed hand on his barrel, yet tapered chest. “Why don’t you get dressed for work, and we can talk about it some more once you’re ready?” He then adds cautiously, “Assuming you still want to go in today. I’m sure I could call Uncle Leo…”

Hazel: Unable to laugh or cry at her comical misfortune—only five minutes into her day—Hazel just stands there for a moment, past the point of even feeling awkward. Six in the morning and her dad walks in to find her passed out on the floor after she had an attack from pepper-spraying her own face. No, actually, it’s probably later than six if he’s here. She’d called him last night to get a ride to work, because she didn’t want to bike and show up sweaty on her first day. A day she’ll probably be late for instead. Someone else in Hazel’s position might… she isn’t sure what they might do. She has a vague sense that even beyond pepper-spraying her own face, things aren’t as they should be. It’s not an uncommon feeling for the young woman with autism. But she has little time to dwell on it before her father’s words yank her fully back to the present. Her gray eyes harden in response.

“No.” Hazel’s tone doesn’t snap at the idea so much as bite its head off. “I’m not letting that HAG ruin my first day.” Abruptly aware she isn’t making any sense, and that her dad really does just want to help, Hazel looks down at the baggy black t-shirt she’s wearing for pajamas and declares in a milder voice, “I’ll get dressed. There’s cereal and muffins in the kitchen if you want to help yourself.”

She pauses and then adds, gesturing vaguely around the bathroom, “This will… make sense.”

GM: Her dad nods slowly. He gives her a soft squeeze on her arm and gives her a warm pearly-white smile. “I’m sure it will, pumpkin. I’ll make us some coffee downstairs, but I’m only a holler away if you need anything.”

Hazel: “I’ll try to avoid pepper-spraying myself in the shower too.” Hazel’s tone isn’t quite sad or quite joking. “But thanks, Daddy.”

GM: “You betcha.” Hazel sees her dad peek into his daughter’s disheveled room, then head down the stairs, leaving Hazel free to get ready.

Hazel: Hazel briskly goes through her morning routine, still on edge at the prospect of being late for work on the first day. The hot shower is good for her pores, and she lathers extra soap over her face in hopes of making any remaining swelling go down. She normally likes her showers, long, hot, and filled with the sound of her own voice singing classic rock, but she tries to be timely, and her glasses have scarcely fogged when she wraps a towel around her chest. She blow-dries her un-shampooed hair (three years and counting since she’s stopped spending money on that ‘nonessential’ product), and then, not wanting to show up to work while still damp either, blow-dries the rest of her skin.

She goes through her closet next and puts on a black turtleneck dress, navy scarf, and black leggings that also encase her feet. She found them on Amazon.com (as she’d once shown her surprised father, you can buy a lot of things online) and immediately resolved she’d never wear tights for anything less formal than a White House inauguration ball. After all, the cotton substitutes she discovered are faster to pull on, less effort to wash, look visually similar (how picky can someone be over “dark and skintight?”), and, most importantly, feel more comfortable. Hazel might have stopped wearing days-unwashed sweatpants in public when she was a teenager, but she’s still not above looking for fashion “shortcuts.” She figures her current wardrobe looks more professional than jeans and a hoodie—God knows the backpack she’s going to carry all her crap in will make her look enough like a student—but effort past that isn’t worth it. She does briefly wonder if the turtleneck looks too tight on her figure, but there’s no way she’s calling Mom for fashion advice with Dad in the other room, even if her mother usually lends what she terms “good counsel.”

Finally, she looks herself over in the mirror and applies a bit of foundation to help bring down her face’s redness. Since it’s her first day, she even goes the extra mile and adds some eyeliner—normally more effort than she bothers with, even if makeup is fairly easy to shoplift. Last to go on is her wristwatch. Finally satisfied with her present appearance, or at least resigned to her inability to change it, Hazel heads downstairs to join her dad for breakfast in the kitchen.

“How red does my face still look?”

GM: Hazel finds her dad just finishing drying off the last of the sink’s dishes. He turns around, and his entire face becomes flush with a palette of emotions, pride and surprise not the least of them. “Why, you look… you look as good as a whole head of cattle coming over Hob’s Saddle.” It takes him a moment, but he eventually collects himself with a few ‘ums.’ He passes Hazel a cup of steaming joe.

Hazel: Hazel actually blushes a bit at that. She’d only hoped to cover up the worst of the pepper spray. Okay, so her dad will probably say she looks nicer than anyone else would, but it’s still good to hear. Maybe this day won’t be such a wash after all. “Thanks, Daddy,” she replies to both the compliment and the coffee as she takes a slow sip from the latter.

GM: Harvey likewise takes a sip from a cup of his own, then gestures to the cluttered table. “I got your mail.”

Hazel: “Mail. I can’t wait until everyone switches to email. It’s better for the environment,” Hazel opines. After all, it’s 1998.

GM: “Uh, sure, kiddo,” Harvey says in rubber-stamp agreement. The coffee is hot, black, and perhaps most relevant to Hazel, caffeinated.

Hazel: “Mmm. Just what I need,” she remarks as the caffeine kicks in. She turns the mail over, not opening it now, but looking for any particularly interesting envelopes.

GM: Looking over the bundle of mail, she finds a lot of mail still being addressed to the Sweeneys, including a flyer for organ donation registration at the hospital. Also, Halloween coupons for the Scarecrow Cinema (“Dress up and get 10% off!”).

Hazel: “Oh, few dollars to save,” she mumbles, filing the discount away in the back of her head. Of course, a Halloween costume costs money too. She mentally weighs the pros and cons.

GM: Next, a reminder for the upcoming town hall meeting, being hosted by the Society for the Restoration of Whispering Cedars Insane Asylum. The main agenda item will be planning for Walpurgis Night. Perhaps most salient to Hazel, the flyer announces that free refreshments will be provided, courtesy of Nostrum Enterprises.

Hazel: Ding ding ding. She mentally files away the free food too. Plus it sounds like an interesting enough meeting. And Nostrum evidently has some stake in events, however minor? She makes a note to ask Mom later tonight and flips through the rest of the mail.

GM: Most of the remaining mail barely lasts a second under Hazel’s skimming fingers. An advertisement from a defense attorney, and a dual ad for Arthur’s insurance agency alongside a local funeral home. (“You never know when you’ll need us—but eventually, everyone does!”)

Hazel: Yeah, my mom’s already an attorney—albeit a corporate one—but no thanks, Hazel silently thinks in response to the first ad. Dad still doesn’t need to hear any mention of his ex-wife. “Yeah, I’m young. Waste of money,” she remarks over the second piece of mail. It’s also shuffled aside.

GM: There’s also the latest edition of the End of Times Cerealogist, a local pseudo-newspaper bulletin for those interested in crop circles. The current issue’s headline reads: MESSAGES FROM SPACE—OR TO SPACE?

Hazel: The End Times gets her attention. She flips it over and makes a note to read the full thing later.

GM: The final piece of mail, strangely enough, is addressed to her.

Hazel: That’s moderately uncommon. Hazel looks it over.

GM: It’s a postcard featuring a row of giant head-statures with a printed caption of “Sending smiles from Easter Island!” On the post-stamped back, there’s a scrawled message: “Having a blast! I think we need to invest in a sunscreen factory! Hope all is well, A & E. PS: Don’t forget to feed the dog.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles at the last piece of mail. She likes getting postcards from the Sweeneys. It feels like they’re in touch, but the contact isn’t intrusive like periodic phone calls would be. Hazel turns the postcard back over so her dad can see its picture. “They’re on Easter Island. All sorts of weird theories about the Moai. Ah, the giant head statues.”

GM: Harvey gives another ‘if you say so’ nod and unwraps a muffin. He breaks it in half and slides one portion to his daughter. He clearly wants to make sure she has something in her stomach besides liquid caffeine.

Hazel: Hazel accepts it and takes a nibble. She almost starts expounding on some of the most widely-circulated myths, but then realizes her dad probably wouldn’t be interested. She settles for a more immediately relevant topic.

“So, I suppose you’re wondering why you… found me as you did. It’s not an unwarranted question.” Hazel’s somewhat stiff tone attempts to lend a degree of decorum to the subject. Attempts.

GM: Harvey looks like he’s about to nod or launch into something, but he stops as he has to muscle down the fragrantly stale muffin. He doesn’t have to ask if she got them past-expiration date, and thus free, from Shop-Plus’ bakery. He washes down the bran-brick with another big swig of joe. “Yep, let’s chat about that.” He checks the clock, then makes a motioning gesture as he climbs the stairs in his clunking cowboy boots.

Hazel: Hazel takes another bite of the days-old baked good without complaint. Free always tastes better. She follows her dad upstairs without setting down the muffin and explains between bites,

“It’s that… that hag. That harpy. That disease, that germinating pestilence upon the face of humanity—Beatrice Worwood.” Hazel isn’t quite fuming, but her tone is less upset than a few minutes ago. Revenge is best served cold. “She woke me up. Banging at my window, over…” Hazel trails off, not actually knowing why Beatrice was there. “I don’t know. More ordinance violation complaints, maybe. I had a panic attack and tried to pepper spray her. I… passed out midway through the attempt. And I think it was windy.”

My god, that sounds ridiculous.

GM: “I talked with Mrs. Worwood,” her dad says evenly. “Or rather, she talked to or at me, when I went out and got the mail.” But rather than following up on that line, he instead goes over to the window and opens it. He then points down from the second story window and over to Mrs. Worwood’s house across the street. “Now, how exactly would Mrs. Worwood be standing at your window, pumpkin?”

Hazel: Hazel sighs. “That’s a good question, Daddy. I don’t see her climbing up many windows at her age.” She pauses. Okay, she was initially trying to mollify her dad, but that is a good point. Maybe it wasn’t Beatrice. Or maybe it wasn’t all her.

“Maybe it wasn’t Worwood,” Hazel states. “It was dark, I was disoriented, I was panicking. But there was a loud banging noise outside, and something which disturbed me. And there was somebody outside, by the mailbox. I don’t make a habit of periodically macing the air past my windows.”

GM: Harvey takes another slow sip. “And you said you saw somebody by your mailbox, right? Short and stout?”

Hazel: Hazel looks a bit surprised. “Yes. How did you guess their build?”

GM: Harvey holds up the cup, as if to hide his expression. “Did you get a good look at this person? Any features, or just the outline?”

Hazel: The motion’s potential subtext goes over Hazel’s head. “Just the outline. The light from Worwood’s house went on at the same time. So, hmm, I guess that’s even less evidence it could have been her.” She frowns. Or another party inside the old hag’s house. “I don’t suppose Worwood made out anything more?” That’s probably where her dad got the detail from.

GM: Harvey nods, as if all his suspicions just lined up nicely in a row.

Hazel: Hazel bends to pick up the shattered glass-encased picture, turning it over.

GM: Harvey points down to Hazel’s mailbox—and to the short, stout dark brown garbage can stamped with Ardus Waste Industries’ logo.

“I think we found your man,” he jokes lightly. “It was dark, it was late. The trash container isn’t usually there, so it stuck out to you.”

Hazel: “That doesn’t explain what caused the noise which woke me up in the first place. You know that I’m a pretty deep sleeper, Daddy. Or explain what caused this. My hands don’t have any abrasions on them.” Hazel turns the wrecked picture over in emphasis.

GM: The wooden picture frame is busted on one corner, but the glass has been swept up and dumped in a nearby trashcan. The picture is a relic of one of the Sweeney kids, Marilyn, she thinks, holding a balloon with the backdrop of the town’s nearby now-defunct amusement park. A single scratch is on the old photo, a glass-slashed wound that cuts right across the smiling girl’s face.

Harvey nods. “Yeah, that was what I was wondering. Why were you trying to hang up a picture frame so late at night? I looked around for the hammer, but didn’t find any. I’m assuming you dropped it when you thought you saw somebody in your driveway or at your window.”

Hazel: “Well, go look for one, but you won’t find any. I think it’s more probable that an actual noise woke me up and motivated me to dig out the pepper spray.”

GM: Harvey’s brow furrows. “You mean you weren’t trying to hammer and hang this picture?”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. “At night? No. And why would I want that picture here? You know I like my walls bare.”

GM: And just as suddenly, the undersheriff’s suspicions start line-stepping out of line. He frowns, and a look comes over his face. Not just one of confusion, but the “I better not say it or it will upset Hazel” look. It’s a look he’s had to wear a lot in his life—and a look she’s had to see even more.

Hazel: “Daddy. I’m bad with people, but I know what that look means. Let’s hear it.” Hazel’s tone is more tired than anything else.

GM: He mutters something under his breath, but sighs as he eases into it: “It’s that, well, Mrs. Worwood said she woke up because of all the banging that was going on inside your house. So when I found the frame, I assumed you were trying to hang it up late at night, which woke up Mrs. Worwood, causing you to look out the window, see the trash-can, think it was a person, and then things spiraled out.”

He then rushes to add, “But, honey, I don’t want you to start panicking. You probably just had a nightmare, or maybe you were sleep-walking, banged into the wall, and knocked down the picture. You used to do that all the time at home.” A wistful sadness crosses his face at the mention of ‘home’.

Hazel: Hazel looks more irked by her father’s logic than anything else. “That makes no sense though, Daddy. I do not desire this stranger’s picture in my room. But okay, let’s assume that sleepwalking-me actually does. How was the window closed, between when I passed out and when you just opened it? There’s no pepper spray on the window itself—or wind to blow it back if it was closed—so we can be certain that it was open.”

GM: “Or maybe, pumpkin, you had a nightmare and were sleep-walking. You know how stress makes both more likely to happen, and I know how anxious you are about your first day at work.” He checks his watch. “And speaking of which, we better get going!”

Hazel: “Mmm.” Hazel’s tone is distracted. Her dad obviously isn’t going to be of help here, so as much as she’s grateful for his presence this morning, she files him away as a for-now irrelevant detail. She turns the picture over in her hands again, taking it in as if for the first time. The way the glass cuts through the girl’s smile, that perfect parallel… she pictures the laceration snaking its way across the entire picture, then off the frame, cleaving the air, cutting away her questions and uncertainties…

Cuts them away it does—and all sense of Hazel’s remaining safety.

The line’s direction causes Hazel to glance at the TV; wherein, she sees her own eye staring at itself in the screen’s black mirror. The reflection reminds her of another eye she saw last night. The crooked cat’s eye, which she neglected to inform her father of, because it would’ve sounded so baseless to him. Well-versed in omens and their dire portents, she knows what the sign signifies. She is being watched. By something dark. By something that means her ill. By something… that will return.

She looks away, back to the picture, only to find another tiny, sharp slash across Marilyn’s photographed throat. Had she missed it before, or…

Then, the slashes become a spiderweb, snaking across Hazel’s already frayed sanity. She feels her hammering heart welling up in her throat. Her vision blurs out of focus. Her lungs cry for air her mind does not perceive—and the picture frame clatters to the floor as another panic attack hits.

GM: Another corner breaks. Harvey pays it no mind, but instead swoops in to help his suddenly panicking daughter. He knows better than to hug her, but he catches her eyes, leans down and holds out his hands like nearby anchors for her to grab hold of—if and only if she wants to. “Hazel, breathe, baby, you can do this. Daddy’s right here. You’re safe. Breathe.”

Hazel: Hazel’s chest rises and falls as she laboriously sucks air, clutching her father’s larger hands like twin lifelines. The thought of her meds crosses her panicked mind, but even then is immediately rejected—she’ll get over this damn attack, and god damn it, she hates leaning on that crutch.

GM: Harvey’s hands squeeze back—gently but solidly. “That’s right, keep breathing. It’s okay. The sun is shinning. Keep breathing. In and out slowly.”

Hazel: Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Gradually, Hazel’s heart slides down her throat and back into her chest. But it may still be to Harvey’s surprise when she throws her arms around him in a hug.

GM: Shock notwithstanding, paternal instincts take over as he returns her hug. As Hazel tries to control her hyperventilating, she breathes in her dad’s all-too familiar and comforting smells. His after-shave. The scent of his old flannel and the hint of detergent. “It’s okay, kiddo…”

Hazel: “Daddy, I… want to stay at your house tonight. Is that okay?” she manages once the shakes have subsided.

GM: He kisses her forehead. “Of course, pumpkin.”

Hazel: But Hazel’s frayed mind is already spinning wheels. She’s not asking because she’s scared, even if she is scared. Staying with Dad, where this thing doesn’t expect her—or at least will have to contend with more than a lone target, if it does—throws an unexpected wrench into its plans and buys her time to reset the parameters of this battlefield. If this thing thinks it’s going to victimize her in her bed, while she pulls up the covers and prays for the monsters to go away, it’s sorely mistaken.

Another name runs through her head. Mom. Yes, what happened to her sounds crazy, and she has no material evidence to support her suspicions, but maybe if she plays up how unhelpful her mother’s ex-husband was… Hazel frowns. No. Mom can help, maybe indirectly, but what she really needs is knowledge. She needs some idea of what she’s facing. She can try to find out through direct experience, but until she knows what she’s dealing with, keeping her distance is best. As the saying holds, knowledge is power, and ignorance is just as surely powerlessness.

Whether knowledge of this thing’s nature will be enough power to take it on is another question. But she’ll find out. She has her ways. She’s never had to deal with bullies before—it helps when your dad’s the town lawman—and she’s not about to start now. Whatever this thing wants from her, it’s not getting it without a fight. Hazel finally pulls away from her dad.

“Let’s go to work. I’m not missing my first day.”

GM: Harvey stirs as the rare embrace ends, like a man slowly waking from reverie. As Hazel’s words slowly trickle into his ears, his brow furrows. “Are you sure? I’m sure Uncle Leo wouldn’t mind if you start tomorrow. You know, after a full night’s rest?”

Hazel: “Uncle Leo watched people get thrown into ovens, Daddy. I don’t think he’s going to be that sympathetic to me staying home because I got some mace in my eyes and had a panic attack,” Hazel remarks of the Holocaust survivor.

GM: The surprised silence on her dad’s face lets Hazel know that she’s won this round.

Hazel: Hazel stands up. “Come on. Let’s go.”

GM: A few minutes later, after packing some clothes and double-checking she has everything she needs for work, Hazel and her dad lock the Sweeneys’ house and head to his patrol truck. Beatrice Worwood is waiting for them.

Hazel: Hazel’s expression is noticeably frosty.

GM: Hazel doesn’t know how old the ‘hag’ is, but she’s clearly old. You don’t get to be that ugly and that bitter without decades of practice.

Hazel: Hazel otherwise ignores the old woman and makes a show of opening the car door and getting in without so much as a backwards glance, clearly not waiting on anything she has to say.

GM: The steel-haired, hunch-backed woman glares at Hazel with a scowl that could curdle cement. She all but howls at Hazel’s dad, “Sheriff Bauman, I demand that you arrest that delinquent law-breaker for disturbing the peace!”

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Hazel: “You’re an awful old hag and it’s no wonder nobody married you,” Hazel abruptly snaps. “If you have a problem with me as a neighbor, you’ll have a problem with anyone. I just wish that Zeus didn’t give you the choice to remove your eyes, because you’d be less of a cunt if you were as blind as you are unloveable.” ‘Tact’ has never been Hazel’s strong area, and by God does it feel good saying that. The mythological reference to Beatrice’s middle name of ‘Lamia’ might be lost on her dad, though.

GM: Beatrice’s eyes bulge like crocodile eggs about to hatch.

Meanwhile, her poor father resembles a modern-day Odysseus, trapped between a geriatric Scylla and post-teen Charybdis. He literally raises his hands in part surrender, part-defense. “Hazel. Not. Another. Word. Please.”

Hazel: Hazel smirks at her nemesis but remains silent. She’s spoken plenty of hateful words already, after all.

GM: Harvey turns to Beatrice, whose face is so apoplectic she’s still sucking in air for an Armageddon-level harangue. “Now, Mrs. Worwood, I’m very sorry my daughter woke you last night. She had a terrible nightmare, and we have an important meeting that we need to leave to right now.

And then, before another second passes, Undersheriff Bauman jumps into his truck and burns rubber, leaving Mrs. Worwood in a literal cloud of dust and exhaust. The harridan’s shrieks seem to follow them all the way down Red Louse Lane.

Hazel: “I was serious about one part of my diatribe. Well, more serious. If she has a problem with me as a neighbor, she’ll have a problem with anyone,” Hazel remarks as their truck flies away from the screeching harpy. “Do I host loud parties like another twenty-something with an absent landlord might do? No. I keep to myself.”

GM: Harvey keeps his eyes peeled to the road—particularly the one behind him. “You know you’re going to have to apologize.”

Hazel: “I’m certain that she hopes as much. Hope is often in vain.”

GM: “Hazel.”

Hazel: “But it springs eternal, so she can keep hoping.”

GM: “Hazel.”

Hazel: Hazel feels tempted to reply, “Dad” but instead just sighs. “Is that something you’d like me to do out of general principle, Daddy, or is there another reason? She already hates me and looks for any excuse to make a nuisance of herself. No, scratch that, she’s a constant nuisance and if there happens to be an excuse at a given time, bonus. I don’t think I made things appreciably worse between us.”

GM: “Look, I know Mrs. Worwood can be a right awful beast. But she’s surprisingly connected, Hazel. You don’t want her as an enemy. I don’t want her as an enemy.” He exhales loudly. “She wants to press charges. Which is bogus, I know. But if you don’t apologize, I’m liable to have the mayor breathing down my back, and you’re likely to find the local PTO picketing the library.” He shakes his head. “You used the ‘c’ word.”

Hazel: Hazel clenches her teeth. This bullshit on top of the recent troubles in her home? The thing that’s haunting her has the benefit of anonymity. Has her chasing shadows. Beatrice Worwood enjoys no such protection. “No. She doesn’t want me as an enemy,” Hazel growls.

“And good luck if she wants to sue. My mother’s the best lawyer in the state. A corporate lawyer, okay, but regardless.” She does pause, though, when her dad mentions her actions bringing trouble down on him. “That old bat’s friends with the mayor?”

GM: “God only knows why, but yes.” He’s silent for a moment. “Can you please just apologize? Remember how we’ve talked about how sometimes our words don’t mean what we really think or feel, but we say them anyways?”

Hazel: Hazel glowers for a moment. “I don’t like that, Daddy. She shouldn’t get to be such an insufferable cunt, throw her weight around with the mayor, and then get people to apologize for calling her out. There’s a word for that. Quite a few words, in fact, but one of the most appropriate ones is ‘bully’ and it aptly encapsulates the other words I just spoke to her—which precisely matched my own thoughts and feelings, thank you very much.”

GM: Her dad all but moans. “Hazel, pleaaaase don’t use that word.”

Hazel: Hazel gives a long sigh, looking out the window. “But I’ll do it for you. Not for me. And not for her.”

GM: Harvey opens his mouth as if to protest or push a little more, but he gives up. “Okay. I appreciate it.”

Hazel: “So should she. You’re the only reason,” Hazel declares, still ill-content to let the subject of her umbrage drop. “She wants to fight me over the library, or in court, just bring it on.

GM: “Hazel, just apologize. And don’t use that word again.”

Hazel: “I meant what I said, Daddy. I’ll tell her that I’m sorry. But take heart from Operation Barbarossa and know to quit when you’re ahead.” It’s a rather bizarre comparison, but Hazel isn’t always the best at putting her thoughts into words.

GM: “Operation What?”

Hazel: “When Hitler invaded Russia. He should’ve focused his efforts on the rest of Europe first—well, actually no, more like the Mediterranean and the Middle East—and it probably cost him the war.”

GM: “And what does that have to do with any—wait. Never mind. I don’t want to know. Just apologize. Tell her in person, write her a letter, just apologize. And on second thought, maybe you should mail it.”

Hazel: “That’s a great suggestion, actually. I don’t want to stare at her smug face.”

GM: “Sweet Jesus,” her dad exclaims.

Hazel: “Too much eye contact and I’d probably turn to stone too, the way she looks.” After realizing the second parallel between Greek mythological elements is probably just as lost on her dad, Hazel’s tone grows somewhat less vituperative as she adds, “I’ll let you read the letter before I mail it, so you can be certain it will have the desired effect. We can make edits accordingly if it does not.”

GM: The offer seems to quell some of her father’s exasperation. “That, that would be… nice. Thanks, Hazel. We could mail it tonight.”

Hazel: Hazel mentally groans at the prospect of writing it so soon. She’s a natural procrastinator. “Well, the sooner it’s over with…”

GM: “…the sooner it’s done. Speaking of which, I can pick you up when you’re finished today.”

Hazel: “Oh yeah? That’d be nice,” Hazel answers with a bit of a smile. “Is today your day off, by the way? You’re not in uniform.”

GM: “Usually I’m on-shift, but I switched with Deputy Lowder.” He taps the steering wheel, then adds, “Although I promised to cover being on-call tonight. It’s a week-day, so things should be slow. If I get a call, though, I’ll have to handle it.”

Hazel: Hazel initially doesn’t seem to follow. “Oh, so you’re off now. Well, that makes sense, you probably get a great many more calls at night.” A pause. “Have there been any interesting ones lately?”

GM: “Interesting?” Harvey asks, then remembers with whom he’s talking. “Hopefully it will be a quiet night, but if I get a call, you can hang out at the house or tag along. Normally, I’d leave you with Gramps, but he’s taking Nana to a VA hospital in Coer d’Alene for a sleep study or something.”

Hazel: Oh, I hope you do get a call. Not only will it serve as a welcome distraction from whatever thing is haunting her, but her dad will be on edge and in “cop mode.” If she does get attacked, there’s few better times or places. Still, Hazel can only hope she’ll be so lucky. As she just said, many hopes are in vain.

“That’s okay, Daddy. I’m happy to come along, or fine being alone if that’s unfeasible. I just… want to spend the night someplace else.”

Well, actually, not really, she frowns inside her head. She’s more likely to be safe from whatever that thing is around more people.

GM: Harvey frowns, but holds his tongue. He already had a reminder today of what happens when he doesn’t.

Hazel: Hazel abruptly changes the topic. “You think I should’ve dressed up more? Now that I think about it, some of my teachers did on my first days.”

GM: No hesitation. “You look perfect.”

Hazel: Hazel still blushes a bit. “Thanks, Daddy.”

GM: He coughs awkwardly as he makes a left, the high school fast approaching. “You know, if one of the students, one of the boys starts to, uh…” He gropes pitifully for words.

Hazel: Harvey might grope for words, but Hazel has enough trouble exercising her arm’s muscles. “I’m almost ten years older than some of them, Daddy,” she mumbles. “Idaho’s age of consent is 18, notwithstanding partners within three years of age, and I’m at least six y…”

Hazel trails off, turning redder. She thought he was saying she’d be interested.

GM: Harvey may or may not breathe a sigh of relief. He also may or may not mumble something about “Operation Barbarossa.”

Hazel: “Can we discuss some other matter of either triviality or import before our vehicle arrives outside of the high school?” Hazel abruptly inquires. The awkward language under such circumstances isn’t anything new to her dad.

GM: “Uh, yes, um, of course. What do you want for dinner?”

Hazel: “Well, have you done much hunting lately? I wouldn’t object to a fresh kill.” It’s still a bit odd, but subsiding.

GM: “Um, what?” her dad says, clearly still a bit… off. “Oh, yeah, I’ll have to check what’s in the freezer. Gramps might also have a few trout I could fry.”

Hazel: “That sounds good. How’s… he been lately?”

GM: Harvey chuckles. “Gramps is Gramps.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles at that. “Yes. He is.”

GM: “He’s really happy you’re home, or well, back. He can’t wait to see you.” He smiles. “Which is why I’m willing to risk getting a whoopin’ for taking his trout without asking.”

Hazel: “Me too. I still like his stories.”

GM: “Yeah,” her dad says flatly. He then switches gears. “When you’re all settled into your job, we should get the whole family together. You won’t believe how big Russell and Simon are.”

Hazel: “That’d be nice. Though I don’t know how happy they’ll be to see me again.” Her cousins hated her “no TV” rule whenever she babysat for them. It was so illogical. Didn’t they see how TV was no good for their minds? She thinks for a moment longer. “Hm, though maybe if I just let them watch something that’s actually a piece of culture, the next time I sit… it’s hard to go wrong with anything on the National Film Registry.”

GM: Harvey seems to consider the suggestion. “Or maybe we could all go camping?”

Hazel: Hazel mostly suppresses her groan.

GM: “No? Well, we’ll figure something out.”

Hazel: “Maybe we could stick to get-togethers. Or just hiking out, if we want to see some nature.”

GM: Harvey thinks on it as he makes the last turn. “Hiking. Uncle Leo would like that. Hard on Nana. Hmm.”

Hazel: Hazel’s face falls a bit at the mention of Great-Grandma. “Yeah… not a lot she can do outside the house these days. We should go see her.”

GM: Harvey smiles like all is right in the world. “We will, pumpkin.”

Hazel: “I look like a student with that thing,” Hazel mumbles, glancing down at her backpack. “And getting a ride from my dad no less.” Her tone is more self-ribbing than embarrassed for that second sentence, though.

GM: “And here I was about to tell you to have a good day at school,” he smiles.

Hazel: “Well, I’ll still take it. And at least I made my own lunch.” She smiles back as she rolls her eyes.

GM: Her dad chuckles. Indeed, it doesn’t help that he doesn’t look a day older than he did her senior year. Same truck, same laugh.

Hazel: Five years isn’t so long, she thinks. At least, it’s not so long for him as it is for her. What’s the difference between high school senior and college graduate for Hazel is just another couple years on the job to Dad.

GM: “All the same, pumpkin, it’s great to have you back.”

Hazel: “Yeah. And it’s good to be back, Daddy. I just didn’t feel… satisfied with anything, out in Spokane.” Though she won’t admit it to herself, she still doesn’t. She’s just filled her life with more distractions.

GM: Her dad tries to nod as if he understands—but clearly doesn’t. But he doesn’t say anything. After all, someone needs to learn the lesson of Operation Barbarossa.

Hazel: That really was an absurd comparison, she thinks.

GM: Any further conversation or private musing is halted by their arrival at Witiko Falls High School.

Home of the Kelpies, the town’s only high school is a massive edifice of early twentieth century Green River brickwork and more modern additions of aluminum roofing and black-tinted windows. Four stories tall, with at least two more basement levels, and two massive, now abandoned wings, the structure casts a large shadow over its neighbors.

Outside on the allegedly goat-cropped lawn, the school’s marching band is practicing, adorned in the school’s green and bone colors. As Harvey parks his patrol truck in front of the entrance, the band’s drums beat out the Kelpies’ fight song.

school_exterior.png

Hazel: Looks like the band also has to show up early. Hazel thought it was just faculty, but she was never in band. The new librarian picks up her backpack and slides out of the car. She doesn’t hug her dad, but her voice is warm as she turns back and states, “Thanks for the lift, Daddy. And for being there in my hour of need.” She pauses. “Ah, for being there when I needed you.”

Even if he may not be there when she really does.

GM: Harvey just beams. “That’s what I’m here for, kiddo. Now have a great day at school, and I’ll pick you up after the bell!” As he pulls off, Hazel can hear him singing the Kelpies’ fight song in rhythm with the band:

“Witiko Falls!
Witiko Falls!
Drown us deep,
And we’ll stand tall!
Death’s not defeat,
For the Bone and Green!
Witiko Falls!
Witiko Falls!”

Next: Chapter 2

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