Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 3

Moonscape.png


Brook: Skin Deep


GM: The moon is fat and full, fecund with light.

The woman waits. Mary Madcatcher, chief park ranger, sits in a signal shack nine miles out of town, playing Last Man Out solitaire with a pack of greasy poker cards. Outside the wind rises to a shrill scream. Mary raises her head uneasily, and then looks back down at her game again. It is only the wind, after all…


But the wind doesn’t scratch at doors…

…and whine to be let in.


She gets up, a thick, brick-framed woman in a wool jacket and park ranger uniform, her seamed Blackfoot face lit in soft orange tones by the kerosene lantern which hangs on the wall. The scratching comes again. Someone’s stray, perhaps, lost and wanting to be let in. That’s all it is… but still, she pauses. It would be inhuman to leave it out there in the cold—but still she hesitates. A cold finger of fear is probing just below her heart.

The low-pitched whining rises to a snarl. There is a thud as something incredibly heavy hits the door… draws back… hits again. The door trembles in its frame, and a white snow billows in from the top. The snarling thing strikes the door again with incredible force, splintering
 it from top to bottom. Wet snow and fetid musk spill from the gaping hole.

“Brook Barnes!”

His geometry teacher slaps his yard-stick again on Brook’s table. Hard. Drool leaks from the sophomore’s mouth as he peels it from his classroom desk. Several students snicker. Quietly.

“Brook, if you cannot manage to stay awake, please do us all the courtesy of at least refraining from moaning in your sleep!”

“Yeah, Brooks, geometry is exciting—but not that exciting!” another classmate heckles. Several other students laugh. Less quietly.

Mr. Epstein swings his yard-stick around like an executioner’s axe. “That’s enough out of you, Nelson.” The geometer regards his students with an authoritarian gaze. “Now, unless any of you would like to discuss your next flippant remark with Principal Gorczak, shall we proceed?”

The threat of the Grey Ursuline causes the students to immediately settle. Mr. Epstein nods, then marches back to the front of the class, his yardstick smacking against the chalkboard as he continues his mathematical lecture.

math_teacher.png

Brook: Dogs? Dogs don’t work here, it’s not the place for their old souls, it twists them and makes them a danger. Listening to the scratches at the door he just remembers the Doberman tourists brought five years ago. How it got off its chain. How it charged him. How his mother put a slug in its skull mid-sprint. This, however, is a dream. Not his usual dreams. The proportions of his home are correct, he’s not in first person, he’s seeing this as an observer. Vivid as ever, but with everything feeling too heavy to not be real. The mood suddenly changes, his heart drops as that smell rips through the bending wood of his fortress, phantom limbs reach out to try and shield his mother.

THWACK!

Everything snaps back into focus as he’s brought back to the real world, a hand darting to grab the far end of the table to brace himself as he looks up bright eyed and bushy tailed at his teacher. Same old same old, and poor Mr. Epstein. But the humiliation still rises up in his cheeks from his fellow students, glad at already being ‘red’ enough as to hide his flush at least a little, quickly scanning around. Moaning and drool? More unusual stuff. Usually he was chewing his lip too much to drool, and didn’t make so much as a peep. It’s different this time though, he doesn’t like it one bit.

He mumbles an apology and fishes around for his pen, starting to copy the notes from where he left off however long ago he dipped out. Not that he won’t just read the textbook later, making a personal note in between lines of numbers. Tell Mother about attack dream. Shit, he hopes she won’t worry too much about the change in template. Sometimes it seems she’s still catching up on the sleep he cost her as a kid.

GM: The geometry class slides by like thumb-tacks on flypaper. When the bell finally rings, the students collectively sigh with gratitude and filter out of the classroom with growing verbal ruckus. Yet, as the last students are filling out, Mr. Epstein calls out, “Brook and Nelson. To my desk.”

The last of the other students exchange glances. A few even share sympathetic smiles with the popular sophomore. When they have departed, and only the two sophomores remain, Mr. Epstein straightens his desk’s pencils and papers to perfect perpendicular angles.

“During my time in the Army,” the teacher begins, “I had a drill sergeant who said that loud mouths are symptoms of under-active bodies. He held that the cure was physical labor. The more, the better. Although I might question his premise and some of his methodologies, I cannot argue with his results. Both of you will report to the faculty parking lot tomorrow at fifteen hundred hours for detention. I would suggest you wear attire suited for work outside.”

Nelson scowls slightly, but then answers his teacher differentially. “Yes, sir.” As he departs, he shoots Brook an unkind look and whispers, “See you later, Red.”

Brook: Brook stands as at attention as he can over at the desk, wondering how loud he was for this lecture to be multipurpose. But he keeps his mouth shut and listens to when he’s supposed to show up for his detention. Nothing unusual. Neither are Nelson’s little parting words, rain on a sheet-metal roof, he doesn’t even bother whispering his response.

“Later, invader.”

Nelson, what a strap-headed asshat. But for the moment, Brook sticks behind to talk to Mr. Epstein. “Sorry about nodding off again, sir. I’ll make sure my test scores show I’m taking you seriously. I’ve just… woods have been getting to me a little lately. Civil duty and all.”

GM: His geometry teacher either does not hear or chooses to ignore the inter-student sniping. When Brook mentions the woods, Epstein stares off into the distance. “Yes… the wilds have their… ways.” He is silent for a while, and then his thousand-mile stare fades. He faces Brook. “But your civic duty also requires you to sharpen your mind upon the whetstone of education—and not to dull those of your peers.”

Brook: Brook just nods and lets the man have his moment, there’s some kind of trauma here he didn’t want to poke at. Nature o’ ’Nam, he muses, wondering if the teacher was actually in any kind of war, or if basic training was that bad. But as much as Mr. Epstein is right about him needing to get an education, he wonders if he knew how pointless it was trying to teach Nelson jack squat. Future cop, ahoy. “Wasn’t my intention to stop the learning, it can just be difficult to not nod off in the day. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

GM: “Yes, Brook,” Mr. Epstein says, re-straightening his still-straightened papers. “I will see you tomorrow at class, and later in the faculty lot. You are dismissed.” But before Brook goes to leave, Mr. Epstein calls out, “One last thing, Brook. A piece of advice. Something I also learned in the Army, but not from my drill sergeant. Men that resort to narrow-minded racial slurs and bullying usually do so because at their core, they are weak and afraid.”

Brook: Brook turns to leave, about to pick up the pace to get to his next class, but stops when he hears… some actually encouraging words from the man. “Thanks, Mr. Epstein. Means something coming from you. Nelson will sort himself out eventually, I don’t have to do anything. See you tomorrow!”

Hunting isn’t all guns and treks, it’s also traps and ambushes. Nelson sets his own. But he waves and leaves, yawning into the back of his hand and adjusting the bag on his shoulder. Next nap-space!

GM: Between periods, the hallways are a stew of hormones and cliquish pecking orders. Banners proudly announce the homecoming game against the Sandpoint Bulldogs. “Drown ’em deep!” is a recurrent theme. Daniel Littlebeaver and June Pohlman, both friends and fans of Brook and his show, are waiting for him as he exits the math class.

“Did you get detention?” June asks with a light touch of painted nails on Brook’s elbow. A freshman who graduated from Lame Bull Middle School not even four months ago, June Pohlman is a petite, cupid-faced blonde who loves mix-tapes and music—and thus adores Brook’s station, if not Brook himself.

june.png

Too bad his friend Daniel saw her first. A native to the reservation in both senses, Daniel Littlebeaver is a long-time friend of Brook and his mother. Another music junkie, particularly of punk or really anything that doesn’t remind him of tribal music, the mohawk-wearing Kainai is hard to pin-down in the Kelpie’s regimented social structure. Despite rejecting most of his ancestral culture, Daniel is an avid gambler and cardsharpe who one days dreams of ditching the reservation and becoming a dealer or pit-boss at a ritzy casino in Vegas, Biloxi, or Atlantic City.

daniel.png

Today, however, he contents himself with making a card disappear and reappear in his hand as he asks: “Forget Stan, Brooks, tell me about that dream. Must have been something juicy with the way you were going at it with the table.”

“Oh put a sock in it, Dan,” June chides him, and then shakes her head and hand quickly, “And don’t even say anything, I swear, it’s like all you boys have bad case of mono-brain.”

“You know what they call mono, right?” Daniel says, putting his arm around June. “The kissing disease.” He leans in to kiss her, but she pushes him away—more playfully than truly upset.

“So what happened?” June asks again.

“Yeah,” Daniel adds, “Give us the down-low on the way to class.”

Brook: Everything he sees those banners, the thought comes up. How ironic it would have been if I joined the football team.

Despite how much it can piss you off just moving from one place to the other, the moment Brook steps out into the hall it’s all smiles as his friends greet him, catching him fix his hair. Clip at the top, ponytail fixing the rest behind his head. He listens while he fiddles, and watches the two with their public displays of affection, their closeness. Man, fuck Dan Littlecunt and his quick luck, June was awesome. Not that he could deny they were perfect for each other. The two of them already had that talk, the saw-headed little brave got his big friend’s blessing, it was ancient history.

“Yeah yeah, save it for behind the Swiner dumpster, you two,” he teases, grabbing both their shoulders and giving an appreciative squeeze as they finished up prodding him, starting towards the next class.

“Dream, though! Not first person like usual. Mom was playing solitaire in the station. Something was scratching at the door, mom’s spooked, scratching and whimpering turned to growling and breaking the door down. Shitty smell, snow, cold. Then I nearly got scalped by the teacher.” Summing up strange dreams was a long cultivated skill, so they could get to the stuff that mattered. School therapy demands it. “Detention though, yeah. With the Simpson’s reject himself. Nelson. Livin’ La Vida Bitch Loca.” That about summed it all up! Nothing much to say, he turns and smiles at the two of them. “How about you two? Tales of teen pregnancy? Plans of running away to Reno? Anything juicy?”

Nothing much else to say on the matter*

GM: June rolls her eyes at Brook’s suggestive line of questioning. Daniel makes a pseudo-subtle line drawn across his neck. The former then says, “Did you hear that Dan got a job?”

Daniel jerks back, then looks around to see if anyone is listening. “Babe–,” he says, “–we talked about this—it’s supposed to be a secret, remember?”

“What?” June asks agog, “You weren’t going to tell Brooks?”

Daniel rubs the back of neck, then swipes it up the tips of his spiked hair. “I mean, yeah, of course,” he laughs weakly, “But not like here in the hallway.”

“I don’t see why it’s that big of a deal,” she says, slightly peeved.

“Because… because it’s not a done deal,” he says, looking awkwardly at his friend.

“You said you got the job,” June insists.

“I did, I did,” Daniel says holding up his hands as if suing for peace. “It’s just that… the guy is, well, he’s… skittish.” Seemingly eager to change the subject, Daniel adds, “Hey, did either of you hear about the teacher who got beat up today? I heard they had to call an ambulance.”

“What?! No, who?!” June asks, her attention now clearly diverted.

Brook: Brook puts a hand up as June rolls her eyes, quickly quipping, “Sarcasm. We both know you’ve got too good a head on your shoulders.” Before the drama kids the fan. This sounds sketchy from the moment Daniel says it’s supposed to be a secret, stopping in the hall and turning full 180 to look down at his friend. He lets them play it out between themselves again before he changes the subject. One of his hands slowly comes up and grabs his friend by the shoulder again, squeezing harder this time as he gives him a ’we’re talking later’ glare. Like a Mama Bear bearing down on something sneaking near her cubs. If this boy is selling drugs he swears to THE NINTH CIRCLE OF HELL he will chase him into the woods and throw him into the Gray Devil’s den by the belt and hair.

Hands off, he starts walking again, his tone none too pleased. “If it was Mr. Atwood, I’m skipping health.”

GM: “I don’t know who,” Daniel says, “I just heard some seniors talking about it at lunch.”

“Wouldn’t they have, like made an announcement or something?” June asks dubiously.

Daniel looks at Brook and shrugs. The next period bell forces the trio to save their discussion for another time.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Hazel: After Murff’s class leaves, Hazel calls her dad (again) when Jake is out of earshot, informing him what time she expects to get off work—rather later than school gets out for students. She adds that she has a few things she wants to do at home, including packing her things for her overnight stay and just enjoying some “alone time” after a day where she’s had to deal with a lot of people. If Harvey would rather not play constant chauffeur (driving to WFHS, dropping Hazel off at home, driving back to his home, driving back to hers, then back to his again), Hazel assures her dad that she’s happy to bike back to Red Louse Lane—that is what the bike he got her last Christmas is for, after all. If Harvey finds such amenable, she gives him a good time to pick her up—a few minutes after she expects to be home from dinner with her mom, which she pointedly does not mention.

Afterwards, Hazel returns to cataloging and puts on her walkman to break up the monotony with some Beatles. The cataloging itself is simple, repetitive work that Layne should be well-suited for. Hazel isn’t sure how to act around her other library assistant after laughing at his story, so she simply focuses on her work.

GM: Her father remains doggedly concerned about her last phone call and the “mistaken” drug incident. However, he eventually relents once again to wait till they meet in person to discuss the matter—which may, in part, be the reason he so readily agrees to pick her up at the designated time. “I’m off-duty anyways, pumpkin–” he says in closing, “–so I’ll see you in a few hours. I raided Gramps’ freezer-chest and Nana’s pantry; hopefully, you’re okay with smoked trout on homemade pumpernickel with horseradish and dill from the family garden.”

Hazel: “That sounds ten orders better than okay, Daddy,” Hazel smiles. “I’ll see you in a few hours. Love you.”

GM: “Love you too, kiddo.”

A few minutes later, as Hazel is jamming out with headphones in the back of the library, she is startled by the sudden appearance of another student in her aisle. The female student has blonde dreadlocks and wears a hemp skirt, burkenstocks with wool socks, and a T-shirt emblazoned with PETA’s logo and the tag line “Eating shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg”. The girl is waving a book and says something that Hazel can’t catch with her music.

Hazel: Hazel turns the walkman off and removes the ear plugs. Damn it, she hates people sneaking up on her like that.

She hates…

Just when she thinks the interruption is no big deal, the panic attack hits her as abruptly as a fat book falling off its shelf. Hazel’s heart lurches up her throat, but she shoves it back down with the same irritated forcefulness she’d keep that heavy book from toppling off its proper place. Damn it, she can’t have these stupid attacks in front of students. “Can I help you?” she manages after a moment. Note to self. No more music in the library, she thinks glumly.

GM: As Hazel stows her walkman and calms her breathing, she notices that her library is now crawling with a whole classroom of other students. Meanwhile, the girl in front of her flicks her dreads and huffs, “Yeah, I hope so. I’m looking for the librarian—or someone who can point me to a real gore-shocker. Mr. Shriver told me about a slaughterhouse book that’s so gross it’s sure to make my mom turn vegan, but I can’t recall the name, Meat maybe?”

Hazel: “I am the librarian,” Hazel answers. She doubts this will be the last time she has to clarify that fact. “Are you thinking The Jungle? It’s hard to get much gorier than the early 1900s meatpacking industry.”

GM: “Uh, maybe?” the youth replies.

Attracted by the sound of seemingly helpful answers, another pair of students round the corner. Both have their hands tucked into their tight jeans and stare with the native asymmetrical gaze of anisocoria. Their mannerisms, cowboy duds, and shaggy, brown hair and facial hair make them seem like brothers, but closer inspection suggests otherwise as one has curly hair and brown eyes while the other’s are straight and green respectively. They look to each other, then at Hazel. “Where’s a book on bovine lobotomy?” the curly haired one says. “I’m looking for a book on doing leukotomy with cows,” says the straight-haired one.

Hazel: Egads. No soon is one of the hydra’s heads cut off—or, well, maybe just given a stiff clubbing—than another one regrows.

“Okay, why don’t you take a look at The Jungle, and if that isn’t what you’re after we can look for another title. The author’s name is ‘Sinclair.’ As for you two…”

GM: “Where is it?” the girl asks, not so easily brushed aside.

Hazel: Hazel’s head swivels back to address the other demanding voice. “The author’s name is under ‘S’, so that should be at…”

This is a lot of students. After helping the three as best she can (difficult, as Hazel has not yet fully familiarized herself with the library’s organizational system), she determines that she should probably hang around somewhere visible in the probable event that further students require help. Once the three have their books, she walks back to the front desk, logs onto the computer, and resumes reading the handbooks she’ll be tested on, aiming to also get some work done while she’s out here—if, of course, the hydra does not sprout further heads.

In lieu of The Jungle, the next slaughterhouse book the librarian suggests is Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, And Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. That one is somewhat more recent.

GM: The Chimera’s librarian never makes it to her desk. She tries to track down The Jungle, but to no avail. Hazel is utterly sure of the author, the book title, and its appropriateness to the girl’s request. She even is confident the library had a copy as of a few years ago. Yet, she remains utterly unsure whether the Chimera still has a copy, of if it is checked out and to whom. And the library’s order seems a terrible parody of the word. Mrs. Griswold’s ‘system’ always seemed a bit helter-skelter, but it appears her organization really suffered before her ‘death’. For example, she finds one section of the library has been organized according to the color of the book cover; another sections seems organized according to phonemes rather than graphemes, resulting in books placed in phonological rather than alphabetical order. And those are just the library sections whose ‘order’ she can intuit with a cursory examination.

“Never mind, I’ll just look around myself,” the vegan-crusader says in exasperation.

Hazel: Hazel all but recoils upon discovering books that are organized by color. This is madness. Dewey would be rolling in his grave.

“Things will be a bit rocky at first. I’ve not been able to spend any more time in the library than you have,” Hazel offers before turning to help the other students.

GM: The non-sibling duo prove more patient, and by said virtue or sheer luck, Hazel is able to find an old medical journal with articles complete with pictures explaining various bovine brain surgeries. It’s exactly what they are looking for—but it is just one book. “What about him?” both ask at the other. They begin to bicker.

But by this time, Hazel has attracted a gathering throng of students clamoring for her assistance.

Hazel: Torches. I need torches, not just swords. Hazel faces down the other striking heads.

GM: The hydra rears and roars in many tongues:

“Where can I find a book about, like, using pigs as organ factories?”

“I heard the Soviets used different genetically modified strains of corn to render gypsies and Jews sterile—can you find me a book about that? Oh, but one that isn’t too long?”

“Crop circles.”

“Do you think my teacher would accept a book about dietary self-mummification?”

“I want a book like the one she has. With pictures.”

“Where’s the section on deformed calfs?”

“I’m looking for a book on double-muscling.”

“I’m looking for that too.”

Hazel: “Uh, let’s see if we have anything on the Stalinist gulags—” “Yes, crop circles should be at—” “Who is your teacher?” “I’ll see if we have any other books on the subject, though pictures is anyone’s guess—”

Thwock. Thwock. Thwock.

GM: Both hydra and chimera bedevil Hazel. The students’ strange requests coupled with the library’s lunatic arrangement makes Hazel’s job all but doomed to fail. Horribly.

However, as she searches for KGB genocide corn, she just happens to flip through a section of books, knocking one down and open from its shelf. The book is small and thin, made of calfskin writing, and bare of cover title of design save an image stamped into its back: a tiny locust turned upside down. Inside, however, are copious notes and sketches further cluttered by marginalia. Inspecting the strange book, Hazel feels an eerie wash of cold run down her spine, mingled with a conviction that this book was somehow left here for her. With a cluster of impatient students milling behind her, Hazel discovers that some of the annotated sketches are maps of the library—and explanations for its bizarre configuration. She also discovers the journal’s author: Ophelia Griswold. The pubescent mob, however, cares little for the potential magnitude of Hazel’s seemingly destined find. Instead, they reiterate their requests, now with growing insistence and irritation.

Hazel: Hazel’s heart skips a beat. This… this could have… with some measure of impatience, though, she first turns her newly-discovered torch towards cauterizing the hydra’s severed heads.

GM: Thankfully, Hazel’s sharp mind rapidly dissects the book’s initial sketches, allowing her to locate book after book. So armed with journal’s maps and marginala as her metaphorical torch-bearing Iolaus, Hazel resumes her assault against the lernaean serpent and its myriad heads. The task still proves herculean, but she, like Zeus’ famed son, triumphs. One by one, the students slink away with their requests more or less sated. Some even mumble words of thanks.

Hazel: Let it not be said that the new librarian’s job is literally thankless. She breathes a sigh of relief now that her first great labor is completed. The students will return—one of the hydra’s heads, after all, is immortal—but defeating the serpent has left her with no small parting gift to assist her future labors.

Her curiosity is insatiable. She has to see what the journal says, if only the first few pages. She needs to remain at the front desk in case there are more students, and she can always read the handbooks she’ll be quizzed on at home. Plus, she is doing her job. She needs to learn how the library is organized, after all. Hazel plops down on the librarian’s swivel chair, which so clearly marks her as lord and master of her demesne, and sifts through what initial pages she can.

GM: Nose in what she uncannily, possessively, knows is her book, Hazel momentarily forgets all about her computer and the manuals she planned on reading. Around her, the students talk amongst themselves quietly at the tables, occasionally snickering at some joke or ribbing a peer to check out a gruesome photograph. But their hushed banter is swiftly tuned out. The librarian never even looks up to identify the class or its teacher, so engrossed is she by her reading. And oh how engrossing the reading is.

Hazel: Besides. They can approach her if they really need something. She’s right there at the front desk.

GM: But they never do—or at least she assumes they never do. She thinks a couple of them offer some parting words of gratitude shortly before the bell. “Thanks, Ms. Bauman… Awesome book, again… You’re a great librarian… Thanks for helping the class…” She likely even mutters a few replies and nods of her head. But theirs, and her, platitudes pale before the perplexing mysteries of Mrs. Griswold’s diary.

The first page itself is a cunning illustration of three images in a single column. A swan, a flame, a lion. And a single enigmatic notation. “Alea iacta est.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply at the phrase. What Rubicon did her predecessor—or has she—crossed?

GM: The second offers little answers to that question—only more of its kind.

There is a charcoal rubbing of what appears to a be a moth or butterfly. Strange numbers and twice-encircled pentagrams surround the charcoal rubbing. But in the center, a minuscule message reads: in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Its translation is fortunately written directly beneath it, like a reflection trapped in a white mirror: We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire.

In contrast the next page is at once far more simple, yet far more psychotic as a single line is endlessly repeated and scrawled over itself again and again till the page is nearly black with writing. It takes Hazel some time to decipher it, but then she cannot help but see it. Again and again, endlessly like a black spiral whose stairs only descend:

Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
Beware Catalyst.
BEWARE CATALYST!

The message is like a written gordian knot, without beginning or end, but endlessly folds in on itself. With great effort, Hazel forces herself to cut that mental knot and break the compulsion to read the message to its terminus. She slams shut the book, her eyes blurry and blood vessels in her brain pounding. As her vision refocuses, it settles upon the tiny stamp on the leather back-cover. Previously, she interpreted it as a locust on its back. Now, now she indelibly sees it as a moth whose wings have been burnt and now falls like Icarus of old.

Hazel: At first, the new librarian is merely discomfited and uncertain of what to make of the vaguely sinister quote. Everything after that is a mad roller-coaster blur down the mantra that endlessly folds in on itself: to beware change. Hazel’s never liked change, and the roller-coaster takes her on a ride with a full stomach. Her hands shake in tune with her head’s pounding as she falteringly sets down the ominous book. ROSEWATER didn’t take her predecessor just because. Like with poor Layne Tuttle, there had to be a reason, had to be someone her disappearance benefited. But what happened to Mrs. Griswold seemed so much more remote than what happened to Layne, a freak accident rather than an actual… Hazel isn’t sure what this is, in front of her. Cover-up? Conspiracy?

The only sure fact she has is this: two people to attend Witiko Falls High School have… if not gone missing, then simply suffered at the same government agency’s hands.

What have I gotten myself into?

GM: The next and last period’s introductory bell buzzes on the intercom. Setting aside the mysterious, if now slightly menacing journal, Hazel turns her attention to another research subject: the omen of the cat’s eye and what it portends for her and her nocturnal voyeur. Hazel tries to keep such private investigations private—which means she goes to subtly check on Jake. Her ‘assistant’ however poses no threat at discovering her dubiously ethical actions, as she finds him snoring softly in the secluded, blacklight alcove, his head propped up on a copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Lies.

Hazel: Hazel gives him a flat look. She justifies her own actions (she is on clock right now) as being necessary to ensure for her personal safety. Jake is just lazy. So is Hazel, but who likes seeing their own faults in others? She nevertheless leaves him be as she goes about her own research. Right now he’s a bigger help asleep than awake.

Being a librarian isn’t without its privileges, and at Falls High, Hazel has access to a privileged library indeed. The source of her scholastic inquiries is the cat’s-eye sign left by her ominous visitor. Staying at Dad’s house throws a potentially unforseen road-block against its plans, but she’s still reacting to its actions, and that gnaws at her. Hazel hasn’t gotten into many fights, but that was one thing she took away from the mandatory PE class on self-defense she otherwise snoozed her way through. You don’t win a fight just by not getting hit. She can try to set traps for this thing, but they’ll be shots in the dark. The light of knowledge will give her a clear silhouette—if not face—to line up her shots at.

GM: Ipsa scientia potestas est.

If knowledge is its own power, Hazel’s research makes her puissant. Puissant, but also in need of significant patience—as the relevant research materials swiftly blossom. Sifting, much less studying, the various books, treatises, and tracts will take days. Despite this realization, Hazel gleans some information and impressions from her mammoth literary stack.

First, Hazel’s initial reasoning convinces her that her omen is related to the larger mythos of the Evil Eye.

Hazel: A potential curse of ill fortune? That’s… not comforting in of itself, but the prevalence of the mythos itself is. Nearly as prevalent as the evil eye are protective charms and talismans that can ward against it. That’s something Hazel can start to work with, even if her mother is likely to give her the odd eye for any new jewelry she picks up.

GM: In particular, she finds a 1946 second edition copy of the Afro-American magician Henri Ganache’s Protection against Evil. Although the text offers a variety of speculative and likely spurious ways to defend oneself from the evil, its primary value may be its surprisingly scholarly citations of previously-published works on occultism. The text, and its many references, clearly illustrate the staggering age and trans-cultural consistency of the mythos. Further reading reveals that the dire omen dates back to at least Classical antiquity. It is referenced by Hesiod, Callimachus, Plato, Diodorus Siculus, Theocritus, Plutarch, Heliodorus, Pliny the Elder, and Aulus Gellius. Upon browsing Peter Walcot’s Envy and the Greeks, Hazel finds a list of more than one hundred works by these and other authors mentioning the evil eye—and its particular association with malevolent envy and the dark fates of those caught by its jealous gaze. In Plutarch’s, Moralia Quaestiones Convivales, Hazel reads that “inner recesses of damned souls emit dark rays from their eyes, which in turn poison the mind of the evil ones’ victims.”

Strangely, in ancient Rome, this phenomenon was extremely prevalent, but not always feared, as the ones with evil eyes were allegedly both watchers and rulers. But aside from these stray passages confined to that historical period, the evil eye is universally malevolent and feared.

Hazel: What do… I have that someone could be jealous of? Hazel idly wonders. She’s led a comparatively privileged life next to others, sure, but she’s had her share of problems. No. What do I have that someone else doesn’t?

GM: Scanning the copious texts, an answer emerges to that question—or a hint at least of one. Cutting across religions, from Judaism to Islam, and countries, from India’s drishti to Ethiopia’s bouda to Latin America’s mal de ojo, the most common characteristics or virtues that inspire the evil eye to strike are beauty and vitality.

Hazel: Seriously? They don’t envy me for my mind? the librarian thinks sarcastically.

GM: Her cross-cultural and cross-temporal meta-analysis also leads her to her second conclusion, which proves no less bizarre, and potentially far more uncomfortable.

As Hazel already knows, these far-flung myths are equally riddled with apotropaics that allegedly turn away or repel the evil eye. Although these talismans and folk-lore superstitions seem to initially share no relation to one another, seemingly ranging in material, shape, color, and more, Hazel’s reading once again reveals an awkward commonality to most apotropaics against the evil eye. Sex. The Vestal Virgins of Rome and their legionnaire champions had the phallic charms they called fascinum. To perform the Greek ritual of xematiasma, two members of the opposite sex were required. Rather than Rome’s fascinum, the cultural descendants in the Mediterranean nations used the cornicello or little horn. Those too poor to possess such talismans were forced to rely upon sexually explicit hand gestures, such as the fig sign. In Mexico, the curandero folk healers employ the reproductive symbolic power of the egg. In central Asia, the tear-drop nazar talisman resembles an open-lipped vulva. The myths diverge on whether these sexually explicit images and act either repel or entrance those with the evil eyes, but they all vehemently assert their efficacy.

Hazel: Hazel almost audibly groans. The haunting, and now apparent evil eye is bad enough. Now this on top? Go to bed wearing a phallus amulet at her dad’s house. Yeah, that won’t be at all awkward. Or get laid by tonight. Yeah, that’s happening. I wonder if the rite would accept Rosie Palms and a few xxx websites as a valid partner? she sarcastically thinks.

GM: In more modern sources, namely the Liber V bel Reguli by Crowley, she finds the sex-magic ritual “of the Mark of the Beast: an incantation proper to invoke the Energies of the Æon of Horus,” which are allegedly antithetical to the fell energies of the evil eye.

Hazel: Crowley’s scarlet women were derided as whores, Hazel grumbles.

GM: Despite these two discoveries or conclusions, Hazel remains yet unsure how to properly prepare or perform any of these apotropaics. Further study and more time are required.

But Hazel’s studies are interrupted by Jake’s sudden appearance. A few labels in hand, he walks up to the librarian’s desk buried under dozens of open texts, several of which currently feature graphic pictures and photos of phallic fascinum and cornicello. The youth’s brows raise in surprise, but he holds his tongue enough to only say, “Where do you want the extra labels?” His eyes, however, dance with unspoken thoughts.

Hazel: “Over there,” Hazel points, indicating where they should go. Her tone is as casual as if he’d asked without seeing the open books. She might not know much about dealing with people, but she knows enough that making a big deal around the teenager won’t help things.

GM: The intercom joins their conversation with a trilling announcement that the school day’s end has arrived. Jake sets the labels down. “See you tomorrow then,” he says coolly.

Hazel: “Yes, about that.” She pauses a moment. “I imagine, after this morning, things could seem a bit awkward to you. But know that you are welcome in the library. Everyone who wants to read is welcome here.”

GM: “I’ll leave you to your… reading, then,” Jake says as his ghost-blue eyes slowly blink with a lizard’s languor. “Sweet dreams, Ms. Bauman.”

Hazel: Hazel turns a page. “Thank you for your help today.”

Hazel: As her reluctant help departs, Hazel goes about her remaining tasks.

She considers the confiscated bags of weed in her packpack, stuffed there out of students’ sight. She didn’t exactly give her word to Jake, who’s been a bit of a snot, but she did secure his cooperation with the implicit promise she wouldn’t rat him out. She also dragged her dad into this with her phone call and gave him quite a scare. Then there is the physical weed itself. Hazel can think of no protocol, no established precedent for what she should do with the drugs in her possession in a situation like this, save for a vague sense that someone other than her would probably have a better idea. She finally sighs and decides she’ll either flush them down the toilet or turn them over to Dad, depending on how things go.

She then sits down to write a letter. Earlier this morning she’d have regarded the prospect with all the warmth she’d show a diseased, flea-ridden dog that just vomited in her lap. But she thinks of her dad—who’s always there for her, always so patient and kind—and the words flow out. She doesn’t enjoy them, but she doesn’t grimace either. When she is finished writing, she places the letter inside a folder so as not to wrinkle the paper, and zips it up in her backpack.

GM: As Hazel zips up her backpack with her letter to her neighborhood nemesis, she immediately unzips the bag. Previously preoccupied by warring thoughts about Beatrice and her father, she hadn’t noticed the discrepancy—but now, it is all too evident.

The five bags of pot are gone. In their place, is a small blue book with faded letters on its spine which read: Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen. Hazel needs no German translator, though, to recognize the small text’s author: Grimm.

Hazel: Well, that could be… better and worse. For both herself and Jake, Hazel frowns. She doesn’t immediately connect the story’s relevance to her present situation, though she remembers reading it. She found the scene where the youth stayed overnight in the haunted castle strangely hilarious and guffawed milk of out her nose, which caused her father to give her a rather odd look.

She frowns, returning her focus to the missing bags. Hmm. Well, with an attention span like she sometimes has, it’s little wonder they’ve been pilfered back. Perhaps Jake means that he’s learned what fear is, or perhaps like the story’s oblivious youth, he has merely learned to shiver without experiencing real fear. Better for him if it’s the first. The Beast will not show magnanimity in victory a second time.

As her last to-do item for the day, Hazel combs over the blood-stained carpet by the front desk with her figurative fine-tooth comb. Doing so is not a pleasant experience after the half-hour she spent rocking and hyperventilating by that same floor, but after facing down the day’s other challenges it doesn’t hold the same fear as it did earlier.

You pick up a few things as the town lawman’s daughter. Hazel once spent a summer pouring over crime scene investigation books (and pestering her father and his co-workers with questions) with the obsessive interest only a child with ASD and nothing else to do with her time could have. She may not have the best short-term memory or aptitude for picking up immediate details, but once her mind seizes hold of something it simply doesn’t let go.

GM: This afternoon, however, it’s not Hazel’s time as a lawman’s daughter that helps her find the clue. Instead, it’s her time spent as a young student with ASD at Eugene Baker Elementary School. There, the much younger Hazel had been given a carpet mat to sit on and ameliorate her sensory processing symptoms. Day after day, she sat on that carpet, her fingers and mind attenuating more to the feeling of its fibers than the voice of her teachers or peers. But now, that intimate familiarity with carpet is paying dividends.

There are depressions in the carpet. They could easily be mistaken for marks left by her chair’s castor wheels, but their shape, size, and pattern are all wrong. They could be footprints, but they are too wide and too short. Instead, Hazel notes the carpet fibers are crushed in roughly two thick oval patterns a little more than an a long arm’s length away from the most heavily bleached and scrubbed carpet area. Years wearing protective gear as her parents tried and failed to teach her how to roller-skate provide the final interpretive clue. Knee-pads. The two depressions are from rather large kneepads—and judging from the texture of crushed fibers, Hazel can tell that the depressions were made relatively recently. Not necessarily today—but certainly far more recently than Mrs. Griswold’s disappearance and alleged death some four weeks ago.

Hazel: Hazel frowns—at both the memories, recalling her parents’ frustrated faces (the other students’ she doesn’t recall too well), and the indentations left on the carpet. Who would be wearing knee-pads inside a library? An athlete who simply didn’t remove them? A student with physical disabilities of some kind? And why would they fall on that precise spot, after whatever happened to poor Mrs. Griswold? That likely rules out the Spooks, though she has a hard time imagining them wearing knee-pads over their suits anyways. Well, another law enforcement officer wearing body armor could’ve had them, but so much later…

Hazel rubs her head. Knowledge ever leads to more questions.

GM: And power always has a price. The debt she owes for today’s discovery is another mystery altogether—and not one she unravels before packing up for the day.


_______________

Hazel: “You know you really don’t have to play chauffeur for me all the time, Daddy,” Hazel remarks as she opens the car door and gets into her father’s truck, after stowing her bicycle in the back. She is smiling, though. In all honesty, she didn’t feel like biking home after today’s events. It’s been a long one.

GM: “Have to?” Harvey asks with his trademark big-chin grin as he finishes putting up the tailgate and sliding back into the driver’s seat. “More like I get to. Why I consider it one of the best perks of being your dad.”

Hazel: Hazel’s smile can’t help but widen at that. “Aww, Dad…”

GM: He waits till she’s buckled herself in, then pulls off from the curb. “So let’s hear all about it, kiddo.”

Hazel: “Right, you’re probably wondering what that phone call was about. It’s a bit of a story…”

GM: “Yep–,” he nods, “–but hopefully that’s only a small part of the story.”

Hazel: “A small part, and notwithstanding the shock that I gave you, one of the least significant,” Hazel happily answers. “I think I made a very good impression on Uncle Leo. I knew the interview was just a formality, but he really made me feel like I had to earn the position.”

GM: Harvey stares out at the serpentine road and what lies beyond. “That’s, that’s great, Hazel,” he replies with a gentle smile. “How’d things go with the kids, I mean, students?”

Hazel: “They’re a lot younger than I remember being at that age, Dad.”

GM: Her dad chuckles. “Tell me about it, sport.”

Hazel: Hazel manages a soft laugh. “I’m joking there. Somewhat. I’m just… surprised by how young they all look. I still remember being that age very clearly.”

GM: “Yeah…” Harvey says wistfully. Outside, a pair of young kids race on bikes while a middle-aged woman stops her weeding to wave. Window down, Harvey returns the gesture and cheerily yells, “Hello, Mrs. Anderson.”

“Hello, Sheriff Bauman!” she beams back.

The tires keep rolling.

Hazel: “Undersheriff Bauman,” Hazel corrects once they’re out of earshot. Likely little to her dad’s surprise, she hasn’t greeted the woman.

GM: Harvey approvingly nods at her remark and turns back to his now-adult daughter. “Yeah, Uncle Leo used to say something about it being a time when caterpillars become butterflies. Or something.”

Hazel: “Yes, thought they’re far from quiescent in their cocoons. There are so many of them in the library, sometimes, all wanting help with this or that.”

GM: He laughs at Hazel’s first words, clearly unsure of their meaning—but a lack of understanding often goes hand in hand with conversations with his intelligent, quirky daughter.

“I can imagine,” he replies to her second comment. “And I imagine sometimes there’s a real need for help, and sometimes it’s just someone being bored or lazy. And then you have to calmly explain to Mr. Gunderson, that, no, you won’t shoot his neighbor because the man’s cat keeps climbing over their shared property fence. Oh wait,” he laughs, “We’re talking about your job, not mine.”

Hazel: Hazel gives another soft laugh at her dad’s comparison. “I think there may be a great many similarities between the two. Including adherence to initially convoluted protocols. The system Mrs. Griswold used to organize the library was… madness.”

GM: At the mention of the deceased woman, her dad’s smile slips. He remains quiet.

Hazel: Hazel frowns a bit inside but continues, “She organized some sections by phonetics. Others by color. I didn’t have any time to become familiar with her system before today. I’d have been… completely lost, in all likelihood, and unable to help anyone if I hadn’t come across a rubric where she’d laid out the method to it.”

GM: Harvey nods, then seems about to ask something when a large delivery van suddenly backs out into the road. The undersheriff is forced to slam on his breaks and swerve hard, yet still manages to reflexively thrust out his hand to protect his seat-belted daughter from smashing her head on the dashboard. It all happens so fast, so frighteningly fast, but in that half-second blink of an eye when they nearly smash into the dark blue van, Hazel swears she reads the following message painted in big, bright yellow letters on the van’s side:

BEWARE CATALYST

Hazel: Beware catalyst. Beware catalyst. Beware. Be… ware…

The panic attack hits like the car crash that didn’t happen. Hazel is fortunate to be wearing a seatbelt (even without her father’s reminder, she was never “too cool” to wear one) as she jolts forward, gasping and hyperventilating.

GM: There’s a momentary, terrifying flash as her hyperventilating causes her vision to tunnel. Darkness rushes in and the world narrows and slides out of focus. Her father’s face dimly half-appears before her, his voice shouting as if from underneath a lake:

“Hazel, are you okay? Are you hurt?!”

Hazel: Beware catalyst. Beware catalyst. Beware catalyst.

“P… pan… att…” She tries to speak, but it’s like talking through that same lake. Water rushing up her lungs, oxygen cutting off from her brain.

GM: Harvey’s response seems equally muddled, even rattled. Eventually Hazel makes out her father’s hand touching her neck, but then he’s putting something in her hand. It’s her pills.

Hazel: Her eyes are scrunched and her lungs burning, but she mutely shakes her head. “R-ride… it…”

GM: He leaves the case in her hand, then puts his hand on her shoulder. “Okay. Stay. In. The. Truck.” He then barrels out of the vehicle. Hazel dimly hears yelling. She’s pretty sure it’s mostly from her father.

Hazel: Hazel distantly wonders if he’s getting into a fight with the other driver. She wants to tell him no, there’s all sorts of stupid things that trigger these attacks. She strains to make out what’s happening through her hyperventilating.

GM: Behind her, she spots her father yelling at the blue van’s driver to stop. A man and a woman sit in the front seat, worriedly trying to explain or apologize. Harvey doesn’t seem too keen on listening. Her eyes struggling to focus, Hazel re-reads the yellow lettering on the van’s other side:

BEEHIVE CATERING

Hazel: Oh, for… It takes several tries with her shaking fingers, but Hazel eventually gets the lid off to swallow a pill.

It takes a moment for the alprazolam, or Affreux as Nostrum’s particular brand is called, to kick in. The lake she’s drowning in gently swirls away, like she’s actually just in a full bathtub and someone has pulled the plug. Just like that, one pill and it’s all gone. She almost regrets not taking another one this morning. Almost. It takes her a little while longer to unbuckle her seatbelt and get the car door open with now-sluggish fingers, but eventually she slides out and makes her way up to her dad and the driver he’s yelling at.

“I’m all right, Daddy,” she says slowly. She feels very calm. She lays a hand on her dad’s arm, trying to will him some of that same feeling. “I took a pill and I’m fine now. They probably just didn’t see us coming, backing up a van that large.”

GM: Harvey almost snaps at her. “I told you to wait in the truck.”

Hazel: “I’m fine now,” Hazel repeats tranquilly.

GM: “We’re so sorry, Hazel,” the van’s passenger says, a middle-aged woman with a beehive hair-do, cupcake earrings, and a frumpy lace-colored dress. The driver, a portly fellow with balding yellow hair and a caterer’s frock worn over a white shirt and tie, adds, “We sure are, we jus-”

“Oh no, Heber and Harriet,” the undersheriff says as he turns back and resumes his diatribe, “You don’t get to apologize to her. You’re still talking to me. Now you better god-damned get those brake-lights fixed and learn how to drive, or the only thing you’ll be catering to will be your own parole meetings!”

“Now there’s no need to use that kind of language, Deputy Bauman,” Heber begins saying—only to be barked into silence by Harvey.

“I’ll use whatever kind of language I want when you nearly crash into my truck and daughter inside!” Harvey’s flushed cheeks and neck all-but match his flannel shirt.

“We’re so sorry,” Harriet says, silencing her husband with a curt gesture. “We’ll get it fixed right away and promise to be extra careful. Isn’t that right, Heber?”

“Of course,” the still slightly offended man mumbles.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure how to react to the strangers saying her name. She’s heard of these two retirees from Pocatello, but she doesn’t know them. She’d probably feel awkward if she weren’t doped up on meds. As it is, she likely comes off as out of it rather than standoffish.

“I’m fine now, Daddy,” she repeats, hand still in place. “No one was hurt. They’ve promised to get their vehicle fixed. Let’s just go home.”

GM: “No,” Harvey says, swinging his dark-browed gaze at Hazel. “This is how it works, I’m the undersheriff and your dad. Go get back in the truck and wait there until I come back.” He then turns back to the van’s driver with a violently thrust finger. “And you, I want to see your driver’s license, insurance, and registration for this vehicle. Now.”

“Yes, sir, I mean, deputy or undersheriff,” Heber stumbles as Harriet nervously opens the glove-box and starts flipping through papers.

Hazel: You’re off-duty, Dad. Small town with limited law enforcement officials or not, you have no legal basis to order anyone to do anything right now. And unless you’re executing an arrest, you have no basis to order someone inside a motor vehicle either, Hazel silently thinks. Still, she’s not undermining her dad in front of people she doesn’t know. He’s just being protective of her. Even if he is going a little overboard, she’s thankful for that.

“Look Daddy, they’re doing everything you say. Everyone just wants to put this behind them. Why don’t we go back to the truck together.”

GM:They are,” Harvey huffs as he regards his daughter who still isn’t waiting inside the truck as he’s twice asked, no, told her. However, the undersheriff seems like he reads Hazel’s unspoken thoughts. He huffs again and almost literally blows out his steam. The red slowly drains from his face, and his next words to her are far calmer and far quieter. “Fine. I’m technically off-duty anyways. Just go back to the truck, kiddo, and I’ll be right there. I promise.”

Hazel: “Okay. I’ll see you in a bit.” Hazel doesn’t spare a look for the two strangers as she departs. Her dad probably wants to get in a last word without her overhearing.

GM: She does at least hear him telling the Kimballs, “Don’t worry about the paperwork.” The pair, who clutch all the requested materials, seem confused at the sudden turnabout. They exchange a few more words, but Hazel is once again out of earshot. Back inside the cab, she spots her backpack and purse on the seat, casually open and a few items flung out from her father’s hasty search for her pills. Repacking her bag, she hefts Ophelia’s journal. Its soft calfskin and plummeting flame-burned moth stamp elicit a flash-back of the backing up van and the way its yellow lettering clearly, piercingly then spelled the warning found in the journal.

The meds dull the resurgent spike of anxiety from the flash-back, but even her pill-touched mind understands the implications. The journal is hers—but it is not hers to share. Something tied to that journal wants to protect its secrets. Something that is willing, and easily able, to kill for those secrets.

Beware Catalyst

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply. This thing just threatened her dad with that near-car crash. She’s never put up with many bullies before, thanks to his efforts, and she can’t say she’s inclined to start doing so now. And that’s just out of moral principle, all before how this book had the power to cause a fatal near-accident—or at least is linked something else that does. Something Hazel knows nothing about, beyond that the book’s last owner was declared legally dead under dubious circumstances.

For a moment, Hazel entertains simply chucking the thing away. It’s brought nothing but trouble upon its owners—her included—and it’s threatened her dad. If Hazel were more versed in manipulating people, the fact it offered her a taste of something useful for free—assistance in navigating the Chimera’s mad layout—would only makes her more suspicious. The first hit is always for free.

Is it the same force that threatened her last night? If so, all the more reason to be rid of it. If it’s not, how would it react upon being introduced to that force? Poorly, most likely, and harmfully for anyone else caught in the vicinity—if not for Hazel.

This thing is bad luck. Literally. She should chuck it away. No, she should chuck it into a fire or feed it through a wood chipper, if she wants to be sure. That’s the safe thing to do. The sane thing to do.

But Hazel has always been blessed with too much brains and too little common sense. She turns the book over in her hands, feeling the aged vellum rub against her palms. It’s a funny sensation. Not altogether unpleasant. Rub. Rub.

She thinks back to the images on the first page. The swan. The flame. The lion. Dad’s the lion. Mom’s the swan. That second admission causes her some degree of consternation. I’m the flame. She rubs her hands up and down the book’s cover as if she might kindle a fire, or simply re-kindle childhood memories of hours spent rubbing funny-feeling objects to her mother’s disapproval and her father’s bemused indulgence. Rub. Rub. Rub.

Heat spreads in her hands. Fire roars to life inside her mind, guttering out nearly as quickly as it appears—but leaves three glowing embers that burn her psyche with revelations:

It’s not the thing that haunted her last night. It wants to protect her. It won’t hurt Dad–If she keeps its secrets.

Hazel half-gasps, half-hisses as if she’s run her hands over a hot stove. The book falls into her lap. She stares at it, long and hard. She might not be very good at relating to people, but she knows that this can’t be helping her for free, whatever it is. It has to have something it wants. It has to have a price for its help. She doesn’t know what that price is or who—or what_—she’ll be paying it to. The revelations brought about by her stimming haven’t made her any less suspicious. The fact that it won’t—_otherwise—hurt her dad simply forestalls her immediate impulse to chuck it into an incinerator.

But what’s the alternative? She can accept unknown help for an unknown price—or she can face whatever came for her last night, by herself, with no more plan than spending the night at her dad’s, and wearing a phallus amulet while she diddles herself to porn sites in the laughably pitiful hope that masturbating will provide any degree of protection equivalent to the sex rite she hasn’t been able to research—or have a partner to perform with. What is the alternative?

Well, she could go through with that. Hope she’ll make it through the night, do more research tomorrow. Whatever that other thing does to her, she won’t be accepting its help. She won’t owe it anything. Yes, she should destroy this cursed book. It’s brought nothing but ruin upon its previous owner, and it’s only proven its intentions sinister with her.

It is not her own safety that stays Hazel’s hand, but a more esoteric, yet no less instinctive, reason. She wants to know what’s in it. She wants to know what happened to Mrs. Griswold. She wants to know what gives it its powers. She wants to know what it is.

It’s not a wise desire. But Hazel isn’t wise. She’s only smart. Maybe too smart.

Hazel zips her backpack up, Mrs. Griswold’s journal safely stowed inside.

GM: The rest of the ride back to the Sweeney’s home is comparatively subdued and uneventful. After her dad re-checks that she’s okay and apologizes for both the near-collision and his temper, he drives with his arm out the window, feeling the cool breeze and enjoying the smell of the Douglass fir and Ponderosa pine that swallow so much of the town.

Hazel: Hazel is subdued for the rest of the drive home. Part of it is the meds. But she’s also never really kept secrets from her parents before. She could always tell them everything. If only her dad had believed her this morning. Then again, maybe it’s better he didn’t. Then again, maybe it’s really not, if she could lean on him for help instead of this book. But she still wants to know what’s… Hazel just gives a mental sigh and dismisses the whole debate, thankful to be doped up on a literal tranquilizer.

GM: Beneath the Bitteroots’ shadow and the serpentine path of the eponymous falls and Green River Lady, Witiko Falls has a particularly charm. When Steinbeck allegedly visited the township in the late sixties, he captured its essence in two words:

Haunting beauty.

Hazel: Is the town beautiful? Hazel honestly hasn’t considered. The only other basis for comparison she has is Spokane. She does admit, though, to liking the country more than the city.

GM: Her dad likewise remains wrapped up in his own private thoughts, up until he turns onto Red Louse Lane. “Heh, kiddo, remember we still need to do that letter.”

Hazel: “I actually did it already, Daddy. I can show you later tonight. Along with that explanation for the drug call I still owe you.”

GM: Harvey seems genuinely surprised and pleased by Hazel’s initiative. “That’s… that’s great, pumpkin.”

Hazel: Hazel is silent for a moment. “Dad, you remember the summer of my junior year, when I lied about my independent PE hours?”

GM: “Yes…” he says somewhat suspiciously, as if now suspecting some kind of trick or scheme from his daughter. “Coach Ross still ribs me about it.”

Hazel: Hazel gives a sad smile as she thinks about the far bigger deception she’s now perpetrating. The fact that it’s an omission rather than a deliberate lie does little to make her feel better.

“I wish I hadn’t done that.”

GM: His face immediately softens. He gives her a big squeeze on the shoulder. “It’s okay, kiddo. Sometimes… stuff like that happens.”

Hazel: Hazel leans against his own for a moment. She doesn’t like to hug, but touching shoulders is an acceptable alternative. “I guess it does.” She eventually pulls away and affects a somewhat more cheerful smile. “Thanks for the lift.”

GM: “Any time, sport,” he says as they bound the hill. Their close moment is broken by the full-throttle roar of a motorcycle. A second later, Sadie Platt’s handsome, curly-haired boyfriend rides down the road in the opposite direction. He wears a grin that makes Harvey scowl.

Sadie_BF.jpg

Hazel: Hazel’s expression isn’t as frosty as it was around Beatrice Worwood, but it’s a far cry from dreamy-eyed either. She doesn’t care for people like the Mooners.

GM: It’s an attitude her father clearly shares. However, his mood quickly improves as he pulls up to Hazel’s house and all but sighs with relief when he sees that Mrs. Worwood is not still standing where he last left her. Indeed, there is no sign of the bitter woman currently.

Hazel: A dormant volcano looks harmless until it erupts. No doubt Dad wants that letter sent soon. Hazel briefly laments her inability—no, unwillingness—to bury Beatrice beneath her own figurative ash and magma.

GM: Harvey smiles and nudges his daughter, though, when he looks at her door. “Looks like you’ve got your own admirer.”

It’s Eddie Munson. The elementary-aged kid is standing at her door. Standing and waiting. As usual, for him at least, Eddie is dressed in a hand-me down Halloween costume and holding a plastic jack-o-lantern so endemic to trick-or-treating.

Eddie.jpg

Hazel: Hazel gives a mental sigh. Eddie is harmless enough, but it’s been a long day. And feels even longer after the drive back. She really doesn’t feel like dealing with any more people right now. She’ll give him some candy, but there won’t be any TV.

GM: Today’s costume is a paper-bag mask drawn with some kind of ghoulish, monstrous face. Most kids would turn around at the sound of a truck in the driveway. Eddie just continues to stand and stare at the unmoving door.

Hazel: She’s grateful her dad is seeing her to the door, though. He’s better at relating to children than she is. Case in point, what she should even say with Eddie waiting at the door like that. She can’t think of any prescribed etiquette to deal with this situation. “Yeah, but he only loves me for my money. And by that I mean candy and TV.”

GM: “At least he’s a man who knows what he wants,” Harvey quips back. He cuts off the truck, then rolls out with a cowboy-esque grace and swagger. “I thought trick-or-treating doesn’t start till dark?” he shouts out to Eddie as he walks Hazel up to her door.

Hazel: Hazel follows a short distance behind, more than content to let her dad deal with Eddie first.

GM: Eddie turns around, his paper-mask eyes unblinking and gaping with too many wide, bloody teeth. “Trick-or-treat!” he exclaims upon spotting Hazel.

Hazel: “You’ve caught me by surprise, Eddie. But I should have a few treats inside.” She manages a smile as she unlocks the door, covertly motioning for her dad to keep the seven-year-old occupied outside.

GM: “So what are you dressed as today?” Harvey asks, trying to crouch down in a way so that he is both eye-level and blocking the boy’s entry.

“I’m a ghoul!” Eddie says excitedly. “They eat blood. And candy.”

“Oh, I thought ghouls ate brains?” Harvey asks, trying his best to block the young lad’s effort from entering the house.

Hazel: Thankful for the distraction, Hazel heads inside the house. She rummages through one of her kitchen cupboards and pulls out a large bag of assorted candies: Reese’s pieces, M&M packets, Butterfingers, and other such cavity-causing treats. It had “Halloween special” or somesuch written on it, saving consumers the need to even buy different candy bags. Hazel would normally begrudge such a purchase, but she didn’t purchase it. She picks out no less than five pieces, a rather considerable haul for a single house—and a day when it isn’t even Halloween. Hazel drops each one into his bucket with a plastic-sounding thump.

“There you go, Eddie. Don’t eat it all once.”

GM: Eddie beams when she gives him the candy—or at least she assumes he beams. It’s hard to tell with the ghoul-mask. “Thank you!”

Hazel: Hazel joins her dad in blocking entrance to her home. “You’re welcome. Make sure you brush your teeth after you eat it.”

GM: “It’s okay,” Eddie says, “Mr. Munson says I have dental insurance.”

Hazel: “Yes, your daddy has insurance for just about everything. The only thing I think he hasn’t covered is insurance for no insurance.”

GM: Eddie doesn’t seem to follow the conversation. Instead, he looks at his candy haul, then back at Hazel. “TV?”

Hazel: “Sorry, not today Eddie. I had a long day at work.” She looks towards her dad, motioning ‘back me up’ with her head.

GM: “Another day, Ed. Hazel’s tired and wants some peace and quiet.” Harvey points to another house. “Maybe Sadie has some candy.”

Hazel: Oh, foist him off to Sadie. That’s perfect. “That’s right, Eddie. You could get an even bigger haul.”

GM: The masked kid peeks inside Hazel’s house, then down towards Sadie’s house. He hops down from the porch and goes running toward the neighboring one. “Happy Halloween!”

Hazel: “Happy Halloween,” Hazel repeats. She looks towards her dad. “I’m certain he’s counting off the days on his calendar. Not too long until it’s Halloween for everyone else too.”

GM: Harvey pushes off his haunches and stands up. “Poor kid. Or come to think of it, he might be the luckiest kid alive. Does he really come every day?”

Hazel: “He comes by pretty often. Often enough there’s a candy bag in my cupboard just for him.”

GM: “That’s really nice of you.”

Hazel: Well, it’s not like I paid for it. “I guess I feel a little sorry for him.”

GM: Her dad frowns. “Hazel.”

Hazel: “Uh, yes?”

GM: He stumbles a bit as he reaches for the right words. Eventually, he just settles for the following: “I appreciate you being nice to Eddie, as I’m sure the Munsons do too. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to give him candy or anything else that’s… troublesome.”

Hazel: “…yes, Daddy, you’re right. No one should feel obligated to get Eddie candy at their expense.”

GM: “Or anyone’s expense,” he adds, nodding, quite unsure if his point has been made, much less agreed to by his kleptomaniac daughter.

Hazel: “Thanks for handling him there, in any case. I really didn’t feel like dealing with a seven-year-old in the house right now.”

GM: “Ghouls can be a handful,” Harvey replies with a chuckle.

Hazel: “They’ll eat one alive if they’re not placated with candy.”

GM: “And TV,” he adds. Glancing back at Mrs. Worwood’s rancher, he says, “So I’ll pick you up for dinner like we discussed. Same time?”

Hazel: Hazel calculates when she expects to be home from her mom’s. That omission isn’t anything new, or anything she feels bad about. In fact, it’s almost comforting. “Same time, Daddy. I’ll see you in a few. Thanks again for playing chauffeur.”

GM: “My privilege, kiddo.” There’s an awkward pause where most daughters and dads would hug or share a peck on the cheek.

Hazel: A familiar pause, and familiar enough for most awkwardness to be since inured. Hazel simply smiles and gives her father’s hand a squeeze.

GM: The gesture is more than he usually gets, so Harvey beams. All in all, it’s been a pretty remarkably affectionate day for being Hazel Bauman’s dad. Harvey keeps grinning as he calls back and heads to his truck. “Love you, kiddo. See you soon.”

Hazel: “Love you too, Daddy.”

Hazel: After her dad’s left, Hazel takes a shower and changes into her usual baggy black t-shirt, leaving her day clothes discarded on the floor like shed snakeskins. There’d be more if she’d bothered wearing any clothes at home besides her current attire, but wearing more clothes means doing more laundry. She checks her phone (or, well, the Sweeneys’) for messages to see if her mom has made any changes to dinner plans.

GM: Fortunately or not, Hazel has no messages, from her mom or otherwise. There are few for the Sweeneys, but just the typical robocalls and telemarketing.

Hazel: Hazel hangs up. Okay, she’s got an hour or two, give or take. She heads upstairs to her bedroom and rummages through her bookshelves and collection of paranormal junk. She’s got to have something here for the evil eye.

Dreamcatchers. Tarot cards. Voodoo dolls. Salt. Candles. Chalk for mystic circles. A rosary. An ouija board. Pagan fetishes. Her mom might dismiss most of it as rubbish, but so far as Hazel is presently concerned—and even if she were only presently concerned—it’s better safe than sorry.

GM: …and she does have something. A gift from her ex-apartment neighbor from college, a Hamsa. Based upon her prior knowledge, today’s research at the library, and a little more digging, she knows that the hamsa or khamsa is an ancient talisman known throughout the Occident. The hanging medallion traces back at least to ancient Mesopotamia, where it was a symbol associated with Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, and sex. The Phonecians of ancient Carthage identified it as the vulva of the goddess Tanit. Amongst the Greeks and Romans, it was linked to another pair or related goddesses with equivalent domains, namely Aphrodite and Venus. Early Christians called it the Hand-of-Mary, and claimed it can protect women from the evil eye, increase fertility, and strengthen female sexual properties. Her research also suggests it may be connected to the Mano Pantea, or Hand of the All Goddess, an amulet known to ancient Egyptians as the Two Fingers, which in turn represents the fig sign, or the symbol of the male and female organs conjoined. With the peeking ‘eye’ belonging to Horus.

Hazel: Hazel slips the vulva-themed amulet over her shoulders. It’s not that uncommon a piece of jewelry for feminists to wear. It certainly garners less attention than a Roman phallus.

GM: Large and made of blue stained glass framed by silver, her roommate’s gift was originally intended to hang in front of a window like a dangling charm. As a consequence, the talisman is a rather large and less than comfortable necklace. But as she notes, it certainly is less awkward that a fascinum or modern-day dildo hanging from her neck.

Hazel: Hazel frowns all the same. Okay, I’ll just bring it along inside my backpack and wear it to bed. Well, and for now.

She then sits down on her bed, amulet still around her neck. Next to an informed rite with an actual partner, this is a shot in the dark, and likely a squirt-gun’s shot at that… but she loses nothing in the attempt. In fact, she’d probably be doing this anyways. So she pulls up a few x-rated sites on her laptop and gets to work.

She actually feels a bit sad when she’s finished. That things with Lance didn’t work out in high school, that college had its own share of boy-related troubles… being alone doesn’t normally bother her (or at least that much), but she has to concede now is evidently a poor time to be single.

GM: Hazel’s ‘experimentation’ proves inconclusive. Her methodology may have been wrong or maybe its effects, or at least any potential paranormal effects, are delayed or too small to be noticed by the naked eye—but hopefully noticed and effective against the evil eye. Or perhaps thousands of years of history and continents’ worth of cultures were deluded by unscientific superstition and an overactive libido and imagination.

Hazel: Or she needs an actual partner. Why should she be surprised if the rite is as lacking without one as the real thing also is? Still, she supposes she’ll find out for sure whether the ‘experiment’ was ineffective or not later tonight. While Hazel would be hesitant to say that she believes any of this mysticism, she is willing to attempt to empirically verify it.

Finished with that line of scientific inquiry for now, Hazel leaves a few surprises in her bedroom in case her nocturnal visitor doesn’t follow her to her dad’s house. Next, she stows Mrs. Griswold’s journal in an unassuming spot on one of her bookshelves. She’s not taking it with her to Mom’s, and in the unlikely but possible event someone breaks into the house, well, there’s no less conspicuous place to find a book than a bookshelf. Finally, she heads downstairs, pulls her discarded clothes off the floor and gets dressed again. She might have worn them for a while, but it’s not like she was doing much physical activity in the library, and she did just take a shower. She does apply a fresh stick of deodorant all the same, then sits down in her living room to watch a movie—La Regle Du Jeu, a French WWII film she’s heard good things about—until her mom’s car arrives.

GM: As a surprising change of pace for her mom, the doorbell rings, right on time.

Hazel: Hazel hits the pause button on the remote. Some few minutes in and she’s at the part where the aviator announces how unhappy he is that his girl wasn’t there to see him land his plane. She’d have preferred a somewhat longer window of ‘alone time’ to just curl up on the couch and enjoy a movie by herself, but a knock on the door is a knock on the door. She gets up, pulls on her shoes, and moves to answer it.

GM: It’s not her mom.

It’s a pizza delivery boy from Niccolò’s Pizzeria. His clunker car is idling in the driveway, complete with an advert of the pizza shop’s symbol (a grinning cartoon pizza with a crown) and its phone number stuck atop the top. He wears a similarly marked baseball cap, a red polo, jeans, and tennis shoes. He has long, frazzled blonde hair, freckles, and a paunch that suggests he indulges too often in his employer’s product. He looks up at Hazel with dirty-green eyes and hefts a large pizza box, its white-cardboard printed with the pizzeria’s name, its cartoon logo, and its tagline: A Prince always gets what he wants—no matter what!

“U-uh, is this 237 Red Louse Lane?” the delivery boy asks with a slight stammer.

Hazel: Hazel’s face falls. This isn’t the first time it’s been pizza instead. “Yes, it is,” she answers.

GM: “Oh, uh, good. I mean, I have a pizza for you.” He looks down at a note tapped to the box. “A Mrs. Lydia Calloway ordered it for you. Already paid,” he beams, like getting a free pizza is the best thing that could happen to you.

Hazel: Mrs.? Hazel thinks, wondering if the boy just got her mother’s marital status wrong. She picks up the note, ignoring his words.

GM: “Uh, ok,” the guy says as Hazel takes the note. He stands there awkwardly as she reads:

“So sorry to do this again and on your first day. I had a major meeting come up. I’ll try to call later. I hope work was great! Love, Mom.”

“It’s a nice letter,” the pizza guy says.

Hazel: This really does feel like high school all over again, Hazel thinks. She scowls, though, as the boy comments on the note. Yes, there was no way he could have avoided reading it, but she still bristles inwardly. She doesn’t want strangers poking into her life.

“Thanks,” she gruffly says as she takes the pizza, and then without waiting for a response, closes the door in his face. She doesn’t think to ask whether he’s been tipped.

GM: The delivery boy waits a few awkward moments, then re-rings the doorbell.

Hazel:What?” sounds an irritated voice from the other side of the unopened door.

GM: “Uh, s-sorry, but I need your signature. You know, to, uh, prove I didn’t just eat the pizza.”

Hazel: Oh. Right. The door grudgingly opens. Hazel signs, and then once again without waiting for a response, promptly closes it in the boy’s face.

GM: Another awkward moment of silence. This time, though, he doesn’t re-ring the bell. Instead, he just calls out, “Uh, thanks! I hope you enjoy your Prince Pizza!” There’s another awkward moment where she swears he is standing out there, as if waiting for a reply, but he eventually climbs back into his car and drives off.

Hazel: Hazel sticks the pizza in the fridge. Well, that’ll save her the awkwardness of only eating half a plate of food at both parents’ houses. At least she won’t have to make dinner tomorrow.

GM: By the time the once-hot pizza is cold, André’s death has been passed off as an accident by Robert, and Hazel is packed for her father’s. Outside, the sky is a darkening blue with heavy shadows. The headlights of Harvey’s truck shine brightly on her living room window. But the door does not knock, nor does the bell ring.

Hazel: Hazel flicks the remote, disturbed from her solitude. She’s in a fairly dark mood by the time her dad’s car arrives. Unless Mom was going to spend the night at her office, she was going back to her hotel at some point. She still could’ve seen Hazel, but evidently didn’t want to (at least as Hazel sees it). Something about that strikes her as profoundly unfair. That her mom, the person without the social disorder, just chose she didn’t want to see someone. Well, she didn’t want to see anyone either after her long day and all-too brief window of time alone, but she still answered the door. The door, with that stranger. God, she’s had to deal with so many people today. The two earlier who called her ‘Hazel’ like they knew her. The students before them. And awful old Mrs. Worwood, from the moment she stepped out her front door. By the time her dad’s headlights appear, Hazel feels quite thoroughly sick of human contact, and is even contemplating taking tomorrow off.

But her dad not arriving at the door… that’s odd. Hazel pulls on her amulet. Her backpack, with Mrs. Griswold’s diary inside it, also lies nearby. She looks outside the window but can’t make out much past the headlights’ glare. Maybe it’s nothing. But it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. She rummages around the living room for a pair of binoculars and peers through them at the truck outside.

GM: The blaring headlights against the evening sky make it hard to see, but by the time her eyes adjust to the binoculars, Hazel literally has her neighborhood nemesis in her sights. Mrs. Worwood is outside, ‘talking’ with her dad at the end of the driveway. She has an ordinance violation notice in her hand as well as a ruler she is pointing to Hazel’s unkempt lawn.

Hazel: If Mrs. Worwood’s morning scowl could curdle cement, Hazel’s evening glare could reduce a bank vault door to caustic slag.

She was going to apologize. She wrote the goddamn letter. It’s been a long, long day. She’s been dealing with so many people. Too many people. Mom’s last-minute cancellation and the stranger sent to her door has left her in even fouler spirits. She’d really wanted to see her mom, one of the only two people on earth she feels completely at ease with. They could’ve talked about the chopper ride and how one another’s days went—Hazel had more than a few legal topics she wanted to bring up. She tried to juggle the separate commitments to her divorced, non-speaking parents, only for Mom to drop the ball without so much as a phone call—which still hasn’t come. Probably won’t come. The pizza with its perfunctory note and change of plans to dinner with Dad really does feel like high school all over again. Or at least that period of high school before Lydia gave Harvey crap over the visitation schedule and said Hazel needed to eat cold pizza home alone, rather than have a real dinner with the available parent who was happy to have her over. Funny how sore that still makes her feel.

But the dejau vu is made all the worse for its reminder of a fact even Hazel doesn’t want to acknowledge—or perhaps simply can’t: that her life is going nowhere, she’s amounting to nothing, and is distracting herself with paranormal crap like hamsas, cursed books, and Uncle Leo’s ruler trick. The circumstances of Mom’s absence rub a very sore and deep wound that even Hazel doesn’t realize is there.

All those people, those strangers, who she just wants to leave her alone, are salt upon that wound. Hazel just wants to curl up, enjoy some respite, and maybe a dinner with Dad that’ll still cheer her up. But now… at what’s supposed to be the end of her day… that harpy, that HAG, that festering PESTILENCE upon all that is decent and good, that SUBHUMAN, aggravating, obnoxious, hideous, insufferable, intolerable, loathsome, unlovable, murderous, unbelievable, wretched, and simply gigantic CUNT wants to give her shit about ORDINANCES? Ordinances? Not even the shit that happened this morning? Fucking ordinances? It’s the maraschino cherry on top of a tall shit sundae sitting on the plate marked “Hazel’s day.”

The autistic librarian slowly lowers the binoculars from her bespectacled gaze. She just wants to be left alone. To leave others alone. Jake pushed her this morning. He pushed her too hard, and he saw what happened.

Hazel looks between the two arguing figures. Her already pale features are still as death. Finally, she breathes three words:

“It is on.”

She turns around, double-checks all her things, including Mrs. Griswold’s book she retrieved, and hefts her backpack. It wouldn’t do to forget something like the sack lunch she packed for tomorrow, after all. She removes the hamsa and sticks it inside one of the pack’s pockets. She opens the front door and calmly turns around to close and lock it. She’s not coming back. She then strides towards her nemesis, her face as tranquil as if she’s swallowed a whole bottle of her meds.

GM: “Ah, and here comes the lazy, foul-mouthed strumpet!” Beatrice all but caws as she sees Hazel exit and approach. Hunch-backed and wrinkled, she glares at Hazel. Harvey tries to step between the warring neighbors, but he is held back by something in his daughter’s eye. The tranquility. The calm before a storm.

“Now Hazel, I was just explaining to Mrs. Worwood how you wrote an apology le-”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t slow down, doesn’t speed up. Doesn’t increase or break stride. She is her namesake’s advancing hordes, and Worwood’s words but a gentle breeze against their banners.

Her head slowly turns from her father’s to regard the screeching crone with all the finality of a rotating gun turret. “Hello, Mrs. Worwood.”

GM: “Just like I wa–,” Beatrice starts then stops. Indeed, Hazel’s initially controlled, even polite tone catches both her neighbor and her father off-guard.

Hazel: “I am here to tell you something. Do you have anything else to say before I do?”

GM: Beatrice regards Hazel from behind her wire-frame glasses. She sucks on her dentures, as if chewing on Hazel’s offer before speaking:

“Yes, I am hear to deliver a notice that you are in violation of town ordinance R-14-1952. Your grass is above the proscribed limit.” She turns to Harvey. “And as you may not be aware, Hazel, overgrown lawns are not only an eyesore and blight to our gentle community, but they invite the presence of mosquitoes. Blood-sucking harbingers of disease and death. And your domicile is attracting them through your negligence—threatening our fair community!”

She turns back to Hazel with a crone’s neck-crack. “You may be willing to risk the consequences, but we aren’t! But I’m not surprised at your blatant disregard given the company you keep. You have one week to rectify the situation, or you will be censured.” She utters the last word like a Salem inquisitor condemning a witch to burn at the stake.

Hazel: “I see.” Like a single blade of grass being blown across a vast plain, a small smile slowly spreads across Attila’s features. “Is that the full extent of your grievances against me, Mrs. Worwood?”

GM: “Oh, there are more. So many, many more,” she says with palpable loathing.

Hazel: “Please.” Hazel lightly motions for the old woman to continue.

GM: “You are a lazy, spoiled, foul-mouthed, and coddled brat who hides behind your disabilities and the people who enable you. You should have left Witiko Falls, made something of yourself, and never come back, but you returned out of fear, complacency, and laziness, and that will be your undoing!”

Harvey cannot stand any further abuse heaped on his daughter. “Now that’s going too far, Beatrice! You ca–”

Hazel: Hazel holds up a hand, forestalling him. This is between her and Worwood.

GM: “Oh, and don’t get me started on you, you hypocrite!” Beatrice snaps, her eyes bulging with venom. “I know all about your family loyalties, you sickening disgusting excuse for a man!”

Hazel: Attila nods her acceptance. “Very well, Mrs. Worwood.”

GM: Beatrice swings her haggish face around and up at Hazel, her eyes seething and lips pressed hot and white with disgust and anger.

Harvey seems like he’s about to blow, and bloodily throttle and strangle the withered shrew right here and now if it weren’t for the presence of his eerily calm daughter.

Hazel: Attila gives a second nod. Low and slow, like an executioner’s axe being raised over the head of a condemned man.

“Very well, Mrs. Worwood,” she repeats.

Her spectacled gray eyes meet Beatrice’s wrinkled, hate-filled ones.

“You have my full apologies.”

Before either Harvey or Beatrice can interject, Hazel continues, “For both the foul language I spoke this morning, and for the disturbance I caused that awoke you last night. I suffer from somnambulism, or sleepwalking, which causes me to perform such tasks as mounting picture frames in the middle of the night. I do not offer this as an excuse for my actions, but as context to precipitate the actions I will take to cause you fewer disturbances. I intend to keep fewer heavy objects in my bedroom and to install a lock on the door. While the nature of my somnambulism makes it impossible for me to promise that I will cause no further loud noises—I have no control over my actions when I am asleep—I do offer my promises that I will do everything I can to curtail the effects of those actions, and to investigate further solutions should I interrupt your sleep again.”

“Thank you for informing me how my lawn has violated town ordinances. I will be certain to mow it when I return home from work tomorrow. If you find the new length to still be in violation, please do not hesitate to inform me.”

“I hope this incident may prove a catalyst for us to be better neighbors in the future. Your complaints against me are justified, and my behavior has been inexcusable.”

Attila pauses and then adds, “As you may also know, Mrs. Worwood, I work as the librarian at Witiko Falls High School. We sometimes have occasion for guest speakers to come in. If you should have the time and inclination, I would consider it a privilege to receive you. I believe the students could benefit a great deal from listening to the life experiences of someone who has lived in Witiko Falls for so long and cares so deeply for our community.”

GM: Beatrice and Harvey both gape like salmon fished out of the Kootenai and hurled on dry land.

Hazel: “There is also one final thing, if you please, Mrs. Worwood.”

GM: Her wrinkled mouth opens, but no sound comes out.

Hazel: “I am your neighbor. My father is not. I will not make a mountain out of a molehill—not on this occasion, when I desire peace between us—so I will consider it fair to provide you with this friendly warning instead.”

Hazel’s eyes haven’t once wavered from Beatrice’s.

“Badmouth my dad again while I’m around, and you’ll learn why my middle name is Attila.”

Hazel waits a few moments for Beatrice to reply. If the old woman is still at a loss for words, she looks up to her father and states, “Let’s go, Daddy.”

GM: Beatrice opens her mouth again. This time a sound does escape, but it’s only a feeble wheeze. “H-he’s…”

“Yes, let’s go, Hazel,” Harvey says as he opens the passenger door for his daughter. He then glares at Beatrice, climbs into the driver’s seat and slams the door.

Hazel: “Daddy, can you pull over?” Hazel asks once his truck has left Beatrice well behind.

GM: “Anything you want, Hazel.” Her dad’s still a bit red in the face, but he is no longer mashing the steering wheel. He pulls off into the gravel.

Hazel: Hazel looks down at her hands for a moment, as if thinking. “I was supposed to see Mom today, before you picked me up. But she had to cancel. I was very disappointed.”

GM: Harvey opens his mouth, frowns, then places one of his strong, yet surprisingly gentle hands on Hazel’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, kiddo. Something… really big must have come up.”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t reciprocate the touch, but neither does she shy from it. “Maybe. There are a lot of big things in her life, I suppose. But it… it did get me thinking.”

GM: He removes his hand, unsure of what his daughter is saying, and still all-too shocked by her earlier composure.

Hazel: Hazel looks down at her hands again. “I know I’m… a handful with my panic attacks, my… autism,” she briefly pauses, generally preferring not to bring up the ‘a-word’, “and, well, everything else. It’s so easy to take how you’re always there for granted. But I… I really do feel so lucky to have a dad who loves me and is there when I need him. Whether that’s for washing mace out of my eyes, helping me through an attack, giving me lifts to work, taking my random calls about drug use in the middle of the day, washing my dishes and making coffee when I’m in the shower, or…”

Hazel doesn’t do hugs. But she does smile as she reaches out to squeeze one of her father’s hands in both of hers, lifting it to her face. “I love you, Daddy. I want you to know that. And I don’t want you to go anywhere for a good long while.”

The words aren’t off the cuff: Hazel isn’t the best at spontaneously expressing her feelings. She prepared them, and almost everything she said to Beatrice, in advance and wrote several drafts on her laptop. She’d intended to say them to her dad after he’d looked the now-needless letter over. But her voice is no less sincere, even if it sounds a little rehearsed, and actually breaks a bit towards the end.

GM: Her father’s eyes well up, overwhelmed by this rollercoaster ride of emotions, conflict, and affection. “I’m… I’m right here. I’ll always be right here for you. I love you, Hazel.”

Hazel: “I know, Daddy,” she murmurs.

GM: Harvey sniffs back his tears. He doesn’t dare try to take back his hand. “You know, pumpkin, on days when I just feel plain rotten… I have this… song. Would you mind if I played it for you?” The request, despite its seemingly trivial nature, seems somehow anything but to Harvey.

Hazel: Hazel actually sniffs a bit too, removing one of her hands to wipe at her eyes. Moderately inconvenient, past her thick glasses. “Go ahead.”

GM: Using his free hand, Harvey flips down his sun-visor and retrieves a tape cassette he has clipped there. He slides the black unmarked cassette into the tape deck. After a moment, a scratchy country song fills the twilight:

Above the twanging guitar, a warble-voiced singer laments:

“Well I’ve tried, and tried, and tried with all my might,
To do the best I can,
To walk that straight and narrow,
And be a faithful man.
Every time the Devil knocks,
I can’t help but let him in the door.
I know I done you wrong,
And you don’t want me anymore.”


“And what may sound like wild and foolish schemes,
Are just a poor man’s hopes and dreams.
When all is said and done, it seems
That luck ain’t on my side.”


“So I’ve cried and cried, and swallowed pride,
But still it will not stand,
There ain’t no straight and narrow,
When death trumps your hand.
So every time the devil knocks,
Please forgive and understand.
I wager my last dollar,
For the whiskey in his hand.”


“And what may sound like wild and foolish schemes.
Are just a poor man’s hopes and dreams.
When all is said and done, it seems
That luck ain’t on my side.
And if my wild and foolish schemes,
Were just a poor man’s hopes and dreams,
I’ll take my bow, and play my hand,
But the Devil calls it in the end.”


Harvey sighs as he listens to music. He drinks it in and just stares out into the darkness, into memories that are so private they cannot be shared, but merely endured.

Hazel: Perhaps another time—perhaps even tomorrow, when she will not be so exhausted from dealing with so many people—Hazel will have enough presence of mind to note the alarmingly specific information Beatrice knew about her, her autism and panic attacks not least among such. Perhaps she will connect the old woman’s words to her father’s all-too rare anger or his private song’s lyrics.

Tomorrow, perhaps. But for what’s left of today, Hazel is done with people—besides the one who’s sitting next to her. And the other person who evidently had more important things to do than keep her commitments, but is still no less important to Hazel even then.

She isn’t sure why she’s softly crying. They say that’s what country music does to you. Or maybe she’s just… she doesn’t know. So she simply lays her head against her dad’s chest and listens to the tape wind on and on.

GM: The night unfolds softly around them. Insects and owls begin to add their voices to the last chorus. Her father’s broad chest breathes slowly, strongly. His warmth holds back the night’s chill. A single tear rolls down his face and falls on hers. He sings the final lines in crude, if heartfelt harmony:

“And if my wild and foolish schemes,
Were just a poor man’s hopes and dreams,
I’ll take my bow, and play my hand,
But the Devil calls it… in the end.”


After a long moment, he breaks the silence. “Let’s go home.”

Hazel: Dinner is a subdued affair. Hazel doesn’t feel like talking, but she does listen if her dad has anything to say. It’s one of those few times where the silence doesn’t feel awkward, and she savors it no less fondly than the smoked trout and homemade pumpernickel—which she doesn’t have to eat only half a plate of, after all.

GM: Harvey seems similarly exhausted, or at least subdued. The homemade pumpernickel and homegrown horseradish and dill compliment the fried trout with a strong, but earthy flavor. It doesn’t just taste delicious. It tastes like home. Their meal almost finished, the moment of culinary solace and quiet is broken by someone knocking at the door.

Hazel: Hazel gives her dad an exhausted look. She doesn’t have to say ‘you get it.’

GM: Harvey wipes his mouth on a napkin and rises. “I’ll get it, kiddo. You keep eating.”

Hazel: Hazel wordlessly continues to.

GM: There’s another less tentative knock.

“Coming,” Harvey calls as he strides to the door, then opens it. Due to the dining room’s layout, Hazel can just see out the front door. Three to five people are standing on and around Harvey’s porch. One is female, the rest are male. All are around Hazel’s age, or a little younger. Their garb, mannerisms, and posture immediately remind her of her time at Gonzaga. But she also recognizes the simpler conclusion her father reaches: Outsiders. A few of the college-age students stir uneasily at the sight of the now-uniform-wearing law officer.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t like talking to strangers at the best of times. Right now, she likes the idea even less. She remains seated, content to observe her father as he handles the situation.

GM: One of the guys nudges the girl and says something Hazel can’t make out. The young woman, who wears a camping vest, a long-sleeve T-shirt printed with “Suck my Reaganomics”, jeans, brand-new hiking boots, and two hair-braids, seems to consider offering her hand, but settles for a little wave. “Hi, are you Mr. Bauman?”

“Yes,” Harvey answers tersely.

“Oh… uh, good,” she answers, thrown off by the cold brevity. “So we were told that you sometimes rent a cabin or something to visitors.”

Hazel: Hazel bristles inwardly. She doesn’t live here anymore, but she still doesn’t like the thought.

GM: Hazel knows that her grandfather used to frequently rent his side-house to outsiders, particularly paranormal investigators, when she and her parents lived on Sisyphus Hill. It was hard to tell which the visitors enjoyed the most: Jonas’ dirt-cheap fees or his encyclopedic knowledge of local folklore.

Hazel: Horror curdles Hazel’s stomach. She likes that thought even less if they want to rent the house tonight. Dad can’t rent it out anyways. Both houses have been occupied for almost ten years, ever since the divorce and Harvey’s move back from Sisyphus. Granted, with Gramps and Nana out in Coer d’Alene right now, Lacewood’s other house is sitting vacant. But they do live there still. What would it be like if Hazel left her house for a temporary span and returned to find strangers staying there? The mere thought makes her ill.

GM: “No,” Harvey says.

The college-age kids look at one another. The girl eventually asks, “I’m sorry, Mr. Bauman, I’m not sure we understand… do you mean this isn’t the place… or that you don’t have any vacancies?”

“We’re from the university,” a deep-voiced guy adds.

“University of Montana, over in Missoula,” another clarifies.

“No,” Hazel’s dad repeats. “You don’t belong here.”

“We don’t mean any trouble, sir, or officer.”

“Undersheriff Bauman,” Harvey corrects.

“Yes, uh, Undersheriff Bauman, we’re doing a project… for school. Just a couple-week investigation into some of the purported… happenings in the area.”

“Go back to Montana,” Harvey says, then shuts the door. Hazel’s dad strides back to the table, forcing a smile. “How about some huckleberry pie?”

Hazel: Relief sweeps through Hazel. Really, she’s silly to have gotten so worked up at the prospect of strangers occupying the next-door house. That wasn’t going to happen. Her dad is normally very polite and helpful around outsiders, and she’s heard that more than one family has actually moved to Witiko Falls because the ‘town cop’ was so friendly. But out-of-town paranormal junkies get a very cold shoulder from most Falls residents, and Harvey Bauman is no exception. They cause trouble, painful trouble, asking questions to widows and orphans about lost loved ones. Or they get lost in the woods, or attacked by the aggressive local fauna, and make people risk their own lives to save them—and get reminded of all those who couldn’t be saved.

Hazel still remembers the arguments between her dad and Gramps. Jonas said that if everyone had Harvey’s attitude, then the Brothers Grimm would never have been able to write their books, and the world would have been much poorer for it. Harvey would seethe back that the “stories” weren’t fairy tales, but involved real people and real suffering. Gramps’ retort of “who says fairy tales aren’t real?” was usually when Mom or Aunt Winnie stepped in. Before things got really heated.

Her dad doesn’t have many buttons, but meddlesome paranormal junkies from out of town is one. People bothering his daughter is another. Those college kids’ misfortune to have pressed both.

Hazel smiles at her father’s question and nods. She still doesn’t feel like doing much talking, but he’s all-too aware she approves of his handling of the situation.

GM: “I’ve made up a bed for you in Aunt Winnie’s old room. I hope that’s okay,” her dad says.

Hazel: Hazel tries not to let her consternation show on her face. It’s inevitable that parents will re-purpose the rooms of adult children who’ve been moved out for five years, but still. She doesn’t like change. “Oh, what’d you do with my old one?”

GM: Harvey’s head tilts for a moment, then he beams. “Oh, sorry kiddo, yes, your old room. It just used to be my sister’s too, you know, before you moved in.”

Hazel: This time Hazel doesn’t make any effort to conceal her emotions. “That’s more than okay.”

GM: He chuckles a bit. “I found your old Care Bears comforter in the closet. It’s a bit faded, but I think it still does the trick.”

Hazel: “A comforter is always a comfort.”

GM: “Unless you’re camping in a late July heat wave,” Harvey quips. He then points down to her eaten meal and flatware. “All done with your plate?”

Hazel: The odds of Hazel going camping, in July or any other month, of course, go without saying. Harvey might still remember the trip he took with his ex-wife and the rest of his extended family when Hazel was eleven. As a teenager, she’d wondered more than a few times how much it contributed to the divorce.

“I think so. Apart from dessert. I have a separate chamber in my stomach for sweets.”

GM: Harvey takes her plate and his and heads to the sink. “I’ll get the dishes.” He parts the kitchen curtain, as if checking to make sure the college kids are gone. After grabbing a scrubber and dish-soap, he asks, “Hazel, would you mind checking to see if we have any ice cream in Nana’s freezer, you know, to go with the pie? Gramps has been storing his fish in my icebox, and it makes everything taste like salmon or trout. Everything.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles. “Sure, Daddy. Though I’ve heard there is such a thing as salmon-flavored ice cream.”

GM: He pauses mid-dish scrubbing, turns back, and half-winces, half-smiles. “Oh, Hazel, I haven’t just heard about it, I’ve tasted it. Gramps actually likes it.”

“Door’s unlocked,” Harvey says in regards to the neighboring house. “It might be freezer-burned, but I’ll take some if it’s not too bad.”

Hazel: That makes her laugh as she opens up the freezer to check for fishy ice cream. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised there. On either count.”

GM: True to her dad’s word, she finds his icebox is filled with ice cream—and the pungent odor of frozen fish.

Hazel: Hazel pulls out a carton of vanilla ice cream. She normally likes chocolate, but vanilla goes best with pies. She thinks she might agree with her dad’s opinion on fish-flavored ice cream, though, as she smells the… unusually scented frozen container. “Uck. You could just get a separate freezer to store all that fish in.”

GM: “He already has one,” Harvey says ruefully as he scrubs a plate. “He’s just using mine for overflow.”

Hazel: She thinks for a moment, then swaps the vanilla for chocolate. The stronger flavor should help mask the piscine taste. “I know. I mean as insurance, in case his own continues to overflow.”

GM: The unleashed stench is bad. It starts permeating the kitchen. Harvey turns around, his wrist to his nose. He closes the freezer. “Ugh, let’s keep that… closed.”

Hazel: Hazel wrinkles her nose. She gets out a spoon and tries the ice cream, curious as to how fishy it really tastes.

GM: Harvey meanwhile opens the small kitchen window, pushing back the curtains to allow fresh air to do battle with the piscine odor.

Hazel: Hazel plunks the spoon in the sink and quickly opens the freezer to stuff the ice cream back in. “Ick. I can’t believe Gramps enjoys that, Daddy.” She pauses. “No, actually, I really can.” He’s always been just a bit odd that way.

GM: Harvey starts to protest as Hazel opens the freezer for the second time and provides a ‘fresh’ legion of reinforcement to the odor war.

Hazel: She wafts a hand in front of her face, trying to disperse the fishy stench. “Well, what, do you want it to melt?”

GM: Harvey starts to place his hands on her shoulder, but stops an inch before contact. “Another time, pumpkin. For now, please keep the freezer closed. At this point, I’m not sure I want any pie.” He chuckles a little. “But all this talk of ice cream has me hankering for some. That is, the non-fishy kind.”

Hazel: “Well, okay. I suppose no one was going to enjoy it but Gramps anyways.” Hazel puts it in the fridge.

GM: “Would you mind going over and checking Nana’s box, kiddo? If you don’t want to, I’ll do it myself.” He takes the chocolate-trout ice cream out of the fridge with a pained look. “And maybe dump this in the outside can.”

Hazel: “I’m certain the fish goes better with vanilla for those odd souls who prefer such piscine-flavored desserts. But sure, I’ll take a look.” Hazel takes the chocolate ice cream and heads off to check the freezer of the house that’s literally next door.

GM: Hazel’s initial remark about vanilla makes her dad take a protective step in front of the fridge, as if worried his stubborn daughter will open it a third time to test her hypothesis. As she heads out the door, with the fouled chocolate no less, Hazel thinks she hears her dad sigh with all-too sincere relief.

Hazel: Fortunately for him, Hazel has little desire to investigate such fields of scientific inquiry after how the chocolate ice cream tasted. Some things, indeed, are best left unknown. Hazel dumps the ice cream in the compost and holds onto the container, to rinse out and put in the recycling. If her relatives are not so environmentally conscientious, however, it reluctantly goes in the trash. As much as she might prefer small town living, away from all the noise and crowds, she does admit to preferring larger cities’ social attitudes.

GM: The walk from her former house to Jonas’ and Lottie’s home, locally known as Lacewood Cottage for its intricate hand-carved carpentry and folklore wood-carvings, does not take long at all, as the two structures are mere feet away from one another.

lacewood.png

Hazel: Both homes (really, Hazel all but thinks of them as a single house) hold a lot of memories. Mom recovered there after the car crash, back in ‘77 before Witiko Falls had a proper hospital. Hazel mainly recalls that time through her parents’ stories, as she was only three. She has a few fragmented memories of living at the GI house (so nicknamed because Gramps built it when he returned from Korea) and celebrating her fourth birthday party after her parents got married. Recollections grow clearer after they moved away to Sisyphus. Mom wanted the family to have their own space, much to Dad’s confusion and Gramps’ disapproval. She got her way, though they still came over to Lacewood to idle lazy summer days or simply visit with Gramps and Nana throughout the year. Dad moved back to the GI house after the divorce (likely where he should’ve stayed all along in his own dad’s mind) and had Hazel over for bi-weekly dinners and every other weekend. In retrospect, she’s quite thankful for that. There was enough change without moving into an unfamiliar new house too.

GM: Built upon a triple-tiered rock-terrace to prevent flooding, the two buildings are situated against the heavily wooded Bitterrroot. No other neighbors mar the alpine privacy. Twilight settles heavily now on the peaks, and the sun hides behind the mountains, leaving only a swath of magenta and rose-purple to signify its passing. A flock of geese fly south, their black silhouettes gliding against a backdrop of slowly awakening stars. Their cries cut the night, a fitting song of homes lost and homes sought.

Hazel: Hazel pauses for a moment to stare up at the setting sun, admiring nature’s simple beauty. Spokane simply didn’t have sunsets like they do out in the country.

Homes sought. It still irks her that Mom sold the Sisyphus house, even if that wasn’t until she left for college. A home is a home. You make it, and you don’t leave it. Dad at least understands that.

GM: As does her father’s father and grandmother. The trip inside Lacewood is quick, but the smell and sights are like old time-capsules opening pleasant memories of holiday meals, fireside tales about fairies and dragons and ghosts, and board-games and the smell of old books and a legacy that stretches across continents. And more importantly, across generations. The fridge is an old model, but well-kept. An American Legion magnet holds up a calendar with today and tomorrow circled in red: Coer d’Alene: Sleep Study.

Hazel: She remembers Dad mentioning that earlier this morning. She hopes things go well for Great-Grandma. But the hard truth is that the eldest Bauman likely doesn’t have a lot of time left.

GM: Inside the small freezer are a number of ice packs for old hips and arthritic hands, frozen meatballs, and a single plasticware container of hand-cranked vanilla ice-cream. Atop the container is a small porcelain figure resembling an old, ash grey, shaggy hen with a short neck. Hazel immediately recognizes it as an erdhenne, a Germanic house spirit.

Hazel: “I’m not in danger from anything tonight, am I?” Hazel asks the fae figurine half-seriously as she opens the freezer and removes the ice cream (which looks so much better than the store-bought brand). The earth hens are supposed to be able to answer questions about danger.

GM: The porcelain spirit-hen gives no reply. Yet, when Hazel closes the freezer, she hears a cluck-like clunk.

Hazel: She pauses, slowly turning around.

GM: A hundred wood-carved eyes stare at her, but no one is around—or at least nothing visible. After a moment, Hazel intuits that the sound may have come from inside the freezer. Opening it, she sees the erdhenne figurine is tipped over, likely from the clunky closing of the old freezer drawer.

Hazel: Okay, so there was a perfectly rational explanation. Hazel should feel a little foolish. Should. But after some of the things she’s seen lately… she doesn’t feel as safe making assumptions. Better if she empirically verifies her beliefs. She uprights the fae figurine, sets it back in its proper place, and pronounces, “May you continue to safeguard this home and may its inhabitants show you commensurate respect.” The phraseology is a bit odd, but so is talking to inanimate objects.

Hazel makes sure the freezer’s door is closed and gives the home’s interior a last, long glance. It briefly strikes her what a, well, one of a kind set of circumstances these present ones are. There weren’t too many times (any times?) she was left alone in Lacewood as a child. It’s even less statistically likely she’d find herself alone in her grandfather’s and great-grandmother’s house as a twenty-something young adult. She isn’t sure what to make of that, other than recognizing the moment’s uniqueness. She gives the memory-filled home a nostalgic final look before heading back to the neighboring GI house, ice cream in hand. “I think I could still go for some pie after all, Daddy. This stuff looks excellent.”

GM: Harvey beams when he sees his daughter’s haul. “Just in time.” He opens the lid and sighs with his eyes closed. “This brings me back to when me and Winnie were just little kids, and my parents would take us on summer hikes, and then we’d picnic and have hand-cranked ice-cream and ham and onion sandwiches.”

Hazel: “I think you made those a couple times for me as a kid, too,” Hazel smiles. She might not have been one for the outdoors as a child, but she had few objections to picnics. There wasn’t much physical activity.

GM: Harvey smiles and pats the table. “Okay, you grab the spoons and plates, and I’ll see about that pie.”

Hazel: Hazel retrieves and sets the aforementioned plates and utensils down with a soft clink against the wood.

GM: A few moments later, the pair are each scarfing down a slice (or two) of huckleberry pie with the hand-cranked ice-cream and a glass of milk.

Hazel: “Mmmm,” Hazel exclaims with approval. “I’m glad we didn’t settle for salmon.”

GM: Harvey agrees between a slow-savored spoonful.

Hazel: Hazel pauses for a moment, thinking back to the memories stirred by Lacewood—both those she recalls and those she’s only heard through her parents. “Dad, when Mom and I first wound up here after the crash, and I was three… how’d you get through to me? I can’t imagine I was any more friendly around you at first than I was around, well, them.” She means the college students.

GM: Harvey pauses mid-spoonful. He leaves it there in thought, then lowers it and says, “I’d like to take the credit, but it was Gramps. He’s always… had a way. Nana and I, even Winnie, we all tried. But we usually didn’t have a clue what you wanted. Between the gestures and a new place, it was tough. Really tough.”

Hazel: “Yeah. The task was probably made all the harder when I wasn’t talking, either.” Like many toddlers with autism, it took a while before Hazel spoke her first words. She was three when she finally did.

GM: “But with Gramps, it was like you and he had this secret language. I remember this one time, you were shaking your fist… and we all thought you were angry, maybe upset that your mom still being away or at something we did or said… because that happened a lot too… but then Gramps walks by, takes one quick look at you and tells me you needed to go to the bathroom. And you did! Most kids do the potty-dance, you know the shake of the hips and knocking, squirming knees… not shaking a fist above your head.”

Hazel: “Well, wasn’t that illogical of three-year-old me,” Hazel remarks, amused. “There’s no immediate correlation between a shaken fist and need to use the bathroom.”

GM: “I asked your mom about it, later, and she said it’s sign language or something for toilet or bathroom. Not that Gramps knows sign language. Well, not counting the ‘signs’ left by brownies and fairy-chickens,” he adds, chuckling.

Hazel: “Is it? Clearly I’m losing my faculties in my old age.” Hazel thinks. “But Gramps always has been good at getting by without words, hasn’t he. Just like he is now with Great-Grandma.”

GM: “Yeah,” her dad agrees, a bit more somberly.

Hazel: Hazel’s face falls a bit. She shouldn’t have brought that up. “We should go see her, once she’s back from that sleep study. Maybe with Uncle Leo so she can enjoy watching someone dance.”

GM: “Hey, I can dance!” Harvey says with pseudo-mock hurt. “After all, I took ballroom with Coach Ross.”

Hazel: “Yes. And wanted me to take it too,” Hazel remarks wryly.

GM: “Yes, about that,” he says, wiping his mouth and standing. He extends a hand. “How about your old man shows you a step or two?”

Hazel: Hazel looks at it for a moment. “Daddy, you know I dance as well as an inebriated giraffe.”

GM: “That’s why we should practice,” he says, undeterred and grinning.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t like the prospect. But she knows that Nana really likes to watch her relatives dance, and Hazel is the only other female Bauman besides Aunt Winnie. Her gaze lingers on her dad’s hand for another moment. “We’ll practice for Great-Grandma,” she finally declares with a half-mumbled half-protest as she sets down her fork.

GM: “For family,” her dad agrees, giving her a little twirl and catching her as she half-trips.

Hazel: Hazel gives a half-huff, half-squawk-like sound of indignity at the minor surprise.

GM: Harvey chuckles, “Let’s see what the little jukebox has to say tonight.” He clicks on an old antenna radio on the kitchen counter.

Hazel: “I don’t suppose many stations play classical German?”

GM: “Afraid not,” Harvey answers as an AM station belts out a country ballad. “But close enough.”

Hazel: “Beethoven would be rolling in his grave at that statement, Daddy.”

GM: “Let him roll,” Harvey says, then leads her in a surprisingly elegant dance. Her dad takes her through the steps, turning her typical fumbles into something almost graceful. Dancing together, she can easily she how her mom was swept off her feet, quite literally, by the strong yet gentle man. Harvey smiles, clearly enjoying himself. “You’re doing great, kiddo. Just great.”

As Martina McBride finishes her last chorus of A Broken Wing, Harvey twirls his daughter and then dips her in a bow. “Good thing you didn’t take Coach Ross’ class, little lady,” he says, laughing warmly as he guides her to a chair and takes one himself. “Otherwise, some of those queen bees might have jumped you for stealing their limelight.” He then adds with a chuckle, “And boyfriends.”

Hazel: Hazel is actually more than a bit surprised herself by the time the dance ends. She was mainly trying to mirror her dad’s moves and not trip over her own feet. Maybe she just didn’t feel as pressured around him, when Great-Grandma wasn’t watching? She’s still a little relieved when the dance concludes, and though she isn’t quite smiling, she doesn’t look as if she’s having an actively unpleasant time either.

She blushes a bit at her dad’s compliments. “They can keep their jock boyfriends. But… I would settle for doing this well again in front of Great-Grandma.”

GM: Her dad chuckles, glancing at the fridge, but turns back and adds, “Well, there’s the old practice makes perfect.” He looks back at the fridge.

Hazel: Hazel looks back to see what he’s staring at.

GM: And sees nothing of note. The fridge is closed, so no fish funk is poisoning them. The radio still plays, and the curtains flutter in the day’s last breeze.

Hazel: Well, she misses such things all the time. Hazel finally gives a yawn. “I think I’m turning in, Daddy. It’s been a long day.”

GM: “What? Oh, sure thing, sport.”

Hazel: “Well, turning in soon. I think I’ll give Mom a call. She said she’d give me one, but I’m obviously not around at the Sweeney house for her to reach.”

GM: He stands up. “Oh, um, yeah. Feel free to call whoever you like. I think I’ll go… make sure the dumpster’s locked down.”

Hazel: Hazel’s all-too frequently experienced feeling of awkwardness returns. Maybe she shouldn’t have told Dad she wants to call his bitterly divorced ex-wife from his house. Mom canceled on her, after all. “Um. That sounds prudent. I can take the phone to my room so you don’t feel obligated to remain outside.”

GM: “It’s okay. The wireless reception starts crackling if you move too far away from the base.”

Hazel: “I yearn for the day when cell phones become a more practical alternative to landlines.”

GM: Harvey shrugs and heads out his door, whistling the tune on the still-playing radio.

Hazel: Hazel’s awkward feeling doesn’t abate. Mom didn’t even say she would call, just that she’d try. Am I really concerned over Mom feeling guilty if she can’t reach me? I don’t owe her a call back. But all due evidence would indicate that Hazel is concerned for that very thing, and besides, she just told her dad she’d make the call. So she picks up the phone and dials her mother’s number at the Ghost Elk Lodge, the posh hotel where she stays.

GM: The phone rings and rings, and just as the message machine would normally kick in, there’s a change in the tone. And then a warbling almost like she called a fax line by accident. And then, a voice. The voice is somehow familiar, intimate even, like a dream, yet alien and lacking the normal fricatives of organic speech. Its words are brief. “Agent Bauman. Find the female passenger. Ensure she arrives home.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply, not replying. Do they think this is her father calling?

GM: Her only reply is a static and electronic dial-up fax-shriek followed by a click, and her mother’s voice. “-please leave your name, number, and nature of your call, and I will respond as quickly as possible.” BEEP

Hazel: Hazel scowls and hangs up. Maybe that earlier ‘call’ was meant for dad. Or maybe it was one of the odd calls that so periodically plague the town’s residents. A bizarre set of instructions. Off-hand, she can’t imagine who this ‘female passenger’ is—or that she’s necessarily inclined to go running off at the bidding of… whoever the hell is behind them. Or at least, not without intent to unmask the persistent mystery caller. That’s another mystery and concern, on top of numerous others—not least of which is whether she’s going to make it through the night. Sorry, caller, you’re not a priority right now.

Hmm, maybe it’s the female stranger who was just at the door? Yes, that would make a great deal of sense. She was the only woman among those college kids, so ‘female’ is a specific identifier. And if she were a native of Witiko Falls, she’d be unlikely to need someone else’s help arriving home. Hazel frowns at herself. Priority, Hazel. She then pokes outside and lets her dad know she’s done with the call—Mom wasn’t around to pick up. She wishes him good night and heads to bed.

GM: Harvey doesn’t quite sigh with relief when he hears Lydia didn’t pick up, but he seems less tense. He wishes her a good night’s rest, and says he’s going to nap on the couch—in case of a call. “But it’s been a quiet night, so I probably won’t get one.”

Hazel: “We can hope. Night, Daddy. I’ll bring you out a blanket.”

Hazel: Hazel uses the bathroom and brushes her teeth. It would likely come as little surprise to her dad that, being as routine-fixated as she is, she brought her own toothpaste and brush. Afterwards, she goes to bed in her old room—comfortingly unchanged from five years ago, sans what possessions she took away. But she doesn’t go to sleep. It’s been on her mind ever since that near-collision in the afternoon. She pulls her protective amulet over her neck and pulls out her predecessor’s journal.

GM: Page four and five contain a graphically annotated treatise on smelting. Three pieces of carbon-copy have been taped over the blank spaces, corners, and margins of the procedural essay. The dark purple-black slips are marked by the carbon-imprint of a type-writer.

Hazel: Hazel stares at the book’s open pages with morbid fascination, like one might observe a train wreck. Oh my god, a typewriter…?

All right, Mrs. Griswold’s death is horrible, but… maybe it really is better that I’m in charge of the library. The thought strikes Hazel as insensitive, but she isn’t sure how else to put it. Typewriters.

GM: Perhaps contrary to some of the cryptic, if not downright maddening, writing styles, the treatise is extremely coherent and technical. Although Hazel is no expert of the physical sciences, she believes the essay properly describes the chemical and material processes involved in smelting.

The type-written carbon slips, however, prove much harder to read. Initially, she considers whether they are written in a different language or more likely in a code. However, it doesn’t take Hazel too long to realize they have been taped backwards—and with proper light, can be read easily in a mirror.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to make of the smelting without further context. The journal reads like a schizophrenic’s diary, but at least it reads clearly when she pulls out a tiny mirror from her purse to read the backwards lettering. She could probably get an even more clear view in the bathroom mirror, but she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed.

GM: The first off-kilter fortune-cookie reads: Burn the base tabernacle to free the gods within.

Hazel: Was this seriously by mild-mannered old Mrs. Griswold?

GM: The second reads: To learn to fly, the egg must first crack. And the last: The greatest of doors may swing on the smallest of hinges.

Hazel: Well, those grew sequentially more school-appropriate. Hazel flips to the journal’s next page.

GM: Page six begins with two lines of text that Hazel cannot read—or at least understand.

Post acies

Read inter acies

Below the bifurcated heading, however, is an annotated map that fills both pages. Hazel immediately recognizes the road map of North America, particularly of its northwest quadrant. Lines, both red and blue, are carefully drawn over it. If the red and blue lines respectively resemble branching arteries and veins, Witiko Falls is its heart.

Hazel: Ley lines?

GM: If such phenomena truly exist, this map suggests they unerringly follow interstate expressways, state highways, and county roads. Directly beside most of the colored lines are tiny alchemical symbols and dates. Some of the latter date back a decade or more, but most are far more recent. None are within the past month. Although its meaning and purpose remain unknown, the technical precision of the map is breath-taking.

As Hazel holds up the map to gaze at the snarl of lines going into and out of her hometown, it seems like the map somehow contains incredibly small hatches and other lines. After searching her desk for an old model-kit magnifying glass, she confirms her suspicions. Inhumanely small and exact lines display the municipal and surrounding roads. It may be a trick of her swiftly fatiguing eyes from straining at the limits of the glass’ magnification, but some of the outskirt’s roads are blurry.

Besides her eye strain, the blurriness might also be explained by ink bleeding at this microscopic scale—but Hazel suspects this is unlikely given the equally inexplicable lack of ink-bleeding on any of the other lines. Eventually, Hazel has to look away as her head begins to painfully pound from the visual and mental exertion. However, her investigation yields two more discoveries.

Nearly all of the lines, regardless of color, either originate or terminate at two locations. The first is Nostrum Enterprises’ pharmaceutical plant. The second is ROSEWATER.

Hazel: Hazel’s breath catches in her throat. Nostrum? At first, she is almost excited. Her mom’s a bigwig there, she can probably gain access to the plant to further investigate… whatever the significance of these lines is. Granted, she may need to tell a few fibs or simply beg indulgence—her mother has always dismissed the paranormal as a load of baloney.

But ROSEWATER causes her a great deal more consternation.

It makes perfect sense. Witiko Falls has little that other communities do not besides paranormal occurrences, which the government likely well has an interest in investigating. And the government is all but assuredly aware of these… nodes of significance (she’s not yet sure if she should call them ley lines). It’s too big a coincidence for them to set up in ROSEWATER, where the greatest convergence lies. And if they know about the ones at ROSEWATER… how probable is it they know about the ones at Nostrum?

What steps might they have taken to… Hazel doesn’t know quite what. What she does know, is that the last owner of this journal, the person to discover these nodes of significance, was forcefully taken by ROSEWATER and declared legally dead. How easily could that happen to Mom too?

Her mother doesn’t believe in this stuff. She won’t go nosing into the government’s business like Mrs. Griswold did._ Maybe not. But how sure can she be? Without knowing the nature of the government’s interest—and interference—in Nostrum, how can she say they haven’t crossed paths with her mother? What if they’re trying to do something of dubious legality, like shutting down the plant, and Mom is fighting them?

Hazel tries to convince herself that isn’t the case. The government has been in ROSEWATER for a long time. They’d have to know about the… nodes of significance there, by now. Nostrum’s plant wasn’t built until a good many years later. Around when she and her mother first moved to Witiko Falls. They clearly didn’t want to possess the land, directly. They didn’t interfere with the plant’s construction.

But could that change? Hazel doesn’t know. She’s speculating, drawing worst case scenarios. There’s still so much she doesn’t know. She scrunches her eyes for a moment. Damn it, Mom, why couldn’t you have picked up… It was late. She had to have just been tired from a long meeting. Just gone to bed.

But Hazel doesn’t know. She tries to read more, to make sense of the rest of the journal, to find some further scrap of knowledge that could help her, help her mom. But she is tired, worried, the hour is late, and the journal’s contents hopelessly obtuse. She narrowly resists chucking the book across the room out of sheer frustration. Damn it, Mom, why couldn’t you pick up!?

But there is one recourse yet open to her. She flips the journal back open, returning to the map whose excellent cartography she had been admiring only minutes earlier.

GM: Its heading still waits for her.

Post acies

Read inter acies

Hazel: Hazel traces her fingers down the red and blue lines. In her mind’s eye, she sees herself gathering the branching veins and arteries like one would wrap ends of string around a finger. She twists and tugs, pulling the polychromatic lines into answers.

GM: The effort is exhausting—but Hazel suspects that her mother is in no immediate danger from ROSEWATER. Scanning the map for any configurations resembling the evil eye, she also breathes easier ‘knowing’ that her efforts to evade the eye’s evil have been successful—at least for tonight.

But the darkness is unpredictable as well as patient.

Hazel: Hazel breathes a sigh of all-too audible relief. She won’t sleep easy, but she will sleep easier. Sometimes that’s all one can ask for.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


GM: The night dies slowly.

Its last gasps crawl against Kurt’s bedroom window. Frost, like the crystalized dreams of autumn, forms fragile fractals. His own hypnopompic breath feeds the icy geometry, creating microcosmic castles, cities, and entire ice continents fashioned from the detritus of respiration and inevitably doomed to crumble with the unforgiving dawn.

But dawn is still hours away. The mountains howl like the wolves who haunt their slopes. Cold sneaks into the room like a thief. The wind makes Kurt ache in some place that is deeper than his skin, deeper than his bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that whispers, then pleads:

Migrate or die.

Flee.

The alarm clock, however, cares nothing for ancestral memories and mortal frailties.

Kurt: Kurt is wrapped tightly in a couple layers of blankets, reaching a hand out to turn off his alarm. A bleary, tired look comes across his face as he squints his eyes at the clock. Where are my glasses? He reaches for his glasses, always leaving them in the same spot, on his bedside table next to his alarm.

GM: The clock’s red numbers glare at him with the merciless irrefutability of the Gematria.

5:00 AM

Only four hours since he got off work at the Scarecrow Cinema and its last showing of Strangeland. And like nearly every bleary-eyed, bone-tired morning, Kurt awakens with his throat sore and his tongue as dry as sandpaper. A room away, his catatonic father snores thinly. But with autumn sinking its fangs into the year, each wake-up routine just gets colder. Darker. And the willpower to peel himself from the marginal warmth and comfort of his bed to pick up his mother from work gets harder.

Kurt: Kurt cannot help recalling that one memorable quote from Strangeland this morning. Pain is a uniquely personal experience, he thinks ruefully as he slips out of bed, placing his bare feet on the cold floor. Tired, worn floorboards creak underneath his weight as he gets up.

Kurt’s routine is ritualistic, pretty straightforward: head to the bathroom, have a glass of water, empty his bladder, brush his teeth while having a quick five-minute shower. It’s dull. Mind-numbing. He’s achingly tired. On auto-pilot. But what must be done must be done. Kurt steps out of the shower and finally gets dressed, searching for the car keys to go pick up his mother. He steps out into Saint Enoch’s grimy, filth-stricken halls, and locks his apartment’s front door.

GM: As the lock clicks, Kurt thinks he hears his father muttering in his sleep: “Light… light… light…”

st_enoch.jpg

Across the hall, Kurt’s friend, Wilson Perry, is presumably sleeping, perhaps dreaming of being crowned with the Satyr’s horns. The hallway’s light flickers as a moth repeatedly tries to hurl itself into its incandescent bulb, but its suicidal impulse is halted by the cracked-glass light cover. Beyond, the stairwell spirals down, its walls scrawled with graffiti. The schizophrenic, spray-painted mosaics create psychedelic kaleidoscopes of spidery layers of gang tags, scatology, eschatology, and ineffable illustrations. Half-asleep, Kurt stumbles across tag signs for the St. Enoch Crips and the Southpaw Queers as well as spray-painted missives such as:

“If I’m lost, please don’t find me.”
“I taste like the dreams of mad children.”
“I’ll stop stabbing if you stop screaming.”
“Happiness is utter submission to God.” However, the last missive has been ‘edited’ by an ‘artist’ to read: “Happiness is udder submission to GodZILLA.”

Kurt: Seems like something Wilson would do, Kurt muses tiredly.

GM: The baseball jock did like last May’s blockbuster—particularly when Kurt scored him free tickets for him and his latest skirted flavor of the week. As Kurt trudges down the stairwell, he passes the Larsens’ floor, where his ex-girlfriend may or may not be sleeping, dreaming dreams that Kurt can only begin to fathom. Or fear.

Kurt: Kurt catches himself staring at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, cursing under his breath. The inuring awkwardness and pain after breaking up has certainly plagued Kurt’s mind since they broke up a week ago. His mother hasn’t helped. Kurt walks a little faster, trying to move on, wanting to avoid spending too much time on this particular floor.

GM: Sleep-deprived dissociation finds Kurt suddenly outside, assaulted by the autumnal chill of a long night. Behind him, he spots the spray-painted grinning skull, swollen gut, and atavistic figure of the Sin-Bone Glutton, an illustration many of the local kids fear and offer spray-painted confessions to avert his hunger. The painting’s black pits stare at Kurt with naked avarice.

sin_bone.jpg

A few paces away, the Crawfords’ sole remaining car, a white Lincoln Town Car, sits parked beside a small pile of dirty snow left over from last Sunday’s first snowfall. This ‘morning’, the air is too dry for snow, but it is cold. Kurt’s breath steams.

lincoln.jpg

Kurt: Kurt shuffles to the white Lincoln, rustling his hand through his pockets in search for his car keys. He looks the car over, mulling whether its windows need a clean. I really need a car of my own, he thinks to himself. It’s not that the car is bad to look at, or that it doesn’t run too badly, only that it’s the family car, and Kurt desires some sort of statement of independence. After finding his keys, Kurt hops into the driver’s seat. He then locates an old shirt to give the windows a bit of a wipe to get rid of the morning’s fog.

GM: Minutes slip by in a fugue. Then, Kurt’s half-conscious mind registers that he’s driving on the dark outskirts of Witiko Falls, along the lonely road to Nostrum Enterprises’ plant. The night is thick, the pine and fir trees threaded with serpentine fog that slips through their frosted branches. In the distance, Kurt hears the eerie cries of bull elks driven insane with primal lust.

road.jpg

The yellow lines seem to stretch out and sink into an infinite abyss like a dark mirror of Jacob’s Ladder. The car’s heat finally kicks in, stilling his chattering teeth with its soporific caress. The warmth seeps into his muscles. His eyelids feel like molasses, slowly sinking down. Down. Down. Down the black ladder. The devils hold his hand as they descend together into black sleep.

Then. Horns. Headlights. Screeching tires. Shattering glass. Spinning. Smashing. It all happens so quickly. The big rig’s headlight and horns. Kurt’s eyes bursting wide awake, yet half-coherent and half-numb. The panicked jerk of the wheel. The loss of control. The eighteen-wheeler slamming on its breaks, trying to swerve. The terrible impact when gravity and time simply vanish as facile abstractions—and then suddenly reassert themselves in terrible, undeniable vengeance like Old Jehovah on Judgment Day. Kurt hears the trumpets. Deafeningly loud. Louder. A wet, coppery-smelling syrup dripping somewhere on his face. The world turned literally on its side.

And then, in the one broken lance of the flipped Town Car’s highbeam, Kurt dazedly sees a massive bull elk standing in the middle of the road, bathed in the light like an angel. A terrible one. The ones that always have to say, “Fear not.” But this one says nothing. It just stares. Its fur burns coal-red, and its rack of antlers look bloody and raw, with something resembling a flayed human body impaled in its horns. It stomps its hoof upon the asphalt—and the highbeam cracks and dies—and darkness swallows the night, and Kurt with it.

Kurt: Kurt touches his face, feeling the wet, sticky mess running down the side of his head. He tries to look at his hand despite the darkness of the early morning. He looks dazed and confused, trying to figure out how to escape the car, trying to figure out if he was actually in any state to escape.

Vertigo. On his side. He tries to figure out how to unbuckle himself and get out of the wrecked Lincoln.What did I hit? he thinks. What was on that elk’s antlers? Kurt dismisses the thought; he continues to feel for and fiddle with his seat-belt in the dark.

GM: Kurt’s trailing hand grazes his glasses. They must have flown off his face when the air-bag struck, as they now lay on passenger door—which is somehow the ground right now. Slipping them on, one of the side-joints is splayed outwards, making them fit loosely around his temples. Or maybe that’s the slick blood. In the dark, with his head ringing and his vision afflicted by the disturbing afterimages of the corona-lit elk, Kurt finds the seat-belt release. However, the action causes a fresh jolt of pain as gravity hungrily pulls on his torso and arms—even as the crumpled metal of the cab refuses to release his right foot.

Kurt: “Fuck!” he yelps, pain searing through his ankle.

GM: Just like the Sin-Bone Glutton’s stare, the pain is too black, too hungry. It swallows him again. But just before it fully sinks its teeth in him and gulps him down its black gullet, Kurt swears he hears it.

Screaming. Terrified, agonized screams.

Hazel: Strange Collisions


GM: Hours after the meal and a night’s sleep that wars between familiar restlessness and worry-ridden fatigue, Hazel is woken from strange dreams by her father’s gentle but insistent shake. “Hazel, wake up.”

Hazel: Inarticulate grogging noises sound from her bed.

GM: Another shake, a bit more firm but still gentle. “Hazel, please wake up.”

Hazel: “Mmmf, Dad… ’zit time…?”

GM: “It’s… 5:32, Hazel.” He turns on the nightstand light. He is dressed in his starched uniform, but she can tell there’s a disheveled worry or urgency on his face.

Hazel: “Whugh…” Hazel squints at the sudden brightness like an albino bat that’s had its picture snapped by a flash camera.

GM: “I have to go, Hazel. There’s been a call. A motor accident between a trucker and a kid, likely a high school student. There might be passengers.”

Hazel: “Zwah… uh…” Hazel finally pulls herself up and lifts her glasses from the bedside table. Her father’s features swim into focus. She isn’t really sure what to say to the accident’s news. “No one hurt?” She immediately realizes the foolishness of the question. “Uh, that badly?”

GM: “We don’t know,” he says grimly.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to say to that either. So she says what strikes her as polite. “Well, I… hope not.”

GM: He stands up, looks at the time. “I have to go. You… can stay… I’ll try to be back in time to get you to work.”

Hazel: That puts things in more relatable terms. “Um, would it help if I came? As… moral support?”

GM: A civil war erupts behind Harvey’s eyes as he struggles for words and wisdom.

Hazel: Hazel thinks for a moment. “It’s okay Daddy, I’ve suppressed the memories of the other crash,” she states rather bluntly. “Well, I should say, repressed. The technical term for it is dissociative amnesia.”

“That’s what it’s called in the DSM-IV,” she helpfully continues. “It’s defined as ‘an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.’” Hazel has actually read that section multiple times.

GM: Harvey is clearly taken back by Hazel’s calm clinical tone—particularly about such a traumatic event. Torn by his duty to his daughter and to his badge, he makes a hasty decision to try to accommodate both. “Okay, kiddo, you can ride with me. But we have to go right now.”

Hazel: “Is there time to shower, or should I just throw some cl…” Hazel asks before her father preemptively answers.

GM: “If I can’t drive you back in time, I’ll have Lowder or Ferg… or someone else do it.”

Hazel: “Okay, give me a second. We can worry about transportation-related concerns later.”

GM: “Hurry, Hazel. We—or they—don’t have much time.”

GM: The race to the crash is a blur. Literally. Harvey guns his truck, his police lights and sirens blaring, the former stippling the swiftly passing trees and houses with strange colors. Hazel has no clue how her father can cut the corners so quickly. Further adding to the disorientation are the loud bursts of radio static as the undersheriff communicates with station dispatch in the arcane jargon of law enforcement.

Hazel: Hazel tries to listen in, but everything is so fast and confusing. She eventually settles for staring out the window, transfixed enough by the red and blue-illuminated scenery careening past the flashing lights.

She feels the panic attack rising in her chest, but stubbornly clamps it down. She told Dad that she could handle this. And some part of her, the more she dwells on it, is morbidly fascinated to see another car crash.

GM: As Harvey slams back the radio into its cradle and somehow pushes the pedal even harder, Hazel understands that things are not right. Not even for a car-crash between a big rig and a car.

Although Harvey says nothing to her, she pieces together several facts. A big rig trucker made the call, calling for an ambulance, claiming a kid swerved into his truck. The trucker didn’t know if the kid was alive or with anyone else. The trucker said he was going to check. The trucker has not responded. EMS has been dispatched. They not yet arrived. The roads have a will of their own.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t speak to her dad. The silence is not unusual, given the circumstances, or given the person. He’s probably too occupied himself to notice how her expression has subtly shifted from frazzled, faced with so much sensory stimulation while still groggy from an early wake-up call, to pensive as well.

The circumstances of the crash sound unusual. Highly so. More than the ones around her own crash did. I should ask him about it again, when we’re home. After this is a good time.

GM: The big rig’s headlights announce their arrival. Harvey pulls off hard into the gravel. “Stay in the car. Keep the doors locked.”

Hazel: This time she doesn’t contradict him. “I will, Daddy.”

GM: He makes sure she hears him, but doesn’t wait long enough for her to respond. He leaves the keys in the ignition, the sirens and light still howling.

Hazel: After closing and locking the doors, Hazel pulls out her binoculars from her backpack. She wasn’t sure if there’d be time to swing back home before work. He’d also reminded her twice to have her meds handy, just in case.

GM: She sees her dad unholster his service side-arm and run off into the darkness. Inspecting the crash site, Hazel makes out the eighteen-wheeler, jack-knifed and partially flipped. The cab is still upright, its door hanging open. But one of the cargo components have twisted off the truck bed, its back door busted open from the impact. Several crate-like objects are strewn along its path like a broken, industrial-grade piñata.

She also spots the car, its white paint glowing like a giant, broken ghost on the road. It’s flipped on its side, several of its corners crushed at awkward angels. Smoke and steam still hiss from its hood. But the first thing Hazel sees is the hand. It’s sitting in the middle of road, a few paces from the open cab door.

A human hand.

With her binoculars, she can make out masculinity in its size, the rough callous, and its hairy knuckles. Strings of sinew and gore spill from its torn wrist, a single splatter on the double yellow line.

Hazel: Hazel knew that people would be hurt in the car crash. Possibly even dead. But… seeing a hand just lying there like that, like a piece of litter in the middle of the road…

Was this what her biological father’s death looked like? How many pieces was he in? She’d never asked Mom whether the funeral was closed casket. She wants to throw up—but doesn’t. Can’t. She wants answers. Maybe even needs them. She lifts the binoculars back over her grimacing features.

GM: Refocusing the lenses on the grisly appendage, Hazel quickly ascertains that the hand does not… belong to a kid. It’s too big, too rough, too weathered. They remind her of Uncle Mack’s hands, but this hand is thicker, the hair on the knuckles darker. There’s something else.

It takes her a moment of focusing and refocusing the lenses to be sure her eyes aren’t being tricked by an incipient panic attack or the distorting flicker of red and blue emergency lights. But yes, there is something else. On the hand, in the meaty part between the forefinger and thumb. A tattoo. It depicts a black cartoon cat, which Hazel recognizes as Felix the Cat, carrying a lit back bomb. Beneath the figure, also inked in black are two rows of words:

Fighting 31
JFK 1983

Assuming the hand does indeed belong to the trucker, his identification should be located in the cab’s interior—or wherever the rest of him is. The thought sits in Hazel’s mind like an unwashed toothbrush used to clean up diarrhea. Wisely, she doesn’t touch it further. Instead, she swings her binoculars up. In the splash of amber striped with red and blue lights, she reads the freight company’s name written on the side of the cargo compartments. VANTH SHIPPING

There is an insignia beside it, a female winged figure, bare-breasted, clutching a bow and a burning key. Hazel, as a general scholar of literature and specialist in the occult and related mythologies, recognizes the name and associated iconography. Vanth was an Etruscan psychopomp, a funerary as well as messenger figure who was considered benevolent and protective, at least in comparison to her more demonic counterpart, Orcus, or her vengeful Greek cognates, the Furies.

As Hazel swings her field glasses across the scene, searching for any signs of who or what could have severed the hand, she sees no sign of anyone other than the drivers—although technically neither of them are currently visible at the moment. Well, except for the hand. After another stomach-churning inspection, Hazel comes to believe that the hand was ripped off. By what, or how, she cannot tell. But the ‘amputation’ isn’t clean. It’s terrifyingly messy, like something tore the man’s skin and snapped off his wrist bones like salt-water taffy and peppermint sticks. It look like the hand was thrown, hit the pavement, and then bounced once and skidded to its final resting place.

Hazel: Hazel can’t stop from looking a bit green. Good god… She wants to dismiss it as part of the crash. But the trucker’s call came afterwards, and the way the hand was seemingly thrown

GM: And her father is out there.

Hazel: She swings the binoculars back up, trying to make him out, or any other sign of human activity that would indicate the responders aren’t having their own hands torn off by god knows what.

GM: It takes a throat-catching, heart-stopping moment to find him. But she eventually spots him, his metal badge reflecting the siren’s light. He is off in the trees, to the right of the big rig.

Hazel: Hazel breathes an all-too literal sigh of relief. If it came down to it, she’d have gone out to check. He would’ve assuredly been very angry, but better to have him assuredly angry than potentially hurt—or worse.

GM: In the distance a chorus of wolf howls cut the air, piercing the pre-dawn chill.

Harvey tenses at the sound. He bursts from the woods, then runs across to the side-flipped car.

Hazel: Wolves. How she wants to believe one of them tore off—the thought doesn’t so much as finish, though, before Hazel’s binoculars swivel after her dad.

GM: He tries the door, but it is seemingly locked. He looks around for a moment, then smashes in the window with his elbow. She hears the shatter of glass like crystalline rain spill into the car. The howling stops.

Hazel: Hazel frowns. Why would that have silenced the wolves?

GM: Harvey reaches in. He grunts loudly as he strains with something inside. His exertion, coupled with the sound of something buckling or braking, is loud enough that even Hazel, locked inside the distant truck, can hear. The car rocks, Harvey heaves, and then he’s carrying the bloodied, unconscious form of a young man.

She can’t make out his features, not in the darkness and erratic cycle of red and blue lights. Hazel never even hears them coming.

She’s just watching as her father gently hefts the teen and starts carefully walking back to truck. Then, the sky explodes in blinding light. A floodlight crashes down onto the road, skewering Harvey and the teen with cold white radiance. The black helicopter’s blades whip at the grass and branches, scattering broken steel and glass from the crash. Black vans seem to materialize out of the stygian morning, their headlights violently switching on simultaneously, blinding Hazel from all directions. She hears doors slam open, heavy boots hitting the ground. The air warbles with some kind of sub-audible distortion, like a subliminal whine that causes her eyes to twitch and brain cavities to swell with hyper-excitation of cerebrospinal fluid.

Hazel: Hazel’s heart lurches in her chest. The noise, the lights, the Spooks’ abrupt arrival on the scene—her DAD out there—her first impulse is to scream, leap out of the car, rush to his defense. But what can she do? Take on the government men in a fight? Yell how this isn’t their jurisdiction? Maybe. She’ll do it if she has to. But it’s a poor way to fight them.

She reaches into her backpack, pulls out the video camera, and switches it on.

GM: Hazel tries to adjust the audio and video feed functions as best as she can. But her senses right now are on overload—and not in the good way. Where once she struggled to see for lack of light, now, she can barely keep her eyes open due to the blinding floodlights and high-beams. And her brain, it itches. Her thoughts feel sluggish, disoriented. She dimly registers weird shapes moving.

Hazel: Damn it, damn it, damn it, I can edit this later…

GM: They comb over the scene, men-shaped but… not. Strange electronic equipment blipping and whirring—or at least she thinks it’s electronic. Her father arguing, his words unclear. He surrenders the boy. He seems to be talking to two men. Their backs are to Hazel. Both are dressed in dark suits, dark hats. One is not short, the other is not tall.

Hazel: She strains to make him out. Her heart, pounding in her chest like a drum, relaxes—marginally—when she sees they aren’t doing anything to him. For now. And for now, that’s all that keeps her in the car. She keeps the camera steady, making sure it’s getting everything. Every sight, every sound, every detail to get these peoples’ actions on record.

GM: The deafening chopper hangs above, drowning out anything the men are saying. Then, a military-garbed figure approaches the two men in black. The Spooks.

Hazel: The chopper. It sounds just like the one her mom was on, not that she knows anything about the sounds of different models. For a moment, a wild thought crosses her mind—did her mom have business with them?—but it’s of no immediate relevance.

GM: The military figure, clad in full-combat vest, flack helmet, and hoisting a heavily modified assault rifle says something to the Spooks, then points. Directly at Hazel.

Hazel: The camera goes down—not down enough to stop recording, but down enough for her to stare the dark figure straight in the eye. Or where his eye should be.

GM: The Spooks turn around. Harvey yells something. It sounds like her name. The military man trains his gun on Harvey—and then her truck doors fly open, and there’s suddenly gloved hands grabbing for her.

Hazel: Hazel instinctively screams, kicks, and elbows, but she’s no pugilist. She yells something about how they don’t, they don’t have any, they can’t—but the law doesn’t matter at the point of a gun either.

GM: The gloved hands and the strangely suited figures seem utterly unfazed by the young woman’s ineffectual failing. They hold her down, just long enough to snatch the camcorder from her hands. She dimly hears Harvey and other men? shouting. A hard crunch.

Hazel:DAAADD!” she screams, thrashing against the men.

GM:HAAAZELL!” he screams back. Several more crunches. Then another.

The hands withdraw from her. The truck doors close and re-lock, leaving her breathless, violated, and trapped.

Hazel: The panic attack doesn’t just hit Hazel, it yanks her through a meat-grinding press. The strangers’ hands are gone—yet in her mind they’re still there. She tries to scream, but the sound won’t leave her breathless lungs. She mindlessly flails against phantasmal assailants, but jerkingly now, like she’s sinking in quicksand.

GM: Another hand slams into the driver’s side window. Her father’s. He yells for her, yanking on the locked door with his other hand. His hat is lost, his chin and temple bloodied.

Hazel: “D-d-da…” The words catch in her constricting throat. She fumbles to hit the lock, but her fingers are shaking too badly. It was all so sudden. All still so fresh. Or maybe, on some level, she just doesn’t want to be close to anyone else right now.

GM: Harvey watches as his daughter, overcome with panic, fumbles and fails with the lock. He bangs on the door, then shouts for her to cover her face.

Hazel: Hazel turns and throws it against the seat.

GM: Her dad smashes in his second car window in so many hours, scattering glass into the cab, showering Hazel’s wracked form. Harvey undoes the lock, opens the door, and slides in. The now ‘open’ window only intensifies the cacophony. But then, the helicopter veers off, taking its defeaning blades and blinding floodlight into the forest.

The two Spooks appear by Harvey’s smashed-in window. Hazel can only blink dumbly in the after-images. Backlit by the vans’ high-beams, their features remain inscrutable save for the outline of their hats and suited frames.

Spooks.jpg

“Thank you for your cooperation, Undersheriff Bauman,” the not tall man says.
“We appreciate the jurisdictional collaboration from your department,” the not-short man says.

Harvey all but growls.

“We will take things from here,” the not-tall man says.
“Our agents will resolve the present predicament,” the not-short man adds.

Hazel: “You ca-an TAKE th-at APPRECIATION a-nd RAM IT UP YOUR CHEAPLY-SUITED ASSES!” Hazel screams. The attack is still making her head swim, still making her lungs feel like they’re full of lead, but she manages to get that much out.

GM: Harvey puts a comforting hand on his daughter. The Spooks continue, undeterred and seemingly unperturbed by the panicking woman’s screams.

“We sent the ambulance to another crisis that needs your attention,” the not-tall man speaks. “Local emergency medical services have been re-routed to another critical incident that falls under your jurisdiction,” the not-short man expounds.

“Whe-what are you talking about?!” Harvey asks through gritted teeth.

The men in black do not reply. Instead, Harvey’s police radio buzzes to life. Ferg, the night dispatch, informs the undersheriff that there’s been an assault of some kind down by the cemetery and church.

“I’m on my way,” Harvey responds.

The Spooks nod in unison. “Remember what we said,” the not-tall man says in conclusion. “Our arrangement must not be forgotten,” his not-short companion echoes.

“I won’t forget,” Hazel’s dad says in a tone that is both a promise and a threat.

The Spooks simultaneously step back. Harvey once again hits the siren and pops the truck into gear, tearing away from the terrible, weird scene. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he whispers to Hazel. “Did they hurt you? Did they touch you—do anything to you?”

Hazel: The panic attack hasn’t fully run its course. Hazel’s hands might still be shaking, but her voice doesn’t as she narrows her eyes and demands, “What devil’s bargain did you make with them, Dad?”

GM: As the pair swiftly depart, Hazel dazedly sees the teen being rolled on a stretcher into the back of a black van as heavily armed paramilitary guard the truck and strange HAZMAT-suited personnel comb the area with even stranger equipment under disorienting ultra-violet lights.

Distantly, helicopter sounds recede into a sky that is slowly turning bruise-purple. With the broken window, the rushing autumnal wind streams into the cab with freezing intensity. Harvey’s breath steams as he slowly replies, “There’s a blanket under your seat. It’s cold.”

Hazel: “What. Bargain.” Hazel makes no move to reach for it.

GM: Harvey doesn’t answer. How different one night can change the world? How much can lives be altered by a single moment? It was only a few hours ago that the pair held each other in the same cab, listening to an old country song. Hazel hears its lyrics coming back to her like a haunting refrain:

Every time the Devil knocks,
I can’t help but let him in the door.


Hazel: And with that refrain, the hard edge to her jaw, the outrage in her eyes, slowly fades like the car-heat being leeched away by the chill autumn air. She doesn’t look angry now. Just sad.

“He knocked.”

GM: Harvey doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have to.

So every time the Devil knocks,
Please forgive and understand…


Outside, a cold dawn rises.

Hazel: She wants to say, ‘talk to me, Daddy.’ How he let them do… everything that they did. How he obediently went running off when they told him to scram. How he let them take that boy away, though in truth, what happened to the stranger matters little to Hazel against what’s happened with her dad. He’s always been the town lawman, the one who would bust the bad guys, save the day, and pull cats down from trees all with that same ‘aw shucks’ grin and swagger. He’s always been the one who could make things right. Like he did during the divorce. Like he did so many other times.

She’s not sure what else he could have done, back there. There were three of them—maybe more, there certainly are now—and only one of him. She wasn’t harmed. Not seriously. And she still feels no less let down than when Mom sent that pizza.

Hazel finally pulls the blanket over herself with no longer trembling fingers and leans her head against her father’s shoulder. Her voice is sadder, quieter, than last night, but still she states, “I love you, Daddy. I always will.”

GM: The knot in Harvey’s jaw loosens. “I love you too, Hazel. Forever.”

Hazel: But that doesn’t mean I can trust you.

That’s why Hazel isn’t telling him about the tape.

The other tape.

From the second camera she left running in case ROSEWATER spotted her, peeking just through the cover of her backpack.

But its existence is cold comfort against the fact that she can no longer trust her own father. She leaves the tragic thought unuttered, pulls up the blanket a little more, and silently waits out the rest of the car ride.

GM: But the Devil calls it in the end.

Previous: Chapter 2

Next: Chapter 4

Comments

Parasomniac Calder_R

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.